Following on from my previous post about confusing comic-book epics, I’ve started reading Crisis on Infinite Earths, by Marv Wolfman and George Perez, to my daughters. Or two of them, anyway.
It’s been 31 years since this book came out (or started to come out), and it’s funny to see it with the hindsight of history. At the time, it was a BIG DEAL. It was one of the first giant cross-over epics series that any comic company had produced, it introduced major changes to the DC landscape that as far as we knew were going to be permanent. These included killing off a bunch of characters, introducing some new ones, and bringing into the fold yet others who had been acquired from other companies, but who had never yet made a DC debut.
Now, of course, knowing all that has followed (or much of it, anyway–I haven’t been reading much of the current DC for the last five years), it all looks a bit funny. A lot of the changes can more easily seen as part of storytelling cycles: characters die, then they’re resurrected, then they die again, then they’re rebooted… Even the central concept of whether or not there is a multiverse in DC–as series of similar but distinct alternate realities–is something that the company has gone back and forth on.
Anyway, in the re-reading, I feel a bit inspired to do a post (maybe a series of posts) that walkthrough the series, identifying interesting bits of trivia to notice and commenting on what is still working for the story and what is not. This is by no means a comprehensive response; the work is far too expansive for me to attempt that. But it is funny what stands out.
Issue 1 – The Summoning
The story begins with its major conceit clearly stated: the creation of the multiverse, however it happened, was in some way a mistake: “…a multiverse that should have been one, became many.”
Page 2 – We meet Pariah, one of the main characters, who is involuntarily moved from earth to earth to watch it die. If they ever made a movie based on this, Pariah would be a part that’s hard not to overact, he’s so full of histrionic tears and overwrought speeches.
Page 4 – We see Earth 3 dying, which is the first hint that DC is really going to mess around with established concepts in this series. Earth 3 had been long established as the place where the Justice League is evil and Luthor is a good guy. They all get killed off here, though of course the Crime Syndicate (the evil JLA) has returned many many times, appearing far more vicious than these pages make them appear. Ultraman even gets to be kind of noble in his death.
Alexander Luthor and his wife, Lois Lane, save their infant son by sending him in a spinning ship to Earth 1 (where the bulk of DC Comics takes place), in a sequence which clearly echoes the origin of Superman.
Oh, also, the Crime Syndicate get wiped out in almost the exact same way in the opening moments of JLA / Avengers, in a scene clearly intended to homage this one.
Page 9 – The Monitor appears (sort of, his appearance is kept vague until the issue ends) and his human companion, Lyla, appear. DC had seeded appearances of the Monitor throughout their titles for some time to build to this reveal. The Monitor sends Lyla, in her super-powered guise as Harbinger, to go and exact the “summoning” of our issue title. She wonders why she isn’t just getting the most powerful of all the heroes, rather than the ragtag group of misfits that we’ll see her with, and we the reader can’t help but agree. The Monitor never explains why he needs these particular individulals to fight the evil that is upon them. He tells her to get on with it while he retrieves the Luthor baby, who is currently on the abandoned JLA satellite.
Lyla also gives the Monitor a bit of lip about being treated as an equal partner in their work, which hints at some tension that we never come to really understand. At the end of this scene, as the Monitor talks to himself, we have the first comment on his impending death, and the fact that he knows it is coming.
Page 13 – Harbinger, now split into many beings, goes around Earth 1 and Earth 2 to collect the characters that the Monitor has identified. This starts with Solovar, the King of Gorilla City (intelligent apes that live secretly in Africa), but goes on to include Dawnstar from the Legion of Super-Heroes (30th Century teenaged super-heroes) and Firebrand of the All-Star Squadron (a loose-knit group of World War II-era heroes from Earth 2). Harbinger’s powers are never fully explained, but it’s clear she can fly, travel quickly through time and space, move through solid objects, freeze time and speak telepathically.
Page 18 – The Blue Beetle enters the action. This is one of the heroes who DC bought from Charlton Comics, who had never appeared in a DC book before. It’s not established yet which Earth he’s from.
Page 19 – One of the Harbingers gets infected by something dark and evil, which will later infect her whole self and lead her down an evil path. We see her change when she collects Arion, the sorcerer who leads Atlantis 45,000 years ago, and does so in a more sadistic manner.
Page 20 – Harbinger collects Psycho Pirate, an Earth 2 villain, whom she takes even though he begs her not to and is a patient in a mental institution.
Page 23 – Firestorm and Killer Frost join the team. This is the first page that really got me thinking about how my girls were perceiving this story. They are similar to many modern audiences: they know these characters from TV and movies, and have barely read any comics (actually, they’ve read a lot compared to other kids their age, but not compared to real comic book fans). As is true to the Firestorm comics of the era, Firestorm is primarily Ronnie Raymond, with scientist Martin Stein along for the ride. In The Flash and Legends of Tomorrow, Stein is treated as being just as important or even more so to the Firestorm identity as the other half of the hero, but in the comics he was usually in the background, a supporting character to the hero’s “main” identity. And of course, on TV, Ronnie Raymond has been dead for a year. Later, the comic version would also die (at least temporarily) but that was a long way off. Killer Frost, for her part, is not a Flash villain but a Firestorm one, and she’s not a doppelganger of one of Flash’s friends, either. She’s just a crazy woman.
Page 25 – The Monitor definitely knows that Lyla will kill him, even though he raised for 20 years and considers her to be like a daughter to him. He states that she holds her in hands the fate of the cosmos itself.
Also, the Monitor states that in the time that we’ve been reading the last few pages, another earth has died and five heroes that he needed were lost. He’s sent other Harbingers out to get their replacements.
Page 26 – All of the “summoned” stand around the Monitor’s ship, being confused, and making or thinking conveniently expository speeches. In addition to the ones that we’ve seen, we’ve got Geo Force of the Outsiders (a team Batman formed when he got disillusioned with the JLA), Cyborg of the Titans (originally a grouping of all the teenaged sidekicks to the Justice League, but now including a lot more than that), Psimon (a telepathic enemy of the Titans), Superman from Earth 2 (where all the 1940’s DC characters live. Superman is basically the same as the “main” one except that he’s got grey sideburns and is married to Lois Lane), Obsidian of Infinity Inc. (the Earth 2 children of the Justice Society–Obsidian is Earth 2 Green Lantern’s son), Dr. Polaris (a Green Lantern villain with magnetic powers), and Green Lantern John Stewart.
Page 28 – The Shadow Demons (as they come to be known) attack the heroes. Most of the heroes defenses are pretty useless, including (note this) Cyborg’s sonic attack: “I’m slammin’ ’em with a million decibels of white sound an’ these things are just eatin’ it up!” he cries. In the midst of this, the Monitor turns on the lights, making them all go away.
Page 32 – The Monitor finally debuts in all his mutton-chopped and metal-skirted glory.
And that’s where the issue leaves off. I was going to try to do this as one big post, but obviously I’ve got more to say than I thought. So, more later!