I wrote most of this a month ago, but have spent most of the rest of the month extremely ill, and never got round to finishing it and posting. Whoops. All the Easter stuff in here seemed a lot more topical at Actual Easter rather than May 1. Oh well. The next one of these will be published in a week, to get us back on to schedule with them…

And so we get to the point in the crossover where the exciting new characters are introduced for the first time. One of the things that Crisis was meant to do was to introduce a lot of new superheroes who could have exciting adventures, and star in their own comics. We’ve already seen Pariah, Harbinger, and Alexander Luthor turn up, but here we bring in the second Doctor Light, Lady Quark, and Lord Volt (although the latter is immediately killed off).

None of these characters ended up having much of an impact on the DC Universe at all, although Alexander Luthor did end up playing a small role in Geoff Johns’ terrible Infinite Crisis series twenty years later, but this set the pattern for all future crossovers. Every one of them would end up featuring a bunch of generic new characters whose origins were bound up in the crossover, thus making them impossible to follow for anyone who hadn’t read that particular event.

The number of such characters that ever go on to have any kind of success or staying power is vanishingly small — there was Garth Ennis and John McCrea’s Hitman, Venom in the Spider-Man series, and maybe a couple of others, but in a thirty-plus-year history of crossovers, most comics readers couldn’t name more than half a dozen or so characters who came from one of them.

However, in 1985 no-one was aware that this would be the pattern that would be followed, and so it’s perhaps more understandable that they chose to use Crisis to introduce so many new characters than when the same thing was done over and again over the coming decades. (Then again, it wouldn’t be the comics industry we know and just about tolerate if they gave up on things just because they demonstrably don’t work, would it?)

And in Crisis, this makes a kind of thematic sense — indeed, the whole point of Crisis was to destroy the old and create new things in its place. Again, Crisis wasn’t “a crossover event” in the way we now understand them, but was the crossover event — every event since has been an attempt to copy it, and more often than not has copied from the failures as much as the successes (to the point that these days DC seem to be having a Crisis every two or three years, in a sort of cargo-cult attempt to recreate their past and appeal to a readership most of whom were likely not even born when the original Crisis came out).

But it’s worth having a look at what they were trying to do. The second Doctor Light, in particular, is an interesting combination of ideas, any two of which might have worked together but which in combination just don’t come off. She’s a reboot of a rather uninteresting silver age villain (and it’s important to stress for people who have come to comics in the last thirteen years that this was almost twenty years before the stunningly unpleasant retcon that the original Doctor Light raped a beloved character), which is something that was happening a lot at the time — much of Crisis is about digging through and finding forgotten characters and seeing if they can be reworked into something worthwhile. She’s also a Japanese scientist, at a time when any character other than a white American male was defined first and foremost by their ethnicity — it’s lucky in the circumstances that she wasn’t actually called Rising Sun or anything equally as crass. And finally, she’s someone who has no interest in being a superhero and who rather resents being given new powers and called upon to use them.

Any of those on their own could work, but the combination gives the character too much weight to bear, and it becomes even worse when, after Crisis itself is over, every character loses their memory of its events. With her origin so tied up with events that, within the story, never actually happened, she became untenable and was basically never used to any real extent.

The same goes, to an even greater extent, for Lady Quark, a character who literally never appeared in another comic that I’ve read, other than tiny cameo appearances in Infinite Crisis and Multiversity. She was apparently used in various superhero team comics, but never played an important role in any of them. Her entire identity is “person from a world that’s been destroyed”, and when that world has been retconned out of existence, that doesn’t leave much room for anything else.

And this is a problem that we’ve seen time and again since then — an origin that’s tied specifically to a big crossover story means a couple of things. Firstly, it means that the character’s origin story isn’t about that character, which means their use in other media gets limited to an extent — so many superhero films and TV series are based around the origin story that it’s difficult to do a superhero film that isn’t their origin — and while in an ideal world the use of characters in comics wouldn’t relate to their exploitability in other media, we all know that that isn’t the world we live in, and that the most important thing for comics companies is the familiarity of the characters. We don’t get ten Batman comics a month (or whatever the number currently is) because Batman has ten times the story potential of Plastic Man, but because everyone knows who Batman is because he’s had TV series and films made about him.

And this really raises a fundamental problem for the whole idea of the crossover. They’re meant to work as a way to revitalise old “intellectual properties” and create new ones, as part of the general IP-farm nature of most modern comics companies. But what tends to happen is that they actually damage the usability of characters, as they get more incomprehensible back-stories and so-called “iconic” characters get moved further and further away from the versions people know, requiring further crossovers to retcon the changes, while the new characters introduced are hamstrung.

Still, this is how comics have been done ever since. It’s what superhero comics are now.

But, as well as introducing new characters, Crisis issue four kills one — the Monitor, who had only properly been introduced a couple of issues earlier, gets killed by Harbinger, dying (it turns out) so that the world can live. Indeed, this issue more than any previous one ramps up the use of secularised Christian symbolism. We have the Monitor dying only to (later) rise again. We have the “wandering Jew” figure in Pariah (although thankfully without the horrific anti-semitism of that particular trope), and we have the betrayal of the Monitor by his closest ally, who has been corrupted by the devil figure, but who is still working to the Monitor’s plan and with his knowledge.

It may be that I’m seeing these parallels more because I reread this issue over Easter (which is also when I started writing this blog post, before life events intervened), but still, they’re definitely there in the text — Crisis on Infinite Earths #4 is, at least in part, an Easter story.

Of course, as we’ve seen before, much of Crisis on Infinite Earths deals with the mythology of the Abrahamic religions — and indeed it’s hard not to do that when you have a story which is, as Matt Rossi has pointed out, to Superman as The Dark Knight Returns is to Batman — but this is the issue where that’s made most explicit, to the point where it’s honestly surprising that there isn’t a scene where one of the superheroes denies the Monitor three times.

And this is something we’ll have to look at in more detail as the series progresses, because one of the things that this series does is to really incorporate the Superman-as-Christ-figure idea from the Richard Donner films into the comics. Before those films, Superman had been a Moses figure, and the step between the two characters is a small but real one. After Crisis on Infinite Earths, in a sense the death and return of Superman became an inevitable story, and one of the ways in which this story pulls its punches slightly is that it doesn’t actually kill off the Earth-One Superman.

(Killing off the Earth-One Superman would have been easy to do, since… spoilers!… the whole of Earth One itself is destroyed at the end of the story by being merged in with multiple other Earths, and the version of Superman in the comics thereafter did not share a history with the Superman who’d appeared in every comic up to that point. )

The 1980s generally were a time when that sort of death-and-resurrection story was first becoming prominent in genre fiction, as in response to George Lucas’ nonsense about how Joseph Campbell was the secret sauce behind Star Wars everyone suddenly wanted to become “mythic” and “epic” (and of course Crisis itself is precisely the sort of grand-scale epic that that kind of thinking led to). Things like Spock’s death and his rebirth in Star Trek III were all part of a general secularisation of the dying and resurrected god myth, and in turn tied in to the whole “morning in America” second-childhood rebirth rhetoric in politics at the time.

The Monitor, in short, deliberately gets Harbinger to cut him down, so he can rise again more powerful than you can ever imagine.

One of the things that I’m not really competent to discuss, but which I’d be interested to see a take on, actually, is the way that the 1980s, among other things, saw the Gentilisation of comics. Almost all the great comic writers before the 80s were Jewish (including Marv Wolfman himself), and until the 70s that also applied, though to a lesser extent, to the artists (though in the 70s a lot of Latin American artists also came in, and art was in general more WASPy than writing or editing for some reason). The influx of British creators into the US comics market, while it did a lot of interesting things, also made that Jewish influence much less strong, and of course these days the US mainstream comics industry is basically entirely made up of pasty, very very white, gentile men who are thoroughly part of the US cultural mainstream.

One can’t help but wonder if the influx of Christ symbolism into comics at this time was part of that process. (Though also one has to look at the way that Jewish influence has secularised Christian holidays — see Philip Roth’s line about Irving Berlin as the next greatest Jewish genius after Moses).

But I’m not the right one to talk about that, as both a gentile and a non-American. Any observations I make will be likely to be either facile, inadvertantly racist, or both. So again I’ll just say that I’d like to see someone who knows what they’re talking about talk about that.

The 80s saw comics, even as the mainstream was producing some of its most experimental work, become Reaganised and part of a hegemonic culture in a way that they hadn’t been in the 60s and 70s. They followed the same course as rock music, going very quickly in this period from being vaguely anti-establishment to being absolutely part of the establishment. 1985 was the year of Live Aid as well as the year of Crisis on Infinite Earths, and in general it was a time when the blandest, most commodified, art was elevated to the highest levels of public acclaim. It was also the year of Back to the Future, and of rewriting history so that a clean-cut white boy invented Chuck Berry.

In this light, the darkness that enters Harbinger and which causes her to kill the Monitor could be seen as whitebread WASPy American culture — nerd culture — entering superhero comics.

I’m getting sidetracked. Or am I? Because a lot of the power of Crisis on Infinite Earths comes from the way it is simultaneously part of the homogenisation process and that it pushes against it. Crisis, as a series, is always fighting against its own instincts. It’s always trying to break out of its own self-imposed chains. It is, in essence, both the battle between art and commerce and the battle between the heart and the head, given form as a superhero comic. And we’ll look at that more in subsequent essays.

And for my Patreon backers, we’ll also look a little more at the influx of British people, with a look at Swamp Thing

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