Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Crisis on Infinite Earths

With a story as well-read, intimately annotated, written about, and scrutinized as "Crisis on Infinite Earths," I never thought that I would discover something about it that nobody else has yet...but it seems that I have.

With the pervy George Perez art, it's really easy to play a little game that I like to call "spot the nipple." Seriously - once I realized what to look for, I ran into a near dozen. Here's a freebie to get you started: gee, Dolphin, it sure must be drafty on that head ship of Brainiac's...! If Perez applied himself more, he might be able to snatch the title of "perviest artist ever" from John Byrne.

There is an argument that it might require some perviness on my part to notice this, but all I have to say in my defense is to not shoot the messenger. I'm just the one sayin' it, I'm not the one playin' it.

Now it's confession time: I haven't re-read Crisis in years and years, and I really, really wanted to like it.

There was a time when I was history's greatest Crisis critic, and I was skeptical about its ultimate results. Some of you that may not have noticed, but I'm an unapologetic continuity-hound. Suspension of disbelief is like trust: it is never given away. It has to be earned, and it can be broken. Dispensing with continuity tatters and undermines that suspension of disbelief.

More than that, I just plain love the Marvel and DC Universes. I love their history, love the characters inside of them, and love the stories that have been told with them. To ignore any part of that troubles me.

As an unapologetic continuity-hound, Crisis bothered me. Green Lantern was an example of a comic that maintained its history. It's possible today to have a reference to a 1960s issue by John Broome, because almost everything is still in play; there is an unbroken line from Hal Jordan's first appearance in Showcase to today. However, the same can't be said of Hawkman or Aquaman. Previously, both characters had pretty straightforward (if uninteresting) identities, but at least you knew who they were.

It troubles me how absolutely inured DC fans are to this, to the point where they don't realize how wrong or extraordinary this situation is. Every single Marvel comic ever published, going back to the days of Stan Lee, Kirby and others, are a part of Marvel history. The same Spider-Man that was in Amazing Fantasy #15 back in 1963 is the same Spider-Man that Marvel publishes comics about today. The Thor that first showed up in Journey into Mystery is the same Thor published today, in an unbroken, continuous line, with none of their stories cut, excised or omitted.

There are exceptions ("Teen Tony" comes to mind, who was erased from existence), but they are impossibly rare and easy to discount. The idea of characters being totally different people based on when they're published, or of major alterations to their backstory, or of wholesale reboots that break a character from their past completely, are not normal. They should never be treated as "par the course" for superhero comics.

The person that made me change my mind about Crisis and its effects was Geoff Johns. He saw potential in a single-verse. For instance, if the JSA was on "Earth-1" during World War II, instead of being the JLA of some alternate earth, they became something much grander: elder statesmen. They were the legends that inspired everything, from their time to the era of the Legion of Super-Heroes. Geoff Johns was the first DC guy to treat DC comics like a Marvel-style universe, with consistent continuity. Thanks to Geoff Johns, I realized that what came from the ashes of Crisis was a world that was just as worthy as its predecessor, that remembered its past; not as cheesy throwaway in-joke references to a "Pre-Crisis Batwoman," but as something alive.

So, when reading Crisis on Infinite Earths, I wanted to like it. If I liked it, it would be a sign of my personal evolution and growth as a human being. It would be a sign of my personal fairness and lack of ability to hold long-term grudges. A lot of the Pre-Crisis fans I know always remind me of people in the Balkans and the former Yugoslavia, who are still pissed off over things that happened in 1315.

But unfortunately, as a story, I didn't like the original Crisis. Here's why:

1. The Anti-Monitor is not an interesting villain. Give me one adjective to describe the Anti-Monitor's motive or personality. At the end of the day, Crisis on Infinite Earths was built around a villain that was only half of an idea. The Anti-Monitor had no real well-defined motive for destroying the Infinite Earths, no real personality to speak of, never appeared before Crisis, and never really appeared again afterward. In fact, part of the reason the Anti-Monitor was so threatening was that his powers were so vaguely defined as to be limitless. He was, in short, boring.

This is a huge flaw because in superhero comics, villains are more important than heroes because the actions, personality and motives of villains drive the story. It's possible to have a boring hero with interesting villains (Thor and the Challengers of the Unknown comes to mind) but the converse is never, ever true.

What's more, something as huge-scale and epic as Crisis deserved a huge villain. Imagine if the story was set around a very charismatic, frightening, threatening villain: Darkseid comes right to mind as someone that would be right for a story like this, or the Wolfman revamp of Brainiac as an infinitely intelligent supercomputer who was out to find and replace God.

Lots of people believe Crisis to be superior to Secret Wars, but I don't. The reason is that Secret Wars was a story that was centered around the greatest supervillain of all time, Doctor Doom: how Doom thinks on a totally different level than any other character. Secret Wars had a noble, tormented Magneto that fought on the side of the good guys, a neurotic and underconfident Molecule Man, an Enchantress that finally succeeded in seducing Thor because real feelings were actually shared...and so on. Secret Wars was a story centered around interesting villains who did interesting things.

And while we're at it, with the exception of Pariah, a tormented soul, and the new Dr. Light who was redeemed by other stories, none of the other characters introduced in Crisis were all that interesting either: Alexander Luthor, the Monitor, Harbinger, and so on. All of them fail the "give me one adjective to describe their personality" test.

2. Huge 'disaster movie' plot that ignored the human element. Unfortunately, Crisis glossed over a lot of things, and it never stopped to smell the roses. One might say that's what they were going for: a big disaster movie sort of story. But disaster movies are always terrible. I can't think of a single example to contradict that statement, something I can usually do with most genres. The reason is that there's a difference between an event and a story. An event is something that happens. A story is about people. It's telling the most famous image from disaster movies are of places: the burning building, the White House getting zapped by aliens.

3. Crisis didn't tell us anything that we didn't already know. Crisis was an incredibly ambitious story. It dealt with the beginnings of the universe, the beginning of the Guardians, the creation of the multiverse and the antimatter universe of Qward. This story could have wrestled with profound questions and revealed surprising truths, even answered questions as deep as the existence (or nonexistence) of God. Okay, so it didn't have to go that far, but it was surprising that Crisis didn't tell us anything that we didn't already know. It showed the creation of Qward and Krona's experiment, things that all long-term Green Lantern fans already know.

Avengers Forever was another ambitious story: it sought to tie together all of Avengers history into one big story. It told us tons of things we didn't know before, including some things that change everything: for instance, Immortus was responsible for the Avengers discovering Captain America frozen in ice. AF even showed us how Immortus was created, and even dealt with a really profound idea: the ability of human beings to one day become like gods and channel the Destiny Force, the way Rick Jones did.

4. Marv Wolfman's 'Pollyanna' narration. Whenever Marv Wolfman wants a moment to be poignant and powerful, he writes in this weird cross between 'Pollyanna' narration and baby talk. He did this all the time in Teen Titans and it drives me crazy. "They they go, the greatest, bravest beings ever known!" or "Supergirl is more selfless than...most anyone!" Groan. Wolfman is the absolute last person tapped to pen a death. Speaking of which...

5. The deaths were gutless, and there wasn't enough of them. Okay, this is going to strike people as a very novel angle of attack here, but it's a little gutless that all the deaths in Crisis are of expendable characters. Yes, I would include Supergirl and the Flash as expendable characters. The Flash was the lowest-selling of DC's heroes, with a cancelled comic, who received a Happily Ever After and was placed on a bus away from the rest of the universe. I hate to say this, because I think Kara's best stories were her Superman Family backups, but Kara, come 1985, was likewise a has-been who's top-selling heyday was back in the 1960s.

Besides those two, who else died in the Crisis? Actually, surprisingly few people: the Bug-Eyed Bandit, Prince Ra-Man, Kid Psycho, Aquagirl, Earth-2 Green Arrow. This is what I mean when I say the deaths in Crisis were gutless and didn't take risks. Earth-1 Green Arrow is a character. Earth-2 Green Arrow was the answer to a trivia question. This is going to surprise people that think of Crisis as a bloodbath, but nobody really important actually died and the casualty list was astonishingly short. Two deaths that stand as especially gutless are Kole (who was created just for the purpose of having a Titan dying in Crisis) and Nighthawk, who hadn't appeared in a DC comic since the 1950s and was brought back for the sole purpose of killing him off.

Personally, I find it amazing that Tomahawk lived to the end! I figured he was a dead man walking for sure.

(Incidentally, as my cousin, Eddie Michigan, once pointed out, no one ever saw the Golden Age Speedy die. So he could be out there somewhere...)

Now, there were a few things I liked about Crisis.

I have to say, Crisis was an opportunity, and they took full advantage of that opportunity, in the sense that it could allow characters that would otherwise never see each other to interact. What does Hawk say when he's on a mission with the Communist superhero, the original Starfire, for instance?

Kamandi's friendship with King Solovar of Gorilla City. That was the best part of Crisis for me. It showed Kamandi, distrustful of talking animals, who was befriended by a character as unlikely as Solovar: a wise, kindly, aged being, saintly, fatherly and benevolent. To have Kamandi lose someone like him was really touching.

I loved the story with all the super-villains, under the command of Luthor and Brainiac, taking over three of the earths. This was when the story started to really get good: this actually had a lot of promise, especially with the contrast between Luthor and Brainiac, two characters with whom it should be said, Wolfman can write in their voices very well. Why couldn't this have been the A-plot of Crisis, instead of all the boring stuff with the boring Anti-Monitor? This was a comprehensible story with villains that have comprehensible motivations.

There was one story that did right what Crisis did wrong. It was, believe it or not, Underworld Unleashed.

Neron was a strong villain, one of the few examples of a crossover villain that was interesting enough to become a regular part of the DC Universe and used after the crossover ended. He is also one of the few examples of a DC character that is more interesting than his Marvel equivalent.

Mephisto, his demonic Marvel counterpart, for instance, is dressed as something in red tights: a cliche take on the Devil. Neron is more unique: he is massively muscled and physically perfect in an eerie way. Neron was enigmatic, powerful, and extremely threatening. Mephisto on the other hand, is a textbook example of villain decay: he's been beaten by nearly everybody, so it's impossible to take him seriously anymore.

There was one very bittersweet thing about Crisis: it was the last, great hurrah of the Pre-Crisis DC Universe, made by people for whom a story like this is obviously a calling instead of just a job. For that reason, I can't find it in me to truly dislike Crisis. From the Frightful Five, to Angle Man, it was the last celebration of the Pre-Crisis universe.

...until the coming of Geoff Johns. :-) Nothing ever really ends, does it?


David said...

Re: DC's broken continuity. You say:

It troubles me how absolutely inured DC fans are to this, to the point where they don't realize how wrong or extraordinary this situation is.

Taking it literally, I suppose you're right. Anyone classified as a "DC fan" in 2010 likely is indeed unconcerned with the problem, or doesn't see it as one. But speaking as someone who used to be a DC fan, I can tell you this was, eventually, what drove me away.

As you say, DC organized this huge event to reboot their entire line of books and then failed to do it. Superman and Wonder Woman got a reboot, but neither immediately, so it was almost as if it had nothing to do with Crisis. Hawkman was rebooted, then when that didn't work he was rebooted again and again (and may not have stopped yet, for all I know). Green Lantern and Batman got no reboot at all (Batman got a fractional reboot with the new origin for Jason-Robin, just to add to the confusion).

So...Hal, Guy and John should remember the Crisis, but Clark and Diana weren't around for it. Everyone seems to remember Barry's sacrifice (even if they can't recall the details) and hold him up as a saint for it, but nobody remembers Kara even existed. The JSA remembers their life on Earth-2...no they don't...yes, they do...oh, forget it. It doesn't matter, since it never existed. Except then where did the Earth-2 Superman come from?

The *first* thing DC should have done on deciding to reboot was to sit down and hash out exactly what the DCU would look like after issue 12. That was never done, and the resulting muddle just led to more reboots and more reboots, both in individual titles and in company-wide "events." DC has spent the last quarter century trying to straighten out the mess they made with Crisis, which ironically was pitched as something that would clean up an earlier mess. For that alone, I'll never like "Crisis." No other story in memory has had such a negative effect on so many comics for so long.

The reason Anti-Monitor is the least developed villain this side of Doomsday is that both are editorial devices and not characters. "Crisis" happened because DC wanted to start over, and rather than do it with guts -- just reboot every title with a new #1 in January 1986 -- they instead turned it into a 12-issue "event" that in the end only affected a few of their titles anyway, and never consistently.

As a story, it's a mess. As an idea, it was a mistake. Art-wise it was pretty because it was Perez, but he's done prettier. And of course it launched the era of company-wide "event" crossovers, so for that alone it deserves a place in Comic Hell.

Of course, there are the nipple shots, but that's your bag there's always Image.

Julian Perez said...

You're talking about rebooting everything. Why not keep everything?

The thing I think is great about DC under writers like Johns, Simone and so on is how sharp they are in DC history: Johns and Busiek characterize Luthor in a very sympathetic, warped pre-1985 way, and there are now tons of references again to the Pre-Crisis Legion of Super-Heroes, the events of Secret Society of Super-Villains, and things like monsters that originally showed up in issues of Tommy Tomorrow.

This is what I mean when I say I'm startled at DC fans sometimes...if somebody wanted to replace the Stan Lee version of characters like Iron Man or Spider-Man...I'm pretty sure the entire internet would explode. In a situation like that, I would actually fear for the person's life.

I agree with what you say about the piecemeal approach after the Crisis. Hawkman and Aquaman became fenced-off disaster areas because after Crisis nobody even knew who they were at all. The Silver Age version of characters fared the worst under this...the Earth-2, Golden Age versions stuck around, the modern age equivalents also started to appear, but with characters like Hawkman in particular, and Superman, the Silver/Bronze Age version just evaporated.

I think it's important to point out that the characters with a clean break with the past, like Superman, Hawkman and Wonder Woman were the exception. The majority of DC had more or less the same continuity as before. Still, they were very, very annoying exceptions. Take Supergirl; it was up in the air what happened to the villains she fought after Crisis. I guess there was an attempt to explain that Power Girl fought them: it's interesting to note how Power Girl was pushed after Crisis. To be honest, the character never clicked for me until Geoff Johns started writing her.

Also, the rationale for the reboots after Crisis made no logical sense to me. Wonder Woman received a built-in logic for her 'reboot' in Crisis as she was de-aged, and a Captain Marvel raised on Earth-1 'all along' would be a very different, but why would a single universe result in Superman being a different person, and Thanagar being a totally different place?

(Not that anyone actually cared about Wonder Woman, anyway, of course, because as I have often pointed out, nobody really cares about Wonder Woman.)

I suspect what happened is, people wanted reboots so badly there wasn't much concern for how it happened. I can kind of understand why there would be a desire for them. With a few notable exceptions, like Teen Titans, Legion of Superheroes under Levitz, and Len Wein and Englehart writing JLA, the DC Universe was always a two-dimensional universe. After Crisis, it was trying to break into third dimension. For much of the time after Crisis, DC was a 2 and a 1/2 Dimensional Universe trying to pop out and become a 3-D one.

David said...

You're talking about rebooting everything. Why not keep everything?

Well, of course you know from previous discussions that this would have been my first choice. I never for a moment bought into DC's claim that "the multiple Earths are too confusing for new readers." Heck, much of the fun for me, thrown into into the Multiverse in 1971 or so, lay in figuring out who all these people were, what Earth they came from and what the differences were. When I first encountered the JSA in one of those annual summer crossovers, I didn't think, "Two Green Lanterns and two Flashes? That's it, I give up!" No, I thought, "A whole other world full of heroes I never saw before? AWESOME!!" And I can tell you, my 7- and 5-year old feel the same way about it now, reading my reprints.

The truth is DC wasn't worried about kids keeping up (look how many kids manage to memorize baseball stats going back to Year One. Trust me, kids can handle detail). What they were worried about was the Marvel Zombies, and how to attract their business. The only people I ever knew who carped about the Multiverse were Marvelites and if any of them were attracted by the Crisis I doubt they hung around for long; when you're that polarized, you tend to stay that way.

It's not like "complexity" is kryptonite to Marvel fans. The ins and outs of Avengers history, the billion and one mutants running around, even just the tangled backstory of a single character like the Vision can be byzantine to say the least. And for the record, the second most fun I had after learning about the Multiverse was figuring out who all those mutants were when I happened on my first issue of the Claremont/Byrne X-Men. No, the reason Marvel Zombies stayed away is because they just plain didn't like DC characters, and no amount of lipstick will ever pretty up that pig in their eyes. DC was just so desperate to emulate Marvel's "single universe" model that they completely missed what worked about it: It was built with care over time, not plopped down fully-formed in 1961.

I just finished Marty Pasko's "DC Vault" and he suggests the Multiverse ended because one person in particular couldn't figure it out, and that was Jennette Kahn. Mind you he found a way to say it that made her look like the greatest storytelling genius since Homer, but still...

It's great to hear that Johns and others are essentially slipping the old continuity back in over the transom, but too much water's under the bridge for me to come back now (besides, I have to feed three kids, and new comics are too rich for my blood). BUT...since it took over two decades to get here, now DC's just cheesing off a whole new group of fans who stuck with them through the Dark Age. Now all those fans of Byrne's Superman or Tim Truman's Hawkman or PAD's Aquaman are left out in the cold as they're told their "age" essentially didn't happen. And of course once Johns and co. are gone, the next generation will toss out half of what you're enjoying right now.

As you say, at least with Marvel it all counts. Even if a story really, really sucks, at least characters have to deal with it, and you aren't told, "Remember that 2 bucks you spent on that comic a couple years ago? Well never mind, we've retconned it out of existence."

So yeah, I'd have liked it if they'd kept the timeline intact. My point was if you're going to "fix" things with a "reboot" then have the courage of your convictions. DC gave us the worst of both worlds; an end to all the good stuff about the pre-Crisis era, with the "bad" part (convoluted continuity) magnified a thousandfold.

Julian Perez said...

Let me ask you a question, Nightwing: when was the last time you read Crisis, as a series? I'm just curious.

I totally agree with you when you say that kids don't have a problem keeping track of very complicated things. Hell, at age 11, I was programming in HTML and Visual Basic - and I was a downright lazybones and late bloomer compared to some of the other kids I knew from spelling bees and whatnot.

I think one of the problems that I have with the instinct to say, "this is too complicated, dumb it down" is that it really does a disservice to the intelligence of the audience, kids or otherwise. People like really complicated things, especially in fiction.

The Pasko story in particular is interesting, since Khan pulled the trigger on this. I think this actually makes everything else fall into place: Wolfman and Perez were hypnotized by the idea of doing a story STARRING EVERYBODY to think it all through. This is why, at some level, I really like Crisis: like I said, it was obviously written by people who felt this story was more of a calling than an assignment.

I'm not exactly married to the idea of the multiverse, though...first because Geoff Johns and others saw potential in what a singleverse could be, and secondly because it's an idea, not a character. Characters and people are what I like and what I owe my allegiance to, not "ideas." For instance, the one thing that ticked me off about the Jessica Alba FF movie wasn't the rewritten origin, but the fact that they got a character like Dr. Doom all wrong.

David said...

Let me ask you a question, Nightwing: when was the last time you read Crisis, as a series? I'm just curious.

As a series? Probably 1986. I reread a big chunk of it back when they did the "Legends of the DC Universe" one-off in 1999 (supposedly taking place "between the panels" of COIE #4). And a couple of years ago I got a trade paperback version from my local library, but I wasn't able to read it from cover to cover. I tend to go to the highlights (cool group gatherings, Kara and Barry's deaths, what little Batman there is and, more often than not, issues 11 and 12 in their entirety) but I can't read the whole thing. Partly that's due to the way it meanders, but mostly it's a case of eye fatigue. Those jam-packed Perez pages were hot snot on a monthly basis, but taken together, they're overwhelming.

Interestingly, the library at the university where I work holds an annual book sale that includes comics, and every year there is a stack of "Crisis" issues available for the original cover price. Not the whole series, mind you, but the issue you single out for praise in your post: #9, the all-villain issue. There must be 20 copies of that thing in the sale every year (maybe the same 20), and if it's in the sale it means someone donated them to the school's (sizable) comic collection but they didn't need it. So either a lot of folks didn't like the issue or the donor was a shop owner, speculator or somesuch who owned them all.

Again, the further I get from Crisis,the more I think DC wasn't trying to "dumb down" their continuity for kids so much as they were trying to woo away Marvel devotees. In this sense, too, it was a harbinger (ahem) of things to come, as we've witnessed over the last couple decades an ongoing fight to win the business of an existing reader pool rather than a serious attempt to expand the readership to include newcomers.

I'm not "married" to the Multiverse, either. I went into Crisis with high hopes, as I did Byrne's Superman reboot. But what I got was 10 issues of what felt like stalling tactics, leading up to two issues that were supposed to lay the groundwork for the new universe, but instead confirmed our suspicions that the men behind the curtain had no game plan whatsoever.

Matt Celis said...

How is drawing correct anatomy perverted?