Grumpy Old Fan | 'Crisis' at 30, Part 9

When discussing Crisis on Infinite Earths #3, I noted the story’s “seams were starting to show.” A few months later, I thought Issue 6 was more concerned with “marketing.” Now, with Issue 9 -- which appeared in comics shops 30 years ago, during the first week of August 1985 -- not only has the miniseries burst its original boundaries, but the crossovers have become more pervasive.

Although the bulk of the issue involves the Villain War (as last issue’s cliffhanger language called it), it starts off by setting up crossovers with Green Lantern, New Teen Titans and Firestorm. It also features some clunky dialogue and name-checking cameos, which by now are as much a part of Crisis as the red skies were.

Still, even if Issue 9 is something of a rough-and-tumble indulgence amid the ongoing struggle to save all creation, it has its moments. Scenes of tragedy and triumph are executed fairly well, characters exit and enter the stage effectively, and the issue is propulsive enough to energize an otherwise weak cliffhanger.

First, credits: Crisis on Infinite Earths #9 was written and edited by Marv Wolfman, co-plotted and pencilled by George Pérez, inked by Jerry Ordway, colored by Anthony Tollin, and lettered by John Costanza. Bob Greenberger was the associate editor, and Len Wein was the consulting editor.

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Originally, writer Marv Wolfman planned for Crisis on Infinite Earths to have 10 issues of story, with the final two issues as “The History of the (revised) DC Universe.” However, as he  told interviewer Mark Waid in 1986, the narrative structure changed

specifically and totally because of the crossovers. There were no crossovers planned when we created the series, because nothing like this had ever been done. Before [Crisis] came out, there had been talk among the other writers, some of whom felt that we were going to make money off their characters. So I came up with the concept of doing the crossovers as a way for them to make money with Crisis as well. It’s a mercenary thing, and one of the many compromises that had to be made on the book, and the thing that hurt me the most, schedule-wise. If I hadn’t done it, the rest of the book would have been -- well, not a snap, but the job I had expected it to be.

(Amazing Heroes #91, March 15, 1986, Page 55)

Let’s get this out of the way first: When Wolfman says “nothing like Crisis had ever been done,” in a very real sense he’s right. Although Marvel’s crossover-friendly Secret Wars had come out the year before, Wolfman and DC had been planning Crisis since 1982. As cited in the Compendium that's part of the Absolute COIE set, a Dick Giordano “Meanwhile ...” editorial appearing in comics cover-dated February 1983 claimed the first issue would be published that spring. By early 1984, a subsequent “Meanwhile ...” explained that Crisis had been pushed back to take advantage of DC’s 50th anniversary in 1985. According to Giordano (and as reprinted in the Compendium, Page 4), the festivities “will include as many as 20 special issues of regular titles, a 50th anniversary logo which will identify those specials, 12 handbooks of Who’s Who in the DC Universe, and the previously announced [Crisis] maxiseries.” Secret Wars had kicked off the month before, so it was probably no accident that Giordano emphasized the easily identifiable “20 special issues.” Who’s Who also expanded from 12 issues to 26, but that could be blamed at least partially on its encyclopedic scope. As Wolfman admits, the crossovers spread the wealth.

* * *

Indeed, the issue opens with a two-page sequence on Oa, where a certain Baltimore schoolteacher with a chip on his shoulder has a long-delayed appointment with a Green Lantern power ring. We’ll get to the reintroduction of Guy Gardner shortly -- it’s actually one of two reintroductions this issue that will have long-term implications for the post-Crisis DC Universe -- but I do want to mention the two other crossover setups. As both involve Teen Titans, I suppose that’s Marv taking an active role in the crossovers.

In fact, for someone who didn’t want to deal with crossovers in Crisis, the crossover with the Wolfman-written New Teen Titans involves a subplot that has nothing to do with the miniseries. That subplot started more than a year earlier, in August 1984's NTT Vol. 2 #1, and it involved Starfire being summoned back to Tamaran for an arranged marriage. In Crisis #9, the Tamaranian ship finally arrives to fetch her. Nightwing and Jericho go along, because Nightwing is her true love and Jericho is going to be the voice of sanity amid all the drama. It’s all part of a larger NTT arc breaking the team down and building it back up, over the course of about 18 months. (To be fair, if most readers were like me, they probably didn’t realize they’d have to wait until early 1987 for the final resolutions.)  I know this was a chance for Titans fans to get one more page of their heroes penciled by the departed George Pérez, but that merely called more attention to the fact that this had little to do with Crisis.

More pertinent are the three pages following, which check in with the other Titans and remind readers that ordinary folks still have to deal with five parallel universes mashed together. Said mashup takes the form of a “Warp Zone” in the middle of New York City, where time has gone wild and beings from different eras get together for picnics and Frisbee. Yadda yadda yadda, Wonder Girl’s husband is missing in the Warp Zone. She “guesses” he’s OK -- why wouldn’t he be? He teaches classical studies at a community college -- but she’s still thinking about going in after him. Lucky for her, Cyborg has gotten her “special clearance” to enter the Zone (apparently superheroes are still subject to paperwork when time anomalies are involved) so she and Firehawk set off for Fury of Firestorm #42.

As tangential as the Titans crossover is, it and the Firestorm crossover still demonstrate how blasé the superheroes have become about the supposed “end” of the Crisis. Assorted DC journalists (including Lois Lane, Jack “Creeper” Ryder, Green Lantern’s Tawny Young and Titans’ Bethany Snow) interview assorted DC scientists (Rip Hunter, Will Magnus, Jenet Klyburn, Darwin Jones) about what they’re learning from the time anomaly, and crowds gather outside the Warp Zone, but other than that everything’s getting back to normal. It’s almost as if people are getting used to the idea that their world is now just a patchwork of different realities, but who could really accept a thing like that?

We’ll table that question for now, because it’s time to get back to the Green Lanterns. In the Crisis context, the Guy Gardner sequence is both significant and frustrating. It’s frustrating because this is the last time we’ll see the Guardians or any of their agents taking an active role in the story. Therefore, as far as Crisis itself is concerned, the GLC/Guardians subplot involved an attack from the Anti-Monitor which crippled the Corps briefly and caused a schism in the Guardians, resulting in Guy’s appointment as the first of a more “proactive” Corps. However, readers of Green Lantern #194-200 -- recently reprinted in Green Lantern: Sector 2814 Vol. 3 -- get the whole story, which integrates all these disparate Crisis snippets into its own continuity-heavy epic. (Speaking of continuity: After GL artist Joe Staton designed Guy’s rugged new uniform, Ordway ended up drawing it in this issue, over Pérez’s pencils of a traditional Lantern jumpsuit.) Those GL issues also explain the Corps’ role in the Anti-Monitor’s defeat, which of course Crisis itself omits. For the most part I do think Crisis can be read on its own without digressing into the crossovers, but I’m tempted to make an exception for Green Lantern.

* * *

That brings us back to the meat of Issue 9: the villains’ collective effort to subjugate Earths-Four, -S and -X. Presumably this is where the heroes’ indifference pays off, because we learn that those three Earths are relatively low on super-people after the featured players from Earths-One and -Two left. Earth-Four has the ex-Charlton characters (Blue Beetle, Captain Atom, Nightshade, the Question, Judomaster, Peter Cannon, etc.), Earth-S has the Marvel Family and a handful of others, and Earth-X has the Freedom Fighters. Meanwhile, aboard Brainiac’s starship, the Coluan tyrant and Earth-One’s Lex Luthor have assembled an army of bad guys ranging from the Joker to Starro, and including behemoths like Chemo and Validus. A one-page sequence shows the aftermath of their three-front assault, which leaves behind a decapitated Statue of Liberty (looming over Blue Beetle’s wrecked Bug) and a half-destroyed United Nations.

At the Earth-One UN, Harbinger, Alex Luthor and Pariah are explaining next steps for the five remaining universes -- as everything’s ostensibly manageable now, despite the diplomats’ concerns -- when Pariah disappears and a giant hologram of Brainiac’s head appears before the General Assembly. Brainiac and Luthor explain that if Earths-One and -Two don’t surrender to them, they’ll destroy the three conquered Earths, which will end up destroying the remaining two. (Note that they’re just talking about destroying the planets, not the actual universes. Luthor says there are “thousands” of other planets to rule.) With Clark Kent and Jack Ryder both covering the story, we get a couple of costume-change moments before the various super-teams congregate. Luthor wants an answer within 15 minutes or everything goes boom, but that little ultimatum is forgotten practically by the end of the page.

On Earth-Two, the Justice Society can’t break through the barrier between it and Earth-Four, but they can communicate with Superman on Earth-One. Why, then, didn’t anyone know that the villains were taking over the other Earths? Were no JLA/JSA-style lines of communication set up? Were the villains just that sneaky? Probably a bit of both, but it’s still a decent-sized plot hole. Regardless, it leads to original Flash Jay Garrick recruiting the now-retired Kid Flash, Wally West, so they can rebuild Barry Allen’s Cosmic Treadmill on a massive scale.

(Going along with the issue’s other Titans-related sequences, Wally’s retirement is also rooted in a NTT subplot from late 1983, wherein his super-speed had started to kill him. Of course, this issue wouldn’t be the end of Wally, either in Crisis or elsewhere.)

The main heroes from Earths-One and -Two gather in Earth-One’s New York City, where Wally and Jay have constructed a Treadmill big enough to handle dozens of super-people. If you’re wondering how the Earth-Two folks got from there to Earth-One, and still need a Cosmic Treadmill to get to the conquered Earths, Crisis doesn’t explain it. For that matter, the Brainiac/Luthor plan pretty much depends on a) not blowing up the various Earths because b) the villains intend to lure the heroes to the conquered Earths and kill them there in a series of super-skirmishes. Otherwise, once the heroes arrived, why not just blow up the Earths and be done with it? For the rest of the issue, Brainiac and Luthor quote the ever-changing odds of their success, because their real plan is to have everyone -- heroes and villains alike -- kill each other off so that the two of them can pick up the pieces. Thus, if you are inclined to be charitable, you can chalk Luthor’s “fifteen minutes” ultimatum up to posturing, which would be about right for him. You could even say that their barrier -- strongly implied to come from the villains, but never explained as such -- is almost a formality, designed to get the heroes to waste time and effort (and occupy a couple of Flashes along the way) before reaching the three Earths.

Nevertheless, the point of the issue seems to be that the heroes got complacent, the villains acted on it, and now the villains are daring the heroes to come and get them. That could have been set forth much more directly, but I’m OK with it as it is. Pérez, Ordway and Tollin set up the situation well, with some chilling scenes on the other Earths and at the Earth-One UN, and once things get going they’re very efficient about conveying the scope of the heroes’ task. The Teen Titans and Doom Patrol head to Earth-Four, the Justice League and Metal Men go to Earth-S, and the Justice Society, Infinity Inc. and Outsiders tackle Earth-X.

Earth-Four’s New York has been devastated, with a monstrous Chemo spewing toxic waste into the harbor. This results in one of the issue’s prominent deaths, when Aquagirl (yet another Titan, who’d just appeared with boyfriend Aqualad in a 1984 NTT two-parter) succumbs to an underwater cloud of the stuff. Cold-based villains including Killer Frost, Captain Cold and Icicle have turned Earth-S into a frozen wasteland, which is both a nice visual and a good shorthand for keeping track of the various locations. Similarly, plant-based villains including Floronic Man and Poison Ivy have overrun Earth-X with vegetation, so that the Joker can taunt the captive Freedom Fighters.

When the heroes show up, though, it seems like Brainiac’s been working off bad data. The battles cover a total of about five pages, and are told mostly in single-panel snapshots: Negative Woman incapacitates Lady Lunar, Speedy shoots Shaggy Man, Earth-Two Superman punches Captain Nazi, Earth-One Superman punches Starro, the new Wildcat kicks Cheshire, Eclipso zaps Wonder Woman, Sinestro traps Elongated Man, etc. Apart from Aquagirl’s death, the sight of some fallen Earth-Four heroes, and Doctor Phosphorus engulfing Hawkman in radioactive fire, this part of the issue doesn’t really go out of its way to highlight any particular character’s final fate. Steel (of the Detroit League, not John Henry Irons) gets teleported to parts unknown by Warp (of the Brotherhood of Evil), but there’s no footnote to tell readers they should follow Steel into Justice League of America #245.

Actually, one such “final fate” gets reversed this issue, as Psimon -- thought destroyed by a shadow-demon back in the Old West -- reappears, claiming that his mental powers allowed him to re-form his physical body. (Now there’s a philosophy essay waiting to be written ...) Psimon is important because he facilitates the issue’s cliffhanger, by getting the jump on Brainiac and blasting him into bits, and then turning his attention to Luthor. I guess we’re supposed to be invested in Luthor and Brainiac because they’re A-listers, but it’s kind of odd to build a cliffhanger around one villain threatening another.

One other element of this issue that has gotten a little lost in the discussion: The wave of mysterious red energy from the end of Issue 8 reappears. First it kills a handful of Guardians on Oa, leaving only a single Guardian to send Guy on his way. Next it’s in World War II with Easy Company, then over the conquered Earth-Four, and then in World War I with another DC war character, the biplane pilot Steve “Balloon Buster” Savage. Thus, except for present-day Earth-Four, it’s traveling back in time, hint-hint. The omniscient narrator observes that the “past [is] very much ready to be changed,” and the cliffhanger promises “the final fate of the Multiverse,” so careful readers could probably have predicted where Crisis was headed.

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The Villain War is the least Crisis-y part of the miniseries, even though it involves parallel worlds and the inevitable counterpart of all those heroes teaming up. Surely it’s not lost on anyone that Brainiac and Luthor are diabolical mirrors of the Monitor and Harbinger. Not only does Brainiac summon all those villains to his vast starship (pausing to disintegrate the redundant Earth-Two Luthor), but he’s apparently killed by a traitor, just as the Monitor was.

The other thing that jumped out at me this issue was the amount of Titans-related subplots. Starfire, Nightwing and Jericho go to Tamaran; Cyborg, Changeling and Kole -- remember Kole, who’s only been with the Titans for a few months? -- see Wonder Girl and Firehawk into the Warp Zone; Kid Flash gets recruited; and Aqualad watches Aquagirl die.

Still, eventually the Titans are folded into the larger Villain War, where they share the spotlight with the Doom Patrol, Justice League and Justice Society. For a long time one of my pet peeves with Crisis was its failure to reunite the original Justice League, but this issue comes closest, with Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Arrow, the Atom, Hawkman and Black Canary joining the Detroit group (which already included Aquaman, Martian Manhunter and Elongated Man) on Earth-S. Of course, the fight to liberate a parallel Earth is also strongly reminiscent of the JLA/JSA team-ups, and the mother of all Cosmic Treadmills is a nice bit of fan service. Other deep-dive cameos include a poster of Ambush Bug, the cast of Sugar & Spike, and the pinky ring George Reeves wore on Adventures of Superman.

Although I’ve tried to approach each issue on its own merits, and to some extent as a reader might have reacted thirty years ago, this time it seems like I’ve used more hindsight. It’s been a bit of a challenge to discuss this issue by itself, because it does get away from Crisis’ main plot (both with the crossovers and the Villain War) and it piles one disturbing image on top of another. Even with the aforementioned plot holes, though, the issue ends up allowing Wolfman and Pérez to indulge their inner fanboys, and pit mega-groups of Titans, Leaguers, etc., against armies of supervillains. Wolfman told Waid back in 1986 that this issue was his least favorite because it was created “specifically to have a one-issue story” about the villains’ defiance, and he thought the villains’ cooperation was a foregone conclusion in light of the stakes involved (AH #91, pages 53-54).

Moreover, Pérez’s storytelling in this issue doesn’t really call attention to itself. Instead, his choreography gets a workout across all those one-panel battles. It makes the issue an odd mix of extended character moments, compressed action scenes, and even character moments in the middle of the action (the Soviet defector Negative Woman encounters the Kremlin-sponsored Red Star; Kole and Tempest compare notes on the ex-Doom Patroller Changeling).

Despite all of this, I think this issue succeeds more often than it fails. Crisis itself is essentially a Justice League/Justice Society team-up taken to the nth degree, but this issue is an actual JLA/JSA team-up also involving most of the other major super-people. Since it’s likely to be the last such team-up for a while, I’m willing to forgive its shortcomings.

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