And the Universe
I don’tremember much about the Crisis. I remember red skies, shadow demons, dinosaurs and spacemen side by side, and the city—all cities, everywhere, all places—falling apart all around me.
People, screaming. I want to say ordinary people, aware of how that makes me sound. Ordinary as opposed to what? As opposed to us. The superheroes. Colorfully garbed, impossibly empowered, we would fly to scoop up the people tumbling out of burning buildings, and hold back crumbling walls with our super strength while others fled to safety. Safety being a relative concept, of course. This was the big one. The emergency to dwarf all other emergencies. There we were, every hero that had ever fleetingly graced the pages of a comic book, from the martial arts acrobats all the way to the near-gods, all hold-ing the line against annihilation. Worlds would live. Worlds would die. And the universe would never be the same.
* * *
Ever since she died, my mother has been visiting me in my dreams.
This happens every night: she’s there, with me, and it’s like old days. Always, we’re either still living in the Parañaque house I grew up in, the house she made a home out of with my brash Batangueño father, or in the UP Campus house she grew up in with my genius grandmother, a Professor Emeritus turned too-early widow.
Both homes are lost to us now. We had to sell the Parañaque place to pay for my mother’s accumulation of hospital bills, and the University of the Philippines awarded my Lola’s house, where my mother and Titos and Titas had all grown up and where we had spent countless happy Sundays, to another professor when she retired. The new tenant cut down the decades-old tree in the back yard that had been Lola’s favorite and made a table out of it.
In my dreams with my mother, everything is wonderfully normal, except of course for the fact that she’s still alive. Sometimes we have this special chorizo for breakfast that she orders from the son of a friend. Sometimes it’s pancakes, or Spamsilog. We talk about nothing in particular. I tell her I love her, something I didn’t do often enough when she was alive. And I ask her: You do know you’re dead, right?
* * *
I wasn’t one of the main guys, not one of the big iconic heroes. I had some strength, some speed, some minor energy projection abilities. Enough to save a citizen or two or two dozen, definitely, but not enough to join the main assault against the cosmic villain who was tearing our universes apart.
But the big iconic heroes spoke to us as if we all mattered. We were part of it. We were necessary. Every effort, every sacrifice, had weight. And as the waves of anti-matter sent by the big cosmic bad guy started killing us—the mid-level to minor heroes—instead of despairing, I thought: this is a good day to die.
* * *
My mother was not, by any stretch of the definition, a geek. My obsession with comics was something she and my father deemed excessive and assumed I would outgrow in time. Still, they would let me badger them into taking me to the comics shops of Greenhills Shopping Center almost every weekend, where I could choose one or two precious (and to their minds, overpriced) U.S. comics to take home.
This was in the early and mid-1980s. Like any child of the time I was aware of comics of course, but mostly what we had before were cheap supermarket reprints of limited runs of random titles. Some issues of Detective Comics, some Supermen, occasional Spider-Man stories, and slightly more offbeat titles like House of Mystery or Shogun Warriors, all on substandard paper with the colors printed haphazardly.
The discovery that there were shops that had started importing new comics, on a monthly basis, from the States—and that, for the most part, these new comics were so much better—better written, better drawn—was one of the major turning points of my boyhood. I was stunned, I was smitten, I was hopelessly enraptured.
And in 1985—to celebrate their 50th anniversary—DC Comics, home to Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, and so many others, launched the 12-issue “maxi-series” Crisis on Infinite Earths, a series that my young heart would immediately enshrine as the greatest comic book ever made.
* * *
Fighting a shadow demon was like fighting poison smoke. Except that the smoke could suddenly solidify and punch your face off. They were the worst.
No, that’s not true. The worst was the relentlessly advancing wall of anti-matter that was dissolving everything it touched, disassembling our reality, eating our worlds. You could lose a fight to a shadow demon, but at least you could say you had been in a fight.
How many colleagues—how many friends—did I watch disappear into that insa-tiable void? Some of them faced it in a frenzy of last-stand bravado, unleashing energy blast after energy blast into its guts, affecting it not one bit as it engulfed them. Some of them were caught off-guard, struck in mid-leap or mid-flight, even as they were trying to shepherd others out of harm’s way, to save them. The anti-matter didn’t care. The anti-matter made no distinctions. There was no reasoning with it, no bargaining. Heroes, villains, vehicles, buildings, time, space: it ate through everything.
* * *
Blinded by my love, I would on occasion try to convert my parents. I was young enough to believe that if they would just sit down and give the stuff a chance—if they would deign to read about the Fantastic Four being put on trial for saving the planet-eating Galactus, or about the steel-skinned Colossus breaking the heart of the ghost-abil-itied Kitty Pryde, or about the ultimate and devastating betrayal of Terra of the Teen Titans—then they, too, would know the wonder I felt, and understand why these comics mattered so much to me.
I was wrong, of course. It was just that I was the right age, and had the right mindset. Not that comics are “just for kids,” as the old assumption goes, but that quite simply, they’re not for everyone. So many factors can count when it comes to loving an art form; my obsession made me overlook that.
But for a few glorious months in 1985, my mother, heavily pregnant with my December-due sister, let me choose her reading material.
Having grown up in a house of books, she was familiar with the works of Joyce, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, all the 20th century greats. She had been recommending Camus to me for quite some time. Capote was an-other favorite. But for those months of bed rest, as my sister slept and grew inside her, I suppose she felt—possibly due to fondly vague girlhood memories, who knows?—a yearning for lighter fare.
I gave her Crisis on Infinite Earths.
* * *
The big cosmic villain was called the Anti-Monitor. He was the commander of the shadow demons; he had released the anti-matter wave. He was not out for revenge, or spurred by misguided righteousness; not motivated by twisted love. He was lord of the anti-matter realm, and he was expanding his territory and his power by consuming, world-by-world and universe-by-universe, our positive-matter existence.
There is no counting our losses. Imagine, for example, the death of your best friend, and not just the best friend you’ve known since you were children together, but every version of him or her, every alternate-universe best friend, every possible one, dissolved and consumed forever, with staggering finality.
Before the Crisis, I had met several alternate-universe versions of myself: a female one, a funny-animal one, even an evil one. Now, as far as I know, I am the only me left.
* * *
Crisis on Infinite Earths was a labor of love. It was also quite possibly the worst comic to foist on someone who had not read comics in over three decades. It featured literally hundreds of characters, drawn from DC’s entire publication history as well as its acquisitions of smaller comics companies. The plot was dense and the artwork incredibly detailed and dramatic. It served as a showcase not just for their most popular, recognizable characters, but also as a nod and fond farewell to characters that, either through age or changing trends or both, had fallen out of favor. There are hundreds of great moments spread throughout the 12 issues of Crisis, but it is not, if I recall correctly, the tightest or most coherent of reads.
I loved it all the same. Loved the story by Marv Wolfman, loved the art by George Perez.
Crisis on Infinite Earths was ongoing when I got my mother into it; I think it must have been on issue four or five at the time. Happy as I was that she was giving my favorite series a read-through (paving the way for her inevitable future addiction, or so I assumed), I made sure she missed no nuance by explaining each and every character background and plot reference, from talking ape-men to wizards from Atlan-tis to the 30th century culture of the Legion of Super-Heroes. To her credit and as testament to her abiding patience at this time, she let me natter on endlessly.
I’m in there too, I told her one afternoon. She looked at me, and awaited the inevitable explanation.
I said that every superhero ever at least, in the DC multiverse was involved in the Crisis. That was one of the things I loved about it—its sheer massive scale. (“Worlds will live! Worlds will die!”) And like every comics-ob-sessed geek, I had come up with alter egos, my own superhero wish fulfillment fantasies, and I had projected one of them into that story. I imagined him shoulder to shoulder with Su-perman or Cyborg, saving lives under skies turned hell-red, fighting the good fight un-til the end. Perhaps it was a way of deepening even further my already alarming attachment to the series, my way of getting a firmer grip on a story that sprawled and spawned so much.
Mom understood, I think.
* * *
In the end, we won, of course, though it cost us dearly. Supergirl died. The Flash died. But the Anti-Monitor was defeated. Superman, the original Superman who started it all—the whole superheroic tradition—dealt the final blow.
The remains of the multiverse cohered into one true world, a strong if not seamless world. A world ready, or so everyone hoped, for new stories.
* * *
This is not a proper goodbye to my mother. I don’t think I’m any good at those.
I am 40 years old. Mom was about this age when I practically forced her to read Crisis on Infinite Earths. She never did finish it; after she gave birth there was, of course, too much to do. It doesn’t really matter.
Mom was unconscious when she passed away, in a hospital with a team of doctors trying to revive her. I can’t remember the last conversation we had in this life. It was probably some admonition to watch what I eat, or to beware of secondhand smoke. Missing her has become part of me; my world altered and cohered around her absence.
Mom had three children. I have had none.
Tonight when I dream of her I will tell her again that I love her. I don’t know why I can never say the other things that come to my mind; for example, I’d like to know when I can finally join her, and my grandmother, and everyone I loved and lost, on the other side.
* * *
Like I said, I don’t remember much about the Crisis, or at least not as much as I should. And I can feel my memories slipping, bleeding away bit by bit, in the four-color sunlight of this brave new bittersweet world.
I still fight crime as best I can, though sometimes it starts to feel a little pointless.
I often find myself thinking of that wall of oblivion, that wave of anti-matter that I lost so many colleagues and friends to, and wonder why I wasn’t one of them. The universe is not through with me yet, I tell myself, imagining some grand future moment of nick-of-time, save-the-world glory. But I could just as easily die any night from a gunshot, or a blow to the head; I’m strong but not invulnerable. I could die of old age. I could die unconscious in a hospital, after everything.
I think of that wall of oblivion and wish I had thrown myself at it with all the rage and joy and defiance in me and gone out that way.
But here I am, still around for some reason, leaking memory, wondering why. Someday soon the apocalypse in my head will fade, and I will forget the significance of red skies, and believe shadows are just shadows.
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