Thursday, January 25, 2007

Hoopla! - Episode 5: Mega-Crossover-Events and the Comic-Book Readers Who Love to Hate Them [Part One]

Hello and welcome to Hoopla!, the online comic-book review column that critics are calling
“Inspiring...” “Chocolate-y...” and “...a triumph of the Human Spirit!”

This week we’re going to take a look at Mega-Crossover-Events and the Comic-Book Readers Who Love to Hate Them. This is going to be a three-part column, with this first installment looking at the original Mega-Crossover Events and the second and third parts focusing on more recent ones (Infinity Crisis, Identity Crisis, Civil War, etc.).

First of all, let’s define our terms... A Mega-Crossover-Event (MCE for those of you who enjoy acronyms) is a comic-book event, spread out over several different titles, that is supposed to have repercussions far beyond the story itself, rippling throughout the comic-book universe in which the story takes place, altering the status quo in a significant and meaningful way for the betterment of human society.

And, too, there is lots of punching and kicking.

The first real Mega-Crossover-Event was a twelve issue monthly series (May 1984 - April 1985) published by Marvel, titled Secret Wars, which we'll talk more about later. But, in the grand scheme of things, the real grand-daddy of the MCE was DC's Crisis on Infinite Earths, which came a year later in 1986. Secret Wars was more of a 12-issue limited series that tied into the other titles, but it didn't have that frenzied you-have-to-buy-all-152-crossover-issues-to-grasp-the-magnitude-of-this-comic-book-epic quality that puts the Mega in a Mega Crossover Event!!!

Written by Marv Wolfman and illustrated by George Perez, Crisis on Infinite Earths sort of set the ground-rules for what an MCE should be. There were pre-event issues of regular ongoing series, then there was the limited series that actually told the tale of the MCE, there were crossovers with ongoing titles to highlight how the events taking place within the central limited series was affecting specific characters, the status quo was significantly altered by the end of the story, and readers bought it in massive numbers while simultaneously complaining that it was ruining all of their favorite comics and making them feel unloved.

Thus it was and thus shall it ever be...

Some MCEs are obviously more successful than others, of course. First of all, from the perspective of the publishing companies and the retailers, a crucial criteria for evaluating the “success” of a Mega-Crossover-Event is actual sales. Did the central series sell well? Did the crossover issues sell better than the regular issues of various series? And was the increase in sales sustained afterwards or was it only a temporary bump?

Generally speaking, the answers to these questions are Yes, Yes, and No, it was only a temporary bump.

Of more interest to me, as a reader and a reviewer and a man with an outdated music collection, are the following criteria...

1) Did the Mega-Crossover-Event have a coherent plot/concept that could be explained in 40 words or less?

2) Was the central limited series entertaining?

3) Were the crossover issues and related limited series enjoyable?

4) Were significant changes to the comic-book universe made as a result of the MCE?

5) Were those changes actually good for the comic-book universe?

6) Did Superboy bring Jason Todd back to life by punching a hole in reality?

Using these six criteria, I want to take a look at some of the most important and some of the most recent Mega-Crossover-Events. Won’t you please join me...?

Crisis on Infinite Earths
Written by Marv Wolfman
Illustrated by George Perez
Published by DC

1) Plot in 40 words or less: The villain of the story, the Anti-Monitor (he refuses to watch things?), decides to destroy all the parallel dimensions of the DC universe. All but five of those universes are, in fact, destroyed and the surviving ones are merged into a single universe.

There was a bunch of other stuff, mostly about the history of the Guardians and the origin of the Monitor and this guy called Pariah, whose super-power was that he would show up at various Earths moments before

their destruction to say, “Hey, guess what’s about to happen...” and then cry and act like a big sissy after everything was destroyed, but essentially this Mega-Crossover-Event was about one big cosmic guy, the Anti-Monitor, fighting another big, cosmic guy, the Monitor, with the heroes and villains of the DC universe sort of caught in the middle.

So, yes, the plot was more-or-less coherent.

2) Was the central limited series entertaining?

This one is not so easy to answer. Any attempt at reading Crisis on Infinite Earths today is certain to result in a migraine, but that’s more a case of it being dated than anything else; the thing is 20 years old, after all.
Back in 1986, however, I remember thinking it was all pretty cool and awe-inspiring. The deaths of Supergirl and the Flash, in particular, were big moments. So, I give this a mild, conditional yes.

3) Were the crossover issues and limited series enjoyable?

Well, there were about 20 billion crossover issues and the quality definitely varied. There were crossover issues that are today referred to as “Red Sky” issues, which would be a regular issue of whichever series but with a one-page-or-less moment of someone looking up and saying, “Huh. The skies are all red. I wonder why?” Those were kind of a rip-off and made readers very, very grumpy.

But, for the most part, I’d say the crossovers were taken very seriously by the various editors/writers/artists of DC and there were some legitimate events taking place in those issues. In fact, probably the best issues of the whole Crisis on Infinite Earths Mega-Crossover-Event were the Alan Moore scripted issues of Swamp Thing that showed John Constantine and Swamp Thing sort of passively observing everything that was going on.

So, we’ll give this one another mild yes.

4) Significant changes?

Oh, hell yes. More than any other MCE that has come along since, Crisis on Infinite Earths shook things up. Supergirl and Flash were killed. Earth 2 was destroyed. Heck, all sorts of stuff got destroyed.

Even more importantly, series were allowed to have a fresh start. John Byrne and Marv Wolfman made some major changes to Superman's history, most of which were huge improvements on the past. For one thing, he got his parents back, which I remember thinking was a mistake at the time.

Another big change: Lex Luthor was transformed from an evil, bald scientist to an evil, bald scientist who was also a very successful businessman. Even more importantly, they got rid of his idiotic origin story which was this:

Once upon a time, back when Lex Luthor was but a young lad, he and Superboy were buddies. But one day, Lex's experiments caused a fire in his lab. Superboy (in this continuity, there was a Superboy, a Superbaby, Super-horse, etc.) rushed into the lab and blew out the fire, but the chemicals from the accident made Lex Luthor bald. Furious, Lex Luthor became an evil son of a bitch and the sworn arch-nemesis of Superboy (and, years later, Superman).

Now THAT, my friends, is a really dumb origin story.

The guy could create weapons that could shrink you to the size of a mouse, create clones, travel to other dimensions, etc., but he couldn't find some way to deal with the loss of his hair???

It might have been worth all 12 issues of the Crisis on Infinite Earths just to get that out of continuity...

Anyway, the list goes on and on. Without Crisis on Infinite Earths, the DC universe would look radically different today.

So, a BIG yes to this one.

5) Were those changes actually good for the comic-book universe?

That’s a tough one to answer. I still miss Earth 2 and the interactions between, for example, Earth 1’s Batman (that’s the one we all know and love today) with the daughter of his counterpart on Earth 2 (the Huntress) and all those wacky JLA-JSA crossovers. And I’m sure there’s no shortage of long-time readers who still mourn the loss of many of those classic tales to continuity. Some characters, like Bizarro-Superman, never really made a successful transition to the new, unified DC universe.

And, of course, it’s impossible to know how things would have played out if Crisis on Infinite Earths had never happened. So, I’m going to leave this one unanswered. Probably the answer is yes, but it’s really subjective.

6) Did Superboy bring back Jason Todd by punching a hole in reality?

No, but Jason Todd did get his origin story completely re-booted as a result of the Crisis. He was originally almost an exact duplicate of the original Robin; his parents were trapeze artists who were murdered before his eyes, Bruce Wayne took him in as his ward, he was a gymnast with an unfortunate zest for bad puns, etc. Crisis on Infinite Earths gave the powers-that-be an opportunity to change all that; suddenly, Jason Todd was a street kid who originally met Batman while trying to steal the hubcaps off the Batmobile.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Final analysis: For all its flaws, Crisis on Infinite Earths was pretty darn impressive for its time. Significant changes resulted from it and it really set the trend for all Mega-Crossover-Events to follow, for good or ill.

[NOTE: All of the above pictures were taken from Alan Kistler's Guide to THE CRISIS, which has a far more detailed summary of the story and goes through all the repercussions of Crisis on Infinite Earths. If you have any interest at all in this subject, his web-page is THE place to go. Informative, easy to navigate, and very entertaining, it's much more enjoyable than reading the actual series itself. Seriously.]

Secret Wars
Written by Jim Shooter
Art by Mike Zeck
Published by Marvel

As mentioned previously, Secret Wars has the distinction of being the very first Mega Crossover Event. The main 12-issue series itself occurred within one month of the regular, ongoing titles. So, issue #138 of Capt. Whatever showed the hero leaping/swinging/falling into a weird construct in the middle of Central Park and then issue #139 began with that hero returning, making vague references to all the amazing things that had happened in the time he’d been away.
But you had to buy Secret Wars to find out what had actually happened between the two issues.

This was actually a pretty unsuccessful way of doing a Mega-Crossover-Event, as it turned out, because you knew from the very start how the story was going to end. You knew who was alive, who had a new costume, etc.
So, that kind of killed some of the excitement of the Secret Wars series itself.

But, I suppose it was nice for the people doing the regular ongoing series because they could carry on just as they had before with minimal interruption.

1) Did the Mega-Crossover-Event have a coherent plot/concept that could be explained in 40 words or less?

An all-powerful cosmic being named the Beyonder decides to test Marvel’s greatest heroes and villains by luring them to a universe he has created. There they battle one another with the promise that whoever wins will get a big, fat reward.

So, yup, that was a pretty simple plot, easily explained.

2) Was the central limited series entertaining?

Again, the answer is relative to when it was produced. My recollection is that there were certain segments that seemed idiotic (I have a vague, unpleasant memory of Hawkeye playing patty-cake with the Lizard) but the fun of the series was watching the various factions of heroes and villains re-align themselves. The X-Men, for example, didn’t really trust the Avengers and so the two groups sort of went their different ways. Sometimes they would work together but sometimes they would wind up fighting each other.

And Doctor Doom was a lot of fun in this series as the one guy who refused to play by the Beyonder's rules and actually tried to kick the Beyonder's butt.

You gotta love Doom, when he's being written correctly.

So, we’ll give that a mild yes.

3) Were the crossover issues and related limited series enjoyable?

Because of the way this thing was constructed, I don’t recall there being much in the way of crossover issues. All the comics had the one month where the hero got sucked into the thing in Central Park, but that was kind of cool because it was so mysterious and you knew something big was going to happen but you had no idea what it was.

I’m going to give this a big Not Applicable.

[Marvel more than made up for this oversight with their follow-up Mega-Crossover-Event, Secret Wars II, in which the Beyonder came to Earth to learn the meaning of life. Secret Wars II had a bazillion crossovers and, let me tell you, they were excruciatingly bad. Even today, those crossover issues give off a rank and persistent odor that can contaminate the rest of your comic-book collection if they aren’t kept separate.]

4) Were significant changes to the comic-book universe made as a result of the MCE?

They really tried to convince their readers that the answer to this question was yes, but the answer is a big, fat NO.

Here are the changes that resulted from Secret Wars:
  1. The Hulk broke his leg. It was in a cast for a few issues afterwards. Even back then, no one cared.
  2. The Thing stayed on the Beyonder’s planet and had a year’s worth of really lame adventures, during which I believe he called himself Rocky Grimm, Space Explorer or some damn thing.

  3. Kitty Pryde and Colossus stopped dating.

  4. Spider-Man got his new, black costume.
Of the four, the only one that really mattered was Spider-Man’s new costume, but that could have easily been achieved without Secret Wars, so the answer to this question remains NO.

5) Were those changes actually good for the comic-book universe?

Not applicable.
Although they certainly weren’t too good for Kitty Pryde. That poor girl was heart-broken for months...

6) Did Superboy bring Jason Todd back to life by punching a hole in reality?

No, but when the Beyonder came to Earth in the sequel series, he had a mullet and wore a white jumpsuit.

Final analysis: Secret Wars failed in terms of shaking up the status quo of its comic-book universe, but it wasn’t an awful MCE, per se. The main story was reasonably enjoyable and, hey, the Hulk broke his leg!

Next week, we’ll take a look at the more recent Mega-Crossover-Events, including Identity Crisis and Infinity Crisis, and we may even toss in a comic-book review or two for good measure.
In the meantime, drop me a line and let me know what you think about the new "It's not easy being greeeeeen!" motif to this blog. I have a natural inclination to hate all change, so I'm not sure if I like it or not, but you've gotta admit, it's a hell of a lot easier on the eyes than the original template.
Also, I'm still anxious to hear your absolute favorite obscure story-lines of all time, to be included in a future column.

Until next week, here's hoping all your comic-book-y dreams come true... and in continuity...


M said...

The new green look to the blog makes me feel glitzy all over.

Sincerely yours,
The Lizard

Aaron C said...

Great blog, keep up the good work.

13TonGimp said...

I was deep, deep, deep into comics when these two came out, and I was also in Junior High. Secret Wars made me realize that Marvel was not as good as I thought at the time. On the other hand, even though I wasn't a DC fan at the time (In fact quite the opposite), I will never, ever, ever forget picking up that first issue at the 7/11 on the corner of Pass Rd and Debuys Rd in Biloxi, MS. It was a defining moment in my comic book past. Everything else pales in comparison.

Paul said...


Yeah, I was in high school when Crisis came out and I remember being pretty blown away too. It seemed so... epic.

Up until then, I think the only DC titles I was picking up were The Flash (back in the Barry Allen days), Green Lantern and (of course) Teen Titans.

By the end of Crisis, I was picking up pretty much everything.

- Paul