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Grumpy Old Fan | ‘Crisis’ at 30, Part 10

by  in Comic News Comment
Grumpy Old Fan | ‘Crisis’ at 30, Part 10

Thirty years ago, after almost a year of preliminaries, and longer than that in planning, DC Comics put an end to its infinite Multiverse. It happened as the final page of Crisis on Infinite Earths #10 — which hit the direct market during the first week of September 1985 — exploded into a cosmic whiteout, deliberately echoing the “destruction” of Earths-One and -Two in Issue 4. That cataclysm included (metaphorical?) black smoke billowing into panels and then dissipating into nothingness, but here the panels themselves shattered under the fury of the final battle between the omnipotent Spectre and the power-hoarding Anti-Monitor.

Issue 10 had a heck of a cliffhanger is what I’m saying.

The rest is more uneven. It’s not the series’ worst installment, but its bifurcated format produces mixed results, at least for me. Most of the issue is split between two narrative tracks, with the bottom fifth of each page (except the last one, Page 26) devoted to Lyla/Harbinger’s “Monitor Tapes.” I appreciated Marv Wolfman and George Pérez using the second feature to check in with some lesser-explored parts of DC’s tapestry, but at times I thought it was a bit heavy-handed.

We’ll get to that, though, after the credits. Crisis on Infinite Earths #10 was written and edited by Wolfman, co-plotted and penciled by Pérez, inked by Jerry Ordway, colored by Anthony Tollin, and lettered by John Costanza. “The Monitor Tapes” was written by Wolfman, with uncolored art directly reproduced from Pérez’s pencils, and typeset lettering. Bob Greenberger was the issue’s associate editor, with Len Wein the consulting editor.

* * *

Speaking of cliffhangers, Issue 10 picks up with Lex Luthor in peril. You’ll remember from Issue 9 that Psimon (of the Fearsome Five, a group created by Wolfman and Pérez early in their New Teen Titans run) had just zapped Brainiac into gleaming metal bits and was turning his big transparent brain-dome powers on Luthor. Page 1 finds Luthor sweating under those powers’ effects. On the top of Page 2, though, a bolt from a reconstituted Brainiac shatters Psimon’s dome, apparently putting the telekinetic terror down for good (which turned out to be about seven years).

With that out of the way, it’s back to the Villain War. Set up so ominously last issue, it’s disposed of (if not quite resolved) over the course of the next six pages. Mirroring last issue’s storytelling, these six pages are strings of vignettes, mostly showing the heroes gaining the upper hand over their foes. For example, Chemo turned Earth-Four’s New York Harbor into a green-boiling toxic bath, so Negative Woman destroys him. Having eighty percent of the page doesn’t do Pérez any favors here. He stacks and stretches panels to give the layouts some variety, but without the room to indulge in more engaging storytelling, he has to squeeze the action into smaller spaces.

In one of the issue’s better sequences, a p-o’ed Martian Manhunter almost single-handedly takes out the Brotherhood of Evil, as well as a group of Sivana-led mad scientists who have captured the extended Marvel Family in their non-powered forms. Pérez and Ordway draw a fairly scary J’Onn J’Onzz here, and after the Atom cuts off Billy Batson’s gag, they give readers a very fan-serviceable “Shazam!”

To be sure, there are moments which fans might well question, like Kole using her crystal-controlling powers to incapacitate Black Adam, or Despero astonished that the Metal Men’s Platinum could be immune to Phobia’s emotion-controlling powers. Black Adam would go on to be one of the DC Universe’s heaviest hitters — among other things, the villain of 52’s “World War III” — and shortly after Crisis ended, Despero would once again menace the entire Justice League.

As Pérez switches to one- and two-panel sequences, Brainiac editorializes that the villains lack the heroes’ cooperative spirit: “only in unity is there strength.” However, before we can test that, it’s Page 9 and the Spectre appears to everybody everywhere — literally, as Pérez draws it — to announce they’ve all got bigger antimatter fish to fry. If you didn’t remember the red wave of evil energy crackling across time and space from the end of issue 8 and the beginning of Issue 9, Anthro reminded you on Page 3; and now the Spectre reveals that Anti-M has gone back to the dawn of time to change history irrevocably in his favor. To drive home the point, we see the Legion of Super-Heroes, the 22nd century’s Space Ranger, Rip Hunter and crew, the Time Trapper and the Lord of Time. “There must be cooperation or all life is doomed to non-existence,” the Ghostly Guardian intones. “Decide now! There will be no second chances!”

One might argue that if Anti-M is already at the dawn of time, it’s already too late (as it were), but this plot point is clearly of a piece with, say, the earlier “infinite doesn’t mean forever” approach to the antimatter wave. In other words, for dramatic purposes there’s always room for the heroes to implement their plan, even if said plan involves stopping a villain from doing something that has “already happened” almost 14 billion years ago.

Besides, the heroes are going back to the same point as Anti-M, so they’ll all be there at the same moment. Moreover, Anti-M — oh, you’ll love this — is “waiting” for Krona to conduct his experiment, about four billion years in the future. Remember, Krona’s experiment created the Antimatter Universe along with the infinite Multiverse, ten billion years ago; and Anti-M figures that if Krona sees his hand spinning out the cosmos, that’ll mean only the Antimatter Universe will survive. It’s the apocalypse by way of Groundhog Day.

Now, I’m not saying it can’t be explained, that it helps to be high, or that Crisis cracks under this last bit of pseudoscience. For a given reader, any or all of those things may be true (and goodness knows Crisis has entertained its share of goofy notions). Ten issues in, though, Crisis is in full “you should really just relax” mode. Anti-M’s scheme is meant to do two things: get the heroes back to the dawn of time, and facilitate the series’ great cosmic reordering. Beyond that, I think Wolfman and company figured readers who’d stuck it out this far were on board with them all the way.

The heroes’ plan is twofold: all the good guys will go back to the Dawn of Time to stop Anti-M, while all the villains (led by Luthor, of course) will go back “only” 10 billion years to Oa, to stop Krona from creating the Antimatter Universe. Again, we might wonder why the villains need a separate mission, particularly one which could prevent the Green Lantern Corps from coming into existence. Maybe someone read October 1965’s Green Lantern issue 40 and realized that originally, Krona just “unleashed evil” into the cosmos as a result of his experiment, so the whole Multiverse-Antimatter Universe thing was itself a retcon. From that perspective, why not try to undo it by an army of super-baddies rampaging across Oa? What could possibly go wrong?

(Actually, the villains’ side of thing turns out about like you’d expect, but we’ll get to that in a bit.)

It leads to yet another Great Gathering scene, not unlike last issue’s army of super-folk arrayed on that gigundo Cosmic Treadmill. This time the mechanics are more complex, involving not only Jay Garrick and Wally West (who’s still anxious about Barry, and reluctant to reveal his terminal condition) but electric- and magnetism-based characters, all pouring their energies into a handful of time machines. It is very Silver Age-y in its construction, not least because it involves two of the Legion of Super-Heroes’ three founders. I imagine Mark Waid or Grant Morrison might well have thrown in a couple of “Flash Facts” about the interactions of fundamental forces. Another Metal Man gets a chance to shine (sorry), as Gold becomes the conduit for all that power. It not only powers the time machines but propels Superman’s unassisted flight, speeding Alex Luthor through the time stream so they can get to the Dawn of Time — wait for it — “before” everyone else.

Prior to takeoff, however, there are a few key character scenes. The Earth-Two Supes says goodbye to his wife, Lois Lane Kent, as Alex watches from a distance. The Superboy of Earth-Prime (introduced in a DC Comics Presents tie-in, and foreshadowed in a “Monitor Tapes” panel) makes his Crisis debut, eager to serve since his own universe was destroyed. Uncle Sam gives an inspirational speech about how they’re fighting not just for their lives, but for their freedom; and I’m not going to criticize it because under the circumstances it’s relatively restrained. Besides, after the Lord of Time calls it “cornball,” Luthor defends ol’ U.S. Lex Luthor may be a diabolical genius and the greatest criminal mind of our time, but he’s no Commie. Finally, an interlude on page 17 confirms that Aquagirl has indeed died from last issue’s Chemo-poisoning.

If you also remember from last issue that Pariah vanished right before Brainiac appeared (in holographic form) at the Earth-One United Nations, Page 18 shows where he’s gone. When everyone arrives at the Dawn of Time, they see that the Anti-Monitor (now giant-sized) has imprisoned him in an energy field. Pariah yells that the super-army needs to save themselves, and don’t worry about him, he still feels guilty for reviving Anti-M. The villain scoffs at this, explaining that Pariah’s experiment only gave him the final push needed to break free of his prison. This seems like a somewhat subtle distinction, but it assuages Pariah’s guilt and absolves him in Lady Quark’s eyes. (She’d been blaming him for Earth-Four’s destruction.)

Now, enough chit-chat — time for action! All the powerhouses dogpile on Anti-M, but it’s no use: he’s absorbed the entire energy of the Antimatter Universe to get here, and he’s juiced beyond belief. The non-powered heroes can only look on in awe, although Batman tries to cheerlead. Bronze Age Batman was more outwardly motivational than post-Crisis Batman would be.

Two pages of carnage on distant-past Oa follow, with the villains mostly on the receiving end. Consider: In 1985, thirty-six Guardians were enough to power 3,600 Green Lanterns (plus backups, plus the Central Power Battery), and the Oans of the past a) were ten billion years younger and b) didn’t have any Lanterns to worry about. Thus, after just a few panels on Page 21, Luthor and company are writhing in pain — Luthor for the second time this issue — under the green-glowing eyes of a handful of buff, handsomely-coiffed blue-skinned Oans in their prime. The group that actually gets through to Krona’s chamber doesn’t fare much better, because Krona zaps them all with extreme prejudice. R.I.P. Mirror Master, Icicle, and Maaldor the Darklord.

Back at the D-of-T, the heroes are in similar straits. Anti-M starts sucking away all their energies, giving him the boost he needs to both imprison them and pierce the final barrier. Anti-M moves his hand into position (a whirlpool of Kirby Krackle forming around it), and he prepares for Krona’s gaze. But wait — who’s that coming into the ring?

Yes, as the cover promised, it’s the Spectre, bigger than life and twice as mad. He draws on the power of the assembled magic-users, but Krona’s starting to look through his time-portal! (We know this because it is an actual hole in the otherwise-blank infinitude.) Anti-M bellows for Krona to open the portal! Do it now, Krona! Now! NOW!!!

More power! screams the Spectre! I need more strength! MORE! MORE!

I’m givin’ her all she’s got! exclaim countless readers!

The panels shatter, leaving only blankness, and the realization that maybe this cliffhanger could have been avoided if it weren’t for that darn backup….

 

* * *

Although I am treating “The Monitor Tapes” as a separate story, the fact that it runs along the bottom of almost every page, and ends on its own (subtle) cliffhanger, suggests that it’s meant to be read concurrently with the main story. Apart from a couple of references to Superboy-Prime and the supervillain army, I don’t think “TMT” really comments on its big sibling, except in the broad platitudinal sense. “TMT” is Harbinger’s lament, contrasting the multiversal destruction with the vastness of her old boss’s files and the infinite possibilities of life they represented. It’s very much Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good Superheroes, illustrated by various deaths (Immortal Man, the Prince Gavyn Starman, thousands of Thanagarians) and other catastrophes in places like Gemworld, Olympus, and Paradise Island.

Naturally, because Wolfman has woven a thread of courage and hope throughout Crisis, “The Monitor Tapes” brings it home with more positive examples. Antimatter destroyed Swamp Thing’s body, so he grew another one. The Losers died in issue 3, but their fighting spirit lives on. Superman and Lex Luthor stand together. There’s even a pair of panels showing Anthro and Kamandi, the proverbial first and last boys on Earth, marking unmistakably — more so than their separate appearances in Issue 2 — the continuity of heroism across time.

The visuals are the efficient, ubiquitous micro-scenes Pérez has been honing over the past several issues, and I can see where Wolfman would welcome something a little more intellectual; but the overall effect is just too solemn and self-consciously profound. While the nature and persistence of “doing good” is almost a default theme for the all-styles-are-welcome Crisis, it must necessarily take a back seat to time machines powered by super-people channeling electromagnetic energy through a pure-gold android. As shown in the deaths of Supergirl and the Flash, Wolfman does better when he lets the events speak for themselves. Heck, Ultraman’s “I fight to the very end” from issue 1 is at least as poignant as anything in “The Monitor Tapes.”

All this negativity tends to distract me from “The Monitor Tapes’” lone plot point: the final-panel revelation that Harbinger’s powers have returned. See, Harbinger per se hasn’t been seen since the end of issue 6, when she burned out her own vast power reserves saving Earths-Four, -S, and X. Since then it’s been Lyla, non-powered human with normal-shaped eyes and a deep-pink wardrobe. At around the same time, Alex Luthor lost his antimatter powers and Pariah stopped teleporting to disasters. However, as “The Monitor Tapes” ends, we see in extreme closeup that Lyla’s eye has once again changed into Harbinger’s, with its tell-tale cat-like pupil. Last issue Pariah was transported to the Dawn of Time, so Harbinger’s “return” probably isn’t the happiest omen.

* * *

On balance, I like Issue 10 pretty well. Even with its faults, it still wraps up the Villain War in satisfying fashion, and the Dawn of Time sequence ends in thrilling fashion. That said, I remember distinctly how I felt upon first finishing this issue, 30 years ago: I thought it was too short, and I couldn’t wait until Issue 11. Thirty years later, that hasn’t changed.

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