Comics Ate My Brain

November 5, 2015

‘Crisis’ at 30, Part 12

Filed under: crisis — Tom Bondurant @ 9:00 am


“Someday this war’s going to end,” laments Robert Duvall’s Col. Kilgore to conclude his memorable joyride through 1979’s Apocalypse Now. Similarly, as we come to the final issue of Crisis On Infinite Earths, I find myself longing (just a little) for more panels overstuffed with characters, more conversationally-expository dialogue, and even more stakes-raising plot twists.

Still, Crisis had to end sometime. Last issue introduced the singular timeline and its history. It was the first step into an era that continues to inform DC’s superhero comics. As such, issue #12 — which appeared in comics shops some thirty years ago, during the first week of November 1985 — is about cleaning up the miniseries’ last bits of clutter and getting the merged timeline ready for all its prospective readers. It’s 42 pages of wall-to-wall action, executed skillfully by the creative team.

Speaking of which, credits: Crisis On Infinite Earths issue 12 was co-plotted, scripted, and edited by Marv Wolfman, co-plotted and pencilled by George Pérez, inked by Jerry Ordway (who also pencilled one page), colored by Tom Ziuko, and lettered by John Costanza. Robert Greenberger was the associate editor and Len Wein was the consulting editor.

* * *

The issue follows a few basic tracks, including Earth invaded by shadow-demons and the final fight with the Anti-Monitor. However, it opens with the Forgotten Heroes, a group of (at the time) C- and D-listers: Animal Man, Adam Strange, Dolphin, Captain Comet, Rip Hunter, and the Atomic Knight. Last issue they came across Brainiac’s skull-ship, drifting listlessly through space; and this issue they see that Earth’s not where it should be. After Brainiac wakes up and is convinced that he needs to help save the universe (again), he realizes they need a more powerful ally — so naturally, he sets a course for Apokolips.

Meanwhile, the Earth and Moon are still in the Anti-Matter Universe, with Anti-M’s giant heavenly holo-head talking smack. He recounts his efforts to “enlarge” the AMU and “have it replace all other universes,” only to be stymied by the Earth’s superheroes. Now, though, it’s time for the Earth to die, just like Supergirl, the Flash, and “so many others” died. Various reaction shots show stoic heroes, except for Kid Flash, who’s all “the Flash [really] is dead?” Clearly this is the next step in Kid Flash’s own subplot, but since it comes at the end of Anti-M’s speech (and isn’t followed up for several pages) it’s a little jarring.

Anyway, as Harbinger summons various heroes and they start making plans, darkness covers the Earth. Super-senses allow the Earth-Two Superman to hear and see all of New York City descend into panic and chaos, and he gets a little rattled. As it turns out, the darkness is really the collective effect of millions of shadow demons, who (not two pages later) start swarming over the globe, picking off random civilians left and right.

It’s portrayed very effectively. Wolfman’s narration uses phrases like “this place of death,” but he dials back the melodrama just enough to emphasize the creepiness of it all. Pérez and Ordway’s storytelling, combined with Ziuko’s colors, create a somber, spooky mood. Even a scene involving the ultra-bright Doctor Light contrasts the darkness with harsh yellows; and when the darkness “shatters” into shadow-demons, they spread out against a sickly pink sky.

From here the issue starts switching among the three tracks. Two pages of shadow-demon fights (including a deliberately-vague roundup of the Global Guardians) are followed by two pages of heroes traveling to Qward to take on Anti-M. An Ordway-pencilled page brings together the Forgotten Heroes and Darkseid, and then it’s one page each of shadow demons and sorcerous rituals before plunging into an extended scene on Qward. In previous issues this sort of shifting might have come across as scattered, but since everything here is focused on one goal — either Anti-M wins, or the good guys do — it all helps propel the plot.

For binary characters, a nuanced page

For binary characters, a nuanced page

Nevertheless, there are different degrees of propulsion, as shown by pages 16 and 17. Page 16 involves Hawk and Dove trying to save lives amongst all the carnage, as narrated by TV reporters Lana Lang and Lois Lane. Pérez uses rounded inset panels for Lana and Lois, descending diagonally from left to right across the page. Dove’s baby-blue figure dominates the rest of the action, with his white-and-red-costumed brother looking on. A shadow-demon vaporizes Dove, and Hawk’s reaction panel combines with Lois’ and Lana’s reactions to frame the final shot of the aftermath. Lois calls Dove’s death “horrible” and Lana remarks “What’s happening makes objective reporting impossible.” Hawk and Dove were a couple of classic Silver Age characters (created by Steve Ditko following his split from Marvel), so they warranted this sort of treatment, but in the context of the issue — and especially with the passage of time — Dove’s death becomes more emblematic of the level of threat. In other words, the less you care about Don “Dove” Hall, the more you might have to justify the work that went into this page.

By contrast, page 17 finds a gaggle of magic-users gathered at Doctor Fate’s tower for some mysterious purpose. This is a much simpler page, leading the reader from Johnny Thunder’s spectating to the circle of sorcerors surrounding Doctor Occult (a Siegel/Shuster creation who’s one of DC’s oldest super-people) and the magic-based Earth-Two Green Lantern. Pérez sets the scene with three establishing panels across the top half of the page, and uses four insets and a medium shot to draw the reader’s eye to Dr. O and GL, who are concentrating mightily over their respective talismans and lit by emerald energy. The page basically tells the reader “these folks are doing something,” but the narration, Pérez’s layouts, and the pervasive coloring emphasize its significance.

The issue’s biggest sequence doesn’t invite that level of analysis, because it stands on its own quite well. Crisis #12 spends 17 of its 42 pages on Qward, as a squad of twenty super-people gets whittled down to just the Earth-Two Supes and the Earth-Prime Superboy finishing off the Anti-Monitor. There are some obvious parallels with issue #7’s storm-the-castle scenes. Many of the same people are involved (although issue #7 had only a fifteen-member force), Doctor Light plays a critical role, and the final blow comes from an enraged Kryptonian who isn’t the “main” Superman. However, this issue’s sequence is shorter by about 5 pages, and it takes care of some housekeeping business as well.

Don't bother me - I'm thinking

Don’t bother me – I’m thinking

First, it facilitates Wally West’s graduation. All Wally does on Qward is recover Barry’s costume and ring (Psycho-Pirate, now gone ‘round the bend, had been hoarding them). Later, during the battle, he gets too close to one of Anti-M’s energy blasts — but this turns out to be a blessing, because it cures his terminal condition and reduces his super-speed to a more narratively-manageable level.

Second, it sets up the Wonder Woman reboot. Another Anti-M blast sends Wondy and the Amazons back in time, erasing them from as much of DC’s now-revised history as George Pérez and company may deem necessary.

Finally, it sends the Earth-Two Supes and Lois to the proverbial farm in the country, where they can run and play as much as they want. (Twenty years later they’ll be back, but that’s another set of posts.)

This fight also folds in the issue’s other threads. The payoff for the sorcerors’ efforts is a literal poison pill, as first they scoop up the shadow-demons with a colossal GL-fueled net, and then poison them against Anti-M when he absorbs their energies. I really liked that plot element, minor as it was, because it represented one of the few plans that actually worked the way it was supposed to. As for Darkseid, he uses Alex Luthor as a conduit for (presumably) the Omega Effect, blasting Anti-M at an opportune time. One might also fanwank this twist into a bit of residual Omega energy going into the blast that sent Wonder Woman back through time. Goodness knows that needed a bit more explanation.

It almost goes without saying that the heroes are able to return the Earth and Moon to their proper universes, and that Anti-M is laid out rather definitively. The Qward sequence is paced well, in part because it’s broken up into smaller skirmishes: first the heroes turn Anti-M’s energies against him, then while he’s incapacitated they save the Earth. Most of the heroes leave after that, but Kal-L and Superboy stay behind, because there’s nothing for them on the new DC-Earth. When Anti-M wakes up Kal-L starts beating on him, then Darkseid zaps him, and finally Kal-L wallops him with a titanic “I have had enough!” This knocks Anti-M’s body into a star, which in turn creates a massive, all-obliterating shockwave that will wipe out Kal-L, Superboy, and Alex Luthor. However, Alex reveals a portal to a happy place where he’s already relocated the Earth-Two Lois, so there they all go.

Last gasp

Last gasp

As for who else ends up where and why, I don’t feel like going into particulars; except to note that of course all the redundant people meet rather clear ends. The Earth-Two Robin and Huntress die in battle, as well as assorted others including Kole (created for just this purpose, so the Teen Titans would feel a little pain), the Earth-Two Green Arrow, and onetime Superman girlfriend Lori Lemaris. The Earth-Two Wonder Woman and her hubby Steve Trevor get new homes on Olympus, and there are various tweaks to the timeline. This aspect of Crisis #12 seems self-justifying, like the issue would be diminished somewhat without a splash of tragedy.

As mentioned above, though, Crisis #12 ends on a relatively happy note, with Wally West donning his uncle’s costume and Psycho-Pirate — the only person sad about the Multiverse’s end — safely locked away. “Not the end — the beginning of the future,” proclaims Wolfman’s final caption. This is clearly a better choice than “the future [is] where we’re going to spend the rest of our lives,” a phrase made infamous by Plan 9 From Outer Space.

* * *

Of course, DC did spend much of the next quarter-century with this single-universe setup, using it as the foundation for a new approach to the shared universe’s history and characters. Some six months after Crisis #12, the new stories started in earnest with John Byrne and Dick Giordano’s Man of Steel #1. George Pérez and Greg Potter’s new Wonder Woman series debuted in November 1986, and was followed in early 1987 by Mike Baron and Jackson Guice’s Flash; Justice League by Keith Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis, and Kevin Maguire;Suicide Squad by John Ostrander and Luke McDonnell; Captain Atom by Cary Bates and Pat Broderick; and Len Wein and Paris Cullins’ Blue Beetle. Wolfman and Pérez reunited for the two-issue History of the DC Universe, a platitude-heavy coffee-table-style project which was basically an excuse to have Pérez and inker Karl Kesel strut their stuff.

Although Wolfman had designed Crisis to be forgotten by almost all of its participants, subsequent Big Events referred to it in one way or another. 1994’s Zero Hour (subtitled Crisis In Time!) sought to cure DC’s ensuing continuity hiccups. The discovery of Hypertime in 1998’s The Kingdom looked in on the Earth-Two Superman, trying to escape his otherdimensional retirement. 2005’s Infinite Crisis was a direct sequel, with an evil Alex Luthor and a marauding Superboy-Prime seeking to recreate the Multiverse. It was part of 2004-10’s “Crisis Cycle,” a set of yearly events which included the weekly 52 and Countdown, the return of Barry Allen in Final Crisis, and a fight against Death itself in Blackest Night. The Anti-Monitor came back in Green Lantern’s “Sinestro Corps War” (2007) and in the biweekly Brightest Day (2010-11), and can be seen currently in Justice League’s “Darkseid War.” Indeed, Convergence has apparently undone Crisis’ restructuring, but I’m not entirely sold on its effectiveness.

* * *

In the end, what do we think of Crisis On Infinite Earths? Regardless of whether you read it first in 1985 or 2015, to me it tracks the transition from multiverse to universe — and, indeed, the shift from DC looking back to DC looking forward — amazingly well. Not surprisingly, the point of no return is issue #10, as the shattering end of the Multiverse gives way to issue #11’s unified timeline. Until then, even a handful of parallel universes still offered a chance of the Multiverse surviving in some form. Afterwards, there was no going back, at least not for a couple of decades.

For a kid reading DC comics in the mid-‘70s, the Multiverse was just one of the publisher’s conceits. There were cross-Earth team-ups in books like Flash and Justice League, and each universe had its own quirks: the Green Lantern Corps and Legion of Super-Heroes were unique to Earth-One, the older heroes of Earth-Two could (and did) change over time, and Earths-S and -X played by their own rules. When Crisis came along, its main goal was to streamline all of that; but it also seemed to freshen up the DC line generally. Going into 1985, DC was chugging along much the same as it always had. However, in sweeping out the company’s cobwebs, Crisis made possible the fresh starts of 1986 and beyond.

Zero Hour’s soft relaunch in the summer of 1994, 2006’s “One Year Later,” the New 52’s 2011 reboot, and this past summer’s array of DC You titles all came with the promise of clean slates and new-reader friendliness. It might be unfair to judge them against Crisis’ comprehensive scope — although Crisis arguably gave readers more closure on the old status quo than, say, the New 52’s abrupt non-transition — but Crisis risked as much as any of them, if not more. There was backlash, especially after the relaunches started; and certainly DC has brought back much of what Crisis was supposed to retire. Heck, Barry Allen and Kara Zor-El are on TV every week; and the Multiverse has been back in some form or another since at least 2007.

Still, at the time Crisis was a huge deal, both for what it took away and what it incorporated. I think a big part of the miniseries’ success — and the success of what followed — was this affirmative belief that the superhero line just needed some reorganization. The post-Crisis world wasn’t that different: at its most basic level, Crisis simply added a bunch of characters to the history of Earth-One.

In that respect, what Crisis did very well (and almost subconsciously) was to show all those disparate characters working together. Of the fifteen super-people selected by the Monitor in issue #1, only Firestorm and the Earth-Two Superman are involved meaningfully in issue #12 — and only the Earth-Two Supes gets any sort of consistent spotlight throughout the miniseries. Sure, there are Crisis-specific characters like Pariah, Harbinger, and Alex, each with a nominal character arc; but the miniseries isn’t their story. Neither is it purely a process story, existing solely to illustrate how Multiverse becomes Universe.

Instead, I think Crisis uses a cast-by-committee approach to personify Wolfman’s notions of heroism and self-sacrifice. At various points, different characters — Supergirl, the Flash, the new Doctor Light, Kal-L — put themselves out there for the good of the community. For Supergirl, the metatextual implications were clear: she had to die in order to save Superman, both from the Anti-Monitor and from narrative stagnation. Indeed, much of Crisis sees the heroes reacting to events they can’t prevent, be they walls of antimatter, the Anti-Monitor’s defenses, or the Spectre/Anti-M fight. In those instances Wolfman emphasizes how they fight back (except when an heroic sacrifice is in order, I suppose).

This constant cycle of inevitability and resistance informs Crisis from start to finish, ending only when the timeline has been reordered and the dangers have finally passed. Having Crisis play out over the course of twelve monthly issues helped hide that pattern, which is probably more apparent in collected form. By the same token, though, just seeing everyone together, month in and month out, reinforces the end result of a more unified, cohesive superhero line. Ultimately Crisis convinces the reader of its conclusion’s rightness, even if that convincing isn’t very subtle.

Nevertheless, looking back on these twelve issues, I am still struck by how they chronicle DC’s collective attitude adjustment. Maybe it’s as simple as the change in inkers, from Dick Giordano’s thin, careful linework and Mike DeCarlo’s glossy blacks to Jerry Ordway’s fuller, more weighty embellishment. Maybe it’s the increasing involvement of the Justice Society, foreshadowing its post-Crisis role as the foundation of the shared universe. It could well be Kal-L’s story, from genial figurehead to last man standing, and then into limbo. I don’t pretend that Crisis itself is entirely cohesive, or even that it can stand alone outside of its publishing context. What is still fascinating to me is that it functions as both an historical document — showing the end of one version of DC and the birth of another — and as an epic superhero tale. It was worth the time to read it as it happened thirty years ago, and it was worth the time to revisit it now.

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