Friday, May 19, 2006

Big Crossover Event Friday

Last week's crabby column may have left some with the idea that I am averse to big ol' superhero crossover Events. Actually, I'm not. I just want them to be fun.

What I especially object to is the idea that for the story to "matter," A Major Character has to die. It's become a stunt, any more. You know, you do it once in a while -- like, say, once a DECADE -- and you get the original Dark Phoenix story, or the original Death of Gwen Stacy. Those were deservedly regarded as big deals. But never forget that the REASON those stories were so huge were because they were unique, nobody was doing it.

If, on the other hand, you do it every six months as a stunt for comics' equivalent of sweeps week, it's just Snuff Lotto. It says something kind of embarrassing about the current state of comics that one of the first questions asked whenever DC or Marvel announces a big crossover mini-series is always, "Who's gonna die?" And it's asked with about the same level of emotional involvement as a bookie handicapping a horse race.

So, you know, that part annoys me. Nevertheless, a crossover story can be lots of fun. I mean, come on, there's not a thing wrong with the basic idea; this is the engine that drove The Brave and the Bold and Marvel Team-Up for years and years, putting characters you don't normally see together in one story and see how they react to each other. For that matter, it's that same idea that gave us the Justice League and the Avengers in the first place. Here are a few of the ones that I liked a lot that I wish some smart editor would collect.

These aren't Big Event stories, and actually, that's why I like them. They're just fun. Which is, after all, supposed to be what superheroic adventure is about in the first place.

The first one that came to mind when I thought of crossover stories that were more about old-school superheroic fun than angsty body counts was this one.

This was the kind of joyous, goofball idea that you could still get away with publishing in the 80's, before we all got so worried about the rest of the world looking at us funny for liking the stuff. It was an idea that had actually been around in SF and mystery fiction for decades: the round-robin challenge story. The premise behind the 12-issue DC Challenge was that each issue would be by a different writer and artist team, and each team had to try and stump the next one with a cliffhanger. Everyone knew it was just for fun going in, which was how you got guys like B'Wana Beast side-by-side with Jonah Hex, and the whole enterprise had a sort of gleeful energy.

AS a story, it really doesn't make that much sense, and virtually everyone involved, from Mark Evanier to Elliott Maggin to Roy Thomas to Len Wein, has done far better work alone -- but damn, it's a good time. You have to treat it like a game you are playing along with the writers that worked on it, and indeed, that was how DC presented it -- "Can you solve it before we do?" was the tagline. (I still remember how Evanier drove us all goddamn crazy for the better part of a year trying to figure out the meaning of the mysterious number sequence he put in the first issue.)

But a crossover doesn't have to be goofy to be fun. Consider this crossover trilogy of very tough, very cool stories.

It was actually one story, "Fables." Basically an episodic quest thing with an overarcing theme. There were a bunch of nice things about this story. First of all, it was in the annuals, rather than screwing up the regular books. Secondly, it put Denny O'Neil back on Batman and Green Arrow again, both characters he made his rep on, and had them together with his then-current Question, a wonderful run that Ditko purists hated and most everyone else adored. (Certainly I was one of those in the 'adored' camp; I didn't even care about Vic Sage's mullet.) Thirdly, and most importantly for someone plotting a crossover, it kept its participants in the same weight class. All three heroes were non-powered vigilantes who dealt primarily with urban crime. Which means you don't have to waste time on some ludicrous reason for them to meet up, it's a logical consequence of who they are.

The story itself is great fun, old-school O'Neil philosphical thoughts with martial-arts mayhem interspersed, and nice turns from the Penguin, Lady Shiva, and Ra's Al Ghul, among others. With fine art jobs on each end from Klaus Janson and Denys Cowan, and a fair-to-middlin' job from Tom Artis in between. It won't be collected now, of course, because God forbid DC publish anything that "contradicts" the current depiction of the Question or Green Arrow. Shame. But you could probably bowl it out on eBay or somewhere without breaking the bank.

Here's another martial-arts crossover with Green Arrow and the Batfolks.

This was when Chuck Dixon was writing Nightwing, Robin, Detective, and the Connor Hawke Green Arrow, which this sprawled all over for a month and a half or so. Another nice little twelve-dollar trade paperback that will never happen because DC is determined to ignore the whole Connor Hawke thing. But "Brotherhood of the Fist" is an interesting counterpoint to "Fables," actually, because Chuck Dixon has the same strong sense of story and grasp of the Bat-world that Denny O'Neil does, but his riff on martial arts and philosophy is 180 degrees from O'Neil's in the execution. Definitely worth checking out, this started in Green Arrow #134, then circled through Detective #723, Robin #55, Nightwing #23, and ended up back in Green Arrow #135. Note again that everyone's basically got, I dunno, call it 'power parity.' The Birds of Prey were in there too, but their book wasn't included. I can't remember if Babs and Dinah even HAD their book yet or if Dixon was still just doing the sporadic specials and mini-series.

Probably one of the cleverest company-wide crossovers ever, though, has to be the late lamented First Comics' CrossRoads, a five-issue Prestige mini-series that brought together all First Comics' stars of the 80's -- Nexus, Reuben Flagg (well, Luther, anyway), Sable, Whisper, GrimJack, Dreadstar, and... sigh... the Badger.

The thing that was so brilliant about it, though, is that there was no attempt to team up heroes that had no business together. The galaxy-spanning Nexus never got anywhere near the urban, non-powered Whisper. Instead, each issue was a stand-alone pairing of, say, Whisper and Sable, or Grimjack and Nexus and Dreadstar. It went five issue in all and they are a terrific sampler of the whole First Comics line. The stories themselves are pretty good too; all of them are fun, especially Mike Baron's entries.

In the interest of fairness, I tried and tried to come up with a company-wide Marvel event that I enjoyed as much as the ones listed above, and, well, I just couldn't think of one. A pity that the company that really pioneered the idea of the Big Crossover Event doesn't have any really good ones. Avengers-Defenders War, maybe. But that's a little bit of a reach. So I will leave the identifying of a great Marvel crossover as an exercise for the interested scholar below in comments... though if anyone nominates "Rise of the Midnight Sons," don't expect us to take you seriously.

See you next week.

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Blogger Bill Reed said...

They should do another Challenge! series. That'd be fun.

5/19/2006 11:38:00 PM  
Anonymous Omar Karindu said...

I'd suggest a few possibilities for Marvel, neither of them mega-crossovers in the modern sense.

The first is the odd little pseudo-crossover between Sub-Mariner v.1 #14, Captain Marvel v.1 #14, and Avengers v.1 #63-5. Three mastermind villains -- Egghead, the Mad Thinker, and the Puppet Master -- team up witha multi-stage plot, each bit of which is derailed by a separate hero or team of heroes without knowledge of the others.

It's all Roy Thomas, but it gave us stuff like the death of Toro, Hawkeye's brother turning up and sacrificing himself, and the sheer fun of the Swordsman failing to work out that Hawkeye-as-Goliath and Hank Pym were two different people.

The other one I'd mention is the weird little mini-crossover running from Daredevil v.1 #35-8 and Fantastic Four v.1 #73. The Trapster, Doctor Doom in Daredevil's body, and wild art from Gene Colan and Jack Kirby on characters they aren't normally associated with.

The last one probably doesn't count in any way shape or form, but is interesting all the same: I'm thinking of the way Steve Engelhart played his Captain America plots out in Avengers with the Secret Empire/Watergate arc being explicitly sequelled/referenced in the Roxxon/Squadron Supreme/Hellcat story in Avengers....and along the way, those Avengers issues also tie up the Kang story-arc loose ends from the Celestail Madonna stuff.

When you realize that the Celestial Madonna arc had a Cap-as-Nomad cameo and pulled in some Dormammu stuff from Engelhart's contemporaneous Dr. Strange work, it may not be a crossover but it does represent one writer interweaving together three very distinctive and well-remembered runs.

Plus, it was actually lots of fun.

5/20/2006 12:52:00 AM  
Anonymous Cove West said...

Thought "Brotherhood of the Monkey Fist" (strange that DC left "Monkey" off the cover--could have sold billions) was awesome when it first came out, but it doesn't hold up that well today, despite being the last of the great kung-fu events (though I have an idea Gail has a kick-ass one in her somewhere). In fact, I'm sort of disappointed in it now, as Dixon almost undercuts his entire work on Dick and Tim by having them act as ineffectual comic relief (not that Tim should have beaten anyone, but at least give him something important to do). In this regard, "Hunt for Oracle" is growing on me.

I got a Marvel crossover for you, Greg:

The "2nd Thanos War" in Avengers Annual #7 and Marvel Two-In-One Annual #12 (I think). Actually, all the Thanos appearances, from Captain Marvel and Warlock to Silver Surfer, Thanos Quest, and Infinity Gauntlet, can be seen as one big crossover, but this little annual event is the high point. As good as Cosmic Marvel has ever been, in two issues.

5/20/2006 02:30:00 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

On the subject of crossover deaths: I can't help but remember that inaugural Big Crossover Event, Secret Wars, where Wasp died in issue 6...

...and came back to life in issue 8. And since she had been alive and well when the Avengers returned from the Secret War months earlier, everyone pretty much knew that would happen.

5/20/2006 08:46:00 AM  
Blogger CalvinPitt said...

Would Acts of Vengeance count?

I know there wasn't a whole lot of heroes crossing over (although the New Warriors did pop up in Thor), but the villains were going after heroes they normally never messed with, so it could be a Big Crossover Event for the Bad Guys.

5/20/2006 09:58:00 AM  
Anonymous Moose N Squirrel said...

The "Wasp dying in Secret Wars" thing is a little different, though, from what Greg's complaining about here. Like you point out, it was obvious from the outset that her death wasn't going to be permanent; only the characters within the story reacted to it as though it were such. It played out as just another story element - basically an extended cliffhanger.

Character deaths now are a bit different. If it's a major character that gets killed off, writers and editors pretend that it's permanent this time ("dead means dead") and fans do pretty much the same (reacting in anger and disgust), while both parties pretty much know that it's only a matter of time before Sue/Aquaman/whoever comes back to life. It's a bizarre sort of pageant that, to my knowledge, is unique to comic book fandom. It also reflects an unequal relationship: the editors pretend that Superdude X is really really superdead this time, honest, because they want to lend authenticity to the death event to goose the sales; fans buy the death event in huge numbers as if they believed this was the last appearance of Superdude X, but they keep buying the books precisely because they actually believe it's all a cheap stunt and he's inevitably coming back. This simply encourages the endless repetition of the stunt death - Marvel and DC are businesses, after all. If readers actually treated these things like the nonevents they are, we wouldn't see this happen all the time.

5/20/2006 10:56:00 AM  
Anonymous Chuck said...

I'm in with Omar. I use to love it when Marvel used to do things like that, and would buy trades like that as well. It's become too difficult to find all the parts of these stories in all of my boxes.

And I miss all of the subtle references to other books, that tied the Marvel Universe together. Anything that helps rekindle those feelings I had when I first read them, I'm a sucker for.

I miss that in today's stories!

5/20/2006 11:11:00 AM  
Blogger --Greg Hatcher said...

You know, I almost included Omar's picks -- specifically, the Daredevil and Englehart ones -- and then talked myself out of it because back then, that was just the way the Marvel books WORKED in the 70's. Stories just kind of ambled in and out and around all over the place. That's also why I left out the Ghost Rider/Son of Satan stuff and the Daredevil/Ghost Rider stories that were both in the recent Ghost Rider Essential. In fact, interested folks will find these included in the 70's Essentials for the most part, to the relief of those of us who feared that the Essentials would just blindly reprint a single title issue-by-issue and ignore Marvel's 70's crossover habit. This is why you got the Avengers/Defenders war included in its entirety in both the Avengers and the Defenders Essentials. The FF-Daredevil one's in the DD Essential too, I think.

But the big Marvel Events that I've enjoyed? Avengers/Defenders war was fun but the art is really bad. Kree-Skrull War wasn't really a crossover and the ending's a little lame. The Starlin annuals always seemed to me like an awkward wrapup to the Warlock saga... dragging Spider-Man into it, especially, just felt odd.

Dr. Strange and Tomb of Dracula crossed over for a little two-parter I adored. But again, in the 70's these weren't Events the way we think of them today. The only special-event crossovers that I really liked from Marvel in recent years have been prose. The "Time's Arrow" trilogy of Spider-Man/X-Men novels are very cool, as are the "Gamma Quest" books from Greg Cox featuring the Avengers and the X-Men. But in the actual comics, I can't think of one I really LIKED. Maybe "Asgardian Wars," the X-Annual stunt a couple of decades back. There's a nice trade edition of that one, though probably long out-of-print. "Fantastic Four Vs. the X-men" from around that era was okay too. Those would probably be my X-book picks. Every one since then has just been too overblown and convoluted... I gave up on the X-Men when I bought the trade collections of "X-Cutioner's Song" and "Bloodlines" and they were INCOMPREHENSIBLE. I mean literally they did not make sense. And I'm not some casual reader, either, I'm reasonably familiar with X-lore. I figured if I couldn't figure out what the hell was going on in the trades the franchise was too out of control for me.

5/20/2006 11:39:00 AM  
Blogger Chris said...

I personally am a fan of Operation: Galactic Storm, which crossed over through Avengers, Quasar, Avengers WC, Iron Man, Thor, and Cap.

Yeah, it's like 20 comics or so but it's well written, has consequences, and great characters

5/20/2006 01:48:00 PM  
Anonymous Moose N Squirrel said...

This is a guilty admission to be sure, but I like the Infinity things. Yes, I know it should've ended with the first one, which in and of itself is really only good up through the doomed superhero fight (with the awesome Cap vs. Omnipotent Thanos scene), and the Infinity War has an incomprehensibly random ending and the last one is just silly, and none of them mean anything or have any consequences (besides giving the world the goofy Spider-doppelganger from Maximum Carnage) but I read them and liked them anyway. Sure, it was all just the Warlock & Thanos Show, but I just can't say no to Warlock and Thanos.

Now, the Infinity Abyss? Well, that's where I just draw the line.

5/20/2006 03:22:00 PM  
Blogger Brack said...

DC 1,000,000 was the last big crossover event that I really enjoyed.

The fact it was all done in one month really helped.

5/20/2006 05:33:00 PM  
Blogger Tycho B. said...

One crossover everyone but me has forgotten about, and really should be remembered more than it is, is Showcase #100. It came out sometime in the late 70's, and was an extra sized team-up of EVERY character that had ever appeared in Showcase (in other words, every Silver Age DC character) fighting a world-threatening menace. (There's this one great page of the Spectre pushing the Earth back into place.) The coolest bit is that in the end, the world is saved by Angel of "Angel & the Ape".

Check it out.

5/20/2006 08:18:00 PM  
Blogger RAB said...

In the same spirit as Steve Englehart's interconnected Marvel titles, I invite readers to consider the Seven Soldiers of Steve project -- plok's catchphrase for the multifaceted connections and relations among Steve Gerber's Marvel titles during the same period. The "big crossover events" are driven by marketing -- it's just a way of getting a tiny pool of readers to buy a few more books that they ordinarily wouldn't buy. What Englehart and Gerber were doing in their respective books was something very different: a little treat for loyal readers and a way for a writer to continue exploring some favorite characters. Hmm, a crossover for artistic reasons rather than commercial ones...what a bizarre concept!

5/20/2006 10:04:00 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

"The "Wasp dying in Secret Wars" thing is a little different, though, from what Greg's complaining about here."

And such was my point. I was almost parody before-the-fact of today's mentality, as expressed by Dan "We mean business" Didio.

5/21/2006 10:45:00 AM  
Blogger Evan Waters said...

It is mostly the deaths that bug me about these things too. Even a small-scale thing like, well, IDENTITY CRISIS has to be about multiple murders. Bah, I say.

And the problem with the modern "no, we mean it this time" stance is really just that it translates into waiting a while before your favorite character who just got iced gets to come back. I'm seriously skeptical that the advertised "resurrection of Sue Dibny" will actually be such, especially with the resurrection cult being painted in a sinister or at least kinda freaky light. And there's always the risk that a character's death will gain the revered "No, let's really NOT change this" status of a Gwen Stacy or Barry Allen.

So it's a pain- a toy gets taken out of the toybox and locked up in a closet, and you have to wait until the person who did it changes their mind or someone else gets the keys.

On the other hand, yep, there are crossovers I've liked. INVASION I enjoyed (though I suppose whoever was reading DOOM PATROL at the time wasn't too happy with at least two members being iced), the original CRISIS was exciting albeit confusing, I've a soft spot for the much-loathed COSMIC ODYSSEY because it was my introduction to the New Gods, and of course there's KINGDOM COME. SEVEN SOLDIERS I guess falls under the category too. I honestly think that the problem is the CRISIS model, that now every crossover has to have some effect on the company's continuity (making them like the pay-per-view wrestling specials where all the major plot developments happen) and that it has to do the "Heroes will die!" thing.

5/21/2006 01:58:00 PM  
Blogger Bryan-Mitchell said...

I second (or third) th elove for the DC Challenge. I like to think that 52 is kind of like the modern equivelent with all the writers and artists involved in making it work. However, it would indeed be awesome if they were to do it again for real. I also second the Question/Green Arrow/Batman crossover. For me those are when the characters were at their best. They were mostly alone. No sidekicks, no trick arrows or utility belts. Just the pure essence.

5/21/2006 10:42:00 PM  
Anonymous Ben Herman said...

CalvinPitt said...
Would Acts of Vengeance count?

I second that nomination. Acts of Vengeance was a fun non-crossover type of crossover. I enjoyed it tremendously. Admittedly, I was 14 years old when it came out, so nowadays I might not look upon it in quite such a positive light. But at the time, I really enjoyed it. It was cool seeing heroes and villains who ordinarily never crossed paths fight one another.

5/22/2006 09:19:00 AM  
Blogger Tim O'Neil said...

I also liked Acts of Vengeance, because it was one of those rare events that really didn't entail a costumer to buy books they otherwise didn't read if they didn't want to. Sure, the main story was in the Avengers books, but if you were just a Spider-Man reader or an X-Men reader or a Punisher reader or a Daredevil reader, you got everything you needed to know in the context of your own series. Of course, those of us who did seek out a larger percentage of the crossovers were rewarded with a story that actually made sense and held up over an entire line with relatively few continuity gaffes between books. The fact that the second Damage Control series was one of the story's linchpins was also very cool.

The problem is that this kind of story is also almost impossible to collect, although if you did it across a few fat trades it would be good. After all, even though, say, Daredevil vs. Ultron or the Punisher vs. Dr. Doom were unimportant in the larger plot, they were pretty fun nonetheless.

5/22/2006 10:40:00 AM  
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