Over the past decade, I’ve found it virtually impossible to pick up an issue of Detective Comics and understand what’s going on. The same applies to the stories featured in a number of DC Comics’ titles: Action Comics, Adventures of Superman, Justice League, Justice Society and especially the Legion of Super-Heroes. And yet when I recently walked into Rocket Ship, my local comic shop, I couldn’t resist buying Infinite Crisis, DC’s new piece of crap. I read it with mixed feelings.
Like the others, it just didn’t make much sense to me. Superman and Batman were mad at Wonder Woman for offing some dude on TV. The Green Lanterns were out in space doing something. There were these OMAC things—apparently created by Batman—that were attacking Nightwing. Throughout most of the story I was lost, but it ends in such an unexpectedly memorable way that it suggests that DC may be ready to pull its head out of its ass.
To understand my surprise, one has to look at the history of DC Comics. Many of their series (from Batman to Superman) started to lose popularity at the beginning of the nineteen-eighties, and DC responded with action. They adopted the motto, “Not just for kids anymore” and ushered in a period of more sophisticated products to appeal to an aging demographic without alienating potential new readers. But this shift brought about distinct new problems: The rich DC tapestry of character and event histories was suddenly faced with a continuity miasma, gaping plot holes, alternate histories and a coterie of super-powered animals. In response, the company released Crisis on Infinite Earths in 1985, a year-long series created for the express purpose of straightening out all of the narrative flaws that fans were raging about in the letters pages.
Let’s use Batman to illustrate the problem DC faced, pre-Crisis. In 1927, when Bob Kane came up with Batman, all Kane wanted to do was to keep his cigar-chomping editor happy and create something he’d enjoy reading himself. But as demands changed and a Comics Code was established to keep comics “safe” for kids, Batman’sstories went from grim to dippy to stupid before achieving a fairly even mixture of grim and stupid.
Most of DC’s characters lost their teeth as a result of the Comics Code, a watchdog authority created in the 1950s to combat the horror, violence and sexual innuendo that was running rampant through EC Comics (EC, not to be confused with DC, was headed by William M. Gaines, later publisher of Mad magazine). The Comics Code held all comics to the same esteem, thus horror and crime comics were forced off the shelves to be replaced by ridiculously silly superhero comics, at which DC excelled.
As time went on, comics certainly—but gradually—returned to all of the wonderful things the Comics Code had squelched, though with a backlog of continuity silliness cluttering up the histories. And then in the nineties, the comics industry was thrown into confusion. Comics weren’t just for kids anymore, no sir—now they were for collectors. Meaning the copy of The Amazing Spider-Man the Gooch made Arnold try to steal was now not only worth a little bit of money, but a lotof fucking money. Everyone went nuts for the #1, collector’s edition, hologram, glow-in-the-dark, alternate cover, super-happy X-Man blowjob 9000. It was the corporatization of comics.
Kids went for it. I certainly did. But with all of the over-priced junk on the stands, the comics industry crumbled like the Beast after a blast from Spider Jerusalem’s bowel disruptor. Once the fans ran out of money to spend on every “collector’s item” issue, DC responded by killing or maiming everything underneath their banner in order to increase sales and stay edgy. Comics during this period were very grim and not very much fun. Green Lantern went crazy and then died. Aquaman lost a hand. Superman croaked and came back. Batman was paralyzed.
One can argue that it’s all Frank Miller’s (Sin City) fault for writing The Dark Knight Returns, making Batman old and dangerous and fucking cool—but I don’t blame him. Nor do I blame Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen, which revolutionized the graphic novel by throwing the unspoken sadomasochism of superheroes right in your face (and with a nifty story about pirates, to boot). No, it was Marv Wolman and George Perez’s Crisis on Infinite Earthsthat did it. Crisiswas everything the name implied. Worlds died. The Silver Age Flash ran himself to death. Supergirl sacrificed her life. In the end, a gray-haired Superman, Lois Lane, Superboy and others wandered off into obscurity to make way for a new generation of storytellers to figure out whether Superman should be able to fly fast enough around the earth to travel through time.
The muddles multiplied like rabbits. If you change Superman’s origin such that he does not put on the blue and red tights until he is an adult, then the adventures of Superboy—Superman as a tween, for those with railroad spikes lodged in their skulls—in the thirtieth century with the Legion of Super-Heroes doesn’t make much sense, does it? So that had to be fixed. Fix one thing and then you have to fix another. It was chaos.
The comics industry has now split off into different genres: memoir, journalism, crime, fantasy, science fiction, superheroes, porn, etc. Over at DC, they’ve painted themselves in another corner. With the newest Infinite Crisis, the multi-verse is set to return and the confusion is about to begin again. Maybe one day soon, I’ll be able to pick up a random issue of Detective Comicsand understand it again. I’d like that.
Francis Joseph Smith reports on unpopular and underground culture from behind the sofa for Maisonneuve. His column appears every two weeks. Read more recent columns by Francis Joseph Smith.