Just in time for Marvel's "announcement to end all announcements" about their Secret Wars event, DC released story details for the first four issues of Convergence. The similarities, while certainly coincidental, are striking and indicative of a much larger problem with superhero comics. Let me just break this down really fast before we get into specifics:
Convergence is an eight-issue limited series from DC Comics with tons of crossovers. It will deal with different parts of the DC Multiverse and assorted timelines "converging" (hence the clever title) because of the machinations of a mysterious cosmic being named Telos. In the course of this, multiple versions of heroes and villains will meet, do battle, or whatever it is they do. When the smoke clears, we're going to be left with a slightly altered DC Universe, one that likely smoothes over a few of the more egregious mistakes of the New 52.
Secret Wars, on the other hand, is an eight-issue limited series from Marvel Comics with tons of crossovers. It will deal with different Marvel timelines and alternate dimensions that will "smash together" like "two pizzas" (actual quote from Tom Brevoort) on Battleworld at the behest of a mysterious cosmic being named the Beyonder. Multiple versions of heroes and villains will meet, do battle, or whatever it is they do. When the smoke clears, we're going to be left with a slightly altered Marvel Universe, one that likely smoothes over a few minor continuity issues, and maybe will help make Marvel Comics look a little more like Marvel Studios.
See a problem?
Both events have something else in common: a basic premise that could only appeal to the most devoted and scholarly long-term comic book reader, as well as an element of "what's behind the curtain" showmanship. Marvel editor Tom Brevoort and Editor-in-Chief Axel Alonso knew exactly what they were doing during the Secret Wars press conference by playing on the long-running fan fears that Marvel will attempt the kind of hard continuity reset that DC is infamous for ("The Marvel Universe as you know it is over!" Mr. Brevoort proudly proclaimed). On the same day, DC exec Dan Didio gave a long interview to Newsarama about Convergence, where over the course of two thousand words or so, he revealed absolutely nothing, other than a desire to "bring fans together."
Aside from the fact that this brand of continuity mongering, perpetrated by events like Convergence and Secret Wars, can't possibly appeal to anyone who doesn't have dozens of longboxes tucked around their homes, we seem to have finally reached a kind of superhero singularity where reboots and resets come at such an alarming rate that it alienates casual and die hard fans alike. If you ever wondered why comics featuring characters that gross billions at the box-office can barely sell six figures at the comic shop, look no further.
To be clear, neither of these events are likely to result in a line-wide reboot on the scale of what DC did at the launch of their New 52 line in September of 2011. Convergence will be a housecleaning, and hopefully, on the other end, we'll find more good comics like the current Batgirl series, as opposed to the dreary mess that has characterized most of DC's publishing line for the last three years. Why they need a "cosmic event" before they can tell good stories is a question not worth asking, because the answer will always be money. Why do something simple when you can exploit your aging and ever-shrinking fanbase for the maximum amount of cash?
Despite Marvel's attempt to rile fans up with the wording of their Secret Wars press conference (which, for something announcing such a "historic" event was amusingly low-rent and fraught with technical difficulties), there's little chance of a full continuity reset happening at Marvel Comics. Marvel has spent the last three years in the middle of a creative renaissance with buckets of critical acclaim for titles like Hawkeye and Ms. Marvel, two books not particularly mired in the complexities of Marvel lore. Hawkeye's wildly successful run at the hands of writer Matt Fraction and artist David Aja is coming to a close, and a second volume (with the equally superstar-worthy Jeff Lemire on writing duties with Ramon Perez on art) is set to launch shortly before Secret Wars kicks off. Marvel have also recently launched high-profile series for Ant-Man and SHIELD, both friendly to movie and TV audiences, but set firmly in the comic book Marvel Universe. A brand new ongoing Inhumans series is also set to launch right before Secret Wars. None of this is likely to be wiped away by some arbitrary editorial mandate.
That doesn't mean there won't be changes, though...
The Ultimate Universe, originally intended as a proving ground for characters that could be exploited in film, has outlived its usefulness. The "main" Marvel Universe long ago began adopting the aesthetics of its big-screen counterparts. Expect particularly popular Ultimate Universe characters like Miles Morales to become permanent fixtures of the main Marvel Universe, some subtle tweaks to the origins of a few headliners, and a ton of new #1s next September. Yes, there will be character deaths and costume changes, but if you're looking for seismic, outrage-inducing change, Secret Wars probably won't provide it. Unless, of course, Marvel finally decides to just exile the Fantastic Four and X-Men to their own realities until they get the film rights back from FOX, but that seems, not only extreme, but a comic book conspiracy theorist/rumor mongers fondest dream.
When it comes to hard reboots, don't forget that the majority of DC's New 52 has been met with, at best, critical indifference. On the other hand, Marvel successfully relaunched their entire line in 2012 with the Marvel NOW! initiative. Marvel NOW! served as stunning proof that decades of continuity is no obstacle when you simply put the right talent on the right titles.
What can these two companies learn from each other? DC should learn from Marvel that you don't have to clear the table in some cosmic event in order to make good comics. Marvel probably already knows the dangers of trying to tell fans which stories in their collections no longer "count," thanks both to the New 52's tepid reception and their own early experiments with rebooting characters (anyone remember Heroes Reborn?). While both the New 52 relaunch and the Marvel NOW! initiative were both intended to make comics (at least cosmetically) more accessible to potential fans discovering these characters through movies, television, or video games, I'm not at all sure who Convergence or Secret Wars is intended to appeal to, as they both appear heavily reliant on knowledge of decades worth of continuity in order to get the joke.
The good news is that Secret Wars is the culmination of all of Jonathan Hickman's Marvel Universe storytelling, dating back to his time on the Fantastic Four in 2009, through his current impressive run on Avengers and New Avengers. Mr. Hickman's Fantastic Four arc stands among some of the best Marvel work of the last decade or more. His Avengers run is equally compelling, but probably incomprehensible to new readers. Even a dedicated Marvel reader like myself has trouble keeping events and timelines straight from month to month between the Avengers and New Avengers titles. Secret Wars won't be any easier on the brain, but with Hickman and artist Esad Ribic steering the ship, at least there's a level of quality we can expect from the core title.
There's less certainty around Convergence, which features first time comic writer Jeff King (his TV credits include the timey-wimey, reality altering Continuum and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) with help from Scott Lobdell and a revolving door of artists. Convergence spins out of two creative misfires designed to separate fans from the maximum amount of disposable income: DC's weekly titles The New 52: Future's End and Earth 2: World's End. Despite some impressive talent on those books, they're fairly impenetrable, expensive affairs, and they aren't setting the world on fire with sales, either. Convergence brings with it dozens of mini-series (some, I'll admit, have tremendous creative teams), all hearkening back to earlier incarnations of the DC Universe.
But since there is no chance that the oft-maligned New 52 is going to vanish in a wave of anti-matter at the conclusion of it all, to be replaced by a more old reader friendly, red underpants-wearing model, are previously alienated fans going to return to comics shops for these or stick around after the event's conclusion? They will not. There's nothing inherently wrong with DC's new continuity that simply upping the quality of the majority of the line won't fix, and the kinds of comic fans who pick up and leave because their sacred cows have been defiled aren't the kind to return.
The best case scenario for Convergence is that it leaves DC's exceedingly dreary superhero line in a better place than where it found it. That shouldn't be too difficult. The worst case scenario for Secret Wars is that it proves all of the internet doomsayers who have been howling about an impending Marvel reboot for over a year correct. That seems unlikely.
But maybe the real best case scenario is that fans will stop demanding that the impossible minutiae of comic book continuity, especially when it involves intellectual property that's at least a half century old, make any kind of sense. If we do that, then perhaps DC and Marvel will stop making bigger messes when they try and clean it up. For that matter, comic book companies might want to stop taking the intelligence of potential readers for granted, and understand that we can probably figure out the little differences between the screen and page versions of our favorite characters. Event comic escalation is real, and it's now brought us to the point where the summer crossover traditions at the Big Two are virtually indistinguishable from one another.
Mike Cecchini is done being a continuity lawyer. Talk comics with him on Twitter.