Crisis In The Comic Books

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Story points change. Was the Hulk gray or green? Histories become tweaked. Was Batman a ruthless vigilante who had a predilection for snapping necks or a duly-appointed special deputy of the Gotham City Police Department who swore never to kill?

Settings shift. Did Clark Kent and Lois Lane try to out-scoop each other at the Daily Star or the Daily Planet, and for whom did they work: George Taylor or Perry White? Names become obfuscated through confusing storyarcs. Who is Spider-Man? Ben Reilly or Peter Parker? Was there a Spider-Clone, and how did one of them meet the Punisher?

Before the forties and fifties, comic books cared little for continuity. Continuity mattered only to the internal workings of the story. For instance, Linda Turner was always the Black Cat. She didn't suddenly become Sally Trefusis. Green Lantern's power-ring always failed to affect wooden objects. It didn't occasionally suffer from this weakness.

The definition of continuity broadened about the time when The Bat-Man's steepled ears shortened and he preferred the simpler sobriquet Batman. Generally speaking book-to-book continuity, plot-wise, was never before necessary because, like their pulp progenitors, the heroes usually got around to finally killing the villains or making certain they fell victims to their own diabolical traps. With the resurrection of the villain, the books stopped only producing a series composed of what we would call one-shots today. Suddenly, it became important how the villain rescued himself from certain doom. Thus comic books began to reference themselves.

The more modern definition of continuity grew from the demands of the story. Whereas the Shadow waged his battle through operatives and pumped the law for information, the Bat-Man worked alone. It would be ludicrous to suggest that the police led by Commissioner Gordon would not eventually capture such a loner. Not every cop was on the take, and surely these honest cops would eventually hunt down the vigilante and unmask him. To continue such a crusade against even a horrific whisper like the Bat-Man for sixty years would border on the comical.

To be true to the characters, Commissioner Gordon would have to shake the hand of the man responsible for cleaning up Gotham. Otherwise, commissioners would have to come and go--each would have to fail to bring the Dark Knight to justice. There would still only be a finite number of characters to fulfill such a role, and sooner or later the element would become tiresome. It was better in terms of story to have Batman come out of the shadows. In the comic strip, his working with Gordon and Robin lost none of his darkness, his edge. If the comic books seemed to lose their punch because of this camaraderie, blame not the overall evolution of the story but the writers themselves.

With this germ of an idea planted, the walls between comic books soon fell. Batman meets Superman and teams with him frequently. They live on the same planet. Their cities are but miles away. With their team-ups mirrored on the radio--a more intrusive form of media--acceptance of the World's Finest team became firmly entrenched in the American psyche. Ask me if I was surprised that Batman and Superman would soon find each other in their animated series, and the answer would be of course not. Their meeting in all media is a given. I dare say that had Lois and Clark continued, Dean Cain would find himself meeting Michael Keaton in Gotham City--which was being foreshadowed on the series.

When the USA committed to fight Hitler with more than surreptitious and economic aid, comic books entertained the troops. Here again is an example of the historical climate changing comic books. As the country was asked to unite and fight, so did the heroes. It was not solely a marketing ploy. Society was prepared for it, and that's why the move succeeded. If the majority of the world had been isolationist, the idea of a JSA teaming up to battle the Axis would have failed to attract an audience. The Justice Society in terms of story however surpassed the claims of World's Finest. Not only did Superman and Batman know each other, but they also knew Black Canary, Starman, Wonder Woman and the Flash. Quite suddenly, we now had a world populated by super-heroes.

Of course, everybody knows what happened after the war. The fifties saw the rise of a force that even the Dark Knight could not judo-toss. McCarthyism and its sidekick Fredric Wertham attempted to destroy comic books. They did a good job. By the time the fifties waned only DC and Marvel stood and not so proudly.
The heroes who fought against the Nazis had seemed to gone into hiding. Batman and Superman were still around, but they were almost unrecognizable. Superman was not originally the boy scout stereotype a number of people have assumed. His favorite tactic was to pick up plug-uglies and toss them high into the air. Sometimes he would catch them. Other times, well, let's just say due process was not really his concern.

Batman sadly suffered the most. No longer a detective, he instead fought such laughable characters as Lemur Man and Marmoset Woman while avoiding the amorous glances of Batwoman. Why, you ask? Got me. Kathy Kane was a hottie. Perhaps Wertham was on to something about his relationship with Robin. I kid: Wertham was on something.

The problem is that his crusade led to these perceived changes. Before Wertham, Bat-Man was engaged to Julie Madison. There were sparks between he and the vampiress Dala. The Cat wanted him badly, but his denial of her was justified since she was a jewel thief. Bat-Man actually had the healthier of the relationships with Julie and his ward Dick Grayson. The man who turned him into a metaphorical child-molester was Wertham.

Wertham faded away with McCarthyism. About this time, Julie Schwartz took over DC and reintroduced the heroes to the lonely universe. Replacements took their World War Two names and paid tribute to their heroism. The Flash was reborn as Barry Allen. Green Lantern arose from his ashes as Hal Jordan. Hawkman became Katar Hol. All their origins had one thing in common. They were linked by science. Hawkman was not a reincarnation of an Egyptian prince; he and his wife were alien lawmen. Jordan possessed not a magical ring but one forged by superior intellects from the planet Oa. The Flash's origins depended upon Frankenstein's lightning bolt and a dousing of chemicals; the original inhaled hard water vapors.

Perhaps, because they were some of the first, DC realized they could not reintroduce Batman, Superman or Wonder Woman in different guises. Still, subtle changes were made. Wonder Woman, for instance, though still depending on the gods, relied more upon Amazon technology. Batman once again became a detective. Perhaps he was not yet the Dark Knight of yore, but that shadow was cast upon the horizon.

Continuity DC kept. The Flash met Green Lantern. Wonder Woman met Superman, and soon, the Justice League of America formed. That's right - all the heroes resided on one planet. DC could have chucked continuity. Each hero's book could have been self-contained. They did not. Comic books (at least with regards to DC) reverted back to normal. Silly stories became the rarity and not the norm. Some became groundbreaking.

"The Flash of Two Worlds" subtly razzed the ghosts of Wertham. Gardner Fox and Murphy Anderson suggested Jay Garrick had not been frightened away by Wertham's mania and certainly not by the criminal element left over from the war. He and the JSA existed and kept their cities safe on a parallel earth separated from our own world--or that which purported to be our own world--by a frequency. Every one of our atoms vibrates at a specific frequency. It was indeed plausible to cloak a planet by simply shifting it out of phase to render it near invisible. The parallel world not only produced good stories but good science fiction light years ahead of the scientific community who only have recently begun speculating upon the possibilities of alternate universes.

DC rarely abused their parallel worlds. Fox and Anderson were the main forces behind the concept, and DC let them have at it. They gave the heroes their counters in Owlman, Ultraman and Superwoman--recently reintroduced in another form by Grant Morrison, the once heir to the silver age fortune. The JSA resided upon Earth Two. Other creators brought back the Marvel Family who lived on Earth-S.

The stories from these alternate Earths never seemed lazy or childish. They gave a writer an established premise from which to work. For instance, Wonder Woman of Earth One watches Steve Trevor die twice. She retires her guise and retires to Paradise Island. The gods grant her the gift of forgetfulness. No one remembers Steve Trevor except the Amazons who keep his existence a mystery from Princess Diana. Her motivation for leaving the island obliterated, Diana becomes content.

Her solitude is ruptured by the breaching of the vibrational plane. Another Steve Trevor crashes near Paradise Island. Another Steve Trevor is rescued by Princess Diana. They feel an eerie recognition toward each other, and the gods now must gently remove a layer of their shroud of the mind. They allow all to remember Steve Trevor but not his death. This motivates the Trial of the Amazons yet again. This forces Diana to become Wonder Woman to bring back Steve Trevor to man's world and to combat frequently Kobra, thus beginning a ssssupremely sssssatisfying round of his losssssses.

The strength of continuity is that it forces writers to think. DC could not simply reintroduce Wonder Woman and Steve Trevor. Steve Trevor, reanimated once by the gods, died a second time. He was not coming back, and you simply could not chuck the entirety of Diana's history because it was inextricably linked to other hero histories. Enter the beauty of multiple Earths. The new Steve Trevor is not the Steve Trevor we knew. He is an alternate from a world where Diana does not exist. This provides only an opening through which the writer can work. He takes that and considers the implications. Yes, Steve is back, but hey, the gods made everybody forget. So, what can I do? The gods must undo the spell, but clearly that puts the god in the machine, so to speak. Thus, the writer turns the advantage into a disadvantage for the character who has the point of view in the story.

Hippolyta does not want her daughter to leave; the death of Steve Trevor nearly killed her daughter, certainly his second death shattered her sanity. She fears for her daughter's emotional safety but knows destiny demands there be a Wonder Woman. She must enact the Trial of the Amazons. This not only reviews Diana's origins; Hippolyta knows the Trial is a sham, she knows Diana will win. Each blow draws a tear from her eyes. When older comic book readers speak of the silver or bronze age, it is the strength in the writing to which they refer. It isn't just the multiple Earths we mourn; we mourn the impact of those varied universes.

Ah, the eighties, a boon for comic book reading and for the Age of Infinite Earths. Each comic book from the eighties--still only sixty cents--featured a back-up for another hero. In Wonder Woman, that back-up feature belonged to the daughter of the Earth Two Batman and Catwoman. The Huntress was the second total creation from Earth Two. Only her name was old and even then belonged to a villainess. This raven-haired master of strategy and weaponry fought crime in Gotham City much like her father did. Her attraction of fans was an honest one. She relied upon no man like the Earth One Black Canary. She was more confident than the Earth One Batgirl. She was also feared. Never the side-kick, Huntress was the hero. She missed the opportunity to work with her father, but she often visited her "Uncle" Bruce--the Earth One Batman--and flashed her cape beside his to solve some of the JLA's and JSA's toughest cases. When Batman's faith in his parents were shaken in a classic Brave and Bold, Helena protected the city and stayed with him to hear him renew his vow. To this day Helena Wayne is mourned.

Not one bad thing originated from the concept of multiple Earths. Sorry, Captain Carrot and his Zoo Crew would have happened whether or not the vibrational planes separated the worlds. Hugo Strange was murdered on our world by Rupert Thorne. On Earth Two, Strange escaped death. He attempted to kill Robin, and a quirk of fate or a supernatural guardian of Gotham brought Batman Earth One to Earth Two where he saves Robin's feathered buttocks and meets Kathy Kane (Batwoman) of Earth Two. Both are "spooked" since both lost each other's counterpart. Both stories resonate with the kind of power missing from today's stories. Multiple Earths was not a gimmick. It was a device that the writers used wisely. The multiverse created a framework for the creation of the tightest of stories featuring a depth of character matching their extinct cousins-the pulp heroes.

The Crisis of Infinite Earths (recently re-released in TPB form) when judged solely as a comic book mini-series is truly stunning. Each issue is a gem. The premise isn't based upon multiple Earths or even multiple universes. Instead, a war between matter and antimatter wages. Every Earth introduced was not made of an alien substance but a variance of positive matter. Each hero and villain--which is why they participated on the side of the heroes--is made of the same stuff. The Anti-Monitor and his Weaponeers are composed of antimatter. It is a fundamental battle for survival. The differences are that we know all the warriors who fight for our side, and when they die, we feel their last breaths on our cheeks. Certainly some cannon fodder instilled little emotion. Who shed a tear when Prince Ra-man met his maker, but the Flash, good old Barry Allen, sacrifices himself to destroy the Anti-Monitor's doomsday weapon. Supergirl, whom we all knew was the better of the two who wore the shield of S, beats the crap out of the Anti-Monitor but only at the cost of her life. Sweet Helena is pronounced dead, but her body is never found. Many a fan longs for the day when she steps out of nothing, escaping this ultimate trap to take her rightful place among giants. In a way we had many such days thanks to Grant Morrison.

The impact of the Crisis is somewhat surprising because immediately after the Earths have been recombined, immediately after the Anti-Monitor is defeated, the heroes all retain their memory. They were at the point of rebirth. They are not of the new world, but aliens from dead Earths. Had this element been rescued from DC's meddling, we would have had healthier stories. Does anybody really believe Power Girl is actually Arion's daughter? The better explanation derives from the paradox of her existence and her being adopted by Superman Earth One. We see at the end of the Crisis, Superman and Power Girl comforting each other as they walk slowly toward the Fortress of Solitude. Batman would have had a rationale for despising the new Huntress. She would be and really is, apart from when featured in the JLA, an insult to the memory of his beloved "niece."

After the Crisis, the DC universe in terms of characterization went haywire. The Flash, Wally West, slapped the face of his dead uncle. When the Crisis ended, Wally intended to uphold the honor of the Scarlet Speedster. Instead, he charges for heart transplants and sleeps with everyone not fast enough to move out of his path. It took William Messner Loebs to finally make him live up to that vow. The new Batman was not and is not as intelligent as the old model. The removal of his history affected the way most writers approached the character. At worst he became a talented amateur, not the World's Greatest Detective. His back was broken. His mind was snapped. The Crisis planted a seed. The heroes were not invulnerable, and the writer no longer had to think of a way for the hero to escape. Before the Crisis, the heroes could not be crippled or killed. Knightfall was daring, but it wasn't very bright. No Man's Land would not have happened had the Crisis not hit. As soon as the idea formed, it would have been dispelled. The pre-Crisis DC was far more integrated. The heroes were friends. They shared common bonds--such as the knowledge of multiple Earths.

Nothing good continuity-wise came after the Crisis, which though a superb story in itself was unnecessary. The multiple Earths did not create confusion. They did not multiply the number of heroes to the degree of the X-Men. It did not hamper most future plans. The John Byrne revamp of Superman for instance could have taken place without the destruction of the multiverse. The re-darkening of Batman in the seventies happened without the literal destruction of an Earth or the single rewriting of a JLA adventure. We lost much and gained nothing. I don't consider Helena Bertinelli to be the Huntress. I don't consider the Earthborn Angel Supergirl. A new language has been created to explain that which has been removed. The retcon. Continuity no longer exists. It could have. Batman could have remembered the time he and Wonder Woman fought Deja vu, a deadly villain from Brave and Bold.

We are now subject to the whims of the authors and editors who have little concern for history. Who murdered the Waynes? Joe Chill? No. We don't know that anymore. From where did Matrix (the faux Super-girl) come? She cannot have arisen from the pocket universe John Byrne created because the Time Trapper had no rationale to create a Superboy whom Superman never met. The reaction to the Crisis is that nothing counts anymore, nothing is carved in stone.

We, the readers, are poorer for the experience.

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