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The History and Legacy of DC’s CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS
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“Worlds will live. Worlds will die. And the DC Universe will never be the same.”

This was the tagline for DC Comics’ most important crossover event series of all time, Crisis on Infinite Earths. And while most of the time these tag lines are hyperbole just meant to sell product, in the case of Crisis, it really was true. Written by Marv Wolfman and illustrated by George Perez and Jerry Ordway, the 12 issue series was published in 1985, DC’s 50th Anniversary year. And it was a true game-changer in the medium of superhero comics.

It told the story of two beings born at the dawn of time: the Monitor and the Anti-Monitor. One sought to protect the Multiverse from the ravages of his evil brother, who sought to consume every world in his way with a wave of anti-matter destruction. Major heroes like the Flash and Supergirl died heroic deaths that shocked longtime comics fans, and other characters were radically reinvented.

But Crisis on Infinite Earths changed not only the fictional landscape of DC forever, but also changed DC Comics as a brand. This fall, the CW will do their own version of the legendary crossover for their DC Arrowverse shows. But before Crisis gets the live-action treatment, let’s explore why this series is one of the most important events in DC Comics’ 80-year history, and explain how DC even got to the point of needing a cosmic upheaval of this magnitude in the first place.

The History of the DC Multiverse (and How It Became a Problem)

At first, The Multiverse was a welcome gimmick in the pages of DC Comics. In the Golden Age of the 1940s, a metric ton of superheroes were introduced in the wake of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman’s success. Green Lantern, Flash, and Hawkman were all created around this time, and formed the backbone of the World War II-era Justice Society of America. But as the war ended, superheroes became less popular, and most of them went away (except for “The Big Three”).

Fast forward a decade. In 1956, DC began reintroducing some of those old heroes to a new generation of kids; the first out of the gate was the Flash. But this time, the Flash was given a new costume, a new origin, and a new secret identity as CSI Barry Allen. An identical tactic was used for Green Lantern, Hawkman, and the Atom. Just as their Golden Age counterparts had formed the Justice Society, these heroes formed the Justice League. But if these new heroes were Justice Leaguers along with Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, then how was it that a decade earlier the previous incarnations of these heroes were partnered up with them in the Justice Society?

The first explanation for this came in 1960, in the story “Flash of Two Worlds.” Therein, the Flash (Barry Allen) discovered that there was a Multiverse, and that he and the modern JLA heroes resided on Earth-One, while the Golden Age Flash (Jay Garrick) and the other JSA heroes all lived on Earth-Two. This led to the JLA and the JSA crossing dimensions each year for an annual JLA/JSA team-up. From there, the Multiverse grew. Earth-Three was the home of the evil JLA, the Crime Syndicate. Earth-S was home to the acquired Shazam family of characters, while Earth-X was a world where World War II never ended. And so on and so on—there truly were infinite Earths.

While this all provided for many fun stories, things started to get confusing by the ’70s. The Earth-Two stories had introduced us to characters who became quite popular. For instance, the Huntress, who was the daughter of the Golden Age Batman, and Power Girl: an alternate version of Supergirl, though both were still Superman’s cousin Kara. For the average kid buying comics at the local drug store, the DC Universe had become way more confusing than Marvel’s universe, and the Multiverse had gone from one of DC’s coolest concepts into something that was now a hindrance. Streamlining everything into one universe seemed to be the smartest method by which to give DC a new beginning, and to get a new generation of fans invested. But there was another important reason to do all this, and it had to do with keeping up with their Marvel-ous competitor.

Keeping Up with Marvel

For decades, DC Comics was the premiere publisher in the comic book business. They had comics’ three biggest icons in Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. And at least when it came to superhero comics, they ruled the roost. But by the early ’80s, the once-upstart publisher Marvel Comics had overtaken them as the most popular comic book brand on the spinner racks. Especially in the burgeoning direct comic book market.

DC still made a ton of money of licensing their iconic heroes to toys and cartoon shows like Super Friends, but to the average comic buyer they came across as “your dad’s superheroes.” Clearly, something had to be done, lest DC risk losing their characters to reader indifference. Thus, the initial idea for Crisis was born. Although Marvel’s own event series Secret Wars beat DC Comics’ Crisis by a year, Crisis had a far, far greater impact overall to its respective publisher. In fact, it’s possible DC wouldn’t exist as we know it today without Crisis on Infinite Earths. And the changes wrought by that series continue to ripple out into the DC Universe decades later.

The first step towards what would become Crisis happened when DC hired longtime Marvel creators Marv Wolfman and George Perez to revitalize the Teen Titans. Their Marvel style of storytelling made The New Teen Titans a runaway hit, outselling almost all other DC books six to one. Legion of Super-Heroes also was very successful at this time, by focusing on the interpersonal relationships of the characters, which one can argue was far more the Marvel style. But almost all other DC books sold poorly in this era—yes, even Batman.

As DC’s 50th anniversary approached, the publisher knew that something had to be done. They hired Titans’ Marv Wolfman and George Perez to tell an epic year-long story that would cover the entire 1985 calendar year. Every major and minor DC character played a part in Crisis, although some roles were bigger than others. And that by the end of this saga, the DC Universe would be reshaped into something fresh and modern. The series sold like gangbusters, and the bold move to make this decades old universe seem fresh payed off.

The Aftermath

The immediate fallout of Crisis was both wonderful and sloppy. The wonderful part was the revitalization of their most iconic heroes. Popular creators like John Byrne and Frank Miller were lured away from Marvel, and given free reign to reinvent Superman and Batman for the modern era. George Perez did the same for Wonder Woman, providing the template for all modern incarnations of the Amazing Amazon. Justice League got an unexpected comedic revival that garnered widespread critical acclaim, and Wally West became the first kid sidekick to take on the mantle of their mentor when he came the Flash.

The sloppy part was how poorly the new DC Universe’s timeline was constructed. For fans who cared about continuity, the immediate years after Crisis were filled with stories retconning a variety of blunders DC editorial never thought to address. How could the Teen Titans’ Wonder Girl have been around for years if her sister Wonder Woman was a brand new hero? If Superman was never Superboy in this new continuity, did that mean half of all Legion of Super-Heroes stories were now invalid? If Superman is now the sole survivor of Krypton, how does Power Girl exist? And there were about a dozen more goofs like this that required hastily made retcons to explain all that away.

Why Crisis Still Matters

In hindsight, none of those post-Crisis continuity mistakes really matter. What matters is the stories themselves, and Crisis paved the way for a better, bolder DC Comics. The 12-issue series also showed how to tell an epic story involving your entire pantheon of characters, and have the outcome actually matter. Sure, the deaths of Supergirl and the Flash were undone decades later, but those deaths were still incredibly well written and moving. Both characters marked the beginning of the Silver Age of comics, and their deaths can be viewed as the start of what we call now the Modern Age.

To say Crisis was ambitious is an understatement. Wolfman and Perez brought their A-game to this series, and no DC cow was sacred. Hero and villains alike fell as the Anti-Monitor wiped out universe after universe. Crisis not only told the story of how the Multiverse ended, but also how it began. Essentially, it was the origin story of the DC Universe told in grand fashion.The radical reinventions that DC did with their mainstream heroes eventually allowed for Vertigo to flourish, with books like Sandman, Animal Man and Doom Patrol.

In the years since Crisis, the Multiverse has of course come back into play again. DC made a point to make it all less confusing this time, mainly by simply not having multiple ongoing books taking place in different universes as they did before. And there have been other attempts at rebooting the DC Universe since then, most recently with Flashpoint resulting in the New 52 universe. But Crisis is the granddaddy of them all, and none have had as lasting an effect. How the producers tell this epic story on the small screen remains to be seen, but they certainly have big boots to fill.

Images: DC Comics