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Grumpy Old Fan | ‘Crisis’ at 30, Part 4

by  in Comic News Comment
Grumpy Old Fan | ‘Crisis’ at 30, Part 4

Continuing the retrospective, we come to Crisis on Infinite Earths #4, which went on sale during the first week of March 1985. Narrative captions give the in-story date as July 1985 (as was the case in Issue 3), which isn’t that important now, although later we will see that the bulk of the series happens/happened in that month.

Anyway, Crisis #4 puts the superheroes in the background to follow some vignette-style arcs, mostly involving Pariah and the Monitor. This has the effect of distracting the reader from the bigger cosmic goings-on. However (at the risk of overloading on negatives), this doesn’t mean that nothing happens — it’s still happening, even in the background. Re-reading this issue, I was struck by how quickly it moves, such that by the time Pariah turns in horror to watch a cosmically-coordinated cataclysm, it’s the bottom of Page 22 and therefore far too late to stop. Indeed, just about everything that can go wrong does go wrong — which at the time struck me as a genius move, and still resonates today. The issue was written and edited by Marv Wolfman, penciled by George Pérez, inked by Mike DeCarlo, lettered by John Costanza and colored by Anthony Tollin. Bob Greenberger was the associate editor, with Len Wein the consulting editor.

* * *

The Evil!Harbinger subplot had been simmering for Crisis’ first three issues. She was corrupted in Issue 1, visited the enemy in Issue 2, and Issue 3 had ended with her declaration that it was time for the Monitor to die. Unsurprisingly, then, the cover of Issue 4 found her hovering over his smoking body, apparently fresh from blasting a blue-glowing hole right in his breastplate. An arrow-shaped cover caption even proclaimed “Death of the Monitor!” However, Issue 4 took its time getting to that point. At the end of Issue 3, Pérez had chosen to use curved corners for his panels, which signified — rather subtly, to be sure — that Harbinger was mouthing off to a screen, not a person. A monitor, as opposed to The Monitor. That’s a long way of saying we don’t see the Monitor until Page 8, when he follows up on a promise from issue #2 (speaking of delayed gratification) … but we’ll get to that in a bit.

As mentioned above, Crisis #4 follows a handful of character-driven subplots on its way to the end of the world. They are, in order:

  • Batgirl comparing her heroic impulses unfavorably with Supergirl’s (2 7/8 pages);
  • Steve “Mento” Dayton and John “Who?” Constantine sharing some hard liquor (5/8 page);
  • Pariah and Lord Volt’s royal family during Earth-Six’s destruction (3 ½ pages);
  • The Monitor making Dr. Kimiyo Hoshi into the new Doctor Light (2 ½ pages);
  • Harbinger and Alex Luthor each musing about destiny (½ page);
  • The faceless enemy abducting Red Tornado as Psycho-Pirate watches (1 page);
  • Various superheroes reacting as the shadow-demons literally grow more fearsome and the tension ratchets up (a total of 11 pages across 5 settings, including a half-page interlude on Paradise Island and a double-page layout); and
  • the final destruction of Earths-One and -Two (3 pages).

Thus, after the first three and a half pages worth of super-sorrows-drowning, Crisis #4 jumps right into the carnage and/or the travails of its original characters. Although the last half of the issue checks in with DC’s headliners (including Firestorm, Superman, and the Outsiders), they’re all virtually helpless facing the apparent death-spirals of their respective universes. This is foreshadowed on Page 7, which includes a four-by-four grid of small panels showing the slow and steady end of Earth-Six.

Wolfman and Pérez really open up the throttle on pages 19-22, which feature the Monitor explaining once again about the tuning forks; Pariah freaking out because nothing good is happening; Harbinger showing up to blast the Monitor into oblivion; and a stunned Pariah realizing that the end is near. That end comes with a three-page sequence showing everything circling the cosmic drain, fading first to white and then (as black smoke comes in from … somewhere metaphorical, I guess) to black.

More than any issue before (or since), Crisis #4 does an excellent job of showing just how everything has spun out of control and everyone involved is doomed. To this point it’s been all about those tuning forks and the trios of characters sent to protect them, but by the end of Page 22 — with three pages to go in the issue, remember — the heroes have been pretty much overwhelmed by the enemy’s forces and the tuning forks don’t appear to have had any effect. Anti-matter is still on the rampage, natural laws are on the fritz, the Green Lantern Corps has been taken off the board, and those last few pages show the universes of Earths-One and -Two disintegrating. It was, and remains, a well-executed, well-sold cliffhanger — even just one-third of the way into the story.

* * *

However, Crisis #4 is not without its flaws. First, readers more accustomed to Barbara Gordon as take-charge survivor may well find fault with her characterization here. The Batgirl of Crisis #4 huddles on a rooftop, completely defeated by the apocalyptic circumstances, while the more powerful heroes go out and save lives. Maybe that’s supposed to show how bad things have gotten, but it seems designed more to build up world’s finest colleague Supergirl. After the Maid of Might has rescued a pilot who wonders why she bothered, she tells him, “We fight to live as long as we can. That’s the only way to live … and to be able to live with yourself.” Later in the issue, Superman declares he’ll sacrifice himself to save “our world,” which is nothing new, but in context reinforces the same never-give-up attitude.

A different sort of not-giving-up is espoused by John Constantine in the very next sequence. Constantine knows everyone will be OK — in contrast to his drinking buddy Steve Dayton, ex-superhero and stepfather of Gar “Beast Boy/Changeling” Logan — because he can “sense” what’s happening. Speaking of odd-in-retrospect characterizations, although Constantine is smoking and drinking, he’s positively dapper compared to Dayton, who’s stubbly and bent on death by alcohol poisoning. Indeed, this scene serves two purposes: it adds to the issue’s set of “hope vs. fear” vignettes, and it directs readers to Swamp Thing, the series in which Constantine was still only a bit player. Ironically, the Swamp Thing comic wasn’t as involved in Crisis crossovers as books like Green Lantern or Firestorm, but Constantine’s presence here probably generated some interest.

Elsewhere in the issue, the “it’s hopeless/no it’s not” routine plays out in Japan, where the future Doctor Light berates her trembling colleagues; on Paradise Island, where Wonder Woman can’t convince her mother to lead the Amazons against the shadow-demons; and on the Monitor’s satellite, where its master tries to reassure a frantic Pariah, only to be struck down by his erstwhile apprentice. Considering all that’s going wrong, this motif gives the issue a reasonable thematic spine, although the “hopeless” payoff probably isn’t what readers were expecting.

Still, that sort of common characterization can get lost among all the more fantastic elements Crisis asks its readers to accept. For this issue, that includes clouds of antimatter swift and powerful enough to roll over the unprepared heroes of Earth-Six, but selective enough to roil in the background while the heroes of Earth-One chat. What Crisis apparently considers narratively important is that as the issue begins, the clouds have destroyed all but six universes, with Earth-Six on the clock and Earths-One and -Two up next. Never mind reconciling finite levels of carnage with an infinite set of boundless universes. The clouds’ omnipresent aspect — including being able to destroy the past without affecting the future — is by now a given, and either you’re on board or you’re not. Crisis isn’t interested in scientific accuracy unless it’s pointing out how crazy things have gotten, which in a cockeyed way may actually excuse those inaccuracies. Of course, this means Crisis is risking its credibility — such as it is — for the sake of spectacle.

Even the faceless enemy, who seems to have had a good bit of success with the antimatter clouds, still appears to be making up schemes on the side. Having already recruited the Psycho-Pirate, in issue #4 he scoops up Red Tornado for … well, it’s not quite clear here, and I’m not sure it’s ever adequately explained. (Along the same lines, Pariah rescues Lady Quark from Earth-Six, but when we see him next he’s on the Monitor’s satellite and she’s nowhere to be found. Certainly she could have complicated Harbinger’s plans.) The enemy does tell Psycho-Pirate that “soon [he] will have a new world to psychologically reshape,” which could be taken as a clue for next issue. For that matter, the enemy’s relationship to the Monitor — specifically, how each one seems to know just enough about the other’s plans — is kept just vague enough to encourage speculation about the Monitor’s true motives. The Monitor seems to be on the up-and-up, but Crisis apparently wants to keep readers guessing for the next couple of issues.

Indeed, at this point Crisis’ original audience could probably only have guessed at what might happen next. Absent today’s easy familiarity with reboots, revitalizations, relaunches, etc., the concepts Crisis threw around stretched the boundaries of what was possible in a main-line superhero comic. One could look only to Crisis’ summaries of multiversal mechanics, and judge the Monitor’s tuning-fork plans accordingly. The enemy’s “new world” comment could mean a restart for the worlds apparently destroyed, or it could just be the next universe on the chopping block.

For their part, the Crisis creative team just had to keep juggling all the ideas they’d introduced, and hope the whole thing didn’t fall apart before the end of Issue 12. Issue 4 had featured the ends of DC’s most prominent parallel worlds, and Issue 5 would have to start from there.

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

And here is the Futures Index for this week’s Issue 44.

  • Story pages: 20
  • Terrifitech pages: 2 1/3 (1 1/3 pages + 1 page)
  • Lois and/or Superman pages: 6 2/3 (3 2/3 + 3, including a 2-page spread)
  • Batman Beyond/Red Robin pages: 2
  • “Down goes Brainiac” pages: 5 (3 + 2)
  • “Superman lifts New York” pages: 4 (including a 2-page spread)
  • Number of meta moments: at least 2 (on page 3, Superman saves DC’s New York address and tells the civilians to “move”; and on page 6, Tim mentions Terry’s “future’s end”)
  • Shots taken at early tech adopters: at least 1 (page 7’s “first in line” guy)
  • Odds that the Atom and company really have saved the world: 50/50

NOTES: This was a fairly strong issue which neatly (and not unreasonably) combined the apparent defeat of Brainiac with the rise of Brother Eye. I appreciated its Superman heroics not just because they were traditional, but because they came at a dramatically-appropriate time. I’m even tempted to say they felt “earned,” but I still have some unresolved issues with FE’s overall pacing. To be sure, the creative teams have paced things pretty well lately, so we’ll see how it all shakes out.

Along those lines, with four issues to go I do wonder how — and even if — the Brother Eye subplot will be resolved. Remember, Brother Eye was in contact with Brainiac on the latter’s way to Earth, so it’s entirely possible that Brainiac’s defeat was either orchestrated by Brother Eye or some sort of Plan B. In that respect, it’s good that this issue includes Batman Beyond’s reminder that he might be able to stop Brother Eye. I’m just not sure Futures End can stick that particular landing. Heck, I’m not sure what that landing would look like. Is it a tension-filled single issue that hinges on whether a button is pushed? Is it a two- or three-issue arc involving the first of the Brother Eye-borgs? Given his role in Convergence, we know Brainiac is still around in some form, but is he this city-driving goliath or some other version? While I’m thinking about it, why does Brainiac have to have a dialogue with his own operating system? (And how does Superman manage to punch the Hypertime out of him, or whatever that was on pages 10-11?) Will Futures End simply stop, and leave its lingering subplots for Convergence? I hate to think that, but I don’t think it’s impossible.

Finally, the art contributed mightily to this issue’s success. As always, I was glad to see Andy MacDonald’s two pages; but Patrick Zircher did most of the heavy lifting (pun intended). Zircher’s focus was on a handful of characters — Batman, Terrific, the Atom, Lois, Superman, Brainiac — but everything from layouts to backgrounds really sold the overall spectacle. Pages 16-17 were a particular highlight, with the diagonally-oriented layouts emphasizing the action and the thick lines conveying the “weight” of Superman’s task. Again, though, at this point the question is how smoothly Futures End will resolve.

NEXT WEEK IN THE FUTURE: Amethyst! The Atom! Brother Eye! Someone stumbling out of a teleporter! And … red cape in the sunset!

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