A twelve issue maxi-series comic book that was published and sold by DC Comics in 1985 and 1986. In hindsight it seems rather a futile effort now. However, for me it was the culmination of much great work. It was a climax in storytelling of sorts. I had been reading comic books for years and this series was so good in my eyes, they never could have topped it. DC Comics, while not having written themselves into a corner, had basically looked at the fictional history of their entire line of comic books, and saw what amounted to a painting by Salvador Dali. While he was DRUNK!

The Crisis of Pre-Crisis

This complicated and cumbersome fictional history didn't happen overnight. The publishing house now known as DC Comics has been in the business since the 1930s. The first Superman comic hit the newsstands in June of 1938 with the title Action Comics #1 which cemented what comic book fans call the Golden Age of comic books. Batman debuted in Detective Comics #27 in May of 1939. By World War Two there was a plethora of costumed vigilantes, including Doctor Mid-Nite, Phantom Lady, Hawkman, Jay Garrick as the original Flash and many more. It was not customary for characters to appear in each others' tales. Slowly over the decades DC Comics learned that by bringing different superheroes together, the fans of one superhero might bleed over and begin buying titles for the other. So over a slow period of time, storylines that each stood alone and separate began to come together.

Some characters survived through the 1950s, but not many. Popularity for superhero stories waned as World War Two drew to a close in 1947. So some titles were discontinued, including The Flash whose alter-ego was originally named Jay Garrick. Others like Superman and Batman were never stopped, and continued with at least moderate success through the hardest of times.

As popularity returned for those heroes' stories still being told, an upsurgence for popularity of other heroes flourished in what is now called the Silver Age of comic books. Many titles thought lost were brought back to life, but were updated to appeal to new young people. Jay Garrick was replaced by Barry Allen in 1956 for example, as the new Flash. Eventually though, requests for a return of the Old Flash caused DC Comics to introduce into their stories the idea of a multiverse which is where the actual crisis of Pre-Crisis begins.

Soon there were duplicate Supermans, duplicate Batmans and Flashes and in one world everybody was several decades older than another, with a grey-templed Superman from Earth-2 where in Earth-1 Superman was forty years younger. And if there were two Supes, there were two everythings, then there were universes where there were no Supes. Most universes had an Earth. Oh it was just crazy, and the suspension of disbelief for the average comic addict was getting mighty thin, especially if continuity mattered to said addict at all: which it invariably did. The DC Multiverse desperately needed some spring cleaning.

So in the early 1980s, some stalwart talents in the industry, including Marv Wolfman, George Perez, Len Wein, Robert Greenberger, Jenette Kahn and others, worked together through power lunches and bullpen sessions and coffee stained memos over the course of four years prior to 1985: the fiftieth anniversary of DC Comics' existence. They wanted to streamline their host of copyrighted characters and content. They wanted one cohesive world with a specific past, present and future. In the words of Wolfman, they hoped it would "simplify, clarify, change, and improve the vast DC Universe."

What exactly was the plot?

Well it's hard to do more than a general summary of Crisis without getting into details that would bog down an analysis such as this. However, here is a meager attempt.

A long time ago in an alternate universe very far away, this scientist tapped into the dawn of time. Doing this caused a rupture which resulted in an infinite number of alternate realities. In so doing, he opened up a door between the matter multiverse, and a universe consisting entirely of anti-matter. For some unexplained reason, there were two humanoid entities that were forged: the Monitor and the Anti-Monitor. They were alike in many ways physically and mentally, but the Monitor was a generally sweet soul who wanted to defend the matter universe, and the Anti-Monitor sought to absorb all matter, convert it into anti-matter, and rule the multiverse as he ruefully ruled his own anti-matter reality. This rupture at the dawn of time locked the scientist into a horrendous journey from which he had no control. He then dubbed himself Pariah when he realized the punishment for his rash, vain and thoughtless act of disrupting the beginning of time, was to witness every universe among the multiverse die at the hands of the Anti-Monitor, and eternally experience the onslaught. Or so he thought.

Unable to withstand the loss of his own strength every time the Anti-Monitor consumed another universe, the Monitor sought out heroes from the worlds that remained, and used them as pawns in a chess game against the Anti-Monitor. One of the first pawns he picked turned out to be his Queen. He dubbed her Harbinger, and her power was to replicate herself just as the universe replicated itself at the dawn of time. She could then be anywhere, any time, any world. Through her, Monitor sought out the rest of his participants for a final showdown to the death against the Anti-Monitor. And that's where many of the characters from the multiverse came into play, but during her efforts to secure great superheroes, one of Harbinger's many replicants fell to the power and sway of the Anti-Monitor. Like a computer virus, when all the replicants returned to become whole, the one that was tainted infected the others. Harbinger became a tool for the Anti-Monitor, and later betrayed her adopted father the Monitor.

The mighty heroes of the worlds were first sent to defend a series of large monolithic "tuning forks" set ahead of time by Monitor, in five of the worlds he hoped to save. The Anti-Monitor sent out his own denizens to attack and destroy the forks. Monitor sent fifteen of the superheroes, three to each fork. When he could wait no longer, Monitor had all five forks vibrate at precisely the same frequency. This brought the five worlds together, merging their mutual timelines and populations. Many were lost and perished in the natural and unnatural disasters which followed, but the end result was one world five times more resilient against the Anti-Monitor than any of the others. Though Anti-Monitor had consumed thousands of universes, there was one which now had a hope of survival.

Next the greatest superheroes of the world converged on a pathway between Monitor's universe and Qward, the universe of the Anti-Monitor. There they almost destroyed him, but lost Supergirl in the process. Then all the arch villians of the accumulated five Earths banded together under the leadership of Superman's greatest foes, Brainiac and Lex Luthor from Earth-1. They successfully took over three of the five Earths, and battled all the superheroes of the five Earths vying for total domination. Only Brainiac and Lex would be unsatisfied with controlling three whole Earths. Though the numbers were five to one, the superheroes overcame the opposition, because they were working as a team and the badguys were just being stupid. Meanwhile, the three separate Earths were beginning to merge together into one, and the Anti-Monitor, still licking his wounds from the last battle, headed back to the very Dawn of Time itself where Pariah learned he was not responsible for the total devastation, but was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, and all the superheroes went to the dawn of time to kick the Anti-Monitor's ass but for good, and then what was once many worlds became one.

The rest of the tale was an attempt to tie up loose ends. A funeral was held for Supergirl, and everyone attempted to return to normal lives. Only, for some people, there was no life to return to because they ceased to exist in the new timeline. Superman from Earth-2 being the predominant Odd Man Out. Eventually though they found pocket dimensions or other places for all the survivors to call home. Make no mistake. Though it was a bittersweet happy ending, the heroes lost. Countless universes were destroyed to make way for one, and close to twenty known characters in the DC Universe were given death scenes, some more grandiose than others. It is perhaps the most tragic tale a silly little comic book company has ever told. I'd like to believe, centuries from now, Crisis will be seen as a great work of art. Not quite Homer or Shakespeare or Twain, but somewhere near the classics.

I've left out a lot of the plot, actually. Psycho Pirate and the attempt to introduce a romantic plotline between Firestorm and Killer Frost. The details of the Silver Age Flash's death. The glorious way they integrated some of DCs best war-oriented comic books like Sgt. Rock and Haunted Tank into the story. Even the most basic of summaries as the one above is still rather long. It's been over fifteen years but I'm sure you can find all twelve issues somewhere.

Me? I have mine safely tucked away, and peruse them now and then when I want to touch greatness. This story is perhaps the single most incredible task the people at DC Comics have ever accomplished. We are talking about a story which included over two hundred characters, many of which never appeared together ever before or since. We are talking about a tale that didn't only span generations of heroes, but took supporting players from the beginning of time to the 30th century. Besides including superheroes, it also involved many normal folk, like the characters in DC Comics who represent the real heroes of World War Two, as well as characters from the wild west and other genres. We are talking about a tale which was twelve issues - over three hundred pages long. Even today the average crossover story might be told in half that much space or less. We are talking about a tale which was the first of its kind. Perhaps today crossovers and team-ups are commonplace. I don't personally read a lot of comics today, so I don't know. Crisis was the first of this magnitude.

To bring so many heroes and villians inside the same cover, and dynamically alter their property in a way that still has repercussions even today. It's rather incredible.

Post-Crisis crises

In the grand scheme of things, it was like washing your car just before it rained. If there was ONE person at the helm of the entire comic book industry, that would be one thing, but the end results of CRISIS after publication sent shockwaves throughout the industry. Marvel Comics Group tried to counter with a cheesy and cowardly work called The Secret Wars which brought all the great Marvel superheroes together but the most remarkable thing that happened was they got squished by a mountain and survived. And it was remarkable because it was so laughable. Any changes made were short-lived. Marvel had been notorious for years of killing a character just to bring them back later. DC was trying to break from such marketing ploys.

The changes DC made were felt strongly. Entire comic titles were dropped. Characters were revamped and modernized. Storylines were retold. The end result was actually a much more plausible marketing strategy and rebirth in material. They could retell all the same stories they had been telling, using all new artists and improving story techniques. They could tell Superman's origin again, and did, using the incomparable John Byrne to give Superman a good sendoff. But the old Superman was no more, and many aspects of his personality and physical capability were permanently changed. Super ventriloquism for example: GONE. Lasers coming out of his eyes? Nope.

Crisis was never written off as a dream sequence. Its changes were grand, unpredicated, and longlasting. The Flash I'd grown up with, Barry Allen, was killed in a most heroic, and dramatically awesome way in the book CRISIS. He would not return. His nephew took up the mantle. Supergirl died. Kole of the Teen Titans. Dove of Hawk and Dove. Heck they were taking out characters left and right! It's more than just a comic book.

Crisis is important to any comic book fan in three important respects:
  1. It is a culmination of fifty years of fictional writing, and therefore is imperative to understanding the continuity of DC's history and storyline.
  2. Jutting across almost a dozen alternate universes, five of which were most prominent, and spanning history from the dawn of mankind to the last man on earth, featuring scores of individual characters and spotlighting more big names in DC than one can easily fathom, it is without equal, the first of its kind and the most powerfully significant crossover series of all time.
  3. It's just damn fine storytelling, and over fifteen years later is still an entertaining read.

The idea started with a letter published in the comic Green Lantern #143, in which the inconsistencies were first addressed. Marv Wolfman responded by saying, "One day we (meaning the Editorial we) will probably straighten out what is in the DC Universe... and what is outside." This couldn't be any one man's decision however. DC Comics is a vast playground for writers and artists all over the world. With complications that could feasibly affect every single title, they had to get permission from some people, and beg others to work with them, go along with them and help them see this vision. Continuity is always a club foot to many writers. When someone adopts a comic book title as a writer, they'd like to start from scratch and begin again, but to appease the audience the writer must accept what has been written before and work with it, or alienate their fan base.

Now, if each comic book were a separate entity that would be one thing. However, writers would get with writers as the years wore on. Have team-ups where Green Lantern and The Flash would meet and fight a common foe. The tale would start in a Green Lantern issue and end in the next issue of The Flash. Excellent marketing opportunities. An exciting thing for fans to read about, look forward to, share with friends. Great ideas. So they kept doing them. Then eventually this became a routine thing.

But what if in one comic book the writer says the Empire State building blows up, and in the other comic book that never happened? Well, usually you could just overlook these story glitches. The team-up is a temporary thing and then the two characters separate and return to separate stories. Yet it's been established they exist in the same world. So continuity suddenly becomes a factor among fans.

CRISIS sought to remedy that. For a time it succeeded, but the Multiverse still exists in a way. If a writer wants to come up with a whole new idea for publication that doesn't fit in the established timeline, they end up having to create yet another world. When after CRISIS that should no longer be possible.

Something tells me between now and 2035, they'll be going back to the drawing board.

Update: May 6th, 2006
Well, they did have to go back to the drawing board. Apparently more than once, and sooner than I had expected. Zero Hour and Infinite Crisis are a couple examples. I've long since stopped collecting comic books so others have stepped in to pick up where I left off. Gotta love the Internet. The Crisis On Infinite Earths created new continuity issues that they hadn't anticipated, and other writing teams and editor staffs have since tried to clean up the mess. Essentially the way it works now is they try to write their stories so that they're a little more timeless. Instead of giving specific dates, when possible they just say "ten years ago" or "twelve years ago" so that whenever you read it, what you're seeing is now. Superman exists now, and he's probably in his late thirties or early forties. His birth and the Krypton blowing up and all that Smallville stuff happened around thirty or forty years ago. They try not to be as exact so that ten years from now, they don't have to reinvent him.

But for some reason, they still do. They have to retell his origin every few years or so for newcomers to experience as well as old veterans to relive the glory days, and every time they have to kinda modernize it. Bring Superman, or whatever superhero they're selling to their current audience, into the present time. Effectively, they're rehashing the same stories in new ways. Not too far different from music companies selling the same music in new formats.

Update: September 11th, 2007
They can't keep this up tho. It's not possible to imagine that your favorite superhero is still just in his late twenties or early thirties and yet has over half a century of history behind him. I can't believe what they've done to poor Wonder Girl. I mean Donna Troy. That blonde chick they call Wonder Girl now..? Oh, don't git me stahted. Hopefully with Final Crisis they'll be able to resolve this dilemma once and for all.

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