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Review 187: The Physics of Superheroes

The Physics of Super-Heroes by James Kakalios

Comics have always had a rough relationship with science. Many comics had their roots in science fiction, so it cannot be said that science is entirely missing from comic books. It’s just that, occasionally, science gets in the way of a good character or a good story. When that happens, one of them has to go. Since comics are a medium for storytelling, it’s easy to guess which one loses out.

As long as you can suspend your disbelief, the egregious abuse of science in comics can be overlooked. Things that we know to be impossible are not only forgiven when reading comics (and many other forms of fiction, be they movies, TV or books) it is truly necessary. I mean, that’s the whole point of fiction – to show us a world that isn’t our own.

And a lot of those nitpickers were overjoyed at this sequence. (World’s Finest #4, 2012)

Still, for the nitpickers, there’s plenty to object to in comics. Gross violations of the square/cube law, impossible particles, anatomical impossibilities, causality problems – you name it. It’s very easy to look at the use of science in comics and point out what they’re doing wrong.

So why has James Kakalios gone to so much trouble to point out what comics get right?

Two reasons, really – he loves comic books and he loves teaching physics. And he found (much to his pleasure, I’d imagine) that he could do both at the same time, using comic book examples to boost the interest of his students, making it the kind of physics class I would have loved to have taken.

In this book, Kakalios gives us a basic physics course in a few brief sittings, starting with the Newtonian Classics and working his way up to quantum physics. By using the popular superheroes of the day, he gives us a way of thinking about physics that is not only interesting, but also makes sense.

We’re right there with you, Kyle. (JLA #19, 1998)

For example, he uses good old f=ma (with a few extra bits of math thrown in here and there) to determine exactly how fast Superman (back in his Golden Age, pre-flight incarnation) was going when he leapt over buildings in a single bound. He looks at The Flash and how he might use quantum tunneling to go through walls, as well as why running on water would not only be possible, but at the speeds the Flash reaches, absolutely necessary. And of course, the Atom gets a lot of page space when it comes time to look at the world of the incredibly small, and the quantum rules that govern it.

Could Spider-Man’s webbing really allow him to swing like that, and why was Gwen Stacy’s death one of the best uses of physics in a comic? How are Iceman and Storm’s powers related, and how do Magneto’s powers really work? Did Krypton have a core of neutron star material? Does Conservation of Energy apply to the Flash, and how does the technology work to make Iron Man’s suit possible?

Two things make this book much more entertaining than The Science of Superheroes. The first is that it focuses solely on science, instead of trying to split its attention between the science, the characters and the history of the comic book industry. This is a real science book, despite the presentations – there are formulas in here, and it does sag a bit in places (especially the quantum physics part, but he does warn us about that).

The Hulk’s pants are a HUGE miracle exception. And I want the number of his tailor.

But that’s okay, because Kakalios isn’t out to debunk these heroes, and that’s the other reason why this book is good. He grants them a “miracle exception” that allows them their powers, and then asks, “Okay, assuming Ant-Man can shrink down to six inches, would he still be able to do what he does?” And then he goes on to show how the hero can (or can’t) do what he’s supposed to be able to do.

One of the biggest problems in science education is keeping students interested. Your average high school (and college) physics class will go on about weights and levers and inclined planes, presenting the laws of the universe in a fairly abstract (and dull) fashion. Like many students, I found myself thinking, “When will I ever actually use any of this?” For most students, the answer is Never. Same goes for a lot of what’s taught in high school – it may broaden your mind, but it’s likely to be impractical knowledge.

But knowledge doesn’t have to be practical to be worthwhile. Knowing how the universe works, what its laws and restrictions are, may not help you in your day-to-day life, but it makes you into a better citizen of the universe. It imbues the physical world with some semblance of rationality, an assurance that while we may not always like what the world throws at us, there is at least a reason for why things happen the way they do. There is consistency, there is order, and in a mixed up, topsy-turvy world like ours, that’s nice to know.

Even my disbelief will only suspend so high, GRANT MORRISON. (Action Comics #12, 2012)

What’s more, this book helps do what I always try to do – bring legitimacy to superhero comics. Even in this day and age, it’s very easy to look at Superman and Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four and say, “That’s just kids’ stuff.” It’s not. Okay, yes, the stories tend towards the simple; they’re flashy and bright and often espouse rather basic moral schemes. But they can be examined in many lights beyond that of simple entertainment, and reveal a wealth of information and understanding about the world in which we live.

“If a twisted, evil maniac like the Green Goblin can learn physics, then there’s hope for us all.”
– James Kakalios, The Physics of Superheroes

James Kakalios on Wikipedia
The Physics of Superheroes on Wikipedia
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Filed under comic books, education, James Kakalios, science, super-heroes, supervillains

Review 144: Soon I Will Be Invincible

Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman

It ain’t easy being Super.

You might be a hero, like Fatale. She is the latest in cyborg technology – a woman who was nearly destroyed in a freak accident, rebuilt by a mysterious corporation and made into the perfect living weapon. She is fast, she’s strong, and for a while she was one of the U.S. government’s best operatives. But now she’s on her own, and life is tough as a cyborg. You have parts to deal with, the need to keep your power source going, and of course it’s hard to enjoy a night out when everyone keeps staring at the half-metal woman in the booth near the window. Fatale wants to be a hero, though, and the re-formation of the Champions is just what she needs. If she can prove herself to this team, she can find a new purpose to her life.

A different, though equally self-aware, Evil Doctor.

If not a hero, you could be a villain. Doctor Impossible has certainly lived up to his name. In his many years of villainy he has come up with just about every nefarious scheme an evil, quasi-invulnerable genius can cook up in his twisted, malevolent brain. He’s been to the past and the future, he’s swapped brains with the greatest heroes of his age, he’s escaped from inescapable prisons more than once. Of all the would-be conquerors on Earth, Impossible is the one who would be voted most likely to succeed. And yet he isn’t happy. His life isn’t what he thought it would be, and it doesn’t take a genius to see that Doctor Impossible has a few problems that even his great genius cannot solve.

When Impossible breaks out of prison – again – the Champions re-form to hunt him down. With old and new members joining together to keep the flame of heroism alive in their world, the Champions are determined to find Impossible and shut him down for good. The only problem is that the person who has always succeeded against Impossible, a hero who calls himself CoreFire, is missing. Without him, their chances are greatly diminished. Against an evil genius like Impossible, who can defeat the team armed with little more than his wits and a false tooth, you want to throw everything you can at him. What’s more, the internal tensions pulling at the Champions may defeat them before Doctor Impossible even gets the chance to try.

This book, like so many other modern renditions of super-heroes, has its roots in Alan Moore’s Watchmen. While he was not the first to make his superheroes less than super, he was certainly the best, and his work is well-remembered for that. After Moore was done, it was hard to think of superheroes as entirely pure, good and noble. We could see the tensions between them, the neuroses that drive them to do what they do, and we began to understand that our heroes were just like us, only moreso. Ever since then, writers have been trying to de-super the superheroes and make them into regular people who just happen to be able to shoot lasers out of their eyes, break the laws of thermodynamics, or bend steel in their bare hands.

Not pictured: Impotence

Grossman has taken full advantage of the work that has gone before him in this novel. The story is told from the alternating perspectives of Doctor Impossible and Fatale, and proceeds to deconstruct both the heroes and the villains in visceral, raw detail. What is it like to be a cyborg, something halfway between human and superhuman? And how can you join a team like the Champions, a team of legends among legends, and feel up to the task? What happens when you realize that the heroes you looked up to are just as human as you are? Or at least, as you used to be. On the other side, what makes a villain what he is? What happened to Doctor Impossible that put him on the ever-unfulfilled path to world domination? Was he destined for it, or was it a series of choices, insignificant at the time, that led him to where he was? How did his genius get turned to evil, and what, if anything, keeps him going?

The problem with deconstructing superheroes is that once you’ve deconstructed them, there’s really nothing left. Being a superhero is a fundamentally irrational career choice. Watchmen hinted pretty heavily at this, since all the heroes in the story had been pretty well messed up by their days in tights. There are so many problems that crop up once the spandex and mask are put on that you may find it’s not worth the effort. Legal issues, financial problems, time constraints and unstable relationships aside, what does this choice say about your state of mind? What kind of person can take up the job of costumed hero and stay sane? When you come right down to it, even if you have superpowers there are so many other ways you can use them that are less risky and more beneficial to humanity than getting into fistfights that destroy city blocks.

Lex, we... we think you may have a problem.

The same goes for villainy. So often you see bad guys with technology that is honestly amazing in its scope – Captain Cold’s freeze ray, for example, would make him rich if he patented it and licensed derivative technologies. Much richer than if he ever succeeded at using it to rob jewelry stores. Doctor Doom builds machines that are so far beyond current science that he could rule his own country – oh wait, he does – instead of single-mindedly trying to destroy Reed Richards. Lex Luthor would be grinding his teeth in envy over the power that Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg or even Rush Limbaugh have. And none of them have a would-be Kryptonian conqueror to spur them on, either.

That’s the secret heart of superhero stories – they rest on fundamentally irrational choices. Take away those urges to help or harm and you are left with simple absurdity. And that’s kind of where this book falls down.

There’s plenty of navel-gazing and deconstruction going on in this story, from all angles. Between Fatale and Doctor Impossible, they pretty much reason away any good reasons for getting into the game as a hero or villain, and yet – there they are. Impossible is the worse of the two, really. His narration shows him to be an insightful, intelligent, and fairly well-grounded man who probably could become one of the most powerful men on earth through conventional means. And yet, even knowing that it’s probably a waste of time, he continues with his grand scheme – in this case, gravitationally manipulating the distance between the moon and the Earth so as to hold the Earth hostage. He knows he’s going to lose. He knows there are better ways to be effectively evil that don’t involve a metahuman punch to the face. He knows when he’s acting in a stereotypically villainous way. And yet he persists, usually in the most cliched way possible. He spouts comic-book-villain monologues and even has an island fortress from which he operates.

"But right now Darkseid's stories are on."

Neither Fatale nor Impossible – nor any of the other good or bad guys we meet – seem especially happy doing what they’re doing. And what’s more, they know they’re not happy. Doctor Impossible even goes so far as to state it explicitly during his moment of triumph – “For a second, I find myself at the fulcrum point of creation. God I’m so unhappy.”

Well, if you’re such a genius, perhaps you would be able to make better choices than this.

Therein lies the paradox of this book. The more human you try to make these characters, the less believable their story becomes. You can’t be both human and superhuman at the same time – it takes a very skilled writer to pull that trick off, and I don’t think Grossman is there yet. He tells an entertaining story, full of pretty much every comic book trope you can think of, which entertained me to no end. The problem is that by the time you get to the finale the unstable foundation of the story starts to show. How much you’ll enjoy the story depends on how good you are at filtering out the deconstruction that’s going on, which means missing the point of the whole book – that the only way to really enjoy superheroes is to accept them at face value and avoid deconstructing them.

So yeah, good luck with that.

“When you get your powers, you learn a lot about yourself. My professors called me mad. It was time for me to stop punishing myself, and start punishing everybody else.”
– Dr. Impossible, Soon I Will Be Invincible

Austin Grossman on Wikipedia
Soon I Will Be Invincible on Wikipedia
Soon I Will Be Invincible homepage
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Filed under adventure, Austin Grossman, comic books, futurism, good and evil, science fiction, super-heroes, supervillains

Review 89: The Science of Superheroes AND The Science of Supervillains

The Science of Superheroes and The Science of Supervillains by Lois Gresh and Robert Weinberg

By all rights, I should have loved these books. I mean look at them! They combine two of my favorite things, as you loyal readers should know: science and superheroes.

I’ve been a big fan of science since I was a kid. I used to flip through Carl Sagan’s Cosmos when I was young, just barely understanding the enormous ideas he was presenting in it. My father had the Time/Life Science Series (which I still have somewhere in a box back in my mother’s house) and I spent days going through those, learning about the wheel, water, drugs, matter, time…. Science never seemed imposing or intimidating to me (at least until I started trying to get the math), but rather a celebration of the human intellect.

On the other side – super-heroes. I still remember buying a copy of Crisis on Infinite Earths #10, the one with the Spectre and the Anti-Monitor facing off at the very dawn of creation, with dozens of heroes and villains trapped in a whirling maelstrom. To this day, that entire series has great meaning for me – not just because it’s an incredibly dense story or because it features some of my favorite characters of all time, but because it addresses greater questions of heroism, duty and sacrifice. And if those themes were left out of the more mundane run of monthly comics, well, that didn’t matter. These bright and powerful people had captured my imagination and still hold it to this day.

And as much as I’ve always wanted to be a superhero, there have been plenty of times when I’ve wanted to join the other side as well.

I mean, how many times have you wanted to don some goggles and a lab coat, stand on your parapet (you do have a parapet, right?), backlit by lightning as you scream, “The FOOLS! They called me mad? I WILL SHOW YOU MADNESS! HA! HAHAHAHA!! HAAAAAAHAHAHAHAHA!!”

Or something like that.

Anyway, there’s something to be said for the life of a supervillain, and if you’re a really good one then you’ll make it into the pages of history. Names such as Lex Luthor, Doctor Doom, Magneto and Sinestro – these are names that will live in the hearts of comic book fans forever. Indeed, it is said that the greatness of a hero depends on the greatness of his villain. Where would Superman be if he only had to foil a few muggings once in a while? Or Spider-Man if he were just tracking down garden-variety murderers? They might be heroes, but they certainly wouldn’t be superheroes.

So, with that in mind, let me tell you that I was somewhat disappointed with these books.

I think part of the problem is the mission of the text: reconcile what we see in comic books with what we know of science. The trouble is very simply that we can’t. Comic book super-heroes are, by their nature, not beholden to the laws of physics that we all know and obey, and the true mechanics of their powers are often unknown even to them. Has a Green Lantern ever actually asked what the power source is in the Great Battery on Oa? Does Superman know the biological process that goes on in his cells that turns sunlight into his amazing abilities? Can even the mighty mind of Reed Richards explain why his DNA and that of his colleagues was transformed, rather than ripped to shreds? Would Lex Luthor’s climate-altering machines of his youth really be able to change the climate of an entire region? What is it about the Anti-Monitor’s peculiar flavor of antimatter that allows it to overtake normal matter rather than destroy it? And how does the Vulture – an elderly man with wings strapped to his arms – not plummet to his death? Can comics examine these issues and still put out good stories?

Comics have tried to answer this question, actually. In the 1990s, as part of their Invasion! series, DC Comics introduced the concept of a Metagene, a particular mutation that was carried by a small percentage of the public. Under the right circumstances – such as being struck by electrified chemicals, being at ground zero of a nuclear explosion, or being immersed in a powerful chemical bath, the gene would activate and alter the person’s entire genetic structure to allow it to survive. That alteration would produce powers such as super-speed, nuclear manipulation, or extreme elasticity. But even the meta-gene idea was a kind of nudge-nudge wink-wink from the writers, who were far more concerned with telling a good story or creating good characters than they were with sticking to good science.

Which brings us back to these books. Through the books, Gresh and Weinberg look at some of the most famous heroes and villains from DC and Marvel Comics and try to see how well their behaviors and their origin stories hold up under the weight of established scientific truth. The answer: not well at all.

The Atom, for example, has the problem of extreme density to deal with, as well as the fact that the white dwarf matter with which he activates his power should be impossible to lift. On the other end, Giant-Man shouldn’t be able to move his own weight, thanks to the good old cube-square law. The Flash has a whole host of problems, starting with an anti-friction aura that curiously doesn’t extend to the soles of his feet and finishing with a serious defiance of relativity. The Fantastic Four and Dr. Banner should have come out of their radioactive disasters with a severe case of death at the very least, and half of Peter Parker’s powers actually have nothing whatsoever to do with spiders.

The basic message here is that the heroes and villains we know and love are, for the most part, scientifically impossible. But we knew that. Everybody who reads comics knows, in their hearts, that science is not in the driver’s seat when it comes to super-heroes. As much fun as it would be to stand out in a thunderstorm yelling, “SHAZAM!” with a golf club in the air, I know that the only super-power I would gain would be the ability to occupy a hospital bed. If I was lucky.

Batman, on the other hand, is reasonably plausible, given the nigh-infinite resources of Bruce Wayne. The technology for most of his gadgets and gimmicks is extant and not too hard to either acquire or produce. Also, it wouldn’t be impossible to re-write the Hulk’s origin using an angry biochemist who has a particular talent for mixing up new and interesting steroid cocktails.

There are heroes – and villains – who show us a goal to reach, in a weird way. Doctor Doom, for example, uses a metal exoskeleton that confers upon him great strength and endurance. Would it be possible for us to build such a thing, only not looking several centuries out of date? As it turns out, yes we can. Or at least we will be able to soon. The science of body assistance has been making great progress recently, and it’s only a matter of time before we are able to augment our own bodies from the outside and do amazing things.

Or look at Poison Ivy, one of Batman’s recurring villains (and the only female in the villains book). She makes great use of plants that look like nothing Nature has ever produced. Could we, with biological engineering, do the same? It turns out we already are, just not as cool. Instead of giant venus flytraps that catch and eat human beings, we’re engineering better strains of vegetables that will go towards feeding more people for less money. But if we really wanted to, we could have murderous plants in our future.

All of these bad guys offer us a chance to explore science, both fundamental and cutting-edge. The Lizard, a poor, beleaguered enemy of Spider-Man’s who cannot control the beast within, may give us the clues to regenerating our own limbs. Magneto offers us an understanding of how powerful and pervasive electromagnetism really is. Dr. Octopus shows us the potential of prosthetics, and Mr. Mxyzptlk is a great way to start looking at not just the fifth dimension, but the very concepts of dimensions that are beyond the paltry ones that we inhabit.

These books make a reasonable attempt to inject the history and theory behind the science that our heroes defy, putting it into the realm of books that handle popular science. But as popular science books, they’re rather disjointed and uneven, going into great detail in some sections but skimming over others. There’s some serious axe-grinding, for example, in chapter 9 of the Heroes book: Good, Evil and Indifferent Mutants – the X-Men. Not only do they not address the scientific nature of the X-Men’s powers (which they could have done with a simple page or two of “None of these are possible”), but they spend five or six pages detailing the historical and ongoing conflict between Creationism and Evolution. While it’s an interesting topic, it’s not germane to the X-Men and really doesn’t belong in this book. Perhaps a discussion about successful adaptations in the human genome would have been better – what alterations have occurred in Homo sapiens that have made the species better? Or perhaps how our understanding of genetics is leading us to modify our own species faster than nature would have intended? There’s a little of this, but it doesn’t balance out the unnecessary evolution-creationism segment.

The biggest issue for Gresh and Weinberg is that the writers of comics put scientific accuracy lower on their priority list than good storytelling and good characters. Yes, The Flash should never even be challenged by villains – at his speed, there’s no one who should be able to even surprise him. But that makes for a damn boring comic book. And the same goes with Spider-Man. If Peter Parker really exhibited the traits of a spider, he would probably just build a web where he expected bad guys to be and spend the entire comic just waiting for them to stumble in. Then he would drop his trousers and spray them with webbing from a place the Comics Code won’t let the artist draw.

More than once, they strayed from the science to criticize the villains’ motives – why is Vandal Savage so hot to take over the world? Why not just invest his money, wait a few hundred years and live a life better than any human had before him? Or why would Lex Luthor do something so stupid as to drop a nuclear bomb from a helicopter? Helloooo? Ever hear of a little something we like to call “poison gas?”

While those may be excellent story points, the books are not called “The Plot Holes of Superheroes and Villains.” They’re about the science, and trying to gain the appreciation of comic book fans by pointing out why their favorite bad guys are idiots, well…. That’s probably not the best way to handle it.

Other books about superheroes and science start off by accepting the reality of the comic book. James Kaklios’ The Physics of Superheroes does exactly that – he grants the heroes a “miracle exception” and then moves on from there. His book is founded on the tacit understanding that comic book writers are more interested in the story than the science, but that if you look hard enough, you can find scientific lessons everywhere.

Science is important, but so is fiction. We willingly suspend our disbelief for super-heroes so that we can better enjoy their story. Science can tell us a lot, but it doesn’t have much to say about loyalty, heroism, sacrifice and responsibility. It’s hard for us to insert ourselves into science’s stories – imagine being a hydrogen atom or a rock strata or a particularly interesting strain of e. coli. While science and super-heroes don’t have to be incompatible, it’s no great loss if they are. There’s an interview at the end with a group of writers, all of whom very clearly state that story comes first. “The story always outweighs the science,” says Len Wein, one of the industry’s pre-eminent writers. Super-heroes aren’t scientifically accurate, but they were never meant to be.

While I don’t doubt that Gresh and Weinberg know their comics, I don’t get the feeling that they really love comic books for what they are – fantasies with just enough science stuck on to make them seem plausible. Rather than looking for ways that comic books can open readers’ eyes to science, they seem to be more interested in tearing down the comics themselves for trying – and failing – to use science in their stories. They’re more focused on the flaws than the potential, and I found that tiring after a while. By trying to combine popular science with super-heroes, and by maintaining a dismissive attitude towards comics, Gresh and Weinberg have created books that have their moments, but don’t really succeed being what they want to be.

“By now, if you’ve been reading this book chapter by chapter, your brain should be screaming in pain.”
– Lois Gresh and Robert Weinberg, The Science of Superheroes

“By now, anyone reading these books knows that we never ask a question without having an unpleasant answer ready.”
– Lois Gresh and Robert Weinberg, The Science of Supervillains

Lois Gresh on Wikipedia
Robert Weinberg on Wikipedia
The Science of Superheroes on Amazon.com
The Science of Supervillains on Amazon.com
Lois Gresh’s webpage
Robert Weinberg’s webpage


Filed under Lois Gresh, Robert Weinberg, science, super-heroes, supervillains

Review 53: Crisis on Infinite Earths – DOUBLE FEATURE

Crisis on Infinite Earths: Absolute Edition by Marv Wolfman and George Perez

This, ladies and gentlemen, is one of the works that has affected me deeply. More importantly, it is something that has caused considerable harm to my wallet and bank account, as I have been collecting comic books for almost twenty-five years now, and it’s all because of Crisis. I can still remember going to the drugstore after church one Sunday and seeing the cover to Crisis #9 – a classic George Perez group shot of some of the most terrible villains ever seen in the DC Universe. You name the baddie, I guarantee he or she was in there somewhere. I was hooked. Of course, coming into a 12-part series in issue 9 meant that I was really lost as to what was going on, but some effort and visits to comics shops eventually got me up to speed. Unfortunately, once I understood Crisis, I realized that there was much more that I didn’t understand.

You can’t really understand this story without understanding something of the DC Comics Universe. In the late 1950s, they published a story called “Flash of Two Worlds” (Flash #123), in which the Flash, Barry Allen, managed to, using his prodigious super-speed, vibrate through some dimensional barrier or other, and meet the Flash, Jay Garrick, that he had read about as a child in – you guessed it – comic books.

The explanation for this was simple – the guy who wrote Flash comics in Barry Allen’s childhood had, somehow, “tuned in” to this Alternate Earth, watching Jay Garrick’s adventures and, thinking they were fiction, wrote them up as comic books which, in turn, inspired Barry Allen as a child. So when Barry was struck by lightning and chemicals, gaining super speed, he called himself The Flash, in homage to his childhood hero.

Anyway, in “Flash of Two Worlds,” Barry Allen finds out that the Flash he had read about actually existed, only on another Earth in another universe that vibrated at a different frequency from ours. Personally, I think this is a really cool idea, and my personal goal in life is to drink enough coffee in one sitting to accomplish the same thing myself.

Confused yet? Well, it did help if you were an avid comics reader for 25 years before Crisis came out. But to condense the whole thing, here you go:

In the Beginning, there was One. A Universe that grew and shaped and changed. Life was created, rose from the dust, and began to think. On the planet of Oa, located in the center of the universe, life grew with great swiftness, advancing at incredible speed. The beings of Oa embraced science and research. One Oan, a man by the name of Krona, sought to know the origin of the Universe they inhabited. Despite the warnings of his colleagues, he created a device that would allow him to do so. The result was a complete rupture of time and space, for the beginning of things must never be witnessed.

So…. In the Beginning, there were Many. Universe upon universe, each moving at its own speed and vibration, separated by a shadow’s thickness, but each unknown to the other.

That was the idea, anyway. The whole “multiple universe” thing, after Gardner Fox wrote his “Flash of Two Worlds” story, became one of the best plot devices the comics writers at DC ever had. Finally they could have silver age and golden age heroes meet and work together. At first, there was only Earth-1 (silver age) and Earth-2 (golden age), which was odd, because the golden age heroes of Earth-2 were older. But I guess since Barry Allen (the silver age Flash, remember) was the one who broke the barrier, he gets precedence.

Anyway, like I said – at first there were two Earths. That number grew swiftly, both for plot and copyright reasons. For example: At a certain point, DC was working on the rights to own characters from Charlton Comics (The Blue Beetle, Captain Atom, etc), and they inhabited Earth-4. Then they went to obtain characters from Fawcett (the whole Shazam line), who went onto Earth-S. As if the Hungry Beast That Was DC wasn’t finished, they put characters from Quality Comics (Uncle Sam, Phantom Lady, The Ray, etc), onto Earth-X.

Hang in there, I’ll get to the story eventually….

There was also Earth-3, where the doppelgangers of our favorite heroes were villains, and the only hero on the planet was Luthor. Then came Earth-D, Earth-Prime, Earth-Omega and, eventually, Earth-Sigma.

Suffice to say, by 1985, there was a huge mess…. Older readers had no problem following the continuity, but newcomers were baffled, and writers were no doubt also befuddling themselves. The decision was made to clean the whole thing up, make one Earth, one timeline, and one continuity. No more parallel Earths, no more vibrating through dimensional barriers.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Well, it took twelve issues and the appearance of almost every hero and villain ever seen in DC Comics’ fifty year history to pull it off. The research took over three years, with one guy tasked with studying every comic DC had printed since 1935 (my thought when I heard that: “What an awesome job!”). It also required the cooperation of dozens of writers and artists across all of DC’s titles, and a company-wide effort to make the Crisis a truly universal event.

Our story opens with the end of the world. Or the end of a world, more to the point. A vast white cloud encroaches upon the earth, vaporizing everything in its path, without pause or remorse. Panicking, people try to flee, but to no avail. Into this horror appears a man with dark eyes and a tortured face, who watches the world die, helpless and weeping, and vanishes again as the universe becomes nothing more than a mist of free-floating electrons.

Not a bad way to start a book, eh?

The man is Pariah, and he is condemned to appear wherever great tragedy strikes, unable to help, unable to die, only able to watch. He is there when the Crime Syndicate of Earth-3 put aside their evil to try and stop the wave of energy that devours their planet. Again, Pariah appears, and again the world is destroyed, but not before the planet’s only super-hero, Luthor, rockets his son through the dimensions, in the hope of freeing him from his world’s destruction.

Sound familiar? I thought so….

If you think you’re going to know what’s going on this quickly, you’re wrong. A mysterious figure sends his associate, a woman named Harbinger, who can split herself among many forms, to gather heroes from Earths that have not been destroyed and bring them to a satellite that hovers in orbit. While she searches them out, one of her is corrupted by a shadowy evil that tracks her through the ice of Atlantis. She gathers them, heroes, villains and otherwise, to the satellite, where we first meet a character that had been hovering around various DC titles for a few months, always in the shadows – The Monitor.

The Monitor informs them that there is great evil abroad, that universes are perishing at an astonishing rate, and are doing so at the hand of his adversary. Waves of anti-matter are consuming the universes, and with each one gone, the Monitor’s power decreases. He has a task for these heroes, spread out over millennia of Earth’s history. This is the first attempt to save the worlds….

The basic rundown of the story is that there is an anti-matter universe out there, created when Krona performed his experiment, controlled by the mirror version of The Monitor. This “Anti-Monitor” wants nothing more than to see his brother dead, and to see the positive Universes brought under his control. He’s a good, old-fashioned Evil Overlord, I must say…. So as each universe is destroyed by the great sweeping cloud of death, he grows ever stronger.

It has been pointed out to me that some people out there get all anal over this concept, thereby calling the whole damn plot into question. So, a bit of elementary physics. The above scenario cannot happen. When matter and antimatter collide, there is a huge burst of energy as the two forms of matter vaporize each other. Nothing is left – in “reality physics,” both the Monitor and the Anti-Monitor would be playing at a zero-sum game. Given that these people are willing to accept, however, the existence of thousands of metahumans who can perform feats that also fly in the face of real physics, I think their arguments about the properties of antimatter are so much hot air. As a very wise man once said, “Blow.”

Anyway, the Anti-Monitor’s release is tied with Pariah’s fate as well. Determined to do as Krona did, Pariah set up a chamber, of matter and anti-matter, so that he may see the beginning of all things. The result was the beginning of the end, and his world was the first consumed by the anti-matter wave. The Monitor, observing this, imbued him with his curse, using him as a “tracker” to see which universe might be the next to die.

So we have an unstoppable force tearing through the Multiverse, and it is up to The Monitor and Our Heroes to stop him. But the Monitor dies, and the worlds keep dying….

Of course you know that, in the end, the good guys win. But as with any good story, it is the telling of the tale, not the tale’s end, that is important. Wolfman and Perez did some very daring things with this story, not only in rearranging the whole order of the DC Universe, but also in killing off some pretty heavy hitters. The best cover in the series, so good that they came out with a statue based on it, was the cover of issue number seven: The Death of Supergirl.

The other major character to be killed off was Barry Allen, The Flash, who inadvertently started this whole mess a long time ago. But he died well, and, as Marv Woflman says in the forward to the collected edition of Crisis, there was a way left to bring him back if they needed to. Indeed, Barry Allen’s presence has not yet vanished. The current Flash, Wally West, has long held Barry to be the high ideal which he must match, but at the same time leave behind. In one version of the Legion of Super-Heroes books, the character of Xs, another super-speedster, is Barry Allen’s granddaughter, and the character of Impulse/Kid Flash, is Barry Allen’s nephew. So the Flash lives on, in his way. In fact, he’s recently been resurrected in DC continuity – though how long that will last is anyone’s guess.

On the other hand, no one remembers Supergirl. By the end of the Crisis, she had been wiped from existence, and was seen only once more, in a Christmas issue several years later, reminding the character of Deadman about what it means to work without reward. While several new Supergirls have appeared since then, unlike Barry Allen the pre-Crisis Supergirl is lost to history.

As you can probably guess, I really like this story. It has an immense cast of characters, without becoming unwieldy or dispersed. The storytelling, with its multi-universal scope, nevertheless allows you to feel for individuals, with their triumphs and tragedies. Ultimately we see that even the mightiest of mortals is, at heart, human. There is foreshadowing galore, mysteries abound, the plot twists and turns, and you get glimpses of what is yet to come – the hand in the swirling pool of stars, the image of the Flash appearing before Batman and vanishing with words of doom, the Green Lantern’s ring sputtering and failing…. It all intertwines together so very nicely and really satisfies my inner comics geek.

The Absolute Edition was aimed at people exactly like me. Someone who would say, “I’ve read this story a dozen times, I could probably recite it… but I need it to be bigger. Like, big enough to club a man to death with.” So yeah, they had me from the word go on this one, and as soon as the opportunity arose to buy it, I did so without hesitation. It really is very pretty – it’s been recolored and everything, AND it comes with a companion book about how the series came to be. Fascinating reading.

The big question, of course is this – after nearly twenty-five years and at least two other universe-wide reboots (Zero Hour and Infinite Crisis) that have changed the changes made by Crisis, why is this story still worth reading? Well, for one thing, the writing is solid – you can follow the story without having to buy a couple dozen other titles, and there are dramatic moments that have hung in my memory for years. In addition, there’s the art. George Perez has been one of my favorite artists for years. His attention to detail and his ability to draw dozens of characters to a page while keeping each of them dynamic, interesting and individual is, in my opinion, nothing short of superhuman. If I could choose to draw like anyone, it would be George Perez, and I will never get tired of looking at his artwork.

More importantly, however, this book is about the heroic ideal. On many scales, from the small-scale of characters like Hawk and Dove or the Losers, all the way up to the big guns of Superman, the Flash and Supergirl, the idea of what it means to be a good person is presented over and over again: you do good not because it’s easy, not because it will benefit yourself. You do good because it is what you must do, even when you know it could lead to tragic consequences for yourself. My model of heroism was formed in these books, and the model set by these characters has guided my moral choices ever since. Where other people take their moral guidance from Jesus or Marcus Aurelius or Oprah, I take mine from Barry Allen and Kara Zor-el and from so many others who put their lives and their interests aside for the greater good.

Can’t ask for much more than that.

Crisis on Infinite Earths: the Novelization by Marv Wolfman

Why yes, I own both the comic and the novelization. Is there something wrong with that?

Actually, here’s a Little Known Fact about me: when I was in, maybe, junior high school I tried to novelize Crisis. I sat down with the comics and went through them, panel-by-panel, trying to put them into a narrative form. I tried to fill in things like expressions, reactions, to bridge the gap between the kind of story you can tell in a comic and the kind you tell in a novel. To my memory, it was pretty good, though it’s no doubt lost to the ages by now. If I ever run across it, I’ll either marvel at my innocent youth or cringe at my fumbling attempt to do the unnecessary.

I am not the only one who gave that some thought, it seems. To his credit, though, since Marv Wolfman was the guy who wrote the comics, I think he has far more right to put it into novel form than I ever did. But whereas mine was a straight page-by-page translation of the comic to text, Wolfman decided to tell the story from a very different angle. He decided to let us see the Crisis on Infinite Earths through the eyes of Barry Allen, The Flash.

As I said in my review of the comic series, Barry Allen was (more or less) the beginning of the Multiverse in DC Comics, so it was fitting that he be the one to narrate the end in this book. After all, he didn’t get all that much page time in the comics – a few ghostly visitations, some taunting and then he was dead. Yes, his death saved billions of people, but still – for someone as important as he was, you would have thought he’d have gotten a few more pages.

The thing about The Flash, though, is that he’s hard to pin down. Literally. Even on an ordinary day, we’re talking about a man who can race laser beams – and win. He can alter his subjective view of time to the point where a hummingbird in flight becomes a still life. He can run fast enough to travel through time, and vibrate the very molecules of his body to a point where he can not only ghost through solid matter but pass between the dimensional barriers that separate the multiple Earths.

How any villain ever got the best of this man is beyond me. If the writers had ever taken his powers seriously, The Flash never would have had a challenge.

So who better to narrate our alternate view of the Crisis than he? The fact that he’s dead by the time the book begins doesn’t really make much of a difference. There’s too much for The Flash to do, and suddenly the fastest man alive doesn’t have enough time.

I don’t really need to re-iterate what the Crisis was about, why it happened and who the main players were. None of that has changed in this version of the story – we just have a different point of view. And from this point of view, we learn many interesting things that the comic held back from us. The relationship between The Monitor and his young ward, Lyla, for example – he knew even before he found her that she would kill him. In fact that she would have to kill him, if any of the Earths were to survive the coming apocalypse. We get a much better look at the Psycho-Pirate, the mad puppet of the Anti-Monitor whose ability to manipulate emotions becomes key to the control of worlds. And we get first-person views from so many other heroes and villains that took part in the Crisis – getting a much deeper look at the work.

Most of all, of course, we get to see Barry Allen. What drives him, even in this semi-dead state, to continue to play an active part in this Crisis? Incorporeal and largely unable to interact with – let alone avert – the catastrophe, The Flash remains a witness until the time comes that he is able to (with a little time-travel cheating) free himself from his bonds and go to a death that he knows he cannot avoid, and which he also knows is not the end. Honestly, how he survives beyond death the way he does isn’t very clear in this book. It has something to do with the Speed Force, a kind of semi-sentient energy field that grants speedsters their powers and provides them with a heaven when they die. His jaunts through time and space seem to be at the control of a higher power, but exactly who and what that power is we are never quite sure of.

As with any transition from one medium to another, there are changes. The villainous takeover of three Earths is gone, for example, as is the involvement of Superboy-Prime, and much of what occurs after the Anti-Monitor’s ultimate defeat is completely different (and is therefore, if you’ve been keeping up with the DC Universe over the past three years or so, decidedly non-canon). But Supergirl’s death is expanded upon, and we get to see the decisions that bring her to her doom. We know that, like Barry Allen, she did what needed to be done, knowing that it would be her end. Getting a quick look inside her head before she took on the Anti-Monitor makes her death just that much more poignant.

But also as with any transition from one medium to another, it is very hard to compare the new rendition to the original. While this novelized version of Crisis is a quick and enjoyable read, it doesn’t have nearly the scope and depth and visual punch that the comic did. Because comics are such a visual medium – a story told in mixed media – you’re going to lose something when you take one of those media away. While I enjoy reading this (and it’s a lot easier to carry around than the Rosetta-stone-sized Absolute Edition of the comic), it’s never going to take the place of the original. Wolfman is an excellent writer of comics, but he’s not a novelist.

If you are a fan of Crisis and you just want another look at the old story, pick this up. If you’ve never read Crisis before, get your hands on the comics and let this one come to you later.

“Worlds lived, worlds died. Nothing will ever be the same….”
– Psycho Pirate, Crisis on Infinite Earths #12
“Barry, I know people die. From the moment I understood what they meant, I was very aware of all the memorials around me. But my mother, God bless her, Barry, she said and kept saying until I believed her, that although we have to remember the dead, we can’t ever let ourselves act like we’re one of them.”
Supergirl (Kara Zor-El), Crisis on Infinite Earths: the Novelization by Marv Wolfman

Crisis on Infinite Earths on Wikipedia
Marv Wolfman on Wikipedia
George Perez on Wikipedia

Crisis on Infinite Earths: Absolute Edition on Amazon.com
Crisis on Infinite Earths: The Novelization on Amazon.com
The Annotated Crisis on Infinite Earths
Crisis on Infinite Earths on the DC Wiki

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Filed under apocalypse, comic books, DC Comics, death, George Perez, Marv Wolfman, super-heroes, Superman, supervillains, time travel, world-crossing