You And Me And CoIE

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.

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20 responses to “You And Me And CoIE

  1. Well, you’ve got a point. But to me the thing is, if you want to free yourself from all that continuity so you can do stuff differently, why don’t you just do stuff differently? What’s stopping you? But oh no. For some reason they feel like they have to break it before they can change it. Like, they’re committed to the idea that they’re constrained by past stories, so they have to provide themselves with a story that makes them change it before they can change it.

    Which a) is often unpleasant, and b) wastes time. I’m sure it’s part of the reason why the Legion doesn’t have their own comic right now!

    I have to admit I was hoping for some thoughts from you on the Marvel/Disney thing. Well, wait, that’s not quite accurate. I was hoping that you would have some thoughts on the Marvel/Disney thing that would be measured better by the paragraph than by the sentence. It’s okay if you don’t! But if you did I’d like to read ’em.

  2. Well, naturally I agree…it’s my complaint about people saying Hypertime “would make things better” by freeing creators from continuity-constraints etc. Not that there are many creators who seem constrained in this way, and not that upset fans get a whole lot of response from people like Quesada and Didio…

    But that’s a whole other kettle of fish. Anyway my response to that idea, that Hypertime would somehow fix things in terms of good stories rather than in terms of putting one over on other geeks, is “what, you can’t think of a story to tell that doesn’t both hinge on continuity and outrage it? And this means your editor told you no? I’m not sure I have any sympathy for that.” Honestly how hard is it to just tell some Hulk or Batman story or whatever. It can’t be so hard.

    Somewhat the same, I take it, as your “why you gotta break it to fix it” line…and it would’ve been interesting to see how the fix would’ve gone down without Crisis, which when all was said and done was just a very effective marketing gimmick with a lot of heart put into it by the creators. Well, and I saw other things in it too, but those things are all but unrevisitable now…

    Regardless, you’ve got to think James Robinson would still have written Starman, Giffen could’ve written Invasion! and L.E.G.I.O.N., Justice League would’ve looked the same, Green Lantern too, Wally could’ve become the Flash without Crisis (and, in the in-story explanation of the DCU, he actually did, eh?), heck even Hawkworld could’ve been written. Mind you, by and large I’m quite happy with Crisis‘ defamiliarizing effect: as I was saying on Andrew’s blog, oh my God to see a Mr. Mxyxptlk story (I know I must be spelling that wrong, I always do) in 1987 and be the least bit interested in it, WOW…

    But, things would’ve turned around anyway, I’m sure, just generationally. Crisis didn’t write any stories, for heaven’s sake!

    Oddly, I don’t know if I have much to say on the Disney thing, at least not anything that hasn’t been said elsewhere. Disney doesn’t really need to do anything to Marvel to make money from Spider-Man, do they? You or I might say “right, I’m gonna clean this house up now”, but surely no one buys a big company just to trash it, in the normal course of events? As I’ve opined many times before, Marvel’s bosses do not seem interested in making the publishing pie bigger, only in taking bigger slices out of it…I don’t know why Disney would see fit to change that.

    But, maybe I’ll think of something else to say about it later.

  3. no doubt about it–Crisis did destroy continuity–but more than anything else, it destroyed Roy Thomas

    I suppose that could be a good thing, depending upon where you sit–but man did I love All-Star Squadron and Infinity Inc

    also–Cary Bates and Carmine Infantino’s “dark” stint on the Flash is an all-time favourite of mine… I understand that I am probably all by myself in that fan club. Someday I’ll have to write about it!

    Dave

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  5. As you say, Crisis’ artistic legacy stands as “an effective marketing gimmick with a lot of heart.” As a mentioned back at Andrew’s blog, DC did have an image problem among fanboys as the “old” universe … remember the company was approaching its 50th birthday at the time while Marvel was a comparatively spry 25 or so.

    For better or worse, the Powers That Be were also over and done with certain characters: Barry Allen and Supergirl – the two most notable – were seen as either boring or superfluous as Mr. Wolfman himself has admitted in interviews.

    (Although he did have a pretty good idea for revamping Barry, one that Geoff Johns seems to be picking up now …)

    What bugged me at the time, and now, was the company’s intent to have its cake and eat it too. After the Byrne and Perez revamps of Superman and Wonder Woman – two characters that definitely needed a shot in the arm, even if I didn’t think much of either approach – DC started seeming started revamping everything willy-nilly without regards to how it affected other books. A good example is Byrne allegedly asking if they really wanted to get rid of Superboy because of the damage that would be done to the Legion. Supposedly, editorial waved off the concern and … well … you know what a mess LSH has been since then.

    My main beef with Post-Crisis DC, apart from Kara Zor-El being wiped from existence, is that DC didn’t go far enough. If you’re gonna reboot, reboot!

    (Interestingly enough, Marv Wolfman wanted to restart everything from Ground Zero and was apparently outvoted. I always wonder how DC would have turned out if that idea had been followed through …

    Oh, and I finally have a new blog! Check it out at http://thetimebullet.blogspot.com

  6. This love is going to make me a pariah, isn’t it?

    It maybe spoils (dreadfully dorky) jokes to highlight them, but oh welLOL. I can’t actually read CoIE – past #3 or #4 – divested of the context which birthed it; God knows I’ve tried, but I can’t manage.

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  8. The now-retired blogger Matt Rossi had a really good take on Crisis, which may still be part of the Howling Curmudgeons archives. He said essentially that Crisis was designed to eat itself; that it was a story which would make its own existence unnecessary. Not that “a” Crisis didn’t take place, in one way or another, because obviously it did, in order to kill Barry Allen et al. — it just didn’t take place as depicted in print. Weird way to look at a story, but kind of elegant nonetheless.

    Obviously, that was before Kal-L, Earth-2 Lois, Superboy-Prime, and Alex Luthor showed up, confirming essentially that Crisis *did* take place as Wolfman and Perez produced it, no retcons necessary. Ironically, I think that confused the issue even more, because it layered the history of yet another Earth — namely, the post-Crisis Earth — on top of the infinite Multiverse which had come before it. So Johns, instead of crafting his own post-Crisis version of “what really happened,” took what he probably thought was a better, more faithful approach, and in so doing actually undid a lot of what Crisis was supposed to accomplish. Now we have Power Girl, last survivor of the original Earth-Two, going to the Nu-Earth-2 and being mistaken for the PG who lives there.

    Still, as you say, Geoff Johns isn’t the fault of Wolfman/Perez. Indeed, Johns has used COIE as a springboard for the Infinite CrisisSinestro CorpsLegion Of 3 WorldsBlackest Night daisy-chained mega-story which, Lord willing, will finally end next March. (Maybe it’ll end five years to the week Ted Kord got shot. That’d be a nice bit of symmetry.) So Johns is not in the habit of making self-consuming stories — instead, he writes epics which could reasonably stand alone, but which feed off each other and off of other Johns-written titles like Action and Green Lantern.

    (And speaking of GL, I was a little surprised to see you give it some grief, considering that Stainless Steve Englehart was doing some darn fine work on the book right around ’85-’86.)

  9. It’s amazing how DC got its act together following Crisis. 1986-90 saw the Giffen/ DeMatteis Justice League, Suicide Squad, L.E.G.I.O.N., Hawkworld, Green Arrow, Hellblazer, Sandman, and the various revamps that were well-received at the time (Byrne Superman, Baron Flash, Perez Wonder Woman). There were some misfires (Aquaman, Spectre, The Atom, Black Canary), and Legion was adrift, but an entire line being reinvented and reintroduced with so few failures seems miraculous. Someone should write a book, or at least an article or two, about what was happening at DC immediately following Crisis.

  10. I had forgotten that bit where Crisis was designed to ret-con itself out of existence after the story concluded. It would have worked particularly well if DC had canceled and restarted its entire line after Crisis # was published.

    (An option that I believe was bandied about by Marv Wolfman himself.)

    As you say … much of the Post-Crisis DC output could have come out at any rate. Legends arguably left a bigger footprint, as it directly led to the launch of the Geffen/DeMatteis/Maguire JLA and the equally lauded Suicide Squad. Wally could still have succeeded the exiled Barry Allen, etc … etc.

    And maybe those objectives would have been launched much more neatly without the countless revisions and re-revisions inspired by Crisis (and editorial ego, see the Hawkworld botch job).

    But, we have to admit, Crisis gave those subsequent stories gravitas that wouldn’t have existed without the mega-series’ push. As I pointed out elsewhere, DC was headed toward its 50th birthday in the Eighties Age while Marvel was still a comparatively spry mid-20s.

  11. So is reading CoIE tied very much to the *experience* in much the same way 52 was? Because, despite trying to sound like a guy who is pretty conversant in comics history, I HAVE NEVER ACTUALLY READ IT. Whenever I go to Barnes and Noble, I see it on the shelf, pick it up, look at it, *almost* buy it, and then put it on the shelf in favor of something that seems more intrinsically worthwhile somehow (as unfair a judgement as that may ultimately be). I guess what I’m asking for is: As a 2009 reader who knows the ins and outs of the book by reputation but hasn’t actually experienced the text, is it worth it? Even as an artifact? Your recommendation (or lack thereof) will decide the fate of $30 American in my checking account next time I am out!

    On another note: I am always hestitant about the “Ground Zero Reboot” solution. Like, remember when they were saying the Ultimate comics were going to “take over” for the regular Marvel line? But the Ultimate titles still weren’t ready to, because you had to introduce all the players. Ultimate Spider-Man couldn’t really be Spider-Man until they brought out Ultimate Green Goblin and Electro and Doctor Octopus. It takes a long time to purposefully build a comics universe.

    And having that big sandbox is part of the fun, isn’t it? If you hired me to write the Ultimate Daredevil ongoing, I’d think, “Okay, Daredevil needs a Kingpin and a Bullseye and all that Elektra stuff.” I’d spend all that time setting stuff up and never getting anywhere. The alternative, of course, would be to take Daredevil in a completely different direction, but at that point it’s like, why are you even bothering? If you aren’t going to have all that Daredevilly stuff in Daredevil, why not just create something entirely new? And yet, if Ultimate Daredevil and Regular Daredevil are exactly the same, you needn’t have bothered in the first place.

    Ultimately (har), I just think that sort of line-wide revamp would just end up in a lot of retreads because the Batman *needs* the Joker, and Spider-Man *needs* all of his touchstones. That’s why, at its worst, the Ultimate Universe was just adaptations of the old Marvel books — Warren Ellis’ Ultimate Galactus stuff was just a grounded, sciency update of Stan Lee’s Galactus stuff, and Brian Michael Bendis wrote a Green Goblin-Spider-Man-Spider-Man’s girlfriend scene on the Brooklyn Bridge (but with Mary Jane, and she survived, so what’s the point of the scene at all, except to fake out old-timey fans?). In the end, it’s just “Well, I guess it’s time to do Ultimate Stryfe, right?”

    Man, comic book continuity. Can’t live with it…

  12. Whew, looks like I got back just in time!

    Justin: thirty bucks is way too much to spend on an artifact. My advice is to check it out of the library. Not that it’s awful, but c’mon, opportunity cost…so much of its appeal was due to “the experience” that I think I could only recommend it as a big corporate crossover much like any other big corporate crossover, with the important proviso that although it’s still better-made than most, its best moments have been so thoroughly recycled over the years that you may not find anything there to value…at least not to the tune of thirty bucks.

    Tom: I remember really enjoying Matt Rossi’s take on Crisis around about the same time I was reading Geoff Klock’s book — made a real interesting combination, as Geoff talks about the Aliens/Wildcats crossover as “unmaking” itself too. There are natural faultlines in Rossi’s interpretation, though, which make it even more interesting to me — places where the logical re-ordering just breaks right down. Real heavy continui-nerd stuff: the post-Crisis universe isn’t consistent.

    Yay!

    And on Englehart, I’m tempted to say it was GLC he was on, not GL…but what the hell, might as well admit it, I just picked GL’s name out of a hat…actually I hated to see Englehart’s run disrupted by Crisis. He would certainly just have gone on and done more stuff

    And Duncan: “dreadfully dorky” is right, eh?

    More later folks — must go eat dinner…

    …And check out Marc’s new blog a bit, too!

  13. Tom – Matt Rossi is no longer retired – he can be found at http://seebelowcomicsblog.blogspot.com/ . He also reworked his Crisis posts at http://thehighhat.com/Marginalia/006/Crisis_Rossi.html

    Justin – download scans of the original comics. A trade doesn’t feel the same as the issues for Crisis – the month-by-month thing. My copies of the original issues were stolen, unfortunately, but scans replicate that better than a trade would. It’s not a particularly *good* comic, but it *is* by far the best mega-crossover not written or co-written by Grant Morrison…

    • Yeah, but they weren’t actually any *good*… especially Millennium, where Engelhart was really below his own standard…

  14. Thanks for the links, Andrew!

    And plok, not to get off topic too far, but Englehart’s GL run actually worked pretty well with COIE. For one thing, it showed where all the Green Lanterns were; and for another, it expanded on the whole “schism within the Guardians” subplot. Not to mention it brought Hal back into the Corps after a year and change away. (The book was then retitled Green Lantern Corps a few months later, with issue #201.)

    Too bad the Englehart/Staton stuff hasn’t been collected, because it makes a nice companion to Crisis.

  15. Pingback: Crisis On Multiple Blogs – A Response To Pillock’s Response To Me (Hyperpost 10) « Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!·

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