15 DC and Marvel Crossover Events That Fall a Wee Bit Short of Must-Have Status
1. Secret Wars II (1985)
Every field has its legends of horrific failures and misfires. In the car business, it’s the Edsel; soft-drink marketers still speak in hushed whispers about New Coke; and in baseball, the words “Bill Buckner” can still cause many a Red Sox fan to shudder and moan. Among comic fans, there is only one such legend, and only one question that one must consider every time Marvel or DC pumps out yet another mega-crossover event: “Is there any chance this crossover will be as horrifically awful as Secret Wars II?” Answer: no. No, there isn’t. Following the commercially successful Secret Wars mini-series, Marvel’s Secret Wars II finds the previously unseen — and practically omnipotent — Beyonder traveling to Earth and assuming human form while he searches for enlightenment. And then absolutely nothing happens in any of the 42 tie-in issues. Well, except he turns a building to gold over here. Then tries to become the world’s greatest hero over there. Then decides to destroy the world. Then faces an attack by Earth’s mightiest heroes that consists of nothing more than one massive dogpile. But in terms of sheer storytelling idiocy, nothing can compare to the sight of Peter Parker explaining to an omnipotent being the necessity of urination among humans. Let me repeat: Spider-Man teaches an omnipotent being how to go wee-wee in his bathroom. Marvel Editor-in-Chief (and SWII scripter) Jim Shooter had no one to blame but himself for this titanium-hard turd on his résumé, and its colossal crash and burn surely ranked high among the reasons he was shown the door the following year.
2. Millennium (1988)
This eight-issue limited series, appearing about 12 years earlier than its title would suggest, holds a minor place in comic history as the first weekly crossover event attempted by a U.S. publisher. While the numerous tie-in issues had the heroes dealing with the startling revelation that their colleagues and loved ones were sleeper agents working for the nefarious Manhunters, the core issues focused on the gathering of 10 humans selected by the Guardians of the Universe (the blue-skinned creators of the Green Lantern Corps) to usher in a new race of immortals. It was an interesting premise, but any potential the storyline may have possessed was scuttled by the subtle-as-a-sledgehammer moralizing in the script (the South African guy, for instance, was an unapologetic racist). And then there was the final issue’s introduction of the New Guardians, one of the most politically incorrect and hamfistedly written super-teams of all time (He’s the Japanese super-computer! She’s the mystical aborigine!). Their own series, launched immediately after Millennium’s conclusion, lasted only 12 issues; the final issue saw them dumped on a desert island with a gaggle of grotesque misfits — which was, in retrospect, far better than what they deserved.
3. The Evolutionary War (1987)
“The Evolutionary War” was another first — specifically, the first attempt by either Marvel or DC to tie together all of the company’s annual issues in a company-wide storyline. If the plethora of annual events that followed in later years were any indication, it was a marketing success for Marvel — but that’s about the only kind of success this crossover can rightly claim. The story took a formerly obscure villain, the High Evolutionary (a rogue geneticist, if you must know), and introduced his ultimate plan to detonate a bomb that would forcibly evolve every human on the planet to the point of perfection. Leaving aside any quibbles about why this character would devote vast resources to such an outcome, the main weakness in the storyline was the lack of editorial consistency; in one issue, the High Evolutionary claims he has evolved beyond human emotions, while in the next he’s sputtering and shaking his fists like a riled-up Yosemite Sam. And the majority of heroes aren’t even aware of the larger story arc — in most cases, they overcome the High Evolutionary’s minions within their own issues, but have little idea of the bigger picture or show any interest in why they’re being attacked by armored mercenaries. Shouldn’t crossovers have heroes that, you know, cross over into each another’s stories?
4. Bloodlines (1993)
By 1993, both Marvel and DC had set up a regular schedule of multi-title story arcs and crossover events that tied their title’s annuals together into larger storyline. The year before, DC launched Eclipso: The Darkness Within, a capable storyline that updated an old villain for a new audience (a common trend in these types of “event” storylines). Instead of returning to the revamp well, “Bloodlines” introduced a race of shape-shifting parasitic aliens who arrived on Earth in search of some sweet-tasting spinal fluid, which they obtained from victims with the aid of long spikes that emerged from their mouths. Most of their victims died, but a few humans survived and (of course) developed a range of superpowers as a result of their exposure to whatever the hell was injected into them. Not only did the storyline offer no plausible explanation for how an extraterrestrial species would develop a craving for human fluids and travel through endless space to procure the stuff (or, for that matter, why some victims would receive powers while others didn’t), the whole blood-spattered exercise seemed to exist solely to introduce roughly two dozen new characters who, with one notable exception, failed to catch on with readers.
5. Our Worlds at War (2001)
Heroes live! Heroes die! Nothing will ever be the same! Er, again. Something like that. As DC’s big summer event of 2001, this storyline suffered from a massive case of plot overload. (Imperiex was this galactic warlord, see, who attacked Earth to use the planet as the staging ground for the “hollowing” of the entire universe, and so Earth’s heroes and Darkseid teamed up to transfer Imperiex’s energy back to the galaxies he had destroyed, but then Brainiac-13 appeared and absorbed the Imperiex energies so that he could rule everything, and then Superman flew into the sun and… you know what? Never mind.) This crossover also had the extremely bad luck of coming out just before the 9/11 attacks — in fact, the second page of The Adventures of Superman #596, released just one day after Sept. 11, showed the twin towers of Lex Luthor’s corporate offices heavily damaged by an alien attack. Obviously, there was no way the writers could have intentionally referenced the World Trade Center disaster in that scene, but all the same DC allowed retailers to return the issue without penalty. No such luck for the fans who bought into this tripe, though.
6. Joker: Last Laugh (2001)
Q: How do you take one of history’s greatest super-villains and reduce him to a joke? A: It’s sadly easier than you think. Faced with the news he’s about to die, an incarcerated Joker uses a chemical concoction to “Jokerize” an entire prison of super-criminals, who then escape and cause all manners of mayhem with their newly insane outlook on life while the Joker prepares his ultimate prank on the world. Three quibbles: (1) We’re supposed to believe the Joker, the most dangerously unpredictable man in the DC universe, is somehow able to access the chemicals and materials required to re-create the exact same accident that created him. Shyeah, right. (2) Further, we’re supposed to believe this “Joker juice” works on not just other humans, but gods, mutants, monsters, and anyone else who happens to ingest it, regardless of their physiological makeup. (3) This entire premise, which makes it clear that anyone can become a “Joker” with the right chemical intake, reduces the original Joker to little more than a random victim of circumstance — and who the hell wants that in a super-villain? Adding to the irritation: this weekly crossover came out only two months after the Our Worlds at War storyline concluded, testing the patience (and pocketbooks) of even the most fervent comic fans.
7. The Infinity War (1992)
In the early 1990s, Marvel released three mega-crossover events that together formed a massive trilogy starring Adam Warlock (a trippy space hero who first debuted in the ’70s) and his cosmic cohorts. In The Infinity Gauntlet, Warlock and Earth’s heroes have to keep six “infinity gems” out of the hands of the death-worshipping Thanos; in the Infinity War follow-up, a victorious Warlock uses the gems to purge his “good” and “evil” aspects in order to make himself a completely logical being. But his “evil” side, reborn as the Magus, does what evil beings tend to do and tries to conquer the universe. Oh, and part of his plan involves creating evil mirror images of all of Earth’s heroes, right down to the likes of Speedball and Moon Knight, just to keep them from interfering in his plans — because he’s not just an evil intergalactic tyrant, he’s a micro-managing evil intergalactic tyrant. Less Empire Strikes Back and more Matrix Reloaded, this middle entry in the Infinity trilogy also holds the dishonor of setting the stage for the almost-as-bad Infinity Crusade, which at least didn’t require readers to plough through dozens and dozens of unnecessary tie-ins featuring heroes battling funhouse versions of themselves (It’s Evil Bizarro Spider-Man! With sharp teeth and six arms! Rarrr!).
8. Onslaught (1996)
Now, no one is suggesting that 1996’s Onslaught event had anything to do with Marvel declaring bankruptcy later that year… but then, it’s hard not to assume some connection. The precise plot of Onslaught is irrelevant — Professor X’s consciousness develops sentience and plots to rule all existence, or some such nonsense. Nor should anyone fret much about the confusing reading order (with tie-in issues marked Phase 1, Impact 1, Phase 2, Impact 2, and so on). No, what really riled longtime fans is how the entire crossover — in which we were told Nothing Would Ever Be the Same Again, yet again — turned out to be just a preamble for the main event. In a nutshell, Marvel followed up Onslaught by ceasing publication of four of its biggest titles — Avengers, Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Captain America — and outsourcing “Volume 2” of each title to a gaggle of writers and artists who had left Marvel years before to start up Image Comics. By using the oh-so-convenient “pocket dimension” plot device, these artists were given full licence to rewrite the characters’ origins and personalities, producing updated versions of the heroes that — this being the mid-’90s and all — were grittier, more prone to pouting, and far more pneumatically enhanced than previous versions (Rob Liefeld’s Captain America was a gloriously inept example). A little more than a year later, yet another major storyline (Heroes Reborn) brought the heroes back to the “real” Marvel universe, and that was that. So much effort and so much hype, only to come around back to the start again.
9. Genesis (1997)
If I have to explain who Jack Kirby is or why his New Gods are such a big deal, then you might want to consider a remedial class or something. Short version: Kirby, big-name artist who created or co-created many of today’s comic icons; New Gods, the stars of his short-lived Fourth World saga in the 1970s that went on to much prominence in the DC universe. Writer John Byrne pays homage to Kirby with this four-issue mini-series, a tale in which the heroes’ superpowers go on the fritz and everyone else is feeling generally bummed out about life. The source of all this angst? The Godwave, an interstellar phenomenon that sweeps through the universe at regular intervals, creating gods and beings with superpowers wherever it goes. Naturally, Darkseid wants to harness the power of the Godwave for his own plans and the slugfest begins. The pictures were pretty, sure, but the plotline was almost impossible to follow, and many fans rebelled against the idea that all their favorite characters were somehow connected by a Grand Unified Theory of Spontaneous Superpower Generation. It also didn’t help matters that the stories in the tie-in issues often contradicted events happening within the main storyline, or that the heroes themselves seemed to play little more than a supporting role in the whole event. Byrne himself later admitted the story didn’t quite hit the mark — which was a generous assessment, to say the least.
10. War of the Gods (1991)
Genesis is one handy reminder that even a talented comic creator can slip up once in a while; War of the Gods is another. George Pérez already had a loyal following among comic fans for his work on The Avengers and The New Teen Titans when he signed up to write and pencil the relaunched Wonder Woman title in 1987. War of the Gods, in which Wonder Woman and other heroes find themselves embroiled in a conflict between different pantheons of gods, was intended to celebrate Wonder Woman’s 50th year in comics, but conflicts between Pérez and DC about the story’s editorial direction and the marketing strategy for Wonder Woman’s anniversary resulted in a less-than-stellar product, with shoddy printing and mistyped chapter numbers just two of the more obvious quality control issues. It’s not exactly a terrible story, but it’s hard to read without wondering how it could have been so much better.
11. Fall of the Mutants (1987)
When is a crossover not a crossover? When it’s “Fall of the Mutants,” that’s when! Teaser ads in Marvel’s titles of the day showed all of the company’s mutant heroes lying prone on a barren landscape, suggesting the aftermath of a great battle that felled them all. In reality, the big mutant titles of the day (Uncanny X-Men, X-Factor, New Mutants) ran three completely unrelated storylines in which each mutant team faced challenges that temporarily altered their status quo (the X-Men, for instance, “died” on national television and moved to Australia to build a new base). And if that weren’t confusing enough, a smattering of issues in a few other non-mutant titles sported small “Fall of the Mutants Tie-In” logos on their covers, but none of those stories had any direct impact on the stories unfolding in the mutant titles. So really, what was the point?
12. Armageddon 2001 (1991)
Armageddon 2001 stars Waverider, a newly formed hero who travels back in time to 1991 to prevent the despotic Monarch from ruling the world in his own time period of 2001 (insert obvious Bush/Cheney joke here). His only clue: the mysterious Monarch used to be one of the great superheroes of the past. Since Waverider has the ability to “see” a person’s future just by touching him, it shouldn’t be a problem for him to find out which hero turns evil. But even if he finds the future Monarch, can he stop the future from happening before time runs out? Fans of Marvel’s What If…? stories might get a kick from the gee-the-future-is-sure-different stories within each annual (they legalized marijuana!), but fans in 1991 screamed bloody murder when the final issue revealed that Hawk (of Hawk & Dove) was destined to become Monarch. It seems Captain Atom was originally tapped to go to the dark side, but editors made the last-minute switch after some fans got wind of the original ending. Never mind that it meant cancelling one of the better-written titles of the day. Never mind that it directly contradicted clues left throughout the tie-in issues. Later storylines would try to rewrite the outcome, but the damage had been done — and the sad part was, it wasn’t that momentous a storyline to begin with.
13. Legends of the Dead Earth (1996)
For a couple of years during the 1990s, DC’s titles had annual issues that were all connected by a common theme but didn’t necessarily string together to form a larger storyline. In 1994, for instance, all DC annuals sported the “Elseworlds” logo and featured alternate-reality versions of the heroes; in 1995, the “Year One” annuals retold stories from the heroes’ earlier cases. “Legends of the Dead Earth” is the oddest of these quasi-crossover events. The premise: It’s the far-off future and Earth is long gone, but humanity’s ancestors on distant worlds still tell the tales of the great heroes of Earth. Of course, the stories they tell don’t exactly get the details right. It’s essentially a high-concept version of the What If…? or Elseworlds game, and while it might be amusing to think about how, say, Batman might be remembered hundreds of thousands of years from now, nothing about the whole exercise even approaches must-have status.
14. Blackest Night (2009)
The Twitter version: the personification of death is resurrecting dead superheroes and using them in his plans to eliminate all life from the universe. And so we are treated to such lovely tableaux as Donna Troy confronted by the rotting and leering corpses of her dead husband and infant child, or the decomposing forms of the late Ralph and Sue Dibny (a.k.a. the deceased Elongated Man and his partner in sleuthing) brutally murdering Hawkman and Hawkgirl in order to recruit them into their growing army of the dead (see image). Really, it’s an interesting premise and I like how it features the Lantern Corps for all seven colors in the spectrum, but the execution — think The Walking Dead meets Crisis on Infinite Earths — is so repugnant that I just can’t past past the sheer cruelty of it all (to both the characters and the readers). I know, I know — in comic books, the heavenly gates are more like a revolving door, and I certainly don’t pop a vein every time a hero thought to be dead is then brought back to fight another day. But the this series goes beyond the pale, showing complete disrespect for any of the characters involved or the fans invested in their stories. Dammit, if you’re going to kill off longtime characters to sell a few more books, at least have the courtesy of keeping them dead… and if that’s not possible, then don’t turn them into murderous, wise-cracking zombies. Requiescat in pace, and all that.
15. Final Crisis (2008)
Is it? Is it, really, sirs? Or is this like those mattress store sales, where every weekend is your absolute last opportunity to enjoy incredible savings? Darkseid plots to overthrow all reality. Heroes die, heroes are born, nothing will ever be the same again… you know, the usual. Really, that’s the issue with these types of major crossovers: you can only threaten universal annihilation so many times before readers get apocalypse fatigue and tune out. Then there are the little touches that make this storyline oh-so-unpalatable: the Martian Manhunter brutally slain just to make a point; the Barry Allen Flash comes back from the dead, just because; Batman, of all people, firing a gun to take a life… Writer Grant Morrison has said he “wanted to do the biggest crossover there’s ever been” and boy, does he deliver on that point. But he really needed an editor on this project to remind him “biggest” doesn’t always equal “coherent.”