Keep reading for I shall try and break it down for you.
NOTE: This post was edited on 21/01/2011 in line with commentors' information and clarifications. Thanks for the help, all.
NOTE : This post was edited again on 09/06/2013 to include information about the next stage in DC's attempt to streamline continuity, Flashpoint, leading to the New 52.
Before anyone had heard of a Crisis
It all started long ago when DC began publishing their superhero comics.
You would find that there were multiple variations of the same character. For example, there were two Flashes, one being Barry Allen, one being Jay Garrick; a baby, teenage and adult Wonder Woman and many Supermen. If you picked up a single issue (this is long before the single issues were collected into trade formats) you might see reference to an Earth-1, Earth-2 or Earth-Prime. These Earths are parallel universes, similar to our own, but where the heroes and villains are slightly different - either in age, outlook or group affiliation.
These came about for a number of reasons, firstly, the worlds that were made up of heroes from small companies that DC had bought, like Charleton (the Question) and Fawcett (Shazam!). Secondly, there is the issue of demographic and popularity of comics.
The 1950s saw a slump in superhero comics, causing a number of 1940s era titles to get cancelled, for example the Jay Garrick Flash character and Alan Scott Green Lantern. Towards the end of the 1950s DC tried once more to get new readers interested and introduced replacement characters - the Barry Allen Flash and Hal Jordan Green Lantern. These are the identities that most people associate with the superhero names today.
Back then, comic readers were mostly younger and there tended to be a new generation of readers every seven to eight years. The original characters were not so much de-canonised as forgotten. The Justice Society of America was resurrected with the new versions of the characters as the Justice League of America because "Society" sounded old and stuffy and "League" sounded reminiscent of the sports kids liked.
Crisis on Multiple Earths
Books with these titles are reprints of old stories from before Crisis on Infinite Earths (see below) and feature team ups between heroes from the parallel earths. They were all originally published more than twenty years before Crisis on Infinite Earths and as such, they probably won't hold a lot of interest for new readers to comics. Stories from the 50s and 60s do not age well (unless you are a hardcore comics fan). The stories are no longer in continuity and despite what the DC website says, they aren't really connected to Crisis on Infinite Earths.
If you do decide to read it, you could start with volume 1, here.
Crisis on Infinite Earths
Told over 12 single issues, this featured a big bad villain called the Anti-Monitor and resulted in the destruction of the multiverse. The history of the DC Universe was changed to accommodate all the different super teams and at the end of this event only one universe remained and only one version of each character survived. But, (there's always a but), one character was out of place.
This is Power Girl - originally conceived as an alternate, grown up Supergirl, she was the only one of the duplicated characters to have survived this first Crisis. Presumably, DC's editors decided she was distinct enough to survive. This is all great, but it meant that for the next 20 years or so Power Girl's writers tried to give her a new origin story and on the whole, failed. Her in-universe history was until recently a muddle, so if you pick up an older book with Power Girl in, don't be surprised if she's described as the granddaughter of an Atlantean Sorcerer from a millennia ago, or if there's some discussion about whether she's Kryptonian or not.
In addition to the problems with Power Girl, Wonder Woman was removed from the DC Universe and relaunched from scratch post Crisis. This meant that the original Wonder Girl, Donna Troy, (Not Cassandra Sandsmark), also needed a new history. This became even more complicated than Power Girl's, and I would advise new readers to stay well away from it until you've got more familiar with the DCU.
Other duplicate characters that survived are Alexander Luthor (the son of Earth 3's heroic version of Lex Luthor), Superman and Lois Lane from Earth-2 (older versions of familiar characters) and a Superboy from Earth Prime (from our, the reader's Earth, he's the only one from our Earth with superpowers). These guys are trapped in a sort of pocket universe, a bubble placed outside reality, and spend their days watching events on the new, combined earth.
No one in story remembers the events of the Crisis on Infinite Earths, except for the Psycho Pirate. This became an integral part of the Animal Man trades reviewed here.
Is this book readable for new readers? Well, it's very dense, very detailed and certainly gives you an overview of how the DC Universe used to be, but at the same time it's quite heavy going. It's not the most enjoyable book I've ever read but you can follow it without knowing all the characters. I read it pretty early on when I was rediscovering comics, and it certainly caught my interest. On the other hand, it's nearly 400 pages long and it's big. At about an inch thick and ten inches high it's a hefty tome.
This is a mini series first published in the mid 1990s, and was DC's attempt to clean up some continuity errors that were left over from Crisis on Infinite Earths. Possibly interesting if you are a Green Lantern/Hal Jordan fan, but overall, the issues I have read are forgettable and probably very confusing for anyone new to all this. It's also currently out of print, but if interested, you can see some information on the DC website here.
This series took a lot of criticism from online comic fans for it's rape and murder of a popular female character. It wasn't necessary to include the rape scene, as the same point could have been made without including sexual violence. The rape scene (which occurs fairly early on) is likely to be triggering for some readers. Some people think the book glorifies the violence, and it's certainly true that it is an upsetting and affecting read.
Regarding it's friendliness to new readers, I believe it is accessible and would provide an easy jumping on point for those unfamiliar with DC's stories.
Now we move back to the idea of the multiverse and enter the Infinite Crisis, which has been published with 2 covers.
Infinite Crisis saw the return of Earth-3 Alexander Luthor, Earth-2 Superman and Lois Lane and Earth Prime Superboy, last seen in Crisis on Multiple Earths.These four break out of their pocket universe and decide to rebuild earth into the perfect world. Other earths are temporarily restored as Alexander Luthor seeks to create the perfect world. Unfortunately for everyone else, this means that billions upon billions of people will die as they are replaced with alternate versions of themselves.
During the heroes' efforts to stop the alternate Luthor, Superboy and Superman's plans key characters get killed and the history of the DC Universe is changed yet again. At the end of Infinite Crisis the multiple earths collapse back into one new earth.
Infinite Crisis relies on a knowledge of Crisis on Infinite Earths, so will probably only make sense to those that are at least passingly familiar with the DC Universe.There were various tie ins to Infinite Crisis, such as, The OMAC Project, Rann-Thanagar War, Day of Vengance and Villains United. It is not necessary to read these to understand Infinite Crisis, although the background given in these books would probably help.
After Infinite Crisis all of DC's regular comic books jumped forward one year. At the same time a weekly series called 52 was launched which documented this missing year.
52 focused on lesser known characters and gave them a new place in the DC Universe. Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman are not active during this year. At the end of the year 52 earths are recreated and the multiverse is born again. The series featured characters we have already featured on New Readers..., such as Batwoman and Animal Man, and allows them a chance to shine.
Other highlights are Natasha Irons' and Black Adam's story. Both are characters of colour who don't get much screen time elsewhere.52 is a good way to dive into the DC Universe to find out about the more interesting characters and the multi textured nature of the world. You don't need to have read Infinite Crisis to follow it.
Countdown to Final Crisis
This is not to be confused with Countdown to Infinite Crisis, which is a one off 80 page single issue comic, produced in lead up to Infinite Crisis.You'd think that DC are trying to complicate matters wouldn't you?
Anyway, Countdown to Final Crisis is the prelude to the last, ahem, Final Crisis of the DC Universe. It leads on from 52 and follows up the events from Identity Crisis onwards.
Reviews on this series are mixed, and not having read it myself I cannot comment on it's quality.
And so we come to the (nearly) last. This one isn't so much about the multiverse, although that does come into it.
The world of DC comics has creatures in it called the New Gods. These are divided into the good Gods of New Genesis and the bad Gods of Apokolips, led by Darkseid. In Final Crisis Darkseid tries to enslave humanity and unleashes his anti life equation on the world.This series references everything in DC lore. Some characters killed off in the previous years are resurrected.
The writer, Grant Morrison, has this to say:
"I wanted to do the biggest crossover there’s ever been... it’s got nods to everything, going back to 'Flash of Two Worlds' and the first 'Crisis on Earth 1', 'Earth-2', all that stuff. So there’s little elements of all that, but... everything I’m doing right now is about people dying, or the apocalypse, so it’s kind of dark, and the 'Final Crisis' thing is just pushing that as far as it can possibly go. And it’s taking a lot of trends that I see in comics and pushing them to the max to see, 'do we really want it to be like this'?"
It is not new reader friendly. It's barely even current reader friendly, as evidenced by some fans belief that you need annotations to understand each panel. It is however an epic and for long time fans it's thrilling to see the characters change and play off against each other.
There were a lot of tie ins to Final Crisis, some of which stand up well on their own, some don't. The better ones will be reviewed and featured here.
What does all this mean?
After Final Crisis all characters knew about the multiverse.
Power Girl no longer had identity and origin issues.
Characters can journey into parallel universes leading to a lot more storytelling opportunities.
An easy way to find out about the different universes is to read The Search for Ray Palmer. This has some second tier (but still good) characters visiting many different worlds - including my personal favourite where everyone has switched genders - searching for the former Atom.
On a nearly final note, the various crises can be summarised in two ways. Firstly, in terms of the multiverse:
- Crisis on Infinite Earths - the death of the multiverse
- Infinite Crisis - the rebuilding of the universe
- Final Crisis - the final saga of the multiverse
- Identity Crisis - facing personal threat
- Infinite Crisis - pitting the heroes against the greatest odds
- Final Crisis - the day that evil won
And then in the summer of 2011 DC changed it all again. An event called Flashpoint took place in which Barry Allen, the second and most loved Flash, woke up in an alternate timeline where the villains were heroes and the Justice League of America and Superman does not exist. Bruce Wayne dies as a young child and his father Thomas Wayne, became Batman instead. The underwater state of Atlantis and the Amazon island of Themyscira are at war. There are several other changes as well, but if you want the full detail I advise you to read the Wikipedia entry on it.
All this happened because one of Barry's enemies, the Reverse-Flash, has gone back in time and changed history so the Justice League does not exist. The main story covers Barry's attempted to reset the timeline so he can get back to the world he remembers. The tie-ins focus on specific characters and the changes to their lives: Superman, Batman, various villains, Green Lantern, creatures of magic, Aquaman, Wonder Woman and Lois Lane.
The event ends with the DC, Vertigo and Wildstorm universes being merged to create a whole new timeline, which gave us the 'new 52'.
From a story telling point of view I found Flashpoint a terribly written, badly executed mess. I did not enjoy any of the comics - the main story or the tie-ins. It felt like an editorially mandated event that the writers and artists were not invested in.
From an understanding the DC universe point of view, you don't need to read it. You just need to know that it rebooted DC's universe and gave us the new 52.
The New 52
So we came to this New 52, which is still current. DC has given itself a mandate to publish 52 titles a month about their new universe. If one series gets cancelled because of poor sales another will take it's place. The titles are divided into 7 groups - Justice League, Batman, Superman, Green Lantern, Young Justice, The Edge, The Dark. You can see a list of all published, discontinued and upcoming series on Wikipedia.
Most characters had their origin and history rebooted in some way, but a few remain largely untouched. These few are the Green Lanterns and the Green Lantern Corps, Batman, the male Robins, Animal Man, Swamp Thing, Legion of Superheroes and Aquaman. These series continued right on from where we left before Flashpoint. Nearly all series take place 5 years after the Justice League formed. The exceptions are the first 6 issues of Justice League which tell of the group's formation, and Action Comics, which tells of Superman's rebooted history.
Many minor and duplicate characters have been removed from continuity - for example now there is only one Batgirl, no female Robin, Wally West (the third Flash) and his family, the Helena Bertinelli version of the Huntress
The multiverse still exists and a lot of characters who used to be part of the JSA now exist on Earth 2. Alan Scott, the first character to be named Green Lantern, and Jay Garrick, the first Flash, have been de-aged and Alan is now gay. The new Huntress - daughter of Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle (Catwoman) - and Power Girl now come from Earth 2 and move across to Earth Prime.
Superboy and Supergirl and are essentially new characters and their series tell of their creation and arrival in the DCU.
Green Arrow, Wonder Woman, Teen Titans members, Harley Quinn, the Captain Marvel family and Amanda Waller all had their origins, histories and personalities revised. Captain Marvel has now been renamed Shazam.
There are some new teams that have been created - Demon Knights, Justice League Dark and Justice League America.
Views on the new 52 are mixed. It has drawn in new readers and it does create a really good jumping on point for new readers. Some of the titles are really very good, some are pretty dire - but that will always be the case. Personally, I feel that DC has thrown out years of rich character history and lore and is now telling the same stories as before, which seems a shame and a wasted opportunity.
Crisis on Infinite Earths
Price: $29.99 (American), probably about £16 (Sterling).
Look inside and see the artwork here.
Crisis on Multiple Earths
Amazon lists the volumes available for sale here. At the time of writing prices vary from £5 (for secondhand books) to nearly £15 (for brand new books).
Price: $14.99 (American) or £12 (Sterling)
Amazon has a 'look inside' feature here for you to view the artwork.
Price: $14.99 (American) or about £12 (Sterling)
View the artwork on Amazon's look inside service here.
Volume 1 - ISBN: 1845765524. Look inside the book here.
Volume 2 - ISBN: 140121486X. Look inside the book here.
Volume 3 - ISBN: 1845766040. Look inside the book here.
Volume 4 - ISBN:1845766245. Look inside the book here.
All priced at about $19.99 (American) or £15 (Sterling).
Countdown to Final Crisis
Volume 1 - ISBN: 1845768493
Volume 2 - ISBN: 1845768507
Volume 3 - ISBN: 1845769732
Volume 4 - ISBN: 1845769740
All priced at about $19.99 (American) or £15 (Sterling).
Price: $19.99 (American) or about £15 (Sterling)
Flashpoint - ISBN 1401233384
World of Flashpoint: Batman - ISBN 9781401234058
World of Flashpoint: Flash - ISBN 1401234089
World of Flashpoint: Wonder Woman - ISBN 1401234100
World of Flahsboint: Superman - ISBN 1401234348
World of Flashpoint: Green Lantern - ISBN 1401234062
The Flash: Road to Flashpoint - ISBN 1401234488. This is a prelude to Flashpoint. View the artwork on Amazon's look inside service here.
Time Masters: Vanishing Point - ISBN 1401230474. This is also a prelude to Flashpoint.
Prices go up about $19.99 (American) and £15(Sterling), some are less.
All the new 52 books are being collected into trades, with I believe 6 issues to a trade, so it's easy to catch up on stories, but too extensive to list them here.
Note: Parallel earths are usually (but not always) different to the Elseworlds collections. The distinction being whether the universe or world described in the comic book is officially recognised in canon. The world of Superman: Red Son was recognised after Final Crisis, but the world of Superman: Secret Identity wasn't.