In the 1950s, the Silver Age of Comics was a phenomenon born from necessity and ultimately the initiative of a single editor. Superhero comics were dying. In the post-war era, the ideals of the original class of heroes just weren’t connecting with then-modern audiences. Apart from Superman, who was still flying strong, something had to change in order to reconnect the line with readers. Enter Julie Schwartz, who, with his Showcase line, took DC’s classic heroes and tasked writers with completely recreating them in all but name for a new generation, taking inspiration from the trends of the day. Aliens, space travel, and cutting-edge science fiction all made their way into reimaginings of the Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman, the Atom and more.
Forty years later, the comics industry had changed further still. Titles like Stormwatch and Astro City were demanding a higher level of realism in superhero worlds, where the presence of a super-powered class directly impacted the society they existed in. And so, taking a page from Schwartz before him, Superman writer Dan Jurgens began plotting a similar reimagination of the DC Universe—one which would bring it in line with the grunge ’90s the way the Silver Age realigned DC Comics with the atomic ’50s.
To Jurgens and the other talent enlisted in the project, any and every change was on the table. The more radical and shocking the departure, the better. The only rule: the names stay the same. Everything else can, and will, be different. All of it would be rolled out through single issues released on the same day in October 1997. In a bit of mathematical humor referencing a line which only intersects with another at a single point, it was dubbed “Tangent Comics.”
The First Wave: 1997
There’s no better place to begin a discussion of Tangent than how it directly carried the legacy of Julius Schwartz’s reimaginings of Golden Age heroes in the 1950s Showcase comics: The Flash, Green Lantern and the Atom. The Flash specifically is one of the best examples of Tangent’s modus operandi in action. If you forgot everything you knew about the Flash but the name itself, what kind of hero would you expect them to be? Super speed probably wouldn’t be the first thing that comes to mind.
Tangent’s Flash, Lia Nelson, is a teenage superhero with light-based powers more similar to the Ray than any speedster. Similarly, the most mysterious of the trio, Green Lantern, does what you’d expect a hero named “Green Lantern” to do: actually use a green lantern to wield her power, as opposed to a ring that’s charged from one. Possessing the ability to commune with the dead, Green Lantern’s origins are ambiguous, with conflicting origins suggesting her true identity to be anyone from Zatanna to Lois Lane. Paying respects to his conceptual predecessors in the Golden and Silver Ages, Tangent’s Atom, Adam Thompson, is an atomic-powered third-generation legacy hero doing his best to live up to his forebears.
Teams like the more literally-focused Doom Patrol, the very human Metal Men, the supernatural Nightwing, and the subaquatic Sea Devils fill out the nascent universe, with Flash and Green Lantern joining forces with a reimagined Joker, Spectre, Plastic Man and Manhunter to form the covert planetary defenders known as the Secret Six.
The Second Wave: 1998
The Tangent experiment didn’t exactly overtake the popularity of the ongoing comics of the day—nor was it intended to—but it did garner enough interest for a comeback the following year.
After showing a commendable amount of restraint the first time, 1998 is when Jurgens and company finally unleash their big guns: the Tangent trinity. We’re introduced to a medieval Batman who falls somewhere between Dark Knight and Shining Knight—an Arthurian hero who fought alongside King Arthur, now dispensing justice in the modern era. Tangent’s Wonder Woman takes her sobriquet seriously, a philosophical poet warrior from the stars who travels the Earth and greater cosmos alike in search for her place and meaning within it. But perhaps the most compelling figure in the entire Tangent line arises in the visage of NYPD officer Harvey Dent, the man who would become “The SuperMan.”
Deemed too dangerous to operate unchecked, the Justice League of America is formed to stop the trinity with an unlikely roster of Human Target, Johnny Double, Vigilante and the Question. In China, the government engineers their own superhuman in “Powergirl”—a thematic precedent to the New Super-Man story which would follow nearly twenty years later. And long before Geoff Johns coined the phrase for his Black Label series, three Jokers emerge in an identity shared by Lori Lemaris, Mary Marvel and Madame Xanadu.
In 2008, Jurgens would return us to the Tangent universe with the Superman’s Reign series. It’s here we learn that Tangent’s SuperMan has more in common with creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s original vision of their Man of Steel years before Action Comics #1, as a telekinetic tyrant who uses his powers to control the world—reconnecting the original Superman concept with more modern depictions of a Superman gone sour with power. The most recent appearance of a Tangent character was in last year’s Superman and the Authority and the follow-up “Warworld Saga” storyline in Action Comics, in which Tangent Flash seems to perish in a battle against Mogul and his Warzoons.
The Tangent experiment may not have exactly set the world on fire the way Julie Schwartz’s bold recontextualization of classic heroes once did, but it remains a powerful testament to the infinite storytelling possibilities provided by a multiverse. To that extent, the Tangent universe has been enshrined as one of the core worlds in DC’s Multiverse, designated as “Earth-9”: a numeric tribute to how a DC Universe completely reimagined for the last decade of the 20th century would look. In DC’s Tangent Universe, it’s always and forever the 1990s.
Alex Jaffe is the author of our monthly "Ask...the Question" column and writes about TV, movies, comics and superhero history for DC.com. Follow him on Twitter at @AlexJaffe and find him in the DC Community as HubCityQuestion.