By Erik Grove
There are few things as polarizing to superhero comic book fans as the big summer crossover. When everything goes right, the bombastic action explodes off of the page and creates the kind of four-color memories that keep us coming back year after year. When everything goes wrong, the event limps across the finish line and into the comic book shame closet with all those chromium hologram foil cut 3D popup covers from the 1990s. It's hard to pinpoint the exact formula that makes for a satisfying event comic. It definitely needs great creators, great characters, a clever hook and plenty of crowd-pleasing action but that's not enough. There's something more that a good summer tent-pole needs, something intangible or just something something about timing. Whatever it is, this column highlights the events that, for me, hit the right notes to become the Essential 8 Comic Book Events!
Back in those halcyon days of 1992, the X-Cutioner's Song was my first big event comic (quickly paired with Death of Superman). I remember going to the comic store and seeing that the new issue of Uncanny X-Men was polybagged with a trading card and Cable was on the cover with a smoking gun, standing over Professor X. I tore open the bag and sped through the book to the big hook – Professor Charles Xavier, delivering a speech on mutant rights is shot in the chest by Captain Shoulderpads McGlowy-Eye, my absolute favorite character as a 12 year old boy. My 6th grade brain exploded with questions and anticipation and for the very first time I made my parents take me to the comic book every single week so I wouldn't miss an issue. I still missed one of the X-Factor issues and had to find one of the X-Men on the newsstand at the grocery store. I was completely enthralled. Looking back at it over 20 years later, the crossover isn't perfect (they rarely are) but it was nicely paced with plenty of cheer-out-loud moments from writers Scott Lobdell, Fabian Nicieza and Peter David and had awesome art from modern day masters Andy Kubert, Jae Lee, Brandon Peterson and Greg Capullo.
Crisis on Infinite Earths is the big one, the crossover event that forever defined crossover events. Worlds ended, heroes died and a whole new universe emerged in this continuity-shattering story by comic book royalty Marv Wolfman and George Perez. Wolfman pulled all of the strings together so expertly here that even for an event so steeped in continuity it remains incredibly accessible and engaging and Perez went from massive spectacle to iconic tragedy at the flip of a page. Even nearly 30 years later, Crisis on Infinite Earths remains a fantastic story and a must-read for any fan of superhero comics.
I really dig this comic. Five years ago this month, DC released the first issue of the very atypical weekly "event" series, Wednesday Comics, an anthology with a creative pedigree above and beyond any other anthology I can think of with work by luminaries like Paul Pope, Neil Gaiman, Walt Simonson, Mike Allred, Dave Gibbons, Joe Kubert, Kyle Baker and so many more. Released in a 16 page "broadsheet" format that gave each of the teams a single newspaper sized page to tell part of a serialized story each week, Wednesday Comics seems to have been met with a lot of head-scratching from fans but the stories were fresh and diverse and showcased some of my favorite work of the last 10 years. The collected edition puts all of the stories together for easier reading but keeps the oversized pages. I wish this grand experiment would be revisited but it may have been too avant-garde for the typical summer crossover crowd.
In 2006 the really big Marvel event was not Annihilation. All of the big promotion and attention was on the Mark Millar and Steve McNiven blockbuster Civil War. While Captain America was jumping on harrier jets and being utterly clueless about social media and Iron Man was playing Doctor Doom and cloning his buddy Thor, Annihilation quietly made Marvel's cosmic characters modern and relevant thanks to smart writing by creators Keith Giffen, Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning, Javier Grillo-Marxuach and Simon Furman, action-packed interior art by Andrea Di Vito, Jorge Lucas, Mike McKone, Kev Walker, Gregory Titus, Scott Kolins, Renato Arlem and Giuseppe Camoncoli and eye-catching covers by Gabriel Del'Otto. 8 years ago, long before Guardians of the Galaxy was poised to be a smash summer film, Annihilation reinvigorated the Marvel Cosmic characters and started a chain of events that ultimately gave Andy from Parks & Recreation six pack abs and sent him into space.
Geoff Johns started his acclaimed and character-defining Green Lantern run full of ideas and mythology and Sinestro Corps War was the massive critical and creative success that followed. Johns is at his very best with this epic space saga that continues to up the ante and keep the pressure on the Green Lanterns against seemingly impossible odds. Aided by writers Pete Tomasi, Dave Gibbons and more and with art by some of my personal favorite pencilers of all time, Ethan Van Sciver, Patrick Gleason and Ivan Reis, Sinestro Corps War was and remains one of the best crossover events of the 21st century.
Brian Michael Bendis defined the Avengers for a generation starting with Avengers: Disassembled amassing an impressive number of issues and establishing a tone and direction entirely new to the franchise that saw the Avengers emerge from the shadow of the X-Books to become not only Marvel's biggest superhero team but also the biggest name in superheroes for all media. Even with all of Bendis's contributions to the Avengers canon and all of his stories, Secret Invasion remains to me the strongest and best realized of his impressive tenure. Paired with the spectacular Leinil Francis Yu, Secret Invasion was the culmination of years of carefully planned stories that revealed a massive alien conspiracy and pitted Earth's Mightiest against skrulls that had mastered mimicking every superpower they could get their skrully hands (chins?) on. Filled with some genuine surprises, great action sequences and strong tie-ins (with Black Panther and Avengers: the Initiative coming immediately to mind), the Secret Invasion event was just the kind of big popcorn-chewing, universe-shaking spectacle that summer comic book events are made of.
What if everyone on the island of Manhattan had great power and no responsibility? That's the simple, evocative hook for Spider-Island, a 2011 comic book event starring everyone's favorite friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. Masterminded by Spider-Man scribe Dan Slott and his Amazing Spider-Man artists Humberto Ramos and Stefano Caselli with other tie-ins and mini-series, Spider-Island was a great big romp that had me cheering as I read it. From Spider-Fu to Mary Jane finally getting her webs, this story, while in no way intending to be high-brow art was stuffed full of fun, clever gags and inspired action set pieces. While Slott's run on Spider-Man will be probably be remembered (and perhaps should be remembered) for other, grander stories, this one will always have a special place on my bookshelf. Reading this comic instantly makes me imagine watching one of my favorite big summer action movies (let's say something with Indiana Jones) and then getting a piece of New York-style pizza and coke on a hot day. I'm looking forward to sitting down with my nephew and handing him this book someday really soon.
When I started writing this column I knew it was going to come to this. Hello. My name is Erik and I think Identity Crisis is a good comic book. Excuse me as I run for cover from the coming onslaught (no, not that Onslaught, silly) of intense internet backlash. Brad Meltzer, Rags Morales and their cohorts delivered a damn fine story featuring some of my favorite characters and as anxious as it makes me to out myself here, in public, with the comment thread waiting to eviscerate me, I really think it's past time comic book fans got over hating it and recognized it for the accomplishment it really is. I understand the teeth-grinding consternation that this very grim spin on classic DC heroes creates. I just think it's a mistake to take it so personally.
There are thousands upon thousands of comics where all the heroes are squeaky clean and the villains never cross that line and I love those comics, like many of the same people that hate Identity Crisis, but I've got room in my longbox-shaped comic book heart for this story too. For those of you that aren't familiar with the nearly Mephisto-Ruined-Spider-Man level of controversy around Identity Crisis, let me get you up to speed. The basic premise is that the bad guys being bad guys figure out a way to hurt the heroes in the most personal way imaginable; by attacking their families. Some heroes strike back in a decidedly not heroic way, then they cover it up and many years later a murder mystery makes them face what they've done.
It's a great mystery and morality tale. It asks and answers questions in a superhero universe that maybe should never have been asked but once that Pandora's Box is opened it creates an engaging and compelling story that challenges the very notion of heroism and villainy in a four-color world. Identity Crisis leaves the DC universe, its iconic heroes and the fans unsettled. It raises some troubling issues about damsels in distress and applies a very mature filter to traditionally very all-ages concepts. It's an upsetting story. It's supposed to be. Fan-favorite characters (well, old fan-favorites – there hadn't been many comics featuring them in a long time) met ignoble ends and the DC universe became a grimmer place and that may have inspired some fans to jump ship but it also inspired some new ones to take a second or third look. On its merits, absent the decades of history and years that followed that saw heroes descend to smoking kittens in crack pipes, Identity Crisis is a potent and worthy accomplishment.
Special thanks this week to central air and whoever finally convinced those guys in my neighborhood to stop trying to blow themselves up after midnight last night. I hope you're all having a great summer! Keep cool!
Erik Grove is a writer living in Portland, OR. You can read his fiction and more at his personal webpage www.erikgrove.com and follow him on Twitter @ErikGrove.