The Crisis Guide for the Terminally Bewildered
Posted by Tony Ingram on Jun 3, 2008
23 years ago DC published Crisis on Infinite Earths, a series intended to simplify their horrendously complicated fictional universe. Now, as Final Crisis looms, we look back at what came before.
The DC Universe is one of the most complex fictional realms that have ever existed, but unlike Tolkien’s Middle Earth or Pratchett’s Discworld it has grown slowly, a conglomeration of ideas from hundreds of writers over 70 odd years. As a result, it hasn’t always all fitted together quite as seamlessly as some readers—we fans being a somewhat obsessive breed—might have liked.
This led to continuity problems from quite early on; Superman definitely lived in the same ‘world’ as Aquaman, for instance, and yet Aquaman’s Atlantis was not the same one Supes visited in his occasional meetings with mermaid Lori Lemaris. And as time went on, these problems grew worse as the DC Universe expanded. Eventually, in 1961, writer Gardner Fox decided to tackle some of the most obvious problems head on-a decision which would have unexpected consequences.
By 1961, many of DC’s principal characters-Superman, Batman and Robin, Wonder Woman, plus lesser lights such as Aquaman and Green Arrow-had been in continuous publication for decades and yet curiously, they never seemed to get any older. The assumption that comic book characters never age as their timelines are continually updated is hardly knew. But in the case of these guys, the fact that they had all conspicuously lived through World War II made that one rather hard to swallow. In addition, several of their wartime contemporaries (most notably the Flash, Green Lantern, Atom and Hawkman) had been revamped in the mid ‘50’s after a several years break in publication and were now completely different characters.
It was obvious something was up, and in Flash #123, in a story entitled ‘Flash of Two Worlds’, Fox provided an explanation: the guys readers were now seeing were not the same characters published in the 40’s at all. Those earlier characters, including the original Flash and the Superman who had tossed Nazi tanks around, lived on a parallel world called Earth 2 (as opposed to the contemporary Earth 1. Logically, the earlier characters should have been on Earth 1, but never mind). Great, job done, problem solved! Or maybe not…
The trouble was, as time went on writers just couldn’t help tinkering with the concept. In Justice League of America #21, the JLA met their wartime counterparts, the Justice Society, for the first time and began an annual tradition of team-ups which readers loved. But things were already getting complicated by JLA #29, when the two teams encountered their evil counterparts the Crime Syndicate of America on Earth 3! In #37, the evil Johnny Thunder of Earth 1 stole his heroic Earth 2 counterparts magic Thunderbolt and changed history, creating ‘Earth A’ (for’ Alternate’), while in #107 we were introduced to the Freedom Fighters of Earth X, all characters bought by DC from the defunct Quality Comics group. JLA #101, meanwhile, had reintroduced the 7 Soldiers of Victory from Earth 2…and yet, one of their number, the Vigilante, had already been established as living on Earth 1 in JLA #78! Were there two Vigilante’s? Presumably so, yet the Earth 1 version was never seen or mentioned again.
As time went on, these contradictions worsened. TNT & Dyna-Mite, two former wartime heroes, had a short lived series in the 70’s which placed them on Earth 1, but were then shown in Roy Thomas’s All-Star Squadron to be on Earth 2, as were Plastic Man, Air Wave—already established as a relative of the Earth 1 Green Lantern—and the Freedom Fighters’ Phantom Lady (Thomas later concocted a story ‘explaining’ that the Freedom Fighters were originally from Earth 2 and ‘moved’ to Earth X to put this right).
Readers even theorized the existence of an ‘Earth B’ to account for various continuity busting stories in The Brave & the Bold (by Bob Haney, mostly) in which the modern day Batman had fought in World War II, had a younger brother, and frequently teamed up with Wildcat (an Earth 2 character) and a contemporary version of Sgt Rock, though the existence of this world was never officially confirmed in print.
In 1985, DC celebrated 50 years of publication with a 12 part series designed to streamline and simplify the DC Universe. Originally titled ‘DC Universe: Crisis on Infinite Earths’ in promotional material, the prefix was dropped before publication; the ‘Crisis’ part was chosen because the JLA/JSA team-ups had traditionally been titled ‘Crisis on…’, followed by whichever Earth was being tackled that month.
The series, by Marv Wolfman and George Perez, told an incredibly convoluted story concerning the evil Anti-Monitor’s attempts to destroy the multiverse and expand his anti-matter universe, and the desperate quest of his opposite number, the benevolent Monitor, to stop him (the Monitor had been appearing in shadowy cameos, his motives unclear, throughout the DC line for over a year before the first issue of Crisis came out).
The story crossed over into nearly every book DC published between April ’85 and March ‘86 and by the time it was over DC’s continuity had been reset, its universe’s history rewritten and all of the ‘duplicate’ characters killed off or written out while Earth’s 1, 2, 4 (home of the newly acquired former Charlton Comics characters) , X and S (home of the former Fawcett characters) were merged into one world; in a poignant final scene, the Superman of Earth 2-DC’s original superhero-left the ‘new’ Earth which had no place for him, to dwell forever in a kind of artificial paradise with his friends.
And so, the DC Universe began again, streamlined and simplified and totally consistent-or at least, that was the plan. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way: writers were unclear on precisely what the reboot meant for various characters, and several individual characters were revamped and their histories rewritten at different times over the next few years, Superman, Batman and Hawkman being the main ones. Stories appeared which directly contradicted others only a couple of years, or even a couple of months, old. Many readers felt that things had been simpler before the Crisis ‘simplified’ things!
After a not entirely successful attempt to sort things out with the limited series ‘Zero Hour: Crisis in Time’ in 1994, October 2005-almost 20 years after Crisis #12 was published-saw the publication of Infinite Crisis #1, the first in a seven part sequel series by Geoff Johns and Phil Jimenez (foreshadowed by a series of shocking events in the DCU throughout the previous year) which saw the Superman of Earth 2, his Lois Lane, Earth 3’s Alex Luthor Jr and the Superboy of Earth Prime-all the survivors of the first Crisis-return to set to rights a new Earth which they felt had become corrupted, unworthy of their great sacrifice.
A less ‘cosmic’, more personal story than its predecessor, dealing with the nature of heroism in changing times and the contrast between DC’s ‘innocent’ stories of days gone by and those of the more gritty and realistic present day, it ended with the original Superman dying and Superboy transformed into the insane villain ‘Prime’, but with DC’s multiverse reborn (as we would later learn in the weekly sequel series ‘52’). It has since become clear, though, that all of this was only a prelude to what is still to come. The Final Crisis is upon us. Will the DC Universe ever be the same?
Perhaps a better question would be ‘was it ever’?
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