Sunday, October 14, 2007

Crisis on Infinite Earths

Crisis on Infinite Earths is one of those works I’ve read a lot about, and encountered peripherally through Morrison’s Animal Man and Moore’s Swamp Thing, however I’d never dare touch the work itself. However, with my recent immersion in the DCU, via Seven Soldiers, 52 and the Fourth World, I felt up to the task of navigating this massively complicated superhero epic. Epic is the optimum word here, a lot of crossovers feel constructed for no apparent reason, this one featured a great foe and truly world shaking action. Does that make it good? Not always, but it’s an intensely readable and truly unique and odd work, one that’s well worth the time for its metafictional implications alone.

A lot of mega crossovers are based around the fundamentally ironic goal of simplifying the universe through an absurdly convoluted story. Inferno is a prime example of this, a work that relies on fifteen years of stories and is barely comprehensible even when you’ve read all those issues due to the sheer amount of tie in material. It was a house clearing exercise, and this one is too, only it’s cleaning a much more complicated house. I’m not very familiar with the DCU pre Crisis, but judging from this book, it was a crazy, exciting place that didn’t make a whole lot of sense. So, the Crisis exists with one goal, to simplify the universe and make it accessible for new readers.

This gives the entire exercise a strong meta feel. The work is simultaneously a deck clearing exercise and a valedictory for the DCU as it was. If you’re not already familiar with the concept of the multiverse, the work won’t make much sense. Wikipedia and some related sites definitely helped me keep track of what the hell was going on at times, giving me the fundamental underpinning for all the action. It’s hard to wrap your mind around some of this stuff, particularly without a grounding in years of DCU history.

There’s a sadness present in the destruction of the multiverse. I knew that this was where the entire work was heading, but it’s still tough to watch these old characters and their world destroyed. The essential problem with the multiverse is that it removes the emotional reality of the characters. If there’s five Supermans running around, it’s hard to tell which one really matters. Is Superman the old guy married to Lois Lane or is he the young guy whose identity is still a secret? People today talk a lot about how adherence to continuity is a fanboy only practice, but if you look at stories, continuity is what makes them matter. It feels like a copout when we find out everything that happened was a dream or hoax as the 50s so frequently relied on. Stories gain weight through their consequences, and without some kind of linear continuity, there are no consequences. If many other Supermans are out there, it doesn’t matter what happens to any of them. But, if there’s one, you can really engage with him.

I like to think of the American Office as The Office Earth 2. The same character archetypes exist, but they’re played in a different way. I can’t engage with the Earth 2 characters in the same way I did with the original UK ones because I felt like the story was already told. I can laugh at the jokes, but emotionally, this ‘Jim’ doesn’t feel as real as ‘Tim.’ DC’s problem was that nobody felt real, and the universe of today certainly feels more cohesive than what we’ve got at the beginning of Crisis.

However, at the same time, I love the idea of this previous Superman helping out contemporary Superman. It’s a father/son thing, and then you throw in Superboy as another child, it’s a whole family. Plus, the multiverse allows for some wackier concepts and stories that don’t make sense in the agreed upon reality of the singular Earth. I love the idea that there’s an Earth where World War II rages on, or an Earth where America discovered Europe. The multiverse allows for a multitude of ideas, but ideas without emotion don’t necessarily make good stories.

I used to be almost exclusively a Marvel fan, X-Men mainly. I struggled to engage with DC’s heroes. After reading a lot of Morrison stuff in the DCU, and 52 in particular, I’ve grown to love the DCU. So, I was actually fairly equipped to handle the demands of this work. And, I’d argue it’s a more coherent work than I was expecting. There are a ton of narrative digressions, but the conflict with the Anti-Monitor provides a strong structure and focus that anchors you even when hundreds of random characters pass through.

The book begins rather clumsily with a series of random characters getting summoned by the Monitor. The cast is just unmanageable at this point, and we have no emotional in point to engage with. Things pick up once we get to know the Harbinger, who’s dressed in a wonderfully 80s outfit. I love works that engage with the zeitgeist of their times. Yes, the Harbinger may look dated, but that’s because her outfit was so specific to the moment, the hair, the clothes. She belongs in Bob Fosse’s Star 80. Supergirl’s headband is also decidedly of the moment, though her hairstyle doesn’t hold up as well as Harbingers.

The story itself works primarily because of how big it is. There’s not particularly engaging character arcs, but the Anti-Monitor is such an all encompassing foe, and is built up so well, that the story has a grandeur and majesty lacking in most of these cosmic crossover events. It does get a bit ridiculous how long it takes for him to be defeated. Even the characters themselves are talking about how a seemingly endless battle rages on and on, but it works. The high point is the fight in the Anti-Matter universe at the dawn of time, where all the magicians lend their power and the Spectre does some kind of ritual that temporarily ruptures the Anti-Monitor.

Things do get a bit repetitive by the end, however the final moments are very effective. It’s hard to watch Earth 2 Superman in a world where he doesn’t belong, where everything he knew has been wiped away. His ascension out of the universe and back to Lois is a really powerful way to signal the end of an era.

One of the things I always love about reading DCU stuff is getting to check in on the characters I’ve enjoyed reading about in the past. Here, I get a visit with Animal Man, who unfortunately has some pretty awful jokes, as well as time with Robotman. Zatanna gets a couple of panels, and Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing and Constantine also pop up. And, Darkseid even plays a critical role in the final moments. It’s nice to know they’re out there doing their own thing, those characters are more than just the people who write them, they have a life of their own.

And ultimately, that’s what this work is about. The writers have created inextricable narrative traps, and the characters work their way through it and create a new workable status quo. It’s a messy story, but the sheer hugeness of the undertaking makes it work. Perez’s art is dense and detailed, and the work feels very substantial. Pages are routinely filled with 10-15 panels, and each issue takes far longer to read than today’s “decompressed” comics. Not every artist could pull it off, but Perez can do a page with 15 panels and still sell you on the characters’ emotion. An issue of the Buffy comic is like eating a cookie, each issue of this is a meal. I’m not saying every book should be this dense, but there’s a reason that more people read single issues back then.

So, what’s the takeaway from Crisis? I found it a consistently entertaining and though provoking work. It’s frequently nonsensical and hard to follow, but there’s enough ideas in there that it works on an intellectual level. The multiple earths are hard to fathom, but I think that’s a good thing. I like comics that force you to think in new ways. I don’t think most people want to think about their entertainment in this way, to ponder the cosmology of an entirely fictional universe, but for me, it’s a joy.

Now it’s on to today and Infinite Crisis. My main reason for reading this book now was to prepare for Grant’s upcoming Final Crisis, and Infinite Crisis is the next step. I’ve read the first two issues, and it’s pretty good so far. Phil Jiminez is a worthy successor to Perez. No one draws more beautiful people than he does, everyone looks like a gorgeous model. I don’t think art that’s cheesecake usually works, but there’s nothing wrong with good looking people, and Phil delivers that like no one else. He would have been the perfect artist for Grant’s JLA run, making humans that could be gods. Behind JH Williams and Frank Quitely, he's the best artist in comics today.


RAB said...

I've written about my love for alternate Earths on my own blog, so clearly there was never any way I could get behind the basic purpose of Crisis being to eliminate them. Add to that a very poorly thought out plot -- I always thought the book would have been much improved if everyone involved had just sat down quietly for a moment and caught their breath before proceeding! -- and the overly histrionic style Wolfman was using at the time, and I'm afraid this series was never popular with me.

You mention Swamp Thing and John Constantine; in fact, the single best use of the Crisis was this crossover issue where Alan Moore made the whole thing more solid and emotionally affecting in a few pages than Wolfman and Perez managed in twelve issues.

Harbinger's outfit looked pretty silly to us back in 1986 too!

Patrick said...

Wolfman did go pretty over the top, but for me, that was part of the appeal. By the third ridiculously huge earth shaking battle against the Anti-Monitor, even the characters were saying it was redundant, but there were also moments of real majesty in there, a story as big as you'll ever read.

That said, read in a monthly, I could see it being even more redundant since everything after the Death of Supergirl is bascially the same fight over and over again.

And your post on alternate Earths was very cool. I'd argue the central difference between the Marvel and DC alternate Earths is that Marvel always has an anchor reality, and the alternate worlds are defined in definition to the one true world. The confusing thing about DC was that Earth 2 is just as valid as Earth 1, so you're not sure which stories really matter. Intellectually, that's an interesting idea, and actually fits in nicely with the various animated series and movies out there. However, it makes it tough for stories to have emotional weight when you're not even sure what's 'real.'

Of course, it might be better to have many Supermans because that means that some of them actually can change, not just stick with the archetypal setting. Either way, I'll have to check out Infinite Crisis and the end of 52 to see how the multiverse resolves itself in the present.