Comic Fodder

The Failure of Cross-Over Events

Context

I spent time over the Holidays attempting to catch up on some of the comics and collections that had been piling up since this fall when I went back to work full-time (take that, failing economy!). It's been an arduous task, but its also been helping me realize that I've been picking up a lot of books out of habit and not immediately tackling them. Which means I have a whole scad of books that are probably looking at getting the axe and/ or have already received the axe from my comic purchasing.

For being such a DC nut these days, I wasn't much of a fan of DC's output during a fairly crucial stage in my comic reading. In the 1980's, I read Batman, Titans, some Green Lantern (with that relaunch with gray-haired Hal), Justice League International, and a handful of other books.* And, really, it took Vertigo to get me back to buying DC in the early 1990's.

Recently, DC had released collections of "Invasion!" and "Millennium", both series I recall seeing on the shelf at the time at the grocery or at the comic shop (its a bit difficult to recall), but neither of which I read at the time of their release. It had been a point of frustration for me as a DC fan that neither series had made the rounds through the collected editions department at DC when comic board commentors would cite one series or the other, and the events of those series would occasionally come into play in current storylines.

I'm not going to say I did a jig or anything when I saw the titles appear as trades in DC's solicitations, but I did order them and looked forward to their arrival. Each promised Big Superhero Action and came from venerable DC creators, Giffen on Invasion! and Englehart on Millennium**.

Disappointment

The trouble is, neither series is very good. In fact, both of them were pretty awful, and I can see why DC may not have been in a rush to remind readers of the awkward, post-Crisis on Infinite Earths-era at DC.

Crisis on Infinite Earths, in many ways, may be to blame as its where so many of the wrong lessons may have been gleaned after the phenomenal sales success of COIE was pondered, and in true media captain of industry fashion, someone wanted another COIE on the books. However, its astoundingly clear that nobody was really sure what made the first mega-event such a huge success in the first place. It reminds one of Mort Weisinger noticing that comics with gorillas on the cover seem to sell, and the legacy of apes appearing in all forms in the DCU. Or the mad scramble for studios to replicate Tim Burton's success with Batman back in the 1980's with schlocky superhero pic after schlocky superhero pic hitting the screen.

It seems that DC set up some sort of checklist for an event, post COIE.
__ Sort of cosmic, massive threat
__ Assembling of super-heroes
__ Characters greeting one another who've never met with oddly stilted dilaog
__ Someone noting what a bad idea it is to have all the heroes in one place at one time
__ lots of characters dropping a single line about whatever is going on in their own books
__ characters going off on separate missions which equate to "go break/ claim/ discombobulate the macguffin"
__ action occurring in choppy, choppy, poorly choreographed fight scenes in which characters are awful chatty and reference stuff happening in their own books
__ because these series were also designed as cross-overs, lots of recaps of what sounds like something resembling an actually interesting story happening off panel in some other title, which is not included in the main series/ collection
__ the big reveal of some cockamamie cosmic scheme that doesn't make any sense
__ the re-assembled heroes really "pouring it on" some big boss final threat
__ despite the heroes winning with use of outpouring of destruction and violence, an extended third act as the villain ups the ante
__ the actual resolution involving some other, seemingly completely random and smaller piece of the puzzle
__ also, the introduction of new and immediately forgettable characters which were supposed to really take off (which is really the point of Millenium, as near I could tell)

The biggest part of the problem seems to be that for a stretch of about ten - twenty years there at DC, there was a moratorium on anything resembling subtlety or character in event comics as writers struggled to ensure that characters got a word in edgewise so readers might know who the characters were through single, awkward declarative statements (or having other characters comment upon them, in the case of Batman).

character

To add to the mix, popular characters of the era are often given a heavier amount of "screentime", but with none of the charm that made them work in their own books. Invasion! in particular features Guy Gardner, who had reached a certain zenith in popularity at the time, but whom Giffen seems to have a tin ear for translating to the page.

At the heart of it, this reader finds it difficult to latch onto stories driven entirely by plot and with "character" defined only as which costumed beings appear in the story. We're given crumbs of who characters are, but any real examination of how any one character processes the events isn't even related via subtextual reference.

plot

Given that plot is what could or should be hanging the series of comics together, one would expect vacuum-sealed tight script and plot. But, in Invasion!, Millennium, Final Night, Day of Judgment and others (although I think Legends does slightly better), a lot of stuff occurs, but very little ever seems to happen. Heroes are given a mission as part of the puzzle, a la the old JSA/ JLA team-up stories.

What's most puzzling is the extended third act, which invariably tacks on a sort of Overtime period in which the business is resolved, but in a way that usually involved little in the way of smashing people or objects. Crisis on Infinite Earths featured the collapse of the DCU and rebirth of the new DCU. Invasion! features the "gene bomb" extended aftermath, which felt like the "insta-character" button, just as Millennium wraps with the creation of a new team of characters (who I don't think I ever saw again, except in the pages of Invasion!).

But between the introduction of the threat (aliens, manhunters, what have you...), there's a lot standing around in large groups and word bubbles filled with text that could fit into anyone's mouth. Millennium is especially guilty of this sin, to the point where this reader finds it easy to skip over vast sections. Whatever complaints modern readers might have about Bendis and talking heads in a room... there's ample precedent.

Perhaps the greatest crime is that when action does occur, it all feels perfunctory. It's not so much about the journey in these stories. It's very clear that the comics are designed to hit certain marks that other comics can line-up to as part of the mega-cross-over event. Thus, fights are a mish-mash of faces, costumes and exclamations, with the progress and/ or outcome described by the participants rather than through any demonstrative action. And, there are frequent cut-aways to what's going on elsewhere. So even those coming to the stories for pure superhero action aren't getting the best of that side of the coin, either.

The Art

Generally wasn't my cup of tea in either Millennium or Invasion!.

Versus the Modern Event Comic

I'll go out on a limb and say that event comics at both DC and Marvel are handled far better today than they were in 1988. It's interesting that in the era of decompression, DC and Marvel haven't increased page count or issue count to contain the stories taking place in event comics.

Old habits die hard, and its not clear that Marvel or DC have shaken free of all of the bad habits. While the stories tend not to be the plodding exercises in tedium that series such as Invasion! and Millennium can be, nothing works as an upsell on a comic like tying it into a particular crossover event (I believe Civil War had roughly 100 total comics that were part of the event, but then Civil war was also a sea-change for the Marvel U.).

I'm not entirely sure that new characters coming out of event cross-overs actually ever got much traction, or that much has changed. The New Guardians were supposed to spin out of Millennium, but... man***. Probably one of the greater success stories of a spin-off at this point is Blue Beetle, but that's just because Jaime's title lasted 3 whole years before receiving cancellation rather than immediately cratering or being dismissed like Batwoman.

Whether it was common wisdom or a playbook comic writers were issued to follow in writing an event, today's cross-over events tend to read a bit more strongly growing organically from the fabric of the universe (Infinite Crisis) or the result of a sudden, shift that feels natural to the universe (Civil War). The format of the last few DC cross-overs, in Identity Crisis, Infinite Crisis and now Final Crisis, feel like comprehensive stories rather than excuses for tie-in issues.

In fact, tie-in issues often wind up feeling (as many bitter comic fan will note) mostly unnecessary. Branding comics as tie-ins to any major event these days is met with skepticism. Gathering of heroes in both Identity Crisis and Infinite Crisis came together much more organically, and long-gone are the one-line character insertions. Some readers may complain the lack of exposition makes the events difficult to follow, but...

In my opinion

Cross-overs and event comics aren't meant for new readers, even for casual readers who might want to check in. As a kid, I recall avoiding DC comics until COIE had passed by and it might be a safe time to start reading. While COIE may have served to re-set the DCU to make it friendly to a reader like me, the actual series is not where I thought I should be walking in. Nor did Millenium or Invasion! read to me as points where I should be getting back into DC.

Rather, cross-overs are the payoff moment for readers who've been keeping up with multiple books across a company's line, and which might, through virtue of the tie-in issue, convince someone to at least check out an existing ongoing that they hadn't previously followed. But Identity Crisis, Infinite Crisis and Final Crisis simply aren't good jumping on points for new readers. And that's more than okay. It's the virtue of enjoying being a willing participant in the experiment of a shared narrative universe that's largely unique to superhero comics.

So in conclusion

I didn't care for either Millennium or Invasion!. Both reminded me heavily of why I wasn't following DC Comics for many years, and why I tended to feel my skin crawl when I saw a "big event" coming down the pipe. I think its tough to point to either series as a narrative success story, or point to any legacy that came from either series.

But I also don't believe it negates the meaning of how a cross-over series can work to tie a universe together for a tale of epic scope which can be viewed from dozens of angles. Unfortunately, its a lot of very hard work to pull that off, and sometimes the will to make such an effort go off is mistaken for making such an effort a narrative success.


*I wasn't all that interested in Superman until the late 90's. I suppose that's a column for another day.

**I think I just missed it in there somewhere, but I wasn't clear on why this series was ever called "Millennium".

***Is it just me, or were the New Guardians kind of clumsily broad stereotypes? And, seriously, what the @#$% was up with Extrano?


Questions? Comments? Hate mail?

Come on, I can take it.

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Ryan is an Op/Ed columnist for Comic Fodder. He keeps his comics and himself in Austin, Texas where he manages the long running blog League of Melbotis.

He likes Superman.

You can reach Ryan (aka: The League) at theleague.cf@gmail.com