'I Think I Can Manage' is a weekly column by retailer Steven Bates, who manages Bookery Fantasy, a million dollar retail operation in Fairborn, Ohio.  This month he looks at DC's Countdown to Infinite Crisis.


Okay, so the REAL cover is out.  Now we know.  All the rumblings, the rumors, the misdirections and obfuscations, are behind us.  DC Countdown is really Countdown to Infinite Crisis.  Like we didn't see that coming.  2005 is the 20th anniversary of Crisis on Infinite Earths, the legendary maxi-series that 'forever' changed the DC Universe.  Those of us old enough to remember those days might recall how Crisis promised (and delivered) a streamlining of the DC cosmology, which had grown cluttered by multiple realities, parallel universes, myriad variations of heroes, villains, and supporting characters, and 50 or so years of continuity. 


As written by Marv Wolfman and drawn by George Perez, Crisis on Infinite Earths redefined not only the world of DC Comics, it changed the entire face of the comic book industry.  Soon, the 'event' became standard operating procedure for publishers, and readers became very familiar with the epic cross-overs and megalithic maxi-series; such gimmicks are still being used to market comics even today (last week I touched upon this very subject, lamenting the 'death' of the stand-alone story).


What can we expect from Countdown to Infinite Crisis?  Death?  Destruction?  A 'new world order' with grimmer and grittier heroes, more maniacal villains, a universe grounded in a post-September 11th mentality?  Characters wearing their humanity on their sleeves, exposing the soft underbelly of their psyches, bleeding-out their insecurities, trumpeting their weaknesses?  In other words, is this the birth of the 'Ultimate DC Universe'?


Marvel has long embraced a 'reality' more rooted in our own than DC.  While Batman guarded 'Gotham,' Daredevil jumped rooftops in New York City.  Clark Kent's biggest concern was that Lois Lane not discover what he looked like without glasses; Peter Parker had to contend with a perpetually-dying aunt and no rent money in the bank.  In their earliest issues, the Fantastic Four didn't even wear costumes.  Can you imagine the JLA fighting crime in their civvies?  Stan Lee's approach to super-heroes emphasized the possibility that these were people just like you and me, living in a world not too different from the one outside our windows.  DC's universe always seemed more ... magical, a place where literally anything could happen.  The sun shone more often there, and brighter, while over at Marvel the city was blanketed in smog.  And readers took sides.  Like Coke vs. Pepsi or Republican vs. Democrat, you were either a DC fan or a 'friend of old Marvel,' and rarely did the twain meet.


Crisis on Infinite Earths changed that.  Or, at the very least, initiated the change.  Readers became less concerned about which universe they were reading, and more focused on quality storytelling (art, characterization, dialogue, plot, the whole nine yards).  Sure, mostly DC fans cared about the fate of Earth 2, or the deaths of Flash and Supergirl, but Marvel 'zombies' took notice of this ground-breaking series, and many took advantage of the post-Crisis reboots of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, et. al., to jump aboard these suddenly fresh series.  The lines between the two publishers blurred, as creators moved back and forth, homogenizing the house styles, eventually leading to inter-company crossovers like DC vs. Marvel and Amalgam, among others.


In an effort to reestablish their hook with the realists, Marvel launched the Ultimate Universe, essentially a parallel universe (Earth 2?) where Marvel's mainstays could be interpreted anew, sans continuity and corollary baggage.  Sales were (and are) phenomenal, and the Ultimate Universe shows no sign of imploding anytime soon.  Over at DC, this has not gone unnoticed.


The majority of readers today apparently expect comic books to partially reflect their own reality.  DC has slowly and subtly been moving towards this attitude in recent years, thanks largely to writers like Geoff Johns, Greg Rucka, and Ed Brubaker.  Brad Meltzer's phenomenal mini-series Identity Crisis primed the well dug by on-going series like Flash and JSA, and Countdown to Infinite Crisis promises to open the floodgates on a new approach to sequential storytelling at DC.  Things will not be the same after this.


Personally, I'm a little wary.  Maybe its because I'm over 40 and I remember when DC's heroes acted heroically, just because.  Maybe its because, more now than when I was a kid, I need a little escapism.  Maybe its because I don't need another Marvel Universe (the two or three I have now are just fine).  Whatever the reason, I'm cautiously wading into Countdown to Infinite Crisis.  I promised Mike Freeman at DC I'd push it to my customers-we even discussed ways to promote it to buyers of Marvel's Ultimate Secret or Astonishing X-Men, also released March 30-and I trust that it will be a kick-ass read, despite the dorky name.  Flash forward to a year from now: I hope I can look back on the changes heralded in by Countdown and let loose a sigh of relief.


But I'm not counting on it.