Mid-90s DC event Zero Hour: Crisis in Time is available in a new deluxe edition that highlights what an odd beast it’s always been.
Chronal anomalies begin popping up around various heroes, who discover that the time-based villain Extant (once the hero Hawk) is tampering with the time stream, causing it to unravel (and threatening all of existence, of course). Extant is working for Parallax, a/k/a Silver Age Green Lantern Hal Jordan, who lost his mind after his city was destroyed. Hal intends to “re-start time” and “fix” the things that he deemed to be wrong. A band of heroes, including some of his closest friends, escape the destruction and thwart Hal, resulting in alterations to the DC timeline.
Zero Hour is interesting in that it’s very much a “middle ground” series for DC. It’s not like it’s ever been forgotten (it affected DC’s line for years), but it’s not one of the first stories most fans think of, either. It’s unlikely to be cited as anyone’s favorite saga, but it also doesn’t engender the kind of reader scorn that bombs like Millennium or Armageddon 2001 still do. It matters, to some extent, but it’s not exactly a top priority.
By 1994, DC wasn’t even a decade removed from the conclusion of Crisis on Infinite Earths when it found its continuity already badly mucked up again. In part, that was a result of the success of Crisis and the years of creative renewals of various characters that followed. But proceeding without a firm post-Crisis plan and giving wide reign to various character remodels left DC in a tricky spot. Crisis had already badly compromised the histories of some fan favorites (Power Girl, Donna Troy), who endured years of retcons and abandoned attempts to fit them into the post-Crisis mythology. Other changes had already crippled some franchises (All-Star Squadron never recovered from the upending of its original premise), while hobbling others (Legion of Super-Heroes never quite filled the gaping hole that the erasure of Superboy and Supergirl had left in its central concept). With various other anomalies and continuity problems having quickly accreted, DC turned to writer/artist Dan Jurgens, then one of the company’s top creators, to “clean up” matters with a quick event series that would help straighten out the new timeline and “fix” various issues.
Jurgens has always been a superhero classicist and he devised a story that was pure “comic book logic.” Using Hal as the central villain was an effective emotional gut punch that gave long-time fans some investment in the outcome (even if seeing Hal go full-on villain distressed many readers). The central plot wasn’t necessarily easy to track, but it more or less worked. And the book did its job, at least for a little while. DC came out with a reconciled timeline of about a decade or so, allowing it to dial back the aging on certain characters (and dispensing with others where that wasn’t so easy to accomplish).
But long-term, Zero Hour caused as many issues as it fixed. It would be a good decade before Geoff Johns would figure out how to redeem Hal. The solution to the tangled Hawkman situation only seemed to make that character’s insane, divergent twists and turns even more incomprehensible. The Legion basically called it a day on the original concept and did a hard reboot, which managed a few years of success, but in the long run engendered more confusion and fan unrest.
Zero Hour also trafficked in the ’90s editorial team’s disregard for, if not outright hostility toward, their original heroes, the Justice Society. Those legacy characters were either killed off indiscriminately or put out to pasture, with new “edgy” takes on a lot of those concepts (The Man Called Fate, anyone?) flooding into DC’s continuity (most of which, save for the new Starman, failed to make much of an impact and faded quickly).
Basically, Zero Hour proved to be a stop-gap and would itself be “corrected” a decade later by the more successful Johns-penned Infinite Crisis. Indeed, it would fall to Johns to unravel many of the “solutions” that Zero Hour foisted on DC’s line.
Art-wise, Jurgens took his usual approach, clean and classic, nicely complemented by veteran inker Jerry Ordway. It wasn’t innovative, but it moved the action along effectively and clearly communicated the story’s actions. The major drawback looking at it nearly a quarter century later wasn’t really Jurgens’ fault, but was a product of the era. Many of the costume re-designs were absolutely hideous, as various characters were “edged up” to try to emulate the style of the then-successful Image books. Many of those designs were so atrocious that even solid craftsmen like Jurgens and Ordway couldn’t do much with them.
And that gets to the heart of Zero Hour so many years later. It really feels tied to its time in a way that many of DC’s best event stories don’t. Looking at it so many years later, it’s rather easy to peg it as a product of the gonzo comic book environment of the mid-90s.
As an artifact, Zero Hour is worth a read at some point, but is distinctly mid-pack in the canon of DC’s major event series.