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As a child, little Marvin Wolfman wanted to do a big series where every hero in DC Comics, ever, would team up to fight a cosmic villain called "The Librarian" (hey, he was 10). Then Marvin grew up and became Marv Wolfman, the man who managed to make the Teen Titans successful.
By this time, thanks to years of Alternate Universe stories, The DCU was teeming with different worlds. There was the main universe (Earth-1), the universe of the Golden Age heroes (Earth-2), the morality-switched Mirror Universe (Earth-3)... The Powers That Be thought it was getting confusing and turning off new readers. So, in 1985, Marv got the go-ahead to clean it all up.
So, there's a Multiverse, which is just the unified set of all the different universes. The Multiverse is guarded by a Cosmic Entity called The Monitor, whose powers are related to positive matter. However, his Evil Twin, The Anti-Monitor, who guards (naturally) the Anti-Matter Universe, has discovered that his powers can increase if he destroys positive-matter universes, and proceeds to destroy the entire Multiverse. Trying to stop him, the Monitor is pushed back and knocked into a coma. Awakening, the Monitor sees that the multiverse has been cut down to just the universes we've seen before. Panicking, he gathers a group of heroes from the Earths of the remaining universes, and sends them to hold back the Anti-Monitor's minions.
The series climaxes with (almost) all of the characters who ever got their own series, plus their team-mates, their Sidekicks, and their kitchen sink, ganging up to kick the crap out of the Anti-Monitor. There is (as you'd expect) an Earth-Shattering Kaboom...
...and the heroes wake up the next morning on Earth. It's apparently Earth-1, and some of the heroes from other universes landed here. And the Multiverse no longer exists. And everyone remembers the heroes, even the ones that were from other Earths, being here all along. And the heroes remember the Multiverse, but no one else does, except for Psycho Pirate. It appears that it was All Just a Dream - but then the Anti-Monitor tries to destroy reality one last time. So the Superman from Earth-2 takes a level in Badass, screams "I HAVE HAD ENOUGH!"  and punches the Anti-Monitor so hard that the Anti-Monitor ceases to exist. Cue another Earth-Shattering Kaboom. Now nobody remembers the Multiverse, except for poor Psycho Pirate, who ended up locked in Arkham Asylum, ranting and raving about "how worlds lived, worlds died... nothing will ever be the same"... The End.
Crisis is notable for being one of the first comic "events" (Contest of Champions actually came first, as well as Secret Wars, which was more of a merchandising promotion like DC's Super Powers), but also for promising "Everything you know will change! The DC Universe will never be the same!" and actually delivering. Unfortunately, for every continuity problem it fixed, three more sprang up in its place, leading The DCU to become even more convoluted and cluttered than it was before as writers scrambled to fill in the gaps left by characters and universes that no longer ever existed. Indeed, the changes wrought throughout the DC Universe by Crisis were so profound that, according to some, its publication marked the end of The Bronze Age of Comic Books.
Crisis on Infinite Earths was followed by a companion volume, The History of the DC Universe, which attempted to lay out a new, concise narrative for The DCU; it's still worth a read as a snapshot of a bygone time in comics with beautiful art by George Perez.
Because of the holes in continuity it left behind, Crisis on Infinite Earths has spawned several Crisis Crossover sequels that have attempted, with varying success, to make sense of the mess. These include 1994's Zero Hour: Crisis in Time, 2006's Infinite Crisis, 2007's Fifty Two and 2008's Final Crisis. The in-universe ramifications of the Crisis were also a recurring theme of the late-'80s Mind Screw series Animal Man. Much of its imagery and backstory was referenced in JLA-Avengers.
Tropes invented by this crossover include:
- C-List Fodder: Dozens of minor characters, from the Crime Syndicate to the Ten-Eyed Man, died. Also, averted by a lot of A-List Fodder: Kara Zor-El (Supergirl), Barry Allen (Flash II), Golden Age Dick Grayson (Robin I), and Golden Age Green Arrow are all among the fallen.
- Crisis Crossover: Although Marvel's Secret Wars was technically first, Crisis on Infinite Earths is really the Trope Maker.
- Cosmic Retcon: If not the first official use, then the one
everyoneno-one remembers (everyone but one man, locked up in Arkham Asylum...).
- Well, he was the only normal guy who remembered it. Some entities like The Spectre, Darkseid and the wizard Shazam at various times indicated they at least remembered some of it, at least vaguely.
- Red Skies Crossover: Unfortunately...
Tropes used include:
- Advancing Wall of Doom: A big white one consuming the entire Multiverse.
- All the Myriad Ways: By the end of the story, all save one of the eponymous Infinite Earths are destroyed, and it just happens to (more or less) be the "real" one where most of DC's stories are set. And, therefore, the good guys are considered to have won.
- They "won" in the sense that they saved at least one universe. As opposed to, say, none.
- And I Must Scream: For the crime of (apparently) awakening the Anti-Monitor, Pariah has spent uncounted millennia dragged from universe to universe, forced to watch their destruction and unable to die himself. As he puts it on his first appearance, when blamed for the incoming doom:
"No... mine is not the hand which slays worlds. I can do nothing more than cry."
- Apocalypse How: Class X-5.
- Between My Legs: The cover of issue #8 (Barry Allen and a beaten-up Psycho-Pirate between the Anti-Monitor's legs)
- Half of the panels with Harbinger in them have this.
- Big Bad: The Anti-Monitor is arguably the biggest and baddest of all Big Bads. He eats universes, kills Kryptonians, wrestles the embodied Wrath of God and battles scores of the most powerful heroes of eight universes, at once.
- The Blank: The Anti-Monitor briefly causes the Psycho-Pirate to lose his face in order to bring him to submission.
- Continuity Reboot: The Crisis' ending was essentially a reboot with an in-universe explanation.
- Continuity Snarl: Occurs to Power Girl, The Legion of Super-Heroes, and Donna Troy, after the Crisis was over. Hawkman's Continuity Snarl came later and was only indirectly due to the Crisis - it came out of the ill-advised decision to set the Hawkworld mini-series in the present, after both the Golden and Silver Age Hawkmen were already established in Post-Crisis continuity.
- Cosmic Retcon: Too many to list here. See Post-Crisis.
- The Dark Age of Comic Books: The Retcon at the end of this series is the official end of The Bronze Age of Comic Books and the start of The Dark Age of Comic Books for the DCU.
- Well, for some books. Other books (like the retooled Green Lantern series) remained more or less Bronze Age in tone for some years. Others (like the retooled Justice League) were considerably brighter in tone. A serious Dark Age treatment wouldn't set in for a few more years.
- Defrosting Ice Queen: Doctor Light (Kimiyo Hoshi).
- Also a somewhat more literal and temporary example is Killer Frost, Firestorm's archenemy, who was emotionally altered by Psycho Pirate to fall in love with Firestorm so that they could actually work together. It was temporary as was intended.
- The Dragon: The Psycho-Pirate, though he's more of like The Renfield or The Igor to the Anti-Monitor.
- Dull Surprise: "They've got Prince Ra-Man." --Shade the Changing Man on witnessing Ra-Man's horrible death.
- Exactly What It Says on the Tin: It was most definitely a crisis, and it did indeed involve infinite Earths.
- Fling a Light Into the Future: Alexander Luthor, Jr.'s origin.
- Foreshadowing: In the Who's Who guidebooks, it is said that if Kal-L, Earth-Two Lois Lane, Earth-Three Alexander Luthor, Jr. and Superboy-Prime ever returned to the surviving universe, it would mean its destruction.
- Heroic Sacrifice: Memorably, Supergirl and The Flash (Barry Allen). However, following the Man of Steel reboot, Supergirl did not exist due to the "Superman was the only Kryptonian survivor" edict. Both have since been brought back, although the new Supergirl isn't the one who died in the Crisis and it took Barry 23 years to come back, which is really impressive for a comic book death. So these stuck pretty good, considering the medium.
- Last Villain Stand: The Anti-Monitor, multiple times. After his fortress and army get destroyed, he decides it's time to take on all the heroes by himself at the dawn of time. When this partially fails, he gets so angry that he essentially forgets his goal of multiversal conquest and concentrates solely on destroying Earth, slowly and painfully. And when that fails, and the heroes think him defeated, he clings to life through sheer force of will, multiple times, finally fighting a one-on-one duel in a weakened state with Golden Age Superman.
- Massive Multiplayer Crossover: With one major exception, EVERY character who had their own series, ever. The Justice League of America, The Legion of Super-Heroes, Justice Society of America, and Teen Titans of course, but also DC's World War II army heroes, the magic heroes, the legacy heroes, the Knights of the Round Table, Ambush Bug. Most epitomized by one scene where the Gotham heroes go to meet in Wayne Manor... and a glitch in time drops Anthro the Caveman and his supporting cast in the parlor. Long awkward silence, then the Gotham heroes decide to decamp to the kitchen for the duration.
- The exception of course, is the fact that Hal Jordan does not appear AT ALL in the main mini-series, because, at that point, he resigned from the Green Lantern Corps, and was succeeded by John Stewart. He does contribute heavily to the plot in the main Green Lantern book, but he's nowhere to be found in the twelve issue mini-series.
- Captain Carrot and His Amazing Zoo Crew don't appear either.
- Meanwhile in the Future: Harbinger is a time traveller. One of her duplicates travels back in time 45,000 years to retrieve Arion, someone the Monitor needs. Her thoughts when she arrives? "Where is Arion? The Monitor will be furious if I cannot find him in time."
- Messenger of Doom: Harbinger, sent by the Monitor across the Multiverse to gather heroes and to warn them of the coming destruction of their universes. Also Pariah, though usually he comes when the universe is already in the process of being destroyed, serving more as a doomed witness.
- Milestone Celebration: Crisis was released during DC Comics' 50th anniversary.
- Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: The Anti-Monitor declares that he will travel to the dawn of time to change history from the beginning. The heroes pool their resources to follow him there. After completing that nearly-impossible journey, they find the Anti-Monitor waiting for them. He then effortlessly drains them all of their powers, explaining that he actually used up all of his own power just getting there, and he was counting on them following him so he could use their power to change the universe instead. So if the heroes never traveled back in time, the Anti-Monitor would have been stranded powerless in the void before creation forever.
- You'd think that at the very least, somebody like Batman would have thought to say, "Wait. If he's already traveled to the dawn of time, how come we still exist?"
- This was lampshaded and mocked in one of the last issues of Quasar, a title published by DC's rival, Marvel Comics. A powerful alien being known as The Geometer wants to fix what it sees as "imperfections" in the multiverse. Quasar reasons with it that the multiverse is too big to fix one problem at a time, and tells it that it should go back before the dawn of time and fix all the imperfections before they can even begin. After it goes, Quasar mentions that either it'll be powerless to change anything and be stranded there, or the Big Bang will destroy it.
- Novelization: First released in 2005, with Wolfman on writing duties, and Pérez and Alex Ross doing cover art. The story is the crisis as seen from Barry Allen's point-of-view.
- Omnicidal Maniac: The Anti-Monitor, though his ultimate goal is to still rule the Anti-Matter universe after all other universes have been destroyed.
- Original Generation: The Monitor and Anti-Monitor, Harbinger, Pariah, Alexander Luthor, Superboy-Prime, Lady Quark and the second Doctor Light.
- Pieta Plagiarism, for issue 7. Possible Trope Codifier for comics.
- Pyrrhic Victory: Uncountable googolplexes worth of people die in meaningless terror and agony, and the sole remaining universe gets Retconned into a Darker and Edgier, Bloodier and Gorier universe for many years afterward.
- This was the plot point in Infinite Crisis.
- Rasputinian Death: The Anti-Monitor takes the cake. After being weakened by his failed attempt to rewrite the Big Bang, he got attacked by the heroes in his home dimension. His powers were weakened further when a large portion of his anti-matter was drained out by Alexander Luthor and the energy of the star he was feeding on was absorbed by Dr. Light. After Negative Woman bound the Anti-Monitor with her burning radioactive body, everybody aside from the aforementioned three heroes started blasting him. Upon reaching full charge, Dr. Light unleashed all of the energy she had collected into a beam. The attack sent the Anti-Monitor flying right into a nearby planet, breaking his armor and burning all of his internal organs. This only knocked him out for a few minutes. When he woke up, he absorbed a large mass of his Shadow Demons to power up, shattering the planet with his energy. With a mouth blast, he seemingly killed the Earth-1 version of Wonder Woman. Unfortunately for him, the Demons, which had been poisoned by the magicians, began fighting against him. While he was suffering from the effects, Kal-L chucked a moon at the Anti-Monitor, which worked. Superboy-Prime showed up to help, but was blasted away. Seeing that his friend wasn't killed instantly by the attack, Kal-L took it as a sign that the Anti-Monitor was weakening and smashed him with two continent-sized asteroids before picking up a third equally large one and ramming him with it. This attack buried the Anti-Monitor alive on another planet and actually stopped the monster's heart, but only managed to take him down for a few seconds. He suddenly burst through the rocks, out of his armor and in his energy form, and started crushing both Kal-L and Superboy-Prime with his hands. Darkseid saved the two by channeling a beam through Alexander Luthor and knocking the Anti-Monitor into the star that Dr. Light had drained power from. That didn't even do the job, as the Anti-Monitor rushed out of the star in the form of a screaming fireball, still determined to kill Kal-L. Unfortunately for him, his essence was shattered by one final punch from the man he was trying to murder. Immediately afterwards, the pieces of his essence fell into the star, making it implode. The explosion utterly obliterated the Anti-Monitor. Of course, he returned later on.
- The Real Heroes: Supergirl uses this to comfort Batgirl.
Supergirl: "Barbara, there are thousands of people out there - without powers like mine... the police, the firemen, the soldiers - they're all ordinary people trying to keep this world from falling apart before its time."
- Ret-Gone: Happens to almost the entirety of existence!
- Reset Button: This series was one for the entire DCU.
- Running the Asylum: The later revelation that Marv Wolfman had more or less been dreaming about this since he was ten led to a lot of accusations of this (in the negative sense) being thrown around, re: The DCU being one man's plaything for his childhood fantasies. (It's worth remembering that all of the DC higher-ups at the time signed off on it, though, so any "blame" has to be shared among a number of people.)
- Shoot the Shaggy Dog: All of pre-Crisis continuity.
- Timey-Wimey Ball: Try not to think too hard about how all the time-fluxes work, or you'll see plotholes so big a Mack truck can drive through them. In particular, don't give too much thought to this line by Martian Manhunter: "Time must be interchanging earlier on this Earth!"
- Wham! Episode: Hoo boy...
- Writers Cannot Do Math: An infinite number of universes is destroyed... one at a time.
- Word of God is that there was "only" 3000 universes or so.
- Actually, it's mathematically possible to do an infinite number of things in a finite amount of time. If it takes you half the time to destroy each universe as it did the previous universe (from growing more powerful/getting better at destroying universes) you will destroy an infinite number of universes in only twice the amount of time it took you to destroy the first.
- You Have Outlived Your Usefulness: Brainiac to Alexei Luthor.
- What Happened to the Mouse?: Skeletal, Bronze-Age Brainiac leads a group of heroes to Darkseid for help, and this is his last appearance. We know that anyone who survived the Crisis remained relatively unchanged, so this Brainiac could not have become the Milton Fine Brainiac. Is this version of Brainiac still out there?
- History of the DC Universe #2 stated that this version of Brainiac was destroyed by the Omega Men during a failed attempt to conquer the Vegan system, possibly at some point after the Crisis. Then, it vaguely mentioned a new Brainiac was created on Earth two years of the original's death.