|Figure 491: The cover of the debut issue of Crisis on Infinite Earths.
This story, published as a twelve-issue limited series, was a watershed moment in the history of comics. It came about due to the confluence of two seemingly unrelated things: the fact that DC Comics took place in a multiverse consisting of infinitely many parallel universes, and the fact that over the course of the 1970s and 80s American comic book retailing had steadily transitioned from being dominated by newsstands and other magazine vendors to being dominated by shops focusing exclusively on comic books.
This tendency began in 1972 when a bookshop owner and comics convention organizer named Phil Seuling created East Coast Seagate Distribution after negotiating deals with most of the major comics publishers to allow him to buy comics at a deep discount in exchange for the comics purchased being nonreturnable. Because this dramatically decreased the risk for publishers (who were, as ever, facing declining sales), this proved acceptable to the companies. Seagate then arranged to ship those comics to specialty shops. Over the course of the ensuing decade, this eclipsed newsstands as the primary means of distributing comics, in no small part because Seagate could routinely get comics to shops a week faster than the newsstands got them, a fact that comics fans quickly picked up on, bringing more traffic towards the specialty shops and away from newsstands. In 1973, the direct market consisted of approximately 25% of comics sales. A decade later, it was newsstands that made up only 25% of the market, and the industry was awash in regional distributors all in competition with one another.
One consequence of this was a fundamental shift in the nature of comics readers. Whereas in their early days American comic books were read by a wide and general audience, the direct market sold entirely to people who were dedicated enough comics fans to go to a shop stocking specifically comics, as opposed to people who happened to pick them up from a magazine rack at the supermarket. This accelerated a general trend that existed since the rise of semi-organized fandom in the late 60s, creating a smaller but more highly engaged readership. Comics companies quickly capitalized on this, creating titles designed for dedicated fans, among them Crisis on Infinite Earths.
|Figure 492: Top – Jay Garrick collapses from the chemical vapors
in his lab. (Written by Gardner Fox, art by Harry Lampert, in Flash
Comics #1, 1939) Bottom – Barry Allen is bathed in chemicals and
lightning in his lab. (Written by Robert Kanigher, art by Carmine
Infantino and Joe Kubert, from Showcase #4, 1956)
A basic truism of comics fans, however, is that they are prone to a certain measure of obsessiveness, particularly on the matter of maintaining consistency across multiple comics. This was always one of the great strengths of Stan Lee’s approach to comics, which was always careful to show that all of the Marvel books took place in a shared universe and to make sure events in one book were, if appropriate, reflected in others. But DC, owing to its decades longer history, had a much more ad hoc approach. Although some of its superhero titles, most notably Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman had been published continually since World War II, most had been retired in the aftermath of the war when superheroes declined in popularity, and were not revived until after the formation of the Comics Code, when superhero comics were seen as a suitable genre to continue telling the sorts of adventure stories that had previously appeared in the now-banned crime comics. DC, in reviving its superheroes under the editorial eye of Julius Schwartz, used many of its old World War II-era character names, but gave them all revised origins and concepts. So, for instance, where the World War II-era character the Flash was a college student named Jay Garrick who fell asleep in his laboratory and inhaled chemical vapors that gave him superhuman speed, the 1950s iteration of the character was a police scientist named Barry Allen who, working late one night, had a case full of chemicals explode all over him in a lightning strike.
|Figure 493: The two flashes meet. (Written by
Gardner Fox, art by Carmine Infantino and Joe
Giella, from Flash #123, 1961)
In 1961 DC published The Flash #123, featuring a story entitled “Flash of Two Worlds!” In this story, Barry Allen accidentally travels between universes, appearing in a parallel Earth in which Jay Garrick, the comic book character that inspired his costume and name, is actually a real person, with whom he teams up to stop several World War II-era Flash villains. This comic introduced the idea of the DC Multiverse, which was eventually formalized to place the World War II-era superheroes on a world designated Earth-2, while the contemporary ones existed on Earth-1. This quickly led to the proliferation of many more universes, until, as Marv Wolfman put it in an essay at the start of the first issue of Crisis on Infinite Earths, “DC Mythology, which had grown helter-skelter over the past 50 years, had become rather convoluted.” These problems compounded themselves, as the default solution to any continuity problem was to declare that whatever story didn’t fit took place on yet another alternate earth, compounding the problem and, worse, becoming increasingly impenetrable to new readers.
|Figure 494: Swamp Thing’s
most substantive appearance
in Crisis on Infinite Earths.
(Written by Marv Wolfman,
art by George Pérez and Jerry
Ordway, from Crisis on Infinite
Earths #5, 1985)
Crisis on Infinite Earths was designed to clean up the morass of DC history and allow the line to move forward with a single, unified world that would incorporate all of the various parts of the multiverse into a coherent whole. The product of four years of research on Marv Wolfman’s part and the willingness of George Pérez to draw frighteningly detailed panels with dozens of minor characters in them such that Wolfman could incorporate practically every character in the history of DC into his story. (Swamp Thing, for his part, appears in the last panel of page ten of issue #5, alongside Sergeant Rock and two of the Easy Company, delivering his only line, “Yes… the Earth… has changed… become dark… corrupt.”)
|Figure 495: The Monitor observes Swamp
Thing’s battle with Anton Arcane. (Written
by Alan Moore, art by Rick Veitch and John
Totleben, from Saga of the Swamp Thing #31, 1984)
It is ironic, then, that the plot of Crisis on Infinite Earths is one of the most ludicrously impenetrable and convoluted things ever put to page. It concerns the conflict between two godlike beings, the Monitor and the Anti-Monitor. The former of these had been appearing in cameo roles throughout DC’s line in the years leading up to Crisis on Infinite Earths, including a brief appearance in Swamp Thing #31, the final part of Moore’s Arcane story, while the latter was a new villain introduced for Crisis itself. Both had their origins in the creation of the Multiverse, with the Anti-Monitor existing on a planet called Qward within an antimatter universe originating in some 1960s Green Lantern comics, and wanting to destroy the entire Multiverse. The Monitor recruits a bunch of heroes to defend the Multiverse by merging all of the universes into one, but his plans are derailed when his assistant, Harbinger, is possessed by one of the Anti-Monitor’s shadow creatures and kills him. It turns out, however, that the Monitor had planned for this eventuality and projects the last five Earths of the Multiverse into a Limbo universe. With the assistance of Alexander Luthor from Earth-3 (where heroes are villains, such that the Justice League of America is replaced by the Crime Syndicate of America, but where, correspondingly, villains are heroes, resulting in Lex Luthor sending his infant son to Earth-1 as the universe ends at the start of Crisis, in a sly parallel of Superman’s origin story) the now-recovered Harbinger leads an attack on the Anti-Montior that delays his plans, at the cost of Supergirl’s life. Meanwhile, the Flash dies stopping another scheme of the Anti-Monitor’s finding himself flung across time where, as his body disintegrates, he tries to offer warnings to heroes, explaining a series of mysterious appearances he’d been making prior to his death. Undaunted, the Anti-Monitor travels to the dawn of time as a massive alliance of supervillains tries to conquer the Multiverse. This latest scheme is deflected by the Spectre, who battles with the Anti-Monitor using the combined powers of all of DC’s magical characters to fight against the Anti-Monitor, who drains the power of all of the superheroes. The result is the creation of a singular universe in which elements of the remaining five worlds are juxtaposed, including having both the Earth-1 and Earth-2 versions of Superman. At this point the Anti-Monitor attacks yet again, dragging the singular Earth into the antimatter universe and proclaiming, memorably, “you whimpering fool, it already is too late! From the moment you set foot on Qward – you sealed your own fates! This is the day the Universe dies!” He’s finally defeated for once and for all (until his next appearance in 1999) by Alexander Luthor, the Earth-2 Superman, and the Earth-Prime version of Superman (Earth Prime originally being intended as the real world of the DC Comics readership, introduced in The Flash #179 in 1968, but eventually given a Superboy in DC Comics Presents #87 in 1985), who, along with the Earth-2 version of Lois Lane, secretly saved by Alexander Luthor when the various Earths merge, retreat into a paradise dimension outside of the universe, allowing the newly formed singular Earth to continue on with no memory that there had ever been a multiverse save on the part of the Psycho-Pirate, a 1960s enemy of Doctor Fate and Hourman who was a Silver Age remake of a Justice Society of America villain from 1944 who controlled emotions through the magical Medusa Masks, and who had been an ally of the Anti-Monitor throughout Crisis on Infinite Earths.
|Figure 496: Colleen Doran did Orbiter with
Warren Ellis in 2004.
In the years following the comic’s publication, the various comics DC published rebooted to reflect this new continuity. These reboots led to one of Moore’s two engagements with Crisis on Infinite Earths, a two-part Superman story entitled “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” that served as the final Superman story before the post-Crisis reboot. The origins of this story lie in Moore’s second trip to the United States in 1985, where he was a guest at San Diego Comicon. There he heard from Julius Schwartz that he intended to transition to the reboot of Superman by doing an issue of each of Superman’s two titles at the time, Action Comics and Superman, that would pretend to be the final issue of the comic. As Schwartz tells it, upon hearing this Moore “literally rose out of his chair, put his hands around my neck, and said, ‘if you let anybody but me write that story, I’ll kill you.’” Moore, for his part, wrote in 2004 upon the occasion of Schwartz’s passing, “how, now, am I supposed to contradict a classic Julius Schwartz yarn? So, all right: it’s true. I picked him up and shook him like a British nanny, and I hope wherever he is now, he’s satisfied by this shame-faced confession.” (Other classic Julius Schwartz yarns include his sexually assaulting Colleen Doran.)
|Figure 497: Superman was equally unsympathetic
to Lois Lane.
On art duties for “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow” was, by Moore’s request, Curt Swan, whose immaculately clean lines defined Superman’s square-jawed and uncomplicated heroism had defined Superman over the preceding three decades. “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow” would end up being Swan’s last piece of regular work for the company, however, as Crisis and the subsequent reboot of the Superman franchise was used as an excuse to push Swan out in favor of a thirty years younger and then-trendier artist, in this case John Byrne, who would himself be steadily ushered to the junk heap of once-hot artists several decades later. Moore also opted to frame the story using a gimmick dating back to the 1950s under the editorial tenure of Mort Weisinger (one of the least pleasant to work with editors in comics history, famously described by Roy Thomas as “a malevolent toad”), and owe their existence to the trend of advertising elaborate and ridiculous premises for comics on the covers, often coming up with them prior to actually writing the story inside, leaving writers to subsequently come up with stories that explained why, for example, Superman is setting fire to the dressing gown Jimmy Olsen has gotten him for father’s day while saying that he’s “sorry I ever adopted you as my son.” Eventually this got difficult enough that Weisinger concocted the idea of declaring stories to be “imaginary stories” that existed outside of continuity, and thus could be used to do things like tell the story of Superman’s death, which of course could never happen inside the comics themselves.
|Figure 498: The opening to “Whatever Happened to
the Man of Tomorrow,” proclaiming it (and all other
Superman stories) to be imaginary. (From Superman
And so “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow” opens with one of the more famous passages ever written by Moore, which proclaims, in an ornate and old-fashioned script selected by letterer Todd Klein, that “this is an IMAGINARY STORY (Which may never happen, but then again may) about a perfect man who came from the sky and did only good. It tells of his twilight, when the great battles were over and the great miracles long since performed,” it explains, and proceeds to tease much of the plot of the subsequent two issues, before concluding that the story “begins in a quiet midwestern town, one summer afternoon in the quiet midwestern future. Away in the big city, people still sometimes glance up hopefully from the sidewalks, glimpsing a distant speck in the sky… but no: it’s only a bird, only a plane. Superman died ten years ago. This is an IMAGINARY Story… Aren’t they all?”
It is worth highlighting the degree to which this is, within the context of 1986 DC Comics, actually controversial. Certainly John Byrne, who was inheriting the Superman books after this, did not like it, complaining years later about how he cannot hear the phrase “imaginary story” “without a snide and ennui soaked voice whispering in my ear ‘but aren’t they all?’” Indeed, he suggests that Moore’s preface to the story “goes most deeply to the root” of “the many things that can be seen to have gone wrong with American superhero comics.” [continued]