In which the blogger borrows "Ultimatum" and "Onslaught" from a country library passed during a hailstorm and is moved to speculate on why the lessons of "Crisis On Infinite Earths" aren't always followed when making the worst days of superheroes seem like successes to their readers.
There can be few classes of story in the superhero genre more difficult to write successfully than the line-wide crossover. Most of us have our favourites of the breed, from "Secret Wars" to "Final Crisis" to "Siege", but there are few if any examples of the company-wide blockbuster which consistently pop up in the "best-of" lists. Of those that do, such as even the original "Crisis On Infinite Earths", there's often a qualifying explanation amended, almost in apology, claiming that the choice has been made for the fun of it, or for the nostalgia, or for both.
And nothing makes a creator seems more mortal, more fallible, than the grand crossover that fails to even capitalise on its fan-boy potential for the necessary and expected progression of epic scenes from the first unexpected meeting of hero "x" and hero "y" to the great gathering of the superfolks before the hopeless final battle, from the revelation of the true criminal mastermind behind the world's coming end to the mournful ceremonies to mark the fallen protagonists resting in the grave before their next resurrection, and so on. For the tradition of the crossover, like the superhero tale itself, is to a large degree codified if not ossified; we know most of what we're going to be getting, and we know mostly in what order too, and creators had better give us what we want and make sure that it's different this time around as well.
And so the creative teams who've been passed the poisoned chalice for this year have to hit all the expected, and yet over-familiar, highpoints while somehow surprising us, throwing in at least one shocking reversal that'll cause us to cheer rather than yawn at yet another last-pitch battle between one army of thoroughly evil baddies faced with a battleworn but unbowed and costume-torn battalion of good old to-the-death superheroes.
But the challenges facing the creators of the standard-issue crossover are nothing to the trials faced by those asked to produce the most counter-intuitive of line-wide epics, the sub-genre wherein the superheroes lose, the status quo is destroyed, and the reader expected to take satisfaction from the failure of their favourites to save anything but a little of the day.
*1:- It's telling that Alan Moore's "Twilight", that daring and unmade DCU saga, is held so dearly in the hearts of those who know of its existence and are fortunate enough to have read its authors proposal. Perhaps the line-wide crossover functions best as an ideal, a set of bright ideas bound in a bold narrative spine, unsullied by the compromises and inevitable disappointments of the tradition in print.
It might be in itself a somewhat questionable statement, but perhaps we might begin from the premise that it's nearly always the superhero's task to either preserve the status quo or to return it into existence. (*2) The criminals are to be captured, the tyrants deposed, the alien invaders returned to the stars, and the ordinary citizen and superfolk alike returned to the regular routines of what passes in their strange worlds as everyday life. But in the three superhero epics I'd like to discuss here, the whole purpose of the grand and even bloated punch-ups on offer was to so thoroughly disrupt the default equilibrium of the superhero's lives that nobody would believe that things could ever be restored to normal. In essence, each of these tales - "Crisis On Infinite Earths", "Onslaught" and "Ultimatum" - was concerned to describe what happens when the end of the world occurs and the best that the massed superheroes can do is somewhat limit the damage.
In "Crisis On Infinite Earths", for example, creators Marv Wolfman and George Perez were faced with the necessity of making the destruction of endless alternative Earths, including many familiar and well-loved by the DC Comics fanbase, palatable to their audience. Putting such a reader-pleasing spin on the failure of the DCU super-heroes to maintain the previous status quo of the multiverse might be thought an incredibly difficult thing to achieve. It is, after all, the opposite of just about every commonplace narrative that the superhero is usually pushed through. The "Crisis On Infinite Earths: The Compendium", for example, lists 113 alternative Earths wiped out by the series main dominant antagonist, the Anti-Monitor, and the superhero deaths he causes in "Crisis" included front-line characters, if no longer marketplace successes, such as the second Flash and Supergirl. And yet, for all the endless deaths and defeats,"Crisis" ends optimistically, and I've yet to find a reader who didn't share that sense of the book closing on a very high note indeed. As the super-heroine Harbringer declares on the penultimate page - 363! - of the epic yarn;
"We should never look to the past, but we should always look to the future, because that's where we're going to spend the rest of our lives. I don't know about you guys, but I can't wait to see what tomorrow might bring."
Yet it strikes me now as it didn't back in 1987 that Harbringer's homily could apply equally to an condemned prisoner living in a cell on death row the hour before their execution or, indeed, a superhero who failed to save their world and ended up back on an Earth where even their family weren't exactly the same folks anymore. It's a meaningless statement, thrown in to make the very worst seem like a grand adventure that led to a happy if weary conclusion. "World's will live. World's will die." ran DC's pre-publication tagline for "Crisis On Infinite Earths", and in fact every single Earth in the DCU's Multiverse was destroyed, and all of the infinite inhabitants of those infinite Earths too, with just a handful of escapees, before a single new world was created again from scratch.
And even that single surviving world was only rescued through the accident of the Spectre's desperate attempt to halt the Anti-Monitors nefarious plan to destroy the possibility of even a single Earth surviving.
This wasn't a superhero narrative that we were in any way familiar with, though its closing made it feel as if it were. This was a massacre, or rather one massacre after another until the death of yet another universe past virtually unnoticed before the reader's eyes like another variation of cream wallpaper in a DIY store. In fact, by the stories end, everybody, everybody, in all the DCU's infinite universes had been slaughtered or erased from existence except a few dozen superheroes, who then themselves quite forgot they'd ever lived their old lives in a Multiverse at all.
How, the reader might well ask, can that be a victory? How can loosing your universe and all those in it, and then every other universe, and then even your own memories of the life you lived before, be considered anything other than the most terrible and meaningless experience ever? Imagine, where was the sense of victory positioned in the text when Superman and his be-costumed colleagues returned from the end of the world at the beginning of time and discovered that their wives and lovers, family and friends have been supplanted by what as well might have been pod-people from "Invasion Of The Body Snatchers". That Ms Lane created by the final re-jigging of reality wasn't, for example, the Lois Lane that Superman had left behind when he went off to fight the Anti-Monitor.
He was the same person, but she wasn't.
The reward for the brave and sacrificing superheroes who emerge at the end of "Crisis" is to be dropped back into a reality which is but a shadow of that they once lived in. And I always found it unconvincing that those of them who found a set of relationships apparently indistinguishable from those they'd left a few hours before seemed so happy to accept a copy of the life they'd once owned for themselves.
Of course, Wolfman and Perez did succeed in making this business acceptable to their audience. Indeed, they managed to make what was close to the very worst possible outcome - everything lost, everyone dead, everything changed - seem like an exceptionally fine and satisfying business indeed. (This is no mean trick at all, and deserves to be recognised as a narrative option which might be re-used in similiar circumstances in future.) Some of that involved specific tricks which could only work for the tale being told in "Crisis". There's a fair amount of pseudo-scientific comic-book nonsense, for instance, about how there was only ever intended to be one Earth and one universe, and so the ending is supposed to feel as if a more natural status quo has been introduced if not restored. It's the most ridiculous argument, of course. There are lots of things that the universe wasn't designed to create directly. Glasses, vaccines and TV, to name just three. And if a comic book super-person decided to wipe out all those folks in history whose lives has been extended by vaccines of one sort or another because they're "unnatural", I think that character would be defined as a super-villain. And yet all those Earths and their inhabitants were swept under the continuity and defined as unnatural and old and better off gone. It's actually rather ugly thinking, in its own little innocent comic-book way. Certainly, if I'd have been born on a world in the Multiverse and lived my life out there, I'd have considered my existence a valid one, and not seen the loss of my world or the partial replacement of its inhabitants by pod people as a good idea.
But then "Crisis" also carried with it the promise of a new start for DC Comics, a company felt to be so confusing in its many separate Earths and time-lines that new readers were supposedly intimidated from engaging with it. Crisis was going to create, as Harbringer is again used to declare;
" the New Earth (and) ... one consistent past."
Part of the success of the series, therefore, and of the general acceptance that the miserable ending was in fact a happy one, might be down to that promise of better things to come after drastic housecleaning. Yet 23 years later, "Ultimatum", another of the books which falls into the "line-wide-crossover-that-destroys-the-status-quo" category, similarly changed a great deal for a company's books which were again thought to be in need of a radical restructuring, though this time by the predictability of an over-familiar continuity. And yet "Ultimatum", despite never selling less than 70 000 copies, was the most critically derided book that I've ever come across. It certainly didn't heighten a sense of anticipation for the comics set in the Ultimate Universe which would be issued after it, as "Crisis" did for DC, which would seem to tell us that the simple act of promising a new start for a superhero universe and justifying it in terms of necessary change doesn't in itself mean that such radical surgery will be welcomed and accepted by the audience.
What else, therefore, was going on with "Crisis" that meant that such a depressing end and such a meaningless spirit was accepted as a victory for the superheroes and a new day for the DCU?
What was "going on" with "Crisis On Infinite Earths" was of course so simple and so effective that it's remarkable that "Ultimatum", and to a degree its kin-book in continuity-destruction "Onslaught" from 1996, didn't learn from the lessons of Wolfman and Perez's work. For "Crisis" stands and falls on the strength of its villain and the degree of power and threat that he manifests in the narrative. In essence, so fearsome is the series major opponent that anything rescued from the fearsome and apparently unwinnable battle with him is seen as a major and blessed victory.
"Crisis" seems to end on a high note because the logic of its narrative and the power of its chief villain promised that nothing might survive the tale at all. In the face of that, even the new world of the DC pod-people served as a sanctuary as precious as that blue globe of an Earth shown hanging in the photos of our world from the Moon back in 1969; in both cases, the huge expanse of obvious and inhospitable nothingness made whatever else that could support life, fictional or otherwise, seem all the more to be cherished.
Now, this doesn't mean that the Anti-Monitor was in himself an interesting antagonist. In fact, I'm going to argue that his blank character and unimpressive power set was a key aspect of his success as a plot device. (In fact the very name "The Anti-Monitor" is laughably unthreatening and unwieldy, summoning up the spirit of a school-child who insists on ringing the break-bell early and bringing the teacher lukewarm tea.) The Anti-Monitor exists solely in "Crisis" to function as what that great fibber Freud described as the death-drive, or "Todestrieb", and which was later discussed as "Thanatos" by post-Freudian fibbers after his passing. It's the very strength of the non-character of the Anti-Monitor that he exists not as an individual but rather as a force existing merely to destroy the DCU. Implacable, merciless, without depth and therefore without reasoning with, the Anti-Monitor is the Multiverse's own death-drive, acting solely to bring the whole of human-friendly existence to a definitive and vile end for no other good reason than that's what he wants to do.
Comic books are of course saturated with creatures, human or otherwise, which seek to end all life. But the Anti-Monitor was placed within a setting and a story where exactly what was needed was indeed such a one-dimensional destroyer. His lack of depth isn't an impediment but the secret of his success in "Crisis". In truth, the Anti-Monitor is at his least effective in "Crisis" when he starts to behave as a common-or-garden super-villain might, for the slightest hint of familiarity with his personality undermines his function, which is to simply scare us and to refuse to back off when we hope that he's finally been done away with.
But when he's grumbling and shouting and slapping the face of the Psycho-Pirate for not being powerful enough to help him, the Anti-Monitor is as unimpressive as any fifth-string psychopath designated "expendable cannon-fodder" for the Suicide Squad. Yet when his disembodied head, for example, reappears at the stories' end superimposed over the spectacle of an alien universe, and after his apparent death too, the character fulfils the role he was created to; he's not a protagonist in a superhero universe out to kill heroes so much as the universe itself that's hunting them down. He's more powerful than every other individual superhero, he's more powerful than all of the superheroes combined, and he won't stop coming until he's killed them all, and everyone else too;
"Superman ... I .. will .. not .. die .. until .. you .. die .. with .. me .. "
Which, in combination with the fact that, even in those pre-net days, the audience knew that alternative Earths were going to be destroyed in "Crisis", grants the Anti-Monitor considerable status as the baddest "mother...". (*4) And by the end of the story, he's not just the monster who destroyed all the other Earths, for now he's the definitive monster who's going to destroy the single Earth that's left.
And though it may be a new Earth that he's threatening, a re-constituted Earth, an Earth which isn't truly the home to any of the surviving superheroes, it's the only Earth that's left.
It's a blue jewel of an Earth alone in a universe where there's nowhere else to go, and so we care.
*4:- SHUT YOUR MOUTH!
The Anti-Monitor is a trick that only works once. His appeal relies upon the reader seeing a gathering of costumes from a wide variety of previously quite separate superhero universes and realising that even this often-dreamt of and fanboy-pleasing population of Supermen and Captain Marvels can't defeat him. From this point onwards in time, with DC as with Marvel, no collection of superheroes can ever seem so impressive as those gathered in "Crisis", because familiarity is from this point onwards the nature of comicbook universes everywhere. Everybody will pretty much know everybody else, and if they don't, they'll have a friend who will. And it's therefore something of a shock to realise that so much of the pleasure of "Crisis", despite its homogenising mission, lies in the endless meetings between characters which
had rarely if ever met before. Placed into unfamiliar and incompatible environments for one last time before every different hero was reduced to one more costume on one single over-crowded Earth, "Crisis" is a catalogue of events marking how thrilling it is to see super-folks where they clearly don't belong and where they can't quite function as normally expected. Kamandi and the Earth-2 Superman! Geo-Force and Sgt Rock! Firestorm and Arion! It's the previously unseen and rarely imagined collisions between different storytelling traditions that produce much of the reader's amazement and excitement, and yet the very function of "Crisis" was to destroy this precious separateness, this distinctive incompatibility that protected every corner of the DCU from ending up as exactly the same corner no matter where it was or who lived there.
And so, when these disparate elements combine together and still can't do anything but slow the Anti-Monitor, and then at the cost of the lives of iconic characters such as the second Flash and Supergirl, then the antagonist becomes more than just a very big bad guy. He becomes the very thing that defines their limitations, and so we readers, in our comic book ways, fear him.
It's as if he were destroying all the remaining and so-precious diversity left in a fictional eco-sphere, and the reader left aware that there was barely enough of difference surviving to produce a comic book with tomorrow. As if Wolfman and Perez were slash'n'burning their way across infinite Earths and yet gathering up our thanks for not destroying a single remaining Earth of DC's choosing. (*5)
*5 - I loved "Crisis On Infinite Earths" when it was released, and I'm still fond of it. I respect the motives behind the housecleaning it contained. I just regret that it was done.
We all know that the most destructive thing that comic book creators can do with characters which are closer to forces of nature than individuals is to attempt to humanise them. Galactus, for example, was quite comic-booky terrifying despite a purple skirt and an inexplicable big "G" as a belt buckle in his first appearance in the Fantastic Four, but start having him fall in love with Johnny Storms' girlfriend - no, really - or engaging in pseudo-philosophical debate with the least impressive of Marvel's no-hoper superheroes and the bloom is forever off the rose.
But the Anti-Monitor wears a helmet too, from under which nothing of emotional warmth is ever seen, and he speaks of nothing but how he's going to get us all. "You will die!" he declares, "I will tolerate no further defeats.", and that tells us all we need to know.
He won't take no prisoners, don't spare no lives, nobodies putting up a fight, as my single teenage digression into heavy metal would have it.
So, as we all of course knew, the Anti-Monitor is not a person, he's a manifestation of the death-wish. He's has no character, no interesting quirks, and that's all a good thing, if he did, he'd wouldn't function as force of nature at all. He's effective only in a specific context of a free-for-all where all the great superheroes who've previously rarely-if-ever met need a protagonist to outpower them all. His appeal is founded in that fact that he will not be defeated and that he returns more powerful than ever after every defeat, and just slowing him costs the lives of well-established and indeed beloved characters.
And most importantly, for all of the above to take with the reader in a tale such as "Crisis", this incredibly effective protagonist must also be utterly expendable as a character. If the Anti-Monitor is going to be used to destroy so much of the DCU, from endless universes to much-loved heroes, then there has to be a reckoning. His sins are far too great to allow him to disappear for a while to regroup and develop a formibadle new moustache to twiddle while destroying everything again. If this story is going to close well, after all has indeed been lost, and close with a sense of victory, then the thing that's responsible for all this destruction has to go, and go forever. The victory in "Crisis On Infinite Earths", therefore,
isn't won by saving the worlds, as is normally the case with superheroes, but by finally doing away with the Anti-Monitor before he can destroy the last slither of "positive-matter" reality remaining. Once again, the slightest touching human trait, the least interesting component of personality, might mean that the audience want him to survive, to eventually return as a person rather than force, which would leave his defeat tinged with the reader's regret at his passing. And so the last thing any reader must be able to do is empathise in any fashion with the Anti-Monitor. His extinction must be an utter relief, his very absence a pleasure, and the world after him a glorious place simply because he's not there, like a miserable wet and freezing cold winter's Wednesday on the morning that an incredibly serious illness begins to pass.
Which all in combination meant that the slightest victory over the Anti-Monitor stood as an unimaginable achievement, and his final defeat in the narrative counted as such a desperate and necessary end that everything which went before could be viewed in the light of the achievement of the Earth-II Superman's killing of him. And so, just saving a single simulacrum of an Earth from him becomes the biggest big deal ever, a Dunkirk of superheroic proportions.
At the very worst moment, when everything seemed lost, some island of blue and green was saved, and salvation arrived precisely at the moment when the Anti-Monitor was, shall we say, done away with.
And that's some of how Crisis ended up with the superheroes losing everything but their own minds, which would soon follow, and yet closed with what felt strangely like a happy ending. For "Crisis On Infinite Earths" is a textbook on how to destroy most of everything and make that terrible loss feel like a good thing, because everything could have been so much worse.
To be continued, and soon as always, with a look at those other continuity-changing, status-quo changing, not-happy-go-lucky-ever-after epics "Onslaught" and "Ultimatum", where we'll be asking whether the lessons of "Crisis" were learned, and what happens if they're not. I hope this digression has been worth something of your while, and as always, I positively welcome your friendly comments, whether in agreement or not with the above. And, yes, of course, it's AC/DC's "Hell Bells". Why that caught my imagination when the rest of their work and their kin passed me by I don't know. Oh, and "Shaft" too. Huh!
I'm grateful to the Grand Comics Database for the Crisis covers.