Funnybook Babylon

October 26, 2008

Managing the Event: Then and Now

Here in the Year of Superhero Event Comics, we’ve by this point become pretty accustomed to the yearly cycle. Every year there’s a point where all the books in a shared universe intersect and stake a common ground, then separate again for a while, then come together the next year. Events have stopped merely being important simply for the sake of providing a sales tentpole; the event comic has become the glue that holds a shared universe together. Every year, something big happens that affects everybody, and this provides a framework whereby the different stories can coalesce and characters can touch base while also providing most writers and books the ability to simply continue with their own stories if they so desire.

We’re seeing two very structurally different events right now – Final Crisis takes place in a time period entirely separate from the rest of DC’s line (with the exception of Green Lantern). Reading Batman or Superman or Checkmate, you’d have absolutely no idea that there’s a Crisis on if not for the house ads. While every book staking a common ground has been hinted as occurring after this event, for the most part, it’s entirely self-contained, not unlike Morrison’s previous Seven Soldiers. By virtue of this, its structure is small – a main series, two ancillary series that so far seem more like they’re pushing their respective writer’s ongoing DC Universe plots than really interacting with Morrison’s story, and a handful of oneshots (including the cleft-in-two Superman Beyond). And an unofficial #35.5 of Green Lantern, and a three-issue build-up to Flash: Rebirth (not to knock Rogues’ Revenge, it was awesome, and it was greatly informed by Final Crisis, but it didn’t in any way seem to really inform the main narrative itself). This tight and controlled creative approach has led to many people calling it the “arthouse” take on an event; while it certainly matches previous Crises in scale, it’s paced like a horror movie and I really can’t imagine any logical way ongoing books could have been tied into this without getting, well, completely fucked up.

Secret Invasion, on the other hand, is fucking everywhere. You can’t escape it. If a book isn’t tying in, then it has a support miniseries to take that role. Even the books that didn’t have that, such as Captain America, have taken care to show as in this latest issue that it does take place after the events of Secret Invasion. It’s also, unlike Final Crisis, insanely sprawling, reaching to over a hundred individual issues of a large number of ongoings – New Avengers, Mighty Avengers, Thunderbolts, Captain Britain and MI: 13, She-Hulk, X-Factor, Avengers: The Initiative, New Warriors, Guardians of the Galaxy, Nova, Incredible Hercules, Punisher War Journal, Deadpool and Black Panther. That is a lot of comics, until you look at the sizes of the arcs – with the exception of the Avengers titles, none of those books had more than four consecutive tie-in issues, with some as few as one or two. Some of them are directly reacting to the events in the main book; others are simply telling stories on their own time that relate in one form or another to the basic premise. Some of these are arcs that take place within the ongoing stories of the main series, such as New Warriors or Incredible Hercules, some of them are fill-ins like Black Panther, and some of them are launching entirely new titles. So at the end of the day, when you look at whatever may unite the different Secret Invasion books, it’s not a thematic unity, it’s just that they take place around the same time and have Skrulls in them.

What’s really interesting to me about this, though, is just how radically different both of these approaches are from the way I’m used to thinking about an event. A while ago, the term “event” was considered synonymous with “crossover,” and while that’s largely not the case anymore (crossovers are sequential stories that go from one book to the other – think Messiah CompleX) it was pretty damn easy to see why they were considered as such when I sat down to reread my favorite comic book from my late childhood…

Zero Hour: Crisis in Time

Zero Hour: Crisis in Time

Yeah. Yeah, I know, I know, I know. It never really dawned on me as a kid just how little sense this series made, but you know you’re in for some pretty special leaps in time-travel logic when the opening caption is “The End of Time. 36 hours ago.”

That aside, it’s pretty surprising when you realize this whole book came out over the span of one month, including all of its tie-ins. The tie-ins weren’t unimportant, either; they usually contained key scenes between issues, making it incredibly clear that the series simply wasn’t meant to be read in sequential order from, uh, 4 to 0 (DC should really avoid doing books with “countdown” numbering in the future), it was meant to be read in conjunction with the Superman books and Batman books and JSA and Justice League and whatever the hell else was coming out in 1994. The end of each issue would even have a page dedicated to telling you where each dangling subplot from each issue was going. People say these days that events are corporate shills designed simply to sell more books, and that might be true to a degree, but the fact of the matter is that Secret Invasion really reads just fine as a single story, and while reading Bendis’s Avengers issues that tie in certainly helps inform a great deal of the background, it’s background that is largely only applicable to longtime readers, and SI gives you pretty much all you need to know if you want to see some superheroes beat the shit out of some aliens. If a dude does a fake-out death in Secret Invasion, that’s where they’ll reveal the fake-out. Not Zero Hour.

Wally West “dies” in, like, the first issue of Zero Hour and then is barely ever mentioned again. This leads directly into the next issue of his own book, where he discovers the Speed Force. However, this is never mentioned in the main Zero Hour title, and the book basically ends with everybody still thinking he’s dead. This is all the book is – a bunch of moments setting up events in certain ongoing titles, combined with moving Zero Hour moments to books that had to drop THEIR own ongoing storylines, all set around a bizarre framing device where the narrator is counting down the hours to the end, despite the story jumping throughout time (so whose relative timeline are we following?) and a second-to-last-issue reveal of Hal Jordan that ended up paying off in Green Lantern rather than Zero Hour.

The book, by nature of the crossover/event framework that was applied, basically reads like being in the hallway of a really huge party and never entering any rooms, so all you do is see snippets of conversation as people go from room to room, and the dudes who own the rooms hang out in the hallway because party guests are wrecking them. So you’ll see some dude call another guy’s girlfriend a slut in the hallway, then they’ll threaten to take it outside, then go outside to fight and you never fucking find out what happens. Not unless you go buy Outside #0, on sale now for only $1.95.

Even Zero Hour is less offensive along these lines than the sprawling DC One Million, which actually makes zero sense when read from #1 to #4, with hugely important plot beats (the modern JLA members deciding to try to get to the JLA HQ in the future; Huntress coming up with the time capsule idea; Starman being revealed as a traitor) all taking place in side books. While we get echoes of that with stuff like the Jessica Drew reveal taking place in New Avengers, these are still occurrences that get properly shown in the main book.

I’m not sure what the future of the event is, although I do think that it’s now an inextricable part of the machinery that drives the development of superhero universes. It sells, it works, and no matter what your opinion of either Final Crisis or Secret Invasion it’s impossible to call either book a cynical money-grab, as both Morrison and Bendis have clearly put a lot of thought and effort into these stories. They aren’t events so they can make more money, they’re events because they are really damn big stories that actually logically affect a great swath of characters and titles. I’m curious to see how Final Crisis integrates itself back into the main DC Universe come January to March, while the effects of the end of Secret Invasion should be fairly quickly evident with the much-hyped Dark Reign. Meanwhile, there’s no doubt that DC’s next major storyline is 2009’s Blackest Night story spinning out of the ongoing Green Lantern books, but how expansive is that actually going to be? Will DC be able to pull off having their major tentpole event be a story that only affects a relatively small fraction of their titles, or will they expand the scope of Blackest Night to encompass the entire DC Universe? If so, will this strengthen Johns’s ideas by widening the scope or dilute them? And just what the hell does Marvel have planned next? Tom Brevoort intimated (I forget if it was on his blog or at a panel) that their 2009 offering will be structured differently – how will that work?

Anyway, just some thoughts on a Sunday morning.

7 Comments »

  1. That hallway analogy is fucking hilarious.

    I think/hope that 2009 is the year of the crossover break, with Blackest Night only being relegated to the GL titles and maybe just mini-events for Marvel (kinda like how DC is doing it now with Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman).

    Comment by Preston — October 26, 2008 @ 2:50 pm

  2. I don’t have a problem referring to Secret Invasion as a money grab, not in terms of what Bendis desired to do, but what Marvel made out of it. Some of the tie-ins have been absolutely abysmal and I’d dare go as far as saying having ruined some of the narrative flow of a few of the established books, Guardians of the Galaxy, I’m looking at you. Likewise, SI:ASM gave them an opportunity to do some fresh things with Jackpot in preparation for her big reveal in this week’s Annual, but for all the possibility that she could be Mary-Jane Watson, has just felt entirely underused in the BND universe.

    As for the DC stuff, I imagine we’ll see some of the fall out in the new year. Grant Morrison mentioned in an IGN interview that with the delays to the FC main book, all the current storylines should be considered as taking place in the week or so prior to FC and should wrap up shortly.

    I don’t know if I’d say New Krypton will be a fair barometer of how Blackest Night will do, but obviously Johns has had success and now returned to format The Sinestro Corps War used, a nice lead one-shot and then counting on the supporting books to bear the brunt of the story. Although I don’t think we’ll get any supporting tie-ins for NK.

    Comment by burt — October 26, 2008 @ 3:49 pm

  3. I think you hit the nail on the head when you mentioned “hallway” because I do believe that networked comics like the “big event crisis comics” don’t come from a linear sense, but more of an architectural or geographic sense.

    Let’s take the first two big crossovers as an example:

    In Crisis on the Infinite Earths, DC utilizes the multiverse as the geographical place where all these individuals meet. What is thrilling about the original crisis is the premise of a loss of geographical presence. The multiverse is collapsing, there is only one earth, “Worlds will Live, Worlds will Die, the Universe will not be the same.” You have George Perez, the most narratively flamboyant artist who can draw almost everything with exacting detail plot this story and arrange the architecture so that everything highlights every single character in DC (and Fawcett and Charlton’s) library while slowly building to this premise that everything will turn “white” and open up the field to a new landscape to be drawn. The battle that the DC heroes fought is almost like an ecological battle, like superheroes saving people from a flooded/devastated New Orleans.

    Secret Wars followed a similar formula (although it came first), by having their characters emerge on an earth-like place called Battleworld. While the landscape changed for the characters, the geography of their Earth remained the same. It was sort of like all the heroes and villains went to Vietnam and came back to an ungrateful populace that barely recognized their sacrifice or the effort they spent on their behalf. The Marvel Wars are always ideological wars, or wars of viewpoint.

    These two ideas become the two main ways of presenting a multi-book comic-line crossover. Either the physical space is threatening something outside the universe or an ideological struggle from outside comes in and disrupts the world. Either its New Orleans or Vietnam.

    Comment by Gary Ancheta — October 26, 2008 @ 5:43 pm

  4. Good stuff. I had similar thoughts some time ago about the way that events are set up these days, compared to the way that it was done 10 years ago. Back then it was normal that for an entire month (or more) virtually every book would be swallowed up in a story; these days, there’s a main mini-series and some tie-ins, and participation (usually) isn’t mandatory any more, nor is it mandatory for the reader to get every tie-in.

    The summer and fall of 2001, I think, served as a kind of breaking point (for DC anyway). First there was Our Worlds At War, which spun out of the Superman books and (to a degree) foreshadowed the way current events are done (the main story was told in the Superman books, and the tie-ins weren’t necessary reading, and not every DC comics participated). Then, one month after OWAW ended, DC published Last Laugh, a Joker centric crossover that was done in the old style (there was a main mini-series and every comic DC published tied into it). And that was it for a couple of years, if I remember correctly, the next big thing was Identity Crisis, and that didn’t have that many tie-ins at all, things had changed. I have no idea what DC was thinking, publishing two events/cross-overs so close together (‘money, money, money,’ possibly).

    About DC One Million: Some of the events in the story become (somewhat) more clear when JLA One Million is read as a de facto DC One Million 2.5 (which is really what it was, it was a five week event, and instead of an issue of the main mini-series in the third week, there was JLA One Million. DC, of course, did not see it fit to actually mention this in the mini-series, I think).

    I actually own all of DC One Million, every single tie-in issue (which ammounts to nearly 40 issues). I was quite mad at the time, I suppose, but there it is. I guess it’s true that the whole thing doesn’t really work unless you read the tie-ins, as I did, but I really enjoyed the story (not just the mini-series, but also peripheral tie-ins such as Chase and Chronos. Hm, I wish those two series had gotten a longer lease on life).

    As for Blackest Night, I hope that it is structured in the same way that Sinestro Corps was, with a one-shot as the starting point and the actual story taking place in Green Lantern and Green Lantern Corps. And I hope that they either completely forgo the crossover thing this time around or at least do it better, as the Blue Beetle tie-in was easily the worst comic that was published as part of Sinestro Corps, in my opinion. I Certainly hope they keep it small, like Sinestro Corps was.

    Comment by Derk van Santvoort — October 26, 2008 @ 7:45 pm

  5. You hit on an important differentiation with this type of thing: the audience who experiences the event as it’s going, versus the later audience for the collected work. As someone who bought it at the time, Zero Hour was really enjoyable because it was so well-planned and it hit so quickly that for the length of the event it energized the DC-buying audience in a way they hadn’t achieved in years. Rereading it afterwards, though….yeah.

    Comment by Aaron Poehler — October 27, 2008 @ 2:19 pm

  6. You could probably say the same thing about DC1Million too. Morrison plotted all the books that month, so they were within very strict timelines and guidelines. A lot of writers chaffed under this, but as a reader, you could really get into the story if you collected a significant portion of it.

    Zero Hour, to me, just seemed too much like a marketing gimmick…because it seemed like there was very little cohesion. The best thing to come out of it was Starman, and even that didn’t spin out organically from the plot. The story itself felt like there was no reason behind it. To understand Zero Hour, you had to understand that Parallax was once Hal Jordan, there was also this guy who was a Superhero that turned into Extant, and that Crisis on the Infinite Earths changed a multiverse into a single universe. If you didn’t know that, then you’d be a bit lost because the story hinges on the idea that you understand these things.

    But I will give props to Zero Hour for having a cool gimmick and a neat hook: Everything is counting down to Zero, with all the titles giving us a “0” issue that explains a new facet of the character’s origin. That is a pretty neat idea.

    Comment by Gary Ancheta — October 27, 2008 @ 5:18 pm

  7. In terms of pitch, I would have thought it works in one of two ways (with a couple of exceptions): here’s a cool story involving a massive cast, I’ll write the main title and here’s the plot outlines for the tie ins (DC One Million, Zero Hour, Legends etc.); or here’s a cool concept, (aliens/vampires/legion of villians attack, big fight ensues) I’ll write the main title and a couple of one shots and everyone else can do what they like with said aliens/vampires/legion of villians (Secret Invasion, Invasion etc.).

    Blackest Night sounds a bit like the latter: self contained Green Lantern narrative, all other titles with one or two issues fighting their own zombies from the past. Think Secret Invasion rather than Final Crisis in terms of spin offs.

    Comment by Andy G — November 14, 2008 @ 9:27 am

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