In honor of the 30th anniversary of DC’s “Crisis on Infinite Earths,” we’re running two reviews of each issue, one by a group of CB writers who have either never read the series or read it in the last few years, the other by a group of CB writers who are old(er).
Ray Sonne: Damn, am I young.
When you think about it, contemporary superhero comics are odd. Ever since Bryan Hitch introduced widescreen style via The Authority, it feels very much like comics are trying to be book versions of movies. Everything is slick, highly detailed, and maybe too efficient. If it weren’t for decompression dragging out storylines enough to pump at least an extra $15 a series out of readers, superhero comics would probably be fast-paced too. But alas.
If you are relatively new to comics or are only old enough that you can be used as Jim Lee’s personal measuring stick for how long ago he created WildC.A.T.S (hi, dat’s me), it’s easy to forget that superhero comics weren’t always like that. In fact, superhero comic books used to be books instead of books trying to be movies. People generally blame Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman for making comics “wordy”, but if Crisis on Infinite Earths #1 isn’t wordy, then what do we call it?
In many ways, Marv Wolfman’s writing style reminds me more of an epic sci-fi novel than it does what most people would typically think of as a superhero comic. It has a narrator that reports the settings and exposition with deep, serious intonation. It has characters that have full conversations before getting absorbed into the action. It has genuine mystery that tugs at the reader–why are these universes being destroyed? Why are all these characters being pulled together by Harbinger? Who is The Monitor?–and opens them up to the abstract concept of parallel Earths.
So much information needs to be conveyed in this comic and, while contemporary comics would have made deep cuts to some of the interactions present and crammed the rest into 5-6 panels per page, George Pérez works in quantity. He splits up many pages up to as much as over a dozen panels, even if its only to show the motion of a mask in midair, and underlines them with lightning strikes or the path of the flying Harbinger. The art isn’t just camera angles to tell a 2-D cinematic story; we often see several different details at once that together make setting, tone, and movement.
Crisis On Infinite Earths is dense, that’s for sure. This is a time before DC and Marvel realized that events were easy moneymakers and therefore put effort into making them feel epic. This is a time when a publisher was content with introducing those events through lesser known characters and having one of their biggest characters (in this case, Earth-2 Superman) drop in with no fanfare. This is a time before continuity (although since that’s what this event is all about, we’ll certainly get to it) so the event can feel original instead of bogged down by other stories. This event is going to be a lot to read.
Michael Bettendorf: This comic is a lot for me to process. Not only is it my first time reading Crisis on Infinite Earths, it’s my first DC event book, and one of the few (seriously, under 5) DC books that I’ve read. It’s not that I dislike DC, I’m just relatively new to comics. Compared to many writers for Comics Bulletin, I maybe have my ankles wet compared to their fully submergence, going on only 5-6 years of readership (most being Image, Marvel or smaller imprints).
That being said, all of these characters are new to me. I know only miniscule amounts of information about some DC characters, mostly being big names like Batman or Superman. Seeing characters for the first time is great. It gives me an experience that many wish they could have – reading this for the first time.
You couldn’t have said it better, Ray. This book is dense. Those that blame Gaiman for “wordy” comics haven’t read Crisis, apparently. I think Wolfman’s writing style akin to what I’ve read of some older Marvel titles, like Miller and Jansen’s run of Daredevil. It’s descriptive of not only the setting, but the heroes powers. I don’t know how many times I’ve read Daredevil mention his abilities, almost like he’s justifying his actions so readers know exactly how he’s able to pull this or that off. Wolfman’s writing does this too, but for someone completely ignorant of these heroes and their powers, I appreciate it.
I think it’s safe to say that many casual comic book readers that are used to today’s fast-paced, more action, less speaking, movie-like sequences, may shy away from older stories like this. It’s a shame, because the Wolfman’s writing doesn’t take away from Pérez’s art or the coloring by Tony Tolin. The creative team has the visual sense to take Wolfman’s words and completely enhance them with their art. We’re thrown into chaos, but the way it’s presented, guides readers along, often with careful, intentional line work or coloring that draws focus to points or leads readers to the next panel.
As you said, they seem to take their time. This isn’t a comic that you just flip through. It takes a careful and conscientious reader to truly appreciate how dense and complex this story is.
It’s going to take a while for me to get the hang of the characters and their abilities, but I’m taking this experience as a history lesson or a baptism of sorts into the DC Universe(s).
Daniel Elkin: Baptism, Bettendorf? Oooh, that was alliterative. Thanks for bringing up Christian imagery because, by golly, it serves as a segue into the beginning of this book. According to the mythos of Crisis on Infinite Earths, “In the beginning, there was only one, a single black infinitude…” Dude. That’s right. Infinitude. Sure, it’s a word because who the hell doesn’t like to noun their adjectives from time to time, but let’s stay on our talking points here, Wolfman, and keep our infinites finite.
Uh oh. The first sentence in and I’m already getting cranky.
What are you going to do with a narrative that begins at the very beginning, one that tries to layer the language of religion onto the theories of a scientific understanding of the dawn of time? You push back from the table, gird your loins, and prepare to bear witness to Epicitude I guess.
These first panels of the birth of the multiverse — that imagery — it’s kinda sexual, ain’t it? Whoops, am I just a blasphemer at heart? Or am I just being teased by the use of so many ellipses…
So yeah, Sonne, like you said, this thing is almost unwieldy in it wordiness, daunting in its denseness, and heavy in its hyperbole and histrionics, but, as you acknowledge, it was a product of its time. Hell, we’re talking 1985 after all. For those of you too young to remember, it was a different world back then. Reagan got a second term, Yuppies were a thing, and only two years later, Gordon Gekko admonished us that “Greed was good.” We were a voracious nation, sucking that economic teat dry, and building plastic edifices to declare ourselves gods.
But I’ve digressed, haven’t I?
What were we talking about again? Oh, that’s right, Crisis on Infinite Earths #1.
For the sake of full disclosure, I need to clearly state that I normally HATE these kinds of books. A matter of fact, I have little tolerance for super-heroics of any sort. I agreed to take on this project with you guys as some sort of self-flagellation psychological experiment. See, I’ve heard laud after laud heaped upon this series over the years. Folks have described it as something grand, something pure, something that comics can be proud of. I figured before I keep bashing the cape and tights crowd, I should really grok one of its crowning achievements.
And so. And so.
After reading this first issue, I kinda want to echo the words of that weepy dude who keeps popping up to watch worlds ending while wearing a fetching green cloak and way too much eyeliner. He says, “How much longer must I suffer for my sins… before I may be spared the witnessing of these horrors?”. Because this beast of a book sure is one scrum of a story, a pile-on to mirror (or mask) some sort of Homeric intent.
So… how much longer must I suffer?
Oh, that’s right. There’s twelve issues. One whole year of Crisis.
Pffffftttttt….. This is not going to end well for me.
Sonne, you wrote, “George Pérez works in quantity.” That’s a brilliant understatement, to say the least. On my initial read of this thing, I found myself getting lost in the panels, unsure of the order of the endless text boxes of exposition and the didactic word balloons crowding the pages in which hero after hero narrates their own actions. Isn’t this one of the cardinal sins of comic booking? Is this due to the fact that letterer John Costanza’s hand was probably cramping like fuck during the creation of this thing?
Or was I just overwhelmed by a book that, by its very existence, necessitates so much text in so many cramped panels?
I don’t know. I also don’t know what to do with the ending of this issue. Right before his BIG REVEAL, the Monitor tells the assembled heroes, “Here, let me dim these halls so you may see things clearly once more.” An apt statement, isn’t it? The “scream” of creation, the freneticism of this beginning, the temerity of this type of story telling can be blinding. Wolfman acknowledges this here. The lights have been too bright all along.
Oh, and as a last word, I do have to briefly discuss the character design of The Monitor. Am I supposed to be awed by his appearance? Come on, the dude sports a cornrow comb-over and wicked mutton chops! And who the hell spends that much time polishing their gold shoulder pads and too thick armbands? How can he be doing his job, which I assume is some sort of monitoring function, if he’s spending that much time and effort making these things so shiny?
Questions, guys, I got a lot of questions…
Sonne: Whatever, I thought Not-Spectre’s make-up was great. Anyone whose face doesn’t run while they cry picks quality cosmetics.
It’s really starting to bug me now that I don’t know that character’s name nor did I recognize many other characters. Were they long-forgotten characters from earlier eras that the creators picked out from obscurity in order to highlight DC’s history or were they then-current characters that faded away rapidly after the event finished? None of them were particularly memorable, making both scenarios likely (and googling to find out the answer feels like it would be cheating).
Tons of people complain that Superboy Prime punching the edges of reality in 2005’s Infinite Crisis is a ridiculous concept, but at least I know who Superboy is. For a company supposedly trying to untangle their lore, DC permitted some weird tricks here. It’s quite clear that this was a brand new experiment because they hadn’t yet figured out that their biggest characters, the ones that are actually recognizable, make the best choice for events. Who would buy a comic starring Flamebird or whomever over Superman? Comics sales are so much lower now than they were in 1985, but events seem much more intuitive now, lack of ranting monologues and all.
As for the Monitor… yeah. Can’t say that any appeal he might have had at the time of this book lasted long. Present-day creators like Grant Morrison embrace the Monitor’s concept like it’s the Best Thing Ever to happen to superhero comics, but it seems like you could have a multiverse without some pesky Godlike (or, more recently, editor-like) creature lording over the story.
Luke Miller: Well, it looks like it’s going to fall to me to defend this thing amongst the “modern reader” crowd.
Here’s my full disclosure: I love superhero comics. I love history, mythology, storytelling, and art. Superhero comics basically look into my soul and translate all of my interests onto a page. I was also born the year this came out – yes, I’m almost 30 – so I might skew a bit older than the rest of the crowd here. However, I didn’t start reading comics until I was an adult (more or less), after I’d moved to college and therefore lived in a town that actually had a comic book shop. Infinite Crisis was my introduction to comics, which, in retrospect, was probably an odd choice, but that’s what was out at the time, and I loved every minute of it.
I think a key thing you guys might not be considering is the context of this thing. That “weepy dude” at the beginning, Pariah, is almost certainly a proxy for the readers. Through the course of this series he’s going to watch worlds die and be helpless to do anything about it. If that’s not Morrisonesquely proto-meta enough for us modern readers, I don’t know that anything in this book will satisfy you.
Furthermore, this thing opens up with Earth-3 being completely obliterated from existence. As far as opening gambits go, that seems like a pretty hefty card to play. Readers at the time knew all of these characters. Earth-3, home to the Crime Syndicate of America and the good Lex Luthor, is gone in a matter of panels. Let’s keep in mind that at this point in DC’s history, nothing all that bad has really happened yet. Green Lantern/Green Arrow dealt with some serious issues, but I don’t know that it really altered the landscape. In terms of lasting impact for the characters, the biggest storyline I can think of up to this point was “The Judas Contract” in The New Teen Titans by these same creators the previous year. At this point, Jason Todd and Barry Allen were alive and well, Barbara Gordon could walk, Superman hadn’t died and come back, Hal Jordan hadn’t gone on a treacherous, murderous rampage, and Doctor Light hadn’t raped Sue Dibny. Aside from the obligatory “dead parent/orphan” origin story that seemed to be a prerequisite for almost every hero, things were generally pretty good for DC heroes on a day-to-day basis.
And then they destroyed an entire world that everyone knew and a lot of people probably cared about.
(Marvel was way ahead of the game in the status-quo altering events by this point. Gwen Stacy, Jean Grey, Jean Grey again, Miller’s Daredevil, and the first Secret Wars, among other things, all predate this story.)
This feels pretty damn epic to me. Representatives of every earth are gathering to fight a force that threatens to destroy all of existence. That’s big. I love that all of these representatives are not the Superman analogues. Who wants to read a story with 100 versions of Superman? I like the idea that these particular heroes and villains were chosen for particular reasons that are integral to the plot and we’ll be shown why as the plot develops. I assume there’s a reason Firebrand is chosen. I assume there’s a reason Arion is chosen. I assume there’s a reason some guy named Psimon is chosen. We already know Psycho Pirate was chosen to manipulate people into cooperating against their will, so I have no reason to believe Wolfman and Pérez are just randomly pulling names out of hats with the other characters. I think it’s amazing that DC did an “event” and they decided, “we don’t need Batman to be in the first issue.” I don’t know if he shows up later, but that fact alone shows how much faith they had in the story, and in their readers to care about all the other characters in this story, that they didn’t need to shoehorn in their most popular character just to drive up sales.
And just for fun, here’s some other fun things to think about while we reflect on the context of this book: We’re reading, researching, and collaborating on this thing in ways that would have seemed positively Star Trek-ian when this book came out. We’re writing this in real-time, online, in a shared google document, from all across the country – and it could be the world, distance doesn’t matter here. If we don’t know who a character is in this story, we can pull out our phones, push the button that says “Wikipedia,” type in a name, and get their entire story in approximately two minutes, while waiting for someone to hand you your morning coffee. (And this is probably only interesting to me, but when I see/think about the Monitor’s satellite, I remember we’re writing this for the 30th anniversary of this book; and when this book came out, American had just finished celebrating the 15th anniversary of the first moon landing.) If you didn’t know who these characters were when you first read this thing, and none of your friends knew, you were out of luck. That’s just bizarre for me to think about.
Kristopher Reavely: I wasn’t certain what I was getting into by reviewing the first issue. I took my usual method, and simply wrote how I felt about it so here goes.
I’m old enough to remember when Crisis on Infinite Earths #1 came out, but until now I’ve never read it. I was a diehard Marvel fan when this came out so I never gave it a second glance.
I understand that it was produced 30 years ago but even then the opening panel that uses the term “Infinitude” had to make people crack up in laughter. As a modern reader it just seems silly, still it’s an interesting start to an interesting tale.
What I find most likeable about the tale is that there is no mention of Batman in the first issue, possibly because at the time of publishing he wasn’t considered to be the phenom he has now become. I do find it a breath of fresh air that an entire issue of the series has little to no inclusion of the big 3, it actually seems to thrive on the lesser characters of the DC universe, at least for the first issue.
To start with I am reading the Absolute Edition, which has had some work done to it to improve the colour quality. The interior artwork is done by one of the greatest artists in comics, George Pérez. Pérez has a style all of his own, throwing in details few other artists consider important. That being said, some of the designs for characters are quite dated. The Monitor’s design is acceptable but gaudy, I sometimes feel that George can draw anything in the world, even things not of this world but even in the 1980s his designs really seemed to belong in the ’70s. Still Pérez’s art was enough to keep me reading.
Wolfman’s tale of infinite universes being wiped out really does boggle the mind. His concepts are out — there using pseudo-scientific terms to thrill the reader — but still the ideas were amazing. The idea to revamp the entire DC universe was an excellent one. After many years I have read enough DC to know that continuity has never been their strong point.
Crisis #1 has just enough in it to make me want to read #2, I can’t say that it would have 30 years ago, but as a more mature reader I think that the concepts were fantastic, and at least the repercussions were felt for decades after, unlike a lot of other throw away crossovers.
Is Crisis on Infinite Earths #1 a good comic? Not really, in my opinion. Did it have potential? Most definitely. Otherwise we wouldn’t be doing this article.
Alexander Lu: Not good? You really don’t think Crisis #1 was a strong piece, Kristopher?! Oh man, those are some fighting words.
Unlike Luke, I’m not a huge fan of superhero comics in and of themselves. I like superheroes, but I could care less about matters of continuity and multiverse building that many others like to concern themselves with. The thing that matters to me is the story. Is this book interesting? Does it have something unique to say? When Crisis #1 was first released, it affirmatively answered those two questions. Thirty years on, I still believe it holds its weight, despite the clones, sequels, and ripoffs that have followed in its wake.
I will, as others already have, note that Pérez’s art really brings this series to life. The paneling composition is excellent throughout the first issue, and adds a dynamicism and feel to the book that captures its multiversal span. The double-page spread of Monitor’s headquarters is gorgeous, filled with complex architecture and a variety of DC superheroes coming together for the first time. Pérez’s art makes you feel the magnitude of the Crisis event, and ultimately carries a lot fhe book.
However, Wolfman doesn’t slack either. I admit that his captions are often overwrought, his dialogue explicative, and certain lines are socially outdated. Still, he does a great job managing the massive amount of world-hopping that occurs in this first issue, and simultaneously injects a group of new characters into the multiverse. Pariah, Harbinger, and the Monitor are all interesting characters in their own rights. Pariah, as Luke astutely observes, is an interesting case of metafiction in comics before Morrison made metafiction “cool.” I find Harbinger problematic, as she more or less serves as an emissary that has been corrupted, yet is powerless to warn the Monitor that she has been compromised for some unexplained reason. However, her conception as the Monitor’s heir is a cool and progressive use of a woman in comics. She bluntly tells the Monitor that “we are equals. I will no longer tolerate being treated as your slave.”
Finally, the Monitor himself is cast as a God-like entity, but simultaneously is given enough flaws to make him a role-player in the story rather than its main hero. He is mortal, and despite being able to observe the multiverse, is not omnipotent. This odd combination of traits make him an interesting character to watch, as while we are supposed to root for him and the rest of the positive matter universe, he takes morally grey actions to save the universe. In the first issue, the most heinous is sending Harbinger to fetch Psycho-Pirate, a man driven insane by his ability to manipulate emotions, who feels intense pain and is simultaneously addicted to his powers.
Crisis #1 is not a perfect book. It’s a little dated these days. However, I honestly still believe it’s a great comic. The sheer task Wolfman and Pérez undertake in this book is enormous, and they pull it off better than anyone could have ever expected.