Crisis on Infinite Earths, written by Marv Wolfman, illustrated by George Perez, Mike DeCarlo, Jerry Ordway and Dick Giordano (1985-86; collected 1997): I’ve never met anyone who was actually confused by DC’s pre-Crisis continuity, in which superheroes existed on several different Earths with different “vibrational frequencies.” On the other hand, DC was struggling in the mid-1980’s to make up market share on Marvel, and the Crisis “maxi-series” did jolt sales and eventually lead to fairly successful reboots of characters that included Superman, the Flash, and Wonder Woman. Along with Marvel’s contemporaneous maxi-series Secret Wars, Crisis ushered in the age of megacrossovers that mainstream superhero comic books — for good and ill — have existed within ever since.
From a (nominally) adult perspective, the main attraction of a collected edition of Crisis on Infinite Earths resides in the art by George Perez and several different inkers, colour-corrected and restored from the pulp-paper, four-colour original state of the original serialized issues. Perez pulls off one of the loopiest assignments in superhero history, as he basically draws every superhero and supervillain in DC history, making each unique (his Supermen of Earths 1 and 2, for example, have distinctive facial features to go along with their slightly different costumes). It’s a Domesday Book of DC’s history from 1937 to 1985. Pretty much everyone is here, lovingly rendered, unique, imperilled, shouting a lot.
The story is relatively simple. Entire universes (not an infinite number but apparently around 1000, we’re told on several occasions) have already been destroyed by waves of anti-matter when the story begins. Five universes containing pretty much all of DC’s major superheroes remain. The superheroes and their allies battle to save the remaining five universes. That’s pretty much the plot, though obviously there are various successes, setbacks and subplots in the course of the 300 pages of the narrative.
Writer Marv Wolfman goes slightly bananas here with declamatory speeches, many of them involving heroes talking about themselves in third-person, and many others involving characters telling us what we’re already looking at. Judicious editing might have increased the grandeur of certain situations and the poignancy of others, especially the deaths of Supergirl and the Flash. Any editing, maybe — in one awe-deflating caption, Wolfman uses “zillions” as if it’s a real number.
And even as superhero science and logic goes, Crisis is something of a mess — antimatter somehow destroys positive matter without being destroyed itself, and appears to come in several different flavours. When a character lives in an antimatter universe where everything material is made of antimatter, does his big gun really have to be described as an “antimatter cannon”? Wouldn’t it just be a cannon? And how exactly can a being who’s fed off the energy of entire universes be hurt by a handful of heroes, no matter how super? I don’t really know. The pictures sure are pretty, though.
Because the actual changes to the DC Universe hadn’t been entirely decided upon by the end of Crisis, we’re also faced with a story which seemingly requires yet another Crisis to make it dovetail with what would come after. People still remember Supergirl at the end of the series even though she never existed in the new DCU. Superman’s Fortress of Solitude still has that giant golden key sitting out front. And problems with the history of characters that include Wonder Woman, Hawkman, and Power Girl would persist for decades. In many ways, the series seemed to create more headaches than it cured.
There’s a certain nostalgic thrill in the writing — along with X-men’s Chris Claremont, Wolfman was pretty much state-of-the-art circa 1985 when it came to large groups of superheroes doing large things. And there’s still some feeling here that superheroes are for kids and, at the oldest, teenagers. Hearts are worn on sleeves, and everyone says the right thing. A lot. If the DC Universe somehow managed to become more confusing fairly soon after the catastrophic events of Crisis — well, that’s not Wolfman’s fault. And the art is, as noted previously, completely and utterly bonkers, a high watermark of gigantic-cast mayhem and destruction. Recommended.