Monday, April 18, 2011
Evented to death
I’m probably the last person in comics fandom to say this, but for the benefit of the non-comics folk reading this blog, I’ll say it anyway: comic crossover events have jumped the shark.
What, you may ask, is a crossover event? On paper, and every once in a while, it’s something that sounds like a good idea. The two biggest comic companies in the U.S.—Marvel Comics (the guys who make Spider-Man and the X-Men, now owned by Disney) and DC Comics (the guys who make Superman and Batman, owned by Time Warner)—make a big deal out of their various comics taking place in a shared fictional universe. Sometimes it’s subtle, like people making Spider-Man jokes in a Captain America comic or complaining when the Teen Titans show up that people were expecting the Justice League. Even if you don’t get every single character and franchise into a given title, you can have little hints, little threads that run out to the larger world. It’s a good conceit, and helps make the stories feel more real (for a given value of “real”—remember, this is still guys in tights whumpin’ on each other).
However, there are also more obvious manifestations of the comic-book-company-as-universe phenomenon, and the crossover event is one of the plainest. In a crossover event, most of the titles put out by a given company participate in a single larger story—say, a few months or a year where aliens are invading and every superhero is called on to fight off the aliens in his or her own way. Plot points to that larger story, like someone discovering a weapon that can defeat the aliens or the alien leader being assassinated, may be scattered throughout those various titles, although it’s generally understood that the really important plot points will show up in either the big-name titles or those most strongly associated with the storyline (translation: if the aliens have mostly fought the X-Men or the Green Lanterns in the past, those guys will be carrying the weight of the plot).
There are good and bad points to crossovers. On the plus side, a crossover event can boost flagging sales in a title that’s very good but doesn’t get much attention, thus ensuring more of those stories for the fans who love them. They also present readers with a chance to see their heroes in new and unusual situations, and compare their responses to those of other characters. On the minus side, however, crossover events often disrupt or derail smaller ongoing stories—some of which are better than the crossover story (it’s hard to keep your story going when the big crossover just killed off your main character). And they rather shamelessly try to get fans to buy every single participating comic in order to get the whole narrative. And too often, the events spin out of control, with the result that the stories vary widely in quality, so there’s no guarantee you’re getting good entertainment for your comics dollar.
Once in a while, crossovers are interesting. But there have been way too many of them in the past decade.
The current wave of event comics pretty much started in 2004, with the Avengers Disassembled storyline in Marvel Comics and Identity Crisis at DC. Disassembled was about the superheroine Scarlet Witch having a meltdown and killing a couple of her Avengers teammates, leading to the dissolution of the team and a lot of psychological damage to Marvel superheroes generally. Identity Crisis was a well-structured murder mystery in comics form (written by Brad Meltzer) about the sudden death of the wife of the Elongated Man and the nasty secrets that get uncovered in the course of the investigation, including a brutal rape and Batman getting lobotomized. Both of these events were relatively self-contained, with only a few tie-ins for titles directly associated with the storylines—Captain America, the leader of the Avengers, had a few Disassembled issues, and Batman and other characters involved in Identity Crisis were seen processing clues and working on the mystery in their own titles.
Then things got a little hinky.
In Marvel, Disassembled led to House of M and a series of storylines in the X-Men titles wherein the still-insane Scarlet Witch robbed mutants of their powers. Then public outcry over assorted superhero malfeasance led to the passage of a law requiring superheroes to register with the government, creating pro-registration and anti-registration factions in a storyline called Civil War. That storyline was followed by the wobbly Secret Invasion, where a bunch of shape-shifting aliens turned out to have been impersonating a bunch of superheroes all along; Dark Reign, where the alien invasion left the Green Goblin in charge of, oh, most of the American government; Siege, where the villain laid siege to Asgard, kingdom of the Norse gods, and finally blew his remaining credibility; and Shadowland, where Daredevil went off the deep end because of all this and turned New York City over to evil ninjas (writer Andy Diggle, I hate you a lot). In the meantime there were some genuinely awful Spider-Man crossovers that involved retconning a lot of his backstory, including removing his relationship with Mary Jane, and storylines where the Hulk got his own planet, saw that planet destroyed, and came back to try to trash Earth in revenge (World War Hulk). Now they’re doing something called Fear Itself that I don’t even want to know about.
Meanwhile, at DC, the editors apparently lost every thesaurus in the office, leading to a series of crises: Identity Crisis; Infinite Crisis, which involved a whole bunch of parallel worlds colliding; and Final Crisis (which I immediately began calling “the last crisis, pinky swear”), about the alien Darkseid trying to destroy all reality, resulting in the death of a bunch of superheroes and “the day evil won.” That led into Blackest Night, with a bunch of dead superheroes and supporting characters coming back as zombies, and Brightest Day, wherein a bunch of good guys and bad guys were fully resurrected for an unknown purpose (and I still don’t know what that purpose might be, because I didn’t bother to read it). Lesser crossover storylines included Batman R.I.P. and Batman Reborn, which are about what you’d think they’re about, and Amazons Attack, whose whole premise is summed up in its title.
This is why I buy event comics only if a) it’s a title I buy every month anyway; b) it prominently features a character I like; or c) it features a trusted writer with a really good premise. I require at least two out of three before I open my wallet.
The problem with all these crossover storylines, at least from my perspective, is that they erect an unnecessary barrier to entry for new readers. They make it harder and harder for comics to entertain people who aren’t buying every single comic on the stands. With comic-book movies raking in the bucks, you’d think the Big Two would be trying to pull in those new fans, but no such luck.
Take a case in point: I blogged recently about lending a Teen Titans collection, published in 2004, to a friend. I didn’t have the next couple of trades, but she wanted to read them, so I ordered them from a used bookseller, knowing the storylines were pretty good. To tide her over in the meantime, I lent her the first two collections of the Red Robin series, published in 2009 and 2010, which features a mutual favorite character—Tim Drake, formerly known as Robin. The conversation went something like this:
“Okay, you know how Tim and Superboy are best friends in Teen Titans, and Superboy’s just found out he’s got Lex Luthor’s DNA? Well, before the first Red Robin book, Lex Luthor activated Superboy’s subliminal programming and he went crazy and tried to kill the Titans and died in the process, so Robin’s all messed up about that. Oh, and Kid Flash died, too, and Tim started dating Wonder Girl and trying to clone Superboy back to life, which kind of screwed up that relationship, so that’s why Wonder Girl’s acting like this now. And Batman’s dead, I forgot about that, and the freaky little midget in the Robin costume is Batman’s son by Talia al Ghul, and he hates Tim for, well, he doesn’t need a reason. But don’t worry, Superboy and Kid Flash are both alive again by volume 2, which is why Superboy randomly shows up halfway through and Tim hugs him like a six-year-old. He’s just had that kind of year. And Batman comes back to life around, oh, the end of that second volume, but you don’t see him because it happened in a Grant Morrison series that nobody understands, though I should probably show you that one page where Tim locks everyone out of the room and—uh, you’re looking at me kind of funny. No, I’m not making this up. Yeah, I’m afraid so. Er, sorry.”
Dear comics industry—please stop.
Oh, well, at least this summer’s serial (which, yes, does involve superheroes) takes place entirely in my own fictional universe, and all the chapters will be free, so it won’t bust your budget. Oh, and I’m running the whole thing, so you know you’ve got a solid writer cranking out all of the epic guys-in-tights adventure. And while there is a certain amount of cosmic whoozis and the fate of the world is rather at stake, all you’ll have to do to find out what happens is keep showing up at the blog once a week. Same Bat-time, same Bat-URL, to bastardize a phrase. Good old-fashioned storytelling, with extra guys in tights whumpin’ on each other and a discreet amount of kissing.