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The Avengers: The Crossing Omnibus (Review/Retrospective)

“One of the nineties’ most notorious narratives!”

- well, the back cover wasn’t lying

The Crossing has become a watch-word for nineties excesses. Essentially a gigantic crossover between The Avengers and the various Iron Man books (including War Machine and Force Works), it is renowned for its clumsy editorial mandate: the event was designed to replaced Tony Stark with a younger version of himself. Fans have come to reflect on The Crossing as one of the most awful comic book storylines ever concocted, an example of the mess that Marvel had made of their line of books during a decade not exactly renowned for its taste.

I know it’s fashionable to trash The Crossing, and I know that it is every bit as ridiculously nineties and forced as its editorial mandate would suggest, but I can’t help but think there are some nice ideas to be found here, if one wades in deep enough into the crap. Don’t get me wrong, there’s not nearly enough to justify the tangled bloated mess of a plot, and I’m not going to argue the consensus is wrong, but I do think the massive catastrophic failure of The Crossing was one of execution, rather than one of ideas.

Shockingly bad?

The Crossing is very nineties. Excessively nineties. The Avengers wander around with leather jackets on them, because they are bad-ass. Hawkeye is introduced firing an arrow through the hand of a mugger. Beast, perhaps the most jovial of the team, actually calls him out on this. “And don’t you think an arrow through the hand was — oh, I don’t know — a trifle severe?” Sadly, we don’t get to see enough of Beast. (And again, the storyline actually points out that Beast is a cheerful team member who isn’t around enough as he should be.)

Instead, we get angst. Lots and lots of angst. We get male characters who look like they are abusing steroids (even the traditionally nerdy ones) and who can flash their abs through solid armour. We get women who look like they have deformed spines and are likely carrying their kidneys around in the pockets of their leather jackets. There’s an anti-hero with the ridiculously nineties name of “Skewer.”We’re treated to the relatively graphic on-panel torture of Slade Truman.

Talking to himself…

Jim Rhodes has been revamped with alien “Warwear” – and fights an enemy who looks just a little bit like Spawn. Tony Stark operates a secluded hideaway that is actually a giant juggernaut fortress. With guns. Lots of guns. I had to laugh a little bit as Iron Man confronted a street gang, warning them, “Better men than you have tried… with bigger guns.” He didn’t add ‘mostly within the last few years.’ The omnibus opens with a superhero swimsuit party scene, the kind that was very popular in the nineties.

There’s a conscious sense that Bob Harras is trying to re-vamp The Avengers franchise to more closely mirror the X-Men, which were the company’s biggest financial success of the decade. “The Avengers are not to be outdone by the X-Men!” Black Widow declares, and she seems to be stating an editorial mandate. Harras borrows Chris Claremont’s preference for Arthurian references (including a Siege Perilous), while the artists seem to be trying to emulate Jim Lee. The event itself seems to consciously mirror Fatal Attractions, an X-Men storyline that ran in 1993, turning a major character into an unambiguous villain (and then effectively writing them out) in order to allow for more open-ended story-telling opportunities.

I got a bad feelin’ about this…

That said, none of this is inherently bad. It’s all subjective. People will tell you that the nineties were a terrible decade for comic books, and many will agree without thinking too much. I don’t think the decade was unambiguously bad – I’d consider Age of Apocalypse to be one of the best X-Men stories ever written and Peter David’s run on X-Factor to be superb. Of course, I grew up in the decade, so the occasional comic I would have picked up in the decade would have informed my ideas about what comic books should be. So I don’t find the trappings of The Crossing to be a problem. I’d argue it’s all in the execution.

I think there are several good ideas here, to be honest. They just feel a little wasted in the way that Bob Harras plots them out. The most obviously intriguing idea is the one involving Kang the Conqueror. I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for the time-travelling villain, if only because he’s a “fun” one-dimensional villain. His motivations are never too complex, and he lends himself to hokey comic-book-y plots. There are hints that The Crossing was intended as some sort of gigantic Kang-centric plot, as the villain strikes against the Avengers out of desperation.

The War Machine springs to life…

There’s something intriguing about the idea of an opponent who can retroactively affect a comic book universe – here he is literally able to wipe Vietnam off the map. How do you fight an opponent who can defeat you before you even know you’re fighting him? How does reality bend around a foe of that magnitude? It would have been interesting, for example, to explore an American culture where the Vietnam War never happened.

More than that, Harras seems to suggest that this plot is Kang’s masterstroke, a killing strike he has been plotting forever. A time-travelling enemy who has been setting up this final confrontation? How do you botch that? “You see the full scope of my machinations,” Kang boasts at the climax of the event, “the timelesss beauty of my consummate plan — to destroy you all from within!” Kang seems to imply that he was responsible for Hank Pym’s psychotic breakdowns, and there’s an interesting suggestion that Kang could have placed a sleeper agent within the Avengers. Unfortunately, it’s all brushed over incredibly quickly, and Kang seems to be just inserted into the vague “villain-shaped hole” in the editorially-mandated “Tony goes evil plot.”

One of a Kang…

Hell, even the idea of an Avenger conspiring against the team seems like it would make good fodder, as would the idea of somebody attacking the team from within. “I am afraid that something unique in our history has occurred here tonight,” Vision states. “A murder.” It’s quite the hook. It just feels like the idea was given the worst possible execution – the book filled with fights and posturing, but no clear direction or character work in order to explain anything that was unfolding.

Similarly, there’s something interesting about an Avengers plot that focuses on the role the team plays in Tony’s life. After all, the character is generally responsible for financing the team, and they do operate literally out of his house. Tony reflects that team inhabits “the home I grew up in. The house I gave to the Avengers when we first started this group. I– I hadn’t realised how much I missed the place, but the memories keep flooding back.” When it becomes clear that there’s a threat, he tells Pym, “I’m more than willing to take whatever risks necessary to protect the sanctity of the mansion – this house I was born and raised in.”

Hail, Mantis!

Of course, the notion of a storyline focused on Tony and his relationship with the team is botched relatively quickly. The decision to turn Tony evil comes far too quickly, and suddenly. And a lot of the plotting feels arbitrary. When Tony sets up Hawkeye to take the fall, it seems rather strange that Jim Rhodes can’t believe that Hawkeye is a killer, but can believe Tony would knowingly frame his team mate. “I don’t know how or why, but this stinks of a frame up,” Rhodes states, “and Stark is the only person who was capable of fixing it.” It seems a bit random. Why is it easier to believe it was Stark than Hawkeye? “We couldn’t stand by and watch you go down for something we know you would never do,” Rhodes tells Hawkeye, but how come the same logic doesn’t apply to Stark?

There’s no real suspense, because Tony goes completely evil almost immediately. He doesn’t develop in that direction so much as he dives full-force toward manic super-villainy. Sure, the narration sorta kinda tries to suggest that there’s some hesitation, but it is half-hearted at best. “For the first time,” we’re told, “he realises without doubt that he is everything his nightmares said he was.” The sentiment is somewhat undermined by the fact that, within a few pages, he shows no hesitation murdering Amanda Chaney. Even the characters within the narrative seem to realise how completely insane this development is. “Anthony,” the Vision remarks, “this is illogical.” Hercules observes, “This is absolutely ridiculous.”

Stark raving mad…

The problem is compounded by the fact that the writers try to apply retroactive continuity. Tony here doesn’t seem to have been a sleeper agent, nor does he seem to have been turned recently. Kang refers to him as ‘Anthony’, suggesting that the pair are now on first-name terms. The first thing Tony does when he confronts Kang is to effectively complain that things are moving too fast. “This is… sudden,” he tells Kang. “You said we would have years before…” We’re never told how or why he was corrupted by Kang. He doesn’t seem to believe he’s helping a greater good – which would at least be in-character for Tony. It seems he suddenly becomes pure evil. And, because the story needs to end on a redemptive note, he suddenly reconsiders his position towards the end.

Like Fatal Attractions, this new portrayal of an established character feels even more out of place because the writers try to retroactively justify it. Rather than accepting Tony was written a particular way in order to reach a particular editorial-mandated conclusion, they try to convince the reader that the portrayal makes sense. Reflecting on the events with Captain America, Hawkeye states, “Stark always had a control problem. When he wasn’t abusing it, he was losing it. Let’s not forget his alcoholism, or his winning way with –“

Funeral for a fiend…

It doesn’t help that the writing is painful at times. It’s gloriously melodramatic, but without anything deeper to sustain it. Characters just talk absolute nonsense to one another in order to hit the right plot notes and fill up vital page space. After killing one team mate, Tony reflects, “Forgive me, Marilla — but you, like this morning’s sunrise — had to die.” I am not entirely convinced that sunrises die. Also, who was he talking to? Of course, it seems like to look for logic in these events is to court madness, but I can’t help it.

There’s also the notion of change. The Crossing is essentially about justifying a fairly massive change in Tony’s character – replacing the character with his younger self. Change itself is not an inherently good or bad thing – indeed, the genre does need a certain amount of movement to sustain itself, and some of the early chapters allude to the necessity for comic books to sort of press ahead and embrace change. In the mansion, the ghost of Tony’s father demands of him, “Just how do you expect to stay so ahead of your time, hot-shot… trapped and wallowing in your own little past?”

Let’s do the time warp again!

It raises a valid point about comic book nostalgia and how it can hold back comic books. If past audiences had been firmly opposed to change, Hal Jordan and Barry Allen would never have existed. There’s something quite compelling about how The Crossing seems to enthusiastically defend the notion of change, as if wary of backlash from conservative fans. Tony warns his butler, “The times they are a’ changin’, Jarvis.” Wanda comments on her new outfit, “I thought it was time for a new look.” The problem, however, isn’t that change itself is bad – it’s that this change is poorly thought-out, developed, plotted and executed.

However, there’s a catch here, and it’s a very important one. For all the fuss that the first few chapters of The Crossing make about the need for change, and how change is an organic and natural process, it’s worth noting that the change in The Crossing is not really change. It’s effectively reversion. It isn’t pushing the character of Iron Man in a bold new direction, like replacing Hal Jordan with Kyle Rayner (or Barry Allen with Wally West) did at DC. The Crossing isn’t about new anything – it’s actually about old things. Despite the criticism that The Crossing gets for radically altering the status quo, it is a conscious attempt to roll back the clock, to “reset” rather than “replace” Iron Man.

Hey Tony, quit beating yourself up…

teen!Tony introduces himself to evil!Tony as “a younger you… a cleaner you.” Looking at the text, it seems almost like Bob Harras and the other writers wanted to roll back the clock and removes some of the more ambiguous events (like Armour Wars) from Tony’s past. There’s a hint of nostalgia about the way teen!Tony is introduced, as if his return harkens to less ambiguous days of super-heroics. For all people complain about The Crossing typifying the “darker and edgier” trends of the nineties, it seems curiously fixated on the innocence of earlier stories. Indeed, it even features a rather painfully awkward trip into the history of the Marvel Universe, as we’re treated to shoe-horned in cameos from Matt Murdock and Peter Parker.

The reader is sold on teen!Tony as a version of the character who is more idealistic and less jaded than evil!Tony. “And now,” we’re told, with a hitn of nostalgia, “years later, here’s a young Tony Stark again, a Tony Stark whose future is laid out in grand possibilities before him.” In contrast, the narrative captions suggest that evil!Stark allowed the wide-eyed enthusiasm for the comic book universe fade, and instead became too cynical. “But somewhere along the way, sometime when his back was turned, the wonder faded.” It seems a bit redundant to turn Tony evil in order to give us an idealistic version of Tony Stark, to be entirely honest. Simply give the character an epiphany, rather than replacing him with himself.

And Neut to show for it…

teen!Tony is even robbed of a valid character arc. After all, he’s a young guy suddenly introduced to a new world with new technology and new rules. One might would be about teen!Tony learning to become a hero. Instead, it seems to be relatively easy to him. “I was — will be — a hero in my time, right…?” he asks Captain America. “And there’s no time like the present!” And that’s the sum total of his character growth, right there. He’s literally just a version of Tony who has been cleansed of some of his past characterisation – he doesn’t feel like a less experienced or developing character. He’s pretty much a clone of Tony, except he never struggled with his alcoholism, lost his company or stood against his friends.

It seems that Marvel have even acknowledged the story as a pile of pants. There is a single page of extras collected here. There’s no introduction to provide context to the work, no sketches, no memos, no articles from magazines. It seems like the material was literally just bundled up as quickly as possible. It feels like a bit of a shame, because I’d actually be interested in a bit of a behind-the-scenes exploration of this mess of a story-arc. It’s a shame that the book wasn’t assembled with the same car given to the X-Men titles – even when a book isn’t fantastic, it’s still lovingly edited.

The shine comes off…

Part of me wonders what the point of this collection was. Why release this omnibus to coincide with the release of The Avengers? Maybe they counted on people like me to buy it out of morbid curiousity. Or maybe they were looking for an Iron Man-centric volume of The Avengers to tie in with Iron Man being the most popular big-screen character in Whedon’s film. Either way, I can’t help but wonder if a collection of some more highly-regarded Avengers work would have been a better choice. Perhaps a Geoff Johns’ Avengers omnibus to tie into the Jim Lee X-Men collections? Or Roger Stern’s Avengers?

I don’t know. I think that The Crossing is a lot more fascinating than most of its critics would concede. That doesn’t mean it’s good, just that it’s interesting. It’s certainly not work a look out of anything more than morbid curiousity, but there are some nice ideas here foiled by truly dire execution. The opening line of the collection comes from Deathcry, “I warn you, get out of my way — or I can’t be held responsible!” It feels like even the event is giving us fair warning.

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8 Responses

  1. RE: your Crossing analysis, totally agree with a number of points.

    RE: Vietnam, the other interesting implication of this abandoned plot would be whether Tony Stark had accessed the “services” of Mantis during his time there in the War before she had become the Celestial Madonna. How awesome would it have been to discover some previously unknown relationship between the two?

    Kang’s claim to be responsible for Hank Pym’s psychotic breakdowns could have led to some interesting revelations about whether he had some alliance with the Creature from Kosmos in Ant-Man’s early career, given he had earlier obtained “growth pollen” from the world Kosmos for use in his Growing-Man simuloids.

    RE: Tony being Kang’s sleeper agent he placed within the Avengers, personally I was hoping at the time they would reveal that Tony was actually a younger version of Kang. Yes, Tony would really go on to become the Conqueror (and they’d scrap that stupid plot that Kang was Nathaniel Richards). One could even reveal teen Tony as Ironlad these days!!!

    • Thanks Nathan, and your blog is well worth a look. I’m especially fond of your Nightcrawler post, as I’m a massive Claremont fan:

      http://fanfix.wordpress.com/2012/09/18/nightcrawlers-parentage/

      Worth a look for any comic fans out there.

      • You might like to check my call-out here:

        http://fanfix.wordpress.com/2012/08/29/call-out/

        and contribute a post of your own!!!

        You have my email if you do:)

      • Thanks Nathan, but I’m not too hot on continuity, I must confess. I find it easier to treat continuity as sort of elastic and just pretend the stuff that bothers me doesn’t exist. I refuse to believe, for example, Fraction’s Tony Stark ever existed in universe where he was replaced by a teenage version of himself, because that’s just not relevent. It might be valid for contrast or comparison, but it doesn’t heavily influence my reading of it – Robert Downey Jr., on the other hand, does, despite being outside of comics. I think it’s called “head canon” or something, but I think that continuity only really exists in the eye of the beholder, and the connections we make as readers.

        (I think that’s why DC and Marvel occasionally run into bother trying to manage it – let the fans have their own. My version of Batman, for example, is only seen in certain stories, and he’s informed by various influences inside and outside comics. Frank Miller’s DKR fits that template. Bob Haney’s fits that template, bizarrely enough. I’m less convinced by, for example, Brian Azzarello’s iteration of the character – although I love the writer’s Wonder Woman and his version of Thomas Wayne.)

  2. I am surprised that elements from Harras’s run have not been brought back including the lead-up villains, the Gatherers (but am hopeful Remender does in the upcoming Uncanny Avengers:)

    • I am actually pretty psyched about Remender’s Uncanny Avengers. Here’s hoping for regular oversized hardcover releases.

  3. Have you read any of the “Iron Man”-Books before “The Crossing”? They’ve had Tony and Rhodey at odds more often than not. It started when Rhodey replaced Tony for, I believe, the second time, Tony faking his death, coming back, Rhodey taking the War Machine-Armor and was continued throughout the “War Machine”-Book. They’ve had a bit of a reconciliaton during the “Hands of the Mandarin”-Crossover. But Tony kinda has the habit of making a royal pain in the ass out of himself.

    A lot of what happened during “The Crossing” was retconned later in “Avengers Forever”. A very good “Avengers”-Story in my opinion.

    Which Issues are collected in that Omnibus?

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