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The Crisis Surrounding “Crisis Crossovers”

We’re a bit late to the party, but this week we’ll be celebrating the 75th anniversary of DC Comics, with a look at the medium, the company and the characters in a selection of bonus features running Monday through Friday. This is one of those articles. Be sure to join us for the rest.

In 2012, we will witness the first true superhero crossover on the big screen, with Iron Man, Captain America and Thor joining forces as The Avengers to battle evil. The Hulk may even get in on the action. However,this sort of overlap is hardly new to the source material which will inform the film. It seems that the comic book medium is dominated by the crossover fad, with the two major companies churning out massive event after massive event. Is this a good thing which demonstrates the strength and flexibility of the monthly-publishing schedule, or does this style of writing only serve to make the medium even more insular?

Yeah, see how messy this picture looks? Multiply that by about 42 and that gives you the idea of the complexity we're looking at...

I’ll talk about this more later in the week, but I remember when I first wanted to start reading comic books, to experiment with the medium. I’d finished Watchmen and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman on a previous holiday, so – with The Dark Knight behind me as the best film of 2008 – I decided to check out the current crop of Batman comics. Immediately this seemed like a fatal miscalculation. I landed in the middle of Grant Morrison’s Batman R.I.P. arc, which is itself just a prelude a massive crossover event, Final Crisis. I just wanted to read a Batman comic, without having to read a dozen crossover storylines featuring a rake of characters I’ve never heard of in order to enjoy the story.

At the moment, DC is rolling out Blackest Night and Marvel is publishing Siege. These will be followed by DC’s Brightest Day and Marvel’s The Heroic Age. In the past few years, DC has given us Infinite Crisis, Identity Crisis and Final Crisis (that’s a lot of crisis and I sense the last title will be misleading), while Marvel have given us Civil War and Secret Invasion, among others. It seems that every second issue is a tie-in. Virtually every on-going series owes some major plot development to these massive overlapping stories. Batman’s death, which led to Grant Morrison’s on-going work in Batman & Robin, didn’t even happen in his own book. The Invincible Iron Man Omnibus, published later this year to cash in on Iron Man 2, will be almost incomprehensible without an understanding of Marvel’s Dark Reign event – hardly a topic anybody picking up the book before seeing the film could be expected to know about.

Let’s be fair. The comic book crossover wasn’t always so… well, all consuming. The Justice League itself arguably counts as one of the first examples, when it occurred to DC that if you put all their top selling characters in a single book you might make even more money. The approach to the Justice League has alternated between ‘blockbuster book with our largest characters’ to ‘showcase with our less popular’ with varying degrees of success with either. For the most part, these ‘team books’, like The Avengers at Marvel, tend not to intrude too much on any on-going narratives in the characters’ solo series. Of course, this was an era when comics books were typically a lot more fluid than they are these days and you could get away with Batman in space! or stories like Robin Dies at Dawn.

However, in the late eighties, someone at DC Comics had an idea. Admittedly a great idea in retrospect. What if they organised one honkin’ big crossover that would tie up all the lose ends for all characters and allow the whole line to rebrand itself for an almost fresh start? The most important comic book they would ever publish, that would impact not only individual comics, but also the entire DC universe. Such an event was Crisis on Infinite Earths, which pitted the heroes of earth against the destruction… of reality… itself! Yes, it was big and it was messy and it was tough to follow (and doesn’t read well out of context), but it was a gamechanger and an incredibly big idea to realise.

This has my vote for craziest crossover ever...

Of course, Marvel soon copped on with their own massive cross-title fate-of-the-universe crossover, Secret Wars, which was arguably even more hokey and even less well written, though comic historians tend to look back on it fondly (it was also rushed to shelves before Crisis on Infinite Earths, although it was only planned after Marvel discovered what DC was up to). Incidentally, that giant crossover (or “crisis crossover” as they are known based on the DC series) was where Spider-Man originally got his black suit, the one from Spider-Man III which eventually became Venom. There’s a piece of trivia for you.

These two crossovers were big events, but the fad didn’t really kickstart until the mid-nineties. Ironically, it transitioned to internal lines of comics before branching back out. An example would be the trend in the nineties of taking a single storyline – Knightfall, Contagion, No Man’s Land – and running it through every Batman-related issue published, allowing that storyline to dominate an entire line of comics. The X-Men arguably pioneered the concept with plots like The Age of Apocalypse (and Spider-Man even got in on the action with The Clone Saga). Some events are recalled fonder than others, but it’s worth noting that in many cases each title would have its own set of writers and artists and making the story work with them was often more than a little difficult.

This aspect of comic book storytelling still exists today – arguably the most obvious example is the hugely successful Sinestro Corps War crossover told across the two Green Lantern series. The X-Men continue to do this on a regular basis. In many cases, it seems like a manipulative attempt to force the reader to buy two comic books each month – the story could just as easily be told in a once-a-month format. However, you might argue that the exceptional cases when this idea works justify it. It’s reasonable to assume, you could argue, that someone reading Green Lantern would not object to picking up Green Lantern Corps, for example.

Anyway, it seems these threads are cyclical, as the two publishers realised that big events seem to sell more. So bigger events must sell more-er. Yes, I made up a word, but let’s role with it. It was back to the universe-wide threads we went. I’ve listed examples up above.

In defense of these crossovers and the impact that they have on the solo title of any given character, you could argue that they are a fascinating demonstration of intertextuality. Perhaps one of the most integrated shared continuities in the history of fiction. The notion that the same fictional constructs can exist in tandem across several narratives at the same time, with each lynchpinned to the next – so that there is action-reaction-action occurring. The character is not shaped from one source, but several – which arguably can serve to give them extra depth or contrast. It’s almost very literary-minded. In fact, this aspect is what underpins Alan Moore’s literary “crisis crossover” The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which teams up various literary characters and works on the assumption that all fiction is real. Isn’t this idea fascinating?

In contrast, it is clearly a fascinating idea, but one seldom executed smoothly. This intertextuality necessarily undermines the integrity of the individual works. I remarked in my review of Ed Brubaker’s run on Captain America that his narrative was heavily undermined by the fact that more than a few important character beats took place in the crossover Civil War. It’s hard to argue that killing Batman off in a crossover instead of in the title he has been published in for seven decades helps any of his individual stories. Each of these individual threads is undermined by the greater whole.

And then there’s the fact that the depth of intertextuality relies on consistent writing. Marvel’s Civil War arguably offers the best example, with writers clearly disagreeing on core thematic elements across the event. In this case, individual titles actually undermined the collective’s integrity. It works both ways.

I can’t help but feel that this is one of the reasons which prevents these books from being accepted by the mainstream. Any glance at the sales charts will confirm that the events are successful within the realm of comic books. Siege and Blackest Night are selling particularly well, for example. But in that format they are counter-productive. I am hesitant to pick up The Invincible Iron Man – despite excellent reviews – because a massive part of the storyline plays into Marvel’s event-of-the-month. Part of the reason I’ve adored the relaunched Daredevil is because the title remains on the outside of such events, only vaguely connected (and in passing at that). Bendis and Brubaker can tell a long story without being interrupted by editors seeking to use the story as a random beat in some larger event.

I don’t know. I think the superhero comic is still relevant. But I think the current state of comic book publishing heavily undermines it. Of course, I sorta undermine this argument by buying into DC’s ongoing company crossover Blackest Night – it’s the culmination of five years of Geoff Johns’ run on Green Lantern, so I’m kinda in by default.

Still, this is perhaps the greatest single weakness (and yet arguably the most theoretically fascinating idea) put forward by the medium. It at once distinguishes it from other methods of storytelling through its dozens of layours of inter-connections, but also undermines the notion of storytelling by making any author’s narrative subordinate to the greater on-going plot.

Crisis crossover indeed…

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