Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Retro Review: Crisis on Infinite Earths

Crisis on Infinite Earths is a work of singular importance in DC Comics; it was and remains unprecedentedly broad in both scope and in ambition. Although various sequels have been published, none of them has had the power of the original. COIE was, essentially, destined to succeed owing to the sheer boldness of its objectives: It’s impossible to discuss the history of DC Comics without discussing COIE and impossible to understand a great many of the comics that followed it without having a passing knowledge of it. It brought to DC the company-wide crossover format which has yielded many subsequent successes; it altered the destiny of many characters; and, it altered the basic nature of the DC Universe for decades to follow. Simply put, it is tremendously important and influential.

But is it good? In many ways, yes; in other ways, less so, but this depends on one’s criteria, and should be taken in the context of what COIE tried to accomplish.

There are at least four distinct roles that COIE played:

1) It made a sharp before-and-after change in the basic facts of the DC Universe. Most important, it moved the Earth Two characters into the same world and timeline as the Earth One characters, creating a new unified timeline that resolved the generational contradictions in a new way.
2) It made several changes of immediate importance in rearranging DC’s lineup; such as, removing the Flash (Barry Allen) and Supergirl entirely, while putting characters such as Blue Beetle, Wally West, the new Wildcat Yolanda Montez and Green Lantern Guy Gardner into the spotlight.
3) It was one of several works that changed the tone of DC Comics, reflecting an increased maturity level (and age) of readers. While the story is in many scenes bright and optimistic, it also portrayed murder, madness, torture, and genocide.
4) It was itself a story that captured a great deal of attention. Changes (1) and (2) could have been made with – rather than a 12-issue miniseries – a one-page editorial proclamation. They chose, however, to convey the sweeping changes through a story, with science fiction plot elements that made the changes happen to the characters. The story tells a tale that goes about these changes in a particular fashion, bringing to DC a crossover "event" format that had previously been used by Marvel Comics, and while it left many contradictions and loose ends for other works to resolve, it related those changes taking place as part of one grand science fiction story, which can be read and enjoyed on its own merits.

On those first three points, readers may express their own feelings about the strategic merits and demerits of what COIE did to the DC Universe, much of which was proclaimed from editorial heights downward, outside of the will of creators Marv Wolfman and George Perez. These changes spun off over two decades’ worth of storylines that took the setup laid out by COIE and took it forward into directions like the John Byrne reboot of Superman, Keith Giffen's take on the Justice League, and later to new characters like Kyle Rayner, Bane, and Doomsday. Some of these changes were controversial among fans, creating debates between generations of fans as to whether the changes should be retained or undone. Eventually, the pendulum swung the other way, with a penchant for Silver Age revival underlying many changes to the Justice League and Superman, among other characters, in various ways back to their pre-COIE states, and COIE’s single universe has once again been replaced by a Multiverse. History shows that COIE’s changes endured for a long while, then were largely undone.

As a story itself, COIE is certainly large and eventful. It is well-drawn and exciting. New characters capture the imagination and emotion springs forth from tragedy.

For the modern reader, it has many shortcomings. It is extraordinarily repetitive. For example, Pariah explains his predicament half a dozen times, more than once to almost-identical scenes of a world dying. We’re told many times that Harbinger must, against her will, kill the Monitor, and after it happens, we’re reminded of it several more times. One may understand this as a product of its publication history: A 12-issue release which some readers read piecemeal, giving the writers a need to bring along casual readers as well as the devoted.

It is also repetitive in raising then resolving serial threats. The heroes and villians begin at odds, then ally together, then fight each other, then ally again, then end up at odds. When the Anti-Monitor’s Plan A fails, he goes on to Plan B, Plan C, and… without taking notes, it’s hard even to remember how many new threats he raises. In fact, there are about six distinct cycles of threats raised by the Anti-Monitor and resolutions, plus one threat issuing from the super villains who are otherwise allied with heroes against their common foe. The reader may grow weary of if not overwhelmed by the large number of gyrations in the plot, though in fairness, this is a characteristic of epics as far back as the Iliad. The following outline sketches out COIE's major developments.

1) Anti-Monitor's antimatter wave destroys over 1000 matter universes.
2) Monitor sends groups of heroes and villains to defend five tuning forks placed in different times and places.
3) Harbinger kills Monitor.
4) Energy of Monitor's death places Earths 1 and 2 into netherverse, leaving only three more threatened universes: Earth X, Earth S, and Earth 4.
5) Earths 1 and 2 threaten to merge, which would destroy them.
6) Harbinger moves Earths X, S, and 4 to the netherverse, joining Earths 1 and 2.
7) Strongest heroes attack Anti-Monitor. Supergirl dies.
8) Anti-Monitor builds cannon to continue his attack. Destroyed by the Flash, Barry Allen, who dies.
9) Remaining Earths jeopardized by a time/dimensional flux.
10) Super villains conquer Earths X, S, and 4.
11) Anti-Monitor launches attack at the beginning of time. Heroes fail to stop him. Villains fail to stop Krona.
12) Spectre opposes Anti-Monitor and Universe begins again.
13) Single Universe with only the heroes remembering the Multiverse and Crisis.
14) Anti-Monitor brings Earth to antimatter universe.
15) Shadow demons attack Earth, then sent away by magicians.
16) Anti-Monitor blasted by Darkseid, then destroyed by Kal-L.

The logic of the story is not exceptionally coherent. Twice, characters ask the Monitor why he assembled precisely the team he did instead of a more powerful team, and both times he dodges the question. More than once, the story reminds us that it was not simply copies of the planet Earth but entire universes (infinite Ranns, infinite Kryptons, infinite Thanagars, infinite Andromeda Galaxies, etc.) which were being destroyed and merged, but then it lazily reverts to the Earths alone. Wouldn’t it have been easier to simply avoid those questions rather than to first raise and then dodge them?

If the Internet had existed in 1986, there probably would have been a record of discussion and discontent owing to the similarities between COIE and Marvel's Secret Wars event, which ran one year earlier. Secret Wars was also 12 issues long, and involved virtually all of Marvel's most prominent characters, brought together by a single, mysterious cosmically-powerful figure. On the surface, COIE seems to import or even steal its basic ideas from Secret Wars, although in fact COIE was being planned before Secret Wars was published, and some of the similarities are likely to be coincidental.

In pursuing its goal of reinventing the superheroes' world, COIE resorts too often to giving the superheroes an inflated sense of importance. Billions of innocent beings die, but a tear-jerker scene is devoted to Wildcat Ted Grant accepting the fact that he has been crippled. While millions die on the newly merged Earth, reporters Lois Lane and Lana Lang are choken up on-air by the death of superhero Dove. And while Pariah voices anguish over the deaths of ordinary citizens, the story repeatedly uses them as nameless mass fodder while superheroes are both saviors and victim. The focus on superheroes to the exclusion of regular people goes so far that in the reworking of the Multiverse into a Universe, no one is even bothered to mention if Alexander still conquered the ancient world, or how World War Two turned out. On one level, this is understandable, as the reader buys a comic with superheroes on the cover expecting a series about superheroes, not alternate timelines for Julius Caesar and Abraham Lincoln. The degree of the focus, however, is strange and unnecessary. Superhero comics began with the premise of powerful, benevolent people providing justice for ordinary citizens. COIE's 12 issues could have devoted more than a few perfunctory pages to the inter-global consequences of worlds merging.

And while the story is mature in terms of sheer violence, it doesn’t offer sophistication to match. At the climax of one issue, the Flash tells the Anti-Monitor, who had destroyed a thousand universes, that he’s done nothing to prove himself. Then the Anti-Monitor steps out of the shadows to reveal himself and the Flash is silent with shock, as though by being ugly the Anti-Monitor “proves himself” more than he did by destroying universes.

And yet, we must remember the DC Universe that COIE changed. If Marv Wolfman's dialogue and characterization seem weak in comparison to those of Alan Moore or Grant Morrison, that is natural given the state of comics in 1985. The passion generated around the sacrifices of Barry Allen and Supergirl was effective and real and needs no apologies. From the disorientation that Batman and Superman show early on to Wally West's mournful acceptance of his mentor's death, the story succeeds in making us feel, in part because of the surprise of seeing these erstwhile ever-happy, ever-smiling characters thrown into shock by death and mayhem.

If COIE were written in 2014, released in a shorter time frame, with current sensibilities, it would probably be a better work. And yet, it has not been easy to improve upon: It's sequels have not been remembered as better than COIE, and its level of fan appeal has been exceeded by few subsequent events. Even now that the world it created has been erased, the path between DC Comics' first half-century and the present can only be understood by reading COIE and its status as a must-read work cannot be erased.


While it began in title and in concept as an extension of the "Crisis" theme begun in JLA-JSA crossovers, COIE has itself been much-imitated, spinning off memorable sequels such as Infinite Crisis and Final Crisis, and JLA/Avengers. With Geoff Johns' recent events Trinity War and Forever Evil depicting the destruction of Earth Three by the Anti-Monitor, it is clear we have another, if slowly developing, sequel to COIE in progress, and readers who want to understand DC's future find themselves once again opening the pages of COIE to understand adequately DC's past.

7 comments:

  1. Great post. I have to admit to myself that I have rose-colored glasses for COIE, and I definitely agree with the criticisms listed here. It's a good read though and gives me such a thrill of nostalgia whenever I read it, the art is magnificent though and it has to be George Perezs masterpiece. Anyone who is a fan I recommend the Absolute version of this book.

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  2. Rikdad --

    Thanks for the great read. Much appreciated.

    Recalling COIE is much like revisiting the original three "Star Wars" movies. You see flaws through our modern sensibilities, but damn, is it a good story. And "story" is the key word. Characterization is strong, the pacing is sensible and tension ebbs and flows, even as the overall stakes grow. Marv Wolfman had a true passion for these characters and it shines through. The deaths of Supergirl and the Flash are Hollywood-worthy, and two of the greatest in comics history (Superman's thoughts after his cousin's death are heartwrenching).

    A more recent storyline such as "Sinestro Corps War" might have been enjoyable at the time, but just try relating the plot of that seven years later. With COIE, even after 30 years, I can still recount what happened and mostly in which issue.

    What doesn't hold up as well are all the connections to mid-1980s continuity. If you haven't read "The Trial of the Flash" or The New Teen Titans or the Roy Thomas Earth-2 books, you're going to say "huh" in many situations. And I think that speaks to my dream comic-book epic -- that it is done without regard to existing continuity so that it stands the test of time. Perhaps "Kingdom Come" comes closest to that approach.

    Thanks again.

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  3. Jonny, I think a very large proportion of fans agree with the overall trade-off: It's flawed, it's not up to modern standards, but it's still quite good. I myself read it after it was published, in 1989, which seemed very late at the time, but was a great companion for all the comics which were then being published. It's harder to sum up the whole era than COIE alone, but the era was definitely one of excitement.

    I agree: the Absolute version has a remarkable quantity of interesting materials besides the story itself.

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  4. ManWithTenEyes, your passion for the characters also shows through. The Flash, to name but one, exhibited the desperation that befitted not only his situation in that story, but also, as you note, in the trial story that preceded it. About a year ago, I read/re-read the final couple of years of Flash stories, as Barry Allen descended into a virtual hell, and considered reviewing *that* in my blog, as it was the bookend, albeit far removed, from the relatively recent Flash Rebirth.

    COIE is disorienting, I think, to almost every reader in some way or another. The Kamandi sub-story, or the sudden appearance of Doctor Occult, the rebirth as DC characters of Blue Beetle and Captain Atom – only the most serious trivia buffs at the time (without collected reprints and the Internet) could have appreciated all of this.

    And having explored COIE, I aim to follow up with more retro reviews, to follow up what things it led to, and by and by, cover some older works that I love as well.

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  5. Off topic, but curious about Rikdads thoughts on this weeks Robin Rises Omega special. It confirms that Grants run including final crisis and return of Bruce Wayne are in new52 continuity somehow, making my brain explode lol

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  6. Jonny, that was a very interesting issue, despite (maybe because of) long stretches devoted to recapping several stories from other titles.

    I initially expected New 52 to be a rather hard reboot, but the more time goes by, the more it looks like they're throwing in everything including the kitchen sink from pre-Flashpoint continuity, and yes, this is the first time post-Flashpoint that we've seen a writer besides Morrison refer to Doctor Hurt.

    A counterpoint to that which is heavy in my mind: Batman The Dark Knight #0 establishes a retelling of the Waynes' murder which contradicts what Morrison was saying about it – a story which he never actually finalized. Was Morrison going to say that Hurt put a hit on the Waynes? He hinted at it rather strongly without saying so. And I'm a bit sad that it has been retold already.

    Seeing Kubert's pencils on Damian really brings the Morrison run back alive; I liked Tomasi's take on everything, and I'll keep reading wherever this story goes.

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    1. Seems like DC wants to have their cake and eat it to, in regards to pre-flashpoint continuity (or the "Old 88" if we want to be cute). New 52 has this 5 Year Conceit that doesn't really hold water and actually makes the timeline more confusing then it needs to be. How we can reconcile stories like Final Crisis, or even the Death of Superman, with the New 52 is beyond my understanding but DC wants to try whenever it feels convenient.

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