Let’s get this one on the record.
With Andrew wading into his massive Hyperpost Canon Cycle (hooray, Andrew!), the idea was bound to come up eventually: that Marv Wolfman’s 1986 extravaganza Crisis On Infinite Earths pointlessly got rid of something charming that people liked and found attractive, and replaced it with something off-puttingly chaotic that nobody wanted to see…because of the compulsivity of a few continuity nerds.
Apparently this is now the Official Story, as far as this here blogoverse goes. And that’s fair enough; there’s always an Official Story.
But here’s my story.
In 1986 I was nineteen and twenty years old, and I guess you’d have to say I’d been a moderate sort of Marvel zombie for most of my life — I bought and liked DC comics, and was conversant with most of the ins-and-outs of DC’s universe, but I preferred Marvel for all kinds of familiar and unsurprising reasons, none of which (I trust) will be found too mystifying by comics fans reading along with this post…Marvel just had its culture, and DC had a different one, and I think that’s legible enough for shorthand, don’t you? But by 1986 I was getting a bit tired of a whole lot of Marvel books, and I was getting unimaginably tired of all but a couple of DC books…heck, I barely recognized the DC books as “DC-ish” anymore, and yet it wasn’t as though they were very “Marvelish” either…the sense of innocently wish-fulfilling whimsy seemed hard to find in them, while at the same time the turgid melodrama seemed washed-out, warmed-over…well, a bit fake, really, to this comics reader. Somehow. And at the same time there was a whole lot of much more energetic stuff coming out of the “alternatives”, so…you know, who would look back to Dick Grayson, once they’d found Lloyd Llewellyn? Who wouldn’t find Peter Parker lacking, when compared with Buddy Bradley? Ed would be able to put this all in a proper chronological order — I know I’m not really doing so, here — but he had to twist my arm to get me to read Watchmen, that I recall very clearly even if all the rest of the order of events is messed-up…but before there was Watchmen there was Crisis, and Crisis changed a whole lot of stuff, and I sure as hell DID read IT. Don’t kid yourself that the early Eighties DC comics embraced all the stuff you (or perhaps just I) fell in love with from issues of Superman Family, hard-nosed dream-girl Lois in an orange pantsuit with an open collar, ridiculous Mr. Action larks, reprints of fanciful Superbaby stories and the simmering fantasy-gone-wrong of the Composite Superman…don’t kid yourself that DC Comics circa 1984 played around with such unserious amusements as Comet the Super-Horse, or anything like that. I may not remember it all just right, but I don’t remember it that wrong! The big Reconstructionist talents were still in art school at this point, I think: and the old Young Turks weren’t feeling the zizz and the zazz anymore, at least not on World’s Finest or Green Lantern.
[EDIT: Tom Bondurant reminds me that I actually liked the Green Lantern comic quite a bit at this time.]
[FURTHER EDIT: And before we get too caught up in the whimsical awesomeness of the dearly-departed Silver Age, let’s just remember that Comet the Super-Horse was dating Supergirl for a time there…yes, he had the magical power to turn himself into her boyfriend…so some of it was cynicism instead of whimsy, and as wonderful as it all may’ve been anyway, still to say Comet the Super-Horse opened doors for “good stories” that today are shut, rather fills me with horror. Also good luck telling that hard-hitting story about bulimia when Supergirl is right around the corner brushing out Comet’s mane and wishing they could be together, you know. Just saying.]
So although there had been a thrilling revivification of DC not long before, comic-book time then was like what Internet Time is now…and in the early-mid Eighties DC’s universe of titles was Balkanizing in spite of itself. Too serious; and too dumb to be taken seriously; and where it was smart, the smartness didn’t really fit. All the “vulgar” ornamentation was being taken out, but since it wasn’t being replaced with much, the whole thing seemed on the verge of digesting its own heart. It wasn’t like today, not even like our view of it as seen from today. Honestly it was all getting a bit fucking boring and off-putting, and you dreaded the day somebody might bring up the Super-Cigars of Perry White, and make them awful too. You want to know what a shared-universe concept looks like when it’s been gutted by continuity…! Marvel is just getting there now. DC’s already been there twice.
But we’re just talking about the first time, right at the moment. And not that there weren’t good books, not that there weren’t good stories…heck, I didn’t even see all of them. Never even thought of reading Swamp Thing ’til a friend showed me his Veitch run. Didn’t read “The Great Darkness” ’til sometime in 1994, I think. I’m not saying I didn’t miss a lot. But I also saw a lot, and what I saw was pretty moribund, compared to what I’d seen just a few years earlier in the same places. There was a whole lot of love, that was missing…or, not missing, but it had sunk down below the water table: you had to dig hard to get to it…
And maybe it would’ve been reached anyway, in the end, by some less extreme and more selective kind of digging…but in 1986 Crisis reached it with a steam shovel, and if you were a fan of superhero comics you HAD to read THAT!
And you wanted to read it: because for the old DCU to be tossed away, all its more attractively silly bits had to be dug up first, and (impossibly!) shown some respect. If DC was going to die, then you wanted to be at the funeral, and see all the old faces one last time. And you really did, and in glorious crowd-scene Perez-O-Vision too! So it was, you know…
…Really, really worth it. I only found out later that the Flash that had so enthralled me as a youngster had gotten deep and dark and nasty and “serious”…and the reason I didn’t know this ’til later was that Crisis repaired the fault, and sent him out properly. Well, he’d already been ruined!
I didn’t know!
But maybe it really is better to burn out than to fade away, Flash. Jesus, they screwed that character, I found out later on: and it was a goddamn important character. Damn it, they were out of ideas. And I sure as hell wasn’t reading anymore, you know? And it’s different for a big company with a lot to lose, than it is for a small one with everything to gain…because what do you really do, when you start hemorrhaging readers? What do you do, when no one wants your universe anymore anyway?
People read Crisis today, and find it not so good as its reputation. Well, I can’t argue with them. But when people say Crisis was motivated by a nerdish need to enforce continuity…no, no, Crisis destroyed continuity. It got rid of it completely. For heaven’s sake, there was too much continuity in the DCU at that point, too many stories that couldn’t be escaped, too much crap…! Too much joyless crap, and no room to move; no room for the characters to be what they were supposed to be, that made people think fondly of them in the first place. From our lofty latter-day perspective, we only see Crisis as enabling the advent of stupid obsessions with “Conner Kent” or the “Ages Of Magic”…and they are stupid, but they weren’t even a twinkle in Zero Hour’s eye back then you know! The Multiverse is a great idea, but Crisis didn’t get rid of the Multiverse, first and foremost it got rid of what encumbered the Multiverse…!
And the upshot of it all was: I started reading a lot more DC comics then, because I wanted to know what happened next. Marvel soon twisted itself down the funnel of the Nineties, but DC got life from having done Crisis…! And it wasn’t the continuity that made me more interested in them, it was the freedom from continuity that excited me as a reader…and then, most amazing excitement of all, when Grant Morrison’s “Yellow Aliens” brought continuity back in the pages of Animal Man, I got to see it once again as what it always was, under the layers of guck: a wonderful storytelling tool, that the serial-storytelling addict in me could jump onto to get a brand-new kind of ride…a brand-new kind of high, though it was as familiar as the pictures you see of yourself when you were a child. Not nostalgia — but the splitting from nostalgia, the rejuvenation of old feelings you thought lost in the swamp of memory long years before, never to be regained. Yet, here they are all over again, fresh and clean.
Freedom from; well you just can’t have freedom to, without it.
So please, Official Story: let me register my protest. You can’t lay Geoff Johns at the feet of Marv Wolfman. Those were different times; different exigencies. Continuity-hounds always want the story of history to make sense, to be dramatic, for the gun on the wall to be fired…for all the loose ends to be tied up nice and neat and for all the implications to be pointing the same way, like iron filings. We’re genre-geeks, and so that’s natural to us, and it isn’t a degraded impulse: we make narratives. We like order, and pattern, and stories as all-encompassing as we can get them.
All I’m saying is: there are always alternative narratives, and although weighing and judging them to see which ones have the better possibilities in them isn’t doing history either — is no closer to truth! — still as long as “history” isn’t what we’re doing, we might as well feel free to consider our different options. My story of the history of Crisis and continuity here, for all its inevitable lapses and inaccuracies, is at least as true to fact as is the Official Story…and maybe it even has a slight edge over it?
Hey, what’s the knock on Crisis as “the work of the continuity devils” but a version of the story that’s an artifact of the early 2000s, eh?
So maybe we should change the sheets on that one ’round about now. I changed my sheets, you know. I started out complaining about Crisis, even as I read it voraciously. But then I learned to love it: and I must confess that I still do. Maybe, I even love it more still. Especially with everything that’s happened lately.
And oh, now don’t say it: I already know…
This love is going to make me a pariah, isn’t it?
So maybe this record was a bit broken; but hey, at least it was shorter because of that, than it would’ve been otherwise.
No, no need to thank me. Your rotten tomatoes will suffice.