It's the end of the world as we've known it and comic-book fans feel fine. The masters of the DC Comics universe have decreed October 1994 to be Zero Hour, a thunderous space-time switcheroo in which all 40 of DC's superhero titles are getting relaunched: The new issues bear the number zero, and each story resets its hero's fictional clock with a new, updated life story.
But don't panic, comics traditionalists. Granted, the vile, pesky villain Parallax (formerly a good guy, one of the Green Lanterns, now gone bad) tries to demolish all reality with some nasty ''chronal energy blasts,'' but only a few rickety old-timers like Dr. Mid-Nite and Hourman bite the cosmic dust as a result. The major players ride out the storm virtually unscathed: Batman and Superman still run the joint. In fact, even with new life stories, the big names retain most of the characteristics that made them enduring stars. Superman still crash-lands as a toddler in a rural field and is adopted by the Kents, and as a grown-up he retains the long, floppy Fabio hair he has acquired in recent years.
Now, however, there's a child born the moment the little superpooper's spaceship lands, a talented kid named Kenny Braverman who's doomed to shiver in the shade of the steel one's fame, like poor Ben Jonson in the age of Shakespeare. The resentful Braverman grows up to be Superman's nemesis. (Batman appears to have forgotten the identity of his own nemesis his parents' murderer but that guy had better lay low just the same.) Those characters with musty old personas, like 1939's Green Lantern, the man with the magic emerald-colored ring, reemerge in more up-to-date forms; the supersonic sprinter the Flash (1938), for example, acquires a 30th-century adolescent cousin named Impulse.
In short, DC has not lost its touch; it's simply keeping in touch with a mightily morphing era. As the superhero Warrior observes during the melee, ''All I know is reality seems pretty darn flexible.'' Zero Hour series: A-