In the beginning, there was darkness.
And then there was light.
And everything came from the light.
So began Crisis on Infinite Earths. A single speck in the dark became many worlds expanding forever into infinity.
So begins Dark Crisis. A single tongue of flame flickers. Dick Grayson swore an oath to carry on in his parents’ memory and the legacy Batman created. From that single flickering candle came everything.
Robin was not the beginning. But he was a beginning. The beginning of the ever-expanding legacy of those original founding heroes. Robin was the spark. And the legacy grew and continues to grow into, perhaps, infinity.
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Death in superhero comics is temporary. You know it, I know it, the writers and artists and editors who put together the stories know it. Justice League (2018) issue #75 boldly proclaimed itself THE DEATH OF THE JUSTICE LEAGUE in a stark, graphic text cover. Through the letters, a gateway beyond the inky blackness, the most iconic heroes in the world scream in pain and terror. The focus is on the title. In this issue the Justice League will die. That’s what it is about, and ultimately, it is all you need to know about the story within the pages.
We know they will be back.
So does Dick Grayson, Nightwing, the hero-who-was-once Robin, a contemporary of many of the original heroes of the DCU. He was the first to carry on their legacy. He’s been in the biz since he was eight (or ten, depending on canon at the time). He is one of the most well-respected and beloved heroes in the community, a leader among the second generation of heroes because he was the first among them. He is an aspirational figure for the third generation of sidekicks (who, as Meghan Fitzmartin lovingly portrays them in DARK CRISIS: YOUNG JUSTICE, have become something of a lost generation, never given space to mourn those who came before nor step into responsibility to replace them). He is a mentor and father figure to the latest, fourth generation of new heroes.
Nightwing, in Joshua Williamson’s words, was the first spark of the expanding legacy of the DC Universe, the beginning of the growth of this disparate stable of mystery men into a sprawling franchise.
Jon Kent, the figurehead of the fourth generation of young heroes, a new, diverse group of legacy characters, has not been around long enough to have the faith that Nightwing does that their fathers will return from the dead. The tension between Nightwing’s belief that everything is going to be fine, and the anxiety that the world’s burdens are going to fall on the shoulders of today’s youth is a rich vein that has gone unexplored in superhero comics and DC in particular over the last few years.
Ever since he took over the reins of the major DC Universe machinations, writer Joshua Wiliamson has intentionally focused on something that has been both hallmark and editorial plague to the DC Universe: its legacy characters—the ever-expanding generations who take up the mantle of their iconic predecessors.
For many fans (this writer included), this sense of legacy is a beloved component. Successive new generations have had their own batch of young heroes to latch onto: The Teen Titans, Young Justice, the Super Sons. There have been new Flashes and new Green Lanterns, a small army of Robins, and even more than a few Batmen. But driven by the desperate urge to manage its intellectual property and leverage the most classic versions of characters, it seems no legacy character is ever destined to truly strike out on their own or take on the mantle forever.
Wally West was driven into obscurity and, eventually, a kind of madness after the return of the plain-as-toast Barry Allen, despite the Wally West version inspiring the most famous television depiction of the hero throughout the late 90s and aughts.
John Stewart, the most noteworthy black character in the DC Universe after his headlining status in the Justice League animated series, was sidelined in the comics to make way for Hal Jordan, so that the classic version of the character could star in one of the most critically reviled live-action superhero films, which drew criticism for ignoring the version of the Green Lantern a whole generation of kids had grown to know and love.
Most recently, DC discarded decades of history and with it a majority of its sidekick and legacy heroes. This relaunch, The New 52 was a marketing success but critically dubious and proved relatively short-lived as writers found themselves hampered by having to rewrite history and revamp old stories. Over time, the trappings of the New 52 fell away, eventually morphing back to the status quo from just prior to that relaunch.
With the departure of co-publisher Dan Didio and a purging of other long-time editorial staff, many of the most prominent internal voices that championed the death of legacy in the DC Universe were gone. Didio was infamous among fans for his public dismissal of sidekick characters and legacy heroes, particularly Nightwing, who Didio had tried to convince writers to kill off in multiple crossover events.
But it is a new era for DC. And the legacy and sprawling history has never been so central to the line.
There is no greater emblem for the change in focus than the character Nightwing himself.
Aside from the Batman titles proper, Nightwing is currently one of the most high profile books in DC’s current publishing line. Something he deserves given his pedigree, but has often been robbed of by larger editorial mandates (If you don’t believe me, read my sprawling essay about the problem of Dick Grayson).
Williamson has spent the last 2 years laying the groundwork for a new multiverse that has slowly brought back long-suppressed remnants of the late 80s and 90s superhero books that sought to usher in new heroes and new versions of old legacies. Now comes his chance to rewrite the DCU and to fully reintegrate that missing legacy and the many generations of heroes that followed in Dick Grayson’s footsteps.
I keep repeating that word: legacy. I repeat it because it is central to the premise of Dark Crisis. The Justice League is gone. The crisis becomes: how do those who carry on their legacy pick up the pieces and face the coming darkness? It is a compelling hook that editorial demands have not allowed for until this moment.
In Dark Crisis #2, that legacy is directly assaulted in brutal fashion as Deathstroke the Terminator violently and mercilessly attacks Titans Tower and the academy of young heroes within it. It is the extreme end of Deathstroke’s mission throughout his publication history. Introduced as an enemy of the New Teen Titans, Slade Wilson has been tasked with eradicating young heroes since his inception. He manipulates them, abuses them, takes advantage of them, for money and for his own petty vendettas. Having Nightwing, the embodiment of legacy, and Deathstroke, the destroyer of legacy, on opposite ends of the conflict (or as avatars for the larger cosmic conflict in microcosm), is an effective thematic choice.
We inherit the world left to us by the generations that came before. In our youth they seem insurmountable for us. But we trust that our elders will solve them.
As we grow, we learn that these inheritances become our burdens to deal with and address. We look to our elders for guidance on how to live through the hardships.We live in hope that these wars, these crises, these failures will sort themselves out,
But so often, too often, we fail to realize that we are merely passing on the crises to those who come next. Unresolved, ignored, a problem for the generations struggling to define their own lives and values.
So we come to today, where wars that have raged across generations, killed young men and women who were born long after they began. We come to what so often feels like the edge of history, the looming death of everything. Pandemics ravage. The Earth boils. Where is the hope left? In those who come next? To salvage something from the wreckage they have been handed?
In the DC Universe these inheritances are multiversal and cosmic. They tear at the fabric of reality, literally destroy history.
But the Justice League has always been there to save the day.
Nightwing counts on it, and is caught off guard when his home burns down around him.
Superman struggles and scrambles to patch together a coalition that can salvage something–anything–to save the world.
He turns to Black Adam, a killer and a despot, for some semblance of authority and finds nothing in the man consumed by hatred and violence. What is left for him? Where does he go?
History itself is threatened as Pariah plans on the edges of reality, spurred on by a formless “Great Darkness” beyond all evil in the DC Universe–beyond even Darkseid. History will be undone and recreated and rewritten by the whims of evil men.
What good is legacy when history is erased? How do you fight against the death of history? The death of a world? The death of your own hope?
In the real world there are no easy answers. Perhaps there are no answers.
In the DC Universe, there is no doubt that there is an answer. The Justice League is not truly dead. There will be a return. History and time will heal.
But for how long? In superhero comics there can be no end, happy or tragic. The stories churn onward for decade upon decade. The legacy and crises falling to new generations. Readers will latch onto and lose the characters they love as they rise and fall and die and are unwritten.
Dark Crisis forces readers to confront that looming death of everything.
Daniel Sampere’s art is a beautiful complement to this existential horror. He renders the heroes and villains with the statuesque gravitas we come to expect. They are beautiful and strong and grand.
But they are also painfully human, despite their stature. The characters do not just pose (though there is the requisite Cool Pose Splash Page here and there) but live and mourn and fold over in pain and grief. The series is bathed in harsh shadows as the darkness on the edge of existence eats at those who dare defy it. The battle is between hope and hopelessness.
Nightwing raises his arms to embrace death at his enemy’s hand in order to save his students. He is not a Superman, or a Christ figure. But he spreads his arms in ready sacrifice. It is heroism and selflessness, a recognition of his failure to safeguard the ones who came after him.
There is a vulnerability in Sampere’s work that is rare in these kinds of event series. A subtlety of motion and expression that can be lost in favor of pin-up shots and overstuffed panels. But even in action, Sampere breaks up the page to center the characters, to show us the physical toll of battle.
Issue #3 opens in quiet mourning as the Titans fret over their fallen friend, the avatar of levity of their team and family, Beast Boy. Nightwing appears only for a single page in this issue, near tears, his face consumed by darkness.
The candlelight flickers.
The void beckons.
Later, Robin (Damian Wayne, Batman’s son and the fifth Robin) speaks with Superman, his best friend. They wonder if this is the darkest moment before the dawn, or if it is merely dusk before the full embrace of the night. The light, stunningly rendered by Alejandro Sanchez, is a vague golden hour. It is unclear if the sun is rising or it is setting.
At that moment, the Justice Society arrives, another legacy of heroes from decades gone by that had been long absent. They seem to herald renewed hope. But is not the current darkness a result of their failures as well?
– – – – – – – – – – –
Hal Jordan, greatest among the sprawling Green Lantern Corps, the first of a legacy of his own, though not the first Green Lantern, races into the heart of darkness to rage against the dying of the light.
He finds only distorted reflections of his worst crimes, his worst history.
When taunted by Pariah with the extreme and murderous ends that he went to in order to bring back his home after it and all of its inhabitants were destroyed, Hal brushes it off. “That wasn’t me,” he says. Rejecting the darkness and his complicity in allowing it to take over and use him for evil.
Pariah is an easy target, a villain manipulated by evil, in over his head and controlled by forces beyond his control.
It is always thus. The darkness of the world touches us and we are changed. We fail and hurt others and those to come. In small ways. In large ways.
– – – – – – – – –
But what are superhero stories if not opportunities to explore these failures and inspire us to do better? Isn’t it nice to think that we can reject the darkness, to refuse to let it define our legacy?
Is it not nice to imagine a world where there is still time to learn and save history?
There is still time.
What will you do?
What will I?
Dark Crisis #1-3 on sale now from DC Comics. By Joshua Williamson, Daniel Sampere, Danny Miki, Daniel Henriques, Alejandro Sanchez, and Tom Napolitano. Edited by Chris Rosa & Paul Kaminski.