So you’re browsing for something to watch and stumble upon the latest DC animated movie, Justice League: Crisis on Infinite Earths, Part One. The title rings a bell and you remember the five-part Arrowverse crossover event of the same name which graced our screens in 2019/20. But what is a so-called “Crisis Level Event” and what does it mean in the pages of DC’s comics? Today we’ve got you covered with a brief history of the DC Crisis…
To learn the history of Crisis on Infinite Earths we first have to go all the way back to 1938 and the publication of Action Comics #1 featuring the debut of Superman. The Man of Steel’s debut from Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster would usher in the creation of a shared universe of characters. Superman was followed in 1939 by the introduction of Batman, created by Bill Finger and Bob Kane. They would both be followed in 1941 by the invention of Wonder Woman, created by William Moulton Marston and artist Harry G. Peter.
Along the way all the iconic elements which surround each of these characters such as Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, Robin and Batgirl etc. were all introduced by writers and artists who would work on their individual titles. A boom around the medium of superhero comics would begin, eventually making each of these characters household names and pop culture icons in the making. This time would become known as the Golden Age of comic books. An era which would last all the way through World War II, eventually coming to an end in 1956. But with each new creative team came a new perspective, a new outlook and changes to narrative history which avid readers would soon begin to notice.
The audience and appetite for comic books was changing. Whilst Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman would endure, other Justice Society of America members such as The Flash, Hawkman and Green Lantern struggled to maintain popularity. Many of these characters disappeared and DC’s first superteam had become a distant memory. That was until 1956 when editor Julius Schwartz would make a bold move that would set DC on the course to Crisis…
Flash of Two Worlds
In 1956 writers Robert Kanigher & John Broome, along with penciler Carmine Infantino and inker Joe Kubert were tasked with re-introducing The Flash. But rather than simply telling a new story with Golden Age Flash character Jay Garrick the creative team invented an entirely new character. Barry Allen. Barry would have a similar set of powers to Jay. But his origin, his life and even his costume would be completely different to his predecessor.
Debuting in the pages of Showcase #4 in October 1956, Barry Allen was a hit with readers. The Flash was back. So the editorial team at DC – still known as National Comics Publications until 1977 – looked to reinvigorate many of its other Golden Age characters, including Green Lantern, in a similar fashion. These update would leave to the birth of a second superteam, the Justice League of America.
Elsewhere in popular culture there was a rise in the popularity of science fiction. Stories of aliens, new technologies and visions of the future were hits with readers and viewers alike. Soon those elements would begin to bleed in to the pages of comic books are the medium struggled to maintain its foothold in the marketplace. 1961 that would lead to the invention of what is now known as the DC Multiverse.
In Flash #123, written by Gardner Fox with artists Infantino and Joe Giella, “Flash of Two Worlds” would introduce the concept of multiple Earths. Whilst Barry Allen was revealed to live on Earth-1, Jay Garrick and the lost heroes of the Golden Age still existed on the parallel Earth-2. Running at unthinkable speeds would allow Barry to cross between worlds leading to the first crossover between characters of the 1940’s and those of the present day.
Road to Crisis
Over the two-decades which followed National Comics Publications would become DC Comics. Batman would become a small-screen sensation thanks to the performance of Adam West. But most importantly audiences would believe a man could fly with the release of 1978’s Superman starring Christopher Reeve and directed by Richard Donner.
In the pages of DC’s comics more creative teams had come and gone. New Earth’s had been created and the history of the DC Universe had become somewhat of a convoluted mess. The company had absorbed other publishers, bringing on board characters like Captain Marvel aka Shazam! and also Blue Beetle. These characters would exist, in some cases, on their own Earths with their own interpretations of other DC characters.
By 1981 one name had become synonymous with DC, Marv Wolfman. Wolfman was masterminding the incredible The New Teen Titans along with a now equally legendary artist, the late George Pérez. Legend goes that in 1981, whilst editing Green Lantern, Wolfman would receive a letter from a fan which would light the fuse of creating Crisis on Infinite Earths. As the legend goes, the fan wrote to ask why a character had not recognised Green Lantern in the latest issue. The interaction between characters had stood out to the reader given that both these character had shared a story together just three years prior. The DCU was tied in so many knots that nobody could keep track anymore.
So in 1982, in the pages of The New Teen Titans #21, Wolfman introduced a new character: the shadowy, potentially villainous Monitor. A character pivotal to the Crisis storyline.
Worlds Will Live. Worlds Will Die…
Pitched shortly after receiving the infamous fan letter in 1981, Crisis on Infinite Earths would be a huge undertaking for everyone at DC. In fact it’s well documented that in 1982 DC hired a researcher specifically for the purpose of trying to understand all of the current branches of continuity in existence. This research would cause Crisis to be delayed until 1983 and then again to 1985 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the company.
In the meantime, DC’s sales were beginning to be impacted by the convoluted storytelling and another company, a certain Marvel Comics, had become a favourite with readers. Wolfman has spoken candidly about working on the book, seeing it as a way to overhaul the company which was seen as too old-fashioned by readers.
Crisis on Infinite Earths is an early example of a maxiseries. A limited-run title which is spread across twelve issues with various tie-ins. A concept which is regularly used in comics today. Until Crisis no publisher had attempted such a feat and as such the future of DC rested in the hands of Wolfman and Pérez.
The series was marketed with the now immortal tagline “Worlds will live, worlds will die and nothing will ever be the same.” First announced in June 1984 in it’s editors column, Crisis on Infinite Earths #1 debuted in stores in January 1985, with the final issue landing in December of the same year.
Spanning 12 core issues and over 40 tie-in stories, Crisis on Infinite Earths revitalised DC’s brand. It also unexpectedly changed the landscape of comic books forever. It was a bestseller with readers and became known as a crucial turning point in the history of the medium.
The aftermath of Crisis saw huge names like Frank Miller moving from Marvel to DC. Being handed the keys to rewrite the histories of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman was seen as the must-have job in comics. The immediate years following Crisis also saw a change in the lineage of comic book names like The Flash. With Barry Allen missing and presumed dead, Wally West would become the first kid-sidekick in comic book history to step up and take on the mantle of his former mentor. A practice which is now commonplace across the superhero genre.
Many Post-Crisis era stories, such as George Pérez’s now legendary take on Wonder Woman, would become the blueprint for every future reinvention that DC would go through from New 52 to Rebirth and beyond.
The storyline would give rise to the Crisis Level Event, a term used when the DC Multiverse is in grave danger. Through 2023’s Dark Crisis on Infinite Earths there has been no less than nine Crisis events in the history of DC. But we’ll save that story for another day…
Justice League: Crisis on Infinite Earths, Part One is available now on digital platforms and on 4K UHD+Blu-ray Steelbook.