In an effort to explain why some of their co-existing characters had been around for decades while others were brand-new, DC Comics editors and writers created the concept of the DC Multiverse, in which it was revealed that the original DC characters from the 1940s lived on a parallel Earth, separated by a different vibrational frequency. This allowed the Justice Society of the 1940s, with a middle-aged Superman, Batman, Flash, etc., to meet up with the then-current and youthful Justice League of the 1960s, by traversing from Earth-Two to Earth-One, or vice versa. This simple and elegant concept was then endlessly muddied up by the introduction of numerous additional parallel Earths, due to either creative whimsy or the need to introduce new groups of characters acquired from other defunct comic-book publishers.
By the 1980s, editorial and fan opinion on the device was split: some felt the multiple Earths were far too confusing and served as an obstacle to the new reader, while others felt the concept unique and lots of fun if handled correctly, and that it encouraged new readers to learn more about DC’s universe. By 1985, it was time for someone to break the tie: Enter DC writer/editor Marv Wolfman and DC Comics Publisher Jenette Kahn.
In the early 1980s, Len Wein and Marv Wolfman were two of the hottest writers/editors in comics. Longtime fans turned professionals, Wein and Wolfman had both had stints in the editor-in-chief position at Marvel Comics, as well as turning in extremely popular, high-profile stints as writers. Wolfman had written just about every comic Marvel had put out, including a notable run on TOMB OF DRACULA with Gene Colan, while Wein had made a name for himself on AMAZING SPIDER-MAN and FANTASTIC FOUR, not to mention co-creating the new X-Men and Wolverine. Eventually, both found themselves at DC Comics, where Wein had a lengthy and well-regarded run on JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA, among others, and Wolfman created THE NEW TEEN TITANS with artist George Perez, a critical and commercial smash hit.
Wein and Wolfman were of the belief that the parallel Earths of the DC Universe were far too complex and confusing to the common reader, and came to DC’s Publisher Jenette Kahn with a bold proposal: a 12-issue miniseries (unheard of at the time) that would involve all of DC’s characters, past, present and future, in a mammoth, cataclysmic adventure that would result in a single, elegant, consistent DC universe. Much to their surprise, Kahn approved the idea, and set them off to begin the research for what would be the single most ambitious project in DC’s publishing history.
With both Wein and Wolfman working full-time as writers/editors, the bulk of the research fell to Peter Sanderson, a comics fan/historian, who over the course of three years or so read every comic National/DC ever produced, taking extensive notes. The research took so long that the miniseries was postponed, eventually scheduled for 1985, which just happened to be DC’s 50th anniversary. When Wolfman nervously presented his first synopsis of the series to Kahn, he feared he may have been too outrageous, asking for changes that were too radical. To his surprise, Kahn returned the synopsis, asking Wolfman to take another crack at it and be even bolder, to really shake things up. Wolfman delivered.
When Marv Wolfman and George Perez’s first issue of CRISIS OF INFINITE EARTHS appeared in April 1985 (with Len Wein serving as Consulting Editor), DC fans were immediately put on notice; things would not be the same after this. Within the first ten pages, Earth-Three and the Crime Syndicate were dead and gone, wiped from existence by an unrelenting wall of anti-matter that was methodically eliminating parallel universe after parallel universe.
(In a nice bit of poetic irony, Earth-Three’s only superhero, Lex Luthor, managed to save his son Alexander by sending him off in a “vibratory capsule” to Earth-One, in a sweet little echo of the original Superman origin that started it all.
Readers were introduced to the Monitor, a mysterious benefactor who plucked select heroes and villains from various Earths and time periods in an effort to halt the ever-encroaching void.
By the series’ halfway point, all the parallel universes and their corresponding Earths had been destroyed except five:
Earth-One, the home of the Justice League
Earth-Two, birthplace of the Justice Society
Earth-X, residence of Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters (former Quality comics characters)
Earth-S, home of Captain Marvel and the Marvel Family (previously published by Fawcett Comics)
Earth-4, home to Blue Beetle, Captain Atom and the other characters purchased from Charlton Comics
These five had been saved from destruction thanks to the mortal sacrifice of the Monitor, who allowed his own murder so that the energies released by his death could create a “safe zone” in which the universes could reside.
In keeping with the series’ theme of duplicates and parallels, the mastermind behind the destruction of countless parallel universes was revealed to be the Anti-Monitor, the Monitor’s evil counterpart bent on destroying all life and expanding his own anti-matter universe. It’s not easy to create a new villain and invest him with enough menace and malice to have readers really buy into him as the worst villain in all creation. Wolfman and Perez pulled it off though, and in several startling ways.
In the first few issues of CRISIS, there are big doings afoot, and with the battles come casualties. The aforementioned Crime Syndicate is killed, as are a handful of other relatively minor DC characters: Old West hero Nighthawk, Legion of Superheroes member Kid Psycho, World War II combat heroes the Losers, a few others. Enough to get across the gravity of the situation, but nothing to really make you sit up and take notice. That is, not until CRISIS #7.
In order to stop the five remaining Earths from merging together and ultimately destroying each other, a contingent of superheroes from all five Earths traverse to the anti-matter universe of the Anti-Monitor, to stop him once and for all.
Once there, they discover that their powers work differently there, and some are considerably weaker. When Superman and the Anti-Monitor meet in personal combat, the no-longer-invulnerable Superman is swiftly taken down, and Superman’s life is only saved thanks to the arrival of his cousin Kara, a.k.a. Supergirl, who engages the Anti-Monitor long enough for his machinery to be destroyed, thereby saving the five universes. But not without a cost.
In a moment unexpected by anyone reading comics at the time (and remember, there were no Previews catalog and no Internet back then, so you only knew what would happen when you picked the book up off the rack), Supergirl, a mainstay of DC Comics for over 30 years, was dead. I remember turning page after page at the end of this issue waiting for the catch, the twist, the way out. It never came.
Just as readers were recovering from the loss of Kara, CRISIS #8 upped the stakes again. This time it was Barry Allen, the modern Flash, who would pay the ultimate price to save the Earths from destruction. As the only being who could travel from Earth to Earth freely, Flash had been held prisoner by the Anti-Monitor to insure he wouldn’t interfere. Breaking free, Flash discovered the Anti-Monitor’s fallback plan: an anti-matter cannon capable of destroying the five remaining Earths. To destroy the cannon, Flash raced around the cannon’s anti-matter power source at super-speed, forcing its energies inward, and causing his very body to deteriorate. The cannon was destroyed, and Barry Allen was no more. This was getting serious. Two major characters gone in two months. Little did we know that Wolfman was just getting warmed up.
To keep things from getting too morose, Wolfman then unleashed one of my favorite plot twists of the series: Lex Luthor and Brainiac assembled every supervillain from all five Earths into a massive army and swiftly conquered three of the five worlds. Nice! In a shocking moment, Brainiac reminds Luthor’s Earth-Two duplicate precisely who’s in charge:
After Earths’ superheroes launch a counterattack, the Monitor’s assistants (including the now-grown Alexander Luthor, who alone can open a portal between the positive and negative universes) rally the troops once more when it’s discovered that the Anti-Monitor is still a very real threat and is planning to journey to the dawn of time to prevent the multiverse from ever existing. Heroes and villains pull together, and the Anti-Monitor is forced back once more at the dawn of time, but with some distressing results. After the battle’s climax, the superheroes find themselves home on Earth. But it’s a changed, unified, single Earth. In this newly revised universe, there was only one Superman, one Batman. The Justice Society is remembered as being the precursor to the current Justice League. According to the new Earth’s history, the Freedom Fighters had always lived on the same Earth as Captain Marvel and the Blue Beetle. Unfortunately, this left some surviving characters like the Earth-Two Superman, Robin and Huntress (daughter of the Earth-Two Batman and Catwoman) as non-people, lost in a world that never knew them. By series’ end they’d all be casualties, not only forgotten but gone as well.
Before the Earth’s heroes could fully take in their reborn universe, the Anti-Monitor played his final gambit: he plucked the Earth itself from its orbit and transplanted it into his anti-matter universe, there to more easily destroy it and clear the way for the destruction of all life. Again, the losses are heavy: Characters such as the Dove, the original Earth-Two Green Arrow, Clayface, the original Earth-Two Robin and the Huntress all sacrifice their lives to save the innocent. Through the concerted efforts of the newly united Earth’s superheroes, the Anti-Monitor is finally destroyed, with the final blow coming from the original Superman of Earth-Two, who elects to remain behind to make certain the Earth is able to safely return to its own universe.
The gap between the positive and negative universes is closed by Alexander Luthor, who reveals that before the multiple Earths were lost, he had saved Superman’s wife Lois Lane from non-existence:
“I knew how the universe would be reborn … I knew the consequences. And I could not let you, of all the heroes, suffer in that loss.”
Alexander Luthor opens a portal into a mysterious place that Lois describes as “so beautiful,” and the original Superman and Lois go into a place where “there will be no fear … only peace…everlasting peace.”
So after that, the DC universe was neat and orderly, and everything worked great, right?
Well, you’d think so, but in reality … not so much.
The idea was supposed to be that, post-Crisis, the DC Universe would be a simpler place, since every character now indisputably lived in the same universe. Instead, for some reason, the various DC editors, for reasons that to this day elude me, interpreted the reborn DC Universe as “whatever I say goes,” and the continuity suffered more than it ever did with multiple Earths. Let’s take a look at how: Not long after CRISIS, Superman’s entire history was re-conceived by John Byrne in the MAN OF STEEL miniseries. Among the arbitrary decisions made:
Clark Kent’s adoptive parents never died. Okay, fine. No harm done. Superman was now the only native of Krypton to survive its destruction, meaning not only was Supergirl dead, but according to new post-Crisis continuity, she’d never existed. Say goodbye to Krypto the Superdog as well. Luthor was now a billionaire mogul instead of an evil genius. And it was decreed that Clark Kent had never been Superboy, meaning that the Legion of Superheroes, a futuristic team of teenage super-types whose entire origin was based on Superboy, would be plunged into a nightmare of rewrite after rewrite from which the series to this day has never recovered.
Batman got off easier when it comes to the rebooting; the biggest revamp involved Batman’s second young partner, the new Robin Jason Todd. Whereas before Jason was a nice enough kid trying to live up to the shadow of his predecessor Dick Grayson, the redesigned Jason Todd was an unlikable, barely reformed juvenile delinquent whose poor attitude and surly nature led to one of the low points of DC history: an ill-advised call-in promotion that let the readers decide whether or not the Joker would murder Robin. The new Robin was such an arrogant little punk that it was no surprise when readers voted to let the Joker beat him with a crowbar and blow him straight to hell.
And if you thought those were extreme, check out Wonder Woman. It was decided that Wonder Woman had never existed until the first issue of her new series, which meant that any comic book you ever read that had Wonder Woman in it never really happened. Charming. Also, Wonder Woman’s secret identity of Diana Prince was summarily abandoned.
And the worst decision of all? For reasons that were never explained, it was declared that Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman had absolutely never been members of the Justice League. What the –?!
Removing the Big Three from the Justice Society wasn’t really that big a problem; in the scheme of things, they weren’t really pivotal characters. But nearly every issue of the Justice League had featured Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, and here was DC Comics telling us that all those stories never happened, or at least never happened the way they were originally told. It was infuriating. Much of the appeal of the JLA comes from the “Big Guns” of the DC Universe teamed up. Take away three of the seven, and the chemistry is definitely altered for the worse, as DC would discover.
And it wasn’t just the major characters who caused problems. When Hawkman was re-introduced, he too was given the “today is his first day on Earth” treatment like Wonder Woman, which also played havoc with some twenty-five years’ worth of Justice League comics. Had any of these decisions resulted in better comics, it wouldn’t have been so bad, but that wasn’t the case; as good as many of these comics were, they wouldn’t have suffered any by retaining that link to the Justice League. I certainly have no evidence of this, but from this reader’s perspective, it felt like nothing more than egotism on the parts of the creators, as if their characters were too important to be tied to the rest of the DC Universe.
So was it all worth it?
Hard to say. In terms of what it was supposed to achieve, it’s a tough call. While things seemed easier to understand without multiple Earths, the piecemeal plugging of the holes in continuity went on for years, and continues to this day.
However, as an artistic enterprise in itself, CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS was an unqualified success. The first of the company-spanning maxiseries in comics, CRISIS set a standard that really hasn’t been met since. Every month, the series crossed over into numerous other DC series, whether in full plotlines that took off directly from the pages of CRISIS, or just the crimson skies that signaled the Anti-Monitor’s invasion, and which could be seen in almost every DC book for the 12 months of CRISIS’ publication. George Perez’s finely detailed and expressive art conveyed both the grand scope of a series that literally had a cast of thousands, and the gentler nuance of a Superman in mourning. Marv Wolfman’s plot keeps the reader on the edge of his seat for 12 months straight (no easy task), while his characterizations and dialogue are dead-on accurate. The series is at times funny, exciting, breathtaking, moody and heartbreaking.
CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS is available collected in trade paperback. I highly recommend it.