DC’s first universe-wide crossover was the 12-issue Crisis on Infinite Earths (Apr 1985 – Mar 1986). Written by Marv Wolfman and penciled by George Pérez, the team responsible for DC then-hit New Teen Titans, Crisis was designed to do nothing less than remake the DC Universe, collapsing all of DC’s parallel Earths into one. In the process, DC’s continuity would be altered retroactively, streamlined in hopes of making DC’s titles more accessible to readers, who might be put off by the company’s long and complicated continuity.
Run most fictional constructs forward, and complexity gradually increases. Add parallel universes with their own history, and this complexity can increase more geometrically. DC’s Golden Age stories were said to have occurred on Earth-2, while its stories from the Silver Age to the present were set on Earth-1. There were thus two versions of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman (who had been active in both ages and thus on both Earths). Jay Garrick and Alan Scott, the Golden Age Flash and Green Lantern, (respectively), lived on Earth-2; Barry Allen and Hal Jordan, the Silver Age Flash and Green Lantern (respectively), lived on Earth-1. This clever formulation continued to evolve, as characters not only traveled from one Earth to another but occasionally migrated permanently (e.g. Earth-2’s Black Canary moving to Earth-1). Other Earths were added, whether for parallel-universe stories or as settings for super-heroes acquired from other companies. All these universes’ characters and timelines interacted, to the point that even explaining who was who had gotten out of hand, requiring extensive explanations. Explaining a character’s 45-year history, involving multiple, interacting parallel universes, was complex enough without also having to address the continuity errors that inevitably developped.
To hardcore fans who didn’t need footnotes explaining past stories, DC’s system of multiple Earths could be a great narrative wonder, joyous in its complexity and permutations. But it wasn’t exactly inviting to new readers. And it could confuse even DC’s writers and editors. At some point, complexity reaches the point that it becomes a mess that needed fixing.
This ambitious task would be accomplished in a 12-issue mini-series, a format only a few years old at the time.
Crisis on Infinite Earths took its title from the Justice League’s annual team-ups with the Justice Society, which typically started with the word “Crisis” and came to involve more worlds than just Earth-1 and Earth-2. Implicitly, Crisis on Infinite Earths would be the culmination and conclusion of these stories, beginning with the very first, “Crisis on Earth-One” (Justice League of America #21, Aug 1963).
The story begins with waves of anti-matter, depicted as formless white, sweeping across DC’s parallel worlds. Readers saw world after world obliterated, including many well-known characters. One memorable sequence followed the Crime Syndicate of America, villainous counterparts of the Justice League, became heroes as they futilely defended their world from oblivion. Meanwhile, the series followed the Monitor, assisted by the female Harbinger, who gathered various heroes to make a stand against the anti-matter – and the mysterious villain behind it.
In a move ahead of its time, the Monitor had been seen throughout the DC Universe in the year or so prior, appearing in dozens of titles, though he had largely been depicted as a villain. Even Harbinger had gotten a few appearances. Most of these appearances weren’t particularly meaningful, and some were even incommensurate with the characters’ depictions in Crisis. (Why would the Monitor bother to give Western hero Jonah Hex a horse, as he did in Jonah Hex #90, Apr 1985?) But their very existence bespoke an increasing complexity in super-hero narratives, as well as foreshadowing the increasing levels of shared continuity that the crossover would herald.
No sooner had DC’s heroes gathered than the Monitor was killed, cut down by his own assistant, Harbinger, who had been corrupted by the series’s then-unknown villain. Readers had met the multiverse’s salvation only to watch him die. And we soon met the villain responsible for all of this: a stone-faced figure named the Anti-Monitor, the Monitor’s evil opposite. While certainly Manichaean, this played on the series’s sense of duality (good / evil, matter / anti-matter, existence / annihilation) – and the Anti-Monitor’s design was just plain cool.
As DC’s first crossover, Crisis on Infinite Earths was notable for featuring minor characters. Before Superman, Batman, or Wonder Woman entered the story, it followed minor characters. Although the story was designed to streamline the DC Universe and make it more accessible to new readers, Crisis on Infinite Earths was ironically characterized by its inclusion of obscure character after obscure character. Indeed, part of the fun was figuring out who all these characters were and celebrating their histories – and the whole convoluted history of the DC Universe, in this, its last gasp.
The various heroes combined forces to attack the Anti-Monitor’s technology, huge pylons that were disturbing time and space. In one memorable sequence, dinosaurs and World War I aircraft appeared amidst a modern city, allowing DC characters from different eras to join the story as well.
Crisis on Infinite Earths also set the expectations for the crossovers to follow, including meaningful casualties. The series may have featured the death of whole universes, but it was the death of Supergirl that provided its most tragic moment. During a space battle, in which the assembled heroes battled the Anti-Monitor’s minions, Supergirl nobly sacrificed herself. Superman held her body and mourned the loss of his cousin, Kara Zor-El, a rare tragedy for the otherwise happy character. The cover of issue #7 (Oct 1985), featuring Superman holding her body in his arms with the assembled heroes all around him, has become one of the most remembered and referenced covers in comic book history, subject of many an homage.
The very next issue (#8, Nov 1985) saw the death of Barry Allen, the Flash. Readers couldn’t believe that Supergirl’s death would be followed so closely by the death of another major character. Barry Allen wasn’t mourned in the pages of Crisis on Infinite Earths as fiercely as Kara Zor-El, but his death was even more significant. Supergirl had been a secondary character, at times given her own title but largely subordinate to Superman. Barry Allen, however, had not only been the Flash throughout the Silver Age, but his first appearance (Showcase #4, Sept-Oct 1956) had launched the Silver Age. He also had his own title, which had run over 200 issues with him as the star. The title wasn’t selling well, letting DC cancel it and use him as a sacrificial lamb in Crisis.
In fact, readers had already glimpsed him in decay, foreshadowing his fate. Imprisoned by the Anti-Monitor, he got loose, running faster than light to chase down a shot fired from an enormous gun at the Earth. He thus died saving the Earth, though his death was unseen by the other heroes. They had, however, seen him earlier while he was running after the shot. Running faster than light, he raced backward in time (following one interpretation of Einstein’s general theory of relativity) and appeared like a vision to various heroes throughout the issues leading up to his death, his body seeming to decay from appearance to appearance.
A few years later, his life and death would be retold in Secret Origins Annual #2 (1988), which revealed that, after catching the shot headed for Earth, he had become the very thunderbolt that had crashed into a shelf of chemicals, giving him his powers.
As Crisis on Infinite Earths began to wind down, the heroes traveled to the beginning of time for their final battle with the Anti-Monitor. Though they won, time was changed. The multiverse – DC’s whole system of parallel universes – was said to have been a perversion, caused by an errant experiment by an alien who had sought the origins of life by peering at the beginning of time. Now, that error was undone; DC’s heroes returned from the dawn of time to the present to find a single Earth, the heroes from other universes having been compressed into a single timeline. In a brief span of time, their memories that things had ever been different would fade.
The DC Universe thus got a new continuity, based on Earth-1 but incorporating into its timeline characters from other Earths. Characters with separate Earth-2 identities, like Flash and Green Lantern, could comfortably co-exist, their histories not overlapping. Characters like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman would see their Earth-2 versions eliminated.
The final couple issues of Crisis on Infinite Earths saw a number of nice touches. The series, seen as a radical experiment that might well fail, had become a hit, and now virtually every writer of a DC series wanted a scene inserted to set up future plotlines. Wally West found the dead Barry Allen’s costume and, abandoning his identity as Kid Flash, swore to become the new
Flash and honor Barry’s legacy. Even a new female Wildcat made her debut in the series.
The Earth-2 Superman, the original super-hero who had first appeared way back in Action Comics #1, was given a special send-off. Rather than being wiped out by the changes in the timeline, he was allowed to travel into Alexander Luthor, a cosmic being who was the son of a good Lex Luthor from another parallel universe. Inside Alex Luthor, he was reunited with the Earth-2 Lois Lane, the love of his life, and thus given a happy ending.
But the greatest touch came in the concluding pages, in which the villainous Psycho-Pirate, who could manipulate people’s emotions, sat imprisoned in Batman’s Arkham Asylum. Psycho-Pirate had worked for the Anti-Monitor, and for some reason he alone seemed to remember the whole Crisis and how the multiverse had collapsed into a single universe. Haunted by this knowledge, he was thought insane by those around him, despite actually knowing a great secret of the universe. The final page, filled with tiny, brilliantly-rendered panels, slowly pulled out from him and his padded cell until it showed the Earth from space, now single, alone… and filled with potential for later stories.