‘Crisis on Infinite Earths’ 30 Years On

In the mid-’80s, Marv Wolfman and George Perez were at the top of their game. They had done what very few comic book creators had been able to do. They brought some of the Marvel magic to tired old DC. Jack Kirby, the king of Marvel Comics, had preceded them to DC, of course, with the Fourth World epic, the Demon, OMAC and Kamandi. But while Kirby’s work at DC would have a lasting impact and prove to be some of the greatest work of his career it was, at the time, a commercial and critical disaster. Wolfman and Perez, on the other hand, were something else entirely.

Their New Teen Titans was a hit, reminiscent of what Claremont and Byrne were doing with Marvel’s X-Men. They produced long-form serialized stories that mixed classic characters with their own new creations. It was fun and exciting. It was also emotionally rich. Perez, who is always best on team books like The Avengers was absolutely at the top of his form here. While the original Teen Titans stories were, in many ways, a Silver Age disaster that, despite the team title, showed every sign of being written by middle-aged men for pre-teen boys, The New Teen Titans was different. Like Marvel’s The X-Men, The New Teen Titans was a precursor of sorts to today’s “young adult” literature. The audience for these books was closer to the audience for The Hunger Games than the audience for the Hardy Boys.

This audience, fans of the X-Men and the New Teen Titans, was an important audience because it was the audience of the future.

Marvel’s new, young universe, first brought to life by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee in the early ’60s, was the perfect setting for the complex and mature stories that readers were increasingly demanding. In the early days of Marvel Comics, Lee provided a unifying force, a guiding vision for the Marvel Universe, not so much by design, perhaps, as by necessity. Later, under the leadership of Lee acolyte Roy Thomas and then Wolfman, Marvel maintained its internal consistency, both of tone and plotting; it maintained its “continuity”.

DC, on the other hand, was a different story.

The character of Superman, of course, had started it all. Superman stories had been piling up since 1938. Different writers, different artists, different editors producing books for different audiences and different readers. There was a lot of material there, a lot of narrative history. Wwhen superheroes came out of the doldrums of the ’50s and DC reintroduced some of its old characters in new forms (the Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman, the Atom), things became complicated.

Very complicated. And problematic.

Problematic, that is, if your purpose is to produce stories set in an internally consistent fictional universe. (That was what Marvel was doing to great success.) Problematic if you want to appeal to older readers, the audience of the future, who will surely notice inconsistencies in plot and characterizations in a way that younger, less sophisticated audiences never would. Problematic if you want to attract, retain and satisfy a growing fandom of readers who took everything seriously, and who collectively paid closer attention to details than editors, writers and artists ever could.

From Crisis on Infinite Earths #12 by Wolfman and Perez, DC (1986).

DC had attempted to organize some of their history when they introduced the new Silver Age Flash and hit upon a solution that was equal parts brilliant and maddening. The new Flash (Barry Allen) was inspired to adopt his superhero name and persona by the old Flash’s (Jay Garrick’s) adventures which he had read about as a kid in the pages of comic books. But then later, in a marvelous story by Gardner Fox (writer of old Flash’s adventures in the Golden Age) and artist Carmine Infantino, it was revealed that the old Flash was indeed real and the resident of a parallel Earth.

This is how Barry Allen explained it to Jay Garrick when they first met: “So you see, I became the super-fast Flash on my Earth much as you became the Flash on yours! Indeed, reading of your Flash adventures inspired me to assume the secret identity of the Flash!”

“How did you ever read about me?” Jay Garrick wanted to know.

Barry responded, “You were once well-known in my world—as a fictional character appearing in a magazine called Flash Comics! When I was a youngster—you were my favorite hero! A writer named Gardner Fox wrote about your adventures—which he claimed came to him in dreams! Obviously when Fox was asleep, his mind was “tuned in” on your vibratory Earth! That explains how he “dreamed up” the Flash!

I don’t know about you, but I think this is fantastic. Gardner Fox was well ahead of his time with this one.

Soon thereafter, it was revealed that the Golden Age adventures of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and the Justice Society of America all took place on this alternate Earth, called Earth-Two to distinguish it from the home of DC’s then current heroes, Earth-One. There were two Batmen, two Superman, two Wonder Women—though all with similar origins and identities. There were also two Flashes, two Green Lanterns, two Atoms, and two Hawkmen—each with different origins, powers and identities.

This conceptualization of the DC Universe became so popular that for many summers Earth-Two’s Justice Society teamed up with Earth-One’s Justice League for multi-issue adventures in the pages of Justice League of America. Under the hand of writer Fox, two Earths quickly became three and four and five.

From Crisis on Infinite Earths #8 by Wolfman and Perez, DC (1986).

Earth-Three was a reverse world, home of the Crime Syndicate of America. Earth-Four was the home of the characters that DC acquired from former competitor Charlton Comics: Captain Atom, Blue Beetle, the Question and others. Earth-S was the home of the heroes originally published by Fawcett Comics, including Captain Marvel and the Marvel Family. Earth-X was the home of former Quality Comics characters including Uncle Sam, the Human Bomb, Miss America, and Black Condor.

Every summer the DC universe (now a multiverse) was in crisis. The titles of the tales said it all. There was a “Crisis on Earth-One!”, a “Crisis on Earth-Two!”, a “Crisis on Earth-A!”, a “Crisis between Earth-One and Earth-Two”, a “Super Crisis that Struck Earth-Two!”, and a “Negative-Crisis on Earths One-Two!” just to name a few.

Unfortunately, for all the fun that is to be had in these stories they are far from perfect. Stock characterizations proliferate as do bizarre, overly complicated and gimmicky plots. As time passed, they did mature a bit, but none of the summer JLA/JSA crisis events ever came close to anything that the Avengers were doing over at Marvel during the same time period. They were delightfully fun in concept and incredibly lackluster in execution. They served to contribute to a DC continuity that was out of control, bloated, and juvenile.

Enter Crisis on Infinite Earths, Marv Wolfman’s solution to DC’s convoluted and complicated continuity. In this story, a 12-issue crossover event, arguably the first company-wide crossover event in comics history, he set out to get rid of the multiverse, organize the chaos, and help to restart DC’s continuity.

Despite its title’s nod to the crisis events of old, this was something new. The comics world had never seen anything like it. Practically every character in the DC multiverse was included in the story. Worlds died. Heroes died.

While at times it is even more bizarre, complicated and gimmicky than any of those earlier crises, it manages to work. While with so many characters in play it was necessary that many, if not most, of them would have to be nothing more than stock versions of their more complicated personalities, Wolfman and Perez pull it off.

The reasons why it is successful are pretty easy to see. Perez holds all the madness together with his meticulously detailed renditions of even the most obscure characters and with his page layouts that manage to contain pages of story in the most economical of spaces while rarely appearing crowded and confused. Wolfman, in the midst of all those characters, in the midst of all that plot, finds a way to give us complex characters as well as true emotional moments.

In Crisis we feel Supergirl’s death and the death of the Flash. We grieve over their sacrifice and our loss. And, in the larger sense, we grieve over the loss of so much more, of a multiverse, of a history, and most of all, of Superman, who lived on but was never again the same.

Just like that the multiverse was gone. In official DC continuity, Superman never fought in World War II. There are two Flashes on the same Earth, an aging Jay Garrick who fought with the JSA in the early days and Wally West, the former Kid Flash, who took the place of Barry Allen when he died. The heroes from Earth-One and Earth-Two and Earth-S and Earth-X didn’t have to wait for summer crises to crossover. They now inhabited the same world, could meet each other for a cup of coffee like it was nothing special.

From Crisis on Infinite Earths #7 by Wolfman and Perez, DC (1986).

In many ways, Crisis on Infinite Earths worked and worked spectacularly. It solved many of the problems that it set out to solve. The post-Crisis DC universe was certainly more accessible to new and casual readers. The conflicts in continuity were mostly resolved gracefully, though fans of Hawkman and the Legion of Superheroes might disagree. This simplification of the universe meant that characters from throughout the former multiverse were now theoretically available for use across the publishing line. The clearing away of all those years of childish stories allowed creators to produce stories more appealing to the genre’s maturing audience and allowed for the rejuvenation and recalibration of characters, like Batman and Superman, whose narratives had grown long and complex. (Batman’s rebirth in Frank Miller’s and David Mazzucchelli’s Batman: Year One was an incredible artistic success. Superman’s rejuvenation in John Byrne’s The Man of Steel was far less satisfactory.)

Most importantly, however, it succeeded as a story. Wolfman and Perez managed to overcome countless obstacles put in place by the grandness and scope of the endeavor and told a powerful, exciting, moving story. Reading it again, thirty years on, it is still as bombastic, crazy, touching, and powerful as when I read it the first time.

Not all of its fruits have been sweet, however. Because Crisis was a commercial success, the last 30 years has seen the production of countless summer crossover events, from both DC and Marvel Comics. Some of these have been good. Many of them have been bad. And, at least in part, because the resetting of the DC universe corresponded with the incredible success of such darkly serious works as Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s Watchmen, much of what followed Crisis on Infinite Earths was bleak and bloody. In that sense, Crisis may be seen as a bridge between comics’ Bronze and Dark Ages. Consequently, it was a long time before Batman regained any of his Silver Age charm.

It didn’t have to be so. It is seldom noticed that at the very time that Miller and Mazzucchelli were giving Batman a post-crisis dark genesis in their “Batman:Year One” story arc in the pages of Batman, Mike Barr and Alan Davis were providing a very Silver Age version of the character in the pages of Batman’s other magazine, Detective Comics. I can only wonder what would have happened to the character had the Barr/Davis version been more popular.

And, for me, a child of the Bronze Age, I confess that I still miss the pre-Crisis multiverse, if not the juvenile storytelling that sometimes went along with it. As a young reader I was an admirer of Marvel’s consistent continuity, even if I probably would not have been able to say that in so many words. There was a certain comfort that came from reading the footnotes in a Marvel comic, reminding me when Spidey last fought this villain or that the events of this issue of Marvel Two-In-One take place between pages seven and eight of the latest issue of The Fantastic Four.

I was also an admirer of the simpler, zanier, more free-form style over at DC, where things were not always so tidily accounted for, where Batman could be a scientist, a detective, a father figure, or a vigilante; where Captain Marvel and the Marvel Family battled Dr. Sivana and Mister Mind without worrying about Superman and the JLA; where 50 years of comics history could be counted as canonical and true, even the embarrassing parts; and where creativity could, when it had to, trump continuity. One of the joys of reading Crisis on Infinite Earths, the joy of reading it again 30 years on, is to see that Wolfman and Perez were embracing that creativity, that long history, that multiverse of worlds, even as they were using them to ensure that the DC Universe, and the superhero comicbook, would never be the same.