Alternate Cover: crossover fatigue

James wonders how many more crossovers comics fans can take - and whether mega-events are just desperate attention-seeking on the part of the publishers

In comics, event-driven crossovers have a bad reputation. It’s understandable. Where, in the 70s and early 80s they were a good excuse to tell a slightly-more epic than usual story, over 2 or 3 titles, they quickly mutated into the unwieldy, line-spanning beasts we see before us today. Not a huge surprise – crossovers drive sales, and men in suits love money. The next step seemed simple to them – all crossovers, all the time!

In the 90s, this approach reached critical mass and the abundance of crossover “event” comics was considered one of the major contributing factors in the industry’s implosion. When Joe Quesada took over as Editor in Chief at Marvel – one of the (real-world) events that mark the beginning of the comics industry’s climb out of the 90s mire, one of his initial reforms was that each Marvel series would largely keep to itself – no more crossovers.

Somewhere along the line, that changed. Eager to give the fans “what they want” Marvel and DC are now both into their third or fourth consecutive year of interleaved event crossovers – Marvel with Secret Invasion, and DC with Final Crisis – both of them the latest chapter in sagas that began several years ago. Both companys are doing reasonably well off the back of them, and Marvel in particular has managed to draw some serious media attention through stunts like the quickly-reversed “unmasking of Spider-Man” during Civil War – but the question has to be asked – how much more crossover can the audience take?

The thing about universe-spanning crossovers is that arguably, there is no other medium that can do them – no way in which a story can be told on so many fronts simultaneously. The fact is that the Marvel and DC universes are some of the most widely-developed fictional universes ever devised, if not the biggest ever. We’re talking decades of stories monthly, running into hundreds of pages a week – you’d find it fairly hard to find any other common universes with so much published material.

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This places Marvel and DC in an unusual position. As the only place where crossovers can happen, there’s a fairly good argument to say that they should – otherwise, why have a shared universe at all? With Marvel and DC now placing heavy emphasis on a shared, evolving universe rather than simply a common one (as in the 60s, where stories simply happen in the same world rather than interacting) and even now, hyping up the “exciting aftermath” of their latest events (read: the next crossover) you’d be forgiven for wondering whether crossover events ever going to go away again.

Crossover Fatigue is a term for what happens when people get sick of buying 5 comics a month to get one story. To fans, it’s when the novelty of reading an Iron Man or Shazam comic that you wouldn’t normally pick up has worn off and become a chore. To publishers, it’s when the latest event doesn’t sell as well as the last one. After several years of events, big and small, will fans simply give up? The people who make comics appear to be betting that they won’t – but if it didn’t keep them around in the 90s, why will it keep them around now?

One substantial difference between modern crossovers and the ones that drove readers to despair in the past is that these days, you don’t actually have to buy every comic – the story isn’t interleaved from title-to-title, issue-to-issue – most current crossovers are structured in such a way that you don’t have to buy everything to understand what you’re reading. If you’re not interested, you can keep buying your regular titles and nothing will be interrupted.

As a Hulk fan, I enjoyed Marvel’s recent mini-crossover, “Planet Hulk” but I wasn’t interested in the peripheral series. I simply bought the main title and the “event” title and that was enough. I ignored far more of that crossover than I read, and the story worked. That’s proof enough for me, if any was needed, that you don’t have to read every title to get a decent read out of a crossover. If this model is adhered to in the future, maybe crossover fatigue won’t set in with the majority of the readership at all.

Even so, it’s a dangerous time. No-one has any wish to see the industry collapse under the weight of its own greed again, but it’s hard not to worry whether the other shoe is about to drop. Secret Invasion and Final Crisis both represent something of a climax for their current crossover threads, so the success of them – as well as what happens afterwards – could determine the fate of the superhero comics industry once and for all.

James Hunt will be back with another Alternate Cover next Monday. Read his last column here.

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