Crisis on Infinite Earths
This was originally published in 1985; I read it for the first time in 1998, when I bought the hardback collection for £70. (At the time, DC swore blind that it would be impossible to put out a paperback version, so this was the only way to get hold of it, but then they later changed their mind.)
At the time, I think this was a very significant story. Looking back on it now, it's a bit different, because you have to understand the way that things used to be before you can appreciate what changed. Basically, this story collapsed a multiverse into a universe. DC used to publish comics that were set in various alternate realities: for instance, they had a floating timeline so that the Earth-1 Superman/Batman had always been around for 10 years, whereas the Earth-2 characters aged in real time. However, the editors felt that this was a bit confusing to new readers, so they wanted to simplify things by having all the stories set in one universe.
From a story point of view, this involved a villain called the Anti-Monitor, who lived in an anti-matter universe. Each time he destroyed a positive matter universe, his power increased, so he wanted to destroy the entire multiverse. (Based on Star Trek physics, I always thought that matter and anti-matter would annihilate each other, but I don't know enough about real science to critique this.) A bunch of heroes from various worlds banded together to fight him, and they wound up saving five universes which then got merged together. So, they sort of won, but several other universes were destroyed in the process; that means that billions of people were killed, so I can't really call it a victory.
Some of the changes were fairly straightforward, e.g. relocating Fawcett City to a different Earth so that Captain Marvel could live there. Other changes affected world history, e.g. the Justice Society of America were around in the 1940s, then the Justice League of America came later. This also left the door open for subtler changes: if a creative team wanted to retcon something, they could just say that a particular story took place "pre-Crisis", so it was no longer part of "post-Crisis" continuity.
Personally, I've read some reprints of "Silver Age" DC stories (from the 1960s), but they were all set on Earth-1 so I only know about the multiverse by reading Crisis. That means that I never had any particular attachment to it, and this story basically set up the status quo that I was already familiar with. On the other hand, I don't have any problem with the concept of alternate realities, e.g. Marvel Earth vs DC Earth. Looking at films/TV, I think that most people would recognise that The New Adventures of Superman (the Dean Cain series from the 1990s) is different to Smallville, and that they're both distinct from the 1980s Christopher Reeve films, even though they're all about the same character.
From a technical point of view, the hardback is very well produced: good quality paper, with a painted cover by Alex Ross. There was a printing mistake in the original run, so DC recalled the books and "tipped in" a new page; they didn't charge any extra for this, which was quite classy of them. The art is also good: it's drawn by George Perez, who is very good at putting loads of characters onto one page. As for the writing ... hmm. It's certainly a product of its time, and the dialogue can be a bit clunky. For instance, in one scene the Blue Beetle (aka Ted Kord) is investigating a tower. Here's some of his internal monologue: "Why in the world did the Monitor bring the Blue Beetle back here? I've got no special powers -- Ted Kord's a scientist -- maybe my scientific expertise is needed." So, in order to mention both of his names, he has to switch back and forth between first person and third person narration. Overall, I'd say it's ok, but not really worth the money I spent on it.
Zero Hour: Crisis in Time
The story: Hal Jordan (formerly Green Lantern, now Parallax) went mad, killed a lot of people, and tried to reboot the universe so that he could bring back Coast City (where he used to live). A bunch of heroes banded together to stop him: they succeeded, but in the process the universe got destroyed and then recreated in a big bang. So, the only difference from Hal's plan was that he didn't get to guide the way that the new universe was formed. Again, this meant that continuity changed a bit: events could now be "pre-Crisis", "pre-ZH" (implicitly post-Crisis), or "post-ZH".
This was originally published in 1994, and I have a paperback collection that reprints it. However, there seem to be gaps in the middle, so presumably there were other comics involved in a big crossover but they aren't reprinted here. Beyond that, it's not really a particularly good story, and I don't know enough about the characters involved to have any particular emotional attachment to them. Similarly, the continuity changes don't make much difference to me. I also start to get a sense of futility at this point; if the past keeps changing, then what does anything matter? Why should the heroes even bother striving to achieve anything, if it's all likely to get retconned away soon? So, I can't really recommend this.
Over the years, DC have published several "Elseworlds" stories. These are similar to Marvel's "What If?" series, since they don't fit into regular continuity. For instance, "Superman: Kal" is a story where Superman's rocket lands in England in medieval times; there have been other stories where he grows up in the jungle (like Tarzan) or gets raised in Soviet Russia.
In 1996, there was an Elseworlds mini-series called Kingdom Come, written by Mark Waid and illustrated (painted) by Alex Ross. This was set in a future where the "classic" heroes have retired, and a new group have taken over. There's a fairly blatant metafiction aspect to it: the idea is that violent anti-heroes are more popular than characters like Superman who refuse to kill. I've put a couple of quotes from that series on my website, and this one particularly stuck in my mind: "They chose the man who would kill over the man who wouldn't ... and now they're dead."
This is a good story on its own merits, and it's actually about something. To quote Neil Gaiman (in his introduction to Astro City: Confession): "There is room for things to mean more than they literally mean." I didn't recognise all of the (existing) characters when I first read it, but I could still follow the story without any trouble, and I actually care about what happens. There are Big Events, which change the world, but they serve the story rather than the other way around, i.e. this isn't just an elaborate method of setting up a new status quo. There are other comics that I've read as the equivalent of newspapers, just so that I can keep up with "current events" in the fictional universe. This is the complete opposite, since it's not part of the main continuity. To borrow a phrase from Alan Moore: "This is an imaginary story. Aren't they all?"
I originally bought this as individual issues, then I bought it again as a hardback collection: I chose to pay extra for the hardback in preference to the paperback, and it was well worth the money.
This is the sequel to Kingdom Come, published in 1999. It involves certain characters travelling back in time to the mainstream DC universe, effectively bridging the gap between them. This raises certain questions, since the original story was Elseworlds, and it's all explained by Hypertime. As Mark Waid gleefully announced: "It's all true!" Essentially, he brought back the multiverse, by saying that every DC comic that had ever been published took place somewhere, and they're all linked together. Also, he suggested that timelines could split and merge; if you had two comics that contradicted each other then that means that they took place in different realities, but they both share a common future (or present).
As a story, I have mixed feelings; in a way, the sequel slightly diminishes the original story, so I'd prefer it to stand alone. On the other hand, I particularly liked the "Kid Flash" issue, which shows that the new generation of metahumans aren't all bad. I bought this as individual issues, but I haven't repurchased it as a paperback.
I was a bit dubious about Hypertime at first, because I thought that writers would use it as an excuse not to do any research. However, it turned out that most people just ignored it, aside from a decent story in Superboy which had him travelling to alternate realities.
This was published in 2004, written by Brad Meltzer and drawn by Rags Morales. It starts out as a murder mystery, but it turns into something more, by revealing some dark secrets about the DC universe. Essentially, this deconstructs some of the old Silver Age stories by saying that the heroes had to do some dubious things to stay safe. For instance, there were some stories where heroes and villains switched bodies: this then meant that the villain could look in a mirror and take his/her mask off to discover the hero's secret identity. So, the heroes then started mind-wiping villains to get rid of these memories.
I can understand why some people don't like this story. As Paul O'Brien put it: "The most depressing thing [is that] it seems to see the fact that earlier stories were fun and upbeat as something which has to be explained away." As I mentioned a few years ago, the Justice League Unlimited animated series had a simpler solution to this problem, since Lex Luthor (in the Flash's body) looked at his reflection and had no idea who the other man was. It's also a pretty bizarre plot by the murderer, since they could have achieved their goal with a single phone call.
Having said that, I quite liked it. I bought the paperback collection, which includes some "behind the scenes" stuff at the end; among other things, Meltzer mentions that he did a seating chart for the funeral, rather than just having a bunch of characters shoved in to fill up the room. He really seems to have affection for the characters, and when I read one of his novels he included a DC villain in his acknowledgments at the start. So, even if I disagree with his interpretation, he means well. Also, I really like the artwork: I first noticed Rags Morales' work on Turok (the Acclaim version), and he's got even better since then.
At the end of Crisis on Infinite Earths, a few characters got special treatment:
* Superman and Lois Lane from Earth-2. (At a guess, I'd put them in their 50s.)
* Alexander Luthor from Earth-3. (He was the son of Lex Luthor, that world's only hero.)
* Superboy from Earth-Prime. (That was effectively "our world", where the DC comics were published. So, Clark Kent was named after Superman, but then he turned out to actually be Superman.)
They helped to defeat the Anti-Monitor, and their reward was to go off into a paradise world rather than being merged into the new single universe. In Infinite Crisis, they came back, because they weren't happy with the way that the new world had developed; in particular, they felt that the heroes were all corrupt (as seen in Identity Crisis), so they wanted to start again. They temporarily restored the multiverse, then it all collapsed back together, so there was still a single Earth, but the history was now slightly different.
This was published in 2005, written by Geoff Johns. I'd previously read some of his Avengers issues at Marvel, but I dropped that series because his stories took so long to get anywhere. In this case, you might notice that it's the same basic plot as Zero Hour, with much the same resolution; the main difference is that it's longer, particularly with all the tie-ins (which aren't collected in my paperback).
This is another story with a cast of hundreds: most DC characters seemed to make appearances, although some were briefer than others. However, times have changed since the original Crisis story, so we no longer have the omniscient narrator or editorial footnotes ("* See Action Comics #734"). Also, there are some rather bizarre choices: apparently I'm expected to recognise Judomaster (who only appears in one panel without being named), but there's quite a bit of exposition to say that Clark Kent is really Superman. Seriously? I only recognised Judomaster because I've read some Checkmate stories (set later on) that include his son, but I'd expect everyone reading the story to know Superman's secret identity.
I think that some of the quartet's complaints had merit, but they were addressed in a really stupid way. For instance, Superboy-Prime complains that the heroes are joyless, and that he couldn't tell the villains and heroes apart. Also Kal-L (the Superman of Earth-2) says that the merged Earth was mainly based on Earth-1, and it should have been based on Earth-2 instead. I was talking to someone a while back about outdoor swimming, who said: "It's all about spreading the joy, and if we can't have fun doing it then what is the point?" That makes sense to me, and I'd like to see superheroes who can actually enjoy themselves.
Some writers have done a good job with this, notably Dan Slott (at Marvel). For instance, here's a quote from Squirrel Girl in GLA #2: "Maybe it's just me, but I'm not crazy about super hero stories where everything's all dark and moody. Personally, I like the ones where good guys fight giant apes on the moon and stuff. Remember those? I do. That was back when comic book worlds were places you wanted to escape to ... not from." As another example, here's a quote from She-Hulk v3 #11, where Jen Walters is talking to Doc Samson: "And the friends I've made? The cases I've worked on -- ghosts, talking monkeys, shrunken super-villains? I'm having fun. And when's the last time any of us has said that?" I also have to recommend his run on The Thing, which included a big superhero poker tournament.
Coming back to DC, Peter David wrote a Supergirl series: this was published between Zero Hour and Infinite Crisis, and the lead character was Linda Danvers (no relation to Superman). However, the final storyline ("Many Happy Returns") featured the return of Kara Zor-El, Superman's cousin from pre-Crisis, whose rocket got diverted into the new continuity. Unfortunately, Kara's destiny was to die in the original Crisis, but Linda took her place. Quoting from Linda's internal monologue in Supergirl #79, after she's settled into the pre-Crisis world:
"This has been the best three years of my life. It's like living in 'Pleasantville.' It's all so ... so simple! So pure! Where's this place been all my life? The heroes are filled with joy over being heroes... The villains have elaborate plans that we can always foil, and they don't go around killing people... And, my God, everything's so clean! Like Disneyland! I mean, yeah, nobody swears, and there's only five channels on TV, so that took some getting used to. But it was worth it. Here I thought I was sacrificing myself, and instead I'm getting the better end of the bargain."
As for the pre-Crisis world, I've read some of DC's "Showcase" paperbacks (black and white reprints). Some are better than others, and the JLA one was pretty dire. However, I've really enjoyed the Superman books (including Superman Family and Supergirl); they're simple stories, and they have some dubious premises (e.g. getting clonked on the head to cure amnesia), but they are fun. However, as far as I can tell, these stories all took place on Earth-1 rather than Earth-2. By the time of Crisis on Infinite Earths, the stories had got a bit more serious, but I don't think it's fair to say that Earth-2 was always happier than Earth-1.
So, coming back to Infinite Crisis, what did Geoff Johns do to redress the balance? How did he bring back the joy, and show the difference between heroes and villains? Superboy-Prime accidentally decapitated someone, then went on to kill several other people on purpose, including the "native" Superboy (Kon-El/Conner Kent, who used to be in Young Justice), and Kal-L (Superman from Earth-2). Alexander Luthor also went from hero to villain, and wound up getting killed by the Joker. And the Lois Lane of Earth-2 died of old age. I can't honestly say that any of that put a smile on my face.
If you want to read a good story about Superboy-Prime then I strongly recommend Superman: Secret Identity, an Elseworlds story written by Kurt Busiek. It's not technically the same character, but it has a boy named Clark Kent (named after Superman) who then turns out to have superpowers, and the story follows him through his life, up until old age.
As for the retcons, they seemed pretty trivial to me. For instance, there have been some continuities where Batman never caught his parents' killer, so that fuels his obsession. There have been other continuities where he did catch the killer, but continued being Batman anyway, which demonstrates how heroic and selfless he is. Apparently it's flip-flopped a few times, and after Infinite Crisis we were in a "never caught the killer" timeline. However, since he stayed as Batman, this didn't really have any effect. All in all, I can't recommend this story at all.
Passing the torch
In Crisis on Infinite Earths, a hero called Wildcat (Ted Grant) was injured, so a young woman called Yolanda Montez took over as the new Wildcat. That's the last I saw of her; by Zero Hour, Ted Grant was back in the costume.
During Zero Hour, Jay Garrick (the original Flash) retired: he took the lightning bolt off his uniform and said "This Flash's days are over." In Infinite Crisis, Jay was back in costume, but Bart Allen (formerly Impulse and Kid Flash) lost his powers, so he told Jay that from now on he was the only Flash.
52, One Year Later
After Infinite Crisis, all the DC comics jumped one year ahead (comic time). DC then published 52, a comic in the style of 24: there were 52 issues, one a week, and these explained what happened during the missing year. So, this comic sort of ran in real time.
I didn't read 52, and the only DC comic I was reading was Birds of Prey (written by Gail Simone). I never quite figured out the whole "One Year Later" thing: they seemed to be saying that the villains were now in charge, but it wasn't actually a dystopia, and the BoP seemed to do business as usual. I stopped reading that comic after Simone left, but apparently she's coming back to it soon so I'll pick it up again.
Apparently 52 ended with the recreation of a multiverse (52 different Earths).
This was published in 2008, and supposedly it finished the trilogy of Crises. I haven't read it, and I'm not likely to. Nowadays the only DC comics I read are from Vertigo (Fables and The Unwritten), and they each have their own (separate) continuity, so I'm happy just to ignore the entire thing.