It was shocking. It was without any real precedent in the annals of comic books up to 1985. Comic book writer Marv Wolfman’s story of the DC Universe in dire peril from an evil entity known as the Anti-Monitor determined to destroy and wipe from existence all life was the event of the 1985-’86 comic book reading season. The series, ostensibly created to celebrate the 50th anniversary of DC while also performing some housecleaning to sort out the sometimes convoluted backstory of multiple Supermen, Batmen and Wonder Women residing on parallel earths, changed the face of comics and just what constituted an event in the four colored world of flying, shiny gods who all wore their hearts on their sleeves. By the time it was over with – after twelve handwringing issues – all of the multiple earths and realities had been folded into just one. As the DC ad campaign promised at the start of the series, “Worlds will live, worlds will die. And nothing will ever be the same.” It’s one of the few times in the world of hype and promotion in any field where the promise of real change was strictly adhered to. At least for a while.
Crisis on Infinite Earths has rightly become an evergreen in the world of comics, featuring deft writing by comics scribe Wolfman and lush illustrations by his artistic cohorts, George Perez, Dick Giordano and Jerry Ordway. The series was so epic and gloriously unwieldly that it almost seemed to defy any sort of film adaptation that a less ambitious story in the genre would have surely received before 2019. The cast of characters alone in Crisis– comprised of fifty years of exotic and colorful heroes and villains – seemed to close the doors on any adaptation that wanted to remain faithful to its source material. DC itself seemed reluctant to even attempt to sequalize one of its Holy Grails of comic book storytelling, only finally capitulating in 2005 (the twentieth anniversary of Crisis on Infinite Earths) with the expertly penned Geoff Johns follow-up, Infinite Crisis, to mixed results.
But a funny thing happened between 1985 and 2019, something that no self-respecting, card-carrying member of the Junior Justice Society of America could have ever foreseen, lovers and appreciator of the genre though they were: The world of film and television began to embrace the often times kooky and wacky world of the comics with all of their Super Soldier Formulas, Batarangs, pink thunderbolts, cosmic rods and sliding timescales and – in a shocking turn of events – actually remained largely faithful to the original source material. Sure, we’d had Chris Reeve’s remarkable turn as the Man of Steel in Richard Donner’s original Superman and we had all thrilled at the cheesy fun of television’s The Incredible Hulk (with the most mournful end-tune of any primetime TV show ever) and Batman was always a starter, it seemed, but fans of Kirby, Kubert, Eisner, Perez, et al. were hungry for the world of film to replicate the shared intricacies of the Marvel and DC Universes, respectively. Once Marvel came out of the gate swinging with boffo box office, DC was right there alongside them and shared cinematic universes for our favorite spandex garbed heroes became a norm, not an irregularity.
Which has, at long last, paved the way for the CW five part adaptation of Crisis on Infinite Earths which begins with Supergirl on Sunday, December 8 and ends with the January 14, 2020 airdate of DC’s Legends of Tomorrow (for a full schedule and some pertinent details you can do no better than checking out the Den of Geek rundown on the whole universal shebang). The television version of Crisis, like it’s funny book predecessor, has a little fun with many of the alternate versions of DC classic characters, enlisting a whole slew of current and former actors in this five-parter who have picked up a super hero cape or two at one point in their careers over the last twenty plus years.
As a longtime comic book fan and collector myself, I can distinctly recall wandering into the local drug store in the tiny Alabama town I called home back in ’85 and picking up the very first issue of Crisis on Infinite Earths (back in the halycon days when a kid growing up had much easier access to new comics through grocery stores, gas stations and the aforementioned drug stores) and having my little eleven year old mind fully and completely blown by what I read. With slack-jawed awe, my hands trembling, I witnessed the death of Earth 3, a world inhabited not by heroes but by villains. This had a profound impact on me as I had just discovered this world in an All-Star Squadron and Justice League of America crossover, followed hot on its heels by a DC Comics Presents annual. I felt as if I’d just lost old newfound friends and suddenly I became very nervous. For you see, by the time I was eleven I had also become a tremendous enthusiast for the world of Earth Two, an earth whose costumed mystery-men had made their debuts in the 1930s and 1940s. Characters such as the original Hawkman (Carter Hall), Sandman (Wesley Dodds) and Superman (Clark Kent, natch!) were allowed to grow old, raise families, train their own successors and eventually retire or die. Plus, as a budding student of history, I was absolutely fascinated by World War Two, that tumultuous period where most of these heroes had gotten their start. If Earth Three was persona non grata, what about my beloved Earth Two? Would they survive the Crisis? As it turns out, no. Wolfman and company were playing for keepsies and they were sending the message that no one was safe.
The death of Earth 3 in Crisis on Infinite Earths #1.
It’s nearly impossible at this late date to properly convey on an emotional level to comic book fans who entered the field after 1985 or ’86 and who have been weaned on the grim and gritty worlds of Alan Moore just why those twelve issues of Crisis were so shocking and gripping. I recall visiting one of the first comic book stores I’d ever been into when Crisis on Infinite Earths issue 7 hit the stands. This was the now famous issue with a sobbing Superman (Earth One variety) cradling the dead body of his cousin, Supergirl. This was heady stuff in an era where heroes were not routinely killed off only to make a “surprise” return six months later. Death in comics in the mid-1980s still meant something and I remember a hand lettered makeshift sign from the comic book store (Lone Star Comics out of Dallas, Texas) placed underneath Crisis 7 which read: “Rest in Peace Kara Zor-El: 1959-1985.” To say that I was knocked out of my by now twelve year old socks by this issue and the shocked solemnity which heralded it would be the most tremendous understatement ever. I am unbowed to mention now that I cried that day, as I did when issue 8 dropped with the death of Barry Allen (The Flash) or issues 10-12 with the destruction of my beloved Earth Two and many of its smiling denizens. 1986 was a pretty traumatic time to be twelve years old and a fan of DC’s multiverse concept.
As 2019 goes gently into that good night and sets the stage for 2020, DC has had several Crisis events since the ’85 one – with another looking to rear its ugly head in 2020 just in time for the (gulp!) 35th anniversary of the first – yet none have matched the sheer emotional wallop of the original twelve issue series for this reader who still mourns and yet celebrates one of the most powerful stories in modern American literature.