This month I’m taking a look at DC’s massive “Infinite Crisis” Event. Although it was all published in one massive omnibus, I’ll be breaking down the lead-in to the series to tackle each thread individually, culminating in a review of the event itself. Check back for more.
Infinite Crisis is a fantastic concept with a somewhat muddled execution. The idea of reflecting on the way the DC Universe has evolved since Crisis on Infinite Earths is a fascinating hook for an event miniseries, and writer Geoff Johns does an effective job of exploring how times have changed. However, the original Crisis on Infinite Earths had a tendency to seem too vast and too all-encompassing for its own good, randomly jumping between a cast of hundreds lost in a maelstrom. Given that Marv Wolfman had twelve issues to tell that story, and still occasionally ended up a little confused, it seems a little unfair for Geoff Johns to attempt a similar effort in only seven issues.
There are times when Infinite Crisis feels less like one cohesive story and more like a series of vignettes based around a theme. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of interesting stuff going on here – or that Johns doesn’t have something compelling to say about modern superhero comics – it just means that Infinite Crisis is a bit of a mess. A bold and ambitious mess, but a mess nevertheless.
It feels strange to imagine a casual fan picking up Infinite Crisis in a book store like Borders or Barnes & Noble. The seven-issue miniseries is practically unintelligible without knowledge of the countless lead-in series. Even then, the story is basked in the minutiae of the shared DC universe. Expect moments to lack emotional resonance if you don’t know anything about the history of the latest Superboy. Smaller panels might seem a tad confusing if you aren’t at least casually aware of nineties villains like Bane or Doomsday. And, of course, if you are unfamiliar with the DC multiverse, good luck jumping on board with this event series.
It’s interesting to compare Infinite Crisis with Marvel’s event of the same time, Civil War. While I have some very serious issues with Civil War, there’s no denying that the hardcover edition makes a more compelling and accessible “jumping on” point for casual fans and new readers – the characters are accessible archetypes, the ideological conflict is simple and efforts are made to explain necessary background information. In Infinite Crisis, you’re thrown in at the deep end and expected to swim. It’s a very weird choice for a book that was given as much fanfare as this. I have no real problem with comic books being a little heavy on the continuity, but it seems counter-productive to try and sell a book like this to the outside world.
In many ways, that’s why the Omnibus makes much better reading than the hardcover. With the countless tie-ins and lead-ins, many of which are actually engaging and entertaining stories in their own right, you can get a much better view of what DC was trying to do. Of course, this doesn’t resolve the more fundamental issue of scale and scope, but it does help Infinite Crisis make a great deal more sense than it might otherwise. If you are looking to try to read the event – and there are plenty of reasons you might – then the Omnibus is undoubtedly the best way to do so.
However, even with all the event carefully and meticulously laid out, Infinite Crisis still has some fairly severe problems. The scale is impossible ambitious and vast. Not only is the fate of Earth in the balance, but also the multiverse. That said, Crisis on Infinite Earths managed a similar scale of threat, but with considerably more room to develop it. There’s also the fact that the DC universe has exploded since that event – with countless new heroes and countless earth-shattering events to reference and acknowledge.
More than that, though, the story itself draws in major players from a far wider spectrum than Crisis on Infinite Earths. The lead-in miniseries did a very effective job of offering a cross-strata examination of the DC Universe. Rann-Thanagar War was about the space heroes. Day of Vengeance featured the magic users. Villains United explored the Secret Society. There’s a much greater focus on aspects that would have been more tightly confined in the original event, and Johns faces the problem of juggling all these plot points on top of this universe-altering epic.
It’s no wonder that the series feels a bit disjointed. One minute we’re with Alexander Luthor. Then we’re with Wally West. Suddenly, we’re in the Batcave. Then we’re on Oa. Characters get a few panels of interaction before we jump to the next scene, unsure if we’re ever going to see those characters again. Don’t get me wrong, Johns does an excellent job setting up various plot points and foreshadowing certain outcomes, but the pacing feels a bit disjointed.
While Johns sets up, for example, the Joker’s involvement with the climax of the arc in a one-page appearance in a very early issue, it’s a moment that could easily get lost on the first read-through. It feels almost like it was inserted so that it might justify the Joker’s appearance in the last few pages, rather than something that flows from the story at that particular moment. It should be able to do both at the same time. It’s not Johns’ fault – I doubt anybody could have fashioned this many plot threads into a smoother seven-issue series – but it does lend Infinite Crisis a decidedly uneven feel.
For example, everything is so scattered that the significance of large moments sometimes gets lost. One issue features the villains dropping Chemo on the city of Bludhaven to distract the heroes. However, the heroes are already so distracted that it seems a little excessive. In fact, the only hero we really see responding to the destruction of the city is Nightwing, as almost everybody else seems busy with their own thing. (That said, it does seem apparent that there was a very clear editorial intent when it came do destroying Bludhaven – but it’s a moment that feels lost amid everything else happening during the event.)
The first issue actually does a pretty decent job of anchoring the random stuff we see unfolding. In the first chapter of Infinite Crisis, Johns picks one emotionally-charged scene as his focal point, and then explores all the stuff happening simultaneously to create a sense of dramatic contrast. He had Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman exploring the wreckage of the Watchtower on the moon, and bickering amongst themselves. This means that his cut-aways to the terrible things happening during this moment of disagreement underscores the discord that exists between the three.
Not only are the small moments we are a witnessing set-ups for later pay-offs, they also resonate with the disagreement on the moon. Anchoring the first issue with the argument in the wreckage is a shrewd move, because it creates a cohesive framework. All these little moments we are seeing aren’t just a jumble of exposition or short sequences on a theme, they are evidence in the trial of these three heroes, who are all acting very unheroic. The problem is that the remaining six issues lack a similar sort of anchor. They seem to become almost stream-of-consciousness superheroics.
It’s a bit of a shame, because Infinite Crisis is packed with good ideas, and some thoughtful reflection on the evolution of the DC Universe in the years since the original Crisis on Infinite Earths. It’s precisely the sort of self-aware meta-narrative that DC tends to do so well, and Johns is the writer perfectly positioned to write it. I can’t think of a mainstream writer who understands the basic concepts of superhero story mechanics quite as well as Johns. While his writing is occasionally a little formulaic, and he tends to lean on particular plot devices, but I don’t think anybody has a deeper understanding of DC’s iconic characters than Johns.
In many ways, Infinite Crisis is about the failure of the “trinity”, the iconic trio of DC characters consisting of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman. Each of the three has their own arc within the crossover, and it – appropriately enough – opens with the “big three” angrily berating one another for past failures. “You don’t belong here,” Bruce advises Wonder Woman amid the wreckage of the Watchtower. She responds, “None of us do, Bruce.” Wonder Woman tells Batman, “You’ve lost your way.” Superman replies, “And you’ve lost yours.”
Although it is revealed that Alexander Luthor has been manipulating events from behind the scenes through use of Superboy-Prime, Johns refuses to use that as a convenient excuse for everything that has happened. Held captive by Luthor, Power Girl insists, “All of this manipulation… the Psycho-Pirate… that’s why Wonder Woman killed Max Lord. Why Batman got so damn paranoid. Why Superman –“ Luthor cuts her off, “– Failed to keep them all together? They did that themselves, Kara.” It would have been tempting to blame the problems with the post-Crisis on Infinite Earths DC Universe on a convenient external source, but Johns refuses to do so, and instead insists that the characters have become damaged and need some measure of repair.
Johns seems to suggest that, at their core, Infinite Crisis and 52 are about breaking down these characters and archetypes so that they can be rebuilt and reimagined in a more constructive way. Deconstruction, leading into reconstruction. It’s all about finding the essence of the characters and centring everything around that. Batman seems to grasp this idea within the first chapter, as he states that perhaps he and Superman have lost sight of their essential purposes. “After all these years, you know it’s not about control,” Bruce warns Superman. “It’s about trying to do everything I can. And for you, it’s about setting an example.”
(In fact, perhaps the most telling “retcon” created by Infinite Crisis’ “reality punch” concerned Batman’s origin. Documenting the re-shaping of DC’s history as it happened, Alexander Luthor observes, “Batman still fights for Gotham, even though his parents’ killer was caught.” It seems to be a conscious effort by Johns to push Batman away from any interpretation that might suggest he’s motivated by revenge. Batman becomes more explicitly heroic because there’s no way that he could be doing this to find his parents’ murderer. Instead, he does what he does to help save Gotham.)
It’s also worth noting that Infinite Crisis seems to concede that there was an editorial mandate from the time of Identity Crisis to make the shared universe progressively darker, as if to force a course correction in the portrayal of these characters. As GoldenAge!Superman rationalises his decision to intervene, we’re treated to two jam-packed panels detailing events that mandated his decision to take an active role in reshaping the DC Universe.
He comments, “This new Earth was anything but better. A darkness seemed to spread, warping the heroes’ lives. Some died. Others lost their way. We watched for years, hoping everyone would find inspiration again.” This includes all manner of awkward and ambiguous moments from the late eighties through to the nineties – the death of Jason Todd, the death of Superman, Bane breaking Batman, Hal Jordan going evil.
In contrast, the next panel is restricted to events since Identity Crisis, seemingly illustrating that there has been a dramatic downtown in the DC Universe. While all the events from the eighties through the nineties take up a panel, the events from Identity Crisis to the start of this crossover can take up an equal amount of space – the death of Blue Beetle, the execution of Max Lord. GoldenAge!Superman laments, “But as we continued to look on… things got worse.”
There’s a suggestion that there was a concious decision on the part of DC’s editorial to exaggerate the dark trends of the nineties to a point where things would hit rock bottom, hoping that this would justify an in-story decision to change direction, to reverse the trend. Infinite Crisis is certainly quite heavy on its “meta” commentary, as at casts these iconic heroes as victims of market trends and editorial decision-making.
And so, GoldenAge!Superman, Alexander Luthor and Superboy-Prime are portrayed as fanboys. GoldenAge!Superman perhaps represents the increasingly ageing comic-book-reading demographic, the kind of people upset that “their” universe was destroyed to make way for this increasingly dark world. “We’ve given them a gift they’ve thrown away,” GoldenAge!Superman argues, with some measure of bitterness. “We sacrificed everything for them.” To those fans who grew up with stories featuring smiling, happy-go-lucky heroes, the modern DC Universe must seem like an alien and hostile place. “How do they live live like this?” Golden Age!Superman asks. “Joyless.”
Perhaps Johns does seem to poke the fanboy nest just a little bit. While GoldenAge!Superman’s arguments are seen as valid, Johns portrays Superboy-Prime as a petulant and entitled little fanboy who insists that things were better back in the old days, just because they were the old days. Johns has attracted a fair amount of criticism for making Superboy-Prime a vicious parody of modern fanboy entitlement in stories like Sinestro Corps War and Legion of 3 Worlds, to the point where one of those stories even ends with Superboy-Prime whining on the DC message boards.
I have to admit, having occasionally ventured to comic book message boards, that I have no real problem with this portrayal of Superboy-Prime. I have a hard-time refuting the argument that a certain demographic of comic book fans hold a certain amount of blame for the problems with modern comics. After all, it was these sorts of fans who voted to kill of Jason Todd in the first place, really kick-starting the trend. It’s the fans who really refuse to venture outside the core or “important” books, fostering a culture where the success of a comic book isn’t based on merit, but on how “essential”it is to the shared universe.
While one might debate the merits of a rather overt parody of the people buying the books, I don’t mind a major villain based around that particular mindset, particularly since Superboy-Prime is far from over-used. I tend to think that pandering excessively to that kind of consumer has contributed to comics becoming an increasingly niche market. That said, perhaps Johns does allow his rather obvious (if fair) arguments on fanboy culture to cloud the issue.
Superboy-Prime and even GoldenAge!Superman occasionally come across as so selfish that the arguments they make (while valid) are overshadowed. There’s the arrogance with which they insist upon themselves that arguably clearly identifies them as villains long before the brutality starts. Introduced to Power Girl, Superboy-Prime takes issue to being called ‘Superboy.’ He informs her, “Actually, you can call me Superboy-Prime.”
GoldenAge!Superman still seems bitter about an issue as trivial as numbering during an early crossover. “The League’s Earth was designated Earth-One. Our Earth was Earth-Two. We were polite enough to let that go, even if we came first.” The problem is that the decision to cast the pair as fairly shallow fanboy archetypes runs the risk of trivialising their position. While their desire to regress the shared universe is a villainous action, their criticisms of modern superheroes are hardly unfounded.
There is an argument that the central characters in DC comics could do with a return to their core values, and to more heroic principles, and Johns does run the risk of overshadowing that valid criticism by making the characters arguing it into parodies of fanboy culture. I think that Johns walks the line quite well, but it’s still a risky position to adopt.
That said, the systemic failure within the DC Universe isn’t confined to the Trinity. In a broader sense, Infinite Crisis is about a failure of leadership within the DC Universe, about the failure of those holding moral authority to exorcise their power as they should. Guy Gardner talks to Kyle about how ineffective the Guardians are about the whole thing. “I’m still — krzz — ting for them ta say somethin’… but the Guardians are still holed up in the citadel.” As they always are when written by Johns, the Guardians are stoic and conservative, detached from matters beneath them.
As GoldenAge!Superman informs us, “Even these beings who have watched over this universe for billions of years, who rely on those who overcome great fear — are afraid of what tomorrow brings.” Given how much emphasis Infinite Crisis puts on the “meta” narrative, perhaps this blame on the more powerful figures within the DC Universe can be read as an attempt to hold DC’s editorial to account for the way that they’ve managed or mismanaged their iconic brands over the years. They were – like the Trinity and the Guardians – “caretakers” and it’s hard to argue that they haven’t failed the iconic brands in some way.
Appropriately, Infinite Crisis is just as interested in Superman as an idea as it is in Superman as a character. “For some reason I can’t explain or understand, and probably never will,” Alex Luthor states at one point, “everything comes from Superman.” He was the first superhero, and certainly the cornerstone of the DC Universe. Johns is sure to incorporate a visual homage – via splash page – to the iconic cover of Action Comics #1, with Superman lifting the car above his head. Batman might be more popular now, but Superman is the most important character in DC’s stable, and so it feels right that Infinite Crisis hinges on him.
It’s telling that the conflict at the centre of Infinite Crisis essentially boils down to a fight between three iterations of Superman. Past, present, and future, perhaps? Superboy-Prime is the fanboy focused on the past, convinced that everything was better in the old days. GoldenAge!Superman is the elder statesman who has seen it all, and knows how things should be. The GoldenAge!Superman has been offered an opportunity that Superman would never really get in a sequential medium. GoldenAge!Superman got a “happy ever after”– something that the current Superman can never have by virtue of being a comic book character consistently published.
Our Superman is living in the perpetual present, caught between the future and the past – he has to live through the stories and make the best of it. GoldenAge!Superman offers a legitimate criticism of the editorial direction of the DC Universe after Crisis on Infinite Earths:
And the truth is that your Justice League lobotomised their adversaries. Your Batman built a stellite spawning an army that killed dozens. Your Wonder Woman killed Maxwell Lord. And, worst of all, you, Superman, could’ve stopped all this before it started. You should have! You should have led them to a better tomorrow!
Instead, when the universe needed its greatest heroes, they refused to stand together. You have the opportunity to make that Earth into the perfect world it had the potential to be and you wasted it!
It’s certainly a valid argument to make about superhero comics, and it’s clear that Johns is tapping into a vein of fan disillusionment left in the wake of “darker and edgier” stories like the kind we witnessed during the nineties. GoldenAge!Superman exists outside the story. Literally because he watched on screens like panels inside his alternate reality, but also because he story has come to an end. Our Superman’s story is on-going.
GoldenAge!Superman wants paradise, and it’s a legitimate desire. However, he could only live in paradise because he was retired as a character. Conflict is the essence of drama, and any Superman story needs drama – so our Superman can’t live the idealised existence that GoldenAge!Superman wants. He explains as much in his response to GoldenAge!Superman’s rant. “If you’re from this Earth it can’t be perfect,” he tells his counterpart. “Because a perfect Earth doesn’t need a Superman.”
GoldenAge!Superman, Alex Luthor and Superboy-Prime live in a static world. “Time gathers instead of moving on,” Alex tries to explain. “There’s no linear progression.” There’s no progress and evolution to the world as GoldenAge!Superman, Luthor and Superboy-Prime perceive it. There’s just the way it should be. Even the most heroic of the trio, GoldenAge!Superman, is motivated by a desire to stop GoldenAge!Lois dying. He can’t accept the possibility of change, that she might move on. “What happens, happens,” Lois explains to him, coming to peace with her death. “I’m good with that.” He responds, “But I’m not.”
There’s a strange sort of spirituality to Johns’ work here, similar to the outlook he’d bring to his writing on Brightest Day. Without being explicitly religious, Johns seems to write with an optimistic world view that suggests there is some greater force at work in the universe. Even in the DC Universe, there seems to be something far more powerful than Superman working. (A cynic might comment that the answer is Johns himself, a fittingly “meta” answer for a “meta” crisis.)
GoldenAge!Superman’s visit to Batman feels like the temptation in the desert, with Batman offered everything he could ever possible want in return for renouncing his beliefs. Although it is an homage to Crisis on Infinite Earths, the tower has obvious similarities to the Tower of Babel. In space, the Green Lantern Corps witnesses gigantic hands literally reshaping creation, with Alex treating his hands as the Hands of God. When Chemo destroys Bludhaven, Alex comments, “Like Sodom and Gomorrah, Bludhaven falls.”
(Interesting that most of the Judeo-Christian imagery is associated with the bad guys. Between that and the Spectre’s bloody rampage, Johns seems to want to avoid being overtly and explicitly religious in his portrayal of DC’s iconic heroes. The specifically Judeo-Christian imagery is anchored in the bad guys doing horrible things, but there’s a much stronger spirituality at play throughout Infinite Crisis, something a bit more general and a bit more hopeful.)
Mister Terrific’s athiesm is ridiculed here, in a way that makes a lot of sense in a world that operates using the same logic as the DC Universe. “Athiest?” Ragman asks. “I thought ‘Mr. Terrific’ was supposed to be the smartest man in the world.” Terrific corrects him, stating he’s the third smartest man in the world. Ragman presses the point. “And you still don’t believe in a God? Wasn’t the Spectre a member of the Justice Society?” Mister Terrific’s response (“before my time”) seems dismissive, rather than constructive.
Terrific seems almost like a zealot, avoiding the rather rational conclusion (in the context of the universe) that a Higher Power must exist. (After all, for the Spirit to be “God’s Vengeance”, God must exist.) It’s an interesting idea that, in the shared DC Universe, it takes a stronger sense of faith to be an atheist than to be a believer – it’s harder not to believe in the confines of this fictional universe than it is to accept that there are more powerful forces at play.
Still, even outside of the specifically religious undertones to the whole event, GoldenAge!Lois explicitly mentions her belief as she prepares to die. “I see the truth now, Clark. A truth even Alexander didn’t see… there’s something else out there…” Even GoldenAge!Superman, on his death bed, seems to acknowledge that there is “something else.” As Power Girl hold him, he tells her, “It’s not going to end. It’s never going to end… for us… one day you’ll see… they’re still out there.”
Of course, neither GoldenAge!Lois nor GoldenAge!Superman have to be speaking literally. Within the context of the event, they are talking somewhat meta-fictionally. After all, these characters were never truly alive, so they can never truly die. They live on for as long as we can imagine them, regardless of whether or not they were killed off. In a way, Johns seems to addressing those fans distraught by the loss of their favourite characters, trying to politely inform them that these fictional characters exist for as long as they are inside our heads.
Continuity doesn’t matter, despite what we might tell ourselves. Like a prism, we look at characters, and see our own unique version – constructed from our own fond memories and reflections and interpretations. At one point, late in the story, GoldenAge!Wonder Woman is revealed to be alive, despite the fact that she wasn’t with Alex Luthor, GoldenAge!Superman or Superboy-Prime. Her appearance is quite random, and her disappearance is just as quick.
She seems to show up simply to demonstrate that not all old characters are lost just because DC editorial decided to streamline their continuity with Crisis on Infinite Earths. Even if the myriad of fanboy annotations and trivia can’t explain it, our character live on. “When the multiverse collapsed,” GoldenAge!Wonder Woman explains, “I was granted entry into Mount Olympus with my husband. I was spared as Superman and Lois were.” It seems like something of a polite olive branch to fans, as Johns tries to explain that these aren’t real people. So, to an extent, it feels strange that people get so invested in their fates and destinies.
Infinite Crisis sees both heroes and villains agree on one thing: the heroes have failed the DC Universe. The conflict arises over how to fix it. Alex Luthor seeks to use his powers to magically create an ideal world free from conflict. However, to do so would end up wiping out everything that out heroes have struggled for. On the other hand, the heroes fight for the opportunity to make the world a better place, to improve it. Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman fight for the idea of logical progression and character development, while Alex Luthor seeks to destroy all conflict. (And thus, all drama; and, therein, all stories.)
It’s telling that Batman makes up his mind to refuse GoldenAge!Superman’s offer by asking a question about Dick Grayson. Grayson is perhaps the most dynamic character in the DC Universe. He has grown and evolved. Starting out as Robin, he grew into Nightwing, and even took over for Batman for a while. He hangs out with Batman, but also the Teen Titans. He policed his own city, hung out with the Justice League and even took over from his mentor. All developed from his first appearance as a young sidekick.
“And what about Dick Grayson?” Bruce asks the GoldenAge!Superman. “You said this Earth corrupts everything. Is the Dick Grayson of my Earth a corrupted version of yours?” Superman responds, “No.” This seems to be all Batman needs to hear to make up his mind. “I didn’t think so.” Even GoldenAge!Superman, in his narrative captions, seems to admire Dick. He speaks of Dick Grayson as “a young man raised in the bright colours of the circus” who “hopes to save this place.” Hopelessly outgunned, it’s Nightwing who tries to rally the heroes and who stands with Superboy against Superboy-Prime. “It’s just us,”Nightwing states, as the pair make a damn good showing.
While Infinite Crisis does condemn the Trinity, Johns makes a rather potent argument for the post-Crisis on Infinite Earths iteration of the DC Universe through its second-generation heroes. In Crisis of Conscience, Wally West proved to be the most heroic member of the Justice League – checking in on his colleagues while they looked after their own. Here, it’s all the Flashes together who push Superboy-Prime into the Speed Force. In Rann-Thanagar War, Kyle Rayner was perhaps the most high-profile hero to remain uncompromised in an increasingly amoral universe.
Within Infinite Crisis, it’s the second-generation heroes who do put on the best show. Nightwing and Superboy both manage to stand for idealised forms of heroism that Batman and Superman can’t represent. At one point, Batman realises that he has burnt his bridges with the superhero community, and asks Nightwing to speak for him. In his darkest hour, he also seems to take some sort of validation in the fact that he was a good surrogate father figure for Dick.
Connor Kent is berated by Superboy-Prime for his angst and his indecision, his lack of certainty about his place in the grander scheme of things. Ironically, it’s those attributes – present in Connor but absent in Superboy-Prime – that mark Connor as a hero and Superboy-Prime as a villain. Knowing that he could die, and being aware of the risks, it makes Connor’s decision to fight the good fight all the more altruistic and heroic. Johns seems to suggest that these second-generation characters provide the justification for all the bleak suffering and nihilism that we’ve seen – as if to suggest that the years since Crisis on Infinite Earths brought more than just darkness.
With the failure of the “big three”, perhaps it is appropriate that Infinite Crisis ends with each of the three heroes setting out on the superheroic equivalent of a “gap year” to find themselves. “A world without Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, huh?” Lois asks. Clark responds, “But until we’re back — I’d say things are in good hands.” Despite the darkness and cynicism of Infinite Crisis, it is quite heartwarming to see Johns dwell on the fact that sometimes good can come from all that dark stuff.
While Johns’ treatment of Superman and Wonder Woman is interesting, perhaps his exploration of Batman is the most fascinating. It’s something of a fanboy truism to argue that Johns can’t write the Caped Crusader, perhaps because Green Lantern: Rebirth famously featured Hal Jordan sucker-punching the character. I quite enjoyed Johns’ Batman: Earth-One, but I’d also argue that Infinite Crisis demonstrates a fairly solid understanding of how the hero works.
More than Superman or Wonder Woman, Batman has been laid low in the years since Crisis on Infinite Earths. During one bleak moment, he gasps, “I can’t breath. Can’t… do this anymore. God… I wish… I wish I could just start over.” Despite the fact that his continuity emerged from Crisis on Infinite Earths relatively unscathed, his universe has become increasingly bleak. Bane broke his back. Jason Todd was murdered. Gotham is a festering hell-hole.
Even Batman himself has grown much darker. In Identity Crisis, it was revealed that his superhero allies wiped his mind. It seems like we’ve reached the point where his allies actively expect to be mistreated by him. When Booster Gold and Blue Beetle are strung upside down after trying to find the Batcave, Booster assures his young colleague, “Don’t worry. This is perfectly normal.” How messed up must his world be that the other heroes expect to be strung up for trying to pop by and say hello?
Batman arguably has the most to gain by a clean slate re-start. GoldenAge!Superman offers to reverse the influence of Frank Miller on Batman, to change the city back to its earlier portrayals. He tells Bruse, “Our Gotham City wasn’t covered in grime and dirt. Things were rough, but during the days — the sun still managed to shine.”The alternate universe offers Bruce the prospect of a marriage to Selina, with kids. A happy ever after, something that Batman very rarely gets. It’s certainly the strongest moment of temptation that any member of the Trinity feels over the entire miniseries, and Johns still manages to have Batman endure it.
Even at the climax of the miniseries, Johns has Bruce pick up a gun and threaten to take a life. It’s a moment similar to the one that Grant Morrison would give the character at the climax of Final Crisis. However, while Morrison had Batman use the gun to save the universe, Johns has Batman refuse to use to get revenge. Presented with the possible death of Dick Grayson – perhaps the brightest ray of hope in Bruce’s life – Johns still indicates that Batman would rigidly adhere to his principles and refuse to compromise.
It’s a powerful moment, and I think it makes a valid argument that Johns does understand Batman. There’s also another nice, smaller moment, where Blue Beetle freaks out about his place in the grand scheme of things. Booster tries to calm him down by assuring him that this is very important, prompting Batman to observe, “You have no idea how to talk to kids.”It’s a nice moment, because it implies that Bruce does, because… well, of course Bruce does.
It’s also interesting how firmly Johns points to The Death and Return of Superman as the moment that comics really went sour. He even allows GoldenAge!Superman to concede that the immediate aftermath of Crisis on Infinite Earths was relatively optimistic. “The potential was there,” he explains. “And it started off so well. So full of hope.” It seems that the darkness didn’t immediately take hold in the wake of Crisis on Infinite Earths.
Alexander Luthor explicitly traces the root of this “darker and edgier” trend to that particular event. “I can trace it to here,” he states, “when the Superman of this Earth was murdered then came back.” Even earlier, the perceptive Batman had pointed to that event as a turning point for the character of Superman. “Everyone looks up to you. They listen to you. If you tell them to fight, they’ll fight. But they need to be inspired. And let’s face it, ‘Superman’ … the last time you really inspired anyone was when you were dead.” It’s cold, but it’s hardly untrue.
Johns affirms this theory by allowing Doomsday, the comic book villain created specifically to kill Superman, lead the charge during the Battle of Metropolis. Again, the symbolism is rather potent. Many would agree to a certain extent with Johns, arguing that even outside killing DC’s most iconic comic book character, the event also helped fuel the market speculation that would eventually backfire and cause the industry to nearly collapse.
(Incidentally, Johns also finds room at the Battle of Metropolis for a cameo from Bane, another villain created to fuel a nineties event – in this case, breaking Batman in Knightfall. Bane has had a great deal more success than Doomsday as a villain in his own right, but he has still struggled to find his own identity. Johns seems to attempt to repurpose Bane in his one-panel appearance, to help get the character back on track. “I finally know who I am,” the villain declares. “I am Bane. I break people.”He says this while breaking the back of Judomaster, a C-list hero.
While Johns seems to be trying to inject some life into a character who wandered rather aimlessly around after Knightfall, it feels more than a bit simplistic. Johns seems to suggest that the best Bane could hope for is to re-enact his one big defining moment with character less iconic than Batman – thus eating away at any resonance and power that original image had. However, it wouldn’t be too long before Bane got a new lease of life, with Gail Simone drafting him into Secret Six, which is really due a nice hardcover collection.)
It’s an interesting and valid argument – and certainly the symbolism fits. I’ll confessed to being a bit relieved that Johns didn’t take the easy option and point at something Frank Miller or Alan Moore had done. Both writers could e said to be responsible for the “darker and edgier” trend in superhero comics, if only because books like The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen inspired the direction, as writers failed to understand that “mature” meant something more than just “dark and nihilistic.”
In fact, Johns seems to acknowledge the conscious debt that modern DC comics owe to Alan Moore. There’s a very heavy influence of Moore on Infinite Crisis, just as Johns’ Blackest Night would be inspired by Moore’s work. The very first chapter sees Mongul confronting Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, in something of an homage to For the Man Who Has Everything – a reference made more explicit when Mongul turns up in Green Lantern. It also features, like Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?, a murderous Bizarro who doesn’t seem to quite comprehend what he’s doing. “Me like… pretty… lights,” he states as he savagely beats Human Bomb to death.
Interestingly, while Johns endorses the contributions that Alan Moore made to the shared DC mythos, he firmly rejects the idea that DC could ever hope to properly mirror Marvel’s portrayal as superheroes. It’s common to hear the argument that Marvel’s heroes are easier to engage with because they are more human, more prone to failure and thus more relatable. To Johns, it seems, the same approach cannot work with DC’s iconic characters, due to their nature.
The influence and power of the Trinity is so great that any failure on their part is not the kind that merits character developments, but which has truly disastrous consequences. After all, The O.M.A.C. Project detailed the consequences of a failure by Batman, the most human of the Trinity, and his miscalculation killed “dozens” of people. More than that, though, Johns seems to argue that the portrayal of the characters must be inherently different.
The Marvel universe is populated by citizens who fear and loathe their protectors, who don’t trust a bunch of people running around in costumes to save the world. Johns seems to suggest that such an idea, though appealing, simply doesn’t work with the iconic characters from the DC Universe. You can’t have people afraid of Superman or Wonder Woman, because they hold so much power that the effects would be devastating. After all, The O.M.A.C. Project offered an example of what might happen if the people of the world didn’t trust Superman and Wonder Woman, and it was not pretty.
“They’re scared of us,” Clark states in the opening chapter, as if to point out that any hint of mistrust from the public is catastrophically damaging to the heroes. Wonder Woman experiences the consequences first hand as she defends Paradise Island against a world that loathes her, “Even if we stop this army, eventually another will come. Someone frightened by our power, looking to destroy what they fear…”
Superman and Wonder Woman are so powerful, Johns seems to suggest, that it would be impossible to create a sense of equilibrium is the larger world feared them. There is no set of circumstances where a world would fear and hate Superman, but passively tolerate him. His power is so great that even the possibility he might pose a threat would merit an immediate response. It’s compelling logic, and Johns uses it well to justify the more optimistic outlook of the DC Universe, as compared to that of the Marvel Universe.
There is, it must be noted, the faintest sense of hypocrisy (or, if you’re feeling charitable, irony) about Infinite Crisis. As much as the event laments the gratuitous darkness and pointless violence that has come to sweep through modern comics, it is fairly dark and pretty violent. The miniseries alone treats us to the fairly graphic sight of Black Adam pushing Psycho-Pirate’s mask through his skull. While Infinite Crisis promises a brighter tomorrow, it would appear that it’s not quite here yet.
The event seems to wallow in the darkness and violence that it seeks to criticise, with Alexander Luthor ending up a victim of precisely the same sort of hyper-violence that he was seeking to destroy. His face is burnt off with acid, before he is brutally electrocuted to death. It would seem like poetic justice, if the miniseries didn’t end with Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman all leaving to find their way in the world.
Still, Infinite Crisis is a fascinatingly reflective comic book event, one which seems to acknowledge that there have been some mistakes made in handling these characters, and one which seems to promise to do better in future. While the scope of the canvas is really too vast for Johns to plot a coherent through-line, Infinite Crisis works very well as a series of vignettes based around those core themes, the idea what it is to be a hero, regardless of when or where. It’s not the strongest of the major comic book crossovers ever published, but it is at least trying to say something interesting, and it has no shortage of ambition. There are certainly worse flaws to have.
You might be interested in our other reviews relating to Infinite Crisis:
- The O.M.A.C. Project
- Superman: Sacrifice
- Villains United
- Superman: Lightning Strikes Twice
- Day of Vengeance
- Adam Strange: Planet Heist
- Rann-Thanagar War
- Justice League of America: Crisis of Conscience
- Infinite Crisis
You might be interested in our reviews of DC’s “multiversal crisis” trilogy:
You might be interested in our reviews of DC’s “heroism crisis” trilogy:
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