Does Crisis on Infinite Earths Hold Up?
Written by: Marv Wolfman
Art by: George Perez
Colors by: Anthony Tollin, Tom Ziuko, Carl Gafford
Inks by: Dick Giordano, Mike DeCarlo, Jerry Ordway, Karl Kesel
Published by: DC Comics
You read the title, you know what it entails. Crisis on Infinite Earths came out over 30 years ago and it is still one of the most definitive and important comic book events ever written. It restarted the DC Universe, it had the biggest amount of heroes ever, it had still unmatched stakes and it had consequences that are still being dealt with, even until today. However, it’s also over 30 years old and a lot of things about comic book writing have changed since it was created. So the question is: Does it hold up? First, a plot synopsis.
The Multiverse is being destroyed! The Anti-Monitor, a being more powerful than any we have seen before comes from the Anti Matter Universe to destroy reality itself! Only our universe’s own Monitor and the remaining heroes of the Multiverse can stop him! Or can they?
If you didn’t catch that, the whole pitch of this big, earth shattering, bringer of gigantic change event basically boils down to: Punch the Big Bad Guy but this time it’s the BIGGEST Bad Guy. That’s what it amounts to, really. Although, to be fair, superhero events don’t always have to be these conceptually intricate stories or have a deep allegory about modern politics. Sometimes they can just be a relatively straight forward “Good Vs Evil” story and, since this was one of the first of its kind, I think it’s forgivable that the creators decided to stick to something simpler especially considering this is a book about THE END OF EVERYTHING.
So let’s talk about that. Crisis was not the first twelve issue superhero universe extravaganza, as that honor actually belongs to Marvel’s Secret Wars, which came about a year before Crisis began. However, the difference here is that Secret Wars was basically just a fun adventure with a whole bunch of superheroes fighting villains, while Crisis had to give closure to a whole universe with thousands of characters and restart a whole other universe from the ashes.
“Worlds Will Live. Worlds Will Die. The DC Universe Will Never Be The Same!” went the tagline for the book, and the whole thing is built as a goodbye to the DC Universe of old, which could easily have failed. Fortunately, it’s mostly a success, even if it is pretty messy, something that was basically inevitable with a cast of thousands and a billion subplots tying loose ends. The scale is so big the book literally starts with the beginning of the damn universe.
Things ramp up from there, and you better be up to date on your DC Universe, because this book features everyone from the Legion of Super-Heroes in the 30th Century; Kamandi the Last Boy on Earth after The Great Disaster; WW2 Characters like The Losers, Sgt. Rock and The Haunted Tank; the Wild West people like Jonah Hex and Bat Lash; and, to top it all off, Anthro The Caveman. Now, the good thing about Crisis is that you don’t actually need to know everyone involved to understand what is going on. Like any good superhero comic, the continuity stuff is there as more of a wink and a nod to longtime fans, but anyone with a cursory knowledge of the DC Universe can pick up the comic and understand what’s going on while still wanting to find out more about who all the people involved are. It’s one of the reasons why the simple story works, because you have a solid grasp of the main conflict which then allows you to ask questions like “Why the hell are there WW2 soldiers in my superhero book?” and not get totally lost.
Also, the simple basis of “Fight the biggest bad guy” gives the creators room to not only construct the ideas behind the bad guy (in the case of the Anti-Monitor it includes his design, his “lair”, his powers, his shadow demons, etc.) without much restraint, given that he’s the ultimate villain, but it also allows them to create character moments in the times between the action that still end up feeling important, given the omnipresent danger.
Case in point, the two most famous things to happen in Crisis: The deaths of Supergirl and The Flash (Barry Allen). These are, in my mind, the gold standard for superhero deaths in events. In the future (AKA Now), we end up seeing events that kill off characters on a whim, but here both deaths are not only plot relevant, (framed as sacrifices that end up severely damaging the Anti-Monitor, establishing the importance of both deaths as crucial to the victory and the Anti-Monitor’s power, given that the deaths of two major heroes couldn’t stop him) but they both get a worthy and respectful final send off, with quotes from The Declaration of the Free for Supergirl and a quote from Scottish poet, William Knox. That’s without mentioning the fantastic covers that went along with their deaths, the Supergirl one being often homaged.
There is also something to be said for some of the more experimental and weird choices in this book. Nowadays, we have a firmer grasp of what an Event Comic should be and, while Crisis was a big part in defining that, it also does things that are kind of out of the norm for an event comic. First, the visual design is quite striking and old school (I mean it is George Pérez, a man who helped define comics for the 70s and 80s) but it has a sci-fi aesthetic that invokes weird 70s trippy stuff.
Perhaps the most interesting detail happens in issue 10, where the bottom of every page is occupied by a little comic strip titled “The Monitor Tapes”, where a character tells some details of what’s happening in the corners of the DC Universe we don’t see in the main book. It’s a very weird choice and I’ve never seen anything quite like it, and to put it in this big blockbuster event is kind of like if the next Avengers movie has a scene in the middle of it done in the style and aesthetic of a Wes Anderson movie. It’s just kinda weird and outta place, but interesting, to say the least.
Now, if you’ve been paying attention, you may have noticed that, while I’ve been talking about the story generally and picking a moment here and there, I haven’t actually dived in into the specific events that happen. The reason for this is because, while the main story of Crisis is comprehensible and easy to understand, the details are a godforsaken mess. There are talks of Matter and Anti-Matter energies, weird tuning forks meant to align universes, trips to the literal beginning of the universe and a whole bunch of other shenanigans. Literally, the first half of the book can be summarized as “The Monitor sends a bunch of people on a mission and then they fail and now he we have to figure out another way to save everyone”. It’s not exactly confusing, but very weird and detail oriented, meaning you leave the book knowing what happened in the broad strokes and the big moments, but can’t quite remember a lot of the explanations. However, like I’ve been saying, this doesn’t doom the book, and a lot of it is saved by Marv Wolfman’s writing which has that classic comic book epic flavor, even if he tends to be a bit too wordy with the narrative captions.
The art by George Pérez is literally the stuff dreams are made of. I’ve said it in the past, but he’s probably the greatest superhero comic book artist ever, because he could not only do the work, but do it on time. The man can draw a billion things in a page, still have everything be comprehensive and draw different and unique expressions for each character. He is, simply put, the best.
So… That’s Crisis. A big mess of plot points and characters that somehow congeal into (according to Marv Wolfman in the 2016 Deluxe Edition) “the second-best comic book story of the 20th century”, which is pretty lofty praise right there. While it is really messy and a little confusing, it’s scale is so gigantic, it’s consequences so widespread and it’s moments so iconic, it’s a little difficult no to recommend. It’s kind of a “If you want to call yourself a fan, you HAVE to read this” type of book and, for my money its scale hasn’t been surpassed. There are other events I like more, but this book is literally the destruction of the whole multiverse. You can’t really go bigger than that, can you? I give this book a big recommendation, go out and read it.