In a recent post I gave some thought to reviving the "1001 Myths" feature I instituted back in 2011. For anyone who's interested, here's the original rationale. I don't plan to follow the same schedule I followed at the time, nor will I necessarily use the format I used before. Whether I do or not will depend on how well I think the format elucidates the meaning. The topic here, the 1985-6 limited series CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS, requires a little more flexible handling. This being one example--
I don't have as much of a problem with commercial art as do the more ideologically minded critics. In tune with my loosely Jungian beliefs, I consider that the commercial artist's sheer need to come up with something that might sell can *sometimes* play the midwife to a breakthrough in creativity. There's no guarantee that the creative lightning will strike more than once, of course. The same commercial artists who gave birth to Superman also gave birth to a lot of unexceptional features, like "Slam Bradley" and "Doctor Occult."
That said, I generally prefer that commercial artists maintain the illusion of storytelling for its own sake while they entertain me: that is, not injecting anything that strongly reminds me of the commercial status of the work, such as advertisements for the publisher's other publications. In the early Silver Age Marvel Comics managed to perfect the device of "the crossover," so that the company could advertise other works without seeming too blatant about their commercial motivations in, say, having Spider-Man meet Daredevil. That brings me to one of my biggest problems in reading CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS (henceforth COIE for short)-- for often the appearances of the hundred-plus heroes who answer the "call to crisis" are often so perfunctory, so nugatory, that I can't think of them as anything but advertisements for the history of DC Comics.
I don't know how COIE would read to someone completely unacquainted with that history. The limited series was clearly meant to be an insider's thing: one could not appreciate it unless one were "universe-versed." And the most important message COIE had to convey was that DC Comics was undergoing a massive universal sea-change.
Whereas Marvel Comics had in essence 'started fresh" with the publication of 1961's FANTASTIC FOUR, DC Comics's history involved a tremendous number of franchises, some of which were originally intended to stand as part of a loose "continuity," while others were not. When DC began reviving the basic ideas behind some of its once popular Golden Age heroes-- particularly the Flash in 1956 and Green Lantern in 1959-- they initially intended to "start fresh," without making references to other aspects of continuity. However, both the FLASH and GREEN LANTERN features were more heavily invested in science-fiction concepts than their forbears had been-- and this led to both features' greater use of the concept of "parallel worlds."
GREEN LANTERN was first to evoke a parallel universe in its second,October 1960 issue, as the hero encountered denizens from the anti-matter universe of Qward. The original story did not make any special references to past history, but over time, Qward's central world would be re-fashioned as the anti-matter counterpart to Oa, the planet of the Guardians, who mentored the law-keeping forces of the Green Lanterns.
Roughly one year later, FLASH #123 (which shared the same writer and editor as GREEN LANTERN #2) featured a different parallel-world concept. Though the first FLASH story was written as if the Golden-Age version was just a comic-book character, #123 established that the Golden Age Flash occupied his own world, "Earth-2," which existed in a dimension parallel to that of the Silver Age Flash, who termed his own world "Earth-1."
In time DC found the "alternate Earth" paradigm to be a convenient way to account for other franchises that the company acquired, notably those of Fawcett Comics and Quality Comics. There was never a clear distinction between the "alternate Earth" concept and the "matter/anti-matter" concept, but COIE depends greatly on this distinction, more or less taking the position that all of the "alternate Earths" belong to a universe of "positive matter," while only Qward belongs in the universe of "negative matter."
Unfortunately for DC, twenty years after the birth of the Fantastic Four, Marvel Comics had become the leader of the comic-book market. And since Marvel's universe was more or less unitary, COIE was conceived to boil down all of DC's unruly universes into one conceptual cosmos. They did so by orchestrating a massive conflict between two immortal being: the Monitor, the representative of the "positive matter" universe, who could call on all the heroes of all the Earths for aid, and the Anti-Monitor, the representative of the "negative matter" universe, who wishes to destroy everything but ends up doing the will of the extra-diegetic series-creators, killing off only what they want killed.
The job of becoming "hit men" to the old DC multiverse went to writer Marv Wolfman and artist George Perez. As commerical artists, part of their job involved persuading comics-buyers to invest in the new cosmos without feeling that the new one had displaced all the beloved aspects of the old one. Thus COIE follows a loose plot that allows for maximum appearances of almost every then-current DC character, as well as guest-shots from characters who were no longer published, such as the cave-boy Anthro, who only enjoyed seven appearances in his 1970s series. Very few characters were strictly necessary to the plot, which somewhat resembles those of old movie serials. Villain launches Plan X, heroes prevent Plan X, villain appears defeated but then launches Plan Y, and so on. With such a structure, no single character was vital to the story. Even the series' much-ballyhooed "celebrity deaths" of the Barry Allen Flash and the Kara Zor-El Supergirl could have been written out had that proved necessary, with no damage to the overall structure of the plot.
So in my re-reading of the series, its commercial motives are even more clear than they were in 1985: loose plot, innumerable guest-stars, and an extra-diegetic reason behind the cosmos-shifting changes. But even if all of these audience-stroking devices make COIE less than pleasurable to read, do they exclude the series from the realm of the creative "breakthrough?"
They do not, though the symbolic complexity of COIE is certainly compromised by all the commercial stuff. In this essay I pronounced a particular CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN story as "inconsummate" because, although it had some interesting mythic content, the story was rather half-assed, so that "the gears of the symbol-making machine" appear to be "a little out of whack." But I must admit that COIE, unlike a lot of the apocalypse-tales that emulated it, has a sense of the pathos involved in trading old worlds for new.
By "pathos" I'm not referring to Wolfman's tortured prose or Perez's frequent head-shots of characters' faces distorted in horror. I'm referring to the creators' references to figures of Judeo-Christian mythology, as seen through a lens superheroic, as evinced by the following:
(1) PARIAH. This is the first character who speaks diegetically within the COIE storyline. He is the only survivor of the first positive-matter earth to be destroyed by the series' villain, the Anti-Monitor of the negative-matter universe. He believes himself to be responsible, due to certain scientific investigations, for having unleashed the Anti-Monitor upon the positive matter dimensions. Late in the series, Pariah is exonerated of this crime. Nevertheless, as a consequence of his special destiny he keeps flitting from parallel world to parallel world, presaging the destruction of each world he visits, so that he becomes something of a conflation of the Biblical Jonah with the extra-Biblical legend of the Wandering Jew.
(2) THE HARBINGER. This character is an orphaned Earth-woman raised as an adoptive daughter by the Monitor. Long before the COIE series officially began, the two of them were seen endlessly researching the affairs of DC Comics heroes, and COIE was the pay-off to that continuing mystery. However, only in COIE was it revealed that Harbinger's destiny was to become enthralled by the Anti-Monitor so that she would kill the Monitor. This destiny, however, turns out to be more or less stage-managed by the Monitor, much as Judas' betrayal of Christ is destined to accomplish the Crucifixion. Obviously, the Monitor's goals are far more secular in nature-- he wants his death to liberate certain energies to use against his enemy, sounding more like Obi-Wan Kenobi than Jesus. But this consideration doesn't nullify the potential symbolism of the Judas-archetype.
(3) ALEXANDER LUTHOR JR. Like Pariah, this character is a survivor of one of the worlds destroyed by the Anti-Monitor. He is the child of Lois Lane and a good version of Lex Luthor, but he survives via a method copied from DC's favorite Messiah, Superman. The child-- who grows to maturity in short order, like many folkloric "wonder-children"-- combines "positive matter" and "negative matter" in his body without their imploding. This "alpha and omega" constitution is, like the Monitor's sacrifice, principally a chess-move that can be used at a certain point to counter the villain's efficacy. Nevertheless, though he is the son of one Earth's Lois Lane and Lex Luthor, he vanishes from continuity by going into another (spiritual?) world, along with the original Superman and Lois Lane from the Golden Age. It might have been a good commentary on the "father, son, and holy ghost" trope if the creators hadn't decided to have a stray alternate-world version of Superboy go along for the ride.
These three characters all play roles that bear a striking resemblance to characters associated with the Christian Passion. This observation does not speak to what either of COIE's creators thought about religion. COIE is a secular comics-story and all the Judeo-Christian allusions are secular as well, just as were (Jewish) Marv Wolfman's uses of Christian mythology in the TOMB OF DRACULA series. But the fact that Wolfman and Perez invoked such complex associations at all speaks to the likelihood that they were attempting to endow their commercial endeavor with the significance of a great mythic tale, rather than just tossing together a crock-pot full of super-dudes and letting the chips fall where they might. COIE is at best a jumbled mosaic, and I frequently don't feel that the whole was more than a sum of its parts, any more than DC's "new unified world" turned out to be.
But at least some of the parts proved interesting, which is more than most DC epics can say.