Friday, April 3, 2015

An Annual Event: A History of Crossover Events in DC Comics Part 3

Welcome back to our final installment of the history of events in DC Comics. This final installment talks about the crossovers and theme years of the Annuals, the oversized comics that were published, obviously, once a year. Originally, this was done to get around certain publishing and postal regulations about magazines, but over the years, as these rules were relaxed and books could come out more than once a month, the annual faded from prominence. Annuals used to be a big deal, especially over at Marvel. Many landmarks happened in those massive Stan Lee-era annuals. The Sinister Six made it's first appearance in Amazing Spider-Man Annual #1, and Reed and Sue got married in Fantastic Four Annual #3 While I can't recall any such huge events in DC Comics annuals, you still got Alan Moore writing Batman in Batman Annual #11 and Superman in Superman Annual #11, so there are some pretty great stories in those earlier annuals.

But in 1991, DC tried to get some extra buzz going on their annuals. Marvel had been doing company crossovers in their annuals for a few years, and so DC decided to give it a try with...

Armageddon 2001, bookends (issues at the beginning and end of the series, with the crossovers doing the heavy lifting in the middle) written by Archie Goodwin and with art by Dan Jurgens, was a classic sci-fi dystopia story. In the year 2030 the world is ruled by Monarch, an armor clad conqueror who is said to once have been a great superhero who turned on his own, and wiped them all out in the year 2001. Matthew Ryder, a scientist in that time, travels back in time to find out who Monarch was and to stop him from becoming the despot. Transformed into a being of pure time energy called Waverider, he arrives in 1991 and goes about encountering as many heroes as he can, and by touching them, he sees their possible futures.

This is a really fun conceit, as it allows for all these stories of the heroes in the future, What If? or Elseworlds type stories, but they have a little more resonance because they are presented as actual possible futures. Of course, Waverider learns the classic time travel trope that if you interact with the past it can change things, so he has to touch some (more popular) heroes multiple times to see if he's actually created Monarch. The ending of the crossover is legendary, as the original ending, that Captain Atom was Monarch, was leaked, and so a quick change was made to make the much less logical ending that Hawk of Hawk & Dove was in fact Monarch. A great event was somewhat spoiled by this quick change, but it's still my favorite full scale annual crossover.

Some of the annuals are really solid stories. Superman Annual #3 is one of the early examples in the Modern Age of a trope that's gotten stale now, where Superman is corrupted and has to be stopped. Since it's 1991, it's one of the first comics to riff on the classic conclusion of Dark Knight Returns, inverting the final battle between Superman and Batman. Justice League America Annual #5 steps back from the darkness of the Breakdown story happening at the time to tell a series of very funny vignettes. New Titans Annual #7 introduced a team of Titans from the future who came back in time later to form the Team Titans, which must have seemed like a good idea at the time. And Flash Annual #5 tells the story of Wally West coming out of retirement and witness protection to save his son from old enemies in a story written by a fresh young writer named Mark Waid a year before his legendary run on The Flash would begin.

The 1992 annual event was Eclipso: The Darkness Within, bookends written by Robert Loren Fleming and Keith Giffen with art from Bart Sears. This story took Eclipso, a C-List villain from 60s villain who was the Hyde to solar scientist Bruce Gordon's Jekyll, and made him a world beater by revealing he's not just Gordon's dark side, but is in fact an ancient vengeance god who has been trapped on the dark side of the moon in a castle for centuries, and is now making a play for his freedom. To do this, the black diamonds that hold Eclipso's earthly essence begin to posses and control super beings so Eclipso can gather an army.

This series gives a lot of classic hero on hero action, as various heroes and their allies become possessed by black diamonds. The black diamonds in some cases don't possess characters but create monsters made of the anger of the holder. So if you ever wanted to watch Jim Gordon vomit up a smoke monster to go kill the Joker, you can check out Detective Comics Annual #5. I'm being glib, but it's actually a solid event, and Eclipso is made into a really solid threat.

There was also some very distinct fallout from this series. Eclipso remains a major part of the DC Universe to today, having an ongoing that spun out of this series that had some ripples. That series brought Amanda Waller back from limbo, was an early example of a DC trend where a squad of B- and C-list heroes raided Eclipso's fortress and were mercilessly wiped out, and had a great two part story in issues seven and eight where Eclipso fought Sherlock Holmes in Victorian London. He showed up after that series in John Ostarnder's The Spectre, Geoff Johns's run on JSA, and James Robinson's run on Justice League of America. He has appeared in a few places in the New 52 as well. The series also seemingly killed off Will Payton, the sixth Starman, setting the stage for Jack Knight to take the name, and making the quest for what really happened to Payton a key point on James Robinson's seminal Starman.

Bloodlines was... well, not either of these previous two events. Large, spinal fluid sucking aliens arrive on Earth and begun feeding on the populace. If you happen to survive the encounter, you get superpowers. Seemingly random powers; it's not a consistent set. This was an attempt to create a batch of popular new characters. It did not succeed in that. Instead of having bookends like the previous two events, Bloodlines culminated in a two issue mini-series called Bloodbath, written by Dan Raspler with art by Chuck Wotjkiewicz and Sal Velutto, where these New Blood heroes joined the other DC heroes to stop the parasites.

Of the 27 annuals, six individual titles were spun off, as well as a team called Blood Pack. Most of these were mini-series, and of the three ongoings, two ended pretty quickly. The only real breakout success was Hitman, the irreverent story of Tommy Monaghan,written by Garth Ennis and drawn by John McCrea, who debuted in Demon Annual #2, and whose series ran 60 issues plus an annual and some specials. Some of these characters, like Flash Annual #6 debut Argus, were pretty decent characters, but it seemed they couldn't escape the Bloodlines stigma. One favorite Bloodlines moment is in Hitman #1,000,000, a tie-in to DC One Million, where Tommy is pulled into the far future by hero fanboys, where he confronts Gunfire 1,000,000, the long distant inheritor of the title of a New Blood hero who could turn anything he touched into an energy or explosive weapon, who Tommy shoots and embarrasses, and who dies from inadvertently turning first his medpack into an explosive, and then, well, let's say his last words are, "Oh my God, I turned my ass into a hand-grenade--" Garth Ennis, everybody.

After Bloodlines less than stellar success, DC changed it's tactic. Instead of going with full on crossovers, it's annuals started having themes. The first years of themed annuals were all Elseworlds tales, where the heroes of the books were put in unusual settings and time periods. As with a lot of Elseworlds stories, these were hit and miss, but there were some highlights. Detective Comics Annual #7, from Chuck Dixon and Enrique Alcatena, told of Leatherwing, Batman as a privateer fighting a pirate version of Joker. This was actually a world adapted by Grant Morrison as part of the 52 Earths in Multiversity. Karl Kesel told a two part stories of the DC heroes in a dystopian future in Adventures of Superman Annual #6 and Superboy Annual #1. And the modern Batman learns he had a predecessor in Renaissance Italy in a story involving Leonardo da Vinci in Batman Annual #18.

Skipping a bit ahead, 1997 annuals were also Elseworlds themed, this time specifically called "Legends of the Dead Earth" which all take place in the far distant future where the heroes are legends in the same way the Greek heroes are to us, and we see some very interesting variants on classic themes and heroes, some very magical, some very sci-fi. The one that sticks out in my head is Aquaman Annual #2, where Peter David tells the story of two men meeting and sharing their conflicting versions of the history of Aquaman, only to reveal they both believe themselves to be his direct descendant and begin fighting, thus continuing the brother versus brother theme that pervaded David's entire Aquaman run from Atlantis Chronicles onward.

The year in between the two Elseworlds themes was for "Year One" annuals. This was a somewhat perplexing choice, as some heroes had long established early years (like Superman in John Byrne's Man of Steel, Batman in Batman: Year One, and Flash in Mark Waid's first arc on Flash called "Born to Run"), while many others had origins retold less than two years earlier in the zero issues that followed Zero Hour. But what this allowed was for the creators to get, well, creative. Mark Waid spent time in his annual focusing not on Wally West's first year as a hero, but his first year as the Flash after Barry Allen's death. Each Batman annual focused on the first year of a particular villain. The Superman annuals focused on various firsts for Superman, like his first trip into space and his first confrontation with magic.

But some annuals stretch farther to make for substantive changes. Since we watched Jean-Paul Valley become Azrael, Azrael Annual #1 focused on Jean-Paul's father, the previous Azrael, and fleshed out a character who only appeared on a few pages before this. The Superboy Annual revealed that Paul Westfield, the evil director of Project Cadmus, was in fact the human half of Superboy's DNA (later retconned by Geoff Johns to be Lex Luthor. Superboy probably should have been happier when he thought it was Westfield). And New Titans Annual #11 tried to clear up some of the time travel hi-jinks left over from Zero Hour concerning team members Terra and Mirage.

DC's final year of full Annual themes was Pulp Heores in 1998. Each of these annuals had a painted cover reminiscent of classic pulps and with pulp-like titles running down the left side of the cover (many drawn from old DC anthology titles), and a theme that went with that painted cover and title. Thus you got lots of adventure, detective, and western themed stories. Again, while most of these are not major continuity intense stories, they were a ton of fun. Hitman Annual #1 was "Weird Western Tales" and had a classic standoff tales with Tommy and his allies against a gang. Aquaman Annual #3 was "Suspence Detective" and has a Peter David story narrated like an old detective pulp, and has a very funny riff on Aquaman's old power limitation that he would die if he was out of the water for more than exactly one hour. Starman Annual #2, pictured above, was slightly different, as Jack Knight learns about the past love affairs of his friends and family as he has problems with his girlfriend, Sadie, and ends with a major revelation that would change the direction of the series.

The next three years had much smaller annual events. "Ghosts" and "JLApe" both only involved annuals for the big seven Justice Leaguers and the annual for JLA. The former featured the Justice League haunted by the spirits of people whose deaths they felt responsible for, so kind of a downer. The latter, though, featured the League fighting, and getting turned into, apes in a plot by Gorilla Grodd, so that was monumentally fun. The following year, 2000, was a series of Annuals called "Planet DC" that again tried to introduce new heroes, this time all from different nations. Most never appeared again.

Our final stop on this whirlwind tour is a bit more of a stretch. In 2001, DC started an event called Our Worlds at War, where a being called Imperiex was on his way to destroy Earth, and if he did so, it would bring about the end of all reality in a massive wave off entropy. The core of the series ran through the four Superman titles over the course of three months, with various other titles, including Batman and Young Justice, tying in. As there was no core mini-series, I left this out of the rundown of previous events, but thinking about it, I realized something. Many of the crossovers were oversized one-shots released over the course of those three summer months showing how the war effected other heroes. And that made me realize that those one-shots took the place of annuals that year, so I figured I'd include Our Worlds at War here.

Our Worlds at War was frankly kind of a mess. Imperiex's power set was nebulous, but so powerful that Darkseid actually teamed up with the heroes of Earth. Superman, the title that the series spun out of and was one of the core books of the event, had a narrative device where speeches by American presidents served as narration throughout, and cluttered up the pages on gorgeous Ed McGuiness art. And nearly all the character deaths and fallout, and there was quite a bit, was reversed almost immediately. While there was some very cool art and great space battles, this remains one of the more forgettable and somber events comics from DC.

In recent years, DC went back to publishing annuals, but kept them more tied to their parent titles, letting them wrap up big storylines or providing background to tie into the events of the ongoing. Thus the annual event and theme faded into the past, left for people like me to comment on in posts like this.

And that's it for our survey of event comics and the history of DC Comics. I hope you enjoyed it. But I hear some of you saying, "What about Marvel? Secret Wars is coming up and there have been plenty of Marvel events that are tying into that." Well to paraphrase someone intimately related to Marvel Comics, have no fear Matt Signal faithful! Next week, Dan Grote will begin a series of articles directly addressing Marvel crossovers (with me stepping in for one on the cosmic corner of the MU). So stay tuned for more.

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