Is the Crossover Dead? (Mania.com)

By:Arnold T. Blumberg
Date: Saturday, December 08, 2001

Is the crossover, as a subgenre, dead?

The crossover as a storytelling and marketing device has been around for decades, since the heady days of the Justice League/Justice Society crossovers that so enthralled DC fans of the time (and most of us can recognize that classic cover with the floating jail cells in space, right?). Since then, crossovers have grown in size and scope until the big boys Marvel and DC employed them on an annual basis to boost sales, embroil all of their major characters in massive storylines of epic grandeur and generally wow readers by pulling out all the stops. At the height of the speculator and cover-enhancement craze of the '90s, crossovers became an institutional cliché all to themselves, transparent in their desire to coerce devotees to buying as many issues a month as possible. By the time we reach the modern day, thinly constructed crossover "events" like the recent DC opus, "The Joker's Last Laugh," left behind the sheer joy of those early JLA/JSA

JLA #21 and #22 inaugurated a tradition of teaming up groups of heroes in crossover events.

crossovers and seem more interested in displaying the genius of the graphic design teams that craft special trade dress for all involved titles. We have reached an age where the mechanics of marketing the crossover have overridden the content of the event itself. Did it matter that few of the tie-in issues to the "Joker" story even featured the Clown Prince or his machinations? Did it seem painfully apparent that many of the creative teams whose books were roped into this arc were struggling to maintain their own story threads while paying lip service only to the notion of a crossover?

The SECRET WARS brought all the major heroes of the Marvel Universe together in one of the biggest events of the '80s.

I grew up with crossovers like the SECRET WARS. Now there was a gimmicky crossover if ever there was one. A nondescript godlike being known as the Beyonder capriciously collects heroes from throughout the Marvel Universe, plunks them down on a nameless planetoid and tells them to fight it out. Twelve issues of Zeck-drawn spectacle, with a few new costumes thrown in for good measure to kick-start action figure tie-in sales. And yet it worked...but why? Because under all that gimmickry, it was about the characters. The saga explored Doctor Doom's ever-increasing vanity, and the weakness he carries deep within its psyche. It examined the natural leadership of some heroes, and the fear in the hearts of others. It took a look at Spider-Man's fish-out-of-water sensibilities when thrust into an adventure of such cosmic scope. It expanded on the often misused Molecule Man, turning him into a compelling villain once again, and it set up a fresh new story arc that would take Ben Grimm, AKA the Thing, on a real journey of self-discovery.

Sigh, the Joker's back yet again and up to his old tricks in JOKER: LAST LAUGH #1.

When a crossover works, it does so by dazzling the mind as well as the eyes. Sure, it's great to see all those characters packed onto the pages and interacting (and usually fighting) with one another. The fan in us can only react with glee to see that much colorful spandex in one place. But we need a bit more than that, and eventually, the gimmicks show themselves for what they really are. Now I'd be the last one to believe I would ever reach a point when I would be arguing for the narrative validity of the SECRET WARS, but there we go. In the end, nostalgia is an inescapable force, and perhaps the rosy-tinted images of crossovers past automatically seem more attractive than those of today. But pick up a trade paperback of the SECRET WARS (or indeed, DC's CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHSit was, after all, a far more important crossover maxiseries in the scheme of things) and see if it wasn't a more coherent use of the multi-superhero concept.

But if all those great stories that paired the Avengers with the Defenders or the Justice teams past and present were minor masterpieces, making the "Last Laughs" of the modern day pale in comparison, is the crossover really dead? Of course not. It will always be a viable means of cross-promoting new series, boosting readership for flagging titles and generating a certain level of enthusiasm amongst the more rabid devotees. But the crossover is definitely ailing, and that's because it long ago ceased to be special. Too many crossovers, too many "events" and too little significance to any of them all of these factors and more have contributed to a dampening of the impact that crossovers once had on the comic book reader's psyche. What's more, the savvy collectors of today know that they're being bilked out of more of their hard-earned cash when a crossover weaves its mercenary way through countless boring peripheral titles and urges readers to "collect 'em all." It's simply too obvious a tactic these days, and unless there's substance behind all the flashy trade dress and special numbering, the fans will quickly grow disenchanted and walk away. Imagine that comic book fans not buying a comic. But it happens, and it's time the publishers noted that.

The War Begins in MAN OF STEEL #115

Crossovers will remain a part of superhero storytelling for as long as heroes pull on their tights and head out in public to battle the forces of evil. But it behooves those purveyors of expansive sagas to think a bit harder before they embark on such a project. Is your story really worth the twelve or fifteen or twenty extra issues it's going to take to follow it to its conclusion? Is it important enough? Is it grand enough? Does it make any sense at all? Writers often rant on and on about the value of story and character over spectacle and gimmicks, and they're right. In the end, readers stick with their favorite heroes not because of their flashy costumes or hologram covers (now doesn't that date me), but because they mean something to them emotionally as characters...as people. A crossover can span the galaxies, chronicle the end of time and pay homage to decades of continuity, but if it doesn't have at its core something heartfelt, something human, it will fail. "The Joker's Last Laugh" is not a successful crossover. "Our Worlds At War" only found its voice in its closing moments, and only because its aftermath coincided rather eerily with real world events that lent it some additional resonance. And all those countless '90s Marvel Annual stories don't get me started.

No, the classic crossovers remain the ones that found the special pleasure in bringing together diverse characters and plunging them into all-new perils. They are also the ones we remember from our childhood, the stories that first united our favorite heroes in a common cause and thrilled us with the majesty, the sheer uniqueness of it all. Will the young comic book readers of the present look back someday at that universe-spanning war that transformed the DC Universe in the summer of 2001? Perhaps, but I'll take the Secret Wars any day, thank you.