“Worlds lived. Worlds died. And the DC Universe was never the same”
Inside flap of “Crisis on Infinite Earths” dust jacket.
As a kid, “Crisis on Infinite Earths” was the be-all-end-all comic event, laying waste to heroes and worlds with each of its succeeding twelve chapters. And as a kid, I recall thinking, “Lord, I may not know what’s going on, but this is totally exciting!” DC Comics lived up to its hyperbolic promise to change things up and, from the outset, there was little doubt that the publisher was set to deliver.
By its conclusion, the graveyards of the DC Universe have been filled and the world is a familiar one, albeit streamlined. Supergirl, the Flash and numerous lesser known characters have fallen in battle, the multiverse has been wiped out in exchange for a single continuity, Wonder Woman has been reduced to her original clay form, and many Silver Age versions of present-day characters have been tucked away nicely to prevent confusion for new readers. Yes, the DC Universe was given a fresh face after all was said and done, but was “Crisis” any good?
Unfortunately, it just isn’t great. While “Crisis” is a stunning achievement in artwork by George Perez, some of the finest of his illustrious career, series writer Marv Wolfman’s story is bogged down with his commitment to feature so many characters that he fails to identify a protagonist from whose vantage point we can experience the true nightmare of the crisis. It could certainly be argued that this is an ensemble piece and the protagonist in “Crisis” is the DC Universe itself, all of whom have everything to lose if good fails to thwart evil. However, with so many characters pushed to the forefront of the story, the end result is that we’re left caring more about the eventual landscape of the new DCU but little for those who inhabit the seemingly endless canvass of Wolfman and Perez’s opus.
It is the sheer size of “Crisis” that is its foremost achievement. The story is big and its ramifications are felt across every corner of the comics line. Wolfman, the master storyteller who, with Perez, brought “The New Teen Titans” to great heights in the early 80s, has plucked characters from every genre in DC’s enormous library to join in the many battles which take place across multiple time periods. It would be unfair to not be impressed with Wolfman’s ability to unite this mythical universe so cohesively into a single story. Consider that this means the battles span across the prehistoric age, the wild west, World War II, the present, the 30th Century, and across an infinite number of Earths. Wolfman weaves a surprisingly straightforward story in which Anthro, Jonah Hex, Sgt. Rock, Superman and Brainiac 5 can all take part in the same adventure. The writer relentlessly keeps the story big through the inclusion of almost every major and minor character in DC’s catalog of heroes, villains and supporting casts. Keep a keen eye open for walk-ons by Detective Chimp, the Global Guardians, the Shaggy Man and so many more. There are precious few pages in “Crisis” that are not filled corner to corner with numerous rarely used DC characters.
So then why does “Crisis” feel so empty?
Unfortunately, at its core, the book just doesn’t have enough heart. Yes, the story includes the dramatic losses of two of comicdom’s greatest heroes, but this isn’t enough to pull the material away from its desire to out blockbuster itself with each succeeding chapter. Wolfman’s chief goal with “Crisis” is commandeering hundreds of characters as they traipse across the DCU to protect it from obliteration. As the story moves from one action sequence to the next, the story pauses only long enough for exposition. However, when Wolfman is presented with the opportunity to develop some of the characters who inhabit “Crisis”, the chords he strikes are typically superficial.
As “Crisis” opens it is immediately clear that all bets are off and Wolfman and team are playing for keeps. Earth 3 and the villains of the Crime Syndicate are destroyed by a mysterious force that is wiping reality away, one universe at a time. In a plot point meant to ape Superman’s origin, the planet’s sole hero, Lex Luthor, sends his son, Alexander, from Earth 3 to the world he’s visited in previous “Crisis” stories: Earth One. Comic enthusiasts will recall that former DC crossovers featuring characters from the Earth 2, 3, etc., included “Crisis” in the title.
It is quickly revealed that the fate of Earth 3 has been the same fate that has befallen many Earths before it, and the realities that house our most famous heroes are in the path of this tremendously destructive force. Again Wolfman deserves credit for also creating a threat that is, even by comic book standards, as high stakes as they get. “Crisis” introduces three mysterious characters in the first chapter, whose backstories aren’t completely revealed until late into the story: Pariah, Harbinger and the Monitor. Pariah has apparently been cursed to observe the destruction of each universe right at the moment all is lost. The Monitor is the only character who understands the who, what, where, and why of the story, but he keeps this information to himself as the book opens. The Monitor resides on a massive satellite which observes all of the realities; it is here that he has catalogued the heroes and villains who inhabit these universes and whose aid he will solicit with the assistance of Harbinger, a woman with the ability to duplicate herself and wrangle aid from across space and time.
This brings us to one of the more daring choices of Wolfman: he inhabits the opening chapter by placing mostly C-List characters at the forefront of his story. When Harbinger suggests to the Monitor that she collect the Supermen of Earths 1 and 2, the Monitor claims to have specific needs of the heroes and villains he has asked his adopted daughter to collect. Enter characters such as Firebrand, Blue Beetle, Solovar, Dawnstar, Arion, Psycho Pirate and Firestorm (who was arguably the most marquee name at the time). Other characters such as Cyborg, Geo Force, Superman of Earth 2, Obsidian, John Stewart Psimon and Dr. Polaris round out the team of first responders. Wolfman seems to be preparing readers for the seriously random assortment of characters who begin to show up for the succession of battles that take place as “Crisis” expands its scope. Sure Batman, Wonder Woman, the Teen Titans and so many of the heavy hitters of the period show up, but Superman is the only A-Lister who takes center stage midway through “Crisis”. The Man of Steel’s inclusion is primarily to distinguish the character as the sole Last Son of Krypton by the story’s finale.
In the first act of “Crisis”, the main action revolves around the Monitor’s super-powered team working together to protect five skyscraper sized devices that have been placed throughout time, which are meant to prevent the continuing destruction of the universe. While the heroes protect the devices from the villain’s shadow creatures, the rest of the DCU is featured reacting to what seems like the end of times as anti-matter slowly consumes the planet. The villain appears only in shadow and speaks menacingly about his plans for total oblivion during the opening chapters. One of the weaknesses of Wolfman’s script is that he rarely finds distinct voices for his characters, something that is made even more glaring early on as dozens and dozens of them are featured. Most of Wolfman’s characters speak with a similarly melodramatic form of dialogue, while a handful of others, such as Metamorpho, Firestorm and Blue Devil, have a singularly lighthearted tone. Wolfman’s phraseology feels less like a style that was emblematic of the period and more a case of having to manage an overwhelming number of characters.
Once the whole of the DCU is involved in the crisis, the villain, who calls himself the Anti-Monitor, is revealed just as most of the multiple universes have been obliterated. Five worlds have survived, although barely, and it’s time for the big players of the DCU to come front and center to face off against the Anit-Monitor and restore their worlds if possible. It’s in this second act of the story that Wolfman injects some moments of authentic heart into “Crisis”. The main being the death of Supergirl, who falls in battle after destroying one of the Anti-Monitor’s destructive weapons, but also, and more importantly, after coming to the rescue of her cousin. Perez captures every ounce of agony in Clark’s face as he embraces his younger cousin, knowing she only has a few moments left to live. While perhaps even more significant, the death of the Flash doesn’t carry the same heft as Supergirl’s because, while he does die a hero’s death, he does so alone. It’s certainly shocking seeing a character of this magnitude perish, but in comparison, the scene is less personal.
As “Crisis” marches onto its final act, we take an arbitrary step from the main action as the villains of all the Earths decide to make a power play. While it is a pleasure to see Perez take on villains such as Dr. Sivana, the Joker, Per Degaton, Solomon Grundy, Brainiac and so many more, this chapter is more a distraction than anything else. This brings us to the final confrontation with the Anti-Monitor. As five Earths converge into one, everything and everyone seems at peace again. Only a handful of heroes remember the crisis, but the world is not at all the same. This is the streamlined DCU, where there was no Earth 2, 3, S and so on. For some folks, like Earth 2’s Huntress and Superman, this is a nightmare. Their loved ones are gone as though they never existed. It is in the penultimate chapter of “Crisis” where Wolfman powerfully introduces readers to the new DCU. Golden Age Clark Kent is left without his Lois Lane, Huntress is unable to visit the grave of her father, Bruce Wayne, and the Golden Age Wonder Woman has no home to speak of on Paradise Island. This leads to a final attack on this lone Earth by the Anti-Monitor with both Supermen leading the charge against the villain. Ultimately, the heroes overcome the villain, one Earth survives, and the doppelgängers are tucked away nicely to allow for singular versions of characters to exist without confusion.
The triumph of “Crisis on Infinite Earths” is the artwork of George Perez. It is simply stunning comic book artwork. Perez understands the nuances of each character’s costumes, their hair, their height, and their body type. Beyond this, Perez has an immense knack for expression and body language, altogether making “Crisis” a book that fans can pull off their shelves and marvel at for hours. Where to begin? Perez brings World War II to life as an early battle takes place in the middle of a Markovian winter. Sgt. Rock and his Easy Company do battle with Nazis and the Anti-Monitor’s shadow creatures in an action sequence filled with incredible detail, from the weaponry and tanks to the dilapidated Markovian village. It’s Perez’s astounding illustrations that will have comic enthusiasts flipping through this book time and again.
The detail of Perez’s work is further exemplified by the fine inking of Dick Giordano, who painstakingly manages the inking on the opening chapters of “Crisis”. Giordano was a master of his craft and he brought everything he had to “Crisis”. In a sequence featuring a brief tussle between Batman and the Joker, the inker ensures that we see all of the stitching on the Clown Prince of Crime’s gloves and the density of each shard of glass as the Dark Knight smashes through a window. Tom McCraw was tasked with recoloring “Crisis” in 1998 and the colorist has given the book a well-deserved and lovely facelift.
While there is much in “Crisis” that prevents it from being a timeless classic, it is one of those books that deserves a place on a comic fans bookshelf. Readers can splendor at the sheer bigness of it all, appreciate Perez’s astonishing artwork, and to see the template for so many events that would eventually follow.
Crisis on Infinite Earths
Written by: Marv Wolfman
Art: George Perez
Inks: Mike DeCarlo, Dick Giordano and Jerry Ordway
Colors: Anthony Tollin, Tom Ziuko, Carl Gafford, Tom McCraw
Letters: John Costanza
Publisher: DC Comics
Original Publication Date: April 1985
Pages: 368 pages