Now that I’ve gone through another set of solicitations, it’s time to return to the topic of line-wide events. I’ve already run through an inventory of post-Crisis events, so this week I’ll be looking at how Crisis On Infinite Earths and its antecedents set the stage.
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Last time I called these things “line-wide crossovers.” That’s probably not the best term, so let’s have some definitions. For simplicity’s sake, a “team-up” refers to the combination of two characters from different titles; and a “crossover” is a story continuing from one title to another. Thus, last week’s The Brave and the Bold #13 (featuring Batman and the original Flash) was a “team-up” book, but if the story started in Detective Comics and ended in Justice Society Of America, it would have been a “crossover.”
The scope of a given crossover can vary. “Millennium Giants” ran through a month’s worth of Superman-family titles, plus one issue each of Teen Titans, Challengers of the Unknown, and Aquaman; but essentially it was the end of the Electro-Supes arc. “No Man’s Land” ran for a year’s worth of Batman-family titles and a couple of issues of JLA. It guest-starred Superman, Lex Luthor, and the Flash. However, its effects were confined to the Batman books. Sins Of Youth was a self-contained miniseries centered on the extended families of the Young Justice characters. Even something as cosmic and guest-star-heavy as “The Sinestro Corps War” was still basically a Green Lantern story, so it stayed largely within the Green Lantern books. At the other end of the spectrum is something like Countdown, a crossover clearinghouse which handled threads from a number of different titles.
However, a story can be far-reaching and still self-contained. 52 aimed to cover the bulk of the superhero line’s “missing year,” and various stories led into and out of it. By design, though, it didn’t cross over into any other title; and you didn’t have to read anything else in order to understand what was going on. Likewise, The Kingdom connected the “imaginary” worlds of Hypertime to the regular DC line, thereby explaining away every continuity goof line-wide for all time; but its self-containment meant that it wasn’t a crossover as we’re describing it.
Accordingly, I think a better term for what we’ve been discussing is “Line-Wide Event,” or LWE for short. A LWE does two things: it draws attention to the entire superhero line, and it offers an opportunity to tweak each participating book/title/character.
Since 1985′s Crisis On Infinite Earths, DC has been producing LWEs at an almost annual rate. The publisher made up for skipping a few years (1989-90, 2000, 2002-03) by popping out two LWEs each in 1991 and 2001. At other times it produced smaller-scale fifth-week events, like the aforementioned Sins Of Youth and the retro-oriented Silver Age (both published in 2000).
In the context of a shared superhero universe, though, a LWE stands out. While it can be avoided, it cannot be as easily ignored. It synchronizes the line’s titles, gives them a common agenda, and reinforces the shared universe’s rules. It is the Next Big Thing.
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Thanks to Crisis On Infinite Earths, each LWE can trace its roots back to the original Justice League/Justice Society team-ups. Crisis itself was named after the “Crisis On …” titles common to those annual meetings; and in a very real sense, COIE was the ultimate expression of that type of story. Where the JLA/JSA team-ups often involved another Earth and/or an exotic locale, Crisis brought together as many Earths, teams, and exotic locales as would fit.
Crisis’ big difference, though, was self-evident: it wasn’t a Justice League story. Oh, there were Justice Leaguers everywhere; but they weren’t acting as the classic Justice League. In fact, the series opened with the deaths of the League’s Earth-3 counterparts, followed by a shot of the wrecked JLA Satellite. The implications were clear: Earth-1 couldn’t rely upon a big-gun superhero team anymore. *
The League’s relative absence allowed COIE to expand its basic frame of reference beyond Earth-1. Because the JLA/JSA team-ups took place (mostly) in Justice League of America, they were told from the League’s perspective. Even when a team-up began somewhere else, there was always some acknowledgment that, yes, the stars of the book were still on Earth-1 and we’d get to them shortly. Conversely, COIE started off with no real stars, just a collection of characters representing different points in DC history. With the exception of the Earth-2 Superman, each of the characters recruited in issue #1 faded into the background as the series progressed. Thus, COIE was about the old Multiverse much more than it was about any particular character. Its setting was its subject.
Of course, DC couldn’t keep going back to the cosmic-reboot well after Crisis, so subsequent LWEs had to justify their existences through their particular effects on the new shared universe. This could be accomplished through a global threat (Invasion!, Final Night, DC One Million, Our Worlds At War) or one which concerned all creation (War of the Gods, Zero Hour, Genesis, Day of Judgment, Infinite Crisis). Sometimes superheroes as a whole were targeted; as in Legends, Millennium, Armageddon 2001, Eclipso, and Identity Crisis. More modest LWEs simply introduced new characters (Bloodlines) or tweaked existing ones (Underworld Unleashed, Last Laugh). Finally, 52 and Countdown had goals unique to them (charting a missing year, being a “spine”).
Additionally, line-wide “effectiveness” often translates into a line-wide “opportunity for change.” Millennium, A2K1, and Eclipso gave creative teams the chance to turn their characters evil. Invasion!, War of the Gods, and Genesis examined the roots of super-powers. Death was always a possibility, especially if a LWE raised the stakes overall. As for changes to the timeline itself, only Zero Hour and Infinite Crisis allowed DC to hit the universal reset button.
For the most part, this is nothing new. The JLA/JSA meetings killed established characters (Larry Lance in 1969, the Spectre in 1970, Wing in 1972, Red Tornado in 1973, Mr. Terrific in 1979), tweaked others (the Earth-2 Robin in 1967 and 1971, Sandy the Golden Boy in 1974, Black Canary in 1969 and 1983), and eventually began to include little-used (at the time) aspects of DC’s history. Emulating 1972′s reintroduction of the Seven Soldiers of Victory, future team-ups “rediscovered” characters on Earth-X (1973), Earth-S (1976), and in the Fourth World (1980). The superhero-free Earth-Prime was featured in the 1975 and 1982 meetings. Today, Libra and the Human Flame remain plenty obscure, but like I said, there’s a precedent: in addition to Enemy Ace and Jonah Hex, the 1978 meeting guest-starred Miss America, the Viking Prince, and the Black Pirate.
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Again, though, most of those developments were confined to the pages of Justice League of America. Even though the JLA and JSA visited the Legion of Super-Heroes in 1977, that story didn’t cross over with either the Legion’s book or with the revived All-Star Comics. (By contrast, last year’s JLA/JSA/LSH crossover involved two titles and fed storylines in Flash, Countdown, Booster Gold, and Final Crisis.) Justice League of America (vol. 1) therefore became DC’s de facto “event title,” and it acquired a certain primacy — I hesitate to say “superiority” — in relation to its fellow super-team books. Although the Justice Society had its own feature for much of the 1970s (first in All-Star, then Adventure Comics) and appeared in two titles throughout the 1980s (All-Star Squadron and Infinity, Inc.), the JLA/JSA team-ups were produced mostly by JLA’s creative teams.** This gave the Justice Society a “history” not just relative to the Justice League, but also in the context of JLA’s various writers and artists. Readers got used to seeing the JSA written by JLA‘s writer, and/or drawn by JLA‘s artists, and those interpretations weren’t overtly challenged by, say, Joe Staton’s Earth-2 work.
However, when Roy Thomas came along in the ‘80s, his vision for Earth-2 found expression in particular JLA/JSA team-ups. In 1982 and 1985, when the stories actually crossed over into Earth-2 titles, Roy the Boy wrote the relevant issues of All-Star Squadron and Infinity, Inc. He also wrote most of the Black Canary switchout of 1983, which occurred entirely in JLA.*** This helped preserve the creative integrity of Thomas’ other work. Regardless of the creative personnel, though, the interpretations of the characters and the venues of the team-ups both remained fairly consistent: the JLA characters and talent were always the home team.
Crisis On Infinite Earths changed that in a couple of significant ways. Besides taking the classic Justice League out of the picture, Crisis was produced by Marv Wolfman and George Pérez, the “big gun” creative team from DC’s most popular title … which at that time was not Justice League of America.
This set Crisis apart both from its JLA/JSA predecessors and from the rest of DC’s line. The “event planners” had been “promoted” from producing New Teen Titans to managing the end of the Multiverse. With the JLA/JSA team-ups, the JLA writers and artists needed only to show how the Justice Society related to their Earth-1 hosts. Wolfman and Pérez worked on a much larger scale, having to show how everyone related to everyone else, and they had to do it without using a consistent perspective. Supergirl, Barry Allen, and the Earth-2 Superman weren’t “their” characters, but Marv and George got to send them off. With few exceptions (e.g., Wally West), the same was true for characters introduced or otherwise changed by Crisis.
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Crisis occupies a peculiar self-immolating place in DC’s superhero history: it demonstrates the depth and breadth of the Multiverse just before its destruction and renovation. It’s a “final story” which is designed specifically to facilitate an endless series of new stories. In its original form, it practically exists outside of almost every other story DC has done before or since.
To me, that particular balancing act is a big part of Crisis’ enduring appeal. As a twelve-issue limited series, it has some serious structural and thematic weaknesses. It’s more of a tribute to DC circa 1985 than it is a celebration of the company’s first fifty years. It may work best as a George Pérez clinic on crowded cosmic action. Its effects have been durable, but the less we have to think about its mechanics, the better. Ultimately, Crisis reveals the process by which it is made unnecessary. If, as Steven Grant wrote last week, “all fiction … is a magic trick,” Crisis was the superhero equivalent of separating a knot from its rope.
So yes, I like Crisis, despite its faults; but what’s frustrating is that Crisis exacerbated the disconnect among characters, titles, and creative teams. At the heart of any LWE is the interchangeability of any or all of those elements: any character can appear in any title, written and/or drawn by anyone. Corporate ownership encourages this, naturally; but used improperly it degrades the relationship between character and creator. It’s not so bad when a LWE’s creative team essentially continues its own storyline — Steve Englehart and Joe Staton pulling Millennium out of Green Lantern, for example — because it at least preserves the unity of specific creators and characters. At its worst, though, such interchangeability encourages the “process” mentality of the past few years, where characters travel from storyline to storyline according to editorial dictate; and readers are strung along by the promise of closure.
In his review of DC Universe #0, Tom Spurgeon said “there’s no time for [the] kind of emotional build-up” which places the action in an appropriate dramatic context. I don’t agree completely, because more often than not it seems that there’s at least an attempt at such build-up. The problem is that, thanks to Crisis and its successors, the emotional build-up might well have been portrayed by another creative team in a completely different book. The audience-participation, connect-the-dots aspects of line-wide events allow fans to supply their own significance; thereby relieving the current creative team of that responsibility. It makes for lazy plotting and bloated storytelling, with Countdown being perhaps the most extreme example. The original JLA/JSA team-ups weren’t exactly masterpieces of sequential art, but their format helped provide context, and their formulaic elements allowed them to manage big superhero action efficiently and dependably.
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With all of that said, I still have hope for Final Crisis. It’s relatively compact (and should fit my budget, thanks to the books I’ve dropped already), which I hope means it will stand alone. It’s written by Grant Morrison, who knows a few things about big superhero action stories. Perhaps most encouraging, it appears to build on the ways Morrison used the Fourth World characters in JLA and Seven Soldiers. If Final Crisis does indeed mean the end of the current constant-crossover cycle, Morrison’s involvement up ’til now (with 52, Green Lantern, Batman, and elsewhere) should provide a consistent viewpoint, some common themes, and a unified approach to wrapping the whole thing up. The ironic thing is, if Final Crisis succeeds, it might encourage DC to do something similar, but without that one critical element….
Alternately, DC may actually scale back the line-wide events for the foreseeable future. It’s possible to maintain a shared universe without using the things; and DC has gotten along without them for years at a time. It may yet learn to live without them again, especially if its more cosmic titles pick up the slack.
We’ll see, starting today.
* [Also, Crisis took place during the tenure of the Detroit League, and I presume that DC didn’t want to invite any unfavorable comparisons between them and their predecessors on that satellite.]
** [The 1977 JLA/JSA/LSH team-up was co-written by Paul Levitz.]
*** [The odd year out was 1984, when Kurt Busiek wrote the last “Satellite Era” team-up.]