The DC Universe (DCU) is the shared universe where most of the comic stories published by DC Comics take place. The fictional characters Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman are well-known superheroes from this universe. Note that in context, "DC Universe" is usually used to refer to the main DC continuity. Occasionally, "DC Universe" will be used to indicate the entire "DC Multiverse", the collection of all continuities within DC Comics publications.
The concept of a shared universe was originally pioneered by DC Comics (originally known as National Periodical Publications) and in particular by writer Gardner Fox. The fact that DC Comics characters coexisted in the same world was first established in All Star Comics #3 (1940) where several superheroes (who starred in separate stories in the series up to that point) met each other, and soon founded the superhero team, the Justice Society of America. However, the majority of National/DC's publications continued to be written with little regard of maintaining continuity with each other for the first few decades.
Over the course of its publishing history, DC has introduced different versions of its characters, sometimes presenting them as if the earlier version had never existed. For example, they introduced new versions of the Flash, Green Lantern, and Hawkman in the late 1950s, with similar powers but different names and personal histories. Similarly, they had characters such as Batman whose early adventures set in the 1940s could not easily be reconciled with stories featuring a still-youthful man in the 1970s. To explain this, they introduced the idea of the multiverse in Flash #123 (1961) where the Silver Age Flash met his Golden Age counterpart. In addition to allowing the conflicting stories to "co-exist", it allowed the differing versions of characters to meet, and even team up to combat cross-universe threats. The writers gave designations such as "Earth-One", "Earth-Two", and so forth, to certain universes, designations which at times were also used by the characters themselves.
Over the years, as the number of titles published increased and the volume of past stories accumulated, it became increasingly difficult to maintain internal consistency. In order to continue publishing stories of its most popular characters, maintaining the status quo became necessary. Although retcons were used as a way to explain apparent inconsistencies in stories written, editors at DC came to consider the varied continuity of multiple Earths too difficult to keep track of, and feared that it was an obstacle to accessibility for new readers. To address this, they published the cross-universe miniseries Crisis on Infinite Earths in 1985, which merged universes and characters, reducing the Multiverse to a single DC Universe with a single history. However, this arrangement removed the mechanism DC had been using to deal with the passage of time in the real world without having the characters age in the comics. Crisis also had failed to establish a coherent future history for the DC Universe, with conflicting versions of the future. The Zero Hour limited series (1994) gave them an opportunity to revise timelines and rewrite the DC Universe history.
As a result, almost once per decade since the 1980s, the DC Universe experiences a major crisis that allows any number of changes from new versions of characters to appear as a whole reboot of the universe, restarting nominally all the characters into a new and modernized version of their lives.
Meanwhile, DC has published occasional stories called "Elseworlds", which often presented alternate versions of its characters. For example, one told the story of Bruce Wayne as a Green Lantern. In another tale, "Speeding Bullets," the rocketship that brought the infant Superman to Earth was discovered by the Wayne family of Gotham City rather than the Kents.
In 1998, The Kingdom reintroduced a variant of the old Multiverse concept called Hypertime which essentially allows for alternate versions of characters and worlds again. The entire process was parodied in Alan Moore's meta-comic, "Supreme: Story of the Year".
The Infinite Crisis event (2005–2006) remade the DC Universe yet again, with the changes made currently being determined. The limited series "52" (2006–2007) established that a new multiverse now exists.
The basic concept of the DC Universe is that it is just like the real world, but with superheroes and supervillains existing in it. However, there are other corollary differences resulting from the justifications implied by that main conceit. Many fictional countries, such as Qurac, Vlatava, and Zandia, exist in it. Though stories are often set in the United States of America, they are as often as not set in fictional cities, such as Gotham City or Metropolis. These cities are effectively archetypes of cities, with Gotham City embodying the negative aspects of life in a large city, and Metropolis reflecting more of the positive aspects. Sentient alien species (such as Kryptonians and Thanagarians) and even functioning interstellar societies are generally known to exist, and the arrival of alien spacecraft is not uncommon. Technologies which are only theoretical in the real world or are outright impossible according to modern science, such as faster-than-light travel and artificial intelligence, are functional and reproducible, though they are often portrayed as highly experimental and difficult to achieve. Demonstrable magic exists and can be learned. The general history of the fictional world is similar to the real one (for instance, there was a Roman Empire, and World War II and 9/11 both occurred), but many fantastic additions exist, such as the known existence of Atlantis. In recent years, stories have increasingly described events which bring the DC Universe farther away from reality, such as World War III occurring, Lex Luthor being elected as President of the United States in 2000, and entire cities and countries being destroyed. There are other minor variations, such as the Earth being slightly larger than ours (to accommodate the extra countries), and the planet Saturn having 18 moons rather than 19 because Superman destroyed one.
The majority of the superhumans on Earth owe their powers to the "metagene": A genetic feature of unknown origin, which causes some people to develop superpowers when exposed to dangerous substances and forces. Others owe their powers to magic, genetic manipulation (or mutation) or bionics (see below). A large power gap resides between most superheroes and civilians, making superheroes almost god-like. Still others owe their powers to not being human at all (see races, below). There are also many superheroes and supervillains who possess no superhuman powers at all (for example Batman and Green Arrow) but make do with specialized equipment or training in special skills, such as martial arts.
The humans first began using costumed identities to fight or commit crime during the 1930s. The first superheroes included characters like the Crimson Avenger and The Sandman. In November 1940, the first superhero team, The Justice Society of America, was formed. During World War II, all of America's heroes were banded together as the All-Star Squadron to protect the United States from the Axis powers. However, due to a magical spell cast by Adolf Hitler (using the Spear of Destiny and the Holy Grail) the most powerful heroes were unable to enter Axis-held territories, leaving the war to be fought mainly by normal humans such as Sgt. Rock. After the war, under pressure from the paranoid Committee on Un-American Activities the JSA disbanded. While many types of heroes were active afterwards (mainly non-costumed, such as the Challengers of the Unknown or Detective Chimp), it wasn't until Superman's public debut that a new generation of costumed heroes became active. Soon after, the Justice League was formed, and they've remained Earth's preeminent superhero team; most DC heroes (such as the Teen Titans) have either belonged to the League at some point, or have connections to it.
As a general rule, being a superhero does not require powers anywhere near omnipotence. Furthermore, even major heroes and cosmic entities have distinct vulnerabilities such as: Superman's weaknesses to magic, kryptonite, and red sun light; Green Lantern's initial problems with wood or the color yellow (which have since been largely overcome); or Batman's lack of superhuman powers, which he supplements with keen intellect, constant training, and specialized technology.
Superheroes are generally accepted or even praised—Superman and The Flash actually having museums dedicated to them—by the general public, though some individuals have decided that "the metahumans" must be dealt with less passively. Thus, an organization called "The Dome" was formed to help superheroes who needed to fight crime across international borders; the superhero group called the Global Guardians were their main agents. However the Dome eventually lost out, as its United Nations backing went to the more famous Justice League.
The American government has had a more wary approach, however. Back during World War II they started "Project M" to create experimental soldiers to fight in the war, such as the Creature Commandos. Most of these experiments remain a secret to the public. Currently, the government deals with metahumans and similar beings through its Department of Extranormal Operations (DEO). Covertly, they use an organization of costumed (but non-superhuman) agents known as "Checkmate". The government also formed Task Force X (known as the "Suicide Squad") for "black ops". Most members have been captured supervillains (and thus expendable), and were strongly "encouraged" to join (often with offerings of clemency if they survive their extremely dangerous missions).
Outcast personalities are often relegated to the world of DCU supervillainry. They are then usually well versed in heists, kidnappings and robberies. Villains with meek powers contrive schemes of extraordinary complexity, yet—because of their simple talents—they only call the attention of powerless superheroes like Batman, or lesser superheroes like Booster Gold. When caught, any prison sufficient enough to contain these villains is suitable. More powerful villains strive to contest for greater goals like world domination and/or universal acclaim (from the public and their villainous peers). Usually more powerful enemies are imprisoned in maximum level facilities—such as Belle Reve Penitentiary (which also was secretly Task Force X's headquarters) and even alternate dimensions or outer space—because they cannot simply be killed by a bullet, electricity, or poison.
Supervillains sometimes also form their own groups, but these tend to be short-lived because most villains simply do not trust each other. Most such teams are formed by a charismatic and/or fearsome criminal mastermind for specific purposes; an example is the Secret Society of Super Villains of which there have been several versions. Most villain teams are usually small, having been formed of individuals who know each other personally, such as the Central City Rogues, or have some other reason to work together (mercenary groups like the H.I.V.E., fanatical cults such as Kobra, etc.)
Devices more advanced than those we currently have are available - but they're usually very expensive, and usually only rich or powerful individuals and organizations (or the scientific geniuses who create them) have access to them. S.T.A.R. Labs is an independent research outfit that often develops these devices, while Lexcorp is the main company selling them. It must also be noted that the government also runs the secret Project Cadmus (located in the mountains near Metropolis) to develop clones and genetic manipulation without the public's knowledge. Technology can also come from outer space or different timelines. Apokolips weaponry is often sold in Metropolis to the criminal organization known as Intergang.
Robots and similar creations, including cyborgs, can have superior intelligence when they are created as sentient beings. The Manhunters, the Metal Men, Red Tornado, Robotman, Hourman, and Metallo are but a few examples. These 'beings' are most often created by individuals who possess vast intellects, like scientists Professor T.O. Morrow (maker of the Red Tornado), Dr. Will Magnus (who constructed the Metal Men) and Professor Ivo (who fabricated Amazo and other advanced androids using a form of Nano-technology developed by Lexcorp). Brainiac also emulates this technology as well as technology from other worlds. Similarly, some characters use technology to enhance their armor or modify cybernetic functions, for example Steel, Cyborg and the Cyborg Superman.
There are a few intelligent races living on Earth that the public at large did not know about until recent times. Among these are the last survivors of Atlantis, who changed themselves into water-breathing forms, including the human-like Poseidonians and the mermaid-like Tritonians. Other species, such as Warworlders, were brief test subjects of Project Cadmus who fled to the Underworld below Metropolis. There is also a tribe of highly intelligent, telepathic gorillas living in an invisible city hidden in Africa; this is the home of Gorilla Grodd.
There are many intelligent extraterrestrial races as well. Curiously, a large number of them are humanoid, even human-like, in form (such as Kryptonians, who outwardly appear identical to Earth-born humans); some can even interbreed with Terrans. Some of these races have natural superpowers, but they're usually the same for all individuals of the same race, unlike Earth's metahumans. This was explained by the fact that in Earth's distant past Martians experimented on humanity, severely culling the metahuman potential; this means that a species that was meant to have a wide range of powers, like Tamaranians or Kryptonians, ended up "just...human". However, there are also plenty of nonhumanoid races as well.
The DC Universe has had many natural and cosmic disasters happen to their alien civilizations. The Martians were destroyed by war, the Kryptonians by a dying planet, and the Czarnians by plague. Even the Almeracian Empire was victim to impending destruction by Imperiex.
Order is kept around the galaxy by the Guardians of the Universe and their agents, the Green Lantern Corps. Rival peacekeeping organizations include the Darkstars (created by the Guardians' rivals, the Controllers) and the interplanetary mercenary organization L.E.G.I.O.N.. Criminal organizations include the Manhunters, the Spider Guild and the Dark Circle.
Most aliens are from different planets, who have a source of origin near the Solar System and in the Milky Way Galaxy, although, unlike the Marvel Universe, alien colonies are common within the solar system. The Dominators are an imperialistic race of terrorist aliens who control most of the unknown cosmos in order to extract genetic resources from planets. The caste is also collectively known as the Dominion. Other aliens in the outlying galaxies control armadas like the Khunds, Gordanians, Thanagarians, Spider Guild and, most recently, The Reach. Even though the majority of the DC Universe is policed by the Green Lantern Corps, and later the United Planets, most rogue races strive to conquer the known universe.
One oddity is the Vegan Star system. Due to an arrangement with the Psions, the Guardians did not intervene in that system, allowing a cruel empire called "The Citadel" to govern there, until it was overthrown by the Omega Men.
Magic and the supernatural are often depicted as being real in the DC Universe, though some skeptics such as Mister Terrific maintain that there are scientific explanations to all such events. The narration of the mystic and harsh dark reality is more common in DC's Vertigo Comics because its stories lurk outside of superhero fantasy; the Vertigo series have beings that relate better to civilian life although both universes are subject to fantastical realms, and unworldly dimensions. Magic is too powerful in the physical world, where harnessing magic can distort and even destroy reality if not properly controlled (i.e.: if the Lord of Order succumbs to certain events so will the Lord of Chaos).
There are several types of supernatural creatures, such as:
- Gods: The first beings calling themselves 'gods' first appeared billions of years ago on another planet, but they destroyed themselves in a terrible war. This unleashed the "Godwave," a wave of cosmic energy from The Source. This gave birth to other gods across the universe, including Earth’s. From the planet’s remains were formed the worlds of Apokolips and New Genesis, inhabited by beings that call themselves "New Gods". It must be noted that this universe was created by an omnipotent being known as the "Presence", which is believed to be the creator-being described by many religions, including Christianity. Also, beings calling themselves ‘angels’, such as Zauriel (see below), have appeared, though they seem little different from the mythological gods. Certain speedsters believe in enlightenment in order to become part of the Speed Force (see below). Depending on the characters, other diverse religious deities from ancient cultures are common. Heroes such as Aztek and Black Condor, or villains like Black Adam, have found knowledge of their native roots in origin.
- Heaven and Hell: Heaven and Hell do exist in the DC Universe but may not exist in the same continuum. In the DC/Vertigo universe Hell was ruled for ten billion years by the fallen angel Lucifer Morningstar. At the end of the DC Comics Swamp Thing storyline "American Gothic", a force called the Great Evil Beast rose out of the darkness and merged with the Presence. This triggered a civil war in Hell, ultimately forcing Lucifer to share power with a triumvirate that included the powerful Hell lords Beelzebub, Azazel and himself. This triumvirate was mostly a formality and Lucifer was still the de facto ruler of Hell, until recently abdicating the throne and handing the key to Hell to Dream of the Endless in The Sandman storyline Season of Mists. Dream was not sure what to do with the key to Hell, and after having negotiated with many interested parties, he gave it to the angels Remiel and Duma, who ruled Hell on behalf of the Presence until the Lucifer spinoff series saw possession of the key shift hands once again.
- Since lordship over Hell frequently changes, numerous demons have proclaimed themselves its rulers. Generic depictions of Satan, angels, demons and God also appear frequently. Versions vary from the Vertigo and DC Universe series with writers of the Vertigo/DC Universe depicting them in relation to religion and mythology while the writers in the DCU have a tendency to narrate fantasy. In the Vertigo series Swamp Thing, Heaven and Hell seems to be restricted to earth, creating the possibility that every living planet have their own versions of afterlife. In the Vertigo series Sandman Lucifer quits as ruler of Hell and retires to Los Angeles, with the follow-up series Lucifer depicting his pursuit of obtaining his own creation independent from that of the Presence.
- Death represents different characters in the DC Universe. One personification of death is the Black Flash, who can represent Death as an internal figure for the speedsters in the DC Universe. Another is Death (see below), who resides at the very end of time. The Black Racer appears as Death in the afterlife. Death is also one of the The Endless.
- The Lords of Order and Chaos: These two groups of magical beings have been fighting against each other since the beginning of time, and they often empower others (with "Order Magic" or "Chaos Magic") in exchange for their acting as their agents. Many magical heroes and villains have been manipulated by them. The Lords of Order and Chaos were killed by the Spectre during the Day Of Vengeance: Infinite Crisis Special.
- Elementals: The Earth itself has a living spirit called "Maya" who, for millennia, has been creating champions, one for each of the mystical elements, to protect itself, using human beings as their hosts. Swamp Thing, Firestorm, Naiad and Red Tornado were some of them.
- Homo Magi: a subspecies of humanity with the natural ability to use magic, this race almost disappeared after too much crossbreeding with normal humans (it's from them that people in the DC universe inherited the ability to use magic.) The last pure blooded ones decided to retire to a magical invisible city centuries ago, and are now known as "The Hidden Ones". Zatanna knows many of the race's secrets, and Traci Thirteen is currently investigating magical and occult phenomena for the Croatoan Society—both women had Homo Magi mothers.
- The Endless: Physical manifestations of eternal and universal phenomena that effect the human condition (Destiny, Death, Dream, Destruction, Despair, Desire and Delirium), principally recounted in the Modern Age Sandman series.
- Emotional Manifestations: Like the Endless, these beings were created from the emotional energy generated by sentient beings. Each of the seven emotional manifestations of the DCU is represented by a different color (rage, red; greed, orange; fear, yellow; will, green; hope, blue; compassion, indigo; love, violet) and being. The various power-ring based corps of the DCU, most notably the Green Lantern Corps and Sinestro Corps utilize the energies of these beings.
- Wizards and Sorcerers: Various sorcerers lurk in the DCU. Dr. Fate, Circe, the wizard Shazam, Mordru and Felix Faust are written as characters who use sorcery to create and destroy. Dimensions, rituals and spiritual realms are sources for magic power as seen in Ras Al Ghul's Lazarus Pit, Doctor Occult's use of the astral plane and the transformations of Captain Marvel.
- Demonic entities vary from the Demon Etrigan, to Blaze, Satanus and Neron. Demonic entities are abundant and come from Hell although some like Eclipso, the vengeance demon (also referred to as the Prince of Darkness), reside on the Moon. Demonic Entities from Wonder Woman comics are directly linked to Greek Mythology such as Hades, and Ares. In the Vertigo comics, characters like John Constantine oppose demons influenced by Christian mythology. Most Demons are not however directly linked to Demonology.
The DC Universe is composed of a number of different dimensional planes, most notably parallel earths (see Multiverse), but the latter were eliminated when reality was altered by the Anti-Monitor (although stories featuring parallel earths have continued to crop up with various rationalizations in the following years). Other types of dimensions still exist, however, including the Antimatter Universe, the Pax dimension, the Fifth Dimension and The Bleed. Prison dimensions, such as the Phantom Zone are meant to house super powered criminals who are too powerful for any conventional means of containment. Dimensions make up many universes, of which some are created and destroyed with help from supernatural forces and elements from which power is drawn. As well, certain dimensions function as cross-over opportunities for heroes from different comic book companies to interact, either from competing companies, or from companies absorbed by competitors. The most notable example of the first kind of crossover has been between Marvel Comics and DC Comics, and the latter with Wildstorm Comics. An example of the latter kind of crossover would be DC's acquisition of Fawcett Comics, Quality Comics, and Charlton Comics and the absorption into the DC continuity of the original Captain Marvel, Plastic Man and Captain Atom. In this way, heroes originally published by different companies are now part of the same fictional universe, and interactions between such characters are no longer considered intercompany crossovers.
The Speed Force is an extradimensional energy source which provides the speedsters of the DC Universe with their powers. Accessing the Speed Force makes it possible to run at incredible speeds, even faster than light, and even to jump in and out of the timestream, thereby travelling - albeit with a limited degree of control - through time. The Speed Force also acts as a kind of Valhalla for deceased speedsters.
It is possible to travel in time in this universe by several means, including moving faster than the speed of light. The Legion of Super-Heroes from 1,000 years into the future in particular have access to time-travel technology (although the threeboot Legion lacks time travel technology) while Rip Hunter is the present day authority of the technology. Originally, it was impossible to change the past, or to exist in two places at the same time (a time traveler appearing in a period on which he or she already existed would become an ineffectual, invisible phantom while there). However that was all changed after the Anti-Monitor tried to change history at the beginning of time during the Crisis on Infinite Earths. Also, a number of alternate realities- known as Hypertime- now exist. A group calling itself the Linear Men formed to prevent anyone from changing history. In addition, an enormously powerful being called the Time Trapper, an enemy of the Legion, has been known to manipulate the timestream, even creating "pocket universes."