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Absolute Crisis on Infinite Earths (Review/Retrospective)

This January, I’m going to take a look at some of DC’s biggest “events.” This week I’ll be taking at the event that started it all, Marv Wolfman and George Pérez’s Crisis on Infinite Earths, reprinted in DC’s oversized and slipcased Absolute line.

It’s interesting to reflect on Crisis on Infinite Earths, more than a quarter of a century after the twelve-issue maxi-series was published. In the time since, it seems like the editorial purpose driving the event – the desire to “simplify” DC’s tangled and messed continuity into one single and unified history by abolishing the myriad of alternate continuities – has been somewhat undone with the return of the multiverse in 52 and Final Crisis, but this arguably allows Wolfman and Pérez’s epic to be considered on its own merit. Although the series might not be as important as it once was in explaining the sometimes bizarre way that all of DC’s published line fit together, I think you can still see a huge influence of this crossover in the stories that the authors at DC are telling, and how they approach them.

Holding out for some heroes...

To be entirely honest, I’m wary of the type of editorial mandate that drives stories like this. After all, I’ve always subscribed to the idea that the rigid continuity that companies like DC and Marvel seem to aspire towards can serve as a straitjacket on writers and artists. I believe that the goal of internal consistency should be a very distant second to the aim of telling a good story. In a way, Crisis on Infinite Earths codified the idea of using a story as a way of rationalising editorial changes to a line of comic books – in this case, DC wanted to simplify their shared continuity, so the story was written around that.

While I think Wolfman does a generally good job reconciling telling an entertaining story with meeting the editorial objectives set, there’s no denying that Crisis on Infinite Earths feels a little forced – if only because it’s impossible to explain all the changes that DC wanted to make in-story. Indeed, the last chapter of the book pretty much concedes that a lot of the changes will be dictated on the fly. “But what of the future?” Lyla asks at the end of the adventure. “Those divergent happenings that have not been explained? The full tale will be told another time, but some facts are known.”

His life flashes before his eyes...

Indeed, from an editorial perspective, Crisis on Infinite Earths created quite a mess. While the bigger characters carried on quite well, the event created a surreal continuity confusion around the character of Hawkman – one that was still toxic even a decade later. Due to the difficulties resolving who Hawkman was (human? alien? space cop? superhero? archeologist?), Grant Morrison was prevented from using the character during his celebrated Justice League run. Similarly, the Legion of Superheroes became quite the mess, requiring any number of relaunches, with Geoff Johns barely resolving the continuity knot in stories like Legion of 3 Worlds before Flashpoint relaunched the entire DC Universe again.

However, I think that the lasting impact of Crisis on Infinite Earths was the suggestion that editorial direction should be enforced by line-wide continuity-altering events. When Joe Quesada, for example, believed that there were too many mutants running around his fictional universe, he didn’t believe it was enough to instruct his writers to limit the use of them, or to stop creating more of them – he dictated that the massive crossover House of M be written to provide an in-universe explanation for why there were suddenly few mutants. Instead of returning the mutants to a status quothat Quesada seemed to aspire towards, it trapped the line in a depressing and nihilistic (and occasionally non-sensical) storyline that seemed to continue indefinitely.

Marvel-ous...

Similarly, when the same editor suggested that a married Spider-Man was too far from his idea of the character, he insisted on a continuity-altering rewrite to “simplify” the webcrawler’s continuity, resulting in the mess that was One More Day. I always found it ironic that apparently Spider-Man divorcing his wife would be too immoral for kids, but it’s okay to make a deal with the devil selling your marriage and the love of your life to the personification of Satan himself. I think that Crisis on Infinite Earths made those sorts of stories possible, across the industry – creating the illusion of a storytelling shortcut in a gigantic red reset button you could hit if you made “an event” of it, becoming the default way of dealing with any and all editorial concerns.

It is worth noting, at this juncture, that Crisis on Infinite Earths wasn’t really the first story of its kind. Apparently the Marvel offices had heard word of the plans at their competitor, and rushed out their own gigantic crossover maxi-series to compete. Secret Wars was really the first time that so many iconic and recognisable characters and continuities had tied together to tell one cohesive story, although it lacked the sophistication and sheer universe-altering scale of Marv Wolfman’s Crisis on Infinite Earths. It did, however, provide one absolutely crucial piece of information for the comic book industry, and demonstrated why these sorts of events are so popular. In a memo to fellow writers, Wolfman is clear to point out that Secret Wars offers a promising glimpse of the future. “Although Marvel’s Secret Wars is not at all similar to what we’re doing,” he stated, “we are all very familiar with the increased sales of all related books that tied in.”

Happily ever after?

Of course, Crisis on Infinite Earths also defined what audiences came to expect from gigantic DC crossovers. Wolfman and Pérez craft a saga with an incredibly epic scope (occasionally too epic at times), in which it isn’t the fate of the world that lies in the balance. In the opening scenes on Earth-3, Power Ring tries to grasp the nature of the threat. “It’s more than nature, Power Ring,” Ultra-Man insists. “It’s the entire universe.” We discover that it’s bigger than that, even. It’s every universe that ever existed, any universe that could exist, every single moment in time that is was, or ever could have been. The crossover set that scale, and it seems that this level on unfathomable peril has been the lofty goal of almost every major DC crossover published – with universe-wide threats forming the backbone of Infinite Crisis, Final Crisis and even Flashpoint.

It also seemed to set in stone the idea that these sorts of gigantic crossovers should have high-profile “casualties”, with the imagine of Superman cradling Supergirl’s body, and the Flash dissolving into nothing, ending up as almost iconic snapshots of Crisis on Infinite Earths. So Final Crisis would sacrifice Batman, Civil War would lead to The Death of Captain America, Fear Itself would see both Thor and Bucky die, Secret Invasion would kill the Wasp, Siege saw Loki’s noble self-sacrifice. Most of these would, of course, be reworked after the fact – indeed, Jeff Loeb would even reintroduce a new version of Supergirl in one of his Superman/Batmanarcs – but it seemed that for an event to make an impact, it required significant loss of life. Indeed, it was more surprising when an event elapsed with no major casualties.

Wiped out...

On a smaller scale, however, it was interesting to read Crisis on Infinite Earths after years of absorbing comics. More than the impact it had on codifying what the companies and fans expected of big events like this, one can also see the massive impact the book had on the current crop of writers at the company, and how deeply it influenced them. Indeed, Grant Morrison’s Final Crisis seems like more of a bookend to this gigantic event, revisiting many of the same characters and attempting to capture the same sort of scope – drawing in forgotten characters like Kamandi to the tangled web. Hell, even Morrison’s caveman tribe living on the site of Wayne Manor in The Return of Bruce Wayne seems prefigured here, with a single panel of a time-melded Earth revealing early man emerging from beneath the stately home.

More than that, though, one can sense a much greater influence on writer Geoff Johns. Of course, Wolfman appears to have had quite an influence on Johns. After all, both writers rose to prominence with their work on the next generation of DC’s superheroes. Wolfman made a name for himself behind The New Teen Titans, and Teen Titans was one of the titles that helped establish Johns. Even the inclusion of Cyborg in Johns’ Justice Leaguerun could be read as an affectionate homage to Wolfman, the creator of the character.

Challenging the Unknown...

Johns seems to have been riffed extensively on Crisis on Infinite Earths, even more than any of his contemporaries and more than just his work on the sequel Infinite Crisis. It was Johns who reintroduced the Anti-Monitor, described in Crisis on Infinite Earths: The Compendium as “DC’s biggest, baddest villain”, to the shared universe in Sinestro Corps War, and returned to him in both Blackest Night and Brightest Day. It’s hard not to see the use of Qwardians as slave labour under brutal (and murderous) masters in Sinestro Corps War as anything other than homage to Pérez and Wolfman’s work here.

Indeed, one can see a lot of Johns’ Green Lantern work deeply rooted in Crisis on Infinite Earths. Wolfman’s script anchors the multiverse to the actions of Krona, the Mad Guardian, and his script presents the Guardians as impotent in the face of this catastrophe. It’s a portrayal that Johns would borrow and greatly expand upon – suggesting that the little ancient blue aliens were responsible for much of the carnage and damage they attempted to resolve.

Gone in a Flash...

There’s a scene, about halfway through the event, that could easily have been lifted from one of Johns’ issues. After being rendered powerless by the Anti-Monitor, th Guardians bicker as the Green Lanterns are forced to make sense of the situation on their own terms. “Yeah,” Arisia observes as her fellow officers question the Guardians, “you had to know that was goin’ on. I mean, you Guardians know everything… Don’t you?”

That’s an interesting seed of doubt, and one that Tomar-Re elaborates on. “Arisia is right,” he suggests, “we should have been summoned long ago.”That’s a definite challenge to the authority of the Guardians, and one that suggests their high-ground is being slowly eroded. Later on, they’d give Guy Gardner his ring back – an event that has potentially disastrous consequences, mitigated at the last possible minute. It feels almost as if Johns has been building gradually off this moment, elaborating and exploring the weakness and culpability of the Guardians as suggested by Wolfman here.

Flash is on the Wayne...

Even the retroactive connection between Bruce Wayne and Barry Allen, that Johns would use to craft the core of Flashpoint, can be said to originate here. After all, this Crisis on Infinite Earths opens with Barry Allen appearing to warn Bruce about impending doom, while Johns’ Flashpoint closed the post-Crisis universe with a heartfelt conversation between the two characters in the Batcave. It’s easy to talk about the massive continuity-affecting impact of Crisis on Infinite Earths, but it arguably had a more profound impact on the writers who would grow up reading it.

But enough of the impact of Crisis on Infinite Earths and the countless ways this massive story-arc reverberates through to the DC universe even today. What of the event itself? What of the story that Wolfman and Pérez craft? How does it measure up? Does it still hold together today? After all, Crisis on Infinite Earths is largely notable for being the first comic book story to reach that sort of scale, but is that reputation earned? Is it a good read and is it entertaining apart from that?

The spectre of a larger threat looms...

Truth be told, Crisis on Infinite Earths itself is a bit of a mixed bag. Pérez’s art is absolutely breathtaking, and completely deserving of the format. The artist is the master of crowd scenes, cramming multitudes of iconic characters together in the midst of action, and never sacrificing any nuance or detail from his images. The same aspects of Pérez’s approach that made JLA/Avengers so perfectly suited to this massively oversized format are only multiplied here. Whatever plotting and pacing difficulties Wolfman may face, he’s never let down by Pérez’s artwork.

And Wolfman’s script is quite clever. I have to admit that I like a lot of the ideas that Wolfman proposes here about the sinister plan to destroy multiple universes – in particular the sharp meta-fictional aspect that creeps into the story. After all, the end of the universe is depicted as blank white space – literal “emptiness” on the page. Those characters caught in the white-out are first robbed of a background, then rendered as sketches, and then as… nothing. It’s a nice way of illustrating the fact that DC is using the miniseries to erase various complications and tangled aspects of their fifty-year-old continuity. It looks like the comic book is literally being unmade right in front of our eyes.

The power of the Darkseid...

There are other clever meta-fictional aspects as well. I quite like, for example, how Krona’s window back in time is portrayed as almost a comic book panel with a comic book panel. In hindsight, there are some touches that seem especially clever – given how the DC universe would change. There’s something almost touching about Solovor’s dying words. The gorilla is presented as the old and wise king departing, leaving the world to a new generation, hopeful for what the future might bring. “I– I saw the future, lad,” he says, “and for you there are so many changes awaiting… B-be good…” His final instruction feels particularly powerful in light of how much darker the DC universe would become in the years that followed, when it became a lot tougher for DC’s iconic heroes to simply “be good.”

It feels fitting that Wolfman uses Superman as the core of this story. After all, Superman is the very heart of DC. The only superhero who can really compete with the character’s iconography is Batman, but Wolfman places Bruce squarely on the sidelines of the event. In Kal-L (Superman of Earth-2), Superboy-Prime and our own Superman, Wolfman presents us with “Superman Past, Present & Future”in this epic storyline and – in the end – it comes down to the younger and the older versions of Superman to fight off the dreaded Anti-Monitor.

Into the void...

More than that, though, Wolfman suggests something of a full circle by opening the event with a replay of Superman’s iconic origin, as a desperate scientist on a dying world plans to save the life of his son by placing him in “a prototype, large enough for only one.” Of course, this is a long way from Superman, perhaps illustrating how far DC have come in the half-a-century since he first appeared. This is the son of Lex Luthor, Alexander Luthor of Earth-3. “We’ll die,” Lex proclaims, “but our son shall live.” Tying Luthor (even an alternate Luthor) to Superman like that is a powerful piece of symmetry, on that reminds me of the ending to Mark Millar’s Red Son, reportedly suggested by Morrison himself.

Wolfman’s conclusion feels like a fitting end to that version of the DC universe, which is quite an accomplishment. It’s difficult to express just how much he manages to cram in, pulling from all corners of the DC pantheon. He includes Kirby’s contributions to the shared universe with the Challengers of the Unknown, Arthuro, Kamandi, and even the New Gods. He ensures that the characters from Steve Ditko’s Charlton Comics universe survive the crisis, giving Blue Beetle a significant role in events. The war heroes and the Wild West characters all put in an appearance as well. Even figures as tangential as Sugar and Spike can be quickly glimpsed watching Clark Kent on the news.

Out of the Blue (Beetle)...

This epic scales allows Wolfman to create the impression of a reality collapsing in on itself. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a comic book story on this scale, even Morrison’s ambitious Final Crisis. “Rock, this war goin’ crazy or somethin’?” one soldier asks as super heroes emerge on the battlefield fighting shadow monsters. Later, Rock himself remarks, “Things like that don’t happen in war.” It perfectly captures the sense that there’s something fundamentally wrong with the tapestry of the DC Universe, and underscores just how grave the threat is.

This epic sense of scale does undermine the event itself, at least in some respects. Quite frankly, a lot of characters get lost in the shuffle, especially ones that should be important. Despite the loss of Supergirl, the death of the Flash is perhaps the biggest death of any character in this crossover, as he sacrifices himself to destroy the Anti-Monitor’s machine. Wolfman and Pérez both foreshadow this noble self-sacrifice heavily, so it doesn’t feel like a surprise – but it doesn’t feel organic either. Barry Allen had been positioned, after Cary Bates’ The Trial of the Flash, as an outcast and a failure. This big moment at the heart of Crisis on Infinite Earthsshould feel like a conclusion to that grand arc – proof that, despite the bumps along the way, Barry Allen is a hero through and through.

Running out time...

Unfortunately, there’s no sense of character in the book itself. Barry feels (at best) secondary for most of his appearances. Blue Beetle is treated as a more important character, with more characterisation, than Barry himself. The audience should be struck by Barry’s death, feeling it as the inevitably tragic conclusion to a character arc. Instead, it just seems like a plot point inside a huge cosmic event. This is a big issue for Barry Allen because of his importance to the plot, but it’s not the only place where characterisation gets lost in the shuffle of these gigantic world-altering events.

There’s no room for characterisation, and characters are mostly reduced to shallow verbal tics. Given the limited panel-time afforded to secondary characters, I can’t help but feel that the Blue Beetle refers to himself as “Mrs. Blue Beetle’s little boy”once too often. Even the new characters introduced during the event, the new Wildcat and the new Doctor Light, feel like little more than rough sketches instead of fully-formed characters. It is worth noting that both characters are female and of varying ethnicity, so that at least represents a step in the right direction.

Absolutely fabulous...

In an effort to create some sense of emotion amid these huge events, Wolfman’s writing feels a little too overly melodramatic. In the middle of the book, I found myself increasingly frustrated with dying proclamations of “love” and heavy-handed angst-ridden pseudo-characterisation. Indeed, even Dr. Light’s central character arc is handled somewhat clunkily, with her change covered in a single line. “While I have wasted my life with selfishness,” she declares in the middle of a heated battle. “No more, Supergirl — no more! Whatever happens here, you’ve shown me the truth.” That’s pretty much the sum total of her character growth, expressed in a single line, with excess melodrama thrown in.

In defence of Wolfman’s writing, it would be difficult to get too much characterisation in a story that large. And, to be frank, his writing is remarkably skilled. I don’t have an absurd degree of knowledge of second- or third-tier DC characters, so many of the villains and heroes appearing here might have slipped under my radar. Wolfman does an exemplary job making sure that the reader knows who each character is and – where applicable – what their motivations are. Arguably that’s more continuity management than creative writing, but a lot of modern writers could learn from Wolfman. It is hardly new reader friendly, but Crisis on Infinite Earthsis easy enough to follow for even the most casual fan of the vast DC universe.

Supergirl no more!

There are some fundamental plotting problems with Wolfman’s epic adventure as well. For most of its twelve-issues, the series progresses rather logically and sensibly for a massive superhero tale. Once or twice, however, the story takes a weird detour that throws the pacing off, with certain plot points only thrown in because they seem mandatory in comic book crossovers. For example, while the battle against the Anti-Monitor makes sense, the use of Psycho-Pirate to justify various heroes fighting one another feels like it’s just eating up space and inserting the type of superhero-against-superhero battles that one expects from these sorts of adventures.

Slightly more surreal is a weird intervention by Lex Luthor and Brainiac after the Anti-Monitor has been forced back for the first time. It amounts to an excuse for a large-scale superhero-against-supervillain battle, the kind of action the series had mostly avoided to that point (and would avoid afterwards). It almost feels like the reader is reading a tie-in book within the main twelve-issue series, even featuring the worst fake-out cliffhanger of the collection, with Psi-mon attacking Luthor and Brainiac. I suspect that these events were only really inserted because it’s cool to see Pérez illustrating these sorts of fights.

Watered-down continuity?

However, even then, Wolfman sneaks in a clever or insightful observation, and one that would bear fruit for later writers working on other books. “We won by sheer numbers,” Silver Ghost explains to some captured heroes. “For every big shot on your side, we’ve got five more ready to fight for us.” It’s basic maths, and something that I’m surprised no writer ever really applied before. Indeed, Mark Millar would “borrow” the idea of a supervillain numbers-game for his Wolverine story, Old Man Logan. “Hey,” Luthor concedes to Brainiac, “we both know we’ll have five losses on our side for each one on theirs… But I’d say those were respectable numbers, wouldn’t you?”

Most frustrating, however, is the inherently conservative moral that Wolfman places at the centre of Crisis on Infinite Earths, one that seems to warn against scientific curiosity. “But legends say if we learn our origins, the universe will be destroyed!”Sondra warns Pariah as the character prepares to look back into the history of the universe. And, of course, his actions have dire consequences. He fears that he awoke the Anti-Monitor with his scientific curiosity. Indeed, the Guardian Krona actually creates the Anti-Monitor inadvertently through his own scientific curiosity. The moral seems to suggest that scientific research and investigation is remarkably dangerous.

A towering accomplishment?

Wolfman does, to be fair, play with this a bit. He even suggests that Pariah’s investigations didn’t actually awake the Anti-Monitor, but he still suggests that Pariah’s poorly-advised curiosity made the monster’s omnicidal rampage possible. “Did you truly believe mere scientific investigation could unleash forces great enough to destroy a universe?” the Anti-Monitor taunts. He then suggests that Pariah’s experiment enabled him in other ways. “No — but I took advantage of your experiment… I converted the antimatter into energy… which I focused into your universe, destroying those worlds to gather even more energy. Only then was I powerful enough to break free of my prison… and to spread my rule!”

While the heroes seem willing to forgive Pariah on the basis of this confession, it still feels more than slightly surreal. After all, even if Pariah didn’t wake up the monster, he did allow it to escape. Again, in fairness, this feels like a cautionary tale of the post-nuclear age. After all, it’s hard not to read the Anti-Monitor as the “destroyer of worlds”that Oppenheimer mentioned – the nuclear genie out of the proverbial bottle. Without his armour, Pérez portrays the Anti-Monitor as burning, almost composed of fire burning impossibly hot, not unlike the fear of a nuclear fire that might leave the world a hallow shell.

In the beginning...

Indeed, Wolfman actually takes advantage of the opportunity to playfully cast Crisis on Infinite Earths in an almost biblical tone. The Anti-Monitor is the end of all things, the ultimate evil, ever-burning nuclear fire, the white space, but it’s also presented as something akin to that most classic of good-against-evil myths. Harbinger describes the anti-monitor as “the serpent in this eden”, perhaps an appropriate analogy where the apple represents knowledge. Zatara and the spiritual side of the DC universe cast the villain in even more strongly biblical terms. “Back, Monitor,” the wizard commands, “back, down into the pit!”

Crisis on Infinite Earths is a much stronger story than I expected to be entirely honest. Sure, there are a few problems along the way, but Wolfman manages an almost impossible task with considerable skill and grace. It feels epic in a way that very few comic book events can really match, even in the almost-three-decades since. It’s well worth a read for those interested in the shared fictional universe, with the appropriate caveats made.

Do not make Light!

The Absolute Crisis on Infinite Earths represents easily the best way to read the story. As mentioned about, Pérez’s art looks absolutely beautiful oversized, but DC have also packaged it with an entire booklet filled with behind-the-scenes insights into how an event of this magnitude was organised and tied together. It also includes a summary of all the Crisis on Infinite Earth tie-in books, which are somewhat interesting. I’m surprised that there hasn’t been a companion book compiled collecting them – I know there are two or three I might be interested in checking out. (And Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing remains perhaps the best event tie-in book ever.)

Crisis on Infinite Earths had a massive impact on release, but it’s not only worth reading for the impact it had on DC’s shared continuity. Instead, it’s worth reading as the blueprint for big “event” stories, watching Wolfman and Pérez piece together the rulebook as they went along. The story itself might seem just a bit clunky in places, but there’s no denying what an accomplishment it was. All involved can hold their heads high.

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2 Responses

  1. I’ve just ordered a copy of this ahead of meeting George this month. Its always been on my reading list but with the changes DC has made with the new 52 I wasn’t sure I would need to dip in. Your review has swung me to take a chance… I seem to have a habit of going back to older stories at the mo – Iron Man Demon in a Bottle, Watchmen, V for Vendetta. I missed most the first time round and slightly disillusioned with the current big brash style of modern comics I think I yearning for something of… quality and substance, for want of better words!

    Long may these titles remain in print…!!

    • Thanks Matt, I hope I haven’t wasted your time or your money. Let me know what you make of it.

      That said, I never really believed that whetehr a story is in- or out-of-continuity should make a difference to quality. As you mentioned, V for Vendetta and Watchmen are classics.

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