Friday, March 27, 2015

The Night is Black: A History of Crossover Events in DC Comics Part 2

Welcome back to the second half of my survey of crossovers in DC Comics! If you missed the first part, check it out here. So let's not waste time and get right to the fall of 1999.

Day of Judgment was a magic based crossover, where in a plan by Etrigan to Demon to overthrow Neron (remember him, from earlier crossover Underworld Unleashed?) the Spectre Force, the literal wrath of God, left hostless after John Ostrander's run of the Spectre, was bonded with the rogue angel Asmodel, who wreaked havoc with his nigh unlimited power, while Hell literally froze over, and the heroes of the DC Universe had to fight a two fronted war to save Earth. It served a couple of purposes storywise. It first introduced the Sentinels of Magic, a new team of popular and classic magic-based heroes to fight magical threats. The Sentinels never really took off, and it wouldn't be until after another crossover a few years later that another team of magical heroes was formed that met with a bit more success. But we'll get there soon.

Secondly, Day of Judgment gave the Spectre Force a new host: Hal Jordan. This crossover is the third of the crossovers that deal in Hal's fall and redemption. After his bringing about the destruction of the universe in Zero Hour, and then dying to save Earth in Final Night, this is where Hal is given a chance to redeem himself by becoming the new Spectre. This led to a series by J.M. DeMatteis where Hal tried to change the Spectre into the Spirit of Redemption rather than Vengeance. Both Hal's attempt and the series met with mixed results. Of course, this set up led the eventual return of Hal Jordan to actual life and to his roll as Green Lantern in Green Lantern: Rebirth, a series written by DC's rising star at the time, Geoff Johns, who happened to write this series as well.

Yes, Day of Judgment is the first crossover written by Geoff Johns, making it far more important for the "who did it" factor than the "what happened" one. It's not as well known as the later ones we'll be getting to in this piece. Frankly, this era could be known as the Era of the Johns Crossover as you'll see shortly. But this series has all the hallmarks of a Johns story: it has nods to ton of obscure DC characters and continuity, a sprawling cast, and a lot of Hal Jordan. Matthew Dow Smith was the artist, and his blocky, shadowy style really works well with Hell and magic, and added to the mood Johns was shooting for.

After skipping a crossover in 2000, DC returned to the form in 2001 with Joker: Last Laugh. Written by Bat-Scribe Chuck Dixon and his sometimes writing partner Scott Beatty, with art by a different artist each issue including the likes of Pete Woods and Rick Burchett, the story begins with the Joker being given a diagnosis of terminal brain cancer. Deciding to pull one last joke, Joker, who at the time was locked up in DC's high security metahuman prison, the Slab, releases a gas that is a diluted form of his usual Joker Venom toxin, one that gives all the villains imprisoned a Joker smile and complexion, and a touch of his own madness. Joker goes to continually more extreme lengths to really put on one more show for the world before his death. Of course, it turns out the test results were faked by a doctor who hoped that Joker learning of his own mortality would make him rethink his ways, and in the end it comes down to Nightwing and other members of the Batman family confronting Joker in Gotham City.

From what I've read about the history of this series, it started out as a Batfamily event that grew too big for its own britches, with editorial thinking it would make a great line-wide crossover. Unfortunately, it felt very forced in the case of a lot of the crossovers, and really only had any effect on the titles that Dixon was writing at the time (Nightwing, Robin, Birds of Prey). Despite being kind of fun, it served no real purpose than to further overexpose the then very overexposed Joker, and a Joker based event that barely effected Batman can only be viewed as something of a failure.

After another period of no crossovers, 2004 saw the release of Identity Crisis, written by Brad Meltzer with art by Rags Morales. Calling this a crossover is a bit of a stretch. While a few books were bannered as tie-ins, they simply expanded on a couple of the events in the series, and the mini-series stood completely on its own. It did, however, have a drastic impact on the DC Universe at the time. When Sue Dibny , the wife of the Elongated Man, is murdered, the quest to find her killer is on. But as other family members of the Justice League and their allies are attacked, a secret from the League's past is revealed: for years a group within the League was erasing the memories of villains, and sometimes even changing their personalities by means of magic. In the end, the killer is revealed to be Jean Loring, the Atom's ex-wife, who had thought that by placing herself in seeming danger, the Atom would fall in love with her again, and it is revealed Batman had his memory altered to forget his finding out what his fellow Leaguers were doing, the gap in his memory causing his increasing paranoia.

Identity Crisis might be one of the most polarizing events in DC Comics history. While initially somewhat well regarded, the series has become reviled in some corners over the years. Accusations of misogyny due to it's handling of rape and female characters, and the fact that the mystery doesn't hold up on multiple readings, plus a somewhat strangely one sided between the Justice League and Deathstroke the Terminator, are often called out as its failings. I remember having heated discussions at the comic shop as it was coming out about who did it, and frankly I lost a bet as to who the initial victim would be (my money was on Connor Hawke, the son of Green Arrow), and I do feel the wonderful, light hearted characters of Ralph and Sue Dibny deserved a better and happier ending than this series gave them. Still, the art was gorgeous, and there are some great Batman moments throughout the series. Whether that redeems it on any level is up to the reader, and it did start setting the stage for the next, more ambitious, crossover.

Infinite Crisis, written by Geoff Johns with art by Phil Jiminez, Jerry Ordway, George Perez, and Ivan Reis, served as a sequel to and celebration of the 20th anniversary of Crisis on Infinite Earths. The previous seven months had a series of mini-series (The OMAC Project, Villains United, Day of Vengeance, and the Rann-Thanagar War) that moved various pieces into place for the series, bannered as "Countdown to Infinite Crisis." With the events of Identity Crisis and The OMAC Project having splintered the relationship between Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, the survivors the original Crisis, watching the universe from a crystal realm outside reality, decide to head back to the universe to set the world right, and rewrite reality to how they see fit. But while Kal-L, the original Superman of Earth 2, does his best to make the heroes of the one Earth understand and ally Batman with himself, Alexander Luthor has convinced the emotionally damage Superboy-Prime to serve him and create a world that will suit him. With a Secret Society of Supervillains at his beck and call, massive battles ensue and a new Multiverse is born at the end of the series.

Infinite Crisis served not just to restart the Multiverse, but to address the failings of how the current versions of DC's trinity were written: Batman's paranoia, Superman's indecision, and Wonder Woman's distance from humanity. Within all the cosmic happenings, these three characters have fairly distinct arcs. That massive cosmic story is elaborate, drawing on a lot of DC history, the history of the Crisis most specifically. All the moving pieces established in the countdown stories were addressed, if some perfunctorily. It also served as one of the first examples of something DC has become notorious for in recent years, the massive culling of low-tier characters, killing off former Teen Titans and other minor characters to add punch to the story.

DC tried something interesting after issue five of Infinite Crisis, where all its books jumped forward one year, leaving a lot of questions as to how the status quos had changed. When Infinite Crisis ended, DC spent a year telling the story of that year, a year where no member of the trinity were active, in a weekly series named 52. With no crossovers, 52 was a self contained story that featured a lot of B list characters in the spotlight, including a few of my favorites: Booster Gold, the Question, and Renee Montoya. It's a great story, one with a lot of character and depth, and while not a crossover, I wanted to mention it due to it being a major result of the fallout of this series.

After the end of 52, DC began another weekly, Countdown, which was renamed halfway through to Countdown to Final Crisis. This series was not the success that 52 was, mostly due to it being more loosely plotted, and crossing over into various titles that seemed to have events inconsistent with the events in the core series. That inconsistency was made even more clear when Final Crisis itself began, and it was clear the writers of Countdown had only the vaguest notion of what was going to happen; their ending stood in contradiction to much of where Final Crisis started in 2008. Final Crisis, written by Grant Morrison and with art from JG Jones, Carlos Pacheco, and Doug Mahnke, was the story of the day evil won. Darkseid, having "died" at the end of Countdown, rises with his Apokoliptian gods in human hosts, and unleashes the Anti-Life Equation, enslaving much of humanity. Meanwhile, the Monitors, the guardians of the Multiverse, are in disarray, and Darkseid's plans have begun to collapse the Multiverse. Only the return of Barry Allen from the dead, the seeming death of Batman, and an alliance of Supermen from across the Multiverse stop Darkseid, and the greater threat behind the scenes, Mandrakk the Dark Monitor.

Final Crisis was an ambitious story, possibly Morrison's most ambitious story told in the DCU. It's seven issues build an elaborate tale of a crisis of truly apocalyptic proportions. It suffered mostly from intense delays, worse than the ones often suffered by crossovers, and inconsistent art. The last issue was also told in an experimental style; time was broken at the time in the story, so events take place out of chronological order, requiring multiple readings to truly put it together, which is not uncommon in Morrison titles. Still, it's one of the greatest Darkseid stories ever told, and touches on many of Morrison's central themes, about reality and heroism.

Final Crisis crossed over into only one ongoing title, Batman, which Morrison was writing at the time. The other crossovers were mini-series and one-shots. The problem with these is that many were very tangential, while others were absolutely required reading. The two issue Superman Beyond by Morrison and Mahnke is the initial introduction of Mandrakk, and without having read them, he pops up out of nowhere in that last issue as some sort of diablus ex machina (that's devil in the machine) to serve as some sort of final video game boss. Meanwhile Rage of the Red Lanterns and Legion of 3 Worlds barely even acknowledge that Final Crisis is happening, seemingly only bannered this way to garner them attention. The others fall somewhere in between. On the one hand, this is unscrupulous marketing, but on the other all those crossovers were actually good stories, so I'm not complaining about having read them.

After a brief interlude, Geoff Johns returns in 2009 with Blackest Night, drawn by Ivan Reis, the culmination of everything he has been doing with Green Lantern since Rebirth. The dead are rising, brought back as undead Black Lanterns, feeding on the emotions of the living, killing their victims, many of them super-heroes. The monstrous Nekron, lord of death, and his servant, the Black Hand, plan to wipe out all life in the universe, and it's up to an alliance from the seven corps of light, one for each color of the rainbow to stand against them. The heroes win, naturally, but a group of dead characters are returned to life with mysterious purposes that would become key to the DC Universe over the course of the next year's stories.

Blackest Night does something similar to what happened with Last Laugh, taking an event that was initially going to be part of one family of titles and expanding it to encompass the entire DCU, but is much more successful in it. The risen dead loved ones and allies of heroes fighting them are a much more exciting plot thread than a bunch of knock off Jokers, for one. Also, Johns had been building this for so long, it felt like it needed all these heroes to confront the threat that he had been building. It spun out DC's next weekly, which was actually two biweekly series that were released on alternating weeks, Brightest Day and Justice League: Generation Lost. These, along with a handful of other titles, addressed the resurrected heroes and their missions from the mysterious entity of Life, Nekron's opposite number introduced at the end of the series.

As crossovers go, DC went with a model similar to that of Final Crisis, with mostly mini-series tin-ins, three issue ones representing many of the families of titles that take up the DCU. There were a few minor two-issue tie-ins as well. All of these were tangential to the main story. However, Green Lantern and Green Lantern Corps also tied in, and actually served as important parts of the story in between issues, so they are nearly essential reading for the series to make full sense.

With more changes on the horizon, 2011 saw Flashpoint, from Geoff Johns and Andy Kubert The story opens with Barry Allen waking up in a world that is not his own, a much darker one than the one he is used to. Barry spends the series trying to set the timeline right, trying to figure out exactly what caused this new world to be born. It's one of those fun alternate reality stories where creators can go to town because nothing is permanent. In the end, Barry restores the timeline, but with some major changes to it, changes that birthed the New 52.

Because of its nature as a story set in an alternate timeline, Flashpoint has the least impact on the DCU as it was, but some of the most on the DCU as it is. This story created the new timeline that the DCU has taken place in for the past few years, the universe of younger and more inexperienced versions of the established heroes, a world without a Justice Society, a world where many characters no longer existed. In that way it's similar to Crisis on Infinite Earths. However, since it was only five issues, it didn't sprawl in the same way Crisis did. It really stayed focused on Barry Allen and this new world's Batman trying to set things right. It used it's crossovers, a series of three issue mini-series, to give the world more depth.

The final crossover to date, and the first of the New 52 era, was Forever Evil, once again by Geoff Johns, this time with art by David Finch. Unprepared for their attack by inexperience, the Justice League is easily taken out by the Crime Syndicate, their evil alternate universe counterparts, and the only people left to save the world from them is a small coalition of villains led by Lex Luthor and Batman.

Forever Evil was a fun enough story, with darker and more twisted versions of the classic Crime Syndicate than have been presented before. However, there wasn't much to differentiate it from other Crime Syndicate stories; sure, they fought other villains and not the JLA, but that could have been done as an arc in Justice League. It also suffered sever delays that screwed up the scheduling on other books, as the debut of various new titles was dependent on the series ending. There was also a dependence on reading Justice League to get important backstory on the Syndicate and to see what Cyborg was doing, so his appearance at the end of the seventh issue was not completely out of left field.

I'm being a bit harsh because I expect amazing things from Geoff Johns, and this was only ok. He does write one of the best Lex Luthors in comics, and so getting a seven issue Lex Luthor and friends series was a treat. And as for how it effected the DC Universe, well it made Lex into a hero, as least as far as the people of the DCU Earth are concerned, and it "killed" Dick Grayson, setting up the excellent Grayson series. And with the upcoming "Darkseid War" story in Justice League spinning directly out of it, there is still potential for ramifications yet to be felt.

And that's where we are. Next Wednesday, Convergence #0 is released, a series combining different cities from different versions of the DCU Earth, giving glimpses of many of the time periods I've talked about over the course of these articles. Whether it's a it or miss, we'll just have to see. Next Friday, the final part of this little trip down memory lane, talking about the themes that played out over DC Comics annuals.

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