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Sunday, October 28, 2012

Crisis on Infinite Earths

Title: Crisis on Infinite Earths

ISBN: 1563897504

Price: $29.99

Publisher/Year: DC, 2000

Artist: George Perez

Writer: Marv Wolfman

Collects: Crisis on Infinite Earths

Rating: 3/5

Most fans have at least heard of DC Comics' Crisis on Infinite Earths,
the maxi-series that reinvented the "reality" of the oldest
consistently publishing comic book company. At long last (well, at the tail end
of 2000) DC released the epic in a trade paperback for those who missed it
either in its original serialized format, or in its pricey hardcover version.

I had never read the series. In 1985 comics were getting pricey (I had
no idea just how pricey they'd become, of course) and the great reads seemed
few and farther between. When DC announced it was overhauling its line with
Crisis, I decided it was time for me to go, too. Eventually I fell back into
reading comics and inevitably my curiosity led me to reading Crisis on Infinite
Earths. I mention all this just to put my opinion in perspective -- I read it
16 years after the fact.

The story has a mysterious villain destroying whole universes,
whittling away at DC's multiverse -- wherein earths existed in parallel
dimensions, each with its own superheroes. An enigmatic, omnipotent being,
Monitor, is determined to preserve as many of the universes as possible and
gathers together heroes from various universes to help. Eventually the heroes
triumph, but the end result is that reality has been remade as a single
universe where all the characters either co-exist...or no longer exist.

Crisis was, obviously, an awesome undertaking, a story that attempted
to throw in almost every character in the DC catalogue. There probably isn't
another artist who could have handled the task as well as George Perez --
certainly not who was working at the time. He crams each page with tiny panels
and crams the panels with little details and finely drawn, impeccable figure
work, all laid out with edgy panel composition. For pure quantity, you get your
money's worth. Writer Marv Wolfman holds up his end by providing lots of
dialogue. Sometimes the panels are so small and the dialogue so much that
letterer John Constanza has to spill word balloons into neighboring panels.
It's a 12 issue series that, in other hands, probably would've been 24 issues.

Is Crisis a good read? Well, yes.

It's a big spectacle that can be fun just for the sheer number of
characters, featuring (literally) an earth-shattering menace, and buoyed by
Perez's art, aided by inkers Dick Giordano, Mike DeCarlo, and, mainly, Jerry
Ordway (an overwhelming inker, admittedly -- sometimes you can find yourself
forgetting it's Perez's pencils underneath Ordway's inks). For older readers,
the story evokes all those old Justice League/Justice Society team ups that
were an annual event in the Justice League of America comics throughout the '60s,
'70s and early '80s.

Is Crisis a great read? Well, no.

There are too many characters. Admittedly that's the point: to squeeze
everyone in. Almost everyone gets a line, true, but very few get a lot of
lines, or very good lines (even A-list heroes like Batman and Wonder Woman have
just bit parts). The plot unfolds a little too linearly -- despite the fact
that it leaps around from the far future to the distant past, jumping from
reality to reality. Wolfman basically comes up with his premise...then sticks
with it for 350 pages. There are some questions that keep us turning pages (who
is Pariah? what is the Monitor's plan? etc.) but considering the saga's size,
unexpected plot turns are few. There's repetition, particularly in the first
half, with too few moments that gel into memorable scenes in and of themselves.
The "action" tends to be a lot of scenes of mass fisticuffs.

The use of the god-like Monitor, and some subsequent characters, helps
push the story along, but it reduces the familiar heroes too often to being
kind of unthinking props who just go where they're told. Considering this was
the swan song for some of the characters, it's disappointing. Wolfman also
introduces brand new characters, spotlighting them sometimes at the expense of
the established heroes. The irony is that most of the original characters
introduced have long since faded into obscurity!

The saga is better in the last half than the first, and a couple of
double-sized issues (#7 and the concluding #12) stand out, the greater pages
allowing Wolfman and Perez to shape more well-rounded chapters.

There are technical lapses, as is probably unavoidable when dealing
with the warping of time and space and reality -- spots where you find yourself
going, "hey, that don't make sense", or where Wolfman glosses over
plot points. And at one point Captain Marvel Jr. refers to Mary Marvel as his
"sister" and the Golden Age Superman is more powerful than I
remembered. And since this was a "crossover" epic -- one of the first
-- there are a few annoying spots where characters wander off and we're advised
that their adventure continues, not in the next issue of Crisis, but some other
comic entirely.

In the annals of mass slaughter depicted in comics, the hundreds of
billions cavalierly wiped out in Crisis is unmatched. To make matters worse, it
was not done out of any artistic desire, or to tell a great story, but simply
because DC Comics wanted to clean house. I don't want to get too metaphysical,
but when the heroes rage against the villain it's hard to get swept up in their
indignation. After all, he didn't kill billions...Marv Wolfman did. Likewise,
in the series’ most notorious twists -- the deaths of the original Supergirl
and the Silver Age Flash (not to mention Dove, Lori Lemaris, Aquagirl, the
earth 2 Huntress, and so on) -- there's some of the same ambivalence. It's hard
to be entirely moved because it was an editorial more than an artistic
decision. Supergirl and the Flash evince an atypical ruthlessness in their last
moments, too, which is curious.

Admittedly, all that's from the perspective of reading it years later,
when all of this is ancient history. At the time, it might have been more

There's a little too much of the "Iconanism" that seems to
have become prevalent in comics. Where the Marvel Age was all about emphasizing
a superhero's humanity, the modern Iconic Age (as I think of it) is more about
Wagnerian chest beating, defining superheroes by their being superheroes. Even
when Wolfman tries to squeeze in character bits, it's mainly characters
reflecting on superheroism. If I read one more character musing what a
"true hero" another character was, I was liable to throw the comic
across the room. When Supergirl dies, we're treated to a half page eulogy
delivered by Batgirl at her funeral -- it's heavy handed, it's expository,
it's...Iconic! Far more affecting is a later, understated scene where Brainiac
5 is embittered because of Supergirl's death.

With that being said, #7 (with Supergirl's death) and #8 (Flash's
death) are among the better stand-alone issues -- not because of the deaths,
but the stories are more focused. Wolfman also shows an unusual sensitivity for
continuity by having the Golden Age Superman -- the hero that largely begat the
DC Comics empire in 1938 -- take a pivotal role in the climax.

The series was intended to redefine and clarify the DC Universe -- it
did neither. Even how the series ends (with the heroes remembering the
pre-Crisis) was instantly contradicted by the regular comics (where even
Supergirl went unremembered -- this despite Superman vowing to "miss her
forever"). Once DC opened the door to "redefining" its universe,
new editorial regimes have done so at least twice, so that even hardcore fans
aren't really sure what is, or is not, continuity. There's also an
uncomfortable tendency to brow beat. Knowing what they were doing was bound to
be controversial, Wolfman has the only character who bemoans the changes be a
raving lunatic in an asylum. A not-very-subtle way for Wolfman to get in a
pre-emptive swipe at his critics.

Crisis is arguably more craftsmanship than it is art, though it may
well be as good a version of the story as was possible given the parameters. Is
it the classic it is heralded as? Not really. It's a bit draggy in spots and I
can think of similar stories, both after and before, that were as good or
better. But it's still an enjoyable epic that reminds you when DC Comics'
reality was an interesting, diverse place to be.

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