Bidding Farewell to the post-Crisis DC Universe
24 August 2011 — It's been 25 years since DC Comics published the final issue of Crisis on Infinite Earths. In so doing, the company streamlined decades of stories, characters, realities, and continuity into one manageable universe — resulting in the DC Universe most of us recognize as our DC Universe, the one we grew up with. However, next week all that changes with the publication of two comics books: Flashpoint #5 and Justice League #1. The conclusion of the former will pave the way for the latter — as well as the new DC Universe, or the DCnU.
With DC hitting the reset button once more, the ire of many comic book readers has been raised. Their frustration has been felt across the Internet, in comic book shops, and at conventions. But that's not what we here at Earth-2.net want to focus on. By sharing our thoughts about some of our favorite modern series, we hope to bid a fond farewell to the post-Crisis DC Universe — a world full of infinite imagination and possibilities.
The Question by Preston Nelson
For me and many others, the DC Universe begins and ends with one man: the shadowy figure, cloaked in black, standing on a rooftop as a familiar four-note leitmotif plays. Of course I'm talking about Batman. I fucking love Batman, and odds are, if you're reading this, you do too. But for all I love Bruce Wayne, there's something to be said for the direction he's been taken these last 20 years. He's become some sort of invincible Batgod. He's stopped being Batman and become Captain Ameribat, the peak of human potential. Not even Darkseid could keep him down, which is what made Dick Grayson's turn as Batman refreshing. Dick was unsure of himself, unsure of the city, and, most of all, Dick made mistakes.
Now, you're likely wondering why I'm waxing poetic about Batman when this is clearly not about him. As a matter of fact, this is about Vic Sage / Charlie Szasz / The Question. It's no secret how much I love The Question. As a matter of fact, I've broadcast that fact time and time again. I've gushed because it's so damn good, and because it needs to be read if you're a comic fan. But, of course, what does this have to do with Batman?
Simply put, if you're like me, you don't want to read the invincible Batman. You want Batman: Year One, you want the Dick Grayson Batman, you want a character that makes mistakes and has doubts while he strikes from the shadows. You want The Question. If you take all of the good things about Bruce Wayne and distill them, you get The Question: a brilliant, driven detective who is fighting to save a town that's damned.
Created in 1967 by Steve Ditko, The Question began as a two-fisted Objectivist detective, who, by Silver Age standards, was relatively ruthless; he adhered to an "I won't kill you, but I don't have to save you" philosophy. (Hopefully without Christian Bale's ridiculous growl.) In 1987, a minor miracle happened to the character, and that miracle was Denny O'Neil — the balding, coke-bottle-glasses-wearing Group Editor of the Batman titles. He took an interest in The Question, and, along with Denys Cowan, revamped the character. In the process they created what I consider the best damn thing DC has ever published.
This comic came two short years after Crisis on Infinite Earths, and more than any title exemplifies what the post-Crisis DCU was and would become. Taking its cues from Ditko's Question, the series started with Sage as a rage-driven, noir-style detective, which quickly led to his near-death at the hands of Lady Shiva. After being pulled from the bottom of a river, Vic is sent away from Hub City. Up in the mountains, he's trained by Richard Dragon. For nearly a year, Dragon shows Vic the way of Zen. From there, things become amazing. Vic returns to Hub City, and begins cleaning the streets of corruption, starting with the wicked man who nearly ended his life.
Under O'Neil, Sage is given a strong supporting cast including Aristotle "Tot" Rodor (his Alfred / father figure), and his on-again, off-again love interest Myra Connelly-Fermin. But more than any of these, Hub City itself is the largest supporting character. Like Gotham before it, Hub City is a town mired in corruption, crime, and poverty. For no other reason than it's the right thing to do, Vic Sage is convinced he has to save this city that's even more lost than Gotham.
With the single exception of The Riddler, there are no supervillains in the entire 36-issue series. The Question fights corrupt government officials, arms dealers, gangs, terrorists, and murderers. He chases a kidnapped Tot to South America. He goes toe-to-toe with a brutal vigilante. In the eighth issue (which is my favorite), Sage takes on a doctor with a bit of a fetish for Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado. The Question does battle with the city itself, fighting to save it from what it's become, and, honestly, there is very little to encourage him to continue on. But he does. With nothing but his wits and a sense of gallows humor, Sage fights for what's right. Even Grant Morrison-style metatextuality makes an appearance as Sage reads Watchmen, and decides to emulate Rorschach. (Ironic, because Rorschach was based on Ditko's version of The Question.) Upon this attempt of kick-ass violence, Vic is decimated and concludes that "Rorschach sucks."
More than Bruce Wayne, Vic Sage is a portrait of futility in his crusade to save his city. Gotham has industry, Gotham has potential; Hub City is a glorified ghetto. Bruce Wayne is driven by the murder of his parents; Vic Sage only wants to save the city because it's his home. Batman has piles upon piles of money to throw at the problem; The Question has his fists, his car, and his mask. The only thing that can save Vic from his city is himself. There is no happy ending here, and the book reflects that. Sage goes through all of this pain, fights for this city, and, in the end, he finds that no matter how much he tries, he can't change people who don't want to be changed. That gritty realism sets the stage for what the DCU could be.
This run, from 1987 to 1990, captures everything that the street-level vigilante should be in the post-Crisis DC Universe. Green Arrow, Batman, Blue Beetle, and Nightwing all end up taking cues from this vision of a vigilante. Sage only really plays a large part in any stories a handful of times once this series ended, though he eventually became a major part of 52 — before passing his mantle to Renee Montoya.
For me, this is the beginning of the comic universe I love. This is the genesis of everything that the street-level DC characters would be doing for decades. Does it get a little preachy? Yes. Is the art dated? A little. Do some of the stories drag a bit? Of course. But there is something so unique here, something so special, something that you rarely find in other comics, and that comes down to Vic Sage's dogged belief that Hub City can be saved. Because of his honest conviction that everyone could change, this dark, depressing story is surprisingly life-affirming. It's best summed up in Vic's own words to Green Arrow: "I'm somewhere between violence and tranquility. Or between violence and something yet to be decided." Arrow nods and unties The Question, replying, "Me too."
In this world, where a man from space bends steel with his bare hands and a woman empowered by the Gods helps to beat back the darkness, I think it's telling that the best stories are told about a man simply doing what's right. The post-Crisis DC Universe is filled with stories like this, stories of sacrifice and bravery in the face of insurmountable odds. Will the new DCU have these kinds of stories? Undoubtedly, but I think it will be a long time until something of this kind of quality and inspiration comes along again. So, with a heavy heart, we say goodbye to the post-Crisis DC Universe, and we look to the future, hoping some of the good rubs off on this new universe.
Infinite Crisis by Will Ackerman
I could never really get into Batman and Superman, so I wasn't a big fan of DC Comics. They weren't too daunting to understand — one is a farmer who struggles with being akin to a god, and the other is a man with severe issues — I just thought they both seemed a little boring. That said, I bought Countdown to Infinite Crisis for two reasons. First, I had recently become disenfranchised with Marvel for reasons I can't remember. And two, it was a buck. By the end of it, I found myself caring for Ted Kord, a character I was barely aware of and then shocked at his death. I was outraged. So outraged that I decided to pick up every one of the minis that spun out of the book because I needed to know that my beloved Ted Kord had not died in vain. Yes, I had developed a crush on Blue Beetle in the span of 80 pages. So sue me.
I'll admit, some of them were stinkers. I still can't finish all of The Rann-Thanagar War. It was just so dull and contributes nothing to the overall plot of Infinite Crisis. However, the books that sold me were Day of Vengeance and Villains United. Why? Because I had never heard of a single character in either one, yet they compelled me. I wasn't confused by Detective Chimp, because, yes, they explained his backstory, but you don't need to know that to understand what makes a character good; you need to be able to find the characters enjoyable and / or intriguing. Ted Kord had taught me that.
Around the same time this was going on, I had switched local comic book stores. I redrew my pull list, and went out of my way not to get a single Batman or Superman book. Leading up to Infinite Crisis, I learned that you could have a good book without either of them.
Once Infinite Crisis rolled around, at first I didn't find it that special. While the plot threads from the minis were there, most of the characters put in little more than cameos. At first this kinda annoyed me, but then it started focusing on Power Girl — a character I knew just for looking trampy, frankly.
While Infinite Crisis did focus on DC's big three, it also focused on Power Girl, Conner Kent, and Nightwing. They were all mostly supporting characters — only one of them had a book at the time — and they were taking the main stage. Throughout the series, some of the best moments were saved for these three: Power Girl's origin was revealed to her, Nightwing rallied the heroes against Alexander Luthor, and Superboy sacrificed himself to save all of reality.
Issue seven featured the huge, all-out battle between Earth's superheroes and the Secret Society. By this time, I knew who many of these characters were due to my recent discovery of Wikipedia, and the hours I had spent going through it quite earnestly. And because I liked certain characters, wanted to know who's who, and really liked the Manhunter tie-in, by then I had also bought many back issues of various books.
All in all, while I liked Infinite Crisis for the story, it helped me realize that DC really does seem to care about characters outside of Batman and Superman. I've stayed with DC almost exclusively for over five years because of it. Now, going into the reboot, I'm going to try a bunch of the new books. Some because they feature characters or creators I like, others because I figure it's a new character anchoring a book. Let's give them a shot. If they don't get me, I have been rather intrigued by some of the minor characters in Fear Itself.
Power Girl by Hannah Krueger
Power Girl, or Kara Zor-L, has always been a bit of a radioactive character, especially in the aftermath of Crisis on Infinite Earths. Her origin has changed several times, and her most notable feature has been her rather large... assets, and the window in her costume that shows them off. The character has been practically synonymous with cheesecake since her inception, and not too much else.
However, I'd like to note that Amanda Conner's 12-issue run on Power Girl has changed perceptions of the character. She certainly changed mine.
Power Girl was one of the titles that was first suggested to me when I was starting out with comics. I was more than a little skeptical, with the cover art seemingly emphasizing her aforementioned... assets , and not much else. At the time, I passed on it. However, someone on these boards (I'm not quite sure who) recommended the title to me again. They told me that it wasn't just about the cheesecake, that it was a really fun title, and it focused as much on Power Girl's brains as much as her brawn. So, I picked an issue up the next time I was in my local comic store.
I wasn't disappointed.
Amanda Conner, Jimmy Palmiotti, and Justin Gray's run on Power Girl is some of the most fun I've had reading comics. Sure, there's the normal superhero escapades, but mixed in with that Kara has to balance a life as the head of Starrware Industries, a social life with Terra, and trying to have a private life. A normal issue will include Power Girl fighting with some villain — be it Ultra-Humanite, an amorous suitor trying to use her to re-impregnate his planet, or three party girls from outer space — but it will also include outings with Terra to the movies or IKEA, interviews with potential employees, or spending time with her cat. And while the plot of the book can get a bit more serious at times, there's always a bit of brightness to balance out the dark.
On top of that, despite the sexist message that some feel her costume and design can broadcast, this run on Power Girl is one of the most female-friendly books on the market, and one I will recommend to female friends just getting into comics. Kara's a strong woman who balances her private life with that of her superhero life. She doesn't hesitate to give pervs on the train a good punch or a dose of ice breath, or to let men know how they should be behaving around ladies. On top of this, Kara's male colleagues regard her as more than just a massive cleavage window, and her friendship with Terra is one of the best parts of the book, especially as Terra adjusts to life in New York.
Amanda Conner's art is quite amazing, as well; this is where her strengths come to the forefront. Is there cheesecake? Yes, but it's the tasteful, loving sort of cheesecake that makes you appreciate the character's... assets, but not to the point that you feel like a pervert for reading it. And it doesn't feel like it's pandering, either. The coloring also needs to be mentioned; they're just so vibrant and lively that looking at a few panels will put you in a better mood for the rest of the day!
After 12 issues, Conner left the book — she could only commit to a year — followed by writers Palmiotti and Gray. Their final issue, which I reviewed in IIWY last July, was a respectful treatment of the character, and a natural ending to everything that had happened during their run. It also cleaned house for the next team, allowing them the freedom to do what they wanted.
While we're not quite sure where Power Girl stands in the DCnU, she's had at least one year of great comics by a loving team. And really, that's all you can really ask for some days. So, take care, Power Girl. You, and your wonderful... assets.
Gotham Central by Tom Hemmings
You're a police officer in Gotham City. Wherever you turn, extraordinary villains beset your city and violent crime is the only kind you'll get. It's easy to see why Gotham's police have been portrayed as the withered, vestigial arm of the law, constantly losing the criminals that Batman captures for them. But what if you were a real cop? Someone who had to deal with this city beyond the narrow vision of one crazed vigilante's crusade? Gotham Central would show us that living in the shadow of the Bat is no easy task.
Written by Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka, Gotham Central ran 40 issues from 2003 to 2006. Brubaker was noted for revamping Catwoman alongside Darwyn Cooke, as well as his work on Sleeper. Rucka had become known for his indie work on Whiteout and Queen & Country, and had been a regular writer on Detective Comics. Principle artist Michael Lark had worked on short runs here and there, including Vertigo's Terminal City, as well as with Brubaker on the Eisner-nominated Scene of the Crime. His art in Gotham Central heavily echoes David Mazzucchelli's work on Batman: Year One, which is both an inspired choice and the highest compliment I can possibly pay him.
Gotham Central is based around the Major Crimes Unit (MCU), and has the feel of a hardboiled, HBO-style detective series. The ensemble cast is unusually large for a comic; by the end of the series the profile sheet included at the start of each trade paperback lists 19 detectives working out of the MCU, and that's not even including the extensive supporting cast. Whilst the series often focuses on a few principle characters, many of them are fully realized by the time the book came to a close — a phenomenal achievement given the relatively short run of the series.
There's plenty of conflict here, between those who do and don't trust the Bat, between the MCU and other police officers who believe they're over-privileged, and between the MCU and a demanding new commissioner trying to fill Jim Gordon's shoes. Through gang wars and cosmic events, this book and its characters remain firmly grounded in the real world.
The way the series took shape was with Brubaker and Rucka taking turns writing arcs. Rucka might not have had the meteoric rise in the industry that his writing partner did, but it was his first arc that netted him the 2004 Eisner Award for best serialized story. "Half a Life" is what woke a lot of people up to Gotham Central, and in many ways is emblematic of the nature of the series as a whole; during "No Man's Land," Renee Montoya formed a relationship with Two-Face, and now she has to deal with the consequences. Can her colleagues save her? How does an ordinary cop handle the mania of a fully fledged supervillain? How will her sexual orientation effect not just this situation but her life as a whole? Can anyone put aside their pride and choose to rely on Batman?
Later in the series, as Gotham's cast of criminals revolve through the lives of the police, we see the terror they inspire and the consequences of their actions. We feel the fear of every officer when The Joker is brought in. We see what Mr. Freeze does not only to his victims, but also to everyone who knew them. But most of all, we see that even in Gotham the worst villains don't have to wear costumes at all. Fortunately, neither do heroes.
Once the dust settled, many of the characters went on to play more prominent roles in the DCU: Renee Montoya became The Question, and Crispus Allen became The Spectre. For many reasons, neither transformation has been especially well-received by fans, but one of them is the simple fact that Gotham Central showed that sometimes we need police officers as our heroes, not superheroes. Above all, the series was grounded in the idea that the police were distinct from superheroes, and being handed a cowl or cape shouldn't be some cosmic promotion for a job well done. These were characters forged in good old-fashioned detective stories that happened to take place in an extraordinary world. Brubaker and Rucka created an excellent book based in the crime genre whilst Lark grounded the whole thing with his deceptively simple and remarkably consistent style. It's the DC book for people who don't want to read about vigilantes in long underwear. There are other, more interesting stories to be told, and these are those stories.
The Man of Steel by Dan Toland
It's okay. I think I understand.
In the mid 1980s, I was but a wee lad, and if there was anything I loved more than riding my mastodon, it was comic book superheroes. If a guy put on a costume and beat up bad guys, I was all over it. And first and foremost, my greatest love was for Superman. Sure, I had discovered him through Saturday morning cartoons, and explored him further via the Christopher Reeve movies, but it was in the pages of Superman and Action Comics that I really got to know this man.
I devoured Superman comics. I loved the character, I loved his backstory. I loved that he had been Superboy at one point, and that he came from a planet with a scientific council of elders and a jeweled mountain. I loved that he had a Fortress of Solitude that required a gigantic key to open, that contained a Phantom Zone projector, the shrunken Kryptonian city of Kandor, and countless robot doubles.
I knew that he had worked for the Daily Planet, but that he now toiled as a newscaster for WGBS (Metropolis' primary TV station), with such supporting characters as sports reporter Steve Lombard and station owner Morgan Edge, with Lana Lang as his co-anchor. I knew that Lois and Jimmy still popped in from time to time, and that his true best friend was Vartox, another alien with incredible superpowers which included flight, invulnerability, wearing an open shirt with a hairy chest, and the ability to grow a sweet mustache. I knew that Superman was strong enough to pull a planet out of orbit without breaking a sweat, was thousands of times more intelligent than Einstein, and could see anywhere from the subatomic level to galaxies millions of light-years away.
In short, I knew a lot more of the character's nearly 50-year history than was probably healthy for a young boy to know, and I loved it all. I mean, sure, there had been a lot of silliness over the years, and a lot of stories blatantly contradicted other stories, and he was far too powerful for anything to realistically pose any kind of threat, but that didn't matter. I loved him, and I understood what was going on. If anyone else had a problem with it, well, tough. That was their problem. It was all good enough for me.
So, yeah, then Crisis happened.
You know how every six weeks comic publishers will throw an event at you while screaming "Nothing will ever be the same again" until you cry uncle and give them your $3.99? Well, Crisis on Infinite Earths was pretty much where that started. Worlds merged, characters died, George Perez drew a lot of people in costumes, and, one year later, it was actually true: nothing was going to be the same again.
The overarching effects of Crisis are way too intricate and detailed to go over here, but the main thing was that everything was a blank slate. DC Comics was able to start fresh, and due to their willingness to rethink pretty much everything — and actually see it through — there was room for the company to cut a lot of dead weight and streamline the entire line, to finally create a DC Universe not unlike their competition's.
"Well, the heck with that," thought 12-year-old Dan. I liked that dead weight.
For some reason, John Byrne paid no heed to my misgivings, and the first sign of things to come was the six-part miniseries The Man of Steel. I didn't read it right away, but when it was given to me as a Christmas present that following December, I decided I had no choice but to read what they'd done to Superman.
The first mistake was on page one. There was Jor-El, Superman's Kryptonian father. Except, he wasn't wearing a green Nehru jacket or rocking a sweet red headband. He looked alien. This was wrong. It was different, and I didn't like it. Nevertheless, I kept reading.
Wait, hang on. Clark was a football star? What do you mean, he was never Superboy? Ma and Pa Kent are still alive? His previously indestructible suit can actually be ripped now? Superman and Batman aren't best friends anymore? Luthor's not a mad scientist? How does that even work? Oh, wait, he's a billionaire? But how are you supposed to put him in jail? What? You're not? And now Lana Lang knows who he is?
This was too much, too fast. Everything was different. I mean, mostly it was the same, I guess, but you know.
So I reread it. And reread it again.
And I had to admit that as a story, it was pretty damn good.
And the more I thought about it, the more I realized a lot of these changes weren't so bad. I mean, I guess logically it made no sense for Superman and Batman to be best buddies, considering their opposing styles (and considering the darkening Batman had been going through). Losing WGBS and putting Clark Kent back in the Planet's newsroom was probably a no-brainer; that supporting cast was way better. It was kinda nice for him to have his parents back. And the thing I realized I really liked was what took me a while to put my finger on; previously, Superman had been the real man, and the dopey Clark Kent was a disguise. Now, Clark (whom Byrne had made a lot less goofy) was the real person — the person he had grown up as — and Superman was just a suit he put on to fight crime and keep trains from falling off bridges. That was good. It made Superman a lot easier to relate to. And even though he had been severely depowered (which at first cheesed me off to no end), I discovered that not actually knowing for absolute certain that he was strong enough to win his fights made for more suspenseful reading.
So when Superman was given the new title of The Adventures of Superman (which continued the numbering from the original series), and a new Superman started at number one, I found myself buying this new one for several months — eager to see where John Byrne was taking my favorite character.
So, yeah. I've seen this before. Crisis changed the world as we knew it. And I survived.