The Crisis Project: Issue 2

February 3rd, 2018

The most interesting thing we learn in issue two of Crisis on Infinite Earths is that the scope of the story is much wider than we might have originally supposed.

This is saying something, considering that the whole point of issue one was that the entire multiverse was at stake and that universes were being destroyed. But here we see for the first time that this is happening simultaneously, at all points of time in those universes. It’s not just happening in the now of 1985, but it’s simultaneously happening in the far-future thirtieth century of the Legion of Super Heroes, it’s happening in the suspiciously-Aryan caveman past of Anthro the Cave Boy, it’s happening to Kamandi, the last human alive, and it’s happening now, in 2018, although we don’t see this particular year turn up in the comic.

This was information that wasn’t there in the first issue. While Harbinger goes back in time to 1942 to pick up Firebrand, and forward to the thirtieth century to pick up Dawnstar, there’s nothing in the story to suggest that those are anything other than simple trips through time, that the Crisis is not just an event that’s happening now.

But suddenly, as we see mammoths appearing in the thirtieth century, we realise that the story is doing something rather different than we originally thought, and that it is, in its own 1980s comic way, getting rather metatextual.

Now, before we go any further, I don’t want to make any outstanding claims for Marv Wolfman’s sense of subtlety — these are big, bright, brash comics, full of heightened soap-opera emotions and people in bright costumes expositing at each other about their back-stories.

But still, we’ve already learned that at least two of the principal characters in the story are essentially taking the roles of comic book readers. There’s Pariah, who is watching everything that’s happening but is doomed to be unable to do anything about it, and who plays a completely passive role, and there’s the Monitor, who is far more active within the story but whose role is, fundamentally, described by his name — he’s an observer rather than a participant.

(Given that his role is to make tweaks to what happens but that he’s largely an observer rather than an actor, but that he also holds the ultimate responsibility for whether the universe succeeds or gets wiped out, it might be better to think of the Monitor in this analogy as an editor or publisher, which might also make the Anti-Monitor Marvel, if one wants to extend the metaphor almost to breaking point. But I don’t think this is intentional on Wolfman’s part, whereas the role of Pariah in particular certainly is.)

But now we realise that the whole Crisis event is laid out like a comic — there is a simultaneity there in that everything is happening in a sequence, but it’s also happening all at once. Presumably as the antimatter wave hits it’s rewriting the past and future, so that the antimatter hits a version of Earth-One’s universe on February 2nd 2018 where it’s never hit before, but it also hits on February 1 2018, and it also hits on February 3rd 2018 without having hit on February 2nd. It hits all points in history, and as such it makes a nonsense of the idea of a single, linear, history of these universes. You can look backwards and forwards, take in the whole thing or zoom in on one detail, but the Crisis is always happening.

(It’s interesting to note that as Crisis was being published, Len Wein, who had been involved in plotting Crisis, and Dick Giordano, who was inking it, were in discussions with Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons about the comic that was to become Watchmen. Watchmen is far more explicit about the ways it plays with the comic book format and the notion of linear time — and it does a far better job of it as well, obviously — but it’s interesting to see Crisis as a precursor to some of the themes of the nearly-contemporaneous work, and we will have look at Watchmen at some point in the Patreon bonus essays.)

So this immediately changes the stakes. Now, not only will the universe be destroyed, but the universe will never have existed. This isn’t just an attack on physical reality, but on ontological reality, and on the concepts of linear time, causality, and existence itself. This is something closer to the Time War in Doctor Who (which in turn comes from some ideas in some early-80s Alan Moore comics) than to the more normal level of supervillain threat.

But this is, again, an artefact of the unique status of Crisis. People talk about it as being the first big crossover epic, and it is, but it’s more than that — it’s the first time, I think *ever* in any medium, that a reboot and a retcon have been combined into one story, and so it’s the first time the story has had to acknowledge in-story the reality that it is invalidating itself even as it’s being written.

Before Crisis, reboots and retcons were two separate things, although neither were particularly common even within geek media (and of course geek media itself wasn’t even a thing then — and the world was better for that). No-one pretended that Hammer’s Dracula and Frankenstein were the same characters as Universal’s Dracula and Frankenstein — they were retellings of the same stories, a reboot taking the original concepts and reimagining them.

And likewise, there were retcons in the long-running narratives in comics — that issue where Doctor Doom acted funny? It was because it was a Doombot.

But what there hadn’t been, ever, was an attempt to start again with a clean slate, while making that reboot itself part of the same continuity as the earlier stories. Crisis is the first narrative I know of where the very events in the story make themselves unhappen, not in a time-paradox bottle-story way, but in a “press reboot on the whole universe this story took place in and start from scratch, but have the reboot-pressing be part of the story” way.

This is such a strange concept — such a bizarre, almost incomprehensible, storytelling choice — that I think most comics readers these days won’t appreciate just how strange it is. This kind of thing happens so often in DC Comics now that it’s almost on a weekly schedule, while as I’ve said other long-running serialised stories such as Doctor Who have done it, albeit in more limited ways. (Star Trek has done it as well, with the dreadful JJ Abrams reboot film series.)

But I can’t think of a single time in history before 1985 that someone had done this — that someone had written a story, part of a continuing narrative, where in story they said that every part of the narrative you’ve been reading is now no longer valid. I suspect that this may be a genuine innovation in narrative, and one that could only have been done in something with the particular ownership structures of superhero comics — it’s something that only works with a long-running, multi-authored work.

Because Crisis is a weird, weird, comic in a lot of ways. It’s something that is, in most ways that matter, a perfectly traditional superhero narrative. Marv Wolfman’s writing is absolutely standard 70s/early-80s school-of-Claremont soap operatics, and George Perez is obviously a remarkable artist, but not a formally innovative one.

But at the same time what they have produced is… well, in some ways Crisis, taken as a whole, almost looks like a reaction to postmodernism using its own techniques. What we have here is a collaging of elements from different narrative universe, juxtaposed in ways that deliberately highlight the contradictions in their narrative logics. We have an attempt to unmoor symbols from the histories they reference, so that “Superman” is, by the end of the miniseries, not a character but a label that can be applied to multiple characters. We even have, in the figure of Superboy Prime, a breaking of the wall between the reality of the narrative and our own. And we have something that is reexamining every base assumption of the narrative.

Even as the whole purpose of the story is to assert a dominant, singular, history, and to reject the idea that a multiplicity of worldviews is better than a single vision, the premise of the story and the way it works deny that purpose.

And in issue two, we see for the first time what Crisis is actually doing. We see that it involves all times, and all facets of the DC Multiverse. Before this, we were possibly able to think that it was something that was only happening “now”.

But now we know, just because we got through 1985 doesn’t mean the Crisis has passed. “The menace we deal with is one of emotion”, and it’s something that can infiltrate people’s hearts and change their emotions, And when this happens, when we perceive things differently — as Anthro does when he hits his head — suddenly the Crisis will have been there all along, will happen forever, and will destroy everything in the universe.

Crisis is, in many ways, a deeply omphaloskeptic work. It’s something that does its best to say absolutely nothing about anything in the real world, and to be only about itself. But this aspect of simultaneity is quite extraordinary. The idea of using a story to reboot the universe in which that story is set (and in which other ongoing stories are taking place at the same time) is itself a fairly radical proposition — something like trying to rebuild a car from the inside while driving it. But by bringing in Anthro, Arion, the Legion, and Kamandi the narrative goes a step further, and it’s like trying to rebuild *every single part of the car simultaneously* while driving it.

Again, this is stuff that, as people who have consumed many decades’ worth of superhero stories and other serialised genre fiction since 1985, we all find absolutely familiar. But I want you to really think about how radical all this is.

And of course, it all follows naturally from the two simple ideas — the DC Universe needs to be rebooted, and it needs to happen in-story. Once you have a story happening where the Earth-One Superman’s timeline is rewritten, Kamandi’s and Anthro’s and the timelines of every other character that has ever interacted with Superman, or with a character that has interacted with him, all have to be rewritten as well. And so the Crisis can’t be limited in time, it has to be a story that’s always happening.

The closest parallel I can think of to this is Ragnarök, and the way that the Norse Gods will experience the same catastrophe again and again, being recreated anew after each battle; but even there it’s a cycle, not a simultaneity. There are other myths with similar cycles, and I’m sure they were on Wolfman’s mind when coming up with the idea of Crisis, but in all of them I know about each cycle just repeats the last one again, and the last one still happened, firmly in the past. Here, even though the characters in the narrative experience it as something like Ragnarök or the Titanomachy, the narrative has it all happening at once, while *at the same time* being part of an ongoing story.

And this simultaneity maps to the experience of the comic book reader better than to the experience of any other medium (which is, again, why it works so well in Watchmen). Text, films, music, and so on are all linear — even when you experience something in hypertext, you’re still not experiencing all parts of the text simultaneously. But with a comic, in a double-page spread of, say, twelve panels, you can take it all in at a glance and be experiencing at the same time what would for the characters in the story be twelve separate instants — instants that can be as far apart as Neanderthal times and the thirtieth century, in this case.

There’s a reason time-travel motifs aren’t used that much in DC Comics — the idea of being able to rewrite time doesn’t really go well with superheroics, because it can easily remove all the stakes — and so even though characters like Rip Hunter and the Time Masters exist, they’re very underused (although with Legends of Tomorrow that seems to be changing somewhat, which I’m glad to see, as if done right time travel through a fictional universe as dense with possibilities as the DC one opens up a huge number of storytelling possibilities). In my Patreon essay, I’ll look at one of the works of a writer-artist who’s done more than most to actually look at time travel in the DCU, although he’s not the most highly-regarded of creators — Dan Jurgens.

But here, in a story that deals with basic ontological questions (and I think that reading Crisis must be what gave me my taste for stories that use wars between superpowered beings as a means to examine both history and ontology), time travel is front and centre, and the comic is all the better for it, if only the reader could travel back to 1985 and experience what it’s doing with fresh eyes.

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 — if you back me, you can read my essay on Armageddon 2001.

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