The current Avengers vs. X-Men event seems like a pretty big deal. In reality, it’s just the latest in a long line of summer superhero spectaculars. These character-heavy, game-changing crossovers have been annual staples for Marvel and DC for decades, and in recent years the Big Two have made promotion of these events a top priority. In 2008, Marvel ran a TV commercial heralding their Secret Invasion, and just last year DC went viral with their promo for the New 52 reboot, even securing space in the advance screenings blocks of major movie auditoriums.
Marketing gimmicks and overused superlatives aside, there have been some genuinely entertaining superhero events that have stood the test of time. The best of these may be important in relation to continuity, or how they change the way comic book stories and characters are handled, but first and foremost they’re meant to be fun, like good Hollywood blockbusters. For this reason you won’t see DC’s seminal Crisis on Infinite Earths on this list. Yes, it was important and ground-breaking, but it was never meant for casual readership. Quite the opposite in fact. Personally, I could give a shit about justifying decades of continuity; just tell a good story and rattle the cages once in a while. These are four-color soap operas, not scrolls of apocrypha.
I’ve also disqualified storylines that were developed specifically within the confines of regular monthly titles. Marvel’s Age of Apocalypse had “event-like” gravity and ramifications, and was a damn good yarn, but it really was just a massive crossover. The events on this list, like this summer’s Avengers vs. X-Men, are built around a central limited series, with story extensions crossing over and tying in with existing books. And hopefully, like the central blocks of each of the events on this list, AvX will be a damn good yarn all by itself.
5. Avengers Disassembled / House of M (Marvel, 2004-2005)
I’m already breaking rule number two. Sort of. The “Disassembled” story was an Avengers family crossover, incorporating the main book’s storyline with plots in Captain America, Thor, and Iron Man. The real event took place when series author Brian Michael Bendis connected this story to 2005’s House of M limited series.
Hard to believe now, but there was a time not too very long ago that The Avengers was a struggling, stagnant book. In fact, a decade ago, had you asked the average pop culture enthusiast to name teams of superheroes, you probably wouldn’t get further than The Justice League and The X-Men, maybe Fantastic Four and Teen Titans. What Bendis did for this team, by destroying and rebuilding them, was revelatory. Marvel today features four groups of Avengers, each with its own monthly title, and two monthlies for each of the three aforementioned primary characters (although Journey into Mystery is more Loki’s book than Thor’s). And of course the upcoming movie, and the five Marvel Studios films that have led up to it, have made The Avengers a household word. It started with Bendis.
Bendis displayed a penchant for dialogue, and sharp stories, with a pair of crime series for Caliber in the 90’s. He earned his superhero stripes with Ultimate Spider-Man beginning in 2000. What he hadn’t demonstrated prior to this Avengers stint, was an incredible ability to script team books. It’s not an easy task juggling great dialogue with clever plots all while respecting the ensemble dynamic. Some of the best comic book writers have failed miserably when trying to work with a big cast of big personalities (I’m looking at you, Geoff Johns). The Avengers have had some great stories since Stan Lee first assembled this team back in 1963, but some of the most memorable have come courtesy of Brian Michael Bendis.
This phoenix-esque Avengers burnout sees The Scarlet Witch go crazy and break down her former teammates in every way imaginable. Tony Stark has a drunken meltdown; Vision helps demolish the mansion; and characters like Hawkeye, Ant-Man, and Jack of Hearts perish (comic book deaths, which are famously temporary, but still…) Then comes the Scarlet Witchhunt. And House of M.
The Avengers and X-Men may be dueling this summer, but in the summer of 2005 they were united to deal with a common problem: the reality-warping powers of Wanda Maximoff and her less than tenuous grip on reality. Wolverine’s solution: kill the bitch. Cap: now wait a second. But before either has a chance to sway popular opinion, the Witch shows off the full extent of her powers and reshapes the universe into a world in which mutants are dominant, and daddy dearest Magneto rules the roost as the head of the House of M. The epic climax includes the famous last words, “No more mutants,” which has had repercussions in the Marvel universe ever since. Cyclops’s current state of violent mania in Avengers vs. X-Men, actually, has everything to do with mutants’ current position as an endangered species.
The tie-in series and crossovers are fairly worthless, although House of M: Spider-Man focuses on the fun fact that Peter Parker is a celebrity, secretly pretending that he, too, is a mutant and part of the ruling class.
Read: Avengers Disassembled (Bendis and David Finch) and House of M (Bendis and Olivier Coipel)
4. Identity Crisis (DC, 2004)
Not an event so much as a standalone limited series, Identity Crisis by bestselling novelist Brad Meltzer gets action on this list for a number of reasons. DC had been already been working on giving popular writers a crack at funnybook scripting, publishing work by the likes of Denise Mina and Jodi Picoult. Meltzer’s debut was the first major success, instantly prepping a bookstore bridge between bestsellers and graphic novels. The story had major repercussions in the DC Universe, bleeding into future events like The OMAC Project and Infinite Crisis. Most importantly, however, it’s a great read. Meltzer and artist Rags Morales craft a genuine murder mystery, not an easy task in a superhero universe, while successfully making these iconic DC characters seem more human and real than ever before. And you don’t need to have any prior knowledge about the DC pantheon to appreciate it.
Despite being a first-time comics writer, Meltzer is clearly no stranger to what works on the superhero stage. Don’t kill off main characters; do nasty stuff to the supporting cast. Human characters like Elongated Man’s wife, Atom’s ex-wife, and Robin’s parents are all caught in the crossfire as supervillains learn the secret identities of their superheroic nemeses. The story is unsettling and affecting on a human level, all while still moving at the speed and power appropriate for characters like The Man of Steel and The World’s Greatest Detective.
Meltzer continued to work with these characters on DC’s reboot of Justice League of America in 2006, but produced nothing as impressive as his debut series. Not being a legitimate event, Identity Crisis didn’t have any concurrent tie-ins or crossovers, but several subsequent storylines and events (like the infinitely convoluted Infinite Crisis and 52) are connected. Regardless, this book works best on its own.
Read: Identity Crisis (Meltzer and Morales)
3. Secret Wars (Marvel, 1984-1985)
Not exactly the cleverly scripted or elaborately plotted super-story some of these other events appear to be, Marvel’s twelve-issue Secret Wars limited series was simply a huge helping of exactly what every adolescent comic book fan wanted to see: all the good guys fight all the bad guys. Go.
The idea probably originated with the success of Marvel’s Contest of Champions, a three-issue limited series (widely regarded as the first comic book limited series) that was published a few years earlier in which two celestial beings draft superheroes as pawns in a cosmic chessmatch. Sticking with the formula, but upping the ante considerably, Marvel scribe Jim Shooter turned Secret Wars into the company’s first major multi-media event.
This time the cosmic manipulator is an omnipotent being referred to as The Beyonder, who plucks heroes and villains from Earth, throws them on his ready-made Battleworld planet, and promises anything the heart desires to whichever side slays its enemies. Hulk holds up a mountain, Dr. Doom is super-evil, Spider-Man’s new costume is super-cool, and everybody fights. It was awesome. The serialized format, without any crossovers or sped-up publishing schedules, ensured genuine edge-of-your-seat anticipation for the fanboy crowd. We had to wait an entire year to see who was going to win! Sure, the premise seems juvenile and unsophisticated by today’s event standards (which is a ridiculous thing to say, I realize, about a genre still featuring half-clothed flying women and Norse gods floating over Oklahoma), but it was, and still is, great four-color fun. And, as I mentioned, there was a bonus multi-media tie-in.
In elementary school I dutifully collected as many Star Wars and G.I. Joe figures as I could, hoping, praying for the day when my favorite comic book characters would get the action figure treatment. Apparently, the real impetus behind this event was Mattel Toys wanting in on the superhero market. Once the idea was pitched, and Mattel readied its Secret Wars line of toys, then editor-in-chief Jim Shooter realized that he would have to be the one to write this beast. Creators tended to get proprietary, apparently, when other writers messed with their characters. So the only way to not ruffle any feathers — or ruffle everyone’s feathers equally — is if the boss handled it himself.
I figured that they were all usually mad at me anyway…and I was the boss, the man designated by Marvel to be responsible for the characters — so nobody could really argue with what I did. Let me rephrase that — they could argue, and I’d listen, and sometimes agree with their points and make adjustments, but it was my call in the end. Besides, I was too big for any of them to take a swing at me. Secret Wars sold something like a million copies a month. To this day, people bring me issues to sign and tell me it was what started them reading comics. – Jim Shooter, 2004.
Of course I had no idea what was going on behind the scenes in those days. No internet, no comic conventions. I didn’t even bag-and-board these guys. My wrinkled, worn copies were thrown in the same drawer under my bed alongside my Secret Wars action figures.
Read: Secret Wars (Shooter, Mike Zeck, & Bob Layton)
2. Final Crisis (DC, 2008)
Readers of this blog are already probably aware of how I feel about Grant Morrison. He’s a brilliant storyteller who understands how to properly use the medium, and is genuinely in love with the superhero genre. It’s hard to tell new, interesting stories in these mythical universes, especially when dealing with characters who have been around for seventy years. But the great success of Morrison’s work, whether in Vertigo titles, or with the X-Men, or DC’s full stable of heroes, has been because of his ability to tap into our collective fantasies, like a great storyteller of antiquity, while challenging perceptions and expectations with new ideas and innovations.
The tagline for his Final Crisis series was “The Day Evil Won.” Nothing particularly new here: the bad guys would take over, and the good guys would rise up to turn the tide. What made this series so different? Like a cheesy sports movie in which the audience cheers the staged climax as if it was actually happening, you end up believing in the triumph of these modern gods. You revel in it. Because as great as Morrison is at scripting Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and every other DC character you have or haven’t heard of, he’s just as good as scripting a world in which Darkseid, the big scary Apokoliptian New God himself, transforms reality and comes damn close to dominating the minds and souls of everyone on Earth. You cheer because these made-up heroes, living embodiments of our greatest hopes and aspirations, save you from the Anti-Life Equation.
As great as the central series is, DC really screwed up Final Crisis with the amount of crossover and tie-in nonsense. A fifty-one issue series, Countdown, mined some of Morrison’s best ideas, like the death of the New Gods, and spilled them all over the place, disrupting DC fans’ beloved and sacred sense of continuity. Three tie-in series, Final Crisis: Legion of 3 Worlds, Final Crisis: Rogues’ Revenge, and Final Crisis: Revelations, all seem to be “Crisis” in name only, and only serve to muddy an already complicated tale. The tie-ins that actually seem to make sense are the books written by Morrison: Final Crisis: Superman Beyond (included in the collected edition of Final Crisis) and the issues of the regular Batman series that he had been scripting. All of the superfluous “inspired by” bullshit is evidence of DC’s inability to publish great stories as simple, disparate units. Some of their missteps in the recent “New 52” initiative are further proof of that fact.
I’ve always been more of a Marvel than DC guy, and growing up I had a very cursory understanding of the DCU. But somehow Morrison, and the excellent artists he collaborates with here, are still able to impress upon me the gravity and scope of this massive storyline and its huge cast of characters. Whether or not I knew who Anthro, The First Boy, was (and I didn’t), or what my working knowledge was of Jack Kirby’s New Gods (very little), I enjoyed the hell out of time bullets, Omega Sanctions, and Shazam-ified transformations. And I remembered why I love superheroes, from any universe.
Read: Final Crisis (Morrison, J.G. Jones, Carlos Pacheco, & Doug Mahnke) and Batman: R.I.P (Morrison & Tony Daniel)
1. Civil War (Marvel, 2006-2007)
Mark Millar had already written some of the best action movies ever stapled together with his stories in the “Ultimate” Marvel universe. In the summer of 2006, he was given the reins for a major game-changing event in the original Marvel universe.
After a televised superhero intervention-gone-bad results in the destruction of a school full of kids in Stamford, Connecticut, the public’s already growing distrust in these masked vigilantes explodes. Enter the Superhuman Registration Act, a thinly veiled allegory to The Patriot Act, and congressional demands that all superheroes reveal their identity to the government, becoming, in the process, licensed national defenders. Captain America leads the rebel faction, opposed by Iron Man and the conformists. Banners and posters in every comic shop in the country boldly asked, “Whose Side Are You On?” Although I was rooting for Cap and the dissidents, the main book was a carefully crafted Aristotelian dilemma, rooted in the fears and suspicions plaguing a post-9/11 America. As my brother, a staunch Iron Man supporter, was wont to point out: “If the smartest guys in the Marvel Universe, Tony Stark and Reed Richards, think the SRA makes sense, who are we to argue?” Grant Morrison, in his book Supergods, devotes the better part of an entire chapter to Millar and Steve McNiven’s “high-definition” page turner.
The whole series, and with it a fraught moment in American history, was condensed into one supercharged image demonstrating once again that the best way to tackle contemporary political issues in a superhero story was with bold metaphor and a good punch-up. – Supergods, p. 353
Marvel went crazy with the crossovers. And I ate them all up. Every week. One Wednesday, when copies of Civil War #5 were delayed by a day at shops all over town, I actually shelled out a ridiculous amount of money for the on-time variant cover edition, just so I could run home and see if the assault on Project 42 was successful. Not every crossover and tie-in was worth reading, but at least they all made sense. If DC can learn anything from how Marvel handles its families of comic titles, it’s how the chief “architects” for all of these plots and storylines seem to actually work together on creating something engaging, readable, and consequential.
Consequences abounded during my summer of Civil War. More of those pseudo-deaths (although a few of the deceased have, as of now, remained dead), broken hearts and broken allegiances, and a New World Order for the Marvel U. And like all of Millar’s action-movie-esque comics, the pacing, movement, and dialogue revealing these consequences and plot twists are pitch-perfect.
I even went so far as to purchase all of the trade paperback editions of all the crossovers and tie-ins, just so I’d have something in my lending library to disseminate among my friends who weren’t otherwise interested in comics. I wanted a readily accessible recreation of the Civil War summer; whose side are you on, buddy? Was Captain America disillusioned? Did Iron Man go too far? Outside the heat of the hype engine, however, and I can more calmly direct you to the following, much more streamlined, list of pertinent Civil War collections.
Read: The Road to Civil War (Brian Michael Bendis & Alex Maleev); Civil War (Millar & McNiven); New Avengers, Vol. 5: Civil War (Bendis & various); Amazing Spider-Man: Civil War (J. Michael Straczynski & Ron Garney)