The origins of DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earths go back quite a long way - in one sense to the justly-famous 1961 Flash story Flash of Two Worlds which introduced the idea of multiple DC universes (there had been other ‘parallel Earth’ stories, but this was the one that created the rules and established the paradigm for the DC multiverse). The story showed the first meeting of the Barry Allen and Jay Garrick versions of the Flash, as Barry accidentally ‘vibrated’ himself to Jay’s world. Cross-universe team-ups then became a regular occurrence, with Justice League/Justice Society crossovers for example becoming basically annual events.
But you can go back even further; to the distinction between Golden and Silver Age DC, and the fact that the company had multiple characters with the same name but sometimes radically different origins. So the Golden Age Flash, for example, gained his powers by inhaling chemical fumes, while in the Silver Age, the powers came after a bolt of lightning shattered chemical containers which doused Barry and made him The Fastest Man Alive. Similarly, one Hawkman was the reincarnation of an Egyptian prince, while the other was an alien from the planet Thanagar. It was even established in Barry’s origin that in his world, Jay and his earlier adventures were the subject of a comic book series.
So DC had one set of characters who fought in the Second World War and a similarly-named set of ‘legacy’ characters who came along later, who could now occasionally meet. And this was explained by what became known as the DC Multiverse - a series of parallel worlds in which events played out differently. There was never a particularly good canonical reason given for why the later-established continuity became known as Earth-One and the older world was Earth-Two, but at the time all this happened the current continuity, and the first many readers would be aware of, was the Silver Age world, so it got precedence.
Inevitably, once a second universe was established, other writers created more. On Earth 3 the Justice League analogues were villains and the only hero who stood against them was Lex Luthor. On Earth-C the heroes were animals, and so we got Captain Carrot and the Zoo Crew, while the Captain Marvel/Shazam characters had Earth-S, and so on.
Despite the fact that not that many Earths had definitively been established, the potential for more, and more complicated, variations to be created clearly existed. Additionally, many of DC’s major characters had hugely complicated and often contradictory histories; the result of multiple creative teams handling them over the company’s fifty-year history with little regard to what would now be called continuity. So the powers-that-be at DC decided that a fairly major piece of housecleaning was required.
Crisis was that housecleaning exercise, and DC put its execution in the hands of a creative team who were at the height of their fame and creative credibility.
Crisis on Infinite Earths - published by DC Comics in twelve issues from April 1985 to March 1986. Written by Marv Wolfman and pencilled by George Perez, fresh from their acclaimed and award-winning partnership on The New Teen Titans.
Across the DC multiverse an unstoppable wave of anti-matter is consuming entire universes, destroying everything in its path. Earth-3 is the latest world to be consumed, and in its dying moments two significant things happen; an unknown entity known as Pariah appears, apparently to witness the end, and hero Lex Luthor blasts his infant son away from the doomed planet in a clear parallel with Superman’s origin. On a hidden space station, a mysterious figure known as The Monitor observes the destruction and sets in place a plan to preserve at least some of the previously-infinite multiverse. Assembling super-powered individuals from across the surviving worlds, he dispatches them to put his plan in place. However, the Anti-Monitor, his counterpart from a universe of anti-matter, is already working against him. The battle against the Anti-Monitor will cost the lives of heroes, villains, and the Monitor himself, and change the face of the DC Universe forever.
In laying the groundwork for the crisis, DC Editorial mandated that in the year leading up to Crisis #1, the creators of all the titles designated as part of the multiverse should include some reference to The Monitor. According to Wolfman, he’d originally come up with the character (initially known as The Librarian) years before, and had introduced him into Teen Titans a couple of years earlier. In planning Crisis, Wolfman realised the Monitor fitted the kind of role he needed to link the worlds together. The Monitor’s cameos across the various titles ranged from active participation and enabling of events to passive observation, and in many appearances he was accompanied by a blonde woman, Lyla, who would end up being central to Crisis in her role as Harbinger. Though effective in developing a sense that something huge was looming, with consequences across universes and time, one downside to this approach was that each creative team handled the character differently, so he came across as everything from an equivalent to Marvel’s Watcher through to some kind of master criminal. Probably unsurprisingly, the writer who made best use of this enforced inclusion was Alan Moore, then writing Saga of the Swamp Thing, who used the Monitor’s (allegedly first ever) urge to look away from what he was observing to indicate exactly how extreme the catastrophe facing his heroes was.
Read again now, Crisis holds together relatively well, even though it’s head-scratchingly convoluted and the pace is all over the place. The biggest single problems are that The Anti-Monitor is one of those villains who seems to have multiple, increasingly obscure, fallback plans in place in case the main one fails, and his powers tend to shift as the plot requires. And the underlying physics of the multiverse are bizarre - there’s an infinite number of positive matter universes and only one of anti-matter, but the single anti-matter universe is able to absorb all the others. At a detail level there are a few internal weirdnesses to the plot, including the well-documented situation where a possessed Harbinger apparently arrives to kill the Monitor at the end of issue 3 and then does so again midway through issue 4. And some of the motivations are... let’s just say ‘changeable’. But overall Wolfman manages to control a plot which could very easily have got badly out of hand and keep it feeling like it’s moving in the right direction. His dialogue is frequently overwritten (and overwrought) by current standards, but is in keeping with its time. Perez’s hyper-detailed art is as as stunning as ever, and it’s hard to imagine any other artist in DC’s mid-80s stable who could possibly have handled the scenes Wolfman threw at him at all, let alone as well as he does. There are many frames with dozens of characters in them and in most cases every one is identifiable.
Unlike the previous year’s Secret Wars from Marvel, Crisis set the template for future crossovers by having tie-in issues among the ongoing DC Universe series. These served to expand the story, picking up and sometimes resolving plot strands from the main series, or showing the wider effects of the crisis. Like the previous Monitor cameos these varied enormously in quality, and unlike the cameos in some cases they made absolutely no sense if you weren’t reading the main series, which began a tradition of crossover complaints that persists today. Several issues carried the tie-in banner, but actually had very little direct involvement, which on paper makes the story of Crisis look more complex than it actually was. Not that it wasn’t pretty damn complex anyway.
One of the best and most interesting tie-ins was Legion of Super-Heroes 16, an issue which didn’t even carry the Crisis banner, but which dealt directly with a key event in the story; the death of Supergirl. A thousand years in the future, Brainiac 5 mourns his long-time love on the anniversary of her death. It’s a moving story that digs into the nature of the Legion timeline’s connection to the ‘now’ of Earth 1, deals with Brainac always having known that this day would come, and adds some depth to his occasionally one-note character. Many of the other crossovers did little more than showing the heroes dealing with the chaos of the anti-matter universe’s incursion.
Of course, the real news here is what is really the payoff of the whole series - the creation of the new, internally consistent DC Universe that Crisis was there to achieve. This should be, after all, the primary criterion on which the series’ success or otherwise should be judged.
It’s been noted by those involved that the nature of the reboot changed during the development of the series. Initially, everything that had gone before would remain, but from the point of re-creation near the end of the series, there would only be one consolidated DC Universe going forward; no Earth-1, 2, C, S, etc. Many streams meeting at the same point to form a river, basically.
As the series was evolving, however, a far bigger change was settled on - the creation of the new, singular DCU would be retroactive - not only would there only be one universe going forward, there would only ever have been one. Most people wouldn’t even remember that the crisis itself happened.
It’s almost impossible to overstate the impact of this decision. Effectively, Wolfman and DC Editorial were saying that as far as the in-world continuity was concerned, none (or at best only a very small number) of those previous stories had definitely happened. As Wolfman said at the time, they were throwing out all of ‘the stupid stuff’ and keeping ‘the good stuff’ - if a future writer or editor wanted to bring back some of the ‘stupid stuff’ they could, but they’d have to make a conscious decision to do so. Otherwise, the history which Crisis (and its follow-up The History of the DC Universe) detailed was it.
So the (former) Earth-2 heroes fought in World War II and stuck around to hand on their mantles to the younger Silver Age Earth-1 heroes on this new mashed-up world. This meant that Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman were no longer part of the Golden Age story because those three alone had at least nominally been the same characters in both Ages. Right from the outset, even within the pages of Crisis itself, the contradictions this decision triggered were apparent: the Huntress was the daughter of the Earth-2 Batman, and Power Girl was Earth-2’s Supergirl analogue - their Superman’s cousin. Neither that Batman nor that Superman had now existed, yet Huntress and Power Girl did (though Huntress was then killed before Crisis was over). DC’s writers would spend years tripping themselves up on and writing around the tangle this created.
It didn’t end with this merging of histories either - decisions were made to rework core principles of some very visible heroes. Wonder Woman was “returned to the clay from which she was formed” ready for a complete rewrite of her origin which would lead to her first appearing in the new universe only after the crisis and consequently a long time after most of the other heroes. What that did to her ‘step sister’ Donna Troy/Wonder Girl’s story is far too complicated to get into here.
Most significantly they jettisoned all the clutter that had undermined Superman’s uniqueness - he was once again the only survivor of Krypton; no cousin, dog, entire miniaturised city of co-survivors, etc, which was in theory a good idea - his concept had been weakened massively by all this. But it was also decided that in the new continuity, Superman never had a career as Superboy. Rather, he debuted in public as an adult.
A lot of actually “good stuff” was thrown out with the Crisis bathwater, but no part of the DCU was screwed over quite as hugely as the Legion of Super-Heroes was by this decision - the entire ‘teen super-hero club’ concept had been inspired by Superboy, and he and Supergirl were long-standing members of the team. Legion history was rewritten to introduce a (dull) new twentieth century hero called Valor who served as inspiration and a Supergirl analogue was also developed in Laurel Gand. Though some decent, even great, Legion stories followed, notably the famous “Five years later…” sequence, I’d argue that a lot of DC’s subsequent difficulty in working out what the hell to do with the Legion stemmed from Crisis, which ripped the heart out of its basic concept.
In immediate terms, it obviously also meant that the moving ‘Eulogy to Supergirl’ story of only a few months earlier now “didn’t happen”: not the only story of which fans asked “so what was the point then?” when this new post-Crisis status quo became clear.
Crisis on Infinite Earths was a deck-clearing exercise the like of which has never been attempted before or since. It was an exciting (if sometimes confusing) twelve issues that wrought real and lasting change on its universe and continued to have an effect years and years later. Though it’s telling that long before the eventual return of the Multiverse, many of its changes had been worked around - both a Supergirl and a Superboy were in evidence, for example.
Crisis’ biggest problem is that it was so aware of its import and its own “Worlds will die” hype that the one thing entirely missing from the series is fun. Examined critically, it’s a pretty well done series that’s certainly a pleasure to look at, but bloody hell is it hard going.
The snappy round-up:
Worst moment: “It is the irony of cosmic rebirth. There are many paradoxes, and not all can be explained.”
Key debut: Hmm - Harbinger, Pariah and Lady Quark were important to Crisis, but in the grander scheme of things, not so much. So: the second Doctor Light, who later became part of Justice League International
Significant deaths: The DC Multiverse. (Also, Supergirl, The (Barry Allen) Flash, the Crime Syndicate of Earth-3, and billions of others)
Best spin-off: The Len Wein/George Perez Wonder Woman reboot. Emphatically not John Byrne’s Superman do-over, which was the one that got all the press.
Best tie-in: (Official) Saga of the Swamp Thing #46. (Unofficial) Legion of Super-Heroes #16
Best cover: Issue 7 - the death of Supergirl
Worst cover: Issue 11 - a series of context-free scenes from the story including one that has two Supermen and two Flashes standing on what looks like a piece of decking floating in space.
On the comic book grading scale: 7.0: Fine/Very Fine
Something's gone very wrong with the world. Or very right, depending on your genetics.