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Grumpy Old Fan | ‘Crisis’ at 30, Part 5

by  in Comic News Comment
Grumpy Old Fan | ‘Crisis’ at 30, Part 5

This month’s look back at DC Comics’ signature Big Event comes at a very appropriate juncture. The first four issues of Crisis on Infinite Earths culminated in the destruction of Earths-One and -Two, which (for the most part) represented DC’s Silver and Golden Ages. Issue 5 — which appeared in the Direct Market during the first week of April, 1985 — began to combine the various parallel universes, although as we’ll see the process wasn’t exactly smooth. In fact, one might say it informs the basic setting of DC’s current multiversal event, Convergence. That’s probably not an accident, and we’ll look at those similarities in due time.

Besides that, though, Crisis issue 5 is noteworthy for a few reasons. First, it marks the arrival of inker Jerry Ordway, whose distinct finishes complemented George Pérez’s pencils quite nicely and gave Crisis a unique look. Second, it kicked off a set of plot threads that would run through most of the rest of the “maxi-series,” including the mechanics of multiversal melding, the identity of the mysterious villain, and the team of Superman and Superman. Finally, it shifted the focus decisively from a handful of characters and settings to the embryonic “DC Universe” itself. Starting this issue, the featured players changed from issue to issue, producing the superhero crowds for which Crisis became (in)famous.

Crisis on Infinite Earths #5 was written and edited by Marv Wolfman, penciled by Pérez, inked by Ordway, colored by Tony Tollin, and lettered by John Costanza. Bob Greenberger was the associate editor and Len Wein was the consulting editor.

* * *

Issue 4 ended with the silent aftermath of multiversal armageddon. Not surprisingly, Issue 5 opens with some humblebragging from our still-mysterious villain. He’s destroyed “the first two prime universes,” and the Monitor is dead, but the villain hasn’t absorbed any of his victims’ energies. Where’s the kaboom?

When Psycho-Pirate mouths off about not getting any worlds to control, the reply is a) shush, because “you can be replaced”; and b) the captive Red Tornado is also going to help, somehow, probably. There are three universes left — which, if we’re only talking about “prime” universes, both explains how the threats could have been whittled down so quickly, and circumvents the idea of an infinite Multiverse — so there’s still plenty of villainous work to be done.

Cut to the Monitor’s satellite, where Pariah sees that Harbinger has been replaced by Lyla, her non- (or lesser-) powered alter ego. Their grief is interrupted by the Monitor’s exposition-rich “if you’re seeing this, guess what” video. Essentially, the Monitor knew that Harbinger would kill him, so he wired those massive vibrational forks to activate at the moment of his death. The forks were powered by his body’s energy, itself released by Harbinger’s blast. His body then became a “netherverse,” housing the universes of Earths-One and -Two. Talk about using all of the buffalo. However, within the netherverse, time has gone wonky, and the two universes are slowly merging. Fortunately, Alex Luthor of Earth-Three arrives, now grown into a 20-something and full of Monitor-knowledge about how to save everyone.

The mystery villain (who’s apparently been eavesdropping on Lyla, Alex, and Pariah) gets a half-page to comment on the Monitor’s posthumous plans and summon the Earth-One Flash, kidnapped back in issue #3. After that, page 6 is a collage of activity on the former Earths-One and -Two. Framed by narration from WGBS-TV reporter Lana Lang — who in the Bronze Age had become Clark Kent’s co-anchor — it’s a collection of deliberate anachronisms. Aircraft of various eras swoop around a giant dinosaur camped out in a city park; Pilgrims gawk at blimps; and familiar DC folk appear in inset panels. Here’s the Earth-One Batman and the Earth-Two Robin and Huntress; there’s Sinestro, Nuklon, and Sgt. Rock.

That sets up the issue’s piéce de résistance, the famous double-page spread showcasing dozens of Earth-One and -Two characters all gathered in the Monitor’s vast main hall. More about this particular vista later, but for now it’s sufficient to note that we’re up to page 8 and not much has happened beyond some basic scene-setting. After a few more pages aboard the satellite, a series of vignettes finishes up the issue: a page on Oa with some Green Lanterns; a half-page with the two main Supermen and the Earth-One Lois; a couple of panels with Rip Hunter and crew; and a jokey sequence of Anthro-the-caveman wandering out of the Batcave. A group of “fire and ice” heroes fights a dinosaur, the Justice Society finds Red Tornado, and the heroes start getting more formally organized.

The last big sequence finally reveals the mystery villain’s identity, which after thirty years is no surprise to us: the (Anti-)Monitor, a twisted, cybernetic echo of his dead “brother.” It’s staged for maximum shock value, and I’m sure that’s supposed to be heightened by his similarity to the “good” Monitor; but since the latter wasn’t exactly well-defined to begin with, it doesn’t land that well. Admittedly, an Anti-Monitor would theoretically be pretty powerful, since the good Monitor could power all those tuning forks across two parallel timelines with his remaining life-force, and could turn his corpse into a nigh-infinite netherverse. Still, we’ve seen just from this issue that Anti-M isn’t omniscient, and needs (or has a need to) recruit super-powered minions, so he’s not omnipotent either. In any event, Anti-M has a nifty evil-twin design, and now I can stop calling him “mystery villain.” As the issue ends, Anti-M attacks the Monitor’s satellite, and we check in with the antimatter-plagued Earth-X.

* * *

As mentioned above, this issue expands Crisis’ cast even beyond what we’ve already seen. In the space of a page-turn, Harbinger, Alex, and Pariah (whom I’m tempted to call “HAP”) have beamed a few dozen super-people onto the Monitor’s satellite. The group includes most of the characters the Monitor assembled in issue #1, like Cyborg, the Earth-Two Superman, Dawnstar, and Green Lantern John Stewart. However, when HAP tell the super-crowd that yadda yadda yadda, worlds will die, Firebrand says Harbinger “lied,” presumably about the tuning forks’ effectiveness, because “look at what happened.” This is a little like saying “my life jacket didn’t work because I still got wet,” but it facilitates what passes for the issue’s central conflict. On the other hand, Superman — who spent most of issues 3 and 4 investigating the New York tuning fork and saving people from antimatter clouds — says “it’s obvious there’s something wrong happening,” and Wonder Woman (in costume after spending issue #4 praying on Paradise Island) chimes in that she also “stands ready.”

That’s the basic rhythm of this sequence: exposition punctuated by character-flavored interruptions and/or affirmations. The whole thing takes six pages (the double-pager plus four more), so Pérez livens things up with various “faces in the crowd”-type panels. Everyone’s jumbled up — there’s Blackhawk next to Metamorpho and some Legionnaires — but Pérez keeps all their positions consistent. It’s that attention to detail which keeps Crisis from descending into pure spectacle. For one thing, it’s well-organized spectacle. More importantly, though, it shows how Pérez’s choices influence the narrative. I’m not sure at what point Crisis developed into a “Marvel-style” collaboration, but when your story uses eclectic groups of superheroes as a selling point, it’s pretty easy to have the artist just start drafting the characters, and then script over that.

Anyway, amidst all the interjecting, HAP outline the story so far: Anti-Monitor wants to destroy all positive-matter universes, which are all separated by vibratory frequencies and need to be merged together in order to survive. Alex tells his guests to go back home and see the carnage for themselves, but they need to decide quickly whether they’re going to help or not. The Earth-Two Superman responds with “let the doubters decide [but] if we can save the worlds that remain — we will!” This to me is an odd dynamic to revisit. I understood it back in the first couple of issues, because no one really had any reason to trust the Monitor. Maybe they still don’t — their worlds are trapped in a netherverse and everything’s all sideways — but I think HAP’s burden of persuasion is lower now. After all, the antimatter is gone and most of them are still alive.

Nevertheless, it leads to about seven pages’ worth of jumbled-timestream vignettes. These demonstrate how screwed-up things have gotten — Peter Parker even shows up on Page 14, because why not? — and in the context of the story they have the cumulative effect of convincing all of Earth-One and -Two’s super-folks to get behind HAP. Generally, though, they’re marking time, using a variation on the early issues’ scenes of introduction.

Take the Red Star sequence, which runs from the bottom third of Page 16 through the end of Page 17. An eclectic-but-thematic group (Sun Boy, Polar Boy, Firestorm, Killer Frost, Starfire, and Firebrand) travels to the Soviet Union and finds its lone super-person (Red Star, f/k/a Starfire) battling a dinosaur. Starfire and Red Star are buds, so she offers to help. He says no, and knocks out the dino with a massive boulder. Starfire says “we have to work together if we’re to save any of us.” Red Star apologizes, mentioning how the politicians could learn something, and then asks “why did you come here?” Starfire says they need his help against “whatever it is that’s out there,” and Red Star replies “then you know my answer, Titan. We fight together!”

Again, that’s a page-and-a-third devoted to introducing one fairly minor character, who a) says he doesn’t need any help with the dino, b) actually doesn’t need any help with the dino, and c) says sure, he’ll help save the universe when Starfire asks specifically about that. As a plot point it’s redundant, if not unnecessarily complex; but it’s the kind of thing Crisis will do pretty regularly from here on out.

The next big sequence takes three pages, or four if you count the page of mostly-black panels where Anti-Monitor “remakes” the Red Tornado. Pages 19, 20 and 21 involve Reddy’s reappearance as, not surprisingly, a tremendously powerful storm, stopped only by the combined efforts of Zatanna, Johnny Thunder’s Thunderbolt, Sargon the Sorcerer and Doctor Fate. Wildcat, Power Girl and the Earth-Two Flash are involved too, while Mon-El and Johnny Quick literally fly around in the background of several panels doing nothing productive. It’s basically two pages of heroes vs. storm, during which Wildcat’s legs are broken and Reddy ends up comatose. And not to get off on a rant about Mon-El, but the character who scans Wildcat with his super-vision and delivers the bad news is Ultra Boy, thereby making everyone’s favorite Daxamite just that much more superfluous.

To be sure, Issue 5 has a couple of clever bits. Because Earths-One and -Two are slowly merging together, they can see each other as spectral images. Wolfman demonstrates by having David and Phyllis Gerrold, of Earth-Two’s Chicago, see the “ghost” of their late daughter; but it’s just her Earth-One counterpart. I suppose it’s not unlike Uhura seeing the “ghost” of Kirk in the “Tholian Web” episode — which, by the way, wouldn’t be the only Star Trek shout-out in this issue. (Besides David Gerrold being a Trek writer, there’s an alien from Ceti Alpha 6. Also, Dawnstar was scouting the “Mutara sector” back in Issue 1.) It brings the cosmic events down to a more personal level. Of course, these few panels are followed by Supergirl and some Legionnaires seeing the Earth-One Legion Clubhouse from Earth-Two. Timber Wolf identifies Kole, a fairly new addition to the Teen Titans, and Air Wave (who?) mentions “some I’ve never seen!” Well, I remember Air Wave from his debut in Green Lantern #100, and I’ve gotta say, he hasn’t had a lot of opportunities to see or be seen. The latter sequence doesn’t add much to the one with the Gerrolds, except to call out some names.

(And just as I notice the attention Pérez paid to his crowds, there’s Mon-El on Earth-Two, a page before he flies around with a different group fighting Red Tornado back on Earth-One. Not that he couldn’t have gotten from here to there, because it doesn’t seem to be a problem, but still.)

Other fun moments include Earth-One’s Lois Lane confused about which Superman just saved her from a saber-toothed tiger; and the Earth-One Flash taunting the Anti-Monitor into showing himself. The similarities between “old” and “young” Supes come with a good balance of humor (and probably some implicit acknowledgment of Superdickery); and for what little the Flash has gotten to do so far, his defiance goes a long way in keeping him interesting.

* * *

To sum up, Issue 5 allows Crisis not quite a restart, but a re-framing. It shows entire super-populations coming together (because how could they not?) to face “whatever it is” head-on. It also demonstrates how Wolfman and Pérez seek to combine exposition and character-appropriate dialogue with plot-advancing scenes. With Wildcat’s incapacitation and the Red Tornado’s conversion, Crisis emphasizes that its changes are starting to hit members of the Justice League and Justice Society. Next month would bring the last three Earths into the mix, and after that, Crisis would really step on the gas.

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

And here is this week’s installment of Converbiage.

WHAT I BOUGHT: Convergence #1, plus the first issues of The Atom, Batgirl, Batman and Robin, Justice League, Nightwing and Oracle, The Question, Speed Force, Superman and Titans (i.e., everything but Harley Quinn)

WHAT I LIKED BEST: Atom, Nightwing and Oracle, The Question

NOTES: Convergence #1 does three things: it destroys the Gotham City of Injustice, reintroduces a handful of Earth 2 characters (including Yolanda Montez, whose original Earth-Two version was featured in Crisis #5), and explains the miniseries’ premise. Considering that last week’s Convergence #0 used its 30 pages to explain the miniseries’ premise, the back half of the issue feels very perfunctory, especially since it incorporates the familiar double-page spread of Telos and the multiversal honeycomb.

However, unlike the zero issue, Convergence #1 focuses on characters who will actually be participating in the miniseries. Writers Jeff King and Scott Lobdell, and artists Carlo Pagulayan and Jason Paz, do pretty well by the Earth-2lings, although occasionally the panel layouts aren’t quite in sync with the dialogue. Characterization isn’t too deep at this point, and technobabble about the Earth-2 versions of “the Green” and “the Red” boils down basically to disturbances in the Force and/or being mostly powerless. Nevertheless, as far as these characters are concerned, it works for a first issue. It also sets out a couple of Earth-2-specific subplots: Dick Grayson seems destined to become the next Batman, and the Earth-2 folks need to have their world restored. Presumably (since it’s not spelled out in this issue) that means siding with Telos against the rest of the domed cities, with a new Earth-2 as the prize. There’s also the implication of “first they fight, then they team up.” (Remember, Crisis taught us that we have to come together to save what’s left of our multiversal homes.) These are all reasonable, albeit mundane, story elements.

Less successful is the restatement of the premise, which is heavy on exposition and light on style. Its most anvillicious moment comes when Telos works the titles of Big DC Events into his monologue. Never mind that Convergence is built entirely around revisiting those periods. Such callouts just reinforce the complexities of DC history, which are barriers to some readers and enticing labyrinths to others. Either way, it comes across as unnecessarily cute.

As for this week’s crop of Part Ones, I thought Nightwing and Oracle and The Question did the best job of melding characters and setting. N&O got into the mechanics of Telos’ world, with Brainiac-drones attending the malevolent Hawks as they dispatched the Justice Riders. Gail Simone’s script N&O was very sharp all around, even drawing on some ‘80s continuity for its depiction of Nightwing; and Jan Duursema did a great job bringing it to life. N&O was a lot more intense than I expected, but it was very effective.

Greg Rucka and Cully Hamner returned to The Question without missing a beat. This story is rooted pretty deeply in Reneé Montoya continuity, but the text pages are a big help in that respect. Rucka’s story boils down to the relationship between Montoya and Two-Face, and Hamner’s art is appropriately moody and evocative. Huntress has never looked better, and the final-page reveal only makes me more eager for Part 2.

Tom Peyer and Steve Yeowell’s take on The Atom is equal parts goofy and disturbing, as Ray Palmer becomes a self-proclaimed celebrity in a Gotham City that doesn’t really want him. Subplots about avenging his colleague’s death, making friends with a local mom, and investigating his odd new power soon give way to old-school Atom action, as he’s teleported away to fight an aquatic villain. It all makes the issue feel overstuffed, but in a good way. Peyer’s script is nimble and heavy at all the right times, and Yeowell’s work is clean and naturalistic enough to accommodate the goofy elements.

For the most part I enjoyed the other issues. There’s some continuity among them — the Justice Riders battle the Hawks in both Speed Force and N&O, for example; and Telos’ speech interrupts each issue at some point — but they don’t feel interchangeable. Books like Superman and Batgirl are fairly reminiscent of their upbeat inspirations, while Speed Force can’t quite reconcile its initial melancholia with its light-hearted guest star. Batman and Robin and Justice League struggled with characterization, and Titans set up a good cliffhanger but took a rather on-the-nose route to get there. Overall, I thought only Justice League was a real clunker, and I’m curious to see how Week 2 is structured.

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