Daniel Elkin: And here it is, finally, the penultimate issue of Crisis on Infinite Earths, and here it is, finally, the creator coming to terms with his creation and, by doing so, coming to terms with himself.
“I belong out here … in the void … in this nothingness.”
Issue 11 of Crisis on Infinite Earths is, hands down, my favorite issue of this series so far. Now I realize that given the fact I’ve been savaging this series up until now, calling it my favorite issue may be faint praise. Which it is, ultimately. But here, at last, after slogging through so much of the translucent hog fat for ten issues, there is some meat upon which to chew.
“I shouldn’t exist … I do — only through some fluke.”
The narrative conceit that has been guiding this rudderless ship for so long has finally crested whatever intellectual wave it had been riding and has begun to surf the face of profundity. Infinite Earths have coalesced (seemingly) into one, leaving not only destruction in its wake, but also the clarity engendered by complete confusion. Heroes are left unsure of their purpose as much as they are unsure of their identity.
Wolfman is working in the world of what it means to be human and the nature of personality. He posits the a priori assumption that our sense of self is initially derived from the sum of our experiences — that we are who we are due to everything that has happened to us along the way. He then brings to fore the question of what happens to an individual’s sense of who they are if all of those experiences are completely erased and the individual can no longer look to their past to understand their present.
What happens, at least in this ridiculous instance here in Crisis, is the individual confronts the abyss. They have, for lack of a more accessible lexicon, a complete existential breakdown.
“I only exist because of some whim of fate.”
Is it possible to look to the future if you have no past? Without any moorings, do you necessarily have to be cast adrift? Without roots, do you topple only to rot on the forest floor?
These are the sorts of questions that great philosophers and artists have reckoned with time and time again, and to find them raised in the ludicrous venue of a SUPERHERO CROSSOVER EVENT COMIC shuddered me at first. There I was, expecting more of the same fists being wrecked into the smirking faces of preposterously garbed meat men and I found that the only punches to be thrown were ones directed straight into my soul.
Have I been wrong all along? Is the Crisis on Infinite Earths really a metaphor for the crisis of infinite selves? After all, there is the self we think we are, the one that Wolfman believes to be the sum of our experiences. Then there are they myriad of selves we present to the world on a daily basis. I mean, I gotta consider the fact that Daniel Elkin father is much different than Daniel Elkin friend who is different from Daniel Elkin high school English teacher who is different than Daniel Elkin boyfriend who is different than Daniel Elkin son who is different than Daniel Elkin cranky old fuck comic book reviewer who is different than Daniel Elkin drunk at the end of the bar. The list goes on and on and on. Sometimes these selves overlap and sometimes you can catch a glimpse of one self in the mannerisms of another, but I am large, I contain multitudes.
But when the very basis of that self is ripped away, then who remains? Were I to change jobs, what becomes of that Daniel Elkin? Were I to stop writing about comics, what becomes of that cranky old fuck? Were my entire life history to vanish into the void (as is what happens here in this book), what is left?
It bends the brain to think on.
And the fact that Wolfman puts these quotes and concepts coming from the mouth of Superman, the übermensch, the ideal of mankind? Well that kind of explodes the metaphor into the infinite, doesn’t it. If identity is so frail that even Superman’s can break, what does that mean for the rest of us?
Fuck. I need more gin. I need help. I need one of you to make sense of this before the abyss starts staring back at me.
Mark Stack: Scaling down is the best possible thing that this book could do after all of the world ending drama that’s been going on. And, as Elkin talked about, it really comes alive as it plays with the horror of waking up to find that the world as you knew it no longer exists and that you do not belong in the new one. It’s a concept that was recently explored to great success in Warren Ellis and Tula Lotay’s Supreme: Blue Rose but the execution here is pretty impressive for a big superhero crossover event.
The scenes of Superman waking up to realize that this in not his beautiful house and that he no longer has a beautiful wife are the best of the book. They give you a clear perspective to latch onto, one of an older DC Comics reader that is awakening to a new world that is at once foreign and familiar with no place for him. It’s a message that I wish the big two publishers would put out a bit more because, as it stands, there’s a bit too much trying to maintain older readers than cultivating new ones.
The effect of Crisis, the horror (underplayed but certainly present) of this issue is diminished a bit by the knowledge of all the Zero Hours, Infinite or Finale Crises, and Flashpoints that are going to be coming. It’s not this book’s fault that DC bungled what it was doing and undid what should make this book so uniquely special. But we keep getting feature length callbacks to this event with diminishing returns.
This issue is too long by half. There are a lot of scenes of superheroes standing around and going into stories about how they discovered that the world has changed. None of these are as effective as having the Superman of Earth-2 (our emotional throughline in this issue and the connection from the old DC universe to the new one) wake to the horror and attempt suicide upon realizing that his wife never existed in this new universe. And there are some scenes that feel like they exist only to plug other books which made me smile and shake my head because I was somewhat pleased to know that crossover events have always been terrible to their readers.
Now, this sounds crazy and I can’t believe I’m typing it, but this issue (much like issue #10) doesn’t feel as overwritten as previous issues. Sure, it’s repetitive as all hell to have characters keep explaining how the world has changed but the narration and the dialogue are not overpowering everything. I mean, there are a lot of words in this book that you could probably rearrange to get at least half of Hamlet. It helps that this is primarily an issue about people talking and was most likely written with that in mind. We get what feels like a more realized draft where a writer didn’t have to (not that Wolfman ever had to) come in and add a ton of words to explain the action that he thought might confuse readers.
I’ve never really been able to talk much about George Perez’s art in this series and that’s too bad. He’s really good, the only thing that’s made the first set of issues I read bearable, but he doesn’t always get to do a lot of storytelling as opposed to just drawing pictures taken from a story. That’s a huge problem with a lot of superhero comics of this, and really any, era where the storytelling only really exists in the writing. Perez gets a chance to do some good storytelling in the early scenes with the Superman of Earth-2 going through his morning routine. It’s an argument for the strengths of decompression and reducing the number of intercut scenes on a page.
I enjoyed this issue so that’s two in a row. Consider me cautiously optimistic for the finale.
But if there’s any part of this series that’s worth being pulled back into our little analyses, this issue is it.
The superhero genre defines itself via the content of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s original run on Action Comics. That is, elements we still consider 17-year-old boys to be largely fascinated with. A lot of punching. A lot of posturing. Big, flashy action sequences committed by big, flashy strength and endurance levels. We have seen a lot of that in the previous Crisis issues, but while the original stories starring Superman had political drive that the people in the midst of the United States’ Great Depression found relatable, Crisis didn’t offer us anything of equal power.
However, while Crisis of Infinite Earths #11 stars superheroes, I would not call it only a superhero book. It tilts full-on toward sci-fi and, thankfully, low sci-fi for the most part. And it is in low sci-fi that Crisis finally discovers its potential for relatability. While we don’t think about it on a daily basis, much of our identity comes not from within ourselves, but from what people expect of us. We don’t usually know precisely what tiny behaviors and patterns others have observed, but we at least understand their acknowledgement of our existence through the roles we play for them.
Elkin went over much of this so I won’t repeat it, but Crisis #11 works because it questions fundamental parts of ourselves that we all have and, furthermore, do not often consider. For instance, so many stories that we tell each other are based on legacy and parentage because it is known that we all carry these things, within our genes even if not our experiences.
Take Helena Wayne. It’s not established in this issue, but in stories that came afterward that she is the Huntress because she was initially her father’s–Batman’s–Robin. Her entire life has consisted of playing the role of her father’s protege; her main skillset involves the fighting and strategizing that he taught her over the years. Their crimefighting was a bonding experience, as normal to them as a regular father and daughter’s fishing trips or, in my father’s and my own case, rock concert-attendance.
As for me, much of my own character is rooted in my father. I value much of the music I listened to as a youth because I did it with him. I watch Star Trek now because I witnessed him watching it in our living-room as I grew up. Even as an adult, I’m not allowed to be unmotivated or “stupid,” in the many ways my father believes people can be stupid, because I am supposed to be his ambitious, intelligent echo (and now you know the ultimate reason why I’ve been doing these analyses with you all: my constant determination to prove to myself that I am capable of complex thought and the ability to express it–i.e., I am not “stupid”, or the kind of person my father disparages).
But if my father suddenly did not exist, not even lying within a grave where I could visit and remember that there was a time where he walked and breathed and laughed and admonished then where could I visit all those things that he gave me? Without him, where is the proof of everything that I have based my personality and goals?
Helena’s father is gone, disappeared into the void along with Kal-L’s Lois Lane. What do these two people have left to fight for? Not only are their loved ones’ vanished, all else about their lives–careers, homes, friends–have been stripped away from them. They own nothing and nobody in this strange world has any reason to offer them new lives, certainly not ones of whole cloth.
We are all but white people living in a first world country with everything intact, but I can imagine that this loss and displacement is very akin to what victims of war experience. In its aftermath, Crisis shows that it really was a war and its consequences hit on a personal level within universal understanding.
And, God, do I feel for the characters in this series now.
Elkin: The fact that it took us eleven issue to get us to this place still kinda pisses me off, but regardless, I’m glad we got here. Well said, you two. Well said.
Stack: Crisis on Infinite Earths: just rip the first ten issues out of your trade.
Elkin: Fuck that. Just get issue 11 and let the other 10 rot on the trash heap of pop culture.
Michael Bettendorf: Well, shoot. I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to even read this issue on time, let alone have time to discuss it with you all this week, but here I am.
I feel like whatever I have to say is going to be insignificant after following up the rest of you. You shouldn’t let your headliners go first, right Ray? Or else no one stays for the final act. Rule one of good concerts. You all pretty well covered the existential crisis of identity that Crisis begs for us to address, albeit near the very end of the series.
You all know that many of these characters mean little to me, not being a DC reader, but Old Superman? That’s him right? Earth-2 apparently? Well, silverfox-Superman’s character finally did it for me. More than Supergirl’s death, more than the Flash’s heroic sacrifice (although this one was close) – this one did it for me. It may have taken him 10 issues, but Wolfman finally got me to relate to and care about a character.
A smidge of perspective: Alzheimer’s runs in my wife’s family and while our generation is much more apt to take care of this than previous generations, biology is biology and it’d be naive not to even consider the possibility, just as heart attacks are hard hitting winds against my family tree, known to knock a few apples off. I have a steel-trap memory (thanks, Grandma). I can remember images as far back as age 3-4, which is I think the earliest we’re capable of. Sure there’s false memories, etc., but anyway. I have a solid long-term memory. Losing that is something my wife fears and something I fear just as much, maybe more because the thought of me remembering our life and her not rips me the fuck apart. And while I think I just unintentionally described the Notebook, that’s how I imagine Superman to feel – except he can’t even take care of Lois. He can’t even kiss her on the forehead or read to her or talk to her. She simply isn’t there.
I think I finally get Crisis.
Kristopher Reavely: I’m so behind on this it’s incredible, when I first started to read the reviews of my peers I thought I was on the wrong site. While not glowing with positivity Issue 11 seems to have finally earned some less than horrific reviews.
Issue 11 is excellent for character development, it’s amazing to read as Wolfman finally seems to have cleared enough of the chaos away to allow for some real interactions. That being said man oh man does he love to write dialogue. Every character seems to lay out every single thought constantly. Fortunately this time it seems like those thoughts and words are warranted.
I’m happy to agree that it has been a long long ride, and not one that has been easy on anyone. The joy that readers from the 80’s might have had for this series, would not be possible in modern times. What was the last crossover that you can honestly say you thought was awesome. It’s really hard to pick one out since the weight of an entire universe is no longer decided by the writers or creators. It’s decided by large corporations that want to make money.
DC comics has made a lot of money off of rewriting its history every 5-10 years, but it all started off here with this not so great series.
I like issue #11, I like the interactions and I love the art. I just hope beyond hope that issue 12 can withstand the expectations we all have for it. Fingers Crossed.
Elkin: Somebody at Comics Bulletin better buy us all some cocktails when this whole thing is over.
(Editor’s note: The last thing you need is more cocktails, Elkin.)