Sorry for the slight delay on getting this post out — we’ve been busy on here with the MINDLESS DECADE, and I was also busy getting my most recent book out while coping with chronic illness flare-ups.

Anyway… Crisis on Infinite Earths issue three. By this point, we actually know very little about the threat, other than that it’s spreading through time and space, and that the Monitor has collected a group of superheroes — almost all of whom are characters who don’t have their own titles, and are either from obsolete superhero universes that DC has bought or are minor team members in Earth-2 comics — to fight this. Going from what we’ve seen of the story so far, there’s nothing to say that it would be particularly interesting in its ramifications for the DC Universe. The idea of a massive crossover was, of course, a new one, but judging purely from the story (and not from things like the pre-publicity or the letters pages), the actual effect of the story at this point seems like it should be fairly minimal.

That’s not the case in this issue. Issue three of Crisis on Infinite Earths is probably the weakest issue of the series by some way, consisting as it does almost entirely of disjointed action sequences which have relatively little to do with each other, but what it does do is make the jeopardy very real. Swathes of minor characters are killed off, from all over DC’s range of comics — characters from war comics, westerns, science fiction stories, are all killed off. On top of that, there’s a reminder that the Flash — definitely an A-lister among DC’s characters, and in the form of Barry Allen pretty much the embodiment of DC’s Silver Age — is going through something that looks very like death, though we don’t yet know how that’s going to play into the story.

It’s weird reading this issue in isolation, actually. Every time I’ve read Crisis, it’s been the whole thing, and so issue three has been in a larger context, and in that larger context it reads like a montage sequence. But when read on its own there’s almost no narrative here. The whole thing can be summed up in a sentence — “the Monitor sends heroes to different time periods to try to protect his resonating beacons from the shadow demons” — and what we see is just dozens upon dozens of characters saying what their names and powers are while fighting shadows.

Also… there’s a real sense in which this issue, more than all the others, feels uncomfortably dated when it comes to racial matters. We are expected to see characters as heroic when they refer to a “half-breed” or drive a tank with a Confederate flag flying from it, while at the same time the comic refuses to acknowledge racism in other ways, and does so rather cack-handedly — Jonah Hex calling John Stewart a “colored man” is sadly not era-appropriate (it’s unlikely that a character like Hex would have used anything like so polite a phrase), but at the same time it’s not a term anyone could use now without cringing. This comic is not malicious in any way — it’s white-person “I don’t see race” obliviousness and well-meaningness — but it’s still something that struck me, because the equivalent small-l-liberal white-person comic today would not make those mistakes, even if it would still have others.

But leaving that aside, it’s interesting to try to think what the comic readers of 1985 would have made of this. To what extent was “move the narrative on” actually an imperative, as opposed to “have cool fight scenes”? Certainly this isn’t a comic that could be called decompressed in the Warren Ellis sense — if anything, it’s supercompressed, with every panel containing as many events as some entire comics do these days (that’s not a criticism of either style — unpacking events and concentrating on character is a valid mode of storytelling) but while there are a lot of events, they don’t progress anywhere, and this isn’t an issue that remained in my memory the way several others did.

I suppose these are the tensions one comes up against when creating a serialised work that still has to work in individual episodes, and 1985 was still very early in superhero comics’ transition from a predominantly-series mode to a predominantly-serialised one. Crisis on Infinite Earths issue three is not a perfect issue, but when seen in those terms, its imperfections are understandable ones.

Those imperfections don’t, however, stretch to the artwork. I mostly talk in my essays about narrative, because I’m a prose writer, and prose is what I think in — and in the case of Crisis on Infinite Earths, the events in the narrative (and in the surrounding meta-narrative — the promotional materials, the letters page, the impact on other writers and artists) had a knock-on effect for decades. Superhero comics to this day are shaped, not just by Crisis, but by specific events which happen in the narrative of Crisis.

But the fact is, that wasn’t the sole, or even the primary, selling point of the comic at the time. Comics have often alternated between being a medium that’s mostly appreciated for the writing and one that’s mostly appreciated for the art, and the mid eighties were very much an “art” period (although the pendulum swing that would see writers dominate was just starting with Alan Moore’s introduction to US comics), and George Perez was one of the most (justifiably) popular artists in the period.

And reading this comic it’s very apparent that the actual selling point for most people was just seeing George Perez draw all this stuff. I talked about this as a montage earlier, and it is, but montages and collages have their own pleasures — the pleasure of seeing juxtapositions between things which just shouldn’t go together. Much of horror, for example, is about the intrusion of things from one realm of existence into another (which is why horror is often the most postmodern of genres). And here, we have Perez drawing all the juxtapositions one could want.

Where the previous issue had had a certain amount of this — mammoths in the far future and so on — here we have superheroes and futuristic Kirbytech turning up in the Wild West, ghosts in world war II… Perez is known for the massive amount of detail he can cram into a panel — he can get almost as many characters in as Sergio Aragones, but with the heightened realism of post-Neal Adams superhero comics rather than Aragones’ bigfoot style — and here he draws skull-robots in space, talking gorillas, magicians in Atlantis, wild-west action, war stories, all taking up a page or two and all crammed with characters and incidents. It’s entirely normal for a page in this issue to have thirteen or fourteen panels, all of them containing important action. The level of detail in each page is quite extraordinary, as is the fact that Perez’s storytelling is always clear. The layouts he uses are imaginative and effective — often popping a small detail out into an inset panel — without ever lacking in clarity. There’s not a single point in this comic where one can be confused about who is doing what, even if at times the story itself does not make it clear to those who don’t know the characters who they are.

(That’s perhaps slightly unfair — one can tell from the story that Bat Lash is “some sort of cowboy type” while Sgt Rock is a sergeant in world war II and Psimon has some sort of mental powers. What one can’t tell is why one should particularly care about these characters as opposed to others, or what it is that distinguishes them from the archetypes they represent. )

So, in many ways this comic is typical of the experience of reading superhero comics in the 1980s. Andrew Rilstone has talked about how as a Marvel reader around this time he always found it a slightly thrilling experience to come across an issue of New Teen Titans, because being thrown into a story about whose context he had no idea made it seem all the more superheroic.

This is something that has since been lost — nowadays, so much of superhero comics’ appeal lies in the way that they comment on and reflect other superhero comics that I can’t imagine what joy anyone could get out of reading an issue of a mainstream DC or Marvel comic any more unless they were already completely familiar with at least the high points of the medium. That’s not necessarily a criticism, though, as it’s possible to create niche art that requires an incredibly specific set of references which does things that other art couldn’t do. But it does mean that the modern superhero comic reader approaching Crisis for the first time (were that not in itself unlikely, since the modern superhero reader is pretty much guaranteed to already know Crisis) will not be able to read it in that same manner.

If the pleasure of a story is in the density of its references, you can’t enjoy something if you don’t know what it’s referencing. At worst, of course, this leads to Ready Player One and similar excrescences, but more generally it prevents us from fully enjoying melodrama.

Melodrama is a word that has a bad reputation, and understandably, but the original idea of melodrama was one that has a lot going for it — melodramas were based on stock characters, and in general had much less regard for character development in every sense of the term than modern writing does. Characters in melodramas were instantly recognisable, unchanging, and distinguished by their plot roles rather than their personalities or individuality. One of the problems that a lot of genre material has at the moment, particularly that aimed at geeks, is that it’s trying to retrofit modern ideas of drama (in which characters have to change and grow) onto characters and situations designed for melodrama.

So now we have the Doctor or Sherlock Holmes or James Bond or Batman having to change and have emotional breakthroughs — except that the whole point of those characters is that they can’t do that, and if you do that the characters break, so then you get stories that return those characters to their unbroken state so they can be broken again.

is the first time this really happens — the first time in geek pop culture that supposedly irreversible changes happen in a major way, but also the first effort at putting the toys back in the box so they can be taken out and played with again. So it’s fascinating, to me at least, that reading it, at least in these early issues, requires precisely those reading skills it was helping to kill off.

This post was brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon, who can find a bonus essay, on Grant Morrison’s Animal Man, here.

Leave a Reply