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I was a comic book collector when Crisis on Infinite Earths was first published in 1985, and I eagerly devoured the series as I watched the changes to the "DC Universe" happen before my eyes. Since then, many other so-called "epic crossover series" have been produced by DC and by Marvel Comics, and while some attempted to approach the scope and "epic" stance of Crisis (see also The Infinity Gauntlet and Infinite Crisis,) none of these series came close to the emotional story-telling given in the original Crisis series by Marv Wolfman and George Perez.
What? Emotional story-telling? Yes, I'll certainly agree that the episodic make-up of the Crisis series does result in a convoluted, confusing, and sometimes even self-contradicting story. In its attempt to include "every" major character in DC Comics' fifty year history, a number of story arcs were barely touched on and then discarded (such as the introduction of the "New Wildcat!,"). But despite this, Wolfman and Perez's storytelling still manages to evoke a feeling of sympathy, and even of desperation – a feeling that resonates with the reader and makes you care for these characters, even twenty-five years after the publication of the series.
Two elements of Crisis on Infinite Earths were present that made this series truly unique among "epic crossover" series. One of these was good fortune on Wolfman and Perez's part: they were essentially given a blank slate and permission to wipe away vast areas of the DC Universe. This resulted in the aspect of the series most commented on by fans and critics alike, namely the incredible number of comic characters who died. A number of these deaths weren't permanent, and some were simply re-written and nullified in the future; but the character deaths themselves were just the most obvious aspect of the major changes that took place. The Crisis series was meant to "change" the DC Universe, and because of this the readers of the series honestly did not know what would happen next. Who would live? Who would die? What changes to my favorite comic book series would take place? All major comic book "changes" are the result of marketing decisions by the publishers, of course; but the changes evoked by the first Crisis series were truly unique because Wolfman and Perez were given permission to change everything. All of the later series, even Zero Hour and Infinite Crisis, were presented to an audience who knew beforehand that certain aspects of the DC Universe were cast in stone, and despite the claims that these would be "major" series in which "changes" would take place, nothing really changed. Our favorite characters were still there during Zero Hour and Final Crisis, and everything continued pretty much the way it did before. Some soap-opera cliffhangers and plot twists were added to a number of ongoing series, but they weren't really world-shattering "changes." In Crisis, we had the feeling of mystery and suspense in knowing that the "changes" taking place would really be "changes," so we honestly did not know what would happen next. When Supergirl and The Flash died – and Wonder Woman, also – we knew that these were major events that would not merely be re-written; even though the characters themselves were indeed brought back to life, we still knew that the original Supergirl and Flash that we grew up with were gone. They would never be the same. Likewise when the "Multiverse" itself was reborn – it was not just the fact that a weird supervillain had destroyed the universe and it was now reborn. We felt that this really was a rebirth, that the original DC Comics universe we knew really was gone and had been replaced by something different. It wasn't just an update to the ongoing story…it was indeed a new beginning. This is something that has never happened since in mainstream comic books, despite the attempts by both Marvel and DC to re-create it.
But there's another aspect of Crisis on Infinite Earths that has never been repeated in any of the major comic book "epic" series – and the credit for this can be given to Mssrs. Wolfman and Perez, who were at the peak of their creative era at that moment. This writer-and-artist pair had used their time together in the New Teen Titans series to give us a number of wonderfully emotional moments of character development, which culminated in several storylines that are still fondly remembered (and re-used in the "Animated DC Universe" TV series) today, especially "The Judas Contract" and "The Fall of Trigon." It wasn't just the exciting superhero action and George Perez's wonderful, powerful artwork that made these moments unforgettable to comic book readers – it was the way they made us feel for these characters, care for them, and even love them. Wolfman and Perez knew how to bring out real feelings for their characters, such as in the famous "Who Is Donna Troy?" storyline, and they used this ability to its fullest in Crisis on Infinite Earths. The characters in Crisis were scared, more than they had ever been before. For the first time since superhero comics debuted, we were reading a story in which the characters knew they really were facing death – real death, from which they might never return – and we, the readers, felt this in a manner unlike anything we'd ever read before in superhero comic books. The best way to demonstrate this is to point out the number of times in the Crisis series in which someone says "I love you" to someone else. From the first issue in which Lex Luthor and Lois Lane of Earth-3 say "I love you" for the final time, as they are wiped out forever by the unstoppable wave of anti-matter, to the way Lord Volt and Lady Quark desperately scream "We love you, Liana! We love you!" when their daughter is lost forever before their eyes, to Harbinger's regret for betraying The Monitor without being able to tell him that she loved him, to the number of heroes who say these words to their loved ones (especially Superman of Earth-2 and his true love, Lois), the characters in Crisis let their emotions come to the fore in a manner that has never been emulated or recreated in any of the other "epic" superhero sagas published since. Even when "minor" characters race to save the ones they love, and sometimes succeed, we feel for them and we see their feelings with the tears of sadness that they reveal. Was there ever a moment in Identity Crisis or The Infinity War that equaled the moment when Superman of Earth-2 screamed "NO!" as he realized that he had been reborn in a "new" universe…only to have lost the woman he loved forever? Or when Batgirl and Supergirl were sitting and watching helplessly as the anti-matter slowly devoured their world, trying to keep each other from despairing even as they felt as though they were going to die? Moments like this occur only rarely in comic books – especially market-driven superhero action comics – and it's for moments like this that Crisis on Infinite Earths is still the greatest of all the "epic crossover" superhero stories.
Over twenty-five years later, we've seen the Anti-Monitor come back, and Superman of Earth-2 come back from the paradise he and Lois entered at the end of Crisis, and Superboy become an insane villain, and Green Lantern written and re-written, and Wonder Woman reborn (gloriously), and The Flash and Superman and Batman and so many others still fighting evil with fists and brains. But in 1985, it all changed – and we, the readers, can read the story that gave us a moment of comic book history that happened and will never be repeated. So enjoy this moment, read Crisis on Infinite Earths, and send a note of thanks to Marv Wolfman and George Perez for giving us a superhero story that is still a joy to read and experience today.
Jonathan Woodward was a fellow New England comic book geek who I'd had the pleasure of meeting personally a few times (if you ever visit his home, be sure to gaze in awe at his collection of original Watchmen promotional artwork by Dave Gibbons) when he wrote this – the definitive Web-based "annotated guide" to Crisis on Infinite Earths. An exhaustive exploration of every possible aspect, and every nook and cranny, of the maxi-series, his essay is an absolute must-read for anyone seeking further information and reference material on the original Crisis on Infinite Earths. There have since been "annotated guides" produced for every other "epic crossover" series out there, but this was the first and still the best.