‘Crisis’ at 30, Part 11

Tom Bondurant brings his retrospective on the 30-year-old “Crisis on Infinite Earths” to Smash Pages with a look back at the series’ penultimate issue, which featured “emotional impacts just as devastating as any of its cosmic carnage.”

Buy this quilt on Etsy
Buy this quilt on Etsy

The penultimate issue of Crisis On Infinite Earths offers an interlude critical to the series’ success. It demonstrates the real impact of DC’s housecleaning not with antimatter waves or shadow demons, but through the characters who helped build the publisher’s matchless history. Accordingly, Crisis #11 features emotional impacts just as devastating as any of its cosmic carnage.

* * *

For those who might have come in late, since last December I have been revisiting every issue of DC Comics’ landmark Crisis On Infinite Earths, approximately on the thirtieth anniversary of their arrivals in comics shops. (The newsstand versions each debuted a month later.) Links to earlier installments will appear at the bottom of this post.

I wanted to revisit COIE in this format because that’s how I (and countless other Reagan-era readers) first experienced it. Nowadays it’s easy to digest these big-event miniseries in one sitting, and to poke through their various twists, turns, and inconsistencies. Of course there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m sure by this point most of Crisis’ readers came to it as a collection.

However, Crisis wasn’t just a story. (Some might say Crisis was barely a story to begin with.) Instead, it was an argument for restructuring all of DC’s superhero books in a way that would forever alter how they were viewed. Crisis’ tagline promised that worlds would live and die, and nothing would ever be the same — and it delivered. Amongst all the process, plot machinery, and exposition — and the clunky, obvious, and awkward moments — it kept those ad-copy promises.

Now, imagine you’ve been getting Crisis not in collected form, but every month in single-issue form. At the end of issue #4 you saw the apparent destruction of Earths-One and -Two, representing the bulk of DC’s fifty-year output. Issues #7 and #8 brought the deaths of Supergirl and the Barry Allen Flash. Issue #9 and the first half of #10 were the “Villain War,” a sprawling series of super-fights across three of the five remaining Earths.

Then, at the end of issue #10, all the good guys had gone back to the Dawn of Time to prevent the Anti-Monitor from reshaping history for his own evil purposes. It had come down to the Spectre, pumped full of super-energy from the assembled heroes, wrestling a similarly-supercharged Anti-M with the fate of all creation at stake. There was a flash of white, the page’s very panels shattered, and once again everything went blank….

… and you had to wait four weeks for this issue, Crisis On Infinite Earths #11, which appeared in the Direct Market thirty years ago, during the first week of October 1985.

Credits: COIE #11 was co-plotted, scripted, and edited by Marv Wolfman, co-plotted and pencilled by George Pérez, inked by Jerry Ordway, colored by Carl Gafford, and lettered by John Costanza. Bob Greenberger was the associate editor, and Len Wein was the consulting editor.

* * *

Earth Day
Earth Day

The first page of issue #11 is a direct parallel to the first page of issue #1, except that where the first issue showed the Big Bang which spat out the Multiverse, here there’s just a single Earth, rendered lovingly by Pérez, Ordway, and Gafford.

I can’t really tell you how it felt, thirty years ago, to gaze upon that page for the first time. It told me there was no going back — that not only had the heroes been successful (was there any doubt?) but big changes were afoot, and there’d be some adjustments as a result. I was sorry to see the old Multiverse go, but the singular new Earth was thrilling to contemplate.

Except for a few brief digressions and some cliffhanger setup, the rest of the issue pretty much explores the single-universe ramifications. Accordingly, it’s both a refreshing change from the cosmic chaos of the series so far, and an effective suspense-builder for issue #12’s finale. Nothing really advances the overall plot, but it doesn’t matter because the slow-boiling freakouts are so effective.

A big part of the issue’s success comes from its focus on Kal-L, the Superman of Earth-Two. Since he represents Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s original creation, he occupies a special place in DC history, and Wolfman and company haven’t forgotten. (Issue #7 calls him “the legend from whom all others have come,” while the Earth-One Supes is “the greatest of all heroes.” I’m sure it evens out.) He’s been part of the action continuously since issue #1, and this issue makes a credible case that he’s one of Crisis’ central figures.

One of Crisis’ big problems is its apparent lack of focus. Combine that with a somewhat ad-hoc approach to plotting, and you get several issues’ worth of meandering. First there were the Monitor’s hand-picked champions, trying to protect the tuning forks, then there was the five-universe stopgap, then the deaths of Supergirl and the Flash, and then the Villain War. With the setting itself at stake, only the characters can hold the series together. It’s not exactly a compliment to say that Crisis really comes together in the next-to-last issue, but at least it’s come together.

Besides, the opening sequence is pretty fun. Kal-L wakes up in his Metropolis apartment, half-remembering the apocalyptic events as if they were bad dreams. Clark Kent of Earth-Two is editor of the Daily Star newspaper, so he strolls to his office like he always does, only to be greeted with a “Great Caesar’s ghost!” by its normal occupant. Clark didn’t notice he was going to the GBS Building, home of the Daily Planet, and Perry White doesn’t appreciate someone else in his space. This is a lot more entertaining than I make it sound, mostly because “Uncle Clark” has to be bailed out by Earth-One Clark.

Note, however, that this isn’t quite Earth-One. The two Supermen can’t find the “warp zone” back to Earth-Two, but there’s a Keystone City on this Earth, so they head there to find Jay Garrick. Sure enough, he and Wally West have rebuilt the Cosmic Treadmill, but when the two Kryptonians and two Flashes travel to Earth-Two’s plane, they find nothing but a void crackling with purple energy and lightning.

Once again the call goes out, and the heroes all gather at Titans’ Tower to hear Harbinger’s account of the revised timeline. (Yes, as indicated by the one-panel tease towards the end of issue #10, Lyla has her Harbinger powers back, perhaps because they’re no longer being used to maintain the five-universe cosmos.) Her tale is old news for readers used to thirty years of a single shared universe, and it didn’t require much explanation back then either. Wolfman had planned originally for issues #11-12 to tell the “History of the DC Universe,” but here it gets two pages, including recaps of Krypton’s destruction and the Wayne murders.

Accordingly, the real thrust of the issue involves the Multiverse’s “orphans,” and specifically Earth-Two’s Kal-L, Robin, Huntress, and Wonder Woman. Nobody remembers them, which is all the more frustrating because everybody remembers non-duplicative Earth-Two folks like Jay Garrick. (Not even Jay’s wife remembers Kal-L.) In fact, as Batman and Robin (Jason Todd) reveal, the villains don’t remember the Multiverse, or their mission to stop Krona.

This produces a good bit of angst, to say the least. When Kal-L sees that yawning, crackling void where Earth-Two used to be, he cries out “I don’t have a home!” After streaking out of Titans’ Tower in a fit of anguish, he calls his existence a “fluke” and “whim of fate.” The Bat-folk are a little more subdued — the elder Robin notes that the only Dick Grayson he found was 19 years old and living in Manhattan; and the Huntress describes going to her Gotham apartment and finding somebody else there. Meeting at Wayne Manor, they see only the graves of Thomas and Martha Wayne, and nothing to indicate their Bruce ever existed.

What’s fascinating to me is the way in which all these characters align with the larger sweep of DC history. In the context of the Multiverse, the Earth-Two Superman, Wonder Woman, and Robin represent the original creations of Siegel and Shuster, William Moulton Marston, and Kane/Finger/Robinson; and Helena Wayne (created by Paul Levitz and Joe Staton in the mid-‘70s) is the daughter of Earth-Two’s Batman and Catwoman. Collectively they personify (among other things) the birth of DC’s Golden Age. It’s therefore appropriate for Kal-L to seek out another Golden Age colleague, Jay Garrick, for help; but Jay must then use Silver Age technology — and must himself get help from Kid Flash, a Silver Age representative — because the Multiverse was a Silver Age creation. When that doesn’t work, everyone heads to Titans’ Tower, which has supplanted the (wrecked) Justice League Satellite as the symbolic setting for DC’s Bronze Age. Wolfman may not have intended it, but these characters find themselves exhausting all the old remedies before being led into “modernity.” It’s a subtle counterpoint to Harbinger’s history lessons — she’s telling everyone about the new normal, while Kal-L and company realize the old ways aren’t doing them any good.

Still, we can forgive the Earth-Two folks for falling back on the familiar. Superman, Batman and Robin, and Wonder Woman remain DC’s oldest continuously-published features, and in 1985 the Golden Age stories still represented a fairly big chunk of their adventures. On Earth-Two, these characters could be out of the spotlight, but they didn’t deserve to be ignored or shoved aside. They weren’t direct pastiches of Siegel/Shuster or Marston/Peter, thrust through time into unfamiliar settings to serve as Crisis’ strawmen. (Ironically, that’s what Kal-L would become in Crisis’ sequel.) Instead, they were the culmination of all those old stories, distilled and synthesized by latter-day writers and artists, and needing some closure after almost fifty years.

That said, the Earth-Two Wonder Woman’s story is told secondhand by Earth-One’s Wonder Girl; and the Earth-One Dick Grayson is out of Crisis entirely, off in space on an unrelated New Teen Titans subplot. Outside of Huntress (and Power Girl, who gets a hand-wavy pass on the whole thing because her counterpart died a few issues ago), and the occasional period appearance in All-Star Squadron, DC wasn’t doing a whole lot with these characters. The Earth-One Wonder Woman and Robin/Nightwing had long since supplanted their Earth-Two predecessors, and as this issue makes clear, Superman of Earth-Two was getting his last hurrah in these pages.

* * *

I’m very late in talking about the art, so I’ll begin by saying how nice it is for Pérez and Ordway to relax and focus on just a few characters for the opening sequences with Kal-L. They span seven-and-a-half pages from the time he wakes up to the return from “Earth-Two’s” void-space, and include no more than four main characters at a time. There isn’t much in the way of unusual layouts, just variations on panel sizes and grids, including one big panel at the top of page 4 with only the two Supermen flying across a cityscape. The crowds are gone (for the most part), the skies are clear (although recolored from the original issues), and everything is calmer than it’s been at any point so far.


Once we get to Titans’ Tower and the flashbacks take over, the panels get smaller, closer together, and more crowded. For Harbinger’s history lessons, this is a matter of practicality; but for Robin and Huntress’ recollections, it helps emphasize their stress. The whole thing comes to a head on page 16, which is dominated by a big panel of Kal-L zooming away from Titans’ Tower. Pérez’s use of perspective allows the angry Kal-L to dominate the foreground, while the abrupt shift from interior to exterior and the tiny buildings in the distance communicate his speed and power. It’s a cathartic moment which brings Kal-L’s character arc to a (brief) stopping point so that the issue can introduce other subplots.

Actually, the issue has already paused briefly for a page-and-a-half (pp. 9-10) where Rip Hunter, Adam Strange, Animal Man and the rest of the Forgotten Heroes find Brainiac’s starship dead in space; but after Kal-L’s outburst the issue digresses more freely. First, we see the Spectre is incapacitated after his Dawn of Time fight. Next, we learn that Angle Man, a villain who moved through dimensions, is dead after trying to do just that. We also check in with Cave Carson, investigating weird energies underground; and at Gorilla City, under attack by shadow demons. However, the issue pays the most attention to Doctor Fate, Doctor Occult, and Etrigan saving Amethyst from shadow demons and … superstitious townspeople who think she’s a witch? This was a tie-in to an Amethyst crossover establishing her status as a Lord of Order (like Fate), but since I haven’t read it, I can’t comment much further. Still, I thought it was weird, then and now, for an angry mob in a DC book to descend upon someone who looks like one of those super-people who keep saving them. Marvel, maybe; DC, no — especially not in the relatively-innocent 1980s.

One more thing about the art. It’s not specific to this issue, but since this one features so many scenes of people standing around and (presumably) listening to one speaker’s story, I noticed it more. Put simply, a lot of panels feature non-speaking characters reacting with open mouths to relatively innocuous statements. Take a look at Wonder Girl on page 12, Zatanna on page 15, and Aquaman on page 16. Maybe Pérez wanted them to have some dialogue; or maybe it was just the way he thought they should look. The overall effect is to make the background folks seem overly jumpy — which, again, under the circumstances might be appropriate; but it’s still a little distracting. Speaking of the backgrounds, I have to say that Pérez and Ordway render the Titans’ Tower meeting room in loving detail. Of course, Pérez is intimately familiar with it, and as mentioned above it was probably DC’s A-list headquarters at the time. I suppose it’s yet another example of Pérez’s skill at choreographing crowds.

After Cave Carson sounds the alarm about the underground energy (not unlike the Challengers sending out a similar alert at the end of issue #8, and the Challs are here too), it’s back to Titans’ Tower for the wrap-up. The red skies and lightning are back, the shadow demons are massing, and the Earth itself is drawn into a malevolent new dimension. The two Supermen gaze into the antimatter heavens to see the Anti-Monitor intone “Welcome to your doom!”

To Be Concluded….


Issue 1
Issue 2
Issue 3
Issue 4
Issue 5
Issue 6
Issue 7
Issue 8
Issue 9
Issue 10

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