Earlier this year, Joshua Williamson had the curious experience of watching his fiction become reality. By the time DC Comics announced that the Justice League would die a spectacular death in Justice League #75, the writer had already finished writing the issue and writing introductory issues of Dark Crisis — the upcoming crossover about everything that happens afterward.
In his scripts, friends, families, and peers of the League grappled with the deaths of the world’s greatest heroes, choosing to mourn, disbelieve, freak out, or simply shrug and say “Whatever, they always come back.” And then, of course, DC Comics made its announcement, and Williams saw every one of those potential stances reflected in actual fans.
“It’s been fascinating to watch the range of reactions [to the death of the Justice League],” he told Polygon over Zoom. “Some people are skeptical and very dismissive of it. But on the other side of that there are people who are really upset, and really concerned, and they worry because they believe it. It’s just fascinating to watch that in the real world [...] [while] having our characters react the same way.”
That, to Williamson, seems very much the point of Dark Crisis. “I think the conversations that we [readers] have here, [the characters] would also have. If we want the characters to be smart, they’re going to also observe things that we observe of their lives. And every once in a while, they’re going to talk about it.”
“Some of them are going to believe it,” he said, referring to what’s to come in the pages of Dark Crisis #1, which hits shelves on June 7. “Some of them aren’t going to believe it, some are going to be like, Oh, they always come back. OK, nothing to worry about. Some people are going to freak out.”
Dark Crisis might be yet another comic book crossover where heroes die and are brought back, and where the word “Crisis” is used as shorthand for “Pay attention, DC Comics fans!” But Williams’ ambitions are to do something a little different: make a Crisis book about this seemingly endless rhythm of “crisis” events, this endless cycle of death and rebirth. Not from a thousand-mile-high cosmic perspective on fractured timelines and cosmic forces standing in for editorial edicts, but from the sea-level stance of the families, friendships, and rivalries that keep comics readers turning the pages every week.
Polygon spoke to Williamson in April about his goals for Dark Crisis: its origins, its inspirations, his own fan relationship with comic book death. We present his answers below, condensed and edited for clarity.
A few years ago, we were at this [DC Comics writers’] summit. We were talking about the timeline of DC, and I was looking at that era from Crisis on Infinite Earths all the way to Flashpoint and I started realizing how often the heroes had died in that time period. Like, Aquaman had died twice. Wonder Woman had died twice, Batman had died once but also had his back broken.
I just started thinking about what that even means now, that these characters know they can come back from death. And not only what does it mean to them, but what does it mean to the people around them? So for example, Amanda Waller is always concerned about what the heroes are up to and what they can do. Is Amanda Waller concerned that some of these heroes have beaten death? But then why have some of them beaten it and some of them haven’t? That’s something I also wanted to explore.
This year is the 30th anniversary of The Death of Superman, and it’s part of what led to the story we’re doing. Death of Superman was Superman #75, and this is Justice League #75. The first big [comic book] death that really impacted me was Death of Superman. That’s the one that was the really the biggest impact. Obviously, that was a cultural event. It’s something that’s very much embedded in the DNA of comics, it’s one of the biggest spectacles of death in comics.
What’s funny is he had died before. There were other “Superman Dying” stories before that. But there was something about that one, that timing, and what was going on in comics at that time. I remember going and waiting in the rain to buy it. Maybe it was something to do with the age that I was, but I was along for the ride, without any question. I wasn’t curious about “When is he coming back?” I wasn’t as in the know. I was just a kid, a kid who just loved comics, going to the comic store every week.
I hadn’t become — I don’t want to use the word “jaded” or the word “skeptical” — of death and comics yet. When Magic died in Uncanny X-Men #303, there was something very emotional and believable about it. Those are probably the two that I remember the most in that time period. It felt like there were certain deaths like Bucky and a few others that had stuck. So it still felt like there was some weight to it. For me, those are the ones that really got to me, and it built a lot of my opinions on on how death can work in comics.
I bought everything else after [The Death of Superman], Funeral for a Friend and The Return of Superman, Adventures of Superman #500. And then you had The Reign of the Supermen, and I was so in love with all of that. And I remember thinking “Well, one of these [four new characters] is going to be the real Superman,” and trying to [figure out which one], Oh, Eradicator is really Superman and just being super along for the ride.
All the stuff with Lois and the Justice League [in The Death of Superman], I think having the Justice League fall and get hurt by Doomsday right before [his fatal battle with Superman] was such a was a key moment in elevating Doomsday, but it made it so the aftermath wasn’t just centered on Superman — it hurt other people. Afterwards with Supergirl checking on the body and all the Funeral for a Friend stuff [...] when all that stuff was going on, it really did have a lot of emotion.
That’s really what we’re supposed to do. That’s our job. Is to make sure we land those emotional beats with this stuff. And sometimes it can be tough. And sometimes you do lean into the blockbuster appeal of it. I mean, we could have a whole conversation on what was going on in comics in 1992 and how all of this was happening within the industry and with retailers and direct market. I think that’s also a part of what made The Death of Superman blow up.
There’s another story we’re doing in Dark Crisis, where [Superman’s son] Jon goes to Nightwing and he’s upset and he’s worried, like, The Justice League are dead, my dad is dead. And you heard what Black Adam said.
And Dick is very, like, It’s going to be OK. Let’s talk. Let me help you calm down about this and be here for you. But he also has a bit of a like, You know, your dad has died before. And so has Batman, and so has Wonder Woman. And he talks about that with Jon. They have this conversation.
And Jon [...] challenges some of Nightwing’s opinions on death. In Dark Crisis #1 Hal Jordan is just like, Bullshit. That’s not what happened. We’re going to go figure out what happened. But that doesn’t mean that other characters don’t believe it. In issue one we show people protesting in front [of Justice League headquarters], some believe it, some don’t. But the villains are like, Well, they’re not here. So if they’re not here, this is our shot. Let’s take our shot. And we can play with those ideas and just show what happens when all those heroes are gone.
The idea that [none of this matters because] Oh, no, they’re going to come back in six months? My answer is So? It just falls on us to make sure the story you’re reading is engaging and we have something to say with it. And with this, I have something to say about death in comics.
I think when it comes to events, I wanted to do something different. Specifically with the events that DC has been doing the last few years, I want to try something slightly different with this one. And give it its own thing that I want to say about the characters within the DC Universe. But that’s our job. You could probably figure out what’s going on, especially if you’re reading the books, you’re going to know what’s going to happen. But then it just falls on me to make sure those emotions are in there, and that even if you know the Lakers are going to win the championship, that you’re still sitting on your feet just engaged by [Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty].
That’s always the job, but I think on an event, particularly an event like this, involving death, you have to be able to hit those beats. We know they’re going to come back, but it doesn’t mean the characters know. I think that’s something to explore.