With D.C. Comics launching the new 52 this week, with “rebooted” versions of all their best-known heroes, the Voice though it was high time to hear from Marv Wolfman, the legendary writer and editor who created Blade, the Teen Titans and, of course, Crisis on Infinite Earths.
Crisis, the epic 1985 12-part “maxi-series,” was intended as the comic book of equivalent of Noah’s flood. At a time before massive summer crossovers and “retcons” had become comic book staples, it hit hard, using the deaths of major characters like Wonder Woman, Supergirl, and the Flash* to usher in a new world cleansed of 50 years of continuity breaches. It worked: The DCU ever since has been divided among those who care about such things into the pre- and post-Crisis worlds.
Wolfman spoke with the Voice about why he hasn’t read the Crisis sequels, “event fatigue” in the comic book world, and the trouble with continuity: it “holds the best writer hostage of the worst.”
Given how the D.C. universe is often divided info pre- and post-Crisis. where do see Crisis on Infinite Earths as fitting into the comic book canon? How does it relate to the other dark D.C. reboots of the era and particularly Watchmen, given the prominent role of Charlton characters in both storylines?
When I first pitched Crisis my belief was, at the end, that a new DC universe would be formed, all the books would begin with number 1 starting with a new origin in each, and Crisis would never be mentioned again because, as I set it up, the Earth would be reformed at its origin and so what had been had never happened as a new Earth was created. The Crisis itself therefore “never happened” though its effects would last. But ultimately the Powers That Be decided they didn’t have enough people to pull that off and so the Crisis was constantly referred to which I always felt was a mistake.
But as for how it fits into DC Continuity, it’s always been my belief that every generation needs the comics recreated for them. This happened by accident in the past: Comics were created in 1938 with Superman. About 25 years later, between 1956-1961, the Silver age was created with no direct regard for what happened before. About 25 years after that, I did Crisis with George Perez and that once again updated the DCU. And now, 25 years after Crisis the New 52 has been launched.
Comics need to be changed, they need to evolve, and they need to keep fresh in order to stay relevant. As for things like Watchmen, those are not part of the DCU. They exist in their own world. Those kind of stories are one-shot “novels” that are allowed to tell a great story and then it’s over. I hope there will always be room for those so that not everything has to be part of one ever-sprawling continuity. Comics, which are simply a combination of story and art, should be able to tell any kind of story and not be hampered by constraints.
What inspired the idea of cleaning up the continuity? Had you ever considered doing a similar retcon while at Marvel? Or, if this was uniquely suited to D.C., can you explain the reasons why?
Today DC and Marvel sales are in the same ballpark. Some times DC sells better, some times Marvel does. But back in 1985, with the exception of the New Teen Titans, which I also created with George Perez, and sold like a Marvel book, Marvel’s sales vastly eclipsed DCs almost 5 to 1. In my mind that meant people loved comics but were ignoring DC. Something had to be done. Crisis came out of that, to show the readers who had not looked at a DC comic in years that there were great heroes there. Crisis sold very much like Marvel and brought hundreds of thousands of readers to DC for the first time, so it was very successful. As for doing that at Marvel, there was no need to at the time. Marvel had been created many years after DC (DC in 1938 and Marvel in 1960) so the Marvel books were already being aimed at a new generation. There was no need to re-create them.
Who was involved in the decisions over which characters to kill off and how contentious did those talks become? What are your feelings when some of those characters, like Wonder Woman, were subsequently revived?
My attitude was that characters had to die in order to prove to readers that DC was not only changing, but it would never again be predictable. But I always felt some of those characters would come back, reformed, like the original DC characters of the 40s were brought back and changed into the Silver Age characters of the 60s. So we killed Supergirl, but I thought a new one would eventually be created who would not have the same problems the original one had. As for Wonder Woman, George Perez, who did Crisis with me, was going to be taking over that book as both artist and writer, so we set it up for him to recreate her from scratch. We knew up front she was coming back.
Did you foresee the rise of crossovers megaevents when you wrote Crisis? And now that the Summer mega-crossover has become an industry staple, do you see ideas that in retrospect you would have liked to have used in Crisis, and do you see others using your motifs from Crisis in newer megaevents?
No. Crisis was created to solve a specific problem: to make the confusing DC universe accessible to new readers. I had thought it would do its job and the focus of attention would then be on the new books and not the title that changed them. But what happened was not only did the book sell incredibly well, but because I was able to develop its story and concepts over time, and not rush it into print, the book was actually quite good beyond serving its purpose. But its sales is what made everyone suddenly decide to copy the concept. Unfortunately, from what I know, most of the mega-crossovers that followed didn’t have a core reason for their existence as Crisis did. The creators did not have the time to work out their stories and they sort of rambled without purpose. In a way, Crisis spawned an entire industry of mega-events when it should have only given birth to those kinds of events where something vitally important had to be achieved. Sadly, it didn’t turn out that way so these days you often here the term “event fatigue” being bandied about.
How important is maintaining continuity in comic book universes? Putting on your editor’s hat for a minute, how do you balance characters’ history with authors’ need to make a fresh mark and re-imagine old standards? With Crisis and more generally, how does one balance the expectations of longtime and older fans with the need to cultivate newer and younger ones?
I am actually not a fan of overarching continuity, and Crisis was partially conceived to wipe that all out and start fresh. The line I’ve been using since before Crisis is, “Continuity holds the best writer hostage of the worst.” I believe continuity held to the extreme stifles creativity. Comics should expand your thoughts not restrict them and the more continuity that exists the smaller field you have to explore. I think you need to clear the field every so often and let the writers breathe. Let them come up with the wackiest, craziest ideas and not worry that ten years before someone did a story that prevents that new great idea from being done. Finally, to me, continuity of character is much more important that continuity of story ideas. You need to know and understand the characters and they need to be consistent so we can believe they are real. But there is a vast difference between consistency and continuity.
What are your thoughts on DC’s four subsequent Crises? Do they mean that in some ways Infinite Earths was a victim of its own success, inviting more frequent mega-events that doubled as ret-conning? And, on the same note, what are your thoughts on the latest DC Universe reboot?
I’ve always made it a habit of never reading anything based on what I’ve created once I leave a job. With the exception of once having to read some of Geoff Johns Teen Titans stories because I was going to write several issues with him, I never read the Titans once I left it. So I never read any of the other mega series. Crisis, as I say, had a reason to be done; it solved a major problem DC was facing. Because I was in many editorial meetings or privy to them, I know that many of the series that followed, whether at DC or Marvel, were done more because Crisis sold well so there was a buck to be made, than because there was an actual story-driven reason for doing them. Therefore I never felt a need to read them.
As for the New 52, I think there was as strong a reason as Crisis to do that one. There’s a new digital world out there. There are fewer comic book shops than ever before. The idea of comics is still loved; look at the popularity of comic book based movies, both super-hero and not; people love the ideas. Now we have to get the comics into their hands and to do so there is a crying need to rebuild them once again. I think this is coming at exactly the right moment. I’m not part of it; I’m not writing any of those books (though I’d love to have been part of this) although I still write several comics a month as well as videogames and animation, but I agree 100% with this new direction. Now it’s up to the creators and the books themselves. If they’re good they can bring new readers into the comics. Readers who might live in cities that don’t have comic shops but readers who can now instantly download them at home to their ipads and other book readers.
How does a comic book writer, let alone the creator of Blade, get blessed with the given name Marv Wolfman? It seems suspiciously perfect.
Arrange to be born into a family with that name.
*The Barry Allen Flash, that is, so don’t write me angry emails.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 31, 2011