Misconceptions of my youth

The classic argument for why Crisis on Infinite Earths was necessary was that DC’s multiple Earths were just too confusing to new readers, turning them off. As someone who started reading with Justice League of America #30, part two of the original Crime Syndicate story, I’ve always found that funny. I didn’t have any trouble grasping the concept of multiple earths — maybe because at six years old, I had no reason to think there couldn’t be multiple earths.

But the other day I was thinking about that issue, and others I read back then, and how much they did confuse me. Although they didn’t discourage me reading more at all.

JLA #30, for example, was my first introduction to any of the characters. As a kid in England, I hadn’t even encountered Superman before. Because the JLA and JSA spent the entire story in costume, with no hint they had secret identities, I assumed they didn’t, not even the guys in masks. They just sat around the Secret Sanctuary (with the JSA sitting around their HQ on Earth Two) and … well, chatted and had dinner in between fighting crime, I guess. I also assumed the five members of each Justice team were the grand total of superheroes. I was pleasantly surprised to get JLA #28 (I’d hoped for #29, the first part of the Crime Syndicate yarn, but missed it) and learn otherwise.

Lack of knowledge led to other misconceptions later. For example, when the Atom bluffed some aliens in Atom #11 by claiming to be a gremlin, I assumed he was telling the truth. I didn’t know his origin, and it would have been no weirder than coming from Mars or Krypton.

With Adventure #310 it was more about art. It must have been very early in my comics reading days because I hadn’t grasped the concept of the splash panel (JLA #30 just had a text recap of Part One). I remember very clearly assuming that the opening panel, where Mask Man is gloating over the heroes he’s already killed, must be summing up a previous issue. When the various dead heroes showed up later in the story, I was completely baffled (“But .. he killed them already!”). Nevertheless the story made me a Legion of Super-Heroes fan. I figured out splash panels soon afterwards.

“Steal, Shadow — Steal!” from Hawkman #5 was the first story I can remember confusing me with continuity. Rather than just reference the previous Shadow Thief story, Gardner Fox took some time to explain how Carl Sands could return after losing his powers, and why his powers had changed. The explanations were just complicated enough to distract me from the plot.

Even so, I loved the issue. Murphy Anderson art, medieval weapons and the idea of a villain who can hurt you but you can’t touch him? Wow!

If there’s a moral to this post, it’s that if the stories are good, people will forgive not grasping everything at once. Or maybe that learning a new medium, even one that looks so simple, is always a bit confusing.

Art by Murphy Anderson (top and bottom) and John Forte. #SFWApro

8 Comments

  1. I asked Marv Wolfman about COIE; it was not driven by concerns that new fans would be confused. It was for the writers, to eliminate the hassle of having to look up previous stories whenever they sat down to write. The ever-growing mass of continuity was becoming a straitjacket.

      1. Louis Bright-Raven

        That’s because they keep retreading the storylines trying to figure out what is and what isn’t ‘canon’, instead of doing the right thing, ending the damned character’s story, and launching the next generation of heroes and never looking back.

  2. Jeff Nettleton

    I’ve always maintained it was the influx of writers from Marvel who had issues, not fans. Still the idea that it was a straitjacket doesn’t quite ring true, to me. The majority of the line took place on Earth 1, with the overwhelming majority of “other Earth” stories involving Earth 2. There wasn’t that much to confuse. The bulk of the major continuity stories,between Earths, took place in JLA and The Flash. Just about everything else was no more complicated than your average Marvel series. As it was, little of that stuff was thrown out by Crisis. The main changes came to Superman and Wonder Woman, with Batman getting mild tweaks. Of the rest, Hawkman was the one who mostly got muddled; but, that was due to the timeline error of Hawkworld.

    The person who would have had the most reason to grouse about it was Roy Thomas and he ate that stuff up. I suspect there were a select few who had real issues and some of that might be down to trying to “Marvelize” DC, vs embracing its differences and strengths, coupled with anniversary fever and a desire to jumpstart sales momentum even further than they had achieved when things started turning around (circa 1979/80-83).

    Wherever the truth lies, Crisis still wasn’t what brought in the new fans: it was what followed. It got media attention, beyond fanzines, which DC noticed and made sure that there next moves were well publicized in the mainstream press, particularly Dark Knight and Man of Steel.

    1. Louis Bright-Raven

      Jeff Nettleton says, “I’ve always maintained it was the influx of writers from Marvel who had issues…”

      I’m sorry, but I really need you to elaborate / explain this position, Jeff. Because every single writer I can think of who came over to DC from Marvel between 1977-1984 had worked for DC before they worked at Marvel. It’s not like they didn’t know DC continuity just because they wrote for Marvel. And it’s not like the Marvel writers whose first DC work came *after* CRISIS would have had any influence on the decision to do CRISIS, so you can’t name Byrne, Miller, or Roger Stern as the ‘influx of Marvel writers’ either.

      So explain it, please. Because I really want to know just what the heck you’re talking about.

  3. The issue wasn’t the multiple earths; it was simply too much history, too much of which was contradictory, and too many writers trying to “fix” too much of it. The Earth-1/Earth-2 part was a pretty elegant solution for reconciling the differences between the Golden and Silver Ages, but there was no mechanism for a similar divide between the Silver and Bronze Ages.

    Roy Thomas was totally in favor of it, until it turned out his All-Star Squadron and other JSA work would not be protected as he thought. Even then, he supported Marv, and did his best to retcon around the Crisis.

    The real problem was what came after, as each editor and writer moved to protect their own continuity and sabotaged the “clean slate”, reintroducing all the baggage and contradictions the Crisis was supposed to wipe out. The most obvious example was Hawkman.

    1. Yes, Thomas’s original assumption was that COIE would fuse the Earths but leave their previous history intact. On top of losing the GA Superman, Wonder Woman, etc., Jerry Ordway said DC just decided the JSA were too old fashioned for the cool new company.
      But i can’t say this argument by Wolfman is really any better. Lots of writers and artists manage to do their own thing without actually rebooting continuity — Simonson’s Thor or Morrison’s DP for example.

  4. Le Messor

    Further to Louis’s thought: Just because somebody hadn’t worked for DC before, it doesn’t follow that they hadn’t read DC before – so these Marvel writers weren’t necessarily confused. Many of them knew the stories already.

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