Thursday, June 16, 2005

Crossing Over, with John Edwards.

There comes a time in everyone’s life when they have to stand up and be counted for what they believe in. History, I think you’ll find, is littered with such times, albeit ones much more honorable and important than this particular time, and the cause of such stands were also more important and less personally embarrassing than mine. But nonetheless, I feel like I have something terrible that I should admit to all of you.

I believe in The Crossover.

No, I’ve not gone all Left Behind on you; I’m talking about the massive superhero crossover, the type of which we’re apparently seeing a revival of with series like House of M and the soon-to-be-released Infinite Crisis. I know, I know. It’s the latest in-thing to hate crossovers and think that they’re responsible for the death of the industry, the artform and also the little baby Jesus. I get that, really I do, and I don’t even really disagree that much with the logic behind that argument – Certainly, the crossover format does nothing to combat the inbred nature of mainstream comics and the strength not just of the superhero genre, but also the Big Two publishers. Definitely, there’s a case for saying that Crossovers Are Bad.

But.

But I love crossovers, at least in theory. I can’t help it; I always have, ever since my first one: Marvel Superheroes Secret Wars, way back in, what, 1984? 1985? Something like that. I loved the whole corny meeting of the heroes scenes, and the way that the characters talked to each other by always mentioning each others’ names in bold type. I loved the fact that my favorite characters all teamed up to fight some ridiculous menace, and along the way there were all these new characters for you to try and keep up with as well (I found some of my favorite characters in crossovers; it was in DC’s Legends series that I was introduced to Darkseid and the whole Jack Kirby’s Fourth World cast for the first time, years before I was really aware of who Kirby was and what he had done). When they’re done well, crossovers feel like taking the whole superhero thing as far as you can – The stakes were always higher, the villains always more (seemingly) invincible, the odds always more against the heroes. When the inevitable triumph over adversity happened, it seemed greater, because the fate of the world – if not all of existence – was in the balance.

My favorite crossover – and this is purely from nostalgia, as opposed to any critical eye, I should explain – is DC’s Millennium, from the end of the 1980s. It was the first weekly crossover book, and also one of the first books that relied heavily on the various issues of whatever series happened to crossover with it that week, both of which seem like Beginnings of the End looking back on it now, but at the time, I didn’t care. I was completely hooked by the story, by the concept that – gasp, shock horror – each DC hero had a friend who was secretly a villain in disguise all along, by the idea that nothing will ever be the same again (In my defense, I was thirteen years old at the time).

These days, of course, the idea that “nothing will ever be the same again” is meaningless in mainstream superhero comics; anyone who’s been paying attention for long enough knows that there’s always a revamp around the corner from a creator who promises to take the character back to their roots. If you stick around long enough, everything will be the same again, eventually. But it’s still a threat that gets wheeled out today, with a slightly different meaning than before.

A large part of this new meaning comes from superhero comics’ adolescent self-consciousness, the need to pretend that they mean something more than they really do. It’s not good enough to just have lots of heroes team up to fight a giant bad guy threatening the nature of reality anymore; there’s no “emotional resonance” to that story, and in this day and age of Comics Aren’t For Kids Anymore, stories have to have their emotional resonance. That’s why today’s crossovers are centered around tearing down superheroes to not just our level, but somewhere lower: Identity Crisis saw the Justice League of the past lobotomize villains because they were scared of what might happen otherwise, needlessly “explaining” why Silver Age villains didn’t want to kill and rape everyone. The many Countdown to Identity Crisis series then build from that retcon, slowly unveiling a plot set in motion by a paranoid Batman who’d rather spy on his friends than talk to them. Avengers Disassembled saw the Scarlet Witch suddenly insane over a long-resolved-and-forgotten plot and, in her insanity, kill her teammates; apparently she’d been insane for a long time and no-one had noticed. House of M then follows on from that with the Avengers and the X-Men arguing over whether to kill the Scarlet Witch because she’s insane and dangerous (There isn’t, of course, any other option because any other option wouldn’t be “realistic” enough and would deny the cheap melodrama of the concept, which cries out for a Silver Age style cover blurb: “She’s my best friend… But she must die so that the world can live!”). These days, nothing will ever be the same again, because the stories of your youth are getting retrofitted with the same leaden seriousness and unnecessary “realism” that today’s mainstream comics are suffocated by.

Nonetheless, I still believe in The Crossover, in principle, and I’m still paying attention to the various Infinite Crisises and House of M and whatever other letters might have houses afterwards. There’s still something of a goofy thrill in the idea of a threat so big that everyone has to put aside their differences and come together for a common good. If only the stories themselves would allow themselves to acknowledge the goofiness of it, and take themselves less seriously every now and then.