Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Contest of Secret Crisis on Infinite Incursion Convergenceverseiversity

You know that thing you do when you make your action figures fight?

You *did*, I mean. Not *do*. You don't do it any more, obviously. You're an adult. I certainly don't.


Anyway, as kids, most of us have pitted our toys against one another in some kind of tiny death match. Heck, I grew up in the 80s when toys were specifically designed for just that.

He-man, GI Joe, Thundercats.... so many franchises designed for little boys (I'm not being sexist there, the toy companies were) to pit one team of "goodies" against a team of "baddies".

Anyway, comics writers and artists also had that urge and had their teams of goodies and baddies fighting in their stories going back to the Golden Age.

Not that that was new even then. Heroes teaming up for a mission goes back at least as far as Jason and the Argonauts.

Heracles! Perseus! Orpheus! Theseus! Together for the first time!

But never mind that now. In the 20th century our first sniff at a team up comes when National Periodicals (the company that would become DC Comics) collected together a bunch of their characters (Doctor Fate, Hour-Man, the Spectre and the Sandman) as well as a bunch of characters originally published by All-American Publications (the Atom, the Flash - Jay Garrick, Green Lantern - Alan Scott and Hawkman). Which makes it not only the first superhero team-up but also the first inter-company crossover.

By issue 8 Wonder Woman had joined them. As their secretary. I wish that was a joke.

The 1940s everybody!

New characters came and old ones left depending on popularity and/or publisher whims and other publishers started to do their own versions.

Marvel Mystery Comics 8 (June 1940) gives us the first crossover in Marvel's history. And it wasn't a team-up. It was a FIGHT!

Yep, the Submariner (Namor, King of Atlantis and retro-actively Marvel's first mutant character) picked a scrap with the Human Torch (the original, android one, not Johnny Storm) over human abuse of the sea. Or something.

(For those of you who only know Marvel characters through the movies, in the comics the Human Torch's body was used to make Vision)

After WWII ends, interest in superheroes starts to wane in a way modern-day Hollywood is seriously banking on never happening again. Most of the heroes from that "golden age" cease to be published as comics readers drift into other genres (honestly there as many types of comics stories as there are types of movie or novel today. More, pro'ly) and only a few survive.

Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman continue to be published. So does the original Captain Marvel, until legal action puts the publishers out of business. But that is a story for another time. Then, in time, superheroes start to become popular again and DC starts the "silver age" with new versions of their characters. Updated characters called Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman and others appear, with different civilian names and new origin stories based in science fiction rather than mysticism.

Arguably the most significant of these heroes is Barry Allen. A police scientist who gains incredible speed when doused in chemicals and struck by lightning (comics everybody!) he chooses to fight baddies as the Flash because he grew up reading the comic book adventures of Jay Garrick, the original Flash.

Eventually all these new heroes (and the extant ones) team up in a brand new Justice League to fight a giant starfish. From space.


The team up first happened in The Brave and the Bold 28 (Feb/Mar 1960) as a way of testing the concept out before DC launched Justice League of America issue 1 in the following October. The USA had grown pretty cocky about itself being the best country in the world by then so adding "of America" to everything was de rigueur.

Meanwhile, over at Marvel, Stan Lee was busy re-inventing the superhero genre along with Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and others, starting with creating the Fantastic Four and going on to making an entire universe. A bunch of new characters got bundled together in a new team book called The Avengers. You won't have heard of them. Here's Avengers 1 from 1963.

There they are! Loki, god of mischief being battled by Thor, Hulk, Iron Man and.... Ant Man. Yep, Ant Man. Coming soon to a cinema near you. Appearing but not named: The Wasp.

The success of Marvel forces DC to up its game in the 60s, under the stewardship of Julius Schwartz, and, also in 1963, the Justice League meet their forebears in the Justice Society.

See, we've found out by this point that the Golden Age DC heroes exist in a parallel universe to the then-current heroes (it's complicated and I'll come back to it another time) and when baddies find out about it too it means it's time for a team-up team-up!

This turns out to be so popular that it becomes an annual event; a problem (or "Crisis") arises that means two (or more) teams of heroes from two (or more) worlds cross dimensional barriers to help each other. And when DC acquire rights to other publishing house's characters or a writer creates new realities they can all be added to the growing list of universes. There's Earth X, home of Quality Comics' Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters. Earth S, home of Fawcett Comics' Captain Marvel and the Marvel Family. Earth C, home of Captain Carrot and the Amazing Zoo Crew (again: a story for another time).

Then, in 1982 the other comics universe gave us Marvel Super Heroes Contest of Champions, a three-issue miniseries which saw heroes from all over the Marvel Earth pitted against each other because of a wager between seemingly omnipotent cosmic beings. Now Marvel's attitude to characters had always been much more diverse and nation-spanning than DC's but even then writer Mark Gruenwald and artists John Romita Jr and Bob Layton had to create a bunch of new heroes from other countries. Hence we got Ireland's Shamrock, Germany's Blitzkrieg and China's Collective Man among others, proving that diversity does not necessarily avoid stereotypes.

In an age before MMORPGs the notion of seeing loads of different super-powered characters smack down was fun and exciting and leads us into one of the touchstones of Marvel's history: Secret Wars.

Ah, Secret Wars. I confess to having a strong personal interest in this frankly rubbish 12 issue mini-series from 1984. See, it was also published in by Marvel UK and widely distributed with UK-only back-up strips like Zoids and was the first comic I collected. Sure, I'd gathered loads of Beanos and Busters and even the odd other Marvel UK title but this was an on-going story I got into at chapter one and excitedly waited for the next chapter. These were the versions of the Marvel heroes I first learned. For me Captain Marvel was a woman with a huge afro and Iron Man was black.

That panel still makes me smile.

Anyway, the story goes that Mattel, the toy company, approached Marvel with a view to producing a range of toys action figures based on their characters and wanted a tie-in comic to help the sales. And it had to be called Secret Wars. Cos they'd done some market research and little boys in 1984 responded to the words "Secret" and "War". And that's how stories get written.

I still have my Doctor Octopus and Doctor Doom toys, bought from Toy and Hobby in Manchester. I made Doctor Doom a cape out of paper because it felt wrong that his toy didn't have one. Even though his cape gets burnt off early in the story. I suspect that was mandated by Mattel because the cape would have been difficult to mass-produce.

Secret Wars is a pretty simple story: Another omnipotent being called the Beyonder takes a load of toyetic heroes and villains from Earth then creates a patchwork planet for them to live and fight on, promising the winner of the fight their heart's desire.

It's really dumb, just like Contest of Champions, but holds a certain charm to it. It also sees the debut of Spider-Man's black costume (I suspect to provide Mattel with a variant action figure) which would grow up to be Venom.

Meanwhile Marvel's Distinguished Competition, tired of being second best, wanted comics fans to take them seriously and attract new readers. Their cluster of parallel Earths made their stories confusing (try explaining Power Girl or Huntress to a non-fan) and their child-friendly history meant they had many canonical characters and stories that were deemed ridiculous (Streaky the Supercat anyone? Batmite? No complaints from me, I love 'em but 80s comics fans sneered at that stuff).

So a bold editorial decision was made and DC's most ambitious project was begun: Crisis on Infinite Earths.

Worlds will live! Worlds will die! And nothing will be the same! And they meant it. 1985's 12 issue miniseries wiped out all of the continuity that had built up since 1938 as DC shook their Etch-a-Sketch and started again. It's the opposite of Secret Wars in that it's not dumb, it's serious and grown-up and not fun.

Pretty much every DC character ever got involved in the fight to save all reality from yet another omnipotent being. And, surprisingly, they lost. The Flash (Barry Allen) died. Supergirl died and then was wiped from existence as though she had never been. And a new, streamlined single universe was born out of the death of the multiverse. All the characters DC owned now shared one, crowded Earth and existed in one timeline. And caused continuity headaches for decades.

From that point on it was the norm that once a year all the heroes in the Marvel or DC universe would have to team up over the summer to defeat the current Big Bad, whatever it may be. Some of them were good (Legends, The Infinity Gauntlet) some were bad (Bloodlines, Onslaught) but they were a good way to find the current state-of-play in either universe. For over ten years the only Marvel comics I bought were the summer crossovers, just so I could keep up to date on who was who.

The other publishers, like Image and Valiant, also had their crossovers too and the Big Two also arranged for a couple of major mash-ups between them.

1996's DC Vs Marvel Comics saw a fun crossover twixt the two rivals ruined by allowing the public to vote on the outcome of the individual battles.

I mean there is NO WAY Wolverine could beat Lobo.

The most fun thing about it was the range of "Amalgam Comics" that were published in its wake, squishing together from both universes in various ways. So we got characters like "Super Soldier" (Superman crossed with Captain America) "Dark Claw" (Batman crossed with Wolverine) and the horribly contrived "Thorion of the New Asgods".

The idea was popular enough that they came round for another go at it a year later.

Much better, however, is JLA/Avengers by Kurt Busiek and George Perez.

Pulling from story threads and character histories from both publishers it is a beautifully crafted love letter to both worlds and succeeds in showing just how the two are different but equal. It's one of those stories you could read as a newcomer to comics, only knowing characters from movies and TV and if you are a die-hard fan who has been reading comics for fifty years. It's so rich in detail and tiny in-jokes.

All of which brings us to 2015, a year which started with two major cross-universe events from either publisher (as well as The Valiant at a third). At Marvel we had Spider-Verse, a super-fun Spider-man event presided over by Dan Slott which promised "Every Spider-man Ever!" and boy, did it deliver. Every possible version of Spidey you could think of and loads you couldn't were there. Spidey from the 60s cartoon or the 80s cartoon, from the newspaper strip, from the Twinkies ads, from the awesome 70s live-action Japanese TV series.... you name it. There was one that "looked like that guy from Seabiscuit".

(Incidentally, if you are unaware of Supaidaman, give it a go, it's on the YouTubes)

DC meanwhile continues to let Grant Morrison do pretty much whatever he wants with their characters (Highfather bless 'em for that) and published the incredible Multiversity, a series of seemingly unconnected one-shots, topped and tailed by story issues. It featured universes that could only contact each other through the medium of comic books (like Barry Allen reading the Flash way back in the Silver Age) and Ultra Comics, a hero who actually WAS the comic you were reading. As an exercise in styles, it was Morrison showing off and he deserves to. One issue was an attempt to outdo Alan Moore by writing a Watchmen-dense story in a single issue, featuring the Charlton Comics characters Moore originally wanted to use.

All these roads have lead us to this year's crossover events. And both Marvel and DC have gone big. Really big.

At DC this week sees the end of their "Convergence" crossover where they brought back loads of characters from their multiverse. See, it seems that before they were wiped from existence certain cities within the alternate universes were saved by Brainiac. Brainiac is a Superman villain who's been around since the Silver Age. He's a very powerful alien with a serious hoarding problem and a pet space monkey. They tend not to mention the space monkey any more. Which is a shame.

Anyway, Brainiac has kept all these cities together on a single planet where his caretaker, Telos, has decided to make them all fight (there we go again) to decide who is best and therefore deserves to continue existing.

Meanwhile (I don't think I've ever used the word "meanwhile" so often in any one thing I've ever written) over at the Marvelous Competition a story that has been brewing for a few years now in The Avengers is finally coming to a head. In the regular Marvel universe (Earth 616) the heroes have been dealing with bits of other universes popping up out of nowhere, possibly as a result of characters time-travelling too much. During the Age of Ultron story (which has very little to do with this year's blockbuster movie of similar name) messing with the temporal stream caused a big wibbly swirly thing alert whereby ominous portents appeared, Including Angela, a character created by Neil Gaiman for Image Comics' Spawn. Which was confusing.

She's now a member of the Guardians of the Galaxy. You know them, right? It's a weird world where I don't have to explain who the Guardians of the Galaxy are. So, the "incursions" as they are known have been getting worse and whole universes started smashing together and wiping each other out.

This kept on happening until only two universes remained: the regular 616 Marvel universe and the Ultimate Marvel universe, created in 2000 as a way of bringing in new readers scared of continuity with brand new Spider-man and X-Men stories. That universe's version of the Avengers was called the Ultimates and featured a version of Nick Fury designed to look like Samuel L Jackson, which was a cool, funny idea.

So, in the current crossover, also called "Secret Wars" we saw two universes-worth of heroes fighting to save their reality.... And.... They lost. The final page of issue 1 was an obituary.

A new Battleworld arrives in its place, a patchwork planet made up of countries based around their multiverse. There's a Marvel Zombies zone, a Planet Hulk zone, even a Spider-Verse zone. Both these publishers' major crossover event are, this year, eerily similar.

There we have it. The current state-of-play is that DC has brought its multiverse back at the same time that Marvel has wiped out its own. What could it all mean?

I have speculated that this could be the perfect time for both universes to mesh together as one. DC has been hoovering up other universes and incorporating them into their own for decades. What if Disney had secretly bought DC and planned on rolling out a new one-world comics line? I mean, it hasn't, but that would be an amazing thing to pull off, wouldn't it? And DC *have* just closed their New York offices.... Nah. Couldn't be.