This year marks the 30th anniversary of DC’s epic event, Crisis On Infinite Earths. To celebrate, Comics Bulletin will be running a new column (sometimes more than one!) every Tuesday discussing this massive change to the DCU. In the future, we’ll be publishing reviews of each issue by those who were reading comics when it came out and those who have never read it.
The follow is excerpted from American Comic Book Chronicles: The 1980s, published by TwoMorrows Publishing. It has been used by permission of the author and has been edited for length.
Chapter Six: 1985: Crisis
By Jason Sacks
As DC’s 50th anniversary in 1985 began, not everything at the venerable company was festive. While profitable, DC still dealt with a troubling status quo: despite possessing some of comic books’ most recognizable characters, DC’s sales were much lower than Marvel’s, particularly in the burgeoning Direct Market. Thanks to Marvel’s blockbuster Secret Wars, the sales gap between the two publishers had widened even further. Comic book fans in 1984 were buzzing about Spider-Man’s black costume and the presence of She-Hulk on the Fantastic Four rather than about the latest adventures of Superman or Infinity Inc. According to one Phoenix, Arizona-area dealer, Marvel outsold DC ten to one in the Direct Market in 1984 (Webb 17).
Add to this the concern that the DC Universe had grown too complex over the years. The idea of multiple parallel dimensions had been intriguing and exciting when Infantino and Gardner Fox collaborated on 1961’s classic “Flash of Two Worlds!” in Flash #123. But over twenty years later, DC had created so many alternate universes that it became near impossible for the casual fan to keep them all straight. Each major DC character had two (or more) iterations. One Superman was married, One Flash wore a helmet, and one Batman was dead! It was clear to some that DC needed to take the radical step of simplifying its universe.
And thus was born the idea of Crisis on Infinite Earths.
The idea of reducing the number of parallel Earths was one that writer/editor Marv Wolfman had carried around since at least 1982. He had been discussing the idea of simplifying the DC Universe with his lifelong friend Len Wein and with other DC editors and executives, including DC Publisher Jenette Kahn and Executive Editor Dick Giordano. Wolfman takes credit for presenting the idea of the Crisis to DC’s management:
Because of a letter I printed in Green Lantern saying, “You really should fix up DC continuity,” to which I answered, “Yes, we should,” I began seriously thinking about it again, and started talking this old project over with Len Wein and some other people as a special series at DC. They loved it, because they saw it as a way of getting around all the convoluted, confusing series of universes and Earths and futures and pasts. (Waid 24)
Giordano added, “I’m happy to relate that at a mass out-of-office meeting attended by all the in-house editors, Jenette Kahn, Paul Levitz and myself, a lively exchange of ideas gave us confidence that all parties would, at least outwardly, participate. There were no threats and Jenette, Paul and myself were there to contribute creatively, not as managers” (Eury 35).
Once DC’s executives gave Wolfman the formal green light for Crisis, he started planting seeds for the event throughout various DC titles starting with 1982’s New Teen Titans #21. In that issue, the cosmic being called The Monitor makes his debut. In 1984, the Monitor unleashed villains in the pages of Green Lantern and Flash and then began observing such heroes as the Justice League, the All-Star Squadron and Swamp Thing.
Just as the Monitor’s appearances became more frequent and involved more DC titles, fan-favorite artist George Pérez was assigned to illustrate Crisis on Infinite Earths. As Pérez explained, he was called to duty “for the sense of grandeur that [Crisis] required, and because I’m capable of juggling as many characters as it took to tell the story.” Pérez also admitted that he was excited to take a little bit of vengeance on Marvel Comics: “It was to get revenge for not being able to do the JLA-Avengers book, as well as a way of getting back at Secret Wars, which did phenomenally well with a minimum of effort” (Waid 55-56). Since their tremendous success with New Teen Titans had made Wolfman and Pérez DC’s team supreme, it was only fitting that they collaborate on DC’s most important project in decades.
Pérez’s involvement was essential because few other artists had the ability (or stamina) to draw the enormous collections of DC heroes and villains that the series showcased. The artist had a boundless enthusiasm for depicting characters both famous and obscure. Crisis on Infinite Earths #5, for instance, has pages that feature literally dozens of characters in incredibly dense shots. The spread on pages 7 and 8 include a mind-bogglingly huge group of nearly 180 heroes. Undaunted by what the series tasked him to do, Pérez took great pride in what he produced: “It was a lot of work, but the reaction has been very gratifying. The incredible amount of characters to be drawn, and trying to make a coherent storyline with a cast of hundreds, was a true challenge” (Waid 58).
Dick Giordano inked Pérez’s pencil work for the first three issues. Despite a desire to complete the series, editorial duties impeded Giordano from continuing beyond the third issue. DC Editorial Coordinator Pat Bastienne unceremoniously removed her close friend from the job rather than force him to work all nighters to complete his inking assignments. After Mike DeCarlo inked Crisis #4, Jerry Ordway took over the inking chores with issue #5. Ordway was originally scheduled to start with issue #6, but as he explains it: “there was a deadline problem and [DC] sent the pages to issue #5… all but pages 7 and 8, the massive 178-character double page spread. Those were the last two pages of the book that I got. I guess they figured that if I took them too early on, they’d have to look for someone else to do the book. This way, they figured by waiting, they’d at least get one complete issue out of me” (Waid 59). Ordway would ink the remainder of the series.
As Crisis on Infinite Earths progressed, it involved virtually every hero and villain ever seen in the DC Universe. They become united to battle the horrible threat of the Anti-Monitor, a soulless destroyer bent on annihilating all life across the infinite universes through the use of his antimatter devices. As the heroes traverse space and time to protect cosmic tuning forks that will prevent the merger of the various universes, they end up in epic battles against the Anti-Monitor’s deadly shadow warriors.
And as one might expect from epic battles, casualties occurred.
A Super Farewell
Along with streamlining the DC Universe, Crisis needed to clear out some dead wood and do it in a way that would grab fans’ attention. In an interview conducted for American Comic Book Chronicles, Bob Greenberger—who served as a DC Comics editor in 1985—claimed that as Crisis was being put together, a “death list” of characters that would be killed in the series was circulated around DC’s offices. Though the list went through several iterations, two names were always on it: The Flash and Supergirl.
Kahn and Giordano both wanted to use Crisis to reboot Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, along with their respective “families” of supporting characters. Pruning the Superman mythos—which had accumulated an enormous collection of characters over the preceding decades—was particularly important. In 1985, Supergirl was at her absolute lowest ebb in terms of her merchandising worth, her popularity among comic book readers and her importance to the future of the DC line. Those facts added up to making Superman’s cousin expendable.
But Pérez and Wolfman didn’t treat Supergirl as an unpopular character who needed to be discarded like so much flotsam. With Crisis on Infinite Earths #7 (Oct. 1985) the two creators actually made their readers care about a character they hadn’t paid attention to in years. With what would be recognized as one of the most iconic covers of the 1980s, the death of Supergirl in Crisis #7 was an immediate classic.
In this issue, the female Kryptonian is transported, along with a group of a dozen heroes from six Earths, to the antimatter fortress of the Weaponers of Qward. In that seemingly impregnable fortress, the band of heroes fights a frantic battle to prevent the nefarious plans of the Anti-Monitor from coming to fruition. As the battle rages on, it seems more and more likely that the Anti-Monitor will succeed in destroying the entire multiverse with his antimatter cannons.
The Anti-Monitor’s power soon grows to a level that can ravage the entire multiverse. Supergirl, though, will not yield. With a fierce intensity that readers had seldom seen in her before, she fights. Pérez masterfully illustrated the strength of Kara’s will, and readers see an emotional power that belied the character’s lack of direction in recent years. Through horrific pain, Supergirl finally destroys the Anti-Monitor’s body as she sacrifices her life for her friends’ survival.
Wolfman gave much of the credit for the success of Crisis #7 to Pérez: “The thing I want to make clear to everyone is that George’s work on the Supergirl issue, specifically more than any other issue, really made the story work. The way he set scenes up is just so great” (Waid 55).
A Fast Farewell
Much like Supergirl, The Flash had hit hard times by 1985. The “Fastest Man Alive” had become mired in “The Trial of the Flash,” a storyline that began in 1983 when the Flash killed his longtime nemesis, Professor Zoom, to stop him from murdering his bride-to-be, Fiona Webb. Unfortunately, that story failed to hook comic book readers. In fact, it only succeeded in driving away longtime fans and alienating potential new ones. By 1985, as “The Trial of the Flash” continued unabated, sales of The Flash had dropped precipitously.
These circumstances made the Flash an ideal fatality candidate for Crisis on Infinite Earths. Considering that the Flash was one of DC’s most iconic characters as well as the super-hero whose revival in 1956 launched the Silver Age of comic books, his death in Crisis would allow DC to make an important symbolic statement about the commitment they had to changing their status quo. If a character as important as the Flash could be killed, fans had to believe that any DC super-hero could die next. And if the Flash symbolically passed his red suit to the next generation, it was an important comment about how DC would now refresh itself.
Crisis was so tightly plotted, though, that the Flash couldn’t play a central role in the story (Dallas 110). Instead, the character continually lingers in the background of the series as a kind of harbinger of impending doom. When the Flash first appears in Crisis (in issue #2), he’s like a ghost, warning Batman that “the world is dying” before mysteriously disintegrating. Then Crisis #3 shows Barry in the far future confronting the Anti-Monitor’s wall of antimatter. He leaves his idyllic life in order to journey back to the past and warn his friends of the evil destructive force that they will soon face. It’s the Flash’s ability to travel through time and across dimensions that marks him as dangerous in the Anti-Monitor’s eyes, so in Crisis #5 (Aug. 1985) the villain captures the Fastest Man Alive and puts him under the emotional thrall of the Psycho-Pirate.
Crisis on Infinite Earths #8 (Nov. 1985) opens with the Flash still a captive of the Anti-Monitor with the Psycho-Pirate serving as his jailer. When the Psycho-Pirate becomes paranoid about what the Anti-Monitor will ultimately do with him, The Flash takes advantage, breaking the bonds that were holding him in place and pummeling the Psycho-Pirate for all the emotional torture the villain inflicted upon him.
But then the Flash discovers the antimatter cannon that the Anti-Monitor uses to destroy universes. Barry determines he must destroy the weapon, no matter the risk to his own life. As he speeds around the cannon, the Flash feels his energy being drained, but the hero keeps running. With the Anti-Monitor’s weapon crumbling to rubble, Barry Allen begins to age and wither. He feels himself going back through time, and then he speaks his final noble words: “Th-there’s hope… there is always hope. Time to save the world! Time… back in time… do what you have to… we must save the world… we must save the world…” And with that, the first hero of the Silver Age is gone. All that remains is his costume and ring.
Flash’s death stunned readers, especially since it happened only one issue after Supergirl died in dramatic fashion. As Wolfman explained years later, he wanted to keep readers shocked and off-balance:
My feeling was that having two major characters die in consecutive issues would really surprise people. Remember, Crisis was published before the internet and before detailed solicitations for advance issues, so we were actually able to surprise people and do this ‘one-two punch’ that I thought was really solid for the story and showed the readers that DC was a new company in many ways. (Dallas 110)
But even as Wolfman went to great lengths to provide the Flash with the kind of noble death he felt the character deserved, he also planted a “secret plot device” (as he called it) to bring Barry back (Wolfman). Again, from the start, Wolfman opposed having the Flash die in Crisis. He insisted that all Barry Allen needed was a more compelling characterization to make him fit into the 1980s as much as he once fit into the 1960s. On the chance that DC’s executives would change their minds about the Flash and request that he be revived, Wolfman fashioned a new approach for the character:
I came up with the idea that as Barry was racing back through time just prior to his death, he would get plucked out of the time stream and thrown back into the world. Barry would realize then that he was living on “borrowed time” since at any moment the time stream could reclaim Barry and send him back to the point of his impending death. This situation could make him more aggressive in helping others because he would never know when his time would be up. He would become a driven hero, haunted by the knowledge of his inevitable fate. (Dallas 111)
Wolfman proposed this idea to several editors after Crisis wrapped up, but none of them accepted it. After five or six years of attempts, Wolfman stopped pitching the idea (Dallas 111).
Instead, the former Kid Flash, Wally West, assumed the mantle of the Flash at the end of Crisis #12. Wolfman had previously reduced Wally’s powers from Barry’s multiverse-spanning abilities, but the young hero didn’t let that fact stop him from donning his mentor’s red suit and ring, triumphantly declaring, “I am no longer Kid Flash. From this day forth – the Flash lives again!”
Along with the deaths of the Flash and Supergirl, the Crisis also accomplished its goals of removing dozens of other characters from the DC Universe. A 1986 issue of Amazing Heroes lists some 40 heroes who were killed in the Crisis, including Teen Titans member Kole, Earth-2 heroine the Huntress, the Earth-2 Robin and the pacifist super-hero Dove. Their deaths added dramatic weight to the maxi-series, but Wolfman expressed regrets about showing so many casualties: “In retrospect I probably would not have had so many on-stage deaths; I probably would have kept it down and just said the others died off-panel or something. I feel that we gave short-shrift to some characters, and as we moved on in the series, it got a little worse. Flash and Supergirl, though, I stand by completely” (Waid 23).
Crisis on Infinite Earths broke DC Comics away from its history. It set a new course for DC’s future and rebooted its fictional universe in order to attract new readers and regain some equal footing with Marvel Comics.
Amash, Jim. “I Want to Do It All Again!” Alter Ego (No. 100). March 2011: 6-25, 38-62.
Dallas, Keith. “Marv Wolfman: Barry Allen’s Final Crisis.” The Flash Companion. Raleigh, North Carolina: TwoMorrows Publishing, 2008: 109-112.
Eury, Michael. “When Worlds Collided! Behind the Scenes of Crisis on Infinite Earths.” Back Issue (No. 34). June 2009: 34-39.
Mangels, Andy. “Infinite Crisis on Earth-Two.” Amazing Heroes (No. 91). March 15, 1986: 64-65.
—. “Monitoring the Monitor.” Amazing Heroes (No. 91) March 15, 1986: 61-63.
Waid, Mark. “Beginnings and Endings.” Amazing Heroes (No. 66). March 1, 1985: 23-30.
—. “Wolfman and Pérez on Death, Dying and the Bug-Eyed Bandit.” Amazing Heroes (No. 91). March 15, 1986: 23.
—. “Making a Crisis of It.” Amazing Heroes (No. 91). March 15, 1986: 53-59.
Webb, Steve. “Who Doomed the Flash?” Amazing Heroes (No. 91). March 15, 1986: 12-17.
Wolfman, Marv. “Introduction.” Crisis on Infinite Earths. New York: DC Comics, 1998.