Grumpy Old Fan | ‘Crisis’ at 30, Part 3

The third issue of Crisis on Infinite Earths, which appeared in comics shops 30 years ago this week, or thereabouts, is probably the first to feel all “Crisis-y.” After two table-setting issues introducing the Multiverse to the characters and situations that would reshape it, Crisis #3 ramps up the carnage. From the New Teen Titans to the Haunted Tank, from the Legion of Super-Heroes to Jonah Hex, and otherwise across time and space, the issue is one giant disaster-movie trailer.

Now, I didn’t say the issue itself is a disaster, but some seams may be starting to show in the overall story. This 25-page installment was written and edited by Marv Wolfman, penciled by George Pérez, inked by Dick Giordano and Mike DeCarlo, colored by Tony Tollin, and lettered by John Costanza. Bob Greenberger was the associate editor and Len Wein was the consulting editor.

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Issue 3 is built around three significant sequences and a subplot. Arguably the most prominent sequence involves six pages starting on Page 4, as The Flash races through a stormy, futuristic Central City. Specifically, it’s the Central City of Earth-One’s 30th century, where Barry/Flash and a significant other have lived for the past month. By the way, all this was a big SPOILER for The Flash Vol. 1 #350, although that month’s Flash was Issue 346. Moreover, alert readers will remember that Batman watched an “image” (as he described it) of The Flash crumble into dust at the start of COIE #2. This means Something is definitely Up.

Anyway, The Flash has been battling super-strong storms, red skies and volcanoes in the middle of town, but at the bottom of Page 4 he sees our old friend the White Cloud of Death, and decides to time-travel back home for some help. The Flash vanishes into the time stream at the top of page 5, providing a nice transition into the Titans and Outsiders battling a skyscraper-destroying antimatter cloud. These clouds apparently move slow enough for people to get out of their way, but since there’s no stopping them, they’re still plenty scary. Pérez and Tollin have been depicting them simply but effectively, with white space (duh), a lack of color for objects entering the clouds, and occasionally, blue Kirby-Krackle-style color-hold dots.

A narrative caption on Page 5 notes that the Titans and Outsiders’ “powers are almost without limit,” but still “they won’t be enough.” This is a good example of Wolfman’s prose needing to convey the gravity of a moment, but crossing the thin purple line into exaggeration. To be sure, the Titans and Outsiders were two of DC’s most popular super-teams. The Titans (which Pérez had just left in order to concentrate solely on Crisis) were to ‘80s DC as Snyder and Capullo’s Batman is to the New 52, and the Outsiders were trying hard to replicate their colleagues’ success. However, looking at the two teams’ COIE lineups, one sees only a few powerhouses (Starfire, Wonder Girl, Halo), a couple of shape-shifters (Metamorpho, Changeling/Beast Boy), a few characters with useful powers who seem somewhat useless here (Jericho, Kole, Black Lightning), and a few highly skilled humans (Nightwing, Katana, Batman). Neither team was at full strength, with Cyborg and Geo-Force on assignment for the Monitor, along with Justice League-level characters like Green Lantern and Firestorm.

All that’s largely beside the point, though. This sequence serves much the same purpose as (and is superficially similar to) the Batman/Joker/Flash scene from Issue 2. It shows Crisis’ events escalating, our heroes responding -- mostly by saving civilians, plus Superman saving Wonder Girl -- and The Flash arriving with a dire announcement. Here, it’s Flash himself, only able to speak a few ominous sentences before disappearing in an uncomfortably extended fashion. It’s the last we’ll see of the Flash in this issue, so we don’t know if he’s been disintegrated or just beamed out. (And yes, most everybody with some passing awareness of Crisis knows Flash’s final fate, but people reading issue #3 back in February 1985 didn’t, so I’m trying to maintain some suspense.)

Following a one-page interlude of Brainiac in deep space, analyzing an antimatter cloud and deciding he needs to team up with Lex Luthor again, the next significant scene starts on Page 11 and goes through the top half of Page 18. Set in the DC-specific European nation of Markovia (Geo-Force’s homeland, but all you G-F fans knew that) during Earth-One’s World War II, it teams Doctor Polaris, Blue Beetle, and the aforementioned Markovian royal with a handful of war-comic stalwarts: the crew of the Haunted Tank, the squad called The Losers, and Sgt. Rock and his combat-happy Joes in Easy Company. Everyone’s concerned about the Monitor tuning fork: the Nazis want to find out what it is, the American forces want to stop the Nazis from co-opting it, and the super-people want to protect it from a pack of shadow demons. Meanwhile, as a bonus, Geo-Force and Doctor Polaris decide to alter a little history by blasting some goose-steppers. The whole thing takes place in a snowstorm, which makes everything that much more chaotic, and occasionally just a little illegible.

The point of the scene seems to be the deaths of the Losers, which Crisis treats as a big deal but which I didn’t really grasp at the time and still don’t quite get today. Besides lending their feature’s name to a Vertigo title-turned-movie -- which, obviously, happened long after Crisis -- the Losers seem to have had two lasting claims to fame: First, for a little while in the early ‘70s they were written and drawn by Jack Kirby; and second, they featured prominently in the first issue of DC: The New Frontier. In fact, when originally brought together in 1969's G.I. Combat #138, they were an all-star team. Each Loser -- flying ace Johnny Cloud, PT commander Captain Storm, and infantrymen Gunner and Sarge -- previously had his own feature in one or more of DC’s war comics of the early ‘60s. Thus, having them killed by shadow demons was probably along the lines of the Freedom Fighters’ being pummeled early in Infinite Crisis.

None of that really comes through in this Crisis sequence. Indeed, Captain Storm’s investigation of the tuning fork reminds the reader that nobody really knows what the thing will do, and what if he trips something he shouldn’t? Flower, a minor member of Easy Company who also dies in this sequence, gets a bit more characterization. Maybe Wolfman was relying on the reader’s prior knowledge of the characters to fill in the necessary pathos, but it comes across more as death for its own sake.

Reinforcing this reading is the fate of Blue Beetle, who -- in an apparent continuity error from the creative team -- learns that he can’t rely on his predecessor’s magic scarab to kill the shadow-demons. Overwhelmed and facing almost certain death, Beetle is teleported back to Earth-Four by the Monitor to “await [his] Earth’s fate.” The same thing happens to Solovar, wounded in issue #2 during his mission to the Great Disaster’s tuning fork. Thus ends Solovar’s involvement in Crisis, which ended up mainly serving Wolfman’s everyone-abandons-Kamandi subplot.

Issue 3's third major sequence is structurally similar to the second, as it involves a Monitor-sent team (Green Lantern, Cyborg and Psimon) in a non-super time period (the Old West of Earth-One) fighting shadow demons alongside the local heroes (Jonah Hex, Bat Lash, Johnny “No Relation” Thunder, Scalphunter and Nighthawk). Even with the mix-and-match aspects, this wasn’t entirely new for many participants, since Hex, Lash, and Scalphunter had already met GL Hal Jordan and a handful of other Leaguers in 1981-82's Justice League of America issues 198-99. Hex even reminds Lash of the meeting, albeit with an unfortunate bit of period-appropriate racism.

Yadda yadda yadda, more shadow-demon fighting, and GL is shocked when his power ring suddenly conks out. (Remember, the enemy zapped the Guardians of the Universe last issue.) As with the WWII segment, the deaths at the end of these four-and-a-quarter pages belong to the most expendable characters: Titans villain Psimon and the most obscure of the Western heroes, Nighthawk. (As we’ll see later, Psimon’s fate also comes with an asterisk, but I’m scoring it as a death here because of its ambiguity.) In the pre-Internet ‘80s, readers probably had to wait until well into 1986 to even read Nighthawk’s Who’s Who entry. Of course, Nighthawk would be retconned decades later into a stop along Hawkman’s reincarnation cycle; and Scalphunter would likewise become part of the history of Starman’s Opal City.

Otherwise, Issue 3's main subplot concerns Harbinger, the Monitor and the rapidly growing Alex Luthor (now a teenager). The Monitor can’t figure out how Alex got to have “positive and negative matter existing in one form,” but notes that he can be a “bridge” to the anti-matter universe. After observing all of this, Harbinger slips out to ... get some groceries? Maybe? Psych! She totally goes over to the enemy’s headquarters, where she’s snippy with Psycho-Pirate. The enemy -- still unnamed, still seen only in silhouette -- says he knows why Harbinger’s there: “Indeed, I know all as soon as the Monitor himself thinks it.” (Note: this is probably just bragging.) He tells Harbinger to “destroy” Alex, in addition to assassinating the Monitor. No hurry; the enemy tells Psycho-Pirate she’ll do these things “before long.”

All that takes up the issue’s first three pages. As for the rest of the issue, the Solovar scene takes a page-and-a-half, providing a transition between the WWII and Old West segments. Later, the Legion gets a page to try and evacuate 30th Century Metropolis and London, where -- in keeping with the “no obscure character gets out alive” theme -- the unfortunately-named Kid Psycho falls victim to the anti-matter cloud. Only the final page checks in with Harbinger and the Monitor, but half of it includes a page-high panel of Angry Harbinger declaring “it is time for you to die!”

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The overarching message of Issue 3 is one of futility. Harbinger’s “conflicted,” but she’s still got orders to kill the Monitor and Alex Luthor. Nobody -- not the Titans, the Legion or either version of Superman -- can stop the anti-matter clouds. The tuning forks aren’t doing anything, and two of the Monitor’s hand-picked champions have been sent to the showers. Little-known and seldom-seen characters are dying left and right. The Flash may be dead. The next-issue blurb promises “the end of the Multiverse.” Clearly it’s a good lead-in to Issue 4, but how is issue 3 on its own terms?

I think the issue works fine both as a continuation of the “tuning-fork” plot and an expansion of the Crisis’ effects across the scope of DC’s space-time continuum. Although it probably seems obvious to include Sgt. Rock and Jonah Hex in wartime and Western settings, here it’s not only appropriate, but welcome. Hex’s comments about meeting the Justice League remind the reader that DC’s done this sort of thing before, even if that was on a smaller scale.

Indeed, Crisis’ crossover component really takes center stage in this issue. Even the natural team-ups like Titans/Outsiders (with special guests Superman and Flash) seem more significant under Pérez’s pencil. It makes characterization quick and (hopefully) efficient -- there’s only so much you can do with the characters when you have to fit a dozen of them into five or six pages -- but this issue does a lot to ground DC’s various comics genres in a common setting. If issue 2 was about the Crisis intruding on the normal course of business, Issue 3 has the heroes start to fight back. On one level that means Pérez-drawn crowds, often running and shouting their way into a collective panic.

In a more practical sense, though, COIE #3 is what it is -- the end of the miniseries’ first quarter, and the expression of some sharply rising tension. Last time I noted that we could group Crisis’ twelve issues into six pairs and/or three four-part acts; but that’s with the benefit of hindsight. As far as 1985's readers knew, the main problem behind the Crisis was the mysterious enemy sending shadow-demons and anti-matter clouds. At the end of issue 3, the clouds look pretty successful, the enemy’s still a mystery, and there are nine issues to go. The question then becomes not just what happens to our heroes, but what more could Crisis do? Where do you go after the end of the world(s)? Readers were left hanging, until issue #4 arrived with the wrap-up of Crisis’ first act.


And here is the Futures Index for this week’s Issue 40.

  • Story pages: 20
  • Superman pages: 3 (pages 1 and 19-20)
  • Constantine pages: 2
  • Justice League pages: 11 (pages 4-9 and 12-16)
  • Batman/Tim/Plastique pages: 2
  • Lois Lane/Big Brainiac pages: 2
  • Number of comics I bought this week which featured Superman: 3 (this one, Superman #38, and Action Comics #39)
  • Number of those comics which featured a bearded Superman: 2
  • Movie from which Constantine’s killer boar seemed to have been plucked: Princess Mononoke
  • Fictional spacecraft of which the Justice League’s space station was reminiscent: the Discovery from 2001: A Space Odyssey
  • Odds of seeing Brainiac’s pet space-monkey Koko in some form at any point over the next eight issues: 50-1 against
  • Odds that any version of “Koko” will be fifty feet tall with an appetite for human flesh: 10-1 for

NOTES: I liked this issue because it did what I had hoped it would do.  In other words, it showed big apocalyptic events starting to happen. Although I broke up the issue into subplots for purposes of “running the numbers,” clearly it used various points of view to tell a single story. For those who have read John Byrne’s Fantastic Four, Brainiac separating the island of Manhattan from the rest of the world no doubt seems very familiar; but in the context of this story, it’s a development a long time in the making (and perhaps long overdue, but it’s a little early to make that judgment). Thankfully, since the world of Futures End still has a functioning Justice League, we readers get to see it respond to a very League-level threat.

Brainiac’s arrival also offers a chance to re-frame Futures End’s other subplots. The fighter pilot’s prosaic “the one who saved us all” is a hint that we’ll get more information on what Superman did in the earlier war; and elements like Fifty Sue’s safe and Frankenstein’s humanity can now be seen in light of how they might stop this latest invasion. Most importantly, though, this issue is a nice pep talk for Futures End’s grand finale. Even if everyone’s fates are predestined, at least they don’t seem to be trudging inevitably towards careers as murderous cyborgs.

That said, there were a couple of things in the issue which gave me pause. First, isn’t Five-Years-From-Now Wonder Woman the Goddess of Peace, as of the Superman/Wonder Woman: Futures End one-shot? And even if she’s just put on her old clothes, it’s still a little odd that we’re 40 issues into this miniseries before Wonder Woman has gotten anything meaningful to say or do. I understand Futures End has been focusing on more minor characters, but at the same time it probably could have done better at explaining why we hadn’t seen much of folks like Diana, the Flash, the Green Lanterns, Aquaman, etc. Bringing them in now is an appropriately big deal, but it reminds me that maybe we could have checked in with them earlier.

Also, did Brother Eye just slaughter a bunch of SHIELD agents? Because that’s sure what it looks like on page 11....

NEXT WEEK IN THE FUTURE: Mr. Terrific! Skull ship! Hanging Tim! Old foes facing off again! And ... LEAGUE -- IN -- SPAAAACE!


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