Pulp and Dagger

Graphic Novel Review


for September 17, 2006


Crisis on Multiple Earths, vol. 4

cover2006 - available in soft cover

Written by Martin Pasko, Cary Bates, Elliot S! Maggin, with E. Nelson Bridwell, Paul Levitz. Pencils by Dick Dillin. Inks by Frank McLaughin.
Colours: Carl Gafford. Letters: Ben Oda, Milt Snapinn. Editor: Julius Schwartz.

Reprinting: The Justice League of America #123-124, 135-137, 147-148 (1975-1977)

Additional notes: essays; covers, creator bios.

Published by DC Comics

Cover price: $14.99 USA/ $19.99 CDN.

DC Comics, one of the two oldest continually publishing comics companies in America, has struggled over the years with how to deal with all its accumulating years of fictional continuity.

It started publishing super heroes in the late 1930s but, as the winds of the marketplace shifted, had cancelled most by the early 1950s, only to start to revive them again in the late 1950s and into the 1960s -- in many cases reinventing characters, keeping names, but changing costumes and secret identities. This led to the editorial decision of explaining the discrepency with "multiple earths" in parallel dimensions, each with their own super heroes. The main earth -- Earth 1 -- was where the then-current crop of heroes lived, and where many had joined together in a monthly comic called The Justice League of America. Earth 2 was where the 1940s heroes had adventures as the legendary Justice Society of America. It them became a staple of the Justice League comic to do annual team ups between the two teams.

Eventually DC's editors claimed their universe had become too confusing (its multiple earths having blossomed to include Earth 3, Earth S, Earth X and more) and in 1985 they published their Crisis on Infinite Earths in which, through a massive cosmic calaclysm, their multiple universes were merged into one, literally negating every comic that went before. It was supposed to clarify and simplify their universe. Of course, it didn't quite work out that way, creating even more logic problems than it solved, and each succeeding editorial regime ushered in some new universe-shattering cataclysm to "fix" the problems left in the wake of the previous one. In recent years, DC has even begun re-introducing the concept of parallel earths again!

In a rare example of DC showing respect for its past, it has published a series of TPBs collecting those long ago JLA/JSA team ups from the pages of The Justice League of America -- even though these stories aren't considered "in continuity" anymore. This is the fourth such volume.

For some reason, I always kind of dug the Justice Society of America. Don't know why. Maybe the costumes were a little more idiosyncratic (reflecting an early creative era), maybe I just thought it was kind of cool the notion of middle aged super heroes (despite the thinking that kids couldn't relate to older heroes). When I was a kid, most of my Justice League comics tended to be the ones guest starring the Justice Society. So, needless, to say, I went into this with a certain amount of pre-existing affection.

The first story from JLA #123-124 is a kind of cute, light weight piece in which comic book writers Cary Bates and Elliot S! Maggin find themselves travelling from "Earth Prime" (essentially, our real world) to the worlds of the comic book heroes and through a bit of cosmic chicanary, Bates aquires super powers and becomes a super villain! Yeah -- light weight, and a little too self-consciously so. Probably better done as a one-shot rather than a two-parter. The heroes themselves aren't especially well-used, too often just a bunch of them crammed into the same scenes, and building to a Deus ex machina ending. Still, it's harmless fun and lets this collection benefit from a diversity of tones.

Much, much stronger is the three-parter from #135-137 -- although nostalgia may play a part here as I had read the first issue long ago and had always wanted to get the continuations. This continues a trend (previously done in the great Justice League of America #100-102) of involving, not just the JLA and the JSA, but other heroes -- here the heroes from Earth S, where DC had ensconced the heroes of the defunct Fawcett Publishing after recently aquiring its stable of characters, including the Shazam Family (Captain Marvel, etc.), plus Bulletman, Spy Smasher. etc. The story has some definite logic problems as a kind of super evolved caveman type launches an attack on all three earths in revenge for humans having driven his species to exitinction...but I'm not sure it's ever really explained how he got his powers. Still, here the characters are broken up into smaller groupings, and sent off on mini-adventures, better allowing the characters and the story to breathe without seeming cluttered.

It's not High Art, but it's enjoyable, full of imaginative ideas and strange dilemmas, as well as a variety of foes recruited from the various heroes' Rogue Galleries, and with the heroes having to use their brains as well as brawn. And though characterization isn't exactly front and centre, there's still some attempt to portray different personalities -- such as the Earth 2 Robin as the analytical detective, or Green Arrow as his usual sarcastic self. Reflecting the evolving, arguably more sophisticated style of comics writing pioneered over at rival Marvel Comics, there are attempts at more knowing dialogue -- sometimes a little heavily handedly so, such as after characters deliver some expositionary dialogue...another character draws attention to it by quipping "You sound like bad actors struggling with purely expositional dialogue!"

This story is also interesting for featuring a showdown between Superman and Captain Marvel -- something that's been staged many times over the years (the characters were literally publishing rivals in the 1940s, with DC even suing Fawcett unsuccessfully for copyright infringement). But it's interesting because Captain Marvel uses a trick that would later be repeated in the critically acclaimed 1990s epic, Kingdom Come.

The final team up in this collection involves the JLA the JSA and the heroes from the 30th Century Legion of Super-Heroes. Published at a time when DC was experimenting with some of its titles having larger page counts, at a sum total of 68 pages it's actually the longest story here, though only two-issues long. However, again there's a problem with too many characters just kind of crammed into scenes. They are broken up, and sent off in smaller groups, and the story noticeably picks up as they confront mini dilemmas, triumphing often through guile and even compassion rather than brawn. Then we're back to too many heroes and too much clutter, as the various teams are forced to fight each other...but this final issue also improves as it goes along, juggling the dynamics of the different teams -- the LSH is acting of their own volition, the JSA are brainwashed into helping a villain, while the JLA are physically compelled to help another villain...but retain their own consciousness. How they exploit this to triumph in the end does provide soime enjoyable adventure.

The art throughout is supplied by the late Dick Dillin, who drew the comic for over a decade. I was never a big Dillin fan, his art not entirely dynamic, his figures a bit stiff. On the other hand, in stories like this he had the unenviable task of drawing all these characters in the same scene and maybe can't be faulted too much! And as I get older I appreciate him more. There is a reasonable clarity to the action, and there's a reality and expressiveness to his faces.

This collection also includes a couple of essays, one by colourist Carl Gafford, reminiscing on the JLA and providing a tribute to Dillin, the other by John Wells, talking about how this was just as DC was beginning to more clearly integrate its series, where events in one title might have repercussions in another -- but it's kind of irrelevant to this collection, as there's very little sense of that. The final story line maybe includes a few extra lines referring to outside events, but not too much.

Which, when read in isolation three decades later, is actually just as well!

If you're looking for gritty, if you're looking for thought-provoking, if you're looking for ground-breaking and edgy -- look elsewhere. But if you're looking for some easy going entertainment, this is an agreeable tome. The three parter is definitely the jewel in this particular crown, but the other two story lines are moderately enjoyable as well, from the light-heartedness of the opening story, to the sci-fi flavour of the last, and the more traditional epicness of the three parter.

Reviewed by D.K. Latta

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