One of the biggest events in recent television history is the CW’s Crisis on Infinite Earths. The five night event encompasses the network’s “Arrowverse”: Arrow, Batwoman, Black Lighting, DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, The Flash, and Supergirl. This event is over six decades in the making and is the product of a daring comic book editor, the imagination of a seven-year-old boy, and a letter to Green Lantern.
In the mid-1950s, the comic book industry was in a slump thanks to the controversy and paranoia created by Fredric Werthham’s now-discredited The Seduction of the Innocent, which blamed juvenile delinquency and anti-social teenage behavior on comic books. As a result, DC Comics had dropped all of its superheroes except Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman.
In a daring move, Julius Schwartz, one of DC Comics’ most talented editors, decided to revive the popular “golden age” hero The Flash in Showcase #4, October 1956. Instead of bringing back the original character, Schwartz re-imagined The Flash, giving him a new costume, secret identity (Barry Allen), and origin story in which the original Flash (Jay Garrick) was a comic book character. The reboot was so successful that The Flash soon had his own magazine starting with issue number 105, picking up where the old series had ended.
Encouraged by the success of the new Flash, Schwartz rebooted Green Lantern, The Atom, and Hawkman. He also remade the Justice Society of America (JSA), DC’s first super hero team, as the Justice League of America (JLA).
Then Schwartz took a radical step with The Flash of Two Worlds. In The Flash # 123 September 1961 Allen accidently transports to an alternative Earth and meets Garrick. This historic comic book created the “parallel Earths” concept that was a major part of the DC universe for the next two decades. For reasons that never made any sense, Allen’s Earth was dubbed Earth-1 and Garrick’s Earth-2, even though the characters in Earth-2 had existed longer.
In Flash # 137, June 1963, the JSA was featured for the first time in over a decade. The next month the JSA and the JLA met for the first time in Crisis on Earth-One! (Justice League of America # 21, August 1963), concluding in Crisis on Earth-Two! (Justice League of America #22, September 1963.)
The JSA and JLA continued having highly anticipated annual crossovers until 1985. During the two decades of team-ups they established several other alternative earths:
- Earth-3 (JLA #29, August 1964) On this Earth variations of JLA members are super powered criminals called the Crime Syndicate
- Earth-X (JLA # 107 & 108, October and December 1973) Golden Age heroes, first published by Quality Comics, are resistance fighters against the Nazis who won World War II. (This was the inspiration for the Arrowverse’s 2017 crossover.)
- Earth-S (JLA #135 &136, October and November, 1976) Members of the JSA and JLA are sent to Earth-S (For Shazam) to fight side-by-side with heroes originally published by Fawcett Comics. This featured the first ever meeting of Superman and Captain Marvel, the two biggest comic book stars of the golden age. (Also the only one to feature the Earth-2 Batman)
- Earth Prime (JLA #207-209 October-December 1982) Earth Prime is the world that you and I live on.
And that was just the ones featured in Justice League of America!
Needless to say, having this many parallel Earths created continuity errors that were constantly pointed out by readers. DC even made fun of this by reviving the company’s 1960s corporate mascot Joanie DC as “DC’s Continuity Cop” in the 1985 Ambush Bug mini-series.
Enter Marv Wolfman, the creator of the Marvel hero Blade. At the age of seven he had an idea for a series that revolved around a character named “The Librarian” who lived in a satellite orbiting the Earth. He spent his time observing all the super heroes from all the different Earths and selling the information to super villains. Eventually all the heroes would team up and defeat the Librarian. As an adult he pitched this idea to both Marvel and DC who both rejected it.
Then in 1981, as a writer for Green Lantern, Wolfman responded to a letter about a continuity error in a previous issue by saying “One-day we will probably straighten out what is in the DC Universe… and what is outside.”
In the forward to the 1998 Crisis compilation, Wolfman wrote:
The letter to Green Lantern made me wonder how DC could simplify its continuity and lure new readers to the fold. Suddenly, I thought of [the Librarian] and my original intent for the character. This would be the perfect vehicle to do the maxiseries. The ideas evolved quickly, and within four days DC approved a complete revamping of their entire universe to be done in a 12-part series.
In a 2018 interview with 13th Dimension, Wolfman expanded the story:
I was the writer of Green Lantern. I was writing the letter column and some fan…wrote a letter saying DC continuity makes no sense. And I wrote, as an answer to it, “Yeah, one of these days we should fix that.” Then I headed out…
We were going to a convention in either Philadelphia or Pittsburgh…that afternoon and because I’m always early I got to the train station before everyone else did. Hours before! (Laughter) At least an hour before. And while sitting there waiting for everyone else to show up to take the train down to Pennsylvania, that letter, for some reason, kept haunting me and suddenly the whole storyline came together…And by the time everyone came, I pitched them the story and just asked them what they thought and everyone really talked about it the whole trip down there.
That Monday, I went into Dick Giordano’s office (DC’s vice-president and executive editor) and pitched it to him. It was under the title, History of the DC Universe then. Dick loved it, brought us in to Jenette Kahn, who was the publisher, and she loved it. DC’s sales at that point… were very bad. Marvel’s sales were huge, … but DC’s sales (overall) were very poor because DC sort of still thought they were dealing with a kid audience and most of the people now were at least in their teenage years or early 20s by that point.
So, this would be something that would change the DC Universe, that would make it more interesting to the Marvel fans to come over and I spent a couple years working up the plot in detail to make sure that everything made sense. This was gonna be so large and so difficult to do that you couldn’t just make it up as you went along. Everything had to make sense from Day One and there had to be a reason why everything was there.
George Pérez was assigned as the artist, though as the series progressed he was credited as co-plotter. Perez carefully researched all the DC characters, especially some of the more obscured ones, to make sure that they were depicted accurately. He also did all the cover art and came up with the title Crisis on Infinite Earths as an homage to the JLA/JSA team-ups of the 1960s. The Librarian was renamed the Monitor because, according to Wolfman, “I don’t know if Monitor is any more interesting a name than Librarian but “M” is a stronger letter sound than “L” so we went with that.”
In plotting the story and deciding who would live or die, Wolfman chose “not to kill any hero who was created before I was born. It was a silly rule, but I stuck with it for better or worse.”
In preparing for the mega-crossover event, DC hired a researcher in 1982 to go through and read every comic book the company had published, a task that took two years. Also a list was made of every comic book character that DC had acquired from other companies, with the goal of having every DC owned character make at least one appearance in the series. Because of the time involved in the research, the series was not ready for the public until 1985, which coincided with DC’s 50th anniversary.
Throughout the early 1980s readers of DC comics were teased that something big was about to happen. The Monitor made his first appearance in The New Teen Titans #21, July 1982. He appeared twice in every DC title in 1984, though his face was unseen until G.I. Combat #274, February 1985. Aside from that, there was very little advance press or promotion of the upcoming maxi-series, other than the use of the tag line: “Worlds will live, worlds will die and nothing will ever be the same.” (Remember there was no internet nor social media at the time.)
Besides the 12 part series the Crisis would spill over into 40 issues of 15 different titles. Despite all the time and money that was put into the project, there were concerns at DC that Crisis would not just take down the DC universe, but DC Comics with it.
Warning: The rest of this article contains spoilers for some comic book titles, which may or may not be spoilers for the television event.
The first issue of Crisis on Infinite Earths was released on April 3, 1985. In the opening pages we see Earth-3’s super villains, the Crime Syndicate, turning into heroes in a failed attempt to save their world from extinction. Witnessing this is a mysterious being called Pariah, who has witnessed this scene hundreds of times before. The only survivor is in an infant, Alexander, Jr., the son of Lex Luthor, Earth-3’s greatest hero and his wife, Lois Lane.
Meanwhile a mysterious being name the Monitor watches the carnage. He has his protégée, Harbinger, secure the infant and then go across the multiverse and different times in history to gather up all the remaining heroes and villains to fight the Anti-Monitor, who comes from an anti-matter universe, who wants to destroy all worlds in order to be the absolute ruler of all realities.
And that was just the first two issues. Most of DC’s “A-List” stars were not shown until about half-way into the series, which was a deliberate decision by Wolfman. He said that killing the Earth-3 characters, which were in essence, though not in name, Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman without a struggle, would show the readers just how powerful the threat was and that DC meant business.
The cover of issue #7 showed that Wolfman was not kidding. On what is regarded as one of the greatest comic book covers ever, a crying Superman is holding the broken and dead body of Supergirl, who readers learned died protecting her cousin in a battle with the Anti-Monitor.
In a 2015 interview Giordano claimed that killing Supergirl was his idea because he felt the character added nothing to the Superman mythos, and he had no regrets about it. However, Wolfman admitted in 1998 that he killed Supergirl because prior to Crisis “it seemed that half of Krypton survived the explosion…Our goal was to make Superman unique. We went back to his origin and made Kal-El the only survivor of Krypton.”
However, many believe that the critical and box-office failure of the 1984 film Supergirl (which made only a third of its $35 million budget) played a role in the character’s death. Conversely, some connected to the movie claim that DC’s cancellation of the Supergirl comic book two months prior to the film’s release hurt the film’s box office.
The next issue featured an even bigger stunner, the death of Barry Allen’s Flash, who died successfully saving five Earths. Wolfman was opposed to this but the DC brass wanted him to do it because they considered the character boring. Wolfman put in a secret plot device in Crisis to bring Barry Allen back in the post crises future because “We always liked Barry.”
Wolfman guarded the secret for years, until he got tired about being asked what it was, and finally shared it:
I came up with the idea of Flash moving back through time, flashing into our dimension even as he was dying. So, thought I, what if Barry was plucked out of the time stream at one of those moments he appeared? What if that meant from this point on Barry knew that he was literally living on borrowed time, that at any moment the time stream could close in on him and take him to his inevitable death. What would this mean to Barry? 1: from now on the fastest man alive would literally be running for his life. 2: He knew he didn’t have much time left and believed (as Barry would) that he had to devote it to helping others. 3: This meant Barry would become driven and desperate to help others with each passing tick of the clock. I felt this new revitalized attitude might be enough to make the formerly dull police scientist into someone who now had to push himself as he never had to before. I was hoping that this would make the character interesting enough to live.
When a demonically possessed Harbinger kills the Monitor, things look grim until the Spectre unites the heroes and villains who go back in time. Time and space is shattered and the five remaining Earths are now one.
However, in the final issue, March 1986, the Anti-Monitor, who somehow managed to survive, summons hordes of shadow demons to attack the new Earth. Eventually the Anti-Monitor is destroyed in a battle with the Earth-2 Superman (the original one), Superboy of Earth–Prime and the young Luthor who is now physically a man in his early 20s. They are unknowingly aided by Darkseid, Lord of Apokolips, who realizes that Earth and his planet share a common threat and must work together. In the battle Superman kills the Anti-Monitor, but he, Superboy and Luthor are facing disintegration until Luthor revels that there is a pocket dimension where Superman’s wife, Lois Lane is waiting for him. The four enter a place of “ever lasting peace.”
In a 1994 interview Perez claimed that Chris Claremont, who spent 17 years doing the X-Men for Marvel, suggested that the Earth-1 Superman die fighting the Anti-Monitor, leaving the new Earth without a Superman. In this scenario, the Earth-2 (aka “Golden age”) Superman, realizing that his friends and family are gone would say “Well I don’t need this anymore,” and wipe off the make-up and white hair dye that made him look old, and would appear as he did in the 1940s. It would be explained that Superman stopped aging four decades ago when his powers reached his peak. He would then take his counterpart’s life on the new Earth. The post-crisis reboot for the Man of Steel would have been “The Return of the Original Super-Hero” with the Earth-2 Superman having to adapt as his younger self in this new world.
Meanwhile, on the new Earth, there is mourning for the heroes killed in action. The surviving heroes are trying to sort things out as they are the only ones who have any memory of the multiverse.
However the series ending was not what Wolfman envisioned. In the 2018 interview he complained:
I was not allowed to do the ending that I had wanted. I was overruled on that. The editors overruled me and they were completely wrong.
My goal, the original concept as I pitched it, was that the series would simply end with the rebirth of the earth and all the heroes would start the next month and not one of them would ever know that the Crisis had ever happened because the Earth had been reborn and now we’re 10 million years later or however old the Earth is. A hundred and fifty million years. And everyone was being born for the first time so if there was a new Flash, they’d be born with a whole new approach, a new concept, a whole new whatever.
And I was told that the editors didn’t like that because if the heroes didn’t remember all their stories, it would invalidate everything that had existed previously, to which I answered with extreme sarcasm, “Our heroes do not buy our comic books. (Laughter) The fans do and they will still have all those books on their bookshelf and they will remember all those things.”
But all the editors overruled it so that’s why I had the heroes go back in time to before the world is reformed, so that they would be around to have remembered it. They didn’t cease to exist and get reborn. They were there the whole time. Then it was five years of everybody talking about, “What really happened in the Crisis?” which is, I knew, what would happen.
But I moved out of New York at that point so that was their problem. And (DC co-publisher) Dan DiDio has been trying to fix that ever since. So, he’s been really struggling! He agrees with me that that was the way it should have been, where everything starts new. You just get… You keep repeating the same things. Why start over if all you’re gonna do is remember about how bad things were, how awful things were? You need to start clean and create for the new generation a brand-new version, without having them already know the last 30 years of continuity. I hate continuity. You have to understand that Crisis existed to wipe out all continuity and start new.
Among the casualties of the last issue was Wonder Woman whose existence was wiped from memory as time went backwards and she reverted back to clay. (The original Earth-2 Wonder Woman met a kinder fate: she and Steve Trevor were called to Olympus by Zeus where they married and presumably lived happily ever after.)
By the end of the Crisis 3000+ universes were destroyed and three dozen significant characters were either killed outright or had their histories erased from the memories of all except the heroes who survived the event. Among the more notable deaths, besides the Flash, Wonder Woman and Supergirl were the Green Arrow, Speedy, Huntress, and Robin of Earth-2, (The Earth-2 Batman had been killed prior to the Crisis, but his existence and memory was erased.) Earth-1’s Lana Lang, Lois Lane, and Jimmy Olsen.
However, it did not take DC long to figure out that there were loose ends that the Crisis did not resolve. Most significantly was All-Star Squadron. This comic book was set during World War II and featured numerous DC owned heroes from the golden age who had formed the All-Star Squadron to fight the Axis. (The name came from All-Star Comics, the original home of the JSA.) To make the tales consistent with DC continuity, the stories were set on Earth-2.
However, Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman and Robin (Think the original Super Friends) were still alive in All-Star Squadron despite being erased in Crisis so in All-Star Squadron #60, August 1986, five months after the last issue of Crisis, Roy Thomas wrote a story, inspired by the silent film Metropolis, that erased those characters, though the issue’s last panel accidently showed the golden age Green Arrow and Speedy, whom the crisis had also “erased.”
That was not the only clean-up job Thomas had to do. That same year Thomas edited and co-wrote Last Days of the Justice Society in which the JSA replaces the Norse gods in Ragnarök, the battle of Armageddon in Viking mythology. They are in an eternal loop always winning and always dying. This one-shot project was a result of DC’s belief that a team of aging heroes wasn’t needed in their new universe. Thomas, however, created a loophole so that the team could return, which it did in 1992.
A third problem Thomas had to clean up was Captain Marvel and the Marvel “family” which was very much alive after the Crisis. For the Captain Marvel reboot- Shazam!: The New Beginning Thomas simply told readers to ignore the panels of the Marvels surviving the Crisis.
(Many readers wanted Captain Marvel /Shazam to become a member of the All-Star Squadron.)
After Crisis Superman was rebooted in the six issue series Man of Steel written and drawn by John Bryne, which erased decades of back story. His adoptive parents, the Kents still lived while Lex Luthor was now a ruthless calculating businessman who saw Superman as threat to his controlling Metropolis. This would be the basis for the 1988 and 1996 Superman animated series and today’s comic books. Batman was not rebooted, but several others, most notably Wonder Woman, the Flash and the Justice League were.
Many of these reboots were featured in the six-issue mini-series Legends which ran from November 1986 until May 1987 and was viewed by DC as a sequel of sorts to Crisis. The plot involved Darkseid taking advantage of the new situation on Earth by undermining the public’s faith in heroes. The series, which carried over into 22 crossovers, not only established the new DC universe. It also marked the debut of the Suicide Squad.
For DC, Crisis was a critical success, and is regarded as one of the most important moments in comic book history. Still to this day people refer to characters and their backstories as “pre-Crisis” and “post-Crisis.” From a financial standpoint, DC’s fears of failure were proven wrong, sales jumped 22% and in 1987 it overtook Marvel in direct sales.
Since 1986 there have been two official sequels. The first was Infinite Crisis which ran from October 2005 to June 2006 in which the four heroes in “paradise” escape and wreak havoc on the new Earth and in the process restore the multiverse. (As it turned out, many readers liked the parallel universe concept.)
Final Crisis ran from May 2008 to January 2009. In this series Darkseid arrives on earth and begins a plan to overthrow reality. The Justice League and the Green Lantern corps join forces to stop him, though in the process several DC characters are killed.
Wolfman’s feelings about Crisis are mixed. In 1998 he wrote that he considered it only partially successful, because while it brought new readers to DC and the successful revamping of Superman and others. It also resulted in less successful relaunches of other existing DC characters.
Giordano sort of echoed Wolfman’s feelings in the 1998 bound edition of Crisis:
Did Crisis work as a story? Yep! Did it neaten up our universe? You bet! Did it give DC comics a launch pad to the future? Of course! Did we take advantage of all of all the opportunities presented by the dramatic conclusion of the land mark series called CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS?
Well… Yes and no.
Both have a point. In the post-Crisis DC universe, the main thing they wanted to destroy, the multiverse, was been revived. The JSA was brought back, Barry Allen’s Flash returned from the dead while there have been new versions of Supergirl. Not to mention there have been several additional reboots of the DC universe that tried to do what Crisis did with mixed results.
In 2019 Wolfman returned to the Crisis he created as the co-script writer of episode four (The Arrow episode) for the CW’s Crisis on Infinite Earths set to air on January 14, 2020. He is also writing a graphic novel based on the Arrowverse Crisis set to be released in June 2020.
Ironically, real world scientists are now arguing that the possibility of actual parallel universes does exist, though no one has yet to find a way to prove, or disprove this theory. Who knows, maybe we will discover an Earth where Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman are not comic book characters but real people?
DC Comics has reprinted Crisis on Infinite Earths in both stand-alone editions featuring just the 12 –part maxi-series, a three volume deluxe edition featuring both the maxi-series and the cross-over stores, and a 14 volume hardcover deluxe edition.
Staff Writer/Resident Historian
Nerd Nation Magazine