16 December 2007

Catching up to the Crisis

Today's weekly Robin comes in two intertwined parts because I'm pondering two major developments since my days as a fanboy reader, and I couldn't figure out how to discuss one without mentioning the other. These facts will come as no news to folks who've read DC comic books in the last couple of decades, but I didn't.

When I started this series, I described my regular comic-book reading as ending with Marv Wolfman and George Pérez's Teen Titans in the early 1980s. DC Comics scholars have a term for that experience: "pre-Crisis."

That refers to the 1985 twelve-issue series Crisis on Infinite Earths, created by Wolfman and Pérez, which fundamentally changed the publisher's fictional universe and the entire superhero-comics business. I think I was still reading one comic book per month at the start of that year, but the buzz around this series didn't grab me.

The roots of the special series lay in the curious history of DC's superheroes. A few of those characters were published continuously from their origin: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and a couple more. But other heroes flickered out in the late 1940s or early 1950s (the "Golden Age"), and then were brought back in new forms in the late 1950s or early 1960s (the "Silver Age").

Thus, from 1940 to 1951, the Flash was a man named Jay Garrick; he wore a winged helmet like Mercury and no mask. Starting in 1956, the Flash was a man named Barry Allen, and he wore a costume that was almost entirely red and covered the top of his face.

Of course, neither comic-book fans nor media companies like to leave once-valuable properties alone, so in 1961 DC published a crossover adventure in which those two Flashes met. With curious logic, the company called the second Flash's world Earth-1 and the first Flash's world Earth-2.

Eventually comics creators invented other parallel worlds as well. This device allowed DC to bring back earlier versions of its heroes, age those characters (the Earth-2 Dick Grayson grew up to fight crime as both a district attorney and a bigger Robin), explore alternative storylines (Superman and Lois Lane got married--somewhere), and confuse the uninitiated. I never got the hang of the DC "multiverse," which was one reason I made mine Marvel.

Crisis on Infinite Earths brought all those parallel worlds together in one confusing stew, as seen in the picture on the left above. It shows the Batman of Earth-1; Jason Todd I, the second Robin on Earth-1; and the Dick Grayson of Earth-2. The Dick Grayson of Earth-1 was caught up in the storyline as well, along with nearly every other recurring character in DC's history.

At the end of that Crisis series, all the parallel worlds were mushed into one. Most universes were simply wiped out of existence and "continuity"; writers and fans weren't supposed to pay attention to their histories anymore. In the surviving DC universe, time was reset. Over the next couple of years, heroes' origins were rewritten. Characters and their milieus became darker. Even as the multiverse has crept back into existence recently, those effects have remained.

Even bigger than Crisis's effect on the DC universe, however, was its effect on the DC business. The company succeeded in attracting a larger and older audience, giving Marvel a run for its money for the first time in years. Both comics publishers have therefore created more "crossover series that change everything"--about once a year now. Marvel's first (in 1984-85) was Secret Wars, and its latest was Civil War. DC likes to use "crisis" in its titles: Zero Hour: Crisis in Time, Identity Crisis, Infinite Crisis, and, coming next year, Final Crisis. (We can be certain that won't be final.)

The second lasting effect of Crisis on Infinite Earths was to introduce the possibility of superhero death. Not just, "Oooh, the Penguin might kill Batman with that bomb--how will our hero escape this time?" Rather, "This publishing company is just crazy enough to kill off one of its trademarked assets." At the end of that Crisis series, Barry Allen as the Flash and Supergirl were dead or erased from continuity, along with a bunch of lesser characters.

The importance of death in that twelve-issue series is clear in its final speech balloon, as a villain called Psycho-Pirate says:

These days...
y-you just never
know who's
going to die...

who's going
to live.
And just in case we might miss that point, the Crisis panel above illustrates how superheroes can now be wiped away. At first glance it's even more confusing than the higher picture. The body of Robin was never found, but isn't that Robin right in the middle of the panel? Yes, but the missing Robin was the one from Earth-2. The Robin of the picture is from Earth-1. At the time readers would take him to be Jason Todd I, but soon they would learn that he was Jason Todd II. All clear?

Since Crisis, Superman has died. Hal Jordan, the first Earth-1 Green Lantern, has died. Donna Troy, once called Wonder Girl, has died. Over at Marvel, Captain America has died. Two or three of the five Robins have vanished or died. Last month the comics blogosphere buzzed with a rumor that next year Bruce Wayne would die.

Marv Wolfman, scripter of Crisis on Infinite Earths, has even lamented what he and George Pérez let loose in the introduction to the graphic novel edition of that series:
After the astounding success of CRISIS--which was created only to simplify the DC universe for new readers--every publisher, even those who were brand-new, jumped onto the bandwagon with a company-changing series of their own, whether they needed to "clean house" or not. In many ways, I fear, the annual stunt had taken over comics publishing. If it isn't big, if heroes don't die, if worlds don't change, then, many feel, the stories aren't worth reading.
Of course, Barry Allen, Supergirl, Superman, Hal Jordan, Donna Troy, one of the dead Robins, and (as of early next year) Captain America are all alive again, as are most other characters with any popularity who have died in some spectacular, circulation-boosting way. The only characters who stay dead are those whose deaths are crucial to more popular characters' origins, like Batman's parents. For them, the multiverse remains a cruel, cruel place.


Glenn Ingersoll said...

I bought the original Crisis even though I had a shallow familiarity with the DC multiverse. I liked George Perez and so enjoyed looking at the thing. It was way better than Secret Wars but cardboard soaked in turpentine would be better than Secret Wars.

J. L. Bell said...

Reading comic-book history now, I've learned that Pérez gave up penciling Teen Titans to devote himself to Crisis on Infinite Earths. Since he wasn't working on the Titans, I dropped that series, which was the only one I was still following. Yet I didn't pick up Crisis instead. Since I could barely understand it now, I certainly didn't have the brainpower to spare for it back in college.