Eruditorum Press is thrilled to welcome Noah Berlatsky for a guest essay. Last War in Albion will run tomorrow.
Crisis of Infinite Earths
Crisis on Infinite Earth, the 1985-86 12-issue DC maxi-series by Marv Wolfman and George Perez which popularized the line-wide crossover event, was originally conceived as a marketing scheme. According to writer Wolfman in his introduction to the 1998 hardcover collection, he first conceived of the story as a way that “DC could simplify its continuity and lure new readers to the fold.” Its goals were less aesthetic than corporate; it was meant to rationalize and maximize DC corporate intellectual properties.
At the same time, the story itself can be read as a Cold War apology for US capitalist integration of an unruly world too diverse to stand against a Communist threat. DC’s flagship crossover could be called Crisis of Market Dominance, referring both to DC commercial hopes specifically and to US global aspirations.
Die, Die for Corporate Streamlining
For Wolfman, the Crisis was an exercise in childhood innocence; some story elements date back to his own youth when he imagined every superhero in one story together. “CRISIS existed in its pure form only to bring DC back to an easy-to-read beginning,” he insisted. But the call for simplicity and a streamlined cosmos led to a story of unusual, and indeed genocidal violence.
DC had developed a multiverse as a way to tell different stories; some heroes lived on Earth-1; others on Earth-2, others on Earth-C and Earth-C-minus, all vibrating at different dimensiona frequencies. On Earth-3, there was only one superhero, and supervillains ruled; on Earth-X, World War II lasted for decades. To simplify continuity, most of these worlds, and indeed entire universes, were wiped out. The death toll in Crisis was in the trillions of trillions.
Corporate capitalist reorganization requires a blood sacrifice—an insight cheekily underlined in a brief Joker subplot, in which the Clown Prince of Crime murders a movie mogul in order to steal his IPs. Just after the Joker explains his plot to the mogul’s corpse, he sees an image of Barry Allen, the Flash, calling for help. Flash was the main character to die during Crisis, his death giving the series, and DC’s whole product line, weight, depth, and new value.
The Flash was the highest profile casualty to be downsized during the events of Crisis. Other redundant IPs included the Earth-2 versions of Robin and Wonder Woman, Dove of the superteam Hawk and Dove, a World War II era group appropriately named the Losers, Aquagirl, and Supergirl. The last was the one eliminated character who rivaled Barry Allen in popularity and recognition.
Wolfman explained in his introduction that he killed Supergirl off because the Superman mythos had grown too unwieldy. “Before CRISIS it seemed that half of Krypton survived its explosion,” he said. “Our goal was to make Superman unique…That, sadly, was why Supergirl had to die.” It’s an openly market-driven fridging, in which a woman is sacrificed not just to add pathos to the hero’s arc, but specifically to better position the hero as a marketable product.
The corporate dynamics are (as usually in Crisis) reflected directly in the storytelling; Supergirl’s final act is to rush to the rescue of Superman, who is being beaten to death by the evil Anti-Monitor. “No, you’re not going to kill Superman! I won’t allow it!” she shouts. The iconic George Perez cover of issue #7, in which she dies, is a pieta of Superman weeping while holding her body; a strange pink sun behind him gives him what is effectively a halo. Row upon row of the companies IPs stand arrayed behind them, heads bent in mourning, contemplating Superman’s sorrow and the sacrifice required to make the larger-than-life center of corporate strategy even larger.
In addition to paring away (now-literally) dead weight, Crisis also was intended to integrate and rationalize new acquistions. DC had purchased most of Charlton comic’s superheroes in 1983, including the Blue Beetle, Captain Atom, the Question, and others. Crisis was an opportunity to introduce those properties into the DC universe. The Charlton characters were positioned on an earth of their own (Earth-4), as were earlier DC acquistions from Fawcett comics (the Shazam family, on Earth-S) and Quality comics (Phantom Girl, Dollman, Uncle Sam, on Earth-X.) These, along with Earth-1 and Earth-2, are the last five universes left in the multiverse, and they have to fuse together into one if they are going to be saved. The plotline here is a metaphor for, and directly mimics, the actual historical and ongoing corporate consolidation underway in the comics industry. Comics companies will live, comics companies will die, and the industry will never be the same.
The War of (Even More) Worlds
Crisis’ corporate housekeeping is hung on a familiar story. The Anti Monitor from an alternate antimatter universe invades the positive matter multiverse defended by the Monitor. The Anti -Monitor’s terrifying weapon is a white obliterating wall, which reduces universes and more-or-less beloved characters to the blank page. The series is, then, a recapitulation of H.G. Wells’ much-recapitulated War of the Worlds, in which the evil Martians charred the English countryside with their heat rays.
As I discussed in a different context on TCJ.com recently, War of the Worlds is perhaps the most influential science-fiction story ever, not least because it captures and replicates colonial anxieties which have remained relevant for over a century. The narrator in War of the Worlds explicitly compares the invasion of Martians to the British invasion of Tasmania. The story imagines what would happen if they did to us what our imperial forces have done to them.
War of the Worlds was updated numerous times to fit Cold War dynamics. The most obvious example is the 1984 movie Red Dawn, released when Crisis was being developed, in which Cuban, Nicaraguan, and Russian forces invade the US, forcing middle American football players to become guerilla resistance fighters in the mode of the Viet Cong.
Earlier1950s stories like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Robert Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters imagine infiltration rather than outright invasion. With the insidious efficiency of Communist propaganda, aliens squirm into and take over the minds and bodies of healthy Americans, corrupting their wholesome values. Crisis nods to those paranoid Red Scare narratives when Harbinger, the Monitor’s assistant, is possessed by one of the Anti-Monitor’s shadow creatures
The Communist menace isn’t confined to just one shadowy body snatcher. The story is framed around an endless Cold-War-esque stalemate between the equally matched Monitor and Anti-Monitor_”A war waged with equal power…a war in which there could be no victor.” The different universes of the multiverse are also in perfect stasis; for every antimatter universe there is a positive matter universe, and vice versa.
But when the delicate balance of power is shifted—when the Anti-Monitor destroys his first positive matter universe—the result is a domino effect. When one universe falls, it increases the Anti-Monitor’s power, giving him more strength to destroy the next universe, and the next. Soon all the multiverses will be overwhelmed with antimatter, just as the US feared all of Asia would fall to the Communists. The parallel between the Anti-Monitor’s merciless rule and Soviet totalitarianism is touched on explicitly in panels in which the narration explains the motivations of Negative Woman, a Russian defector. “She fled her homeland in search of freedom. And she will not allow this Earth, or any Earth, to be held in the iron grip of tyranny!”
All Your Universes Belong to White
The War of the Worlds puts the reader in the position of the invaded and colonized. But imagining white colonizers as victims doesn’t necessarily translate to anti-imperialism. Wells’ story is a fantasy of persecution, whereby he and English readers can imagine that they are the victims, rather than the perpetrators of violence. “All wars are fought twice,” Viet Thanh Nguyen syas, “the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory.” The British murdered Tasmanian people, and then Wells puts those British in the place of the Tasmanians, completing the physical erasure with an imaginative one.
Crisis is yet another story about the victimization of white people. The blonde-haired, blue-eyed Harbinger refers to herself in an off-hand comment as the Monitor’s “slave.” That self-pitying Freudian slip sets the tone of the whole series, in which white people are shown as the main targets of colonial invasion and genocide.
In theory, the Anti-Monitor’s war of invasion and extermination targets people in multiple versions of Vietnam, Nigeria, and Brazil as well as in the United States. In practice, though, the narrative focuses on the main superhero properties who are white (with a few exceptions like Cyborg) and American (with a few exceptions like the Soviet hero Red Star.)
More attention is given to the fictional realm of Atlantis, where virtually all pictured heroes are white, than to China, the most populous country on the planet. The most prominent African participant in the series isn’t even a human. It’s the advanced ape Solivar, because Africa is an uncharted region where exotic wildlife abounds, get it? The one person who consistently speaks in a language other than English is the Japanese Dr. Light, a mean-spirited, selfish scientist who has to learn about nobility and heroism from Supergirl. Given the abundant World War II references, this comes across as a pointed evocation of American conquest and rehabilitation of Japan. America is, supposedly, the world’s model for nobility and sacrifice.
The End of History
Crisis includes a lot of World War II imagery because the storyline involves time travel. The destruction of the multiverse occurs across all eras simultaneously. As the multiverse is destroyed, time begins to compress and flatten. One of George Perez’s most enjoyable images in the series is a drawing of a wooly mammoth herd thundering through a futuristic 30th century city.
Setting the maxi-series in multiple eras allows Wolfman and Perez to use characters from different comics, including Jonah Hex in the old west, the Legion of Super Heroes in the far future, and Sgt. Rock in World War II.
But it also fits into colonial cold war themes. John Rieder in Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction explains that imperialists saw themselves as traveling back into the past when they invaded other countries; the world was a living history museum, in which you could fall backwards in time by crossing the sea to Africa or the Americas. During the Cold War, this racist logic was codified in the idea of development. Third world nations were stuck at a previous stage of progress, and needed to be helped along into the future.
Towards the end of the series, the heroes travel back to the dawn of time for (yet another) climactic battle with the Anti-Monitor. They are successful, and as a result they rewrite all of history. Five worlds become one, with a single timeline. Some characters (like Superman of Earth-2) are written out of continuity, others are updated or changed.
The events of the comic parallel DC corporate strategy; Wolfman and Perez were tasked with rewriting the line from the beginning, creating not just an addition to what has come before, but an entirely new history. At the same time, the invasion of another era evoke an imperial project: claiming ownership of the present by imaginatively declaring that present to be their own undeveloped past, ripe for remaking. When the Anti-Monitor rants about remaking all of eternity in his image, he’s speaking for DC corporate and for US Cold War ambition. The heroes go back to the dawn of history—which in imperial logic, is just a continent away—and insert themselves into every time at once, so that even the original prehistoric humans are white.
Death of Diversity
The retroactive rationalization of both intellectual property and global order are appropriately unified throughout Crisis by repetitive calls for unity. The multiverse is threateend, Wolfman repeatedly insists, by the fact that it is too multiple. “The universe, once divided into many parts…each one different, independent, yet somehow weaker than the whole. Now each part suffers for that weakness, destroyed one after another…because the very fabric of their being is too weak for its total defense.” Diversity is vulnerability; only a single coherent culture can resist decay.
Throughout Crisis Wolfman presents unification as the alternative to petty provincial squabbles. The narrative constantly calls for heroes of different worlds, or even heroes and villains, to band together despite suspicion or mistrust in order to face a literally existential threat.
But that banding together doesn’t occur on equal footing. When representatives of the five surviving worlds are gathered to a kind of interdimensional space conference, they’re represented by six white people. Two of these are versions of Superman, DC’s most iconic character, and one of them, Shazam, was acquired by DC after years of litigation designed to prove that he was a knock-off of Superman. The future is a single IP stamped on the face of every character forever. Unity and monopolization merge like all those earths, a to z.
So, too, do unity and American hegemony. In preparation for one of the series’ climactic battles, Uncle Sam—personification of American propaganda—delivers a speech to the assembled heroes. “Not all of us believe in the same things…least not politically speakin’,” he says. “But that’s okay. The thing is we got us the right to think differently. But right now we all gotta forget all these differences.” The panels show, not people from different countries or regions, but from different earths or different planets, or different sides of the supervillain/superhero divide. US ideology, imagery, and language erases all other ideology, imagery and language so thoroughly that alternatives can’t be pictured. The only difference is the cosmetic variation of one American corporate property clothed in slightly different costumes.
Wolfman and Perez created Crisis on Infinite Earths to directly to address a shrinking comics market, and, indirectly, to address a long-term Cold War anxiety about waning global US influence and dominance. The fantasized solution to both these crises is totalization. The centralized, disciplined integration of every world and every time is the assurance of global peace and corporate prosperity. That is the only righteous and the only imaginable story. All others are whited out.
Noah Berlatsky is the author of Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics.