You’ve heard the word. You know the story.
The iconic, defining, definitive word of DC stories.
The word Crisis feels inseparable from the fabric of DC. It holds sway over its past, it informs its present, and it will certainly influence the future. You can’t think of DC and not think of Crisis at some point. The very idea of it has been bound to the very idea of DC that tightly.
And the response to the word and its invocation is intense as well. It comes with a lot of assumptions and baggage. Given that is the case, given it has become ubiquitous, inevitable, and all-pervading with DC itself, it’s worth discussing what has become of it. What has emerged from this focusing and this obsession over Crisis in DC? What has it led to?
The matter of Crisis must be unpacked, and that’s what we’re here to do.
Fan Arguments as Comics
The subject of Fan Writers and Fan Arguments and ‘fixing’ the DC Universe inevitably brings up one particular writer and subject above all others:
Few have held the sway and control over the modern DC Universe the way Johns has over the years in all his time as Writer, DC Architect, CCO, and President, with much of his work even shaping DC Films, TV Shows, and Video Games. And perhaps it is Johns that best embodies the modern DC, having been its face for a good many years. He feels indicative of this modern ‘Crisis Era’ as Dan Didio once described the modern 21st century era full of events upon events, each bigger than the last.
And Johns is, of course, the writer of the first ‘official’ sequel to Crisis On Infinite Earths. He’s the man behind Infinite Crisis
, with gorgeous artwork by George Perez’s greatest apprentice and student Phil Jimenez. And it is Johns and his work, more than anyone else, who firmly cement the very idea of ‘Crisis’ in a modern context beyond a distanced 1980’s context. Johns’ vision of a Crisis sequel and successor, a proper ‘modern’ Crisis would be one that would see the return of the last remaining ‘old’ characters from the ending of the original Crisis On Infinite Earths. And they would return because they were deeply dissatisfied with how the DC Universe had turned out since Crisis.
It was an event wherein the previously innocent and decent Alexander Luthor (the son of the heroic Lex Luthor of Earth-Three) and Superboy Prime (an alternate reality Superboy) from the original Crisis would be revealed as mad monsters standing in for Fan Impulses. Prime was revamped as the prototypical bitter fanboy who hated ‘the new’ and nostalgically held up a rose-tinted idea of the past as a lost beauty. Meanwhile, Luthor would play the mad-god-creator who would keep smashing things together over and over, effectively throwing shit at the wall, until he’d seemingly found The One True Perfect Iteration Of Things as he’d believed things should be in his head.
They were The Disillusioned Monstrous Creator and The Disillusioned Broken Fanboy, while the Old Classic Superman was slotted into a different role. The Classic Old Man Superman would be the figure representative of The Old Guard who looked at and judged the current DC Comics landscape harshly, seeing it as lesser, as worse, darker, and broken, but would if given time come to care for it, embrace it and love it. Old Man Superman would be the counterpoint and positive example in contrast to Prime and Luthor.
And the grounds of this whole debate would, of course, involve The Multiverse, Positivity vs Negativity, Hope and Optimism vs Lack Of Hope and Cynicism, ending with a classic Johnsian affirmation of absolute nigh-religious faith expressed in the DC superhero enterprise. But that’s effectively what the whole ordeal was – a long, drawn out, elaborate Comics Fan Argument and DC Debate turned into a big, giant event comic. A comic about what DC is and should be and what DC isn’t and shouldn’t be, with one side being proven wrong and being convinced of the other side’s point by the end, because they finally understood The Correct Perspective.
But the problem with such an approach should be evident here. And it’s a problem that perhaps is best summed up when Johns rehashes this same mindset and approach of comics-making towards Watchmen a decade later in his Watchmen-sequel Doomsday Clock. Watchmen worked because it used superheroes to be about things beyond superhero comics and their insularities. Doomsday Clock on the other hand is entirely steeped in mindless superhero comics insularities, as even Doctor Manhattan gets turned into an Alexander Luthor-esque Disillusioned Monstrous Creator toying with the DC Universe, allowing Johns to turn Watchmen into a document by which to stage out Superhero Fan Arguments in the actual comics. Even its pretense of Cold War themes or geopolitical conflicts are aesthetic gestures in an attempt to evoke Watchmen, while using it squarely to do Comics About DC Comics. And so once again you get The Multiverse, Positivity vs Negativity, Hope and Optimism vs Despair and Cynicism, and the ending with the Johnsian affirmation.
In the end, in its own way, perhaps it is fitting that Infinite Crisis is very much representative of this approach, because like the first Crisis, Infinite Crisis too was designed to ‘address’ the mess and madness of the DC Universe at the time. It would help the ‘house-cleaning’ of things, with Superboy Prime literally shattering reality to make way for whatever madness was required.
But perhaps it’s fitting in another way, too. It’s just another generation of Fan Writer coming to Wolfman’s own fan ideas on DC comics and then continuing the argument, because Johns is the opposite of Wolfman: he is obsessed with Continuity. Or at the very least, his own personal idea of DC continuity and the history of the DC Universe.
Following the events of Infinite Crisis, DC would launch the 52 weekly series, with the all-star creative roster of Grant Morrison, Greg Rucka, Mark Waid, Geoff Johns, Keith Giffen, and J.G Jones, with a legion of artists working alongside them. It would be a year long-odyssey of comics, publishing 52 issues by a ‘Creator’s Room’ across 52 weeks. It would explore a year of missing story, as DC books ‘skipped’ a year ahead following Infinite Crisis. And it would be here, finally, that The Multiverse would be back. It would be returned, with just a shiny, sexy number of 52 universes.
What Crisis On Infinite Earths tried to throw out was back on the table again.
And continuity shenanigans, as well as Fan Argument comics, were soon about to run wild.
The Exception(al Crisis) Amidst It all
Perhaps the one striking exception in this framework and design is Final Crisis by Grant Morrison, J.G Jones, Doug Mahnke, and others. It is the one Crisis that is less about serving the editorial demands or mandates like the original Crisis, or the run of the mill Zero Hours, or even Johnsian Company Man comics like Infinite Crisis. If anything, it runs counter to that, as the editorial asks were pursued via two separate projects wholly unbound to the event itself. There was the infamous Countdown to Final Crisis weekly series and the Death Of The New Gods mini-series, both of which ran counter to pretty much all of Morrison’s plans. And thus both were books Morrison would largely ignore, because it was a bunch of editorial nonsense.
Final Crisis was a different beast. It was Grant Morrison cut loose and allowed to run amok with Kirby’s creations and the whole DC sandbox for a few months. And the end result? An attempt by Morrison to craft a ‘mythic’ superhero story that has everything, from opening on Metron, The God Of Knowledge, granting the Promethean spark of inspiration to humankind to the murder mystery of a dead superhero. It was Morrison trying to use the DC Universe and its landscape to do a story evocative of all the great big ‘mythic’ apocalypses. If their JLA run had been all about ‘The DC Heroes as Gods’ and doing classic mythic fables as pop sci-fi superhero comics, then this was about doing the ultimate mythic story- the end of days. The Ragnarok.
It was billed as The Day Evil Won, and the story of what happens next, as we saw all of reality fall to the thrall of Darkseid, and on a higher plane of existence, Mandrakk The Dark Monitor. It was the story of Dark Gods finally getting what they wanted, and of what the heroes did next in the face of that. How would they reckon with the all-pervading power of Anti-Life? How would they stop the cosmic manifestation of absolute nihilism and devouring hunger? That was the book.
And so the end result was drawing on Jack Kirby, yes, but also equally as much from Richard Wagner and his Ring Cycle of Operas. If Wagner created his own version of Ragnarok via Götterdämmerung, then Morrison’s Final Crisis would be very much in dialogue with that. Nix Uotan, the Last Of The Monitors, who is the star of the book as the lone survivor of The Twilight Of The Gods, is aptly named. Because ‘Uotan’ is pronounced ‘Wotan,’ and ‘Wotan’ is Wagner’s Odin in the Ring Cycle. If nothing else, Final Crisis was a big break from the existing mode of Crisis stories and comics. It was a decidedly Grant Morrison joint rooted in a post-9/11 obsession with apocalypse stories. It’s perhaps why any and all attempts to read into it as being about Comics Insularities have proven to be weak interpretations, with Morrison openly calling readings of their antagonist Mandrakk as Alan Moore to be nonsensical.
Rather than Fan Arguments about DC Comics, it is simply a pure Grant Morrison joint, doing what they do. Whether it works for one or not, that was the essential nature of it. It was to do Crisis in a way it had never been done before, and it likely never would be done after, the only way a singular voice and creator could do it. It was a Crisis event comic wherein a creator actually got to tell a story that meant something to them rather than being wrapped up in editorial edict-serving or insular fan arguments.
Morrison discusses it here:
Morrison: I took it as an opportunity to tell a modern story of Gods interacting with superhumans in the contemporary setting of the DC Universe. What would an evil God look like? How would it operate? What exactly is a God? Are there Gods of Suspicion? Or Terror? These were questions that seemed worth answering in the context of a sturm und drang ‘doomsday’ scenario for our heroes.
It’s an operatic story about endings and the apocalypse so I decided it ought to mark the close of a long period of daily work with these characters. It’s a farewell to the DC Universe for me in many ways so I was able to work that elegiac tone into the atmosphere of the series in a way that gave it more emotional texture. Final Crisis draws together a lot of the story threads and themes that have run through my work going all the way back to Animal Man, JLA [Justice League of America] in the 90s, and more recently Seven Soldiers and 52 so yes, it’s very much intended as a capstone or culmination of a few familiar themes and ideas.
How did the story develop? What was your thought-process in terms of story development?
Morrison: When I started Final Crisis in 2006, I decided this story about gods, parallel universes and the End of The World should aim to be a myth about Now, about the way the world was feeling five years after 9/11. I was responding to a definite sense that the future had been cancelled, even that evil had ‘won’ during those years, and I think many of us were aware of a kind of sombre, heavy, ‘end of civilization’ mood and a retreat from progressive values into a kind of reactionary witch-hunting Puritanism. I was watching our young soldiers dying in the Middle East while our “emo” kids back home took to cutting and slashing their own flesh with razors as some bizarre, inarticulate response to the whole looming zeitgeist and I saw correspondences there and things worth responding to with this kind of fiction.
For me Final Crisis, is about the type of guilt-ridden, self-loathing stories we insist on telling ourselves and, especially, our children—about the damage those stories do and about the good they could do if we took more responsibility for the power and influence of our words. Narratively, it’s inspired by the big “end of the world” stories from mythology and the Bible—the Norse Ragnarok, Revelations, the Mahabharata etc. It’s about events, ideas and consequences, rather than characters, in that respect but hopefully it encompasses struggles we all understand and tackles some big ideas in a new way.
How does Final Crisis fit within the context of the rest of the DC Universe?
Morrison: Right in the middle, right now, as part of the vast ongoing story that is the DC shared universe continuity. At the same time, I wanted it to be something that could be read on its own—my version of the ultimate superhero battle between good and evil—so it’s quite self-contained.
In writing Final Crisis, to what extent, if any, were you influenced by Crisis on Infinite Earths? To what extent were you influenced by Jack Kirby?
Morrison: I was influenced to the extent that Final Crisis is in some ways a sequel, so they share a cast of characters and certain narrative touchstones. With the Kirby material I was trying to find a way to refresh his concepts—which were created to be relevant to a Post-War, Vietnam 60s baby boomer generation—for a contemporary audience. Kirby was a great mythmaker in the William Blake mould and his big archetypes of the Modern Age, his Gods of Science, Surveillance, Information and Industrialization, lend themselves well to reinterpretation in a War on Terror context.
It didn’t destroy or reboot The Multiverse. It just used it for a story that was personal to Morrison, a story about men and gods, inspiration and imagination, and in the end merely just added to and expanded it by creating a home-world for all of Jack Kirby’s DC creations, like a final parting gift.
But tragically, the titular Final Crisis would not prove to be the final one. There would be more after. And there would be…
The Fake Crisis Of Flashpoint
While not at all an actual Crisis, Geoff Johns and Andy Kubert’s Flashpoint mini-series that would follow a few years after would end up having the same basic impact as the first Crisis – rebooting all of mainline DC comics and its multiverse for the 2nd time in history. It would be the move that would pave the way for the hot and sexy New 52 initiative. Perhaps if anything best demonstrates the impact and effect of Geoff Johns’ work to this modern era of constant Crises, it ought to be this one, as his guiding hand can be found in most of them.
And if nothing else, the book is a useful demonstration of the vital truth that even if a book isn’t titled ‘Crisis,’ it can effectively operate as such. Which will be crucial to understanding things moving forward, because up next is…
The Convergence Car Crash
Ever since they’d got rid of The Multiverse in Crisis, like with all the things they threw out, DC and its many creators tried to find a way to sneak them back in or undo what was done. And eventually, they’d finally bite the bullet and bring it back in the 52 weekly series that followed Infinite Crisis. But it was still only 52 universes, not the Infinite Earths of before.
And so, as previously mentioned by Wolfman himself, DC had long been on a mission to deal with the impact of Crisis. And Dan Didio, the latest in line of people in charge, was the architect behind most of the modern ‘Crisis’ stories, green-lighting them and overseeing their publishing. So years after Final Crisis, Didio would orchestrate Convergence, which saw all of DC reality and history assembled in chunks smashed together on a single planet called Telos. It was the height of insular fan-service driven comics. They were poor comics about absolutely nothing, devoted to an empty ‘Hey remember…’ referentialism aiming to please fans who pride themselves on catching easter eggs or references. Written by comics newcomer Jeff King and much reviled sex pest Scott Lobell, with art by Steven Segovia and others- Convergence was very much a creatively bankrupt editorial affair whose only real purpose was to fill up the time of 2 months while DC moved offices from New York to Burbank to be close to their corporate parent. But its secondary purpose was to finally press the button that Didio and DC had forever been wanting to press:
Undoing Crisis On Infinite Earths.
At the end of Convergence, the characters go back in time and ‘undo’ Crisis On Infinite Earths and ‘win’ such that the multiverse never died. The infinite earths still exist, and thus all of DC history as we know it and understand it is no longer quite so certain and cemented, as the very event that led to the birth of the modern ‘DC Universe’ post-Crisis…now just never happened. Continuity was broken, it would seem.
As Wolfman had prophecized before, this was inevitable. Crisis itself would get ‘undone’ the way it had ‘undone’ all that had come before it, and the cycle never stops.
Here’s the perspective from Didio and Lee at the time:
“The last thing we want to do [with our new titles] right now,” says DiDio, “is cross over a bunch of books, or remove them from our stands while we’re trying to let them grow, and take form, and shape, and find their audience. We’re giving everybody some running room to really be able to establish themselves, and to build themselves solid series.” Allowing individual titles the time to “build” a sense of direction, a supporting cast and an independent audience is the foundation of this new DC Universe. DiDio and Lee want to get back to a place where crossovers and events are rare enough to feel special.
Lee calls it a focus on “canon” over “continuity,” on creating the best stories about a character without being restricted by a larger continuity to the degree that was attempted with the New 52, noting that being set out of continuity hasn’t kept The Dark Knight Returns or Kingdom Come from captivating creators and fans. In fact, that captivation has driven elements of those stories into the main timeline. Continuity, he says, is something the readership is too concerned about, citing the lead up to the New 52, when DC editors were peppered with questions about what parts of the old universe were still canon.
In a way, this fit perfectly. Wolfman had noted that he hated continuity, and just believed DC should publish individual books anyone could pick up and read. And this was to be the motto of the new DCYou initiative, which launched a plethora of new titles and effectively said ‘forget continuity, just read this one book or two you like.’ Shared Universe Storytelling took a major back seat as Didio’s dream of a less continuity-reliant DC was in play with DCYou.
But at the same time, because of the very fact that continuity broke, the whole ‘the Infinite Earths are back!’ didn’t seem to matter. Nobody cared about Convergence. It was a reviled and mocked event comic even as it was coming out. That it was published right next to Jonathan Hickman and Esad Ribic’s beloved Secret Wars event really did not help its case. People just ignored it beyond tie-ins by creators they liked or spotlighting old characters they dug, ignoring the actual main-story centered around figures like ‘Deimos’ from the pages of Warlord comic that nobody really had much investment in.
Apathy was in the air.
But the tiresome Crisis re-litigation wasn’t finished.
Despite the diminishing returns and apathy, it was a well DC was doomed to revisit.