Jan 11, 2011

Let us punish, since we are history: Crisis on Infinite Earths

 A specter is haunting DC - the specter of a Crisis:
"Worlds will live. Worlds will die. And the DC Universe will never be the same!" 

With those words, DC Comics launched a 1985 mini-series called Crisis on Infinite Earths. If you're a comics reader, I bet you've at least heard of it.

Crisis on Infinite Earths holds a historical place in superhero comics: before Blackest Night, before Age of Apocalypse, before Superman's death and resurrection, this was the first true "Big Event" crossover. It set the paces for every year to come--unfortunately.

Stripped of all its pretenses as an epic, of a series of cool battles with your favorite characters, it is a narrative cleansing and marketing tactic dressed up in mockery of a story.

Under the carnivale make up lays a motive so bland, so dull, that thinking about it while reading the story warps the content beneath its skin into something distasteful. You see, Crisis on Infinite Earths didn't emerge from a natural idea a writer developed for a neat story, but to fix a business problem DC developed: their story continuity confused new readers. Containing multiple Earths, time lines, and even different versions of familiar heroes (two Batmen, two Supermen plus a Superboy, and so on). How'd they expect newcomers to pick up their comics? The Marvel boys kept it simple with one universe, and they rode down the  charts to #1 comic retailer in the country due to it--that's how DC thinking went. So DC's Marv Wolfman, George Perez, and Len Wein had the idea that they might solve their continuity problems and make a more reader-friendly experience by "clearing the deck" of the DC Universe while also celebrating it. A fresh start.

So to celebrate DC and to interest new readers, they jumped to the idea of draining out its complexity. Removing, really, what interested most DC readers at the time and set them apart from Marvel: multiple universes, unlimited possibility for stories. 

How'd they do it?

Simplicity, of course: create a never-before-seen character called The Monitor and a never-before-seen character dubbed The Anti-Monitor who'd been battling over the fate of the multiverse for millions of years, have the Anti-Monitor attack with a black wave that ate away all time and existence universe-by-universe, and throw every DC character from every comic genre they published (superhero, war, fantasy, even western--they all collide) to fight the Anti-Monitor.

Credit to Totalwallpapers.com for showcasing Perez's excellent art.

They win, of course...but only after the Anti-Monitor wipes out every single universe in existence except for one, thus leaving a smattering of characters scattered around it, and most others dead, with a hand-wave that they now remembered nothing of their previous life. "How do we solve our problems?" the DC staff asked. The answers came: Two Supermen? Well, just leave the older one stranded outside of existence. Superboy? The same. multiple versions of the Flash? Kill all but one! Supergirl? Kill her! What about those characters no one used any more, or that the artist George Perez decided he didn't like? As Perez puts in his own words, according to this annotation site, "...I couldn't stand being in a company that would print [him]" so he killed such people off.

When you reach that point as a creator, I don't think your attempts at "saving" will work. Reading Crisis on Infinite Earths with this in mind, most of the story struck me, as Too Busy Thinking About My Comic's Colin Smith put it, as ugly; expose the narrative's machinery, and all you see is grease. The characters and universe they showcase, where so much life and creativity flourished, only exist to die. What sort of nihilism is that? Easy: the type that leads to Arsenal, and Cry for Justice, and women stuffed in fridges. Nihilism born out of money, instead of something like Watchmen's legitimate cynicism with the world, is a creative sin.

Worse, as the series progresses DC editorial apparently realized how much they could rack up off of the event and had Wolfman write tie-ins galore: flipping one page, I found the character Blue Devil sucked through a portal to a ship in another galaxy, and a helpful asterisked note from Wolfman flat-out telling me to know the resolution of this plot I'd need to pick up a Blue Devil issue--it is not even mentioned within the pages of Crisis itself from that point on. The number of those notes increase as the story chugs along at a most-certainly too long 12 issues. Eight or nine issues would've done the job, like Geoff Johns' Blackest Night.

Amusingly enough, the Anti-Monitor, a seemingly unstoppable horror movie bastard villain with origins from an "anti-matter universe" devoid of life is the very source of DC's non-creativity. Decades gone, the company is still atemptting to wrangle their continuity problems into shape: two crises followed in the pages of Infinite Crisis and Final Crisis, plus many events between them such as Zero Hour and Countdown, just trying to "fix" DC's history (or make a buck off it), every time killing off or reviving characters or replacing or brutalizing characters, pasts, futures. Can even Morrison's New X-men or Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns claim to have had that much effect on the industry? To both DC and Marvel?

In their efforts to stitch DC together, Wolfman and Perez only put on a Band-Aid that fell off years ago. In this day, when readers have access to dozens, hundreds, thousands of reprints of good stories, Crisis on Infinite Earth's standout attributes are its gorgeous art and smart paneling by George Perez, and little else. It's packed so full of characters, nonsensical events, plot holes, dropped plots, repetitive scenes, and a villain that returns to life every other issue that it remains dull for all but a select few scenes. (But I won't talk about those scenes, for I have come not to heap praise on Crisis, but to bury it.) In their efforts to simplify the DC Universe, they told an incredibly convoluted, complex story of its near-total destruction.

Now I just need to figure out if that's brilliant or just stupid of them.


Colin Smith said...

Hello Andrew:- one of things that your piece made me realise is how I didn't realise anything of what the consequences of Crisis would be at the time. Now, despite respecting very much the work of Mr Wolfman and Mr Perez, I agree with you that Crisis was a very big false turn, but at the time it all seemed to be an incredibly exciting and productive business. Crossovers, plots finished off elsewhere, disappearances of long-loved characters; it was a whole new deal and the folks in charge were often highly able too. But, like a great many revolutions which rely on completely flattening the old order in the name of a perfect future, it certainly was the wrong thing to do. At the time, those who opposed it were often perceived to be of the old guard, such as Roy Thomas, folks who were thought to be to some degree standing selfishly against necessary change. And they were right, but it didn't look like that back then.

I wish I could say I'd've seen the problems coming. But I'd probably have OK'ed the project myself if I'd've somehow been running DC at the time. It's a good thing for my ego to be reminded of, and your reading of some of the ultimate results of Crisis helps me keep that beastly ego in check. My thanks!

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