4 Lessons Secret Wars Can Learn From Crisis on Infinite Earths

Comics Features Secret Wars

Next month, Avengers and Spider-Man comic book publisher Marvel drops its much-ballyhooed Secret Wars event, said to significantly alter—if not outright do away with—the mainstream Earth-616 Marvel Universe’s 75-plus years of canon continuity. Instead, this new direction will opt in favor of a fresh start with elements from the Ultimate Marvel Universe, a.k.a Earth-1610. Tellingly, the only online columnist I found who thinks this is a good idea writes for Business Insider. Reactions from the not-as-fiscally-minded range from skeptical to worried.

Secret Wars Art by Alex Ross

Is such a reboot unnecessary? An excuse to remake the comic book Marvel Universe into one more closely resembling the far, far more lucrative Marvel Cinematic Universe? No one who isn’t on Disney’s payroll knows for sure. But probably!

Maybe that’s okay. A hypothetical return to square one might not be the worst thing for the ink-and-pulp version of the MU. Perhaps Marvel could use it as an opportunity to jettison the less favorable bits of its history (dead Wolverine, nine incarnations of Ghost Rider, the fact that the youngest holocaust survivor alive in 2015 is 76 years old, making a non-geriatric Magneto impossible, while retaining the bits everybody more-or-less approves of (Squirrel Girl, etc.).

It’s also nothing to fret over, because proverbial Etch A Sketches of comic book continuities have been shaken loads of times before—and not just among the big two. Back in the ‘90s, Valiant rebooted to better provide its new corporate overlords with potential video game franchises. Dark Horse pulled its line of Aliens and Predator books back into the ovomorph as recently as last year. And, naturally, we haven’t forgotten 2013’s New 52.

But there is only one true precedent for a universe-wide renewal on the scale of what Secret Wars reportedly has in store: 1985’s Crisis on Infinite Earths.

In essence, the histories of DC’s myriad roster of good guys and bad guys had been drawn out for more than five decades, split off into alternate universes, altered to appease censorship groups, reimagined in the interest of historical relevance and in some cases, retconned beyond any point of recognizability (not unlike the current state of the Marvel Universe, minus 30 years). In order to provide direly-needed new readers with a jumping off point not bogged down with layers upon layers of arcane bullshit, The DCU had to tear itself down and start anew.

Crisis on Infinite Earths Art by George Perez

Crisis itself stands as something of a curiosity, in that it’s surely one, if not the most important crossover “event” in comic-dom. It produced imagery of all-time-ever eminence—the cover of Superman weeping over the corpse of Supergirl, most notably. The promotional images available for Secret Wars borrow liberally from the jumbled free-for-falls that pop up all over Crisis.

But while clearly “important” as far as comic books go, Crisis on Infinite Earths isn’t very good.

Not to sling any mud at Marv Wolfman, who did the best he or likely any writer could with the cards dealt to him (and he co-created Bullseye, Blade, plus Cyborg, Raven and Starfire from Teen Titans, so he’d have to screw up way harder than he did with Crisis to be ill-remembered by comics history). But, without factoring in any tie-in issues and focusing only on the 12 issues of Crisis proper, the series holds up as a clunky, overstuffed, inconsistent, scramble of repetitious fight scenes, all loosely connected to a pre-human, intergalactic omega antichrist called the Anti-Monitor.

In fairness, some the problems pertain to matters that could not be foreseen in 1985. The death of Barry Allen, and Wally West’s consequent reception of the Flash’s mantle, resonates in 2015. Yolanda Montez taking over for a temporarily crippled Ted Grant as Wildcat does not, but both events are presented with equal import, and maybe that made sense 30 years ago.


But that doesn’t mean Secret Wars couldn’t stumble into some of the same pitfalls as Crisis, nor does it mean SW writer Jonathan Hickman and the rest of the creative team couldn’t borrow from the times Wolfman and co. got things right with Crisis. Ergo, here’s a list of attributes Marvel could borrow from Crisis and apply to Secret Wars, plus a few bits they’d do well to avoid.

Crisis on Infinite Earths Art by George Perez

As a whole, Crisis is emblematic of the very problems it was designed to solve. There are way too many characters, and the opaque continuity renders it indecipherable to all but the most dedicated nerds. In some respects, that’s part of its charm.

If Secret Wars lives up to its promise of rebooting the MU, this could be our last chance (for a while, at least) to read about Dragoness, Doc Samson, Stilt-Man and other obscure characters almost no one cares about. But every character is somebody’s favorite character, so Marvel might as well make sure they all appear in at least one panel (even if they’re just there to get killed off), right?

Maybe not to the superhero-snuff degree of Ultimatum or that Free Comic Day prologue to Futures End everybody hated. But for all its flaws, Crisis grants appropriate pathos to sending a glut of second-stringers and/or alternate reality counterparts to the great beyond.

Everyone knows it stings when Supergirl sacrifices herself in a showdown with Anti-Monitor, and when Barry Allen demolecule-izes himself while dismantling the Anti-Matter Cannon, because both of scenes look super-sad when Alex Ross draws them. But the Guardians of The Universe…Psimon, Aquagirl, Earth-Two Robin, Earth-Two Huntress, Hawk, Dove, The Entire Earth-Three Crime Syndicate also perish with varying degrees of anguished valor, and those are just the deaths I remembered before checking Wikipedia.

Thing is, although most of those characters aren’t pertinent to what passes for a story in Crisis, their deaths are depicted like they matter—either via their gruesome nature or other characters’ emotional reactions. A meaningful, well-executed death of a superhero is something of a rarity, which makes a full-on superhero massacre practically unparalleled.

Crisis on Infinite Earths Art by George Perez

In an event touted as the end-all-be-all of DC crossovers in its day, you’d think Batman and Wonder Woman would both play major roles, yeah?

Nope. Maybe the creative team figured a street-level hero with no powers couldn’t present a believable threat to an omnipotent villain, but the Caped Crusader mostly makes walk-on appearances throughout Crisis. Diana gets a bit more to do, but mostly comes off as an interchangeable flying person punching things among countless others.

Meanwhile, plenty of page-space gets dedicated to newly-introduced, confounding cosmic characters with cool-sounding yet undescriptive names like “Harbinger” and “Pariah.” A dotty third-tier baddie known as Psycho Pirate does as much damage to the Multiverse’s odds of survival as Brainiac and Lex Luthor. It’s weird.

It seems doubtful Hickman plans to drop the amount of acid necessary to convince himself Prowler and Vertigo must be very important characters in Secret Wars. Then again, it’s not like such a bizarre decision would be without precedent.

Secret Wars Art by Alex Ross

Think of a version of Star Wars wherein the Death Star gets blown up midway through the film, reconstructs itself, gets destroyed by the rebels, reconstructs itself, lather, rinse, repeat, and so forth for the remaining hour of the film, and then you’ll understand the second and third act failures of Crisis.

Following his apparent destruction at the hands of Supergirl in issue #7, Anti-Monitor returns, claiming that she only managed to destroy his “outer shell.” Two issues later, a multi-globe-spanning, every-hero-versus-every-villain slobberknocker eats up 13 pages. Despite the ne’er-do-wells’ success in killing a handful of prominent crimefighters—Captain Atom and Aquagirl, among them—the cabal of heroes enlist their adversaries to aid their efforts, and send them on a time travel quest they subsequently bungle. But the Multiverse’s remaining best and brightest do manage to defeat the Anti-Monitor, again, during a trip to the dawn of time, thereby recreating the world into one where a scant few remember the plethora of alternate realities that recently ceased to exist. Anti-Monitor sends his shadow warriors to besiege the new Earth, leading to even more punching and laser blasting between Superman and co.—this time, in space.

See how any of those could’ve worked as a logical end point to the story, and piling them on top of each other like that kinda destroys their individual gravitas?

Just sayin’. In Secret Wars, Battleworld only needs to blow up (or whatever) once.

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