The Crisis Project: Issue One

January 1st, 2018

I’ve — sort of — fallen out of love with comics.

I’ve had periods like this in the past — in my late teens/early twenties I didn’t read any comics for a few years. Then I started again in 2003ish, and the weekly trip to the comic shop became an important thing. And then… it slowly stopped being.

There’s a simple reason for this — DC Comics fucked up, in a big way.

From 2004 to 2010ish, DC produced a lot of terrible comics of course — Countdown, Infinite Crisis, most things by Geoff Johns — but they also produced a surprising amount of truly interesting comics — All-Star Superman, 52, Seven Soldiers, Wednesday Comics, Final Crisis, Batwoman — and, equally important, a lot of very readable high-baseline-competence comics, things like Giffen’s run on Doom Patrol, Waid and Perez on The Brave and the Bold, Busiek’s Superman run, the first few story arcs in JLA Classified, even Geoff Johns did a couple of worthwhile things, including Booster Gold. None of those will ever make anyone’s list of the best comics in history, but all of them were fun reads which meant that if you went to the comic shop that week you’d find something you’d enjoy.

But then, after Flashpoint, that changed. There were a few comics I still wanted to read in “the New 52”, but one by one the more interesting ones disappeared — and, crucially, there were none of the basically-competent ones left. There were lots of massive arcs about Red Lanterns fighting Star Sapphire or something, but nothing where you could pick up a single issue of a comic, read it, and enjoy it without a massive investment in a particular geek mindset — the mindset that says that the very best thing in the world is to have a piece of entertainment that replicates as closely as possible the details of another piece of entertainment made in the 1980s, but with extra violence, a ton of padding, and with absolutely no acknowledgment that people who aren’t cishet white men might be in the audience.

So, I carried on reading comics, but I got to the comic shop less and less. And if you’re not going to the comic shop to pick up those basic-level-competent comics, you don’t get to notice the interesting things on the shelves — I first bought great indie comics like Action Philosophers or Godland or Bulletproof Coffin because I happened to see them on the racks at the comic shop. If you’re not there to see them, because you’re just going to pick up your pull list once a month or so, you don’t get to discover them.

Now, of course, other comics companies are available, and during the time I’m talking about Marvel were producing some of their best work, as were Image. But… DC Comics is part of my imagination’s landscape in a way that Marvel isn’t. I know who the Avengers are and where the Baxter Building is, and what Stark Industries is, but they’re not part of my native mythology in the way that the JLA and the Watchtower and Lexcorp and STAR Labs are. In fact there are only two geek-media franchises (for want of a better term) that I have any kind of fluency in — DC Comics and Doctor Who. I can read and enjoy a good Marvel comic (and during this time I’ve read several, especially those by Al Ewing) but I’ll not fall deep down the rabbit hole the way I will with even a mediocre comic about Rip Hunter or Metamorpho.

So… I want to rediscover the joy I found in comics, and to do that I have to rediscover the joy I felt in the DC Universe. If I can get that back (and maybe I can’t) then I can also get back the enthusiasm to try the little art comics, and the general motivation to care more about this art form that has brought me so much joy in the past. Even when much of the real pleasure I’ve got from comics has been from things like Cerebus or Eddie Campbell’s work, I wouldn’t have found those things without also wanting to read Batman comics.

Now, handily, DC have apparently started publishing some interesting stuff again (as well as, obviously, also publishing Geoff Johns’ attempt to turn Watchmen into continuity-wank that simultaneously accuses Alan Moore of being too cynical while being possibly the most cynical work ever to have been created), and I plan to start getting into some of that. But to do that, I have to rekindle my love for the DCU itself.

And I have a plan for how to do that.

Crisis on Infinite Earths.

Let me explain. I first got into comics, properly, when I was around ten, and it was DC Comics I got into, and rather heavily. I was simultaneously buying old second-hand copies of comics I found on market stalls, UK newsstand reprints of Superman (with the Giffen/Dematteis JLI as the backup feature) and Batman, and new US comics I found out about from magazines (I had to special-order these for birthday or Xmas presents after spending most of the year just reading the hype about them, because I was growing up in a small town thirty-something miles from the nearest comic shop). And one of the first things I learned about DC was that there had been this… THING… that happened after some of the comics I liked (the ones in old annuals where there were multiple Earths and Krypto the superdog and that sort of thing) but before others. It had happened in a comic called Crisis, and people in the letters pages kept talking about it.

So, of course, I got my parents to get me the issues as a Christmas present when I was about twelve, and read through them open-mouthed. So this was what had happened! This was where everything had changed!

To this day, stories with humans as the pawns in cosmic wars across multiverses and multiple time-zones, where opposing beings of unimaginable power reshape the universe, are My Thing. I might have got into Faction Paradox without Crisis, because obviously that’s an offshoot of Doctor Who, but I doubt it.

Crisis was a far more influential comic than it’s ever given credit for. When people talk about the big three comics that changed everything around 1985/86, they always mention Maus along with The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen, but that mostly comes from superhero comics’ desperate wish for greater legitimacy. Maus is a great comic, of course, but it’s a great comic from the art comix tradition — Spiegelman had nothing to do with the changes that the US direct market was going through at that time, and Maus had minimal influence on anything in the “mainstream” comics world. It’s rather like saying that the most influential records of 1966/7 were Pet Sounds, Sgt Pepper, and Stockhausen’s Hymnen. Hymnen‘s great, and arguably better than the Beatles or the Beach Boys, but wasn’t doing the same thing. The same goes for Maus.

No, the real third comic to revolutionise the mainstream comics industry at that time was Crisis on Infinite Earths. It wasn’t anything like as formally experimental as either Watchmen or Dark Knight, and it’s inferior as a comic at least to Watchmen, but in terms of how superhero comics fans experience narrative, it was at least as important as either. It was the first real massive crossover (yes, Secret Wars came first, but that was a put-the-toys-back-in-the-box thing, and while it was a massive hit, it wasn’t something that had any significant lingering effects the way Crisis did — and Crisis was announced before Secret Wars was planned), the first universal reboot, and the first time that changes to continuity were sold as, in themselves, a reason to read a story.

It was also, handily, a good comic of its type. There’s plenty that’s wrong with it, but almost every problem with the comic as a comic itself (as opposed to its effect on DC continuity or on the wider industry) is a problem shared by almost every superhero comic of the time — heroes standing around reciting their back story, expository dialogue, and character actions motivated more by plot necessity than by anything like characterisation in the normal sense. But given that it conforms to a lot of genre conventions which are now out of fashion, it’s a remarkably readable, enjoyable, bit of space-opera nonsense.

And it has every single DC Comics superhero who had appeared as of 1985 in it. Except Hal Jordan, but fuck Hal Jordan anyway.

So, what I’m going to do over the next year is, I’m going to reread the comics. One issue a month, like they came out. And I’m going to write about those issues, and talk about them in a ridiculous level of detail — sometimes as critical history, sometimes just talking about my response to them, sometimes looking at them in a modern context and sometimes in the context of the other comics around the time. I’m going to try to go back to the source of my comics fandom and rebuild it. I’m going to squeeze every drop of imagination and enjoyment I can out of those old superhero stories, and see if I can get them to bear the weight of my analysis (and my mixed metaphors).

I know I’ve started several big comics-criticism projects in recent years, and not finished them. This may be the same, but I suspect it won’t — they failed largely because my levels of enthusiasm weren’t enough to keep me going. The whole point of this is to keep going in order to get those levels of enthusiasm — it’s a different motivation, and so it might have a different result.

So… let’s take a look at issue one, shall we?

Before I get into the discussion of the issue as a whole, one point that probably needs to be made is that the treatment of Killer Frost in here, while it’s played for laughs, is deeply fucking disturbing. She gets mind-controlled into being madly in love with Firestorm, her enemy (and that he doesn’t want this either doesn’t make it better) and sexually assaults him. This is something that would, one hopes, be dealt with very differently in a comic made today, but as it is it’s unnecessarily creepy.

But while that’s something that should certainly be noted, it’s not the main aspect of the comic, which is largely to set up the themes and problems that will be dealt with throughout the rest of the series. What we’re told, essentially, is that an infinite number of universes are being destroyed (which is bad), but also that there should not ever have been an infinite number of universes in the first place — “A multiverse that should have been one became many”.

A brief diversion here — that desire for unity is… well, it’s a bit fascist, isn’t it? To continue the comparisons to Watchmen and Dark Knight, while those two were grappling with the questions of whether superheroes are fash (Watchmen giving the answer “sometimes, yes, and that’s a bad thing” while Dark Knight gave the answer “yeah! Woohoo! Make America Great Again!”), Crisis, being a similarly more and less metatextual work than those, manages to have that fascism implicit in its structure — diversity is weakness, and unity is strength. There should be only one of each thing, and any deviation from the central version of something should be destroyed.

This is not, of course, to say that Marv Wolfman, Len Wein, George Perez, or Dick Giordano are fascists — rather it’s to say that the geek aesthetic’s need for completion and closure, and disapproval of deviation from that, is something that is compatible with fascism, and that that is reflected structurally in the basis of Crisis on Infinite Earths.

There’s a real tension here, in fact — the whole story, all the time, celebrates the diversity of the DC Multiverse (diversity is a relative thing here — there are no out LGBT+ characters, and precious few who aren’t white male English-speaking Christian Americans) and shows all the massive potential the characters and situations have, while simultaneously telling us that these things aren’t good like you think, but bad really, and need to be destroyed in order to have a cleaner storytelling universe. It’s a really, really, odd way to look at things.

And it’s fundamentally based on a false premise, which is that the concept of a multiverse is too complicated. This is clearly nonsense — I remember reading, several years before I properly got into comics, several random issues of DC comics involving the earth-one and earth-two versions of heroes teaming up. I couldn’t have been more than eight, but I found nothing confusing in this. Reading between the lines, one suspects that this is a similar availability heuristic problem to the one which led to Doctor Who at that time taking the advice of Ian Levine as to what the fans wanted — the vast majority of fans will not have been confused, but those small number who were would be vocal about it. As that small number were the ones that the editors were hearing from — well, that causes problems when you’re trying to tailor stuff to the fans.

But at the same time — and we’ll come back to all of this in future posts, I’m sure — this is a genuinely good comic. And it sets up another aspect of the story, and one which we’ll definitely look at in more detail, which is that while this is ostensibly a “DC Universe” story, it’s very specifically a Superman story as well, even though Superman proper does not appear in this issue at all. This is a story full of other versions of Superman — at the beginning we see Ultraman (Earth-3’s evil Superman) sacrifice himself, and do so in a way that is clearly meant to make us think of the “real” Superman even though Ultraman’s character is long established as being the opposite of Superman’s. We also have a brief appearance from the Superman of Earth-2, who will become a major figure, and we have the origin of Alexander Luthor, which specifically parallels Superman’s (desperate scientist parents on a doomed world sending their infant child off to another world where he can become a superhero).

And this makes sense — if, in Crisis, the multiplicity of the universe is a problem, so must the multiplicity of superheroes be. All the other superheroes are variants on the theme of Superman, after all, and so it makes sense to treat him as the central figure, and for the story to, essentially, be one of Superman being refined from base metal into pure gold.

One by one, as the story progresses, the variant versions of Superman will be removed from the plot and from the universe itself. This isn’t the same as removing the unoriginal versions — the Earth-2 Superman, Kal-L, is after all supposed to be the original Siegel and Shuster Superman, with Earth-1’s version being a generation younger — but rather it’s removing those versions of the character that don’t fit the archetype of Superman, the version everyone knew even if they’d never read a comic, from the TV series and the films and the radio series and the action figures.

What Crisis is, more than anything else, is the fire through which Superman must pass in order to really become Superman. Even though the story is about the end of a multiverse, it’s really an origin story. Before this, the Superman of the comics was a Superman. After Crisis, he will be the Superman (although, as with so much post-Crisis, this was immediately muddied by John Byrne’s run on the Superman titles, in which the character differed in some very important ways from the version of the character we all know — even though there was only one Superman now, he still couldn’t be the Superman, because human creativity doesn’t work that way, and it’s impossible for something to be both an archetype and a specific instance — every page Byrne or his successors wrote and drew would, by necessity, move Superman away from being the Platonic ideal of Superman and into being a specific version of that ideal, with a specified history, opinions, and behaviours which might not match those of the Superman-of-the-public-imagination.

But all that is, of course, to come. As of Crisis issue one, everything is still potential. There is a Crisis. Worlds are dying. Dark forces are at play, and heroes and villains come together to try to solve a problem bigger than themselves.

As the story continues through the next eleven issues, that potential will become the specific. This character will die, this bit of backstory will be revealed, this plot-twist will happen. The infinite set of possibilities available at the start of a story will be winnowed down to a single story, with a single ending. Many of the stories that we can see at the start of Crisis never become anything other than possibilities, ghosts of stories that don’t ever make it to the page. I’d love, for example, to see more stories about the way that the Crisis happened at every point in time simultaneously — the story makes it very clear that what is being destroyed isn’t just the universe now, but a spacetime with all its past and future, being reduced to never-existedness. More, much more, could be done with that than will actually be done in the story we’re about to read.

(And that simultaneity, again, is something this story shares with Watchmen — everything happens now and in the past and always in Watchmen, just as it does in Crisis).

But that’s all in the future. Right now, we’re at the end of the first issue. We don’t know why these people have been gathered together. All we know is who has done the gathering. We know him as the Monitor, and that is all. We will discover more of him next time. I’ll see you back here on February 1, to do just that.

This blog post is supported by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. While this series continues, my Patreon backers will also get bonus essays on related comics — tomorrow my backers will be getting an essay on John Byrne’s Man of Steel.

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