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Grumpy Old Fan | ‘Crisis’ at 30, Part 2

by  in Comic News Comment
Grumpy Old Fan | ‘Crisis’ at 30, Part 2

Last month marked the 30th anniversary of the first issue of Crisis on Infinite Earths, the ur-Big Event whose ripples continue to influence today’s (and tomorrow’s) superhero books. Accordingly, I thought it was a good time to revisit each issue on its approximate anniversary. That’s not because each issue of COIE was always a landmark unto itself, but because we tend to remember Crisis’ effects more than the ways in which the story was told.

Thus, it’s time for Issue 2, which was published in the direct market during the first week of January 1985. The issue was written by Marv Wolfman, penciled by George Pérez, inked by Dick Giordano, colored by Tony Tollin and lettered by John Costanza. Wolfman is listed as the issue’s editor, with Bob Greenberger as his associate editor (and co-plotter, according to COIE: The Compendium) and Len Wein as consulting editor.

* * *

My first new impression of Crisis #2 was that it felt like it should have been Issue 1. The actual COIE #1 laid out the basic situation — antimatter clouds sent from an unseen enemy are destroying DC’s parallel universes — and brought together an eclectic group of super-people from various times and places to fight it. However, when compared to Issue 2, in hindsight the debut feels like a zero issue. If COIE were published today, its first issue might well be a freebie. That issue was about surveying the Multiverse and illustrating the threat. Issue 2 gets more into what folks might expect from a multiverse-changing DC comic, mostly because it checks in with Superman, Batman and the Joker, the Legion of Super-Heroes, the Guardians of the Universe, and the Flash (all of Earth-One, the main DC Earth). By contrast, the big star upon which issue #1 lavished the most attention was arguably Firestorm, with luminaries like Cyborg, Green Lantern and the Earth-Two Superman little more than faces in the crowd.

That said, Issue 2 begins with Anthro, a Cro-Magnon boy who had his own six-issue series in the very late 1960s. I suppose you could say that in a world of Neanderthals Anthro was ahead of his time. If you think Anthro’s too obscure — and I’m not saying he isn’t — remember that his series would have been around at about the same time the young Wolfman and Wein were concocting Donna Troy’s origin story for the original run of Teen Titans. Besides, a series addressing all the nooks and crannies of DC history could hardly ignore a caveman character. He’s there to illustrate the sweep of DC’s timeline, just like the cover blurb (“From Anthro to the Legion”) proclaims.

Anyway, three pages of early-Cenozoic slapstick culminate in Anthro having a vision of a gleaming futuristic city and finding that the mammoths he’d been chasing have disappeared. Turns out they’ve been sent to 30th-century Metropolis, where they’re caught briefly by a handful of Legionnaires. The mammoths disappear again, presumably back to their prehistoric home, and now the Legionnaires are confused.

Much closer to home, the scene shifts to the mansion of a murdered Gotham City tycoon, where a typical Batman/Joker showdown is interrupted by the sudden appearance of what’s left of the Flash. He’s glowing with radiation and looks almost skeletal. This actually freaks out the Joker, which is a nice touch; and the sight of a fellow Justice Leaguer literally crumbling to dust even leaves Batman rather shaken. His wide-eyed “Dear God — what is happening?” takes us into the credits, at the bottom of Page 8.

Therefore, it’s about a third of the way through the issue before we rejoin issue #1’s crew aboard the Monitor’s satellite. The resulting four pages recap the basic setup (including Harbinger’s thoughts about her corruption) and lay out this group’s general task. In teams of three, they’ll go to five different eras (hotbeds of “heroic ideals,” according to their host) to defend the giant cosmic tuning forks which are key to the Monitor’s plan for saving all of creation.

The back half of issue #2 moves more quickly. One page checks in with the Guardians, attacked by the unseen enemy just as they’re preparing to marshal the entire Green Lantern Corps. Another page has Pariah appear briefly to Superman and Batman on Earth-One. (After musing to himself that Batman sounded scared, Superman offhandedly mentions a freak Mediterranean volcano. Foreshadowing!) Then it’s back to the main plot, as Superman of Earth-Two, Solovar and Dawnstar head to the post-apocalyptic Great Disaster to man its turning fork and, incidentally, meet Kamandi, Jack Kirby’s “Last Boy On Earth.” (Thus, COIE #2 goes from the “first boy” to the “last boy” in the space of 15 pages, and also established a motif that Final Crisis later borrowed.) As Kamandi lives in a world of intelligent (and often malevolent) animals, Solovar’s a pleasant surprise. Not everything is good, however: When the group’s attacked by shadow-demons, Dawnstar observes that they each have the same silhouette as the Monitor, and Superman notes that the teams “haven’t been told everything.”

After a one-page interlude of Harbinger noticing that Earth-Three’s Alex Luthor is growing like a cosmically-important weed, it’s off to ancient Earth-One Atlantis. Since this is Arion’s not-yet-sunken home, he’s the tour guide for his Earth-Two associates, Obsidian and the Psycho-Pirate. Naturally Pariah shows up, pulled here from his interrupted meeting on Earth-One, so you know something bad’s about to happen. In fact, it would be the second bad thing, since Psycho-Pirate has decided to play with the locals’ emotions. Obsidian’s shadow-form covers Arion, blocking the psycho-manipulation; but before Psycho-Pirate can do any more, he’s beamed away by the still-unseen enemy. Psycho-Pirate finds himself in a pitch-black room with a wide viewscreen at one end, and when he mouths off at his unseen captor, he’s punished with the (temporary) loss of his own face.

This is apparently a bigger deal for the Monitor than the reader might have thought, since he mentions that “the menace … is one of emotion.” I suppose emotion is a necessary byproduct of night-black demonic hordes and implacable white waves of destructive nothingness, but then again I’m not keeping track of a billion billion different parallel universes. Regardless, the Monitor’s got to shift his focus, because he can’t find the Teen Titans’ Raven (who’d just been transformed into “Raven the White” after the Titans’ most recent Trigon battle) — so he announces he’s creating a new Doctor Light.

Back to Atlantis, Pariah explains he’s doing penance for causing this whole mess, and his presence there means nothing good. Sure enough, the white cloud of death appears in the clear blue sky. Pariah says this Earth — Earth-One, remember, 40,000 years ago — only has “hours” left, despite Arion’s and Obsidian’s protests that the Monitor’s tuning fork was supposed to prevent this.

The issue ends with one of Harbinger’s selves in the enemy’s unlit control room, ready to be directed toward some dark purpose. The final page is a rather subdued cliffhanger, as this Harbinger travels from the enemy’s lair to the Monitor’s satellite with the voices of the two foes battling for attention in her mind.

* * *

Like the first issue, Issue 2 is built around vignettes, each of which explores how the big cosmic events intrude on our heroes’ more mundane adventures. Anthro’s mammoths vanish into the future, where they complicate the Legion’s regular work (made more difficult by Dawnstar’s absence). The Flash’s fate interrupts Batman’s pursuit of the Joker. Kamandi’s dealing with some personal issues — not really explained or even footnoted — when he comes across the Monitor’s tuning fork. This allows the various scenes to share a certain rhythm, as Wolfman and Pérez spend a page or so introducing the new environment, and maybe another half-page setting up its particular problem, before bringing in the Crisis-specific problem. There’s not as much of this in Issue 2’s Great Disaster and Atlantis scenes, because the tuning forks literally dominate the landscape; but the basic flow of those vignettes isn’t much different. The structure also gives Pérez room to add some layout flourishes, as with a closeup on the Flash’s eyeball reflecting the Joker; or Arion’s magic bolts framing inset panels of Psycho-Pirate’s targets.

Indeed, in terms of Crisis-style storytelling, the Batman/Joker/Flash sequence (spanning about three pages) may be the issue’s most intricate. After two panels of Brainiac 5 at the top of Page 6 close out the Legion/mammoths sequence, a matched set of short, wide panels — each showing Earth-One in different time periods — provides the transition from the 30th Century to the present. The space below the “future” panel is blank, and only partly filled by a narrative caption. The space below the “present” panel is a nighttime shot of a suburban Gotham mansion. Naturally, this draws the reader’s eye toward the “present,” but it also reinforces the break from the Legion subplot.

The middle of Page 6 contains a set of three panels, each different dimensions but about the same size. Panel 1 looks up at the Joker from about the angle of his latest victim. They’re in the dead man’s house, and the Joker stands triumphant over him. Panel 2 is a closeup, as the Clown Prince of Crime continues monologuing. Panel 3 shows the villain from a third angle, namely Batman’s from outside the window. The bottom tier of the page is a single panel of Batman bursting through the window, with the Joker (his back to us) in the foreground. So far, nothing too unusual, even with the earlier Earth-to-Earth transition.

However, Pérez really starts playing around on Page 7. It seems to be laid out along a standard nine-panel grid, but the borders of Panel 2 (i.e., the middle panel of the top tier) really extend to the edges of the page, as demonstrated by the reach of Batman’s bat-shadow. Panel 1 is Batman punching the Joker. Panel 2 switches the angle, showing Batman standing over the villain. Panel 3 reverses that angle, as the Joker sprays a goopy glue on the Darknight Detective. Panel 4 goes back to panel 2’s perspective, with the Joker standing over a glopped-up Batman. That’s brought us to the middle of the page, where Pérez uses two half-high panels to show both Batman and Joker’s reaction to the Flash, who comes into view in panel 6. These have all been rather tall, thin panels, so by the time we get to the bottom tier there’s not much room left. Panel 7 is a short, wide closeup of Batman’s midsection as he searches his utility belt. The next few panels are even smaller, starting with a head-on closeup of the genuinely-scared Joker pointing his pistol at the dying Flash, and then a set of three tiny panels that zoom in on the Flash’s bloodshot, unblinking eyeball. These heighten the tension between Joker and Flash by establishing that the spectral speedster isn’t going anywhere.

The tension breaks at the top of Page 8, as a page-wide panel shows a suddenly-more-resolute Joker firing his pistol. The second tier of panels includes one of the Joker being hit by a Batarang, one of Batman advancing on his foe, a reverse-angle shot of Batman and the Flash (with the Joker nowhere to be seen, despite his location in the previous panel), and a panel showing the Joker escaping. Again, these are all about the same size, although they have different dimensions. The next tier is a set of four matching panels, each showing the same two-shot of Batman reacting to the Flash as the latter crumbles away. The final two panels span most of the rest of the page — one wide, black panel of Batman’s eyes, and a wide transitory panel of the Monitor’s satellite in orbit.

Now, I’ve read a lot of Batman comics, and I’ve read a lot of George Pérez comics, and while there aren’t a lot of Batman comics drawn by Pérez, I don’t think any of them read exactly like this sequence. To me, Pérez’s layouts show how Crisis’ intrusion warps even the storytelling of a fairly standard Bat-venture. I’m not going to say that there’s never been room for experimental storytelling in the main Bat-books — I imagine Bat-artists of the ‘70s like Michael Golden and Marshall Rogers could have produced something like the extreme eyeball closeup — but for the more conservative mid-‘80s, this was pretty radical.

* * *

While Pérez’s layouts won’t get much simpler, before too long COIE’s more practical needs will squeeze out this sort of structure. Although the first issue opens with the Big Bang and goes right into destroying two parallel Earths, Crisis’ first two issues are generally more relaxed than their successors. Indeed, the miniseries as a whole can be grouped into six two-issue pairs:

 

  • Issues 1-2 introduce the main players and the threat, and describe the Monitor’s plan;
  • Issues 3-4 have the anti-matter reach the main Earths, as the evil Harbinger finally acts;
  • Issues 5-6 deal with fallout from the Monitor’s plans and Psycho-Pirate’s manipulations;
  • Issues 7-8 feature direct attacks on the enemy, with fatal results;
  • Issues 9-10 show the “Villain War” and the heroes’ trip to the dawn of time; and
  • Issues 11-12 take place in the re-formed cosmos.

To me this is a curious coincidence. As far as I know — i.e., nothing in the Crisis on Infinite Earths Compendium that accompanied the Absolute Edition contradicts this — Crisis was always conceived as at least a 10-issue storyline (with two issues of “History of the DC Universe” to wrap things up), and not a series of six double-sized issues.

Indeed, the six sets of pairs may also make Crisis feel like it bounces from plot to plot. Once the antimatter walls go away at the end of Ussue 4, the overall environment stabilizes (relatively speaking) and the series loses a little focus over the next few issues. It’s not that nothing happens, but the energy and direction built up over the first four issues isn’t channeled into anything as exciting — at least, not for a while.

* * *

With all that in mind, I think Crisis #2 shows the series starting to work at odds with itself. The 15-member team from issue #1 gets about half the issue (plus a bit more if you count the pages with Harbinger, the Monitor, and/or Alex Luthor), but bringing in more recognizable characters threatens to distract from the incumbent plot threads even as it demonstrates the story’s scope. Granted, Crisis’ creative team was trying to do something almost entirely new, on a massive scale, and without tipping its hand too early. In that respect, issue #2 is more like the last chance to gather one’s strength before the race begins in earnest. If it takes two issues to get a decent-sized group to the starting line, maybe that’s because there are still ten issues (two of them double-sized) to go.

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

And here is the Futures Index for this week’s Issue 37.

  • Story pages: 20
  • JL Dark pages: 5
  • Firestorm/Dr. Polaris pages: 5
  • Las Vegas pages: 4
  • Mr. Terrific pages: 1
  • Constantine/Superman pages: 1
  • Tim Drake/Batman Beyond pages: 3
  • Number of characters whose “deaths” don’t take: 2 (Constantine, Fifty Sue)
  • Number of Constantine personae: 2 (an astral one with the JLD, the real one in Smallville)
  • Number of Constantine accents: 2

NOTES: Since the past few issues have been spent on a lot of the same subplots — Frankenstein’s injuries, the new Firestorm, Fifty Sue and the safe, Terry and Plastique — I have to think that they’ll be important to the conclusion. Frankenstein’s story is probably the most chilling, because in the nightmare-future we see that he’s grafted Black Canary’s head into his torso.

However, none of the rest of them seem to have much to do with fighting off Brainiac. Constantine and Superman know Brainiac is coming, as do the members of Stormwatch and SHADE. Brother Eye is still active, both as Mr. Terrific’s AI buddy and as Bat-Joker’s boss. Still, each of these threads seems off in its own little corner of the book, waiting for the flip of a narrative switch. Obviously Brother Eye will co-opt the big Terrifitech rollout, but other resolutions are either less obvious or deliberately vague. What’s so important in the safe? Why should we care about Firestorm (or Doctor Polaris)? How will Frankenstein’s humanity make a difference? We’ll find out when the time is right, and not a panel before.

Speaking of timing, it’s hard to figure out the sequence of certain events over the past few issues. Specifically, the Wounded Duck was closed down and boarded up while Tim was helping Ronnie save Madison from Dr. Yamazake (and afterwards, as Tim mourned Ronnie and Madison). We learn this issue that Terry was behind the closing-down, etc., and I suppose he had enough time to do that and fight Batman and Bat-Joker and start sleeping with Plastique on the rooftop — while Batman and Bat-Joker cooled their heels, mind you — but I really didn’t get the sense that, for the past little while, those two threads were connected behind the scenes. This very issue has two separate one-page check-ins, servicing subplots about which we might have forgotten, so it could have made such a connection earlier.

At any rate, there are two more issues to go in January, and nine more issues remaining after that. Maybe the creative team will use the rest of this month to lay the groundwork for a big finish, but I don’t know how hopeful I should be.

NEXT WEEK IN THE FUTURE: Castle Frankenstein! Pointy teeth! Firestorm wakes up! And, dare I hope … Pryemaul!

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