I admit it freely and easily: I'm a sucker for the company-wide crossover event. Yeah, it's nice when you have Superman guest-starring in a Batman comic, or Reed Richards showing up in the pages of Spider-Man, but when you get a comic that has all of 50 or 60 heroes interacting, giving a wider shot of your preferred fictional universe, I'm there. It's sad, and expensive, but there you have it. Some are really good, some are really bad, and there's always going to be someone who says that "Age of Apocalypse" was by far superior to "House of M", but these opinions aside, the crossover is a phenomenon that bears some scrutiny.
I suppose it all started with "Marvel Super-Heroes Secret Wars". According to Jim Shooter Mattel toys "were interested in Marvel's characters, but only if we staged a publishing event that would get a lot of attention" .
(link) I have to admit, I didn't know this at the time, though I did get all those wicked-cool toys. But the further ramification is that it set a precedent for successful crossovers, and while "Contest of Champions" preceded it by a couple of years, "Secret Wars" was a year-long saga that actually effected profound changes in the Marvel Universe.
Jump ahead a year, and DC unveils "Crisis on Infinite Earths", possibly the most revered, and perhaps reviled, of all the crossovers. And the one that set up the way that crossovers have been handled for over 20 years now. I'm sure there were various reasons for the advent of "Crisis", some financial, some legal (notice that the original versions of characters were pretty much killed off in the series, leaving room for "reinterpretations" that the original creators would have trouble claiming ownership of), but the ostensible reason of cleaning up the shared universe is really the only one we need to consider. I came to the DC universe through this series. I had never read a DC comic. I knew, of course, who Batman and Superman and Wonder Woman were. Maybe an inkling of Green Lantern and The Flash. But Earth 2? The Marvel Family? The Crime Syndicate? Nothing. So, in 1985, at age 11, I picked up "Crisis on Infinite Earths" #1, and jumped in. And do you know what happened? I read the entire series, got to know the characters, their worlds, their enemies, and the ramifications of what happened in the story, closed the cover on issue #12, and had read a complete and coherent story. I didn't need to go out an buy the tie-in issues, of which I discovered years later, there were many. In fact, nowadays if I see one, I'll pick it up if the price is right, to get a better idea of how the various creators involved interpreted this cataclysmic event in the particular corner of the universe they were responsible for. The point, however, is this: I didn't need to. I still don't. I could read "Crisis" again, without any tie-ins, and it's still a good story. I still understand what's happening. The brilliance of Marv Wolfman and George Perez' story is that they give you all the background you need without ridiculous amounts of exposition that stifle the flow of the story. I understood where all the different Earths came from, who the Guardians of the Galaxy were, why there were different Batmen and Supermen, and even enough of the histories of those Earths to get some emotional investment in the characters. And not once was there a little asterisk directing me to read another comic in order to understand events in "Crisis". Again, setting aside the other reasons this crossover may have been produced, it seemed that the people involved were interested in telling a story, complete and in it's own right, and not in selling issues of other comics.
If only things had stayed that way.
Around the same time "Crisis" was on shelves, Marvel spawned a sequel to "Secret Wars". "Secret Wars 2" was a direct continuation of the first story, the Beyonder travelling to Earth to learn what individuality meant. An interesting idea, to be sure. How does something that has no concept of "individual" react to a world (and, of course, a country like the U.S.), that is so fiercely individual? Like a good little comic collector, I bought it on first sight, gulping down the beginning of what I hoped would be yet another grand story, starring all of my favourite heroes, and a few I'd never heard of. But then.....we come to the final page, perhaps even the back cover, and are invited to follow the Beyonder's adventures, and the ramifications of his actions, into a multitude of tie-ins. Of course, having the limited resources of my pre-work self (*sighs, a little misty-eyed*), I ignored the ads, waiting patiently for the next issue....
Which featured a Beyonder who'd had experiences that influenced my story that I had no idea of. The main focus of the story had stepped out of the pages I was following, into ones that I didn't, and come back changed. And yes, I could still enjoy the story, put the pieces together, but there was always the feeling that something was missing. At this point, after reading the whole thing, and not being quite satisfied with it, my taste for crossovers changed. Unfortunately this model of the crossover had proven itself. It has stayed, with no end in sight.
Through the late eighties and early nineties, I started to give up on comic books, in favour of music, sex, and all those other things that prey on the minds of teenagers. I was there for the various Marvel mutant book crossovers, and while something like "Inferno" did indeed tie in to other titles, and you sort of did have to read the three major X-books (Uncanny X-Men, X-Factor, New Mutants) to get the whole story, there was coherence to the story that didn't rely on knowing anything outside those three main titles. After that, though, I sort of slipped away. I think DC's "Invasion" was probably the last of my forays before giving up comics completely. I missed "Acts of Vengeance", "X-tinction Agenda", and the myriad others that popped up when the comics industry started selling more books than anyone really knew what to do with. When smaller companies like Valiant and Image can produce multi-part, hugely successful crossovers, then someone somewhere realizes that this is a marketing tool that really, really works.
Jump ahead to 1996, and I'm re-introduced to comics through the lens of Neil Gaiman's "Sandman" books. Literary comics. The stuff reserved for the top shelf of the store when I was last there, the books that I didn't pick up because the warnings on the outside said I wasn't old enough. Of course, they were well-written, and well-presented enough to drag me straight back in. And in that time, the crossover event had become a yearly occurrence. Witness "The Age of Apocalypse". Then "Onslaught". To really, really, get these stories, you had to buy entire shelves of comics. Over the years I've tried to get all the various parts to these two, and it's a work in progress, but at last count there are 47 comics that are direct, advertised on the cover, parts of "Age of Apocalypse". About four times the number that comprised "Crisis on Infinite Earths". "Onslaught", which I don't think I'm anywhere near having them all, currently numbers 36 issues in my collection. And "Onslaught" was an insidious one. Where in the past, crossovers seemed to center around a mini-series, and would tie-in to various titles, "Onslaught" had no focal series. It was just issue after issue of every major title that Marvel published. On a smaller scale such things had flown at DC, Valiant and Image, but not on such an epic level, and not with the rumoured, or promised, outcome. Death, carnage, destruction, and 4 new series and their #1 issues. All of which was of course a one year project that culminated in yet another 4 new series and their corresponding #1 issues. And the machine rolled on.
Next time, we'll have a look at my soft spot for "DC One Million", the far-less-comic-selling trend of annual crossovers, DC's "Seven Soldiers", and the horrible mess (in my opinion, I suppose) that was "Infinite Crisis". All this on the cusp of Marvel's "Secret Invasion" and DC's "Final Crisis". My wallet balks at the very thought.