Since 1938, Superman has defeated legions of evildoers, alien hordes, and various deities. But in Infinite Crisis, the recently completed DC Comics miniseries, Superman and the rest of the Justice League encounter a far more dangerous threat: the accumulated confusion of those 68 years of adventures and—even scarier—villains that act like comic-book nerds.
For decades, DC’s heroes lived on a collection of earths. The characters of the Golden Age of comics, lasting from Superman’s debut through the mid 1950s, lived on Earth-Two. The stars of Silver Age, from the late 1950s through the 1960s, lived (confusingly enough) on Earth-One: Reading comics about the Flash of Earth-Two inspired the Flash of Earth-One to choose that particular moniker. Writers later established that the different worlds were separated by a vibrational field of bullshit comic science that could be bridged for team-ups whenever fans demanded. Variations of the most popular heroes piled up as writers unveiled dozens of different earths, each with its own Superman (an evil Superman, a Superman allergic to dairy, etc.).
The tweaking was all part of what author Danny Fingeroth calls comics’ “illusion of change”: In the interest of keeping characters fresh, they are altered time and again, only to inevitably return to their core concepts. As a result, no comic-book character’s modifications are permanent—Superman’s recovery from “death” in 1993, for instance, was faster than a speeding bullet. His famous never ending battle for truth and justice isn’t simply a tagline. It’s the essential business model of comic books.
Infinite Crisis, the creation of Geoff Johns and a team of artists, is a sequel to the 1985 series Crisis on Infinite Earths, which was a rare attempt at change beyond the illusion. In the mid 1980s, DC’s multiple earths were considered a barrier to luring in new, young readers and a dilution of the uniqueness of the original creations. In COIE, the DC multiverse was consolidated into a single, streamlined universe with one history and only one Superman.
At the start of Infinite Crisis, Earth-Two’s Superman, Superboy from Earth-Prime (i.e., the real world), and Alex Luthor from Earth-Three (where heroes and villains have reversed roles)—who seemingly sacrificed their lives to defeat the menace of the first Crisis—are discovered alive and well after 20 years imprisoned in limbo. They’re introduced observing the increasingly bleak events throughout the contemporary DC universe on a wall of crystals. Earth-Two’s Superman remarks, “This is what the world does to legends. It corrupts them. Or it destroys them.” Literalizing Freud’s return of the repressed, they escape and make their way to Earth, where the Justice League has disbanded after dissent in the ranks and an increasingly paranoid Batman has developed a massive satellite system to spy on his fellow superheroes.
Though superhero comics often get categorized as power fantasies for pubescent males, these characters echo the complaints of many older fans who make up the core of modern comics’ readership. As the story begins, Superman, Superboy, and Luthor sit in what is essentially the universe’s basement, watching and critiquing, claiming to know what’s best for the DC universe and how things would be different—”better”—if they were in charge. The villains of this massive series, which will affect years of comic books to follow, act like nothing so much as a bunch of stereotypical comic-book nerds.
In Infinite Crisis 4, Earth-Prime’s vindictive Superboy, angry over his prolonged incarceration and the loss of his loved ones and homeworld, picks a fight with DC’s current Superboy. Like The Simpsons‘ Comic Book Guy, the villainous Superboy is a whiny, awkward loner, who stammers, “You’re ruining me!” as he battles a group of heroes. The fact that Superboy’s Earth-Prime represents the readers’ world confirms his status as a stand-in for the ugly side of comics’ audience.
Readers seem to have largely missed the subtext; indeed, a trip to DC’s message boards reveals a fan base validating Johns’s characterization with its vitriol. A typical comment reads, “Thanks . . . for making my heroes the most disgusting, childish, nasty, ridiculous people ever.”
The portrayal of Infinite Crisis‘s villains reflects the comics industry’s contentious relationship with fans. The readers typified by the evil Superboy are fiercely loyal but resistant to change, much like the art form they love so dearly. DC finds itself forced to serve two masters: these fractious lifers and the children that were, in decades past, comics’ target demographic.
This bifurcated approach is reflected in the new continuity established at the conclusion of Infinite Crisis. The company’s signature titles have returned to their roots and emphasized accessibility: Batman back with Robin, Superman battling Lex Luthor. Meanwhile, adult readers can indulge in a new weekly, year-long serial entitled 52, which will have a cumulative price tag of $130. And if these ideas don’t work, you can be sure they’ll be shoved to the margins to make way for new ones—or perhaps old ones made to resemble new ones. That’s the beauty of a never ending battle: There are always more stories to tell.