You’ve heard the word. You know the story.
The iconic, defining, definitive word of DC stories.
The word Crisis feels inseparable from the fabric of DC. It holds sway over its past, it informs its present, and it will certainly influence the future. You can’t think of DC and not think of Crisis at some point. The very idea of it has been bound to the very idea of DC that tightly.
And the response to the word and its invocation is intense as well. It comes with a lot of assumptions and baggage. Given that is the case, given it has become ubiquitous, inevitable, and all-pervading with DC itself, it’s worth discussing what has become of it. What has emerged from this focusing and this obsession over Crisis in DC? What has it led to?
The matter of Crisis must be unpacked, and that’s what we’re here to do.
The Roots Of Crisis
Crisis begins in the 1960’s Silver Age of comics, emerging from Justice League Of America #21-22 by Gardner Fox, Mike Sekowsky, Bernard Sachs, and Gaspar Saladino.
In many ways, it was a spiritual successor to something that had just occurred. Under the stewardship of editor Julius Schwartz, something special would be carried out. Gardner Fox, the original writer and co-creator of The Flash (Jay Garrick) from way back in the 1940’s Golden Age era, would reunite the original Flash with the new Flash of the 1960s. And so The Flash Of Two-Worlds was born, creating a classic, and bringing the conceit of ‘The Multiverse‘ into play for DC. A reality divided by vibrational frequencies, designated with terminology like ‘Earth-One’ and ‘Earth-Two’ and granting a generational quality to the DC world and setting.
So it made sense to ‘scale up’ from that and take that idea to a bigger, wider stage. Why stop at just The Flash? Why not do all the rest? Why not all the other heroes meeting one another? And so that meant The Justice League meeting The Justice Society, it meant Earth-One and Earth-Two meeting one another. That gave birth to Crisis On Earth-One and Crisis On Earth-Two. These were the very first Crisis stories. The very roots from which all others would emerge and follow.
And thus began Crisis. A grand, inter-dimensional team-up tale bridging two different realities and generations of DC Comics.
It proved to be a hit, and DC kept doing them. If the very first Crisis had expanded the DC landscape from ‘one world’ to ‘two worlds’, they’d keep it going and expand even further. And so you had the introduction of the new villainous doppelgangers of our heroes- The Crime Syndicate of Earth-Three. And that ‘second’ Crisis would arrive only 6 issues after the very first Crisis in Justice League Of America #29– titled Crisis On Earth-Three!
But that is not what Crisis would remain forever. Its meaning would change drastically, as would its place in the context of DC. For when we now say ‘Crisis’ we think of one particular one, above all else, above all the others. It’s not the 1 or 2 issue or perhaps maybe 3 or 4 issues at best story arc of a title. It’s not just a ‘crossover’ or ‘team-up.’ It’s something way bigger than that.
When we say Crisis, we mean…
The End Of Everything
Crisis On Infinite Earths. The one and only, by the iconic duo of Marv Wolfman and George Perez. This is the defining Crisis, but what’s interesting is the way in which it breaks from tradition. It’s not quite like the above stories we’ve discussed. Instead, what it draws on is Marv Wolfman’s love of Marvel and his passion for classic Jack Kirby/Stan Lee stories of The Fantastic Four.
Wolfman, alongside his good friend Len Wein, was a huge comics fan, particularly a Jack Kirby fan. Wolfman and Wein were tight pals who made and published fanzines, and would through good fortune end up often visiting the Kirby household. The two of them would be offered milk and cookies by Roz Kirby, while they just watched Kirby draw. These were fans who succeeded the iconic founders of these worlds, and had the chance to re-shape it. They were the first generation of fans-turned-writers who had the chance to engage directly with their heroes.
And so when the time came, Wolfman would construct a tale evocative of the DC tradition, titled ‘Crisis,’ but would draw upon his fondness for the Marvel mechanism. The lack of emphasis on multiverses and there being little archipelago-esque ‘separation,’ a clean clear single universe and timeline/history in which all of the characters existed and interacted, he wanted to bring all of that over to the DC world. He wanted to ‘clean it up’ and help rebuild it that Marvel way. And what better way to do it than to draw upon the most Marvel story of all?
Galactus was God as drawn by Jack Kirby. The Anti-Monitor would be the Devil as drawn by George Perez. Galactus was a Devourer of Worlds. The Anti-Monitor would then be the Devourer of Universes. Galactus had The Silver Surfer, the herald of his arrival who was forced to suffer and watch as planets died. The Anti-Monitor had a man (poorly) named ‘Pariah.’ And if there was The Watcher to stand against and speak to Galactus, then there was to be The Anti-Monitor’s opposite…The Monitor.
The Wolfman/Perez Crisis is a tale rooted in the influence and love of those classic Kirby comics, and it would take the basic make-up and ingredients of that material, along with the Crisis label, and ‘scale it up.’ Everything would be escalated. It wouldn’t be planets being devoured and popping out of existence. It would be entire universes. It wasn’t just one Earth at stake. It was all of them. It was the bridge between the multiversal ‘Crisis’ frameworks and the apocalyptic Kirby cosmic fables.
What happens when The Destroyer comes to devour all of existence? Crisis. It was big, it was massive, and unlike anything else at the time. Firstly, you have the unique format: the 12-issue maxi-series format of a complete story that could be picked up, with the thunderous work of George Perez on all of them. Across those 12 issues of comics, George Perez would build on the aesthetic powers of predecessors like Jack Kirby and Mike Sekowsky, and would do something spectacular. Perez would construct the very language of event comics storytelling. He would define its vocabulary, its grammar, how it ought to look and page, how it would be laid out, and the scope and scale it might be operating at. With Perezian spreads boasting legions upon legions of characters, all with meticulous detail, and dynamic perspectives utilized wherever possible, you had an event that felt momentous in a way few others had. And it’s because it was, in collapsing and concluding the way DC comics had been up to that point. It was the end of days. It was the final days of the DC Multiverse, for after this there would be no multiverse. There would only be one universe, with a clear timeline, history, and a clear attempt at ‘continuity’ and soap opera in the way Marvel had by now pioneered. It’d be an all-new, all-different shared universe for a new generation of hip readership emerging in the 1980s.
If one ever doubts the sensibilities of the affair and its bone-deep desire to appeal to a Marvel-savvy audience, here’s Wolfman himself on the matter:
DC’s sales at that point, except for the Teen Titans and the Legion of Super-Heroes, were very bad. Marvel’s sales were huge, as was Titans, but DC’s sales (overall) were very poor because DC sort of still thought they were dealing with a kid audience and most of the people now were at least in their teenage years or early 20s by that point.
So, this would be something that would change the DC Universe, that would make it more interesting to the Marvel fans to come over and I spent a couple years working up the plot in detail to make sure that everything made sense. This was gonna be so large and so difficult to do that you couldn’t just make it up as you went along. Everything had to make sense from Day One and there had to be a reason why everything was there.
After the first issue came out, Alan Moore wrote a fan letter to me — personally so I didn’t publish it — but he’s the only person who ever got why the story begins with the death of the villain Earth DC had with Ultraman and Power Ring and a whole bunch of other characters. But they were the superheroes who were villains. But they were Superman; they were Batman; they were Green Lantern. They were just evil. Got rid of them in four pages and the reason was I had made a decision right from Day One that the real Superman, the real Batman, the real Wonder Woman—they would not appear in the book for five or six issues.
My feeling was that if the Marvel fans did not like DC, it’s probably because they tried Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman at the time and didn’t like the characters and they didn’t know all these other characters that DC had. They just made a decision based on what everybody knew. Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman. So, they wouldn’t appear and I wanted to show how powerful the villain was because in four pages he got rid of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman instantly! Without even, really, a struggle! And that was purely psychological because I knew the fans would not piece that together but they’d suddenly realize, “This is a really powerful villain because he just destroyed Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman!” even if that wasn’t quite their names.
And even more crucially, it was a book rooted in one desire- to get rid of and flush away all the baggage of DC comics. To help give it a fresh start, to be free of past continuity.
But the thing is: comics fans like and adore continuity. They are obsessed with it. They are enamored with history. And so that set the stage for something disastrous. Even in the very make-up of Crisis On Infinite Earths was the kernels of disagreement, the push and pull that would go onto define DC comics forever:
Marv: Yeah, the ending…I was not allowed to do the ending that I had wanted. I was overruled on that. The editors overruled me and they were completely wrong.
What was the ending you wanted to do?
Marv: My goal, the original concept as I pitched it, was that the series would simply end with the rebirth of the earth and all the heroes would start the next month and not one of them would ever know that the Crisis had ever happened because the Earth had been reborn and now we’re 10 million years later or however old the Earth is. A hundred and fifty million years. And everyone was being born for the first time so if there was a new Flash, they’d be born with a whole new approach, a new concept, a whole new whatever.
And I was told that the editors didn’t like that because if the heroes didn’t remember all their stories, it would invalidate everything that had existed previously, to which I answered with extreme sarcasm, “Our heroes do not buy our comic books. (Laughter) The fans do and they will still have all those books on their bookshelf and they will remember all those things.”
But all the editors overruled it so that’s why I had the heroes go back in time to before the world is reformed, so that they would be around to have remembered it. They didn’t cease to exist and get reborn. They were there the whole time. Then it was five years of everybody talking about, “What really happened in the Crisis?” which is, I knew, what would happen.
But I moved out of New York at that point so that was their problem. And (DC co-publisher) Dan DiDio has been trying to fix that ever since. So, he’s been really struggling! He agrees with me that that was the way it should have been, where everything starts new. You just get…You keep repeating the same things. Why start over if all you’re gonna do is remember about how bad things were, how awful things were? You need to start clean and create for the new generation a brand-new version, without having them already know the last 30 years of continuity. I hate continuity. You have to understand that Crisis existed to wipe out all continuity and start new.
Crisis was a book that could only be done once and never again. It had a novelty effect, and the power of watching George Perez, a magnificent master at the height of his powers, define the visual language of superhero stories at the grandest of scale and scope.
But its success and precedent meant that it could never just be moved on from. It could never be left behind, not really. As Wolfman describes above – there’s a fundamental tension baked in here, and it’s one that keeps a wheel spinning. And so you got story after story, event after event, all molded by its influence and inspiration, aspiring to its impact, all trying to help further ‘fix’ DC Comics and the DC Universe. To ‘clean up’ and ‘refine’ the sandbox of the shared universe, to help ‘maintain’ the toybox as it were. And so it became the lighting in a bottle DC could never leave behind, it morphed into the dragon they would eternally chase, with a barrage of events designed to forever attempt to recreate it.
Zero Hour: Crisis In Time
It’s how you’d end up with Dan Jurgens’ Zero Hour not long after, because DC and its Editorial had even more ‘issues and ‘problems’ to resolve and address. And they would do it through a story involving Hal Jordan trying to rewrite and recreate reality as the supervillain Parallax. That the first real big ‘event’ since Crisis On Infinite Earths and the first ‘Crisis’ since would be about the Silver Age Green Lantern and Best Friend of Barry Allen, The Flash, having a goddamn meltdown and breakdown over all he had lost and the tragedies he’d had to live through and trying to turn back the clock? It was a fun enough notion, albeit not one Dan Jurgens was really capable of doing anything with. And so the end result was not really a character-centric drama of worth that you’d want or expect from such an endeavor, but another cavalcade of ‘then this happened, and then this happened’ comics that was only really editorial-mandates and interest-centric.
As for its impact and rejiggering of the DC reality? You had the Legion Of Super-Heroes rebooted, for the very first time, kicking off a cycle of endless reboots and continuity porn comics that lasts to this day. And even the domino effect of this mess can be traced back to the original Crisis’ impact, with John Byrne’s new Man Of Steel having no connection whatsoever to The Legion as ‘Superboy’ was erased. And then Legion comics in having to ‘make sense’ of that apparent contradiction, trying to square that circle, eventually led to a mess that lasts to this day. Does Superman know the Legion from his childhood or does he not? The DC Writers argue about it via stories like these. It’s how you get Hawkman re-re-rebooted again, and this time into some crazy Hawkgod looking like an actual Hawk. And he’d be rebooted again and again, with his origins rejiggered again and again after Zero Hour. This is the kind of mess and predicament DC threw itself into, and it’s one that would last forever. It’s a mess perhaps best symbolized by the infamous continuity disaster case that is Donna Troy. This is what you get with DC and its disastrous events and endless rewrites and reworkings, and it’s what Zero Hour would feel like the first early herald of, in a Post-Crisis world after the impact of Wolfman/Perez had settled.
And if Crisis On Infinite Earths had been a mid-1980’s reaction and response to over 40-50 years of DC Comics history, ‘canon’, and ‘continuity’, what followed would be different. The rapidity of these things would increase drastically. If Crisis had been a big band-aid story to reshape things after nearly 50 years of DC publishing, you would soon begin to get ‘Crisis’ stories to ‘fix’ things just a few years after the last one. And that pace would only quicken, as things would escalate.
Zero Hour was like a premonition of the future, of what was to come. And as you would expect, it was a largely tiresome affair without much going for it. Unlike Crisis, there was no ground-breakingly thrilling George Perez art or aesthetic power here to make a reader swoon. It was the kind of comic you’d forget not long after you’d read it, with little to really remark upon. And it would be emblematic of a certain kind of comic and Crisis story, one that would rapidly grow and morph into an uncontrollable beast.
No single ‘fix’ would be enough. There would always be more. Always another. And the very idea of an ‘event,’ particularly a ‘DC Event’ was firmly and fundamentally bound to the idea of a ‘fix’ story, of a ‘house-clean up’ enterprise. That is just what an event is and what an event does, it seemed to be understood. And it would begin to haunt DC for all eternity. Because one man’s ‘fix’ is another man’s ‘mess,’ which begets another ‘fix,’ and another, and then another. And that’s what was to be.
Crisis became a symbol of an argument amongst fans about what the DC Universe is and should be. It became a mechanism and means by which they would then address that subject and then proceed to try and make a story all about ‘fixing’ it.