Complicated, controversial and epic, Crisis on Infinite Earths literally shattered the universe of DC Comics in the mid-'80s, and in the process, spawned many of the major comic book events like New 52, Secret Wars (2016) at the big two today. Designed to bring lasting change to the DC universe, Crisis on Infinite Earths weaved decades worth of backstory, multiple universes and variant characters into an unprecedented crossover event.
DC fans said goodbye to worlds that had been around for decades as Crisis on Infinite Earths author Marv Wolfman and artist George Perez killed dozens of DC characters in the process. In the end, Crisis was a booming success, breathing new life into DC, giving creators a fresh start and most importantly, selling loads of comic books. This week, SYFY WIRE spoke with Wolfman, artist Jerry Ordway and former DC editor Paul Levitz about the making of Crisis and its impact on the comic book world.
Seeds of Crisis
It could be argued DC Comics was in trouble in the early 1980s. They were down in sales compared to Marvel and fans who had grown up with DC's superheroes in the 1950s and '60s were getting older. Even though they still enjoyed comic books, young adult readers, entering college and the workforce, were looking for more relatable characters like Spider-Man's Peter Parker.
According to Wolfman, new comic book readers — generally Marvel fans who had not read DC before —often expressed that the DCU was hard to get into. They simply didn't understand the multiple universes or variant characters. In the wake of Marvel's success with relatable superheroes, DC had failed to adapt and found itself losing market share.
"DC kept writing stories for 8-12 year olds even though the readership now included high school and college kids who loved Marvel's irreverence and not DC's staid and childish storylines, Wolfman said. "Longtime readers had no problem with the DCU and liked it, but honestly there weren't enough of them. For DC to thrive we needed to come up with a way of luring Marvel fans over. And that's when I proposed Crisis."
Wolfman's idea of tearing down the DC Multiverse and replacing it with one working "Earth" was as ambitious as it was risky. But with DC's 50th anniversary was fast approaching, Wolfman's bosses, including the newly installed publisher Jenette Kahn, gave him the green light.
At the start of the project, Wolfman met again with Kahn, then vice president Levitz, executive editor Dick Giordano and the rest of DC's editors to work on the story. While Levitz agrees that Crisis provided a helpful reboot, Levitz insists that DC wasn't struggling to the extent Wolfman remembers.
"Marv's entitled to his opinion," Levitz said. "DC was on an up curve at the time, helped by his work with George Perez on Teen Titans, and titles that were effectively catering to the newly growing direct market of comic shops. Crisis provided a great relaunching moment for many characters, and that mattered a lot, but I suspect we would have found other ways to do that if it hadn't come together."
Still, it was risky.
"It was the centerpiece of our 50th anniversary and a host of tie-in projects," he added. "If it failed (creatively or commercially) it would have been quite a setback."
Wolfman figures that Khan, Paul Levitz and Dick Giordano must have had confidence in the idea because they didn't get involved with the story or plot.
"They let me, and then once he signed up, George Pérez and me, handle it unfettered," he said. "Although he wasn't immediately going to draw Crisis, George was not only the best artist to handle the job, but honestly, the only one who could. Thankfully, he decided he had to do it and that allowed Crisis to be everything it could be. George was the difference between a good artist handling the job and the perfect artist."
According to Perez, another artist was considered for the project first. That fact is disputed by Wolfman, who insists that "nobody was considered as I thought only George could do it right."
"After years of only drawing Titans, he was going off to write his own material — which I thought he'd be great at," Wolfman said. "But as I talked more and more about what I was planning with Crisis, he finally said he wanted to do it."
Last year, Perez told SYFY WIRE's Mike Avila he loved working on the book.
"If Marv wrote five characters, he'd get 15," Perez said. "I was having the time of my life… As soon as I found out about the book I wanted to do it. How many characters can I draw? I wanted to draw as many characters as possible. For me, it was an absolute joy."
While Perez's art has drawn much of the attention over his long career, Wolfman said people forget how good a story-teller he is.
"Every character is always in character," Wolfman said. "He also doesn't just draw the story, he makes each character real. My early plots were pretty tight, but once George signed on, although I may have come in with the basic ideas for each issue, keeping the overall thrust moving where it had to, George and I totally plotted the book together. So he wasn't just the artist; he was 100 percent the co-creator."
Plotting out Crisis
Since Crisis on Infinite Earths involved over 50 years of comic book continuity and stories to sift through, Wolfman said the team at DC needed "a ton of reference" work. In 1982, they hired comic book historian Peter Sanderson to read and note every single DC comic from 1938 on, so Wolfman and Perez would have knowledge of every character the company ever printed.
Interestingly, since DC spent so much on Sanderson's research, the company (on Wolfman's suggestion) turned all of that information into the companion book, Who's Who In The DC Universe.
The move also allowed DC to have a complete record of all their characters for possible merchandising, Wolfman pointed out.
"So while Peter worked with editor Len Wein on Who's Who, George and I handled the plotting, writing and art of Crisis on our own, with DC editor Bob Greenberger there to make sure everything fell into place production-wise," Wolfman said. "Although George and I were Crisis' editors it would have been impossible to handle everything that needed to be done without Bob."
Using seeds from across the history of DC Comics, including "Flash of Two Worlds" (Flash #123) and the Monitor from his previous work on Teen Titans, Wolfman crafted a story about the end of the multiverse.
Plotting out the series, Wolfman said he ran into the biggest challenge when dealing with the editors at DC. In order for the series to work, Wolfman needed help from each of the creators at DC, dropping in hints and "odd occurrences" foreshadowing Crisis in books like Green Lantern, Justice League of America, Legion of Super-Heroes, Superman, Swamp Thing and Wonder Woman in 1984 and early 1985.
In the summer of 1984, DC Executive Editor Dick Giordano teased Crisis in the letters page of DC's books.
"We felt it appropriate to save this blockbuster maxiseries for this anniversary year because the changes in our universe and the startling events that will unfold within its pages will alter forever the DC universe and provide some wonderful stepping-stones for the next 50 years," he wrote. "Clue: look for odd occurrences in DC titles from now till the end of the year. They'll provide additional clues as to the who, what, where, when and why of the DC universe miniseries."
Around that time, instructions from the top down at DC were for writers and editors to cooperate with the project by using a character called The Monitor in their books twice during the next year. Plans changed again a few months later as the order came down to discard the Monitor after the two initial cameos.
"The biggest problem was working with the editors who fought us on nearly every controversial decision we made," Wolfman said. "Some of them, as well as some writers and artists, hated to see any changes to the DCU. They grew up with the DCU and wanted it to stay the same despite the fact that sales were dropping and something big had to be done. Arguing and fighting with everyone on the biggest book that had ever been done while still writing and editing other books at DC made working on Crisis a major hassle. It was not a pleasant experience."
But, Wolfman said, he did enjoy one part of writing Crisis on Infinite Earths more than others.
"Actually I was looking forward to writing the first scenes in issue #1 where we killed off the Earth-3 super-villains," he said. "It seemed to be gratuitous but it was vital. Since I had decided we would not feature any of the main DC heroes (Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman) in the early issues — to show Marvel readers there was more to DC than just them — I wanted to show how powerful the Anti-Monitor was by having him kill off their doppelgängers, who were at least as powerful as the real heroes were, in about 4 or so pages."
Wolfman said killing "Superman" "Wonder Woman," "Green Lantern" and the others so easily showed the readers that The Monitor was a real threat.
"If we could pull off this opening scene I knew the rest would work," he said. "Mainly I was looking at how one structures a story such as Crisis. It had never been done before, so there was no template. What I was looking forward to the most was figuring out things that every issue would totally surprise the readers."
Killing Barry Allen
When planning out Crisis, Wolfman, DC editors and management each came up with a list of characters to eliminate and worked together to consolidate.
"Everything had to be approved by management," he said. "There was some pushback on a few characters by different editors, mostly concerning The Flash. That was mine, since as the first Silver Age hero I didn't want to see him die."
When Barry "Flash" Allen was solidified on the list, Wolfman said he and Perez did their very best to make sure his death was important and meaningful.
"I wasn't excited to kill anyone. It just had to be done. Each death had to be handled seriously or it would not have any impact. Barry was my fan moment, I didn't want to kill him," Wolfman said. "This was a DC management decision and I kept delaying his death until it had to be done."
Wolfman said Allen's death, which came the issue after Supergirl died, when absolutely nobody suspected they would kill another major character so quickly, turned out to be the best thing for the story.
"I fell victim of fan thinking in the same way I accused others, where committing to this story 100 percent was honestly the only way to go," he said.
In 1984, artist Jerry Ordway had left DC to work for Marvel Comics, but had recently been lured back by the promise to work on an eventual relaunch of Superman or Batman, which would happen after the conclusion of Crisis on Infinite Earths.
Around that time, he told SYFY WIRE, he received a panic call from DC's editorial coordinator at that time, Patty Bastienne, asking him to take over finishing (a little more involved than straight inking) on Crisis, because George Perez asked for him, and him alone.
"I knew it was an important project, very high profile, and it would no doubt earn me extra income in royalties," he said. "I agreed to do it mostly because Patty was kind of DC's mother hen to many of us younger talent, and she definitely needed me to step up. I was still working on a couple of issues of Fantastic Four, so I worked some really long hours in those first two months to meet both companies deadlines."
Outside of a few pages of tight layouts from George, via Fedex, each day, Ordway had had no contact with Marv or George with the exception of sitting alongside them at the DC booth for signings at the summer comic shows.
Ordway thinks the best and most interesting aspect of the whole ordeal is how Crisis on Infinite Earths went over in the comic book industry and with fans.
"The fan response was both exhilarating as well as scary," he said. "There were a few scary comic fans who were threatening violence against the people responsible for killing The Flash and especially Supergirl, meaning Marv Wolfman and George Perez."
While he said he doesn't think they would have actually punched his colleagues, Ordway worked to de-escalate things by talking to the fans, "explaining that the comics with these characters still existed, to enjoy, and read, despite their comic book demises." Some of that disappointment continued over to the editors at DC.
"While Crisis was enormously popular, sales-wise when it was published, a few years later, it was not that popular among most of the professionals I worked with," Ordway said. "They picked apart the story, and many lamented the loss of the multiple Earths concept. I would interact with fans, in the early '90s, who wondered why DC hadn't collected the series in book form, as they had done with other event series."
Roy Thomas, via his business manager John Cimino, said he didn't like the whole concept, but he cooperated with it because it was what DC wanted. At the time, Thomas was under contract to DC as a writer and de facto editor when Crisis was worked on and published.
Just a few years prior to the release of Crisis, Ordway, Thomas and Mike Machlan, created Infinity, Inc., a team of superheroes composed of the children and heirs of the Justice Society of America in All-Star Squadron #25
"They all resided on Earth-2, which was eliminated at the conclusion of Crisis. No more Earth 2, or any other alternate Earths," he said. "That was kind of sad, how the storyline affected those multiple Earth stories and characters. Post Crisis, though, felt like a new beginning. I was chosen to work on the relaunch/revamp of Superman, though it wasn't ready to start until more than a year later. Crisis ushered in a new era of DC Comics, as well as a new chance to introduce readers to these iconic characters."
While he thought Wolfman and Perez did a great job, Thomas thinks they were solving a problem that didn't need to be solved.
"It didn't wind up really being solved even by the series, as Marv has admitted, since DC immediately began to undercut it with more parallel worlds," Thomas said. "It's not as if Earth-Two, et al., were really destroyed by Crisis ... because they never existed in the first place. They were just the result of brainstorming in 1960-61 by DC editor Julius Schwartz and writer Gardner Fox."
According to Wolfman, the need for the book was very real.
"We had to show Marvel readers DC Comics could be as good or better," he said. "At the time there were business people who honestly thought because nobody had ever done anything like it before, Crisis wouldn't sell. Needless to say it was their best-selling comic."
Post-Crisis, Ordway said, DC felt like a new beginning.
"I was chosen to work on the relaunch/revamp of Superman, though it wasn't ready to start until more than a year later. Crisis ushered in a new era of DC Comics, as well as a new chance to introduce readers to these iconic characters," he said.
The significance of Crisis on Infinite Earths, Ordway continued, was that not even big name characters are safe and fans had to learn to accept it.
"The bigger thing was that it ushered in a wave of titles being relaunched or revamped, that had not been done before," he said. "Being around as long as I have, I see it as a blessing and a curse, because many characters are being relaunched and renumbered over and over, to the point of damaging the very tapestry or continuity that Crisis tried to preserve and streamline."
For Levitz, Crisis "defined the idea of doing 'events' for super hero comics."
"It's a trend which has perhaps grown out of control over the decades, but has provided many hours of delight for readers," he said.