Known as DC's "Trinity," Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman are three of the best known and most revered superheroes in DC's pantheon. But they're also among the oldest — as much as 75 years old — which means they've had to cheat Father Time for decades.
Ever since 1938's Action Comics #1 introduced Superman — and introduced the world to the idea of comic book superheroes — publishers have been trying to keep the characters relevant and ageless. For DC Comics, which features monthly (and sometimes weekly) continuing stories, that has often proved to be a challenge. Not only is the Trinity part of a shared universe, where they have histories with other characters — histories that get longer and more involved each month — but the publishing schedule of comic books means they're part of a continuing series of stories that never really end.
As a result, DC has had to bend time so Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman remain ageless and relevant.
Although superheroes were popular in comic books of the 1940s, they'd waned in popularity by the mid '50s. When a series of events led to a second chance for the genre in 1956, DC began introducing new, more updated versions of some characters. But now that there was a new Flash, new Green Lantern and new version of other characters, the company had the chance to establish — what happened to the other, older ones from the 1940's, known now as the "Golden Age" of comic books?
The company took the opportunity to let both sets of heroes exist — the modern ones and their more old-fashioned counterparts — by creating a Multiverse with different earths. The new heroes were on Earth 1, but the old ones were on Earth 2. Soon there were an infinite number of earths with different characters occupying them.
This eventually included Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman, and it gave DC a way to keep the three characters new and relevant despite their age. In the Multiverse, the main versions of the Trinity to were kept young, because the older stories about them had happened on a different earth.
Reboots and Retcons
Yet time had its way with the characters over the years between the 1950s and 1980s, and because of the nature of comic books, the continuing histories of DC's characters began to pile up, not only on Earth-1 but now on multiple earths. As a result, DC rebooted its entire universe — or rather multiverse — in a mini-series titled Crisis on Infinite Earths.
At the end of the series, there was only one Superman, one Batman and one Wonder Woman — single versions of all DC's characters, on one single earth. And although there had to be tweaks to continuity during the next couple decades — including 1994's Zero Hour and a 1999's The Kingdom, which affected some stories about the Trinity — for the most part, the history of DC's characters held pretty firm, and they stayed young and refreshed by a reboot that gave them new life.
In 2003, DC published a brand new origin story for Superman called Superman: Birthright, establishing this new version of the character as the one, true hero, supplanting the older versions.
"Every now and then (it seems more and more frequently these days), DC Comics revamps or restarts a character’s origin story, retelling the character’s story from a new perspective or with new writers, for new readers," said Steve Younis, who runs the Superman-centric website SupermanHomepage. "In doing so they keep the characters ageless."
In the latest DC reboot in 2011, the characters have been even more drastically de-aged. Now unmarried, untethered by past continuity and fairly new at their jobs, Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman exist in a universe where superheroes have only been around for a few years. These are the youngest they've been in awhile, and DC seems determined to keep them that way.
"It's really about re-introducing the concept of superheroes in the DC Universe, and doing it in a more contemporary, timely way," DC Co-Publisher Jim Lee said of the recent reboot.
The Importance of Being Relevant
Over time, there have been some failed attempts at keeping Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman relevant. For example, DC's seemingly well-intentioned changes to Wonder Woman in the early '70s, taking away her powers and making her a single, independent, feminist woman, ended up getting slammed by feminists and denounced later by the series' writer, Denny O'Neil. Even Gloria Steinham, renowned feminist icon, complained in Ms. magazine that although a young feminist named Diana Prince may have seemed more relevant to modern women, the super-powered Wonder Woman was already a feminist because she was stronger than men.
Diana got her powers back, but her establishment as a feminist icon stuck, and stories over the last few decades have capitalized on that element of the character. "I don’t know if there is another character in comic books who went through the evolution that Diana did or had as much impact from a societal point of view," said Meredith Finch, who currently writes Wonder Woman.
"Wonder Woman is a feminist icon," Finch said. "Throughout the course of her history, she has been a role model of strength and empowerment for young women, and today, those young women of the '60s and '70s are doctors and lawyers and executives for some of the world's biggest corporations. But I think that more importantly, Wonder Woman is a humanist and I would say that today, she is simply a symbol of equality and empowerment."
Younis said that with each new generation, DC Comics and its writers have kept the characters relevant by having them reflect the issues of the times.
"In the 1930s and 40s, Superman was the symbol of hope that people needed during the depression and war era," Younis said. "In the 1950s he reflected the prosperity of post-War America. In the 60s his adventures were indicative of the possibilities of that decade… and so on. Today, Superman reflects that dark and gritty nature of the world we currently find ourselves in. Hopefully they’ll begin to write him as the hope we need to look to, as he was in his early years."
But the characters have their own natural relevance, according to Scott Beatty, a writer who's studied the Trinity in books like Superman: The Ultimate Guide to the Man of Steel, Batman: The Ultimate Guide to the Dark Knight, and Wonder Woman: The Ultimate Guide to the Amazon Princess.
"I'm not sure it's as much DC [keeping them relevant over time] as it is the characters themselves," Beatty said. "I think the appeal of superheroes — especially DC Comics' 'holy trinity' — is that we all want to believe in the superhuman ideal, that we can act better and be better. In times of uncertainty when heroes are hard to find, we've always found some escape in the exploits of characters who always do the right thing, don't obfuscate, and are never caught in compromising Instagram photos.
"These heroes never have to back down from an ill-conceived tweet or put a spin on a public guffaw. They're better than that," Beatty said, "and that's why we should aspire to be more like them. And they do it all without expectation of compensation or fame."