Friday, March 20, 2015

The Skies are Red: A History of the Crossover Event in DC Comics Part 1

Convergence is coming. DC Comics new event starts in two weeks, a story that blends worlds from all across DC history into one massive story. And the beginning of that story has me thinking about all the crossovers that have come before. So today begins a multi-part article tracing the history of event comics at DC Comics. I'll be touching on the tent-pole events in parts one and two, and the events and themes of Annuals in the third. This is meant as an overview, but going back for a quick look at these made me want to do a deeper dive into some of them again, so there might be an upcoming longer piece or two spinning out of this.

In 1985, continuity for DC Comics had become muddled, with an infinite number of Earths and multiple versions of each hero interacting with each other through different stories. And so it was decided a stream-lining needed to occur. And Marv Wolfman and George Perez, creators of DC's biggest hit of the time, New Teen Titans, were the guys to do it. And so the stage was set for DC's first mega-crossover: Crisis on Infinite Earths. This is the crossover that all DC crossovers have been measured against since. Worlds lived, worlds died, and the DCU was quite literally never the same.

The Anti-Monitor, a godlike being from the anti-matter universe, decided that it was time to bring the curtain down on the positive matter universe, and the only thing standing between him and his goal was his opposite number, The Monitor, and the collective heroes of the DC Universe, gathered by the Monitor's herald, Harbinger. Groups of mismatched heroes were sent to stop different realities from collapsing... and they failed.

Yeah, the good guys basically lose in Crisis. Sure, they save the one remaining Earth, but their goal to save the Multiverse was a miserable failure. Along the way, countless heroes and villains die, most notably the Flash (Barry Allen) and the Silver Age Supergirl. The heroes do eventually stop the Anti-Monitor, and no one except D-lister Psycho-Pirate winds up remembering the history of the Multiverse, as the final heroes, Superman of Earth-2, Superboy-Prime, and Alexander Luthor of Earth-3, go off to their eternal reward. But more on them later.

Crisis works on a lot of the levels a crossover should. It's exciting, and brings in characters from across DC history. It presents unusual matches, and spotlights various heroes. It has a threat that logically would be something that would require all these heroes to team up. It even has legions of villains teaming up to stop Anti-Monitor. It's sweeping and epic. It also served the important purpose of unifying the continuity of DC Comics history into one Earth. There might be multiple Flashes, but they are three different guys from three different walks of life. There's only one Batman, one Superman, one Wonder Woman. There's one Hawkman. Or maybe two. No more than three! OK, so not everything was perfect. But the birth pains spawned a new universe with new potential. And the different generations of heroes set up the concept of legacy that was a key aspect of the DC Universe from Crisis up through Flashpoint.

The one real problem that Crisis has rests in its crossovers into other titles. I feel like a good crossover allows the universe to feel cohesive, to allow other books to tie into it without impeding their progress, but adding an important story element to their progress that shows a wider world. With Crisis, the element that tied most books into it were the Red Skies. As the Anti-Monitor's antimatter waves approached a world, the skies would turn red. Many Crisis crossovers were simply a mention of the Red Skies, and then business as usual. While it didn't impede the progress of the books, it certainly didn't do anything to explore the event as it effected a series lead. And since then, a "Red Skies Crossover" has been a book that ties into something in only the most tangential way.

Legends, written by Len Wein and John Ostrander with art by John Byrne, released in 1986, was the first crossover and test of the new DC Universe. It seemed to have two purposes. Purpose one was to set up various new and revised concepts that would springboard out of it and define this new DC Universe. The second purpose was to set-up Darkseid as the preeminent villain of not just a corner of the DC Universe, but of the Universe as a whole. And it succeeded on both fronts.

The main plot of the series had Glorious Godfrey, one of Darkseid's Elite, posing as a news pundit on Earth, to stir up anti-hero sentiment, allowing Earth to be an easy target for Darkseid's eventual conquest. But Dr. Fate gathers a new Justice League (including Captain Marvel, now a part of the main DCU), Amanda Waller secretly debuts the Suicide Squad to destroy Darkseid's monster, Brimstone, and a new heroine (new to this universe anyway) Wonder Woman, appears, all allowing the heroes to prevail.

Legends succeeds not only as a good story, but as the crossover springboard for three of the most successful DC titles of the late 80s/early 90s: Wally West's series as The Flash, the "Bwah-ha-ha" Giffen/DeMatteis Justice League, and John Ostrander's Suicide Squad, all have their seeds planted right in the midst of this event. If for not any other reason than that, Legends is a winner.

1988 saw Millennium debut, written by Steve Englehart and with art by Joe Staton. The Guardians of the Universe, the alien race that created the Green Lantern Corps, have decided to leave this plain of existence, and before leaving arrive on Earth, saying a new generation of Guardians will be come this world, and asking its heroes to gather these new Guardians. What should be an easy task is complicated by the Manhunters, the robots who served as the Guardians' first intergalactic police force, who have learned of this and wish to stop the creation. As part of this plan, the Manhunters revealed they knew the identities of Earth's heroes and had spent years planting sleeper agents, some robots, some mind-controlled humans, and some willing collaborators, in the personal lives of all the heroes. Even with this, the heroes bested the Manhunters and saved the New Guardians.

Millennium's structure was much more strict than previous crossovers. The series ran eight weekly issues, and each book was flagged with Week 1, Week 2, etc. The accompanying week's crossovers were flagged with the similar weeks, and the story depended on the reader buying many of the accompanying crossover. The main mini-series was littered with footnotes to that week's crossover, making reading just the event mini-series frustrating.

And while this couldn't be known at the time, it had no discernible long term effects on the DC Universe. The New Guardians series folded after twelve issues, and most of the characters faded into obscurity, and those who had established pasts returned to them. Many of the Manhunters puppets who were important characters (Lana Lang, Jim Gordon) never really mentioned it again, and while Wally West was broken up by his father being one of their willing agents, it was eventually ignored as well.

Invasion!, written by Bill Mantlo and Keith Giffen and with art from Todd McFarlane and Bart Sears, was a different form than any of DC's previous crossovers. Instead of longer monthly stories, six to twelve issues, or weekly stories, 1989's Invasion! was three months in three massive, 80-page issues with no ads. The plot of the series is pretty self-explanatory from the title. A coalition of alien races invades Earth. The reasoning is that humans have the metagene, allowing them to develop powers and possibly become a dominant species in the galaxy. One of the cool aspects of the story is that it takes many of the alien races that were prominent in the Legion of Super-Heroes lore of the 30th century, like the Khunds and the Dominators (who instigated the invasion as a pretense to examine metahumans so they could breed them as soldiers for galactic domination), and introduces them into the modern DCU.

While the well known heroes of the DC Universe do figure into this event, a lot of time is spent with minor characters and with establishing the new cosmic status quo of the DCU. We meet the characters who will form L.E.G.I.O.N., the cosmic police force for hire fronted by Vril Dox II, Brainiac's son, we get some time with Adam Strange, and we meet the Blasters, a team of metahumans captured by the Dominators, including Snapper Carr, former sidekick to the Justice League, DC's answer to Rick Jones.

One of the most important aspects of the series was the dropping of a Gene Bomb, a bomb meant to effect anyone with the metagene and eventually kill them. Alien and non-methuman heroes were able to find the Dominators cure, but not before the bomb effected many heroes. Animal Man and Fire both had their powers effected, and many new metahumans had their powers awakened, including Maxwell Lord, then the Justice League International's manager/leader/manipulator. This allowed for ramifications that spilled out of the series, and while many were the longest of term, did play a part in the canvas of the DC Universe.

Now, I have done my best to always keep to my creed about only writing about comics I like, and not bashing comics. But this is a historical piece, and I'm trying to not leave anything out. I already made it clear that I thought Millennium was lackluster, but it has nothing on War of the Gods. Published in 1991 as part of a celebration of Wonder Woman's 50th anniversary that never really materialized like Superman or Batman's, War of the Gods had a decent core concept: Circe instigates a war between the Greek and Roman gods, and encourages other pantheons to attack, so she can claim the powers of the gods and do something nebulous with it, partially kill the Earth goddess, Gaea, partially become the greatest goddess ever. It's not really clear. This is partially because of  arguments between editorial and series creator George Perez, and partially because of the format of the series.

War of the Gods actually was a more intense reading experience than Millennium because it wasn't just crossovers week by week, but all 20+ crossovers and the core mini were individually numbered, so you were supposed to read the whole crossover in specific order. Unfortunately, due to delays, the parts were often released out of order, and the mini-series stands poorly on its own, with no lasting ramifications at all, and remains only one of two of these events never collected in trade. Of course, it had one great crossover, Suicide Squad #58, where a Black Adam led Squad attacks Circe's fortress. Having recruited everyone who would join, the team includes The Writer, Grant Morrison's in comic avatar who became trapped in the comic world after writing himself in at the end of his Animal Man run, and who has a typewriter strapped to him that allows him to affect reality as he writes. Unfortunately, he suffers writers block during the invasion and is torn apart by Circe's beast men. It's pretty great.

DC took the first of its multi-year breaks in between crossovers after War of the Gods, and it wasn't for three years in 1994 until another happened. Zero Hour saw time collapsing, with nothingness moving from the beginning and end of time towards today. Dan Jurgens held the reigns as writer and artist, and put out some of the best art of his career in a sprawling tale that was designed to clean up some of the messes that were created by Crisis, problems like the Justice Society's age or the weird inconsistencies with Hawkman's background. It also established the new big bad of the DC Universe: Parallax, the corrupted and maddened version of Hal Jordan, the Silver Age Green Lantern, who had taken the powers of the Guardians after killing them and was trying to rewrite time to suit his will. He did wind up destroying everything (another big win for the heroes), but a new Big Bang was caused by the hero Damage and time restarted. This allowed streamlining of backstories again, and setting up a firm timeline that lasted for about as long as firm timelines in comics ever do.

Zero Hour was the first of these DC event minis I read as it came out, and I have some find recollections of it. It was a bit awkward at times, like any story involving time travel and similar things are, but it did flow. The crossovers featured heroes running into alternate timeline versions of themselves and versions from the past, and some of these crossovers were excellent. The issue of Batman had him meet a Batgirl never shot by the Joker, Kon-El Superboy met the pre-Crisis Clark Kent Superboy, and Tim Drake Robin met a young Dick Grayson Robin, for instance. The rewritten timeline did make some serious changes, including the first complete reboot of the Legion of Super-Heroes, which alienated some older Legion fans but streamlined some very very messy continuity involving multiple version of the Legion.

Spinning out of the end of Zero Hour was DC's first Zero Month, where all titles were numbered zero. Some of the books (Batman, Superman, Flash) retold origins with minor changes. Others (Hawkman, Green Lantern) established new status quos. Six new series launched with these zero issues, and while five didn't amount to much, the sixth, one with some of the most direct fallout from Zero Hour, was Starman, which I have written about at length, and was a resounding success. This also marks the first of three crossovers that form the spine of Hal Jordan's corruption and resurrection arc, and arc that would eventually lead to Geoff Johns's hit Green Lantern franchise.

Underworld Unleashed, from 1995 with writer Mark Waid and artist Howard Porter, was another story that was a great idea in theory. A new demonic character, Neron, appeared offering supervillains augmented and improved powers at the cost of their souls. Many took it, thus creating new versions of many B- and C-list villains. The heroes eventually travel to Hell to stop Neron, and it's only through the innocence and nobility of Captain Marvel, and the cleverness of the Trickster, James Jesse, who Neron had taken on as his adviser and who betrayed him, that Neron did not win,

Waid has said in interviews and the afterward to the trade of the series that he doesn't like Underworld. He thinks it was a hamfisted attempt to gussy up villains from an earlier time. Right or wrong, next to none of the augmented villains stayed augmented. With the exception of Blockbuster and Charaxes (who was once Killer Moth), all the Batman villains reverted shortly to classic forms. Neron, who seemed poised to become a major villain across the DCU, would pop up only occasionally, and never as more than a demonic footnote, never earning the cred of his Marvel counterpart, Mephisto. James Robinson did use the fallout of Underworld in Starman, not just the villain he revitalized in his crossover, Dr. Phosphorus,  but revealing a couple of deals undisclosed at the time that played a major part in the series' climax. But with that notable exception, Underworld remains one of the forgotten crossovers.

Final Night, from writer Karl Kesel and with art by Stuart Immonen in 1996, was the second of the crossovers featuring Hal Jordan.  The Sun Eater, this big traveling cloud of gas (picture any evil entity from the original Star Trek series and you’ll get the picture) comes along and, well, eats the sun.  With Earth dying, the heroes do their best to destroy the Sun Eater and reignite the sun.  In the end, it is Hal Jordan, in what was to be his last redemptive gesture, who sacrificed himself and brought the sun back.

The series would be worth it alone for Immonen's gorgeous art, and seeing him draw the entire DC Universe, along with the amazing climax, where Jordan ignites the sun while reciting the Green Lantern oath. The crossovers were mostly small, showing the heroes dealing with the effects of the missing sun. Some writers were able to even easily fit that aspect into their existing story, weaving the tapestry of the event into the series. An especially good one was Hitman #8, where hitman Tommy Monaghan and his fellow hitters gather at their local bar, Nonnan's, and reflect on their brushes with death. It's a very small story, and shows Garth Ennis's strength with those little character beats after a series of issues that were just tons of mindless, and fun, violence.

With the exception of Hal Jordan's death, the ramifications to the DCU were small on this one. A squad of Legionnaires, displaced in time, met the post-Zero Hour version of Ferro Lad, a longtime pre-Crisis member, who survived where his pre-Crisis counterpart died fighting a Sun Eater. The loss of the sun also caused the solar powered Superman to lose his powers, which led to a reconciliation with the currently estranged Lois Lane and their marriage, and the eventual debut of the electric blue Superman. So from that we see that not all crossover effects are good.

Back into confession mode: If War of the Gods was bad, it was at least not as bad as Genesis, the next year's (1997) crossover from writer John Byrne and artist Ron Wagner. In all truth, I have no idea what exactly was going on in Genesis.  I’ve read it twice now, and I still don’t quite get it.  The energy wave that created everything is collapsing back on itself and all the energy in the universe is stopping and everything is going to end.  And the New Gods are involved.  Maybe some of the issues it tied into made the totality of the story make more sense, but I guess I don’t have those, so it all seemed more than a bit of a muddle, and the less said about it, the better. By the end, Highfather died and was replaced by Takion as ruler of New Genesis, but he got better. Beside that, it had no ramifications and its crossovers effected no book aside from the New Gods related ones. genesis is the other of the event never released as a trade.

One Million, written by Grant Morrison and with art by Val Semeiks (1998),  is one of my favorites of all the crossovers. Heroes from the 853rd century (when, if they still are being published, DC comics will hit issue one million) arrive to celebrate the return of  the original Superman and the heroes old and new get caught up in the machinations of Vandal Savage and the sentient artificial sun, Solaris. 

It’s one of those crazy ideas that only Grant Morrison could come up with and execute, and as he was involved in plotting nearly every issue the series tied into (with the exception of the particularly funny issue of Hitman), it created a great cohesion of you read every issue.  Beautifully, though, you don’t feel like you have to read everything either, as seems to be a concern when EVERYTHING is written by the same guy.  There are some excellent moments in both the core mini and the tie-ins, these wild, high concept ideas that Grant Morrison is the master of. It ties in with a lot of the concepts he was exploring in Justice League at the time.

The Justice Legion A of the 853rd Century are characters that have popped up occasionally since then, including in Morrison's seminal All Star Superman, along with Solaris, who is a purely Morrison character. There's a great amount of design work, creating all these new versions of classic heroes and concepts. But it's really a story about heroism and inspiration, themes that Morrison loves, and are at the heart of superhero comics. It's also nice that, while the ramifications aren't major, it's such a good story that it doesn't matter. That love letter to the self-contained tales of the Silver Age stands on its own, and works best that way.

And that's it for this first part. Next Friday starts with a mostly forgotten crossover written by a guy who would later become the man who defined the DCU of the 00s, and the crossovers of the 21st century. See you then.

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