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Grumpy Old Fan | ‘Crisis’ at 30, Part 7

The cover of Crisis on Infinite Earths #7 (which hit comics shops in the first week of June 1985) screamed, “This is it! Double-sized SHOCKER!” However, the ending had been spoiled about two months before, when DC Comics revealed this was when Supergirl would die. (The April 10, 1985, edition of USA Today also revealed the fates of the Earth-Two Superman and Lois Lane, seven months early.)

Usually I try to be somewhat coy about Crisis’ plot twists, as if I were coming to it for the first time. With this, however, there’s little use. By now everyone and their super-cat knows Supergirl dies in Crisis, and it was pretty much the same 30 years ago.

Therefore, the question is how well does Crisis’ brain trust sell Supergirl’s death? It’s harder than you might think. Issue 7 is certainly one of the maxiseries’ best single installments (and that’s not a backhanded compliment); but the fact is that Supergirl not only dies to save Superman, she tells him how great he is with her last breaths. It doesn’t get much more meta than that.

Still, there’s more to Issue 7 than just a Pyrrhic victory. Pariah, Alex Luthor and Lyla tell campfire stories, the heroes do something productive, and inspiration is all around. After the credits, we’ll get down to business: Crisis on Infinite Earths #7 was written and edited by Marv Wolfman, penciled by George Pérez, inked by Jerry Ordway and Dick Giordano, colored by Tom Ziuko, and lettered by John Costanza. Bob Greenberger was the associate editor, and Len Wein was the consulting editor.

* * *

You’ll remember that Issue 6 ended with Lyla (now bereft of her Harbinger powers) and Alex stranded on an asteroid floating “above” the swirling spheres of slowly merging universes. This issue opens there, as Pariah teleports helpfully to them. The three then assemble representatives from the five remaining universes (plus Lady Quark, last survivor of the universe of Earth-Six), to-wit: the Supermen of Earths-One and -Two; Uncle Sam, representing Earth-X; Captain Marvel of Earth-S; and Blue Beetle of Earth-Four. After Blue Beetle gets a little sassy and Lady Quark anguishes about being her planet’s only survivor (which earns her a couple of Um Actually looks), they listen as Lyla tells the key origin stories.

First is the origin of the Multiverse itself, adapted from October 1965's Green Lantern #40 (written by John Broome and drawn by Gil Kane). Here’s the short version: Billions of years ago a scientist named Krona, of the super-advanced planet Oa, invented a time-viewer that would let him see the Big Bang, minus theme song. Ignoring his colleagues’ warnings about legends of universal destruction, he activated the viewer and saw a giant hand casting whole galaxies across the void. This got him in serious hot water, since it meant six million more weeks of winter.

According to the original version (and its retelling in May 1981's Tales of the Green Lantern Corps #1), Krona’s experiment “only” unleashed evil into the universe. However, Lyla reveals that Krona’s experiment affected the very fabric of space and time, creating the Antimatter Universe and the infinite positive-matter Multiverse. In the latter, everything was duplicated except Oa, because (as Lyla explains) its sister planet was Qward, in the Antimatter Universe. For his transgressions, the Oans reduced Krona to a harmless energy-form and sent him hurtling through the cosmos, but he resurfaced twice (in the aforementioned GL #40 and the Tales of the GL Corps miniseries). Each time, he was defeated by the Green Lantern Corps, the cosmic police force that the Oans -- now calling themselves the Guardians of the Universe -- created in response to Krona’s actions.

However, the repercussions continued from Krona’s experiment. On that day, on the “newly created” moons of Oa and Qward, the twin Monitors were born. The Anti-Monitor took control of Qward and created its army of Thunderers, with the “most evil” being promoted to shadow demons. Later, upon learning of each other, the two Monitors fought a million-year battle which ended in a draw, with both “immobile and unconscious.”

There they remained for nine billion years, until Pariah freed the Anti-Monitor with his own set of forbidden-knowledge experiments. Pariah picks up the story now, basically a more benign version of Krona’s; but it ends with Pariah destroying his entire universe, unleashing an antimatter wave, and being cursed with the powers to see it all without dying himself. Fortunately (as Lyla interjects), the Monitor also woke up, saw Pariah, and started working on a plan. He created a satellite, began cataloging super-people, and recruited a certain blonde herald; and the rest you know.

For her part, Lady Quark now wants to kill Pariah, because his folly destroyed her world; but Uncle Sam steps in folksily and reminds her that maybe they should all work together. Thus begins the planning for a direct attack on Anti-M’s citadel. Not counting Pariah, it’s another fifteen-person team (the same number as were assembled in Issue 1): the two Supermen, plus Lady Quark, Captain Atom, Captain Marvel, Wonder Woman of Earth-One, Green Lantern of Earth-Two, Jade, the Ray, Supergirl, Mon-El, Wildfire, Firestorm, Martian Manhunter and the new Doctor Light. The Spectre and the Phantom Stranger are excluded because “their magicks” wouldn’t work in the Antimatter Universe (... OK); and other heavy-hitters like Power Girl, Mary Marvel and Captain Marvel Jr. stay behind to protect the home front.

The mission to Anti-M’s citadel takes the better part of 23 pages, from page 18 through most of page 40, but there’s not much fat in it. In fact, the double-page spread on pages 22 and 23, wherein the heroes first see Anti-M’s eerie citadel, sets the tone effectively for the fights to come. The first few pages (18-21) build suspense by showing how different the Antimatter Universe is -- not in a Kirby- or Ditko-esque way, but in the realization that its building blocks are just wrong somehow, and unpredictably volatile besides. Distant stars shine with black cores; chunks of space-rock drift burning through the void; and everything seems made haphazardly. Against this backdrop Anti-M’s citadel looms, a sinister edifice straddling the line between artificial construction and natural formation, with odd buttresses and random claw-and-tooth-shaped protrusions.

Inside, Psycho-Pirate earns a backhand after telling Anti-M he’s still too weak from controlling three Earths to try and control the invaders. Meanwhile, Superman and Supergirl discover that some of their powers (like X-ray vision) don’t quite work the same in this universe. The same holds true for the other heroes. When Pariah leads the team into the citadel, its gargoyles come alive and attack them. Naturally, the heroes blast and bash the rock monsters apart as best they can; and Supergirl uses super-breath to blow the pieces away so they don’t re-form.

As the heroes forge deeper into the fortress, we learn their mission’s real objective: to destroy the Anti-Monitor’s machines which are bringing the five universes together. In terms of the overall plot, this is a bit of a problem. To this point (and indeed, as described earlier this issue), Anti-M’s power has increased as each universe was destroyed by antimatter. Notwithstanding the question of how the universes were saved physically if most of them had been so destroyed, that’s all well and good. Indeed, at the beginning of Issue 5 the Monitor himself posthumously explained that his haste to save Earths-One and -Two resulted in the universes slowly merging together.

My nitpick is that at some point, not only did Anti-M gain the power to attack the Monitor’s satellite directly (as he did at the end of Issue 5), but somehow he managed to build machines which would -- somewhat redundantly -- reach into the netherverse and affect the very vibratory frequencies of all five remaining universes, so that they’d slowly merge together and destroy each other. When did he do this? At the end of Issue 5 he mentions that he’s been “occupied elsewhere,” but are we to assume that’s what he was doing? This is more than just a matter of Because It’s Comics (or, more accurately, Because It’s Superhero Science). It strains a narrative that has already suspended a dangerous amount of disbelief.

With that in mind, we come to Page 32, where Doctor Light and Superman discover the Monitor’s main machine. “It’s a solar collector,” Light explains, “obviously converting starlight into energy. ... Superman, the Anti-Monitor uses this machine to reduce the vibrational differences between the Earths.”

“You’re certain about that?” the Man of Steel asks.

“I’m a scientist. Light is my specialty,” she responds.

Now, I am not a scientist, so when I read this with 30-years-later eyes, they rolled. As part of the electromagnetic spectrum, light has frequencies, but I didn’t think they were vibrational. For that matter, Crisis’ use of gigantic tuning forks would seem to associate universal vibrational frequencies with sound. Still (come to think of it), nobody ever seemed to talk about the otherworldly sounds the tuning forks made, besides Grant Morrison, 20-odd years later; and since sound doesn’t travel in a vacuum but light does, it would seem to make more sense for frequencies affecting each universe to be light-based, or at least electromagnetically based. Besides, the Flashes can travel between universes unaided, and we associate their powers more with light than with sound.

Therefore, to me Light’s statement is not an insurmountable stretch, but it’s pretty big; which is emblematic of Crisis generally. She’s saying basically that she understands the core function of a machine built in -- what? A day, maybe? -- by a being who’s billions of years old, because she can connect her specialty to an aspect of the cosmos which has only been explored seriously on her planet by a couple of super-speedsters and maybe some time-travelers.

Anyway, in the greater scheme of things it’s not that important, because now the Anti-Monitor literally steps out of the shadows to blast Superman in the back. Supergirl hears his cry of pain (super-hearing still works fine) and takes off in her cousin’s direction.

The Anti-Monitor’s attack on Superman offers a good opportunity to talk once more about George Pérez’s storytelling skills. In a fairly contemporaneous Amazing Heroes interview ( March 15, 1986's Issue 91), Wolfman emphasized that Pérez’s “work on the Supergirl issue, specifically, more than any other issue, really made the story work. The way he set up the scenes is just so great. When we worked out the whole thing, we didn’t go panel by panel -- he really did a lot of it and it was great. I knew how I wanted it, and George gave me what I wanted plus 1000 percent more.”

For example, Page 34 transitions between Anti-M finishing up with Superman and Supergirl speeding to the rescue. The two sequences are told on separate tracks, but the Superman panels run diagonally from upper left to lower right; while Supergirl’s progress runs underneath, from top to bottom. There are four Superman panels and five Supergirl panels, and their timelines meet in the final Superman panel (which, unlike its fellows, isn’t laid over the Supergirl panels, but shares gutters with them). It’s a nifty way to intercut between the two sequences, and it intensifies the action well.

The next page is much more traditional, although it begins with the old panel-lines-within-larger-panel trick, in order to show Supergirl’s speed and power. As in last issue’s Supergirl/Captain Marvel fight, Pérez knows how to convey the tremendous force behind a super-powered punch in such a way that makes it appropriately comic-booky. Here, though, that’s how the fight starts, and we see that it gets bloodier quickly. Take a look at the middle tier of panels on Page 35: Supergirl’s first punch knocked Anti-M off his feet, but her second (in the middle tier) knocks him down; and her body language really sells it. There’s nothing sexy about the perspective, it’s all athleticism. Indeed, Anti-M’s next blow reverses her position, and his follow-up blast keeps her off-balance.

Generally, two things about this fight jump out at me: Supergirl’s ferocity, and the extent to which it convinces Doctor Light that her worldview up to now has been misguided. The first is a function of character and plot logic. Supergirl is just as powerful as Superman, and just as motivated as he, but perhaps not quite as noble. Therefore, she’s in a better position to show what it’s like when a Kryptonian doesn’t hold back, and specifically to show what would happen if such a super-person went to town on Anti-M. The result, a near-victory affected by Supergirl’s hesitation, probably fit reader expectations about both combatants’ chances.

Doctor Light’s changing motivation is a little trickier to judge. Introduced as someone whose favorite expression is probably “Bah!”, she seems to get along fine with Superman (who, after all, was pretty cordial to her when they first met). Still, it’s Supergirl’s relentless pummeling of Anti-M which really convinces her to straighten up and fly right. “She is a hero -- totally selfless and concerned only with others,” Light muses, right after the Girl of Steel has told Anti-M he “[doesn’t] deserve to survive.” To be fair, Wolfman and Pérez are apparently trying to emphasize how dangerous it is for anyone, even a Kryptonian, to take on Anti-M by herself, but Supergirl seems to be holding her own. Moreover, Anti-M sounds pretty concerned, exclaiming “Stop it! You are destroying my life-shell!” (I prefer to read that in an “I’m telling my mom” tone.) I suppose the issue as a whole could be read with the theme of arrogance (Krona, Pariah) versus sacrifice (Supergirl), and perhaps with the implication that Doctor Light could have turned out like the former if not for the influence of the latter. That may give the creative team too much credit, though.

The final piece of Light’s change of heart comes when she tells Supergirl she’s staying to help fight Anti-M. After destroying Anti-M’s machines, Supergirl turns away from him to order Light to get out of there, and at that moment he blasts Supergirl one last time. It gives him the chance to flee, and on his way out the door he explains “My body is destroyed! I cannot remain here! I need time to heal!” Naturally, all the carnage has also taken its toll on Anti-M’s citadel, and it’s falling apart as well. When the Kryptonian cousins are reunited, she breathes her last: “Y-you’re crying ... please don’t. You taught me to be brave ... and I was ... I ... I love you so much for what you are. For how ... good you are....”

It’s worth repeating: Supergirl’s last words are about how great Superman is. True, Superman has just told her she’s stopped Anti-M’s latest plan single-handedly, but still. When Kirk told Spock “you saved the ship,” Spock raised him a “needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few,” plus “I have been and always shall be your friend -- live long and prosper” for good measure. Likewise, as they parted Obi-Wan told Luke the Force would be with him, always; and shot Vader a knowing grin just before giving up the blue ghost. Crisis had already given Supergirl two big scenes -- saving the plane in issue #4 and fighting Captain Marvel in issue #6 -- designed to show her nobility and power. It may be natural for one’s last words to a loved one to be complimentary of that person (certainly Spock calling Kirk his “friend” was a huge compliment, relatively speaking); but here it seems a bit too neat, and the metatextual aspect threatens to overwhelm the intended emotion.

After the Earth-Two Supes talks his grieving counterpart out of chasing down and killing Anti-M (who’s long since gone), the rest is wrap-up. Anti-M’s citadel blows apart, Batgirl gives the eulogy at Supergirl’s funeral, and Superman says goodbye at the Fortress of Solitude. Other than Superman’s memories of Kara arriving at age fifteen and learning to use her powers in secret, the messages are very platitudinal, but not overly so. They echo Wolfman’s other dialogue about heroism, optimism, and inspiration. In fact, again at the risk of giving him too much credit, this is an issue which ends in a significant death, but unlike earlier installments comes with notes of accomplishment and hope. For the first time, the super-folk themselves have dealt Anti-M a major setback. That gets the back half of COIE off to a powerful start.

* * *

DC had killed off major characters before. Heck, just over a year prior, Wolfman and Pérez had killed off Terra, introduced as the newest Teen Titan. She hadn’t been around for that long, but she had spent eighteen months endearing herself to teammates and readers alike, and her death was an emotional gut-punch.

Longstanding characters weren’t immune either. In 1979, the Flash creative team killed off Iris West Allen, an event which resonated right up to Flash’s involvement in Crisis. Neither was this a Bronze Age phenomenon: in 1964, Alfred Pennyworth sacrificed his life to save Batman and Robin (although he got better); and in 1969, the Doom Patrol sacrificed themselves to save the 14 residents of Codsville, Maine (even though likewise, Robotman was rebuilt for a mid-‘70s revival).

Nevertheless, killing Supergirl was different. She’d been a constant presence not just in the Superman books, but in the larger DC line since her 1959 introduction. She was Superman’s last living family member, and one of his most powerful connections to Krypton. Her death would ostensibly personify Crisis’ consequences in a way that inscrutable antimatter clouds could not. As reviewer R.A. Jones put it in the aforementioned Amazing Heroes #91, “Do you think USA Today would have covered the death of Kid Psycho?”

According to Crisis On Infinite Earths: The Compedium, a slim volume of memos and miscellany accompanying the Absolute Edition, Supergirl’s death was part of the first draft from the spring of 1984, but not really finalized until after the box-office numbers from the Supergirl movie had come out later that year. Her fate was sealed by President and Publisher Jenette Kahn, who had received a simple note from Executive Editor Dick Giordano:

Jenette --Biggie!

Can we kill Supergirl in Crisis. I must know soon.

[ ] Yes

[ ] No

[ ] Only if we have a new Supergirl soon

[ ] None of the above

Love,

Dick

Kahn checked the “yes” box, apparently after scratching out her check-mark next to “none of the above.”

Thus, despite all the morbid plans, DC was prepared to live with Supergirl post-Crisis. As described in TwoMorrows’ Krypton Companion, editor Julius Schwartz, writer Paul Kupperberg and penciler Eduardo Barreto had been working on Double Comics (or perhaps Double Action), a new series spotlighting her and Superboy in separate adventures.

Regardless, there was no going back. According to Wolfman’s New Teen Titans timeline, it had been about 12 years since Dick Grayson first put on the Robin costume. By that logic, the Kara who landed on Earth at age 15 would have died in her mid- to late 20s. (Meanwhile, Superman and Batman seem to have started out Establishment Old, like 30-ish, and merely gotten Establishment Older.) As later readers could attest, there’s a big difference in the stories one could tell at those ages.

Ultimately, I think issue 7 holds up well. Supergirl’s death ended up mattering quite a bit -- to the character, to DC’s image, and to its attitude towards those characters going forward.  It has inspired subsequent creative teams to do right by Kara, even if their efforts sometimes fell short.  Needless to say, though, Crisis was not done with high-profile death.

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