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From the Bookshelf
by Nicolas Juzda
Crisis on Infinite Earths
It's always good to go out with a bang.
So when it came time to reformat the DC Universe, doing away with the multiple Earths that had been a staple for decades and effectively ending the Silver Age, clearly something big and loud was needed.
And the bang's don't get much bigger or louder than Crisis On Infinite Earths.
Back in the day, DC Comics featured not one Earth but many parallel ones existing in different dimensions. As this story begins, they are being devoured one by one by a wave of anti-matter, controlled by the Anti-Monitor, a being of pure evil. All that stands in the way of the annihilation of reality are the super-heroes and super-villains, not to mention the soldiers and sorcerers, spacemen and cavemen, cowboys and Last Boys on Earth. And not everyone's walking away from this one.
It's a good deal more complex in execution, and I'll get to some of the particulars later, but that's the general plot in a nutshell.
Collected here are all twelve issues; the first part is 32 pages (it originally ran without adds) and the seventh and twelfth are double sized. There are also full-sized cover reproductions, except (somewhat inexplicably) for the final part, whose cover is at a slightly reduced size. An introduction by the author, Marv Wolfman, and an afterword by the original inker, Dick Giordano, are also included, as are several pages of sketches by the story's artist, George Perez, that originally ran on (unincluded) text pages in the original series. Perez's illustrations of Crisis' original characters for Who's Who: The Definitive Directory of the DC Universe are also included. Finally, there is an original cover done by painter Alex Ross over Perez's pencils.
That's a pretty hefty book. But the cost is equally hefty. The retail price is fifty dollars Canadian and thirty dollars American. As page-to-dollar ratios go, it's not the worst I've seen, but it's not exactly a bargain either.
The Crisis trade paperback was a long time coming. It was preceded by a hardcover, and there is a popular belief that DC Comics had announced that no softcover would ever be made. There is therefore some ill will over the book's very existence. However, I personally am unaware of any evidence DC ever said anything official on the matter.
At any rate, by the time of either reprinting, the book represented a past era. For a devotee of 1980s DC (as I unquestionably am), the book is quite charmingly of that era. The presence of then-hot (or at least active) properties like the original New Teen Titans, Infinity Inc., Batman and the Outsiders, Firestorm, the Levitz era of the Legion of Super-Heroes, the All-Star Squadron, etc. tie it very much to its time.
In addition to its attempts to cash in on the hot characters of 1985, the Crisis On Infinite Earths also went out of its way to include virtually every DC character ever. Super-heroes from the Golden Age, from the purchased Charlton and Quality and Fawcett lines, and from long-cancelled Silver Age titles, all abound. Many are used with no consideration for the unfamiliar reader, though Wolfman does slip in explanatory exposition on occasion, usually in a commendably unstilted fashion. The major exception is the names of characters; characters are constantly identifying themselves or namedropping, which gives the dialogue a vaguely unnatural feel in places.
The scope of the cast goes well beyond even the vast ranks of DC's super-powered combatants. In its long history, the company has published comics featuring many other types of characters. There have been stories about soldiers in the Second World War, the First World War, and the American Revolution. There have been tales of the old West, the high seas, and Camelot. There have been myriad visions of the future, from shining utopias to worlds gone mad. And, of course, there have been countless stories set in the present day but in other genres, featuring detectives and spies and magicians and talking babies and on and on and on. Crisis features many of these.
It is important to remember that the period when this story was originally published was in the final days when DC was still actively publishing these other genres. Though some of these characters were obscure, just as some of the super-heroes were, others were widely known to the day's comic book fans. Sgt. Rock and Jonah Hex and so on were the stars of ongoing series at the time.
Crisis is undeniably a super-hero story, first and foremost. These other characters enrich what is occurring, expanding its scope beyond the inward focus genre oversaturation leads to, but there is unfortunately a square-peg-in-round-hole effect, and if they serve the Crisis, there remains some doubt if the Crisis serves them. The deaths of a quartet of World War Two soldiers as a result of the attack of the Anti-Monitor's shadow demons was deemed so utterly inappropriate for the characters that a separate story was published at the same time, giving an alternative account of their deaths in a more down-to-earth war story.
For readers whose interests do not lie spread throughout the dark corners of DC's first half century, I suspect they may be quite taken aback by the focus on such characters. Granted, it is absurd to expect the presence of today's up-and-comers, characters not then in existence, but DC's most iconic characters are given little preference either. Indeed, of the company's alleged "Big Seven", only Superman and the Flash are given particular attention; even Batman and Wonder Woman are treated as no more important that, say, Kamandi and Blue Beetle.
Even given the book's not inconsiderable page count, it is frankly impossible to explain who everyone appearing is to any real degree. But people who demand such, and complain that there are crowd shots where only the most encyclopedic knowledge would allow the reader to identify all present (an astonishing double splash in the fifth part contains upwards of fifty characters), fail to realize that such is not necessary. Think of, for example, Kingdom Come, for example, where similar crowd shots occur and such identification is not simply improbable but literally impossible because the characters do not have identities beyond their visual presence in those very crowd scenes.
The important thing is not to identify everyone, but to ensure that the reader cares about whoever and whatever they are supposed to at any given moment.
Does Crisis do that? Sadly, not quite. Certainly, it tries hard to, and through the early issues it usually supplies just enough to make the reader care about the characters. But after a certain point, that becomes simply impossible. Certain characters, such as Supergirl and the Flash, are given substantial time to develop. Others, such as Clayface II or Kole, are enigmas (to the casual reader) even during their panel or two in the sun.
I may be jumping the gun a bit on my final assessment, but I have never recommended Crisis to a friend, because most people simply are not equipped to understand it. The one time a comic reading friend asked to borrow it, I insisted upon lending him all of Who's Who: The Definitive Directory To The DC Universe to read first.
The actual writing of the book is better in other areas. Wolfman, when at the top of his game, is one of the best dialogue writers in mainstream comics, with an ability to blend the pure heroism of the classic DC characters with the more human approach associated with classic Marvel. The structure is also quite solid, with a good sense of mounting stakes, particularly during the first seven chapters as the story builds to the first all-out battle with the Anti-Monitor. Indeed, Crisis can be divided into acts, each ending with a battle with the villain and followed by a brief respite. Finally, literary devices, such as foreshadowing and some meta-textual elements, are used in an effective but unobtrusive manner. What follows is a slightly more in-depth look at the story, and I warn in advance that some spoilers may be given.
The opening sequence of Crisis is particularly clever, as Earth-3 is used to excellent effect. This long standing alternate Earth was one where the five major heroes of the Justice League were all evil, and the only super-hero was Lex Luthor. This Earth, the second we see fall to the Anti-Monitor (by page three one anonymous Earth had already been totally devoured before our eyes) allows Wolfman to demonstrate that even the combined power of a Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, Flash, and Green Lantern would be nowhere near enough to fight what was to come, and the death of Superman's counterpart Ultraman is all the more affecting because of who he so much resembles. Meanwhile, Lex Luthor and his wife Lois Lane (!) send their son Alex from their doomed world in a scene deliberately evocative of the origin of Superman; the Crisis starts by harkening back to the beginnings of the character who basically started it all.
That Superman, the Golden Age one, is a key player in much of what follows, and in the series' final issue, he makes his exit flanked by another character who was being written out of continuity, the Superboy of Earth-Prime (technically a new character, but an obvious nod to the Superboy character who had been the younger self of Superman but would no longer exist in Superman's revised post-Crisis history). That sequence is an excellent, respectful treatment of all that Crisis would be removing from existence.
Speaking of exits, no discussion of Crisis would be complete without mentioning the death count. It is true that not quite as many characters are killed as is sometimes though, but despite Wolfman's protests in the introduction, dozens do perish.
Some of them, particularly Supergirl and the Flash, are given star treatment for their last hurrah. Others, like the Bug-Eyed Bandit or the Golden Age Luthor, are felled in an offhand manner. In fact, with the exception of the aforementioned Supergirl and Flash, the deaths become quicker and less dwelled upon as each issue passes. In the early parts, even minor characters like the aforementioned Earth-3 villains or Nighthawk get sequences lasting a couple of pages before they die; in later parts, even semi-important ones like the Golden Age Green Arrow get as little as a single isolated panel, their epitaphs barely more than a nearby character identifying them by name as they perish. Unsurprisingly, the amount that the reader cares about such occasions (barring some previous attachment) is directly proportional to the attention the characters' deaths are actually given.
It is in the first section of the story, up until part seven, that the greatest scope is evident. Here, Wolfman deliberately sets the action in multiple time periods, and sends carefully selected groups of heroes to each. The DC Universe is used to full advantage, and its history, from the omnipresent talking gorilla of the Silver Age (represented here by King Solovar) to the only caveman hero in comics history (Anthro), all show up. The sense of threat in these early issues is palpable, and the deaths occur often but with (as just discussed) attention lavished on each. The constantly expanding scope during these early chapters is also a factor in their appeal, as more time periods are introduced and more worlds involved with each issue. Finally, a team of some of DC's most powerful characters ever, from across its history, is assembled to save the five remaining Earths from imminent destruction. That goal is achieved, but the cost is Supergirl's life, and her death scene is beautifully written and illustrated.
The next three issues are more muddled, as subplots bounce around somewhat unsatisfactorily. The eighth part starts strong, with the Flash finally taking centre stage to destroy a weapon the Anti-Monitor has been building. Even more than Supergirl, Barry Allen's Flash was allowed a moment all his own to shine as he sacrificed his life. And like the Golden Age Superman, his is a deeply significant meta-textual presence. For the Silver Age Flash was the character who began the Silver Age when he debuted in Showcase #4 and revived the super-hero genre. Later, in Flash #123, he inaugurated the multiverse by visiting Earth-2. His end is part and parcel of the end of both the Silver Age and the multiverse.
After that, things meander for a while. An investigation into the body of the android Red Tornado, recently altered by the Anti-Monitor, seems to serve little purpose but to provide an homage to that first of the great cosmic epics in comics, the Kree-Skrull War in Marvel's Avengers. Subplots involving Blue Devil and Guy Gardner add nothing but confusion, as they are resolved not in Crisis but in issues of Blue Devil and Green Lantern not reprinted here. The full page splash of the Spectre, right hand man of God himself, screaming in frustration and rage, however, is one of my all time favorite comic book moments.
The so-called Villain War that follows, in which every super-villain of note joins one massive group who take advantage of the Anti-Monitor's retreat to stage their own attack, is basically Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars done very quickly. Granted, it might have seemed at the time that DC's first (and, for all that was known then, perhaps only) total intra-company cross-over needed such a massive everybody-versus-everybody sequence. The primal appeal of that idea is undeniable; it lacks depth or subtlety, but its attraction is its very obviousness. However, in practice, there simply wasn't enough time to do it right. The war is more suggested than depicted, and is ended quite unsatisfactorily by the Spectre simply demanding a truce as the Anti-Monitor's threat was more important.
The battle at the dawn of time is not entirely to my liking either. The assembled characters are used as no more than batteries, with neither their personalities nor abilities playing any role at all. Not until Onslaught: Marvel Universe would so many icons again be reduced to so generic a role (in that later case, literally no more than their mass). That the heroes are being tapped by the villain would seem to add insult to injury.
However, the battle between the Spectre and the Anti-Monitor is, background details aside, quite gripping (pun unintended, for those who can picture it), and ends with that bang I was telling you all about way back when, possibly the biggest one ever to hit comics.
It's more than a turning point in a story. It is the end of an Age, right there on the last page of part 10 of the Crisis. We will never see its like again.
Incidentally, a separate second story ran along the bottom of each page of part 10 but the last. This is a conceit I find annoying when reading, both here and in Legends, the only place that comes to mind where a similar technique was used. It is doubly so in this instance considering that the entire second story is set about halfway through the main one. One finds oneself unsure of exactly how the issue is to be read; from experience, I suggest reading the main story first and then going back to read "The Monitor Tapes" afterward.
Finally, the last two chapters detail the ultimate defeat of the Anti-Monitor, who just won't stay down. Of them, I will say no more. I've probably said too much already, frankly. Though I will add that I adore the epilogue, and the final lines of dialogue always bring a smile to my face.
Having discussed the story at length, I now turn to the artwork. George Perez, I admit, is my favorite comic book artist. No one I know of blends the heroic with the realistic as he does, and his level of detail is almost unparalleled. The greatest compliment I can give him is a somewhat odd one; for years I had difficulty recognizing his work. I know what a Carmine Infantino build looks like, how John Byrne draws eyebrows, a Jim Aparo jawline. But with George Perez, I could never find the quirks to look for. For one thing, his characters actually looked different. For another, what he drew wasn't a quirk of the artist, not to my eyes; he drew things as they actually were.
But like I said, I'm biased. Had I not discovered some battered old issues of The New Teen Titans early in my collecting, I'd likely have had my fill of early-90s comics and their artwork soon enough, and moved on from the hobby, and you wouldn't be reading this.
So, yeah, blame Wolfman and Perez.
Anyway, getting back on topic, Perez's abilities were perfect for Crisis. A series that had hundreds of characters demanded someone able to distinguish their appearances. He had to be able to draw scenes with dozens of characters without being muddled. He had to fit eight or more panels onto a page without losing detail or clarity. He had to do action sequences and facial expressions. He had to do period costumes and backgrounds. He had to imbue the imagery with epic grandeur while keeping it grounded it reality.
And he did.
The page lay-outs are also very inventive. A lightning bolt zigs across a page, carrying Alex Luthor from one panel to another even as he travels from world to world. The death of the Flash features panels receding away from the viewer into infinity. And so on. However, I cannot say that the layout work is entirely flawless. There are points where it becomes too much to follow, particularly pages 344-345.
The artwork was touched up for this collection. Better paper stock and modern printing techniques were used (though the original first two issues were done in an interesting Duotone printing technique, the subsequent ten were created with standard four colour printing). There are some areas where this is a definite improvement. The white text against black backgrounds in some of the early issues was originally very hard to read in places, as the slightest deviation in the printing made the words unreadable. However, other changes, such as the grey colour used for the shadow demons, seem arbitrary.
Another result of the collection in book form is that certain minor discontinuities between issues become obvious. Most notably, the last page of the third part clearly does not precede part four, being instead a symbolic preview of the next chapter. A similar argument could be made about the last page of part five.
So, in the end, is the Crisis On Infinite Earths worth buying?
I love the Crisis. For all the trouble it eventually led to, these twelve issues are near and dear to my heart. It is in fact my favorite comic book story.
That said, it is likely to be largely incomprehensible to most readers. It simply requires a degree of knowledge that most people do not have. If you are not an expert in the history of the DC Universe, this is not the book for you. Not yet.
And if you are the sort of person who knows the DC Universe inside and out, then you probably already have a copy of either the original issues or one of the collections.
If, however, you are at that one figurative instant where you're ready for the Crisis but have not yet read it... It's still bloody expensive. You might well want to try to find the original issues instead, because with a bit of searching you could probably save some money that way. I know my copies of those cost me about one fifth what the tpb retails for.
But I did buy the book anyway. Because, for those who understand and love the DC Universe in all its glory, the Crisis On Infinite Earths is in a class all its own.
This is the final instalment of From The Bookshelf. I've had fun talking about some of the trade paperbacks in my collection, and I regret that it has to end so soon. There are still plenty of books on that shelf. I hope that my literary pretensions and random observations have managed to amuse and/or inform some of you, and I'd like to thank all of the readers of my column this past year.
Fiction editor Nicolas Juzda
is currently studying law in Saskatchewan. He fills the void that was left in
his soul by contributing to Fanzing. He has twice been among the winners in
the Bulwer Lytton Fiction Contest for bad writing.
All characters are © DC Comics
This piece is © 2003 by Nicolas Juzda
Fanzing is not associated with DC Comics.
All DC Comics characters, trademarks and images (where used) are DC Comics, Inc.
DC characters are used here in fan art and fiction in accordance with their generous "fair use" policies.
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