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How Critical Was the Crisis?

 Robert M. Price

Soon the twentieth anniversary of DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earths will be upon us. DC was my first love when I encountered comic books in the late 1950s. But I had dropped out for a number of years after 1970, and from what I was later able to reconstruct, I didn’t miss a whole lot in the Bronze Age, either at DC or Marvel during those years. It was the Crisis series that brought me back to avid comics reading. It was great to see people who cared enough about the past history of the DC Universe to lay it to rest with respect on the eve of a new era. Which leads me, first, to reflect on the DC tradition of harmonizing contradictions, since this was, after all, the eventual point of the whole Crisis on a large scale.

            Unlike Marvel, who would humbly award “No-Prizes” to perceptive pests if they spotted a glitch, DC could match the most desperate fundamentalist Bible-quoters in concocting wild rationalizations of “apparent contradictions” in a story. “Superman once turned a diamond back into coal, even though some earlier issue of Superboy said he couldn’t? Well, Johnny, you see, it was really a diamond from the Bizarro world, and…” The biggest harmonization patched up the contradiction between the Golden Age cosmos of the JSA and the Silver Age universe of the JLA. The latter had negated the former as “mere” comic book lore. Barry Allen got the idea for his Flash persona from reading Flash Comics starring the completely fictional Jay Garrick! Clever! But trouble began once Barry and Jay met in person! The solution? Earth 2, of course! It was the beginning of the somewhat unwieldy “parallel world” doctrine. And it was great! You had to be pretty stupid not to get it. If you were new to the whole thing, you could catch up fast, because every year the JLA/JSA crossover would begin with a reiteration of the whole rationale.

            The parallel earths multiplied. Earth Prime was the real world, our world, in which DC Comics were published and there were no superheroes. On Earth 3 the Justice League was replaced with their evil counterparts, the Crime Syndicate of America (a terribly mundane name. I guess “Injustice League,” “Injustice Society,” and “Injustice Gang” were already taken. Wouldn’t something like the “Injustice Syndicate” or maybe the “Crime League” have sounded better?). Earth S was the Fawcett Comics Universe, “S” standing for “Shazam,” I guess. Earth X (which started out as “Earth Swastika,” vetoed by Julius Schwartz) was the home of the Quality Comics characters, where the Second World War was still going on. Earth 4 was the Charlton Universe, once Dick Giordano bought up his former protégés for DC.

If you want to get picky, there must have been at least one more Earth in which Marvel and DC heroes co-existed, as in the Superman/Spider-Man team-ups, unlike the later crossovers in which Marvel’s heroes and DC’s met by breaching dimensional barriers. At any rate, the tendency of harmonization up to this point was complication, embellishment, ever greater complexity.

            Years later, it seemed that things had become too complicated, downright baroque, so a new regime at DC decided to simplify and streamline, and again, the method was harmonization. The result was the 12-issue series Crisis on Infinite Earths, a masterpiece of ingenuity in many ways. But the Crisis also brought to an end one of the most creative periods of DC Comics! DC was scoring points with the Legion of Superheroes, the New Teen Titans, Infinity, Inc., the All-Star Squadron, etc. Don Heck was drawing Wonder Woman! Gil Kane was penciling Superman! There were great campy villains like the Atomic Skull! It didn’t really seem to be broke, but they decided to fix it anyway.

            Look at the carnage! As if DC had unleashed the Red Guard for a Cultural Revolution to destroy every monument of the past. I just couldn’t believe my eyes when I read The Last Days of the Justice Society. Having them fight the Battle of Ragnarok again and again throughout eternity? What the hell? And the retconning of the All-Star Squadron into the Young All-Stars with Neptune Perkins…? Wasn’t he the host of Wild Kingdom? Roy Thomas could see what a mistake it all was, but nobody listened to him.

            Another thing that amazed me was how, having spent so much creative energy eliminating the continuity flaws (or at least complications), the new regime promptly flushed the whole thing down the toilet! The reboot of DC continuity was anything but what one should have expected from the way Crisis ended. The new origins of Superman, Captain Marvel, the Justice League, Batman, etc., grossly contradicted not only pre-Crisis continuity but also Crisis itself! For example, Captain Marvel survived the Crisis, but in Shazam # 1, the wizard Shazam declares that he didn’t! According to Crisis, Superman remembered Supergirl, but in the John Byrne reboot, there was never a Supergirl to remember. She died in the Crisis, fighting the Anti-Monitor, and so she wasn’t there at the reboot of the universe. The same was true of Barry Allen, but everybody remembered him in the new Flash comics. He had existed retroactively when Supergirl and Wonder Woman hadn’t!

            Worse yet, the reintroduction of Superboy (not the clone, before that) promptly reintroduced the parallel universe schema before the ink on Crisis had had a chance to dry! The Byrne Superman entered into a “pocket universe” created by the Time-Trapper, in which the pre-Crisis Legion existed, along with Superboy, who was as powerful as his pre-Crisis comics made him, and therefore much stronger than the Byrne Superman, who got his head handed to him by his retro-eliminated younger self! At this point one had to suspect Byrne was poking fun at Crisis, as well he might.

            As I have pondered the matter over the years, here is the only sense I can make of the mess. I believe the lords of DC wrapped up the Silver and Bronze Age continuity not in Crisis alone, but also in Alan Moore’s masterpiece, Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? (Superman # 423; Action # 583). The Golden Age continuity (“Earth 2”) was concluded in Crisis with the passage of the 30s Superman with Lois into some sort of heaven. The Silver/Bronze Age continuity was similarly brought to a proper conclusion in Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? When Brainiac, Luthor, Jimmy, Lana, etc., were killed, and Superman lost his powers to marry Lois and live incognito. End of story. Superman remembered the Crisis as well as the death of Supergirl. There was but a single universe. And the whole saga ended right then and there.

            Implicitly the Byrne reboot of the DC Universe, in which Lex Luthor was a millionaire industrialist, there had never been a Supergirl, Black Canary was a founding member of the Justice League, the inhabitants of Krypton were hyper-cerebral wonks with crystalline architecture, and Superman and Batman appeared long after the heyday of the JSA—was a whole new DC saga, owing nothing either to the Crisis or to pre-Crisis continuity. And it would have run smoothly if Byrne and others had refrained from making occasional mention of the Crisis as if these versions of the heroes had experienced it.

            Of course, it’s all moot now, since DC decided to dump the whole single-universe model at the end of the execrable The Kingdom series, which was every bit as bad as the earlier Kingdom Come was good. They now call it Hyper-Time, the coexistence of parallel historical continuities, in which every DC, Quality, Fawcett, Charlton, Golden Age, Silver Age, Bronze Age, and Elseworlds story can be said to have happened after all. My only point, that I want to insist on, is: it was not the introduction of Hyper-Time that put an end to the post-Crisis continuity. No, that happened between the end of Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? and the beginning of Byrne’s miniseries The Man of Steel. The Kingdom put an end to the Byrne Universe continuity.

            This means the new age heralded by the Crisis didn’t last long. We did see a piece of it, for instance, in the comic where Superman discovered that Firestorm and Captain Atom, essentially the same character, couldn’t team up because they had opposite polarities that cancelled one another out—or something! At any rate, that story did depict the real Captain Atom as drawn by Steve Ditko, just as we had seen him drawn in Crisis. But this post-Crisis universe/history/continuity did not last. Captain Atom appeared after the reboot in that absurd “Captain Aluminum Foil” glaze. It was obvious to me they were just trying to combine Captain Atom with Dr. Manhattan, who had appeared in Watchmen in the meantime, and he was no longer the Charlton/Ditko character.

            Inevitably, I think of a theological parallel to the whole business. The same thing happened in 19th Century Iran when a prophet named Mirza Ali Muhammad appeared, claiming to be the Bab, the Gate to the Hidden Imam of Shi’ite expectation. Shortly thereafter, he announced that he himself was the Mahdi, or Hidden Imam. He established an elaborate code of beliefs and practices to supercede the Koran and the Shariah for a new age that should last some thousands of years before yet another Mahdi should arise to replace him, starting yet another new age. Well, the Bab soon died as a martyr. His followers were ready to carry on with his new scripture (the Bayan) and his new laws, under the leadership of his brother Subh-i-Azal. But in only a few weeks’ time, one of the Bab’s disciples, Hussein Ali, proclaimed himself already the new Manifestation of Allah and took the name Baha’u’llah (“Glory of God”). He set about penning new scriptures, promulgating new laws and revelations. Why so soon, thousands of years earlier than predicted? If you were a Bab’i, a follower of the Bab and his brother, you saw the new prophet as an opportunist and a fake. If you accepted Baha’u’llah’s claims (which most Bab’is actually did, thus becoming Baha’is), you chalked it up as one of the great mysteries of history.

            I am never surprised when I notice the logic of genuine religion and mythology recurring in comic books, because, as I have so often argued, comic books are our modern myths. They are not merely like myths or analogous to myths. They are our myths, and the mythopoeic imagination, as Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell taught us, is everywhere the same. 


Copyright©2004 by Robert M Price
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