Skirting the Edges of Crisis
by Alex Boney
Multiple-character, universe-spanning crossovers have always provided major comics companies with opportunities to clean house and pull in droves of readers. Profit generation and editorial streamlining are clearly twin motivations behind such events. But they are major events nonetheless, and they can’t be dismissed as mere gimmicks when they’re done well and serve a distinct purpose. For several years during the early 1990s, both DC and Marvel coordinated annual crossover events that incorporated nearly every one of their titles. Even Image got in on the act when they began publishing in the 90s. But 1985-86’s Crisis on Infinite Earths was at that time the most ambitious, most expansive crossover event in mainstream superhero comics history. Crisis not only changed all the major characters in the DC Universe, but also introduced a plethora of new (and newly-acquired) characters who would shape the company for the next two decades. DC has used the pattern of Crisis on Infinite Earths several times since 1986—from Zero Hour: Crisis in Time to the current Infinite Crisis—with varying degrees of success. But in every one of these crises, the most interesting and intelligent books in DC’s stable have been tangential to the central sequence of events.
After Crisis on Infinite Earths, DC reinvented flagship characters like Wonder Woman, Superman, and the Flash. Even the Justice League experienced a major overhaul, as J. M. DeMatteis and Keith Giffen used sharp, witty humor to successfully guide an international team of superheroes composed largely of second-tier heroes. All of this was very fun and interesting, but it was ultimately contained within DC’s mainstream universe. The truly interesting experiments that followed Crisis happened at the edges of this mainstream.
In late 1986, DC launched a series that reintroduced a recently-acquired Charlton Comics character named The Question, originally created and written by legendary and appropriately-enigmatic Steve Ditko. The new series, written by Denny O’Neil and illustrated by Denys Cowan, was grounded firmly in philosophical and political inquiry. Though Cowan’s dynamically-rendered martial arts sequences provided the action appeal of many mainstream comics, the true focus of The Question during its 36-issue run was on humanistic philosophy and ethics. Ditko created The Question in 1967 to serve as a focus for his growing interest in Ayn Rand’s political and philosophical ideas, but in the late 80s Denny O’Neil re-cast The Question to reflect growing doubts about the moral difficulties of Randian objectivism. Under the editorial leadership of Mike Gold, the book used supporting characters such as Richard Dragon and Lady Shiva to direct The Question’s (Vic Sage’s) search for truth in a world that had increasingly become defined by moral relativism and postmodern angst. Alan Moore was investigating similar issues in contemporaneous series like Watchmen and V for Vendetta, but those high-profile books received considerably more in-house promotion and support from DC. The Question was a challenging but continually rewarding gem tucked away in the margins of the DC Universe. It was a hard-edged, often cynical series that earned the “Suggested for Mature Readers” label that appeared on the cover starting with the eighth issue.
Another “mature readers” book edited by Mike Gold, launched about a year after The Question, focused on a far more popular and recognizable character. For years, Green Arrow had served as a backup and supporting feature for high-profile DC characters such as Green Lantern and Batman. But writer/illustrator Mike Grell significantly altered Green Arrow’s tone and image in 1987’s Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters. Grell cast Oliver Queen as a hero keenly aware of his age who was undergoing a mid-life crisis during his relocation from the fictional Star City to “real-world” Seattle. The series was based on the premise that Oliver was an urban hunter rather than a superhero. Both the setting and the subject matter of Green Arrow’s new exploits suggested that the character would be used to examine more realistic issues quite apart from mainstream superhero comics. The ongoing Green Arrow series that began the year after The Longbow Hunters ended explored contemporary American political and social issues such as gender, race, and class divisions, environmentalism, and various forms of societal victimization. There were no costumed supervillians or superpowers in this book. Grell updated and enhanced the “social realism” that Denny O’Neil had introduced during the Green Lantern/Green Arrow series in the 1970s and created a unique, often controversial and provocative laboratory in which American social life in the late 80s/early 90s could be thoughtfully probed. Green Arrow also provided an effective philosophical counterpoint to The Question (much as he had for Green Lantern in the 70s), and the two characters were paired up in several annual crossovers written by Denny O’Neil from 1989-90. The Question and Green Arrow carved out a distinct, memorable niche in DC’s superhero line, and it’s baffling that (with the exception of The Longbow Hunters) these series have never been reprinted or collected in trade volumes.
But a series borne of a later inter-company crisis has received much more attention and adulation, perhaps because it’s fresher in many of its readers’ minds. Zero Hour: Crisis in Time, a 1994 crossover event that was supposed to do for DC’s time continuum what the 1986 Crisis did for the space continuum, was largely a muddled disappointment that created as much confusion as it did cohesion. Several lamentable, uninspired concepts—representative of much of the 90s—surfaced from series, including Parallax, Extant, and the new, non-improved Dr. Fate (now known simply as “Fate”). But one character who emerged from Zero Hour with sharp, original focus was Jack Knight, the son of the Golden Age Starman, who hesitantly assumed the name and identity (if not the costume) of the superhero after the death of his brother. The ongoing Starman series, written by James Robinson, was unlike any other superhero book published during its time. Robinson used narrative experimentation unique to the comics medium and subverted (and reinvented) tropes associated with the superhero genre. Much like The Question and Green Arrow, Starman transcended its generic origins and offered something much more than a traditional superhero comic. Ultimately, the book was about the very human (not superhuman) issues of love and identity. Starman didn’t carry a “Suggested for Mature Readers” label, but the book clearly appealed to a readership that expected more than it had been given by mainstream comics companies during most of the 1990s. Accordingly, trade paperback collections of the series have remained in print since the series ended in 2001.
Currently, DC has returned to some of the unresolved threads left after its 1986 Crisis in an attempt to rectify some of what it missed then and some of the murkiness that has emerged since. Infinite Crisis has been an interesting crossover event as these things go, but (once again) the most engaging series DC is currently publishing is actually found at the edges of this new Crisis. Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers of Victory, which reaches its conclusion in April 2006, taps into the experimental vigor of The Question, Green Arrow, and Starman. Morrison’s goal of writing seven four-issue interlocking miniseries and two bookends in a year was ambitious to begin with, but the fact that the quality of Morrison’s work has been so consistently high throughout the series is remarkable. Each of the seven miniseries focuses on a character pulled from the fringes of the DC Universe and presents a specific tone and genre. Klarion is steeped in gothic horror, Zatanna is built on magical mysticism, Manhattan Guardian is a high-octane adventure book, and so on. Three of the characters (Guardian, Klarion, and Mister Miracle) pay tribute to comics pioneer Jack Kirby’s creations. All of the books look to DC’s past, but each of these seven books is guided by the forward-looking postmodern experimentalism that has defined Morrison’s work for nearly twenty years now. This is truly the most original, innovative series that has emerged from DC in the last few years.
Like its predecessors, Seven Soldiers has operated on the fringes of the DC Universe. Although the series injects a few incidental references to Infinite Crisis, Seven Soldiers is not directly involved in the crossover event that is currently reshaping the central DCU once again. But this is probably as it should be, and certainly as it has been before. While most of the company’s promotional energy is directed toward the larger cosmic event reshaping the boundaries of its fictional universe, Seven Soldiers has quietly been reshaping the boundaries of the comics medium and its numerous genres. Like The Question, Green Arrow, and Starman before it, Seven Soldiers provides a space for intelligent investigation—not just of comic book superheroes, but of human behavior in general. These aren’t Vertigo books, but they provide something similar. When mainstream comics readers really want to know what they should read in the midst of a cosmic inter-company crisis, they should probably look to the avant-garde edges of the central event. The best, most important work generally comes from the periphery.