In 1985, DC Comics turned 50 years old. The age of the superhero had arrived with Superman in Action Comics #1, April 1938, and in the intervening 47 years the Man of Steel and his Super Friends forged a phenomenally popular and pervasive industry that has been dubbed the contemporary American version of myth-making. Legions of comic writers and illustrators wove a comically complicated web of their heroes’ origins and motivations, usually with little concern for consistency either within or across each individual character’s storyline. Meanwhile, DC amassed its wealth and acquired several smaller comics publishing companies, including Charlton Comics, which at that time owned the rights to characters such as Captain Marvel and the Blue Beetle. However, none of these other intellectual properties had yet been integrated with DC’s primary publications, meaning that they remained isolated from the stories (and therefore much of the success) that DC’s other characters enjoyed.
In other words, in 1985, DC’s comics were a clusterfuck — that is, more so than they had been before. The Bronze Age of Comic Books (c. 1970-1985) also saw a shift toward darker, more realistic characters, the revival of horror and science fiction titles long banned by the Comics Code Authority, and a simultaneous rise in the success of independent publishers. Further, DC was bleeding revenue at the hands of Marvel Comics, whose onslaught of diverse, dynamic and socially relevant characters since the early 60’s had stolen much of the market DC previously dominated. All of these pressures combined to prompt some rather drastic measures: DC’s editorial and writing staff decided to destroy the Multiverse.
Like I said. Clusterfuck. “Worlds lived. Worlds died. The DC Universe was never the same.” So ran the tagline of 1985’s Crisis on Infinite Earths, a “12-part maxi-series” intended to unify all of DC’s various continuities and publications into a single, more or less internally consistent storyline. The DC “Multiverse” would be reduced to a DC “Universe” in which all characters could always interact with each other without resorting to inter-dimensional travel as a plot device.
For your convenience I present to you (so far as I know) the Internet’s shortest summary of Crisis:
The Anti-Monitor, aka Generic Jumbo-Sized Super-Villain, attempts to destroy all the parallel universes ever. Barry Allen aka the Flash runs really really fast. Supergirl punches Anti-Monitor really really hard. Anti-Monitor deep-fries Supergirl with his Generic Eye-Beams. Anti-Monitor has a Plan B, but the Flash runs really really fast and blows it up. In fact he runs SO FAST he melts himself or something (see image). Wally West aka Kid Flash earns his big-boy pants and becomes the Flash fo realz. The Spectre arm-wrestles Anti-Monitor for the fate of the remaining universes. Not even kidding. Spectre wins said arm-wrestling match and Superman of Earth-Two, aka the original Supes from Action Comics #1, punches Anti-Monitor really really hard. The remaining parallel universes and their respective heroes get magically retconned so they’re a single universe and they always have been. Everybody else who ever appeared in DC Comics never existed in the first place.
At last, DC could publish all their intellectual properties in the same storylines on a clean slate, all while making truckloads of money on their epic blowout year-long purging of any and all characters who had failed to be popular in the last 30 years. In other words, they could legitimately ignore anything from the Golden Age (and some of the Silver, too) because it never really happened anyway. I guess if I were a writer at DC, I could choose to see Crisis as a liberation of sorts, freeing me from the constraints of mid-20th century world events and zeitgeists that no longer held much relevance to a 1980’s reader. Crisis does help to clear away some of the decades-old detritus DC Comics had collected by 1985; but like even the best of spring cleanings, it never lasts — life goes on, and eventually you find yourself sweeping up the same old dust-bunnies all over again (or perhaps more accurately in DC’s case, sweeping them under the rug).
But Crisis on Infinite Earths is fan-service, nothing more or less. It accomplished what it set out to do, paid homage to a precious few of DC’s most popular heroes, and provided an epic send-off for the ones they wanted to retire — Barry Allen and Kara Zor-El being the most prominent examples.
But Crisis is almost completely inaccessible to the newbie DC reader, which is ironic, since one would think a single DC Universe would be easier to get your head around than an infinite number of Multiverses. I can geek out pretty hard over DC superheroes, and even I had to consult the Wikipedia summary before I really felt like I understood what the hell happened. Further, three-dimensional characters are all but absent from this series, with the exception of the two Supermen (Kal-El and Kal-L) and Supergirl. Everyone else in the story falls squarely into the category of “Person-Shaped Plot Device.” The Crisis is too epic for its own good: the range of emotions our beloved heroes might feel at being helpless to stop the literal end of the world(s!) is lost amidst full-page battle scenes and rapid, confusing plot exposition. But then, the self-acknowledged goal of the maxi-series is to remake the entire DC Comics continuity in a mere 12 issues, so maybe a little character development is too much to ask.
Earlier we discussed the idea that Crisis may have provided DC’s writers with some badly-needed breathing room, and that it would inevitably be a temporary relief at best. But DC’s superhero comics were not only stagnating in their own convoluted history; they were also adjusting to the rising popularity of the more adult and socially relevant themes of the Bronze Age. In this light, Crisis seems to harbor a very conservative, reactionary motive: to unite the Multiverse under a single, defining, and incontestable history, i.e., what is called the post-Crisis DC Universe, before the whole thing just became too fractured to repair. Crisis explicitly states the original 1938 Superman (Earth-Two/Kal-L) is the greatest hero of not just his own Earth, but all of them, ever. And the modern, mainstream Superman’s defining moment of the series comes at the death of Supergirl: Kal-El, the Man of Steel who would live on into the present day, mourns the passing of not only the Last Daughter of Krypton but also the passing of an age. On the other hand Batman, easily the most popular comic book character ever to represent a darker, more ambiguous view on morality and justice, is barely present in Crisis at all.
To me, the differences between the Golden and Silver Ages are largely commercial — that is, the Silver Age saw a new surge in the popularity of superheroes, solidifying the genre as a hallmark of American culture and giving rise to Marvel, the other contemporary giant of comic books. But I find the heroes themselves to be largely interchangeable. Superman of 1938 believes in pretty much the same thing as Superman of 1970: truth, justice, and the American way. Throughout most of the Golden and Silver Ages, Batman is frequently referred to as a “masked lawman” or even a legal deputy of the Gotham City PD rather than the dark, threatening outlaw he has become since the 80’s. When I consider the thematic differences between different periods in comics, I frequently feel like there are only three: an “early” period corresponding to the Golden and Silver Ages, a “modern” period for the Modern Age of Comic Books, and a “bridge” or “middle” period standing in for the Bronze. In other words: old-school, new-school.
Crisis can be read as both a celebration of and an epitaph for the old-school of superhero comics, as represented by Kal-L and Kal-El: the elder Superman succeeds in saving the world one last time before soaring off into the metaphorical sunset, while the younger carries forward the elder’s ideals — just the same as he always has. A poetic farewell to the early years of the Superhero? Sort of, but in the end the story boils down to the Who: “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”
Luckily, 1985’s Crisis on Infinite Earths didn’t galvanize the industry to launch a neo-Silver Age, which meant that the Bronze Age of Comic Books could resolve into the Modern Age, heralded by the sound of shattered plate glass.