From the cover of Crisis on Infinite Earths #1. Artist: George Perez.


Medium: Comic books
Published by: DC Comics
First Appeared: 1961
Creator: Gardner Fox
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The seeds of the Infinite Earths that formed such a prominent part of the DC Comics Universe from the early 1960s through the middle '80s were laid in 1956, when the company brought out a new version of their '40s star, The Flash. The new Flash (Barry Allen), having acquired …

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… the power of super speed, was inspired to put on a costume and fight crime by his boyhood hero, who, as far as he (to say nothing of the readers) was concerned, existed only in comic books. The part of the story where he reminisced about old comics was written by John Broome (Atomic Knights, Detective Chimp).

A few years later, the new Flash had become established as a DC star, and there was a certain amount of feeling that it would be exciting if the two Flashes met. But DC was already locked into the narrative that to the current one, the old one was nothing but a comic book character.

A little thing like that never got in the way of a comics writer. Gardner Fox, who had created the 1940s Flash (as well as Moon Girl, The Avenger and lots more), and was still writing for DC, came up with the idea of parallel worlds, with information leaks between them in the form of dreams that writers like him would interpret as story ideas. What people in one world read as comic book stories were, in the other, reality. By piercing the dimensional barriers between the worlds, which The Flash could do by properly vibrating his body, the two Flashes could meet and have an adventure together.

They did so (bringing the old one out of retirement) in "Flash of Two Worlds!", which appeared in The Flash #123 (September, 1961). It made a fun story, which comics readers quickly hailed as a classic. There was little indication that they were letting themselves in for consistency complications that would make them long for the days when all they had to worry about was a funnybook character turning up in the "real" world. But if there is a single story that led to the situation where only a superhero geek knew enough about back-continuity to get full enjoyment out of a superhero comic book, "Flash of Two Worlds!" is that story.

Within a year, they'd met again. Their third meeting (Flash #137, June 1963) also involved several now-retired members of The Justice Society of America. From then on, Earth-One/Earth-Two (as they'd been dubbed) crossovers became commonplace. The '60s Green Lantern met his 1940s counterpart in 1965, The Atom met The Atom in '67, and most significantly, the entire JSA (now out of retirement) had an annual series of two-part adventures with The Justice League of America, starting in Justice League #s 21-22 (August-September, 1963).

The two parts were titled "Crisis on Earth-One" (the JLA's world) and "Crisis on Earth-Two" (that of the JSA). The 1964 meeting started with "Crisis on Earth-Three", where the counterparts to the heroes of both Earths were bad guys like Ultraman (no relation), Owl Man (also no relation) and Johnny Quick (yet again no relation). This expanded the scope of the "Earth" dichotomy, laying groundwork for those groups to meet The Freedom Fighters of Earth-X (where the old Quality Comics characters were still fighting World War II) in 1973, Shazam's Squadron of Justice of Earth-S (which contained the old Fawcett Publications heroes, like Bulletman and Mr. Scarlet) in 1976, and other interesting Earths.

Those annual JLA/JSA team-ups became so routine, they were livened up by throwing in not just those but other superhero groups like The Seven Soldiers of Victory in 1972 and The Legion of Super Heroes in 1977. In 1981, they all fought The Secret Society of Super Villains.

Between such crossovers and a few issues of Showcase and The Brave & the Bold featuring teams like Dr. Fate/Hourman and Starman/Black Canary, Earth-2 became such a familiar sight to comics readers that before long, series were actually being set there. When DC revived The Spectre in 1966, they didn't bother to create a new Earth-One version, just posited that the original on Earth-2 had been kept from having adventures for a few years.

In 1976, they revived All Star Comics, showing the modern version of The Justice Society between meetings with the JLA. For this, they created Earth-2's first hit character, Power Girl. In 1977, they created another intended for separate exploitation, The Huntress, putative daughter of the Earth-2 Batman and Catwoman. By this time, with two different versions of many characters running around, some of which even looked the same, many younger and/or less dedicated readers were having a hard time keeping things straight.

As comics entered the '80s, it was getting serious, and new Earth-2 series like Infinity Inc. only made things worse. Polls showed many readers preferred Marvel simply because there, they could figure out what was going on. A high-level decision was made that if the company was ever to attract casual readers again the multiple-Earth situation would have to be made less confusing. The 50th anniversary of its 1935 original entry to the comics field was chosen as the target date for simplifying it.

Just consolidating a couple parallel worlds into one would be no trivial task. But streamlining an entire universe with untold numbers of parallel worlds, all chock full of superheroes, would take a Cosmic Event that was unprecedented even in comic books. Just having somebody as powerful as Manitou (Galactus couldn't possibly manage it) come along and say "Let there be less confusion" wouldn't take care of a plethora of loose ends that had to be squared away. Tho it scarcely sufficed, a dozen monthly issues, plus crossovers throughout the line, would have to do.

The job of making sense out of it all fell to writer Marv Wolfman (Teen Titans, Night Force) and artist George Pérez (Teen Titans, The Avengers). The name of the main series, reminiscent of those old JLA/JSA stories, was Crisis on Infinite Earths. It ran its course between April, 1985 and March, 1986. By the time it was over, all the DC superheroes who lived on Earth at all were located on the same Earth, and redundancies were mostly eliminated. While they were at it, Wolfman and Pérez took the trouble to snuff some useless clutter like Starman, Prince Ra-Man and The Dove. Also snuffed were some relatively non-useless characters like the The Losers, the '60s Flash, and Supergirl — the last of whom, according to the post-Crisis narrative, never even existed in the first place.

The company summed it all up in a two-part series called The History of the DC Universe, incorporating all the revisions, which came out later in 1986.

And it still wasn't enough. Inconsistencies in the combined back-stories of consolidated characters, and ambiguities about their relationships, started being noted almost immediately. In many ways, Crisis led to more confusion than ever. Within a few years, it was necessary to do another company-wide crossover event/series to make amendments. DC did Zero Hour: Crisis in Time in 1994.

This was followed by Identity Crisis (2004), Infinite Crisis (2006) and Final Crisis (2008), and the DC Universe still needed tinkering to make it work smoothly. Nowadays, it's necessary for people writing about DC continuity to specify whether a particular event is relevant to the pre-Crisis or post-Crisis scenario, and if post-, which Crisis made it so. Even such long-standing "facts" as who was or was not in the Justice Society, can't always be determined by checking the original comics, because some of the characters may not have "existed" at the time. The multiple worlds, being useful in any sci-fi backdrop, are back; and tho they're kept more sedate now, once again have the potential of confusing readers.

Many readers have traditionally thought one of the strengths of DC Comics, as opposed to Marvel's rigorous insistence that every significant development in one series affects the back-story of all, has been the ability to reboot series at will, ignoring inconsistencies for the sake of a good story. But Crisis on Infinite Earths, while enabling reboots within the frame of the company's overall continuity, has made the whole thing seem more thought-out, and less the sometimes-messy organic whole the DC Universe used to be.

It's the "overly thought-out" aspect that some commentators blame for the failure of superhero universes of First Comics, Dark Horse and others attempted in the 1990s, and even for Marvel's New Universe. DC seems to be surviving so far, even thriving. But in many ways, it's more confusing than ever.


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Text ©2010 Donald D. Markstein. Art © DC Comics.