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Grumpy Old Fan | ‘Crisis’ at 30, Part 1

by  in Comic News Comment

Thirty years ago, as part of the first ship week in December 1984, the debut issue of Crisis on Infinite Earths arrived in comics shops. Cover-dated April 1985, and scheduled to appear on newsstands during the first week of January, it was the flagship title of DC Comics’ year-long 50th-anniversary celebration. The two-year Who’s Who encyclopedia had launched a month earlier, and most of DC’s series would tie into Crisis at some point; but this was the book that promised big changes.

We talk a lot about the legacy of Crisis — high-stakes events, crossovers, reboots, etc. — but that can obscure the story itself. For all that it was designed to do, and all that it promised, Crisis remains both uneven and intriguing. At times it can read like a ramshackle assembly of exposition and spectacle, held together by the combined wills of its creative team. Some of it is flabby, some of it is clunky, but Crisis can still be thrilling, and even touching. In any event, it remains one of the great mileposts of DC history, so it can certainly stand another look.

Today is for the first issue, but this series will continue periodically throughout 2015. Grab your own copies of Crisis and follow along!

* * *

Crisis on Infinite Earths #1 hit the shelves next to about a dozen new DC issuesAtari Force #16, DC Comics Presents #80, Fury of Firestorm #34, Justice League of America #237, Tales of the Teen Titans #52, Wonder Woman #324 and the direct market-only New Teen Titans #6 and Vigilante #15. A Best of DC reprint digest and installments of a couple of four-issue miniseries (Jonni Thunder #2 and Superman: The Secret Years #3) rounded out the week.

All in all, pretty typical of mid-‘80s DC. However, many of those series were going through changes, both between the covers and behind the scenes. DC Presents and Wonder Woman would be canceled as part of Crisis-related relaunches. JLA had introduced the “Detroit League” earlier in the year. Both Titans books were adjusting to co-creator George Pérez’s recent departure. Crisis wasn’t catching the superhero line at its most settled, and the rumblings and churnings would continue well into 1986.

Nevertheless, “The Summoning!” (written by Marv Wolfman, penciled by George Pérez, inked by Dick Giordano, colored by Tony Tollin, edited and co-plotted by Len Wein and Bob Greenberger) jumped into the cosmic end of the pool right from the start. After a one-page illustration of the multiversal Big Bang — wherein the omniscient narrator notes that what “should have been one, became many” — Issue 1 serves up the end of two worlds, and the promise of more carnage.

If nothing else, Crisis on Infinite Earths is a feast of sequential-art storytelling, as Pérez reaches deep into his toolbox. Get used to intricate layouts — many of them spread across two pages — because you’ll be seeing a lot of them as the series progresses. Pages 2-3 are divided into five tiers of six, six, one, eight and six panels each; with the middle tier/panel about one-third of a page high and spanning both pages. The top and bottom tiers show an implacable wall of antimatter nothingness consuming and erasing everything in its path, leaving behind only (metaphorical?) black smoke; while the middle tiers chart new character Pariah’s teleportations into and out of danger. The spread only describes about a minute’s worth of story time, but it forces the reader to slow down and take in all of what’s going on. Since this is how Pérez is going to be approaching a lot of the action, it’s worth getting used to. It also mitigates Pariah’s melodramatics, which can be saying a lot. The two-page spread is as much about him and his angst as it is about the destruction, and the latter isn’t even identified with a particular Earth.

Not so for the next sequence, set on the Crime Syndicate’s familiar Earth-Three. Showing an evil Justice League powerless against the wall of white is a good demonstration of the threat level — so much so that subsequent event miniseries, including JLA/Avengers, Trinity, and Forever Evil used the CSA similarly. It’s also ironic, because this is the only time Crisis — an anniversary event, remember — assembles even an analogue of the original Justice League. Prior to the events of Issue 1, Barry “The Flash” Allen had retired to the 30th century, Hal Jordan had quit the Green Lantern Corps, Batman was leading the Outsiders and the JLA Satellite itself was practically dead in space after hosting a Martian invasion. Indeed, Earth-Three’s Power Ring is the closest Crisis ever comes to depicting Hal Jordan.

The five-page Earth-Three sequence also offers another none-too-subtle analogue, as the dying planet’s greatest scientist sends his infant son to safety across the vibrational barrier. Because everything’s opposite on Earth-Three, the scientist is Alexei Luthor and his wife is the former Lois Lane. Crisis is full of parallel Supermen, and the first quarter of this issue has seen Ultraman die while young Alexander Luthor escapes.

Alex’s journey takes us at last to Earth-One, home to DC’s main-line super-folk. After the Monitor retrieves his little capsule — and as part of yet another double-page layout (four tiers, including one half-page-high panel) — we meet Lyla, aka the Monitor’s assistant Harbinger. She splits into several identical copies, each tasked with bringing back a particular member of the super-powered community. In order, they are

  • Solovar, ruler of Earth-One’s Gorilla City and (along with The Flash) nemesis of Gorilla Grodd;
  • Dawnstar, winged tracker and member of Earth-One’s 30th-century Legion of Super-Heroes;
  • Firebrand II, flame-tossing member of Earth-Two’s wartime All-Star Squadron;
  • Blue Beetle II, making his DC Comics debut along with his native Earth-Four;
  • Psycho-Pirate II, Earth-Two’s emotion-manipulating villain;
  • Arion, the finest sorcerer of Earth-One’s ancient Atlantis (summoned by a “possessed” Harbinger, but he doesn’t know that);
  • Firestorm the Nuclear Man and his arch-foe Killer Frost, both of Earth-One;
  • Psimon, leader of Earth-One’s Fearsome Five;
  • Geo-Force, earth-manipulating member of Earth-One’s Outsiders;
  • Cyborg, of Earth-One’s Teen Titans;
  • Superman of Earth-Two (aka Superman I), going gray after almost 50 years in action;
  • Obsidian, of Earth-Two’s Infinity Inc.;
  • John Stewart, Green Lantern of Earth-One’s space sector 2814; and
  • Doctor Polaris, longtime foe of Earth-One’s Green Lanterns.

Whew! Only Solovar through Killer Frost get on-screen introductory sequences — between one and two pages each — which have, incidentally, taken us up to page 24 of 32. Thus, we meet the rest aboard the Monitor’s satellite. Of the 15 characters Harbinger has fetched, eight appear regularly in their own series, two more (Superman and Blue Beetle) are former headliners, four are villains (although Psycho-Pirate gives Killer Frost a massive crush on Firestorm, which is fun for a while); and one is either a relatively minor Flash supporting character or a nod to the adage that gorillas sell comics. Earth-One claims 10 characters (although one’s from the distant past and another the far future), while Earth-Two gets four (including one from 1942) and Earth-Four gets one.

At this point the more attentive DC fans may have noticed that Crisis borrows both its name and initial structure from the Justice League/Justice Society team-ups, most of which had “Crisis” in their story titles and all of which featured combinations of different heroes going out on separate missions. Those team-ups usually ended with everyone getting back together at the end for one final battle, and Crisis will be no exception. However, don’t count on seeing these fifteen characters reunited as a group in Issue 12. The cast is about to get a lot bigger, starting with the next issue; and the focus will shift accordingly. In fact, only Psycho-Pirate, Psimon, Firestorm and Superman I will continue to receive significant attention as Crisis progresses.

For now, though, the assembled super-folk fight “shadow-demons” — humanoid dark-energy warriors — on the Monitor’s bigger-on-the-inside satellite. After six pages, the Monitor himself decides enough is enough, banishes the demons a la Gandalf, steps out to where everyone can see him, and announces “your universes are about to die!” To Be Continued, of course.

* * *

What’s notable to me about Crisis #1 is not just the extent to which it was plugged into DC’s 1984 superhero line, but also the idea that the line didn’t really need much fixing. The derelict Justice League Satellite hangs forlornly in its orbit, as if waiting for some nostalgic lament; but Wolfman’s narration observes simply that “its electronic life has ended.” This is not the prelude to a grand restoration of a beloved status quo, but the next step in a superhero line which had been trying to modernize since the early 1970s. If Crisis had an agenda beyond mere “change,” the story didn’t reflect it. Wolfman’s editorial essay at the back of Issue 1 elaborated on the convoluted nature of DC continuity, but it too was all about housecleaning. That’s a different set of concerns than reuniting the Satellite-era JLA or making Hal a GL again, and it belies an odd sort of confidence from a publisher about to upend its main line of comics.

We might see Crisis’ eclectic initial lineup as another sign of said confidence. 1984’s readership probably would have recognized many of those characters, and most of the major super-teams are represented, but the group still has a very B/C-list feel. Sure, Green Lantern and Cyborg are on board already, and you don’t get much more Golden Age-y than the original Superman, but the issue doesn’t give them as much attention as Solovar or Firebrand. (There’s also no Batman or Bat-related character, which seems unthinkable these days.) Lyla addresses this explicitly — why not multiple Supermen and Wonder Women, or at least “the most powerful of those we’ve observed?” — and the Monitor replies basically that this is his fantasy team, he’s got his strategy, and don’t worry about it. Again, the fact that the heroes end up working things out for themselves undercuts that attitude, making Crisis probably more roundabout than originally designed.

This first issue also had the luxury of an extra eight pages for character introductions, giving readers a quick (if incomplete) survey of the shared-universe landscape along the way. Subsequent issues wouldn’t be so lucky, being more concerned with plot. Thus, the structure of Crisis #1 was a mixed blessing. It gave Wolfman room for characterization, but that could be hit or miss. Nice touches, like Ultraman’s jaunty last words “I fight to the very end!” or Firestorm’s reactions to Killer Frost’s cooties, have to contend with monologuing (to be fair, mostly from Psimon, a lesser Wolfman/Pérez creation), or exposition from the likes of Solovar, Harbinger and the narrator. That too is a foretaste of things to come, as Crisis amped up the need to speechify along with the level of danger.

Overall, though, Crisis #1 establishes its parameters fairly well. The enemy is still mysterious, but the threat is real and the consequences are palpable. Since everyone has a stake in the outcome, the players are taken from a number of settings across space, time, and dimensional barriers. Action, exposition, and characterization are balanced nicely — besides the opening Crime Syndicate sequence and the closing battle, Blue Beetle and Firestorm each get their own one page-plus fight scenes — and in the end, Crisis has defined its scope to be about as wide as a DC fan might imagine.

* * *

With that in mind, subsequent DC offerings would have to be smaller, almost by definition. Identity Crisis (2004) traded on the “brand name” but hit our heroes on a more personal level. Infinite Crisis was a direct sequel to COIE, and in many ways could be seen as trying to be “Crisis done right,” since it focused much more on the A-listers. Final Crisis fell somewhere in between, using the Monitors to facilitate Darkseid’s ultimate victory. It’s probably too early to tell how much of COIE will wind up in Multiversity, although the latter’s first issue brought back the Monitor’s satellite and featured a Monitor gone bad (not unlike Harbinger’s corruption in COIE #1).

On some level this is all eminently appropriate, since Crisis On Infinite Earths was supposed to do its work and then vanish into the wind, its details forgotten except for vague impressions of destruction and death. That’s mostly how DC has used COIE over the past thirty years — although the Legacies miniseries retold Crisis with a rather obsessive eye to detail (thanks to writer Len Wein and artist George Pérez); and Convergence and its putative progeny may also treat COIE as if it “really happened.”

For now, though, we leave Crisis #1 with 15 super-powered people waiting to hear more from their enigmatic host. That first installment had to address years’ worth of anticipation and hype, and justify its self-proclaimed importance while remaining reader-friendly. By and large, I think it did about as well as it could, and even with its 1984-ish trappings I think it holds up today. Issue 2 will take readers from the dawn of man to the 30th century, and it’ll bring in some of those A-listers about whom we’ve heard so much.

+++++++++++++++++++

And here is the Futures Index for last week’s Issue 30.

  • Story pages: 20
  • Cadmus Island pages: 20
  • Number of featured characters: about 16
  • Character deaths among those: 4 (Deathstroke, Red Tornado, Barda, Power Girl)
  • Point at which I realized Red Arrow was the Earth-2 Oliver Queen: when Issue 31 spelled it out

NOTES: This was definitely the best issue of Futures End in a while, both for its nimble tone — boxing glove arrow! — and the heroes’ clear (if probably short-lived) victory. I could call this another “so what?” plot point, because the destruction of Cadmus Island probably happened in the darkest timeline; but for now, it’s a rare opportunity to feel good.

Naturally, artist Tom Raney was a big part of that. His storytelling kept things moving, while his expressive characters complemented the script’s high-adventure attitude.

Still, getting back to the practicalities of the plot, I don’t see how DC can let all or part of the Five Years From Now timeline stand. Deathstroke, Barda, and Power Girl are popular enough that their fates have to be reversed. Mr. Miracle’s mention of Highfather also makes me wonder how Scott and Barda would react to Highfather’s current activities in the “Godhead” crossover.

Anyway, no time for speculation, because …

Here is the Futures Index for this week’s Issue 31.

  • Story pages: 20
  • Press conference pages: 2
  • Green Arrow Island pages: 2
  • Superman/Constantine pages: 7
  • Cadmus Island pages: 4
  • Firestorm pages: 5
  • Characters pictured on the cover: Batman (Terry McGinnis), Mr. Terrific, Cal and Madison, Shazam!, a crying brunette (Lois Lane?), Stormguard, Batman (Bruce Wayne), Wonder Woman, Cyborg, the Flash, Equinox
  • Apparent reason for putting them on the cover: mourning Ronnie Raymond
  • Number of those characters who appear in the book: 3 (Cal, Madison, Lois)
  • Number of those three who appear at the funeral: 1

NOTES: For a transitory issue, this was fair-to-middling. The Firestorm subplot used to feel rather forced, and now that the Madison/Cal relationship is part of it, it feels unnecessarily prolonged. Ronnie’s obstinance kept Jason from quitting Firestorm, so absent that you’d think there wouldn’t be a problem splitting apart. If it means Madison subconsciously isn’t ready to stop being Firestorm, that could be kind of interesting, especially as part of a new Firestorm series. We’re about two steps away from that, though; and I have no idea how it would figure into the rest of Futures End.

Collectively, the eight pages devoted to Cadmus Island aftermath remind us that Cadmus and Brother Eye are still “out there,” needing some sort of final resolution, probably in a few months. I did like the two-page Green Arrow/Animal Man reunion. I suspect it’s setting up Brother Eye’s bloody revenge, but for now it’s nice.

That leaves the seven-page Superman/Constantine/Midge sequence, which on first reading was pretty trippy. I mean, you don’t have a shirtless Superman fight “Bearniac” in the middle of the Russian woods, while John Constantine struggles with a bikini-clad cultist, without coming away at least a little in awe of whomever conceived it. At the same time, though, it didn’t make me want to trace this particular plot thread back through previous issues. For now it’s enough to note that Bearniac tells Superman he won’t be killed, I think, because Brainiac admired Jor-El, or something. I get the feeling that Earth itself is not so lucky — the “by coming here your coming place is spared” bit could refer to Metropolis’ being bottled — but we knew that already. (Actually, we “knew” that Brother Eye alone would take over the world. Could that be how Earth fights off Brainiac? Assuming this timeline is just going away eventually, I’d kinda like to see that.) Regardless, looks like Supes is headed back to polite society, so maybe his little group can get a set of clean clothes.

NEXT WEEK IN THE FUTURE: Stormwatch is back! Mr. Terrific is selling! Firestorm is flying! Fifty Sue is cosplaying! And … a new Doctor Polaris!