Secret Crisis: A Brief History of the Modern Comics Crossover Event

By March 27, 2013
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If you walk into a comic shop at any point during the year, you’re likely to hear at least one fan at the counter complain about each publisher’s latest scheme to take more of their money. “Why does it have so many tie-ins?!” they might scream. “These big stories just make it less fun,” is a common one I hear. “I don’t want to have to buy books that I don’t usually read,” another might say. What could these disgruntled fans be so upset about? Well, it’s at least a yearly ritual in comic shops all across the country: the dreaded summer crossover event.

Although for many fans today it seems like this has been a longstanding tenet of superhero comic book storytelling, the events as we know them today have only been around since the mid-1980s. Don’t misunderstand: comic books and their characters have been crossing over with each other since as far back as the 1940s, when you’d see Superman, Batman, and Robin encourage you to buy war bonds and take out the threat of the Axis. The event that raises the stakes for practically every character in a shared universe, though, had never been tried until DC and Marvel decided nearly at the same time that they needed to up the ante. Although apparently DC’s crack at it was planned a bit earlier, Marvel was able to strike a little bit quicker, and we got our first look at the modern comics crossover: Secret Wars.

Premiering in May 1984, Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars was, at the surface, little more than an excuse for a whole ton of Marvel characters to have a knockdown, drag out fight between some characters that normally didn’t face off against each other. The whole reason that the series came into being, according to then-editor-in-chief Jim Shooter, was because toy manufacturer Mattel had just picked up the Marvel license to try and compete with Kenner’s successful line of DC Super Powers Collection figures. Mattel wanted a big, attention-grabbing event in the comics to announce to fans that a whole line of action figures was coming.

A cosmic entity known as the Beyonder became fascinated with the heroes and villains on Earth when observing the Marvel Universe from afar, and transported them to a planet of his creation called “Battleworld” in a distant galaxy. On it, he declared to his choice heroes and villains that they needed to slay their enemies, and when they do the Beyonder will use his vast power to make their wishes a reality.

On the surface, not a lot of notable things happened. There were a lot of fights, but by today’s standards it’s not exactly a remarkable or nuanced story. The major occurrence wasn’t really thought much of at the time: Spider-Man’s costume was damaged in a skirmish organized by the Beyonder and he needed a new costume. It was there that he donned the infamous black suit for the first time, unaware that it was actually an alien symbiote that would lead to the creation of the villain Venom.

Secret Wars was very upfront, though, about being an excuse to see interesting fights in new situations. It’s remembered as a classic for that reason, as well as the fact that it innovated the concept of the modern comics crossover event. The next year, though, when DC tried their hand, it was a bit more than an excuse for interesting fights. In fact, DC made a bold promise: “Worlds will live, worlds will die, and the universe will never be the same…”

In 1985, DC released the first issue to their mammoth crossover event with a mouthful of a title: Crisis on Infinite Earths. Even though the effort in Secret Wars was impressive, Crisis would go on to have a much larger, inter-universal scale using not only major and minor DC characters, but alternate versions of those characters across, well, infinite Earths. You see, many people had considered DC’s continuity at this point a mess of tangled webs stretching across too many alternate universes and different characters.

Before Crisis had its first issue published, DC had nearly 100 alternate earths in play for their continuity. The result was a multitude of stories that sometimes had its location and impact in complete mystery, since it wasn’t revealed in some stories that a preceding issue took place on an alternate world until the very last page.

To remedy this confusion, DC editorial and the creative team of writer Marv Wolfman and artist George Pérez cooked up the Crisis: an event so grand in scale and so dire in stakes that it would eliminate every established alternate universe, and bring things down to just one Earth. One timeline, one cast of characters, one continuity. To get there, the 12-issue Crisis series was a cosmic rollercoaster, featuring a cast of literally thousands of characters, with story so dense it felt like you could cut it with a knife. If Secret Wars was popcorn summer blockbuster fun, Crisis was that, PLUS a doctoral thesis in quantum mechanics and multiversal entropy. With some Batman. And a couple of Supermen.

Not only was this a collapse of the multiverse, it was also kind of a slaughter. In addition to billions upon billions of faceless lives being lost, Crisis also took with it the lonsgtanding incarnation of Supergirl (making way for Superman to again be the Last Son of Krypton) as well as the Silver Age Flash, Barry Allen. The DC Universe was moving onward and upward, and made way for the next generation of “legacy characters.”

This was embodied by the character of Wally West, normally Kid Flash of the Teen Titans, taking up Barry’s mantle and becoming the new, primary Flash of the DC Universe. There was also a slew of title cancellations and relaunches, with new origin stories and #1 issues for characters like Superman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, the Justice League, and others. Although Batman didn’t receive cancellations or new #1’s, the new continuity did permit Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s now legendary arc Batman: Year One to be the official beginning of the character for over 25 years.

These were the two events, Secret Wars and Crisis, that shaped everything to come for the DC and Marvel Universes. Pretty much consistently since these stories of the 1980s, both companies have been taking turns pumping out at least one crossover event a year, and other, smaller publishers have also taken their crack at similarly scaled events as a result.

Nowadays, as many fans will tell you, sometimes the companies tend to get a little overzealous. Tie-in issues in addition to the major event series itself can create quite a dent in the average fan’s wallet, and more often than not the companies lack honesty when asked if all the tie-in issues are necessary. It’s not that they outright lie and tell you that you need every book they pump out with the event name plastered on it, but they’re largely silent.

As a comics retailer, I can tell you that this leads to many fans coming to the conclusion that they need to buy everything. As a fan and retailer, I can tell you that this is not the case. My advice to fans about comics events is simply to read about the characters that you actually care about. If you’re reading Marvel’s latest offering for this year, Age of Ultron, and you’re wondering if you need to pick up the tie-in issue of Fearless Defenders, then I’d ask you if you even cared about the Fearless Defenders. If your answer is no, you’ll save a few bucks and probably enjoy what you are reading a little bit more.

A lot of fans discuss “event fatigue,” a phenomenon labelled as such because of the sheer volume of books that the companies pump out that are tied to their event of the year. For instance, Marvel’s 2011 event Fear Itself that told the story of the Asgardian God of Fear coming to Earth had a seven issue core miniseries, but it had a staggering 35 tie-in titles, 18 of which were specifically created for Fear Itself. That’s nearly 140 individual issues for the “whole” story, with an average price of $2.99-$3.99 a piece. That’s nearly $500 for a bunch of comics you really don’t need to enjoy the main story, which is the core seven-issue series!

More often than not, tie-ins do very little, if anything, to forward the full story being told. In that regard, an honest comic shop clerk can definitely be both your friend and your guide, warding off a bunch of other tie-in books to get you to your ultimate goal of maximum enjoyment out of those grand stories. As a fan and retailer myself, I’d say to be very cautious of any of the tie-ins to major events, and if you are thinking about picking some up, then just get the characters and teams that you enjoy. Contrary to what the publishers tell you, you don’t need them all.

Kind of like the multi-million dollar blockbusters hitting every movie theater in the summer, event comics have had both positive and negative effects on the comics industry. The negatives can be that it seems like many shared universe titles are always building to whatever the next event is, making some individual stories less special because of an editorial mandate saying that they must build to something. At the same time, though, event fatigue is talked about a lot by fans, but there’s not much evidence for it when looking at sales. They always seem to bring both established and lapsed fans in to see what’s going on, and in many ways can help the comics medium keep going.

That doesn’t mean that all of them are welcome, though. Crisis and Secret Wars helped establish a new norm for the comics industry today, but now that the event is the norm of the publishing schedule, you always have to be mindful of where your money goes. In any transaction, particularly of creative material, your dollar is your vote: don’t vote for things you don’t like.

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Chris Clow
As a former comics retailer at a store in the Pacific Northwest, Chris Clow is an enormous sci-fi, comics, and film geek. He is a freelance contributor, reviewer, podcaster, and overall geek to GeekNation, Batman-On-Film.com, The Huffington Post, and Movies.com. He also hosts the monthly Comics on Consoles broadcast and podcast. Check out his blog, and follow him on Twitter @ChrisClow.