(DCnU Continuity Series: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5)
This article is the fourth in a series analyzing a concept that has been one of the major underpinnings of comic books since Stan and Jack decided to have each series in their new line of Marvel Comics build on the others before. Here, I'm going to transition from the continuity craziness of the nineties...to the continuity craziness of the 2000s. And you'll see special attention paid to crossover events, a throughline from the last few entries. We're running a bit long, so within the next few days I promise to bring it all home with how DC Comics' "New 52" figures into the mix.
Before the sixties, comics stories only rarely referenced each other, but with a new breed of comic came a new breed of comics fan interested in seeing how disparate elements in the universe connected. While Marvel developed their own, at first tightly-knit continuity, DC experimented with alternate realities across which their adventures took place. In the seventies, when comics' direct market took shape, the shared universe concepts especially took root as did a more fan-centric atmosphere. This was the age of the Omniverse fanzine and the Superman Vs. The Amazing Spider-Man tabloid-size crossover. The crossovers between companies stopped in the eighties, with companies finding value in having their own characters all team-up in line-wide events that haven't stopped to this day. In Crisis on Infinite Earths DC sought to do away with their Multiverse concept in favor of a streamlined, more "realistic" lineup, but only created more problems that would plague them for decades.
In the nineties, artists left the Big Two companies to flex their creative freedoms, largely doing so by inventing their own knockoffs of the characters they'd abandoned. Driven by a whole new breed of fans during the speculator boom, the cross-company events began anew with the likes of Deathmate and DC Vs. Marvel, but then the market crashed. That which survived turned to desperate measures, furthering the line-wide events in hopes that a high-selling event would lift circulation of the lowest-selling titles. There were "zero" issues, "minus 1" issues, even "one million" issues, and more first issues than ever before. (Don't forget the "Alphas." the "Omegas," the 1/2 issues...am I missing any?) Companies whose titles had been ongoing for twenty or thirty years suddenly gave the order to renew, to reinvigorate, to slash and burn and start anew! Those expatriate creators who stormed away were drafted back to companies they left, signed to year-long contracts some couldn't even finish. Circulation plummeted but the companies kept plugging, eventually finding the bottom and climbing back to the surface...only to find themselves incapable of avoiding the same mistakes that led them down the road in the first place.
But, I'm getting way ahead.
The nineties were the first major era of "continuity porn," as I discussed last time. It was the era where, if you broke it down day by day, Mary Jane Watson-Parker was pregnant for over a year, "Marvel-Time," during the Spider-Man Clone Saga (and closer to two years in the real world). It was the era where the ongoing narrative ground to a screeching halt in Avengers Forever for two whole issues while the writers regaled us with "The Secret History of the Avengers" and "Reflections of the Conqueror." It was the era when X-Men editors decided to pick a mid-eighties concept, "The Twelve," which was never really developed, and construct an entire new event around it just because.
Then, kaboom. The event cycles petered out, the last from DC being "Our Worlds At War" and from Marvel, "Maximum Security." Under direction of new editor-in-chief Joe Quesada and president Bill Jemas, Marvel took a "back to basics" approach that saw them eliminate virtually all crossovers for a few years. They also imposed a "dead is dead" rule where no older characters would be resurrected. Graphic novel collections (also called "trade paperbacks") exploded during this era, going hand-in-hand with so-called "decompressed storytelling," wherein fans argued writers had largely abandoned writing single-issue stories in favor of "writing for the trade."
Most noteworthy to continuity enthusiasts was the development of the Ultimate Marvel Universe in 2000. Primarily starring new versions of Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four and the Avengers, its raison d'etre was to introduce a new generation of fans to comics' greatest icons, as Jemas saw the original characters as having too much history for the average person to easily start reading. Ultimate Marvel started and remained a small line, but its influence was large, its success leading to the "continuity light" angle the rest of the Marvel line would soon share. It also began a continuity schism of sorts in that Marvel was now actively telling stories about two current continuities, unlike previous flirtations with alternate product lines like the New Universe, 2099, and various kid-friendly "Marvel Universe" anthologies.
It was only after Brian Michael Bendis' success on Ultimate Spider-Man and Mark Millar's success on The Ultimates that J. Michael Straczynski took up residence on Amazing Spider-Man, Bruce Jones jumped aboard The Incredible Hulk, and Geoff Johns (yes, the same continuity enthusiast as in the last section) went wild with The Avengers. Four- and six-part storylines became de rigeur so they could easily be collected in graphic novels.
Jemas and Quesada's approach was hugely successful. With no-overprint rules, circulation rose. Without linkage to several other titles every month, circulation rose as continuity came untangled. They said they'd focus on the characters, but they'd also aim for the sky. Some titles like X-Force were radically changed for the better; some, like Thunderbolts, for the worse. Some books were really, truly great, while others couldn't be called more than an interesting experiment.
Then, after Jemas and Quesada brought back the focus on the characters, you knew what would come next.
Crossovers. Lots and lots and lots of crossovers.
It was like Marvel was making up for lost time, how they started coming up with new events predicated on the new continuity. Avengers Disassembled was the first domino to fall, a series-within-a-series by Brian Michael Bendis and David Finch, which in turn begat House of M, a miniseries tied into not just Avengers but also the X-Men franchise, newly re-energized by Joss Whedon. These weren't just stories: they were events, crossovers like in the eighties, version 2.0. Not only did Marvel involve issues of other series in the events, but starting with House of M they also created other miniseries just to tell tertiary tales without interrupting the main series' ongoing storylines.
It was a sharp turn away from the Marvel of the previous few years, where all of the titles virtually kept to themselves. The walls came tumbling down, and suddenly it made sense to Quesada that everyone should cease being social wallflowers, play nice, get together for a war every now and then. I don't think it's a coincidence that the drastic shift took place in mid-2004, shortly after president Bill Jemas left the company due to disagreements with staff including Quesada and Ike Perlmutter, then VP of Marvel's board of directors.
DC jumped on the crossover bandwagon again in 2005 after going minor-league in the interim with stories like "Bruce Wayne: Fugitive" and, ahem, "Hush." (I know I'm going to get it for calling "Hush" "minor-league.") They revived the "Crisis" brand in 2004 with Brad Meltzer and Rags Morales' Identity Crisis, a seven-issue event. Going bigger and badder than their brethren down the street, new VP - executive editor Dan DiDio and Geoff Johns then plotted out Infinite Crisis, a thematic sequel to Crisis on Infinite Earths that would begin in the Countdown to Infinite Crisis one-shot and continue through four six-issue miniseries and a few issues of other titles before culminating in the main event series. (Again, the series was seven issues in length. Seems like a focus group-tested number, right?) Whereas Marvel's events did play loosely with some older aspects of continuity, Infinite Crisis embraced the older continuity wholeheartedly under the pen of Geoff Johns.
The event culture of the 2000s ramped up in the wake of Infinite Crisis, with 52, a weekly series, spinning off from the former and focusing on a group of new and old heroes during a "missing year" cleverly inserted during the larger event. For a few months, DC emblazoned a "One Year Later" logo on all its main titles. Once 52 finished, another weekly series began, counting down to yet another event: Grant Morrison's Final Crisis (no, really), an ode to Jack Kirby's "Fourth World" saga of the seventies. Meanwhile, they started another event with Green Lantern: Rebirth, which led a few years later to a larger event, The Sinestro Corps War, that in turn led to the next major DC event, Blackest Night. Both Final Crisis and Blackest Night had additional crossovers in either special one-shots or limited series, again, not to disrupt the ongoing regular series. 52 even had a special "spinoff" title during its fiftieth week in World War III. And Morrison's Final Crisis also resurrected Barry Allen, the Silver Age Flash, leading to The Flash: Rebirth, a new Flash series, and ultimately, Flashpoint.
Not to be outdone, Marvel kept trucking past House of M with a looser "umbrella" event, "Decimation," exploring the main series' aftermath. In between various other series, Bendis became a major force in establishing the company's overall continuity, writing or contributing to crossovers including Secret War, Secret Invasion, "Dark Reign," "The Heroic Age," and Siege. The Ultimates' Mark Millar wrote Civil War in between, while Greg Pak contributed to World War Hulk and Chaos War. Meanwhile writers Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning perpetuated event after event in the cosmic side of the Marvel Universe in Annihilation, Annihilation: Conquest, War of Kings, Realm of Kings, and Thanos Imperative. The X-Men went through events like they went through dirty laundry, with Endangered Species followed by Messiah Complex, Messiah War, Second Coming and beaucoup others.
And when traditional events couldn't "do it" anymore, Marvel turned to headlines, beginning most famously with the short-lived death of Captain America in the aftermath of Civil War. Earlier this year, writer Jonathan Hickman drew attention to the Fantastic Four with the death of Johnny Storm, Marvel's second-generation Human Torch. And a few short weeks ago, Bendis wrote the death of Spider-Man (albeit his Ultimate Marvel version) and he is credited as chief creator of Miles Morales, the new Spider-Man (again of the Ultimate Marvel Universe).
Anyone will tell you, a series of "events" such as these are no substitute for good, solid storytelling. (Which isn't to say that there aren't some good, solid stories being told against the backdrop of said events. You may have to look hard, but they're there.) At some point, when every series tries to have a "special event" then nothing is special and everything is the same. That's why Marvel has been reaching for mainstream news exposure. Like a junkie, they need to try bigger and bigger things to achieve the same "kick."
What's more, they appear to be convinced that every single book in their line must inevitably feed back to another, to demonstrate that they have continuity between their titles, that they all "matter," and moreover, that a reader's experience may be enriched by picking up as many times as he can. What occurs to me is that this view, shared by editor-in-chief Axel Alonso, is so diametrically opposed to the way Quesada worked with Jemas, it's laughable. The events all blur into each other, coordinated for maximum sales potential. Marvel almost seems afraid to let a series stand on its own without being under some event umbrella of some kind that's designed specifically to help launch a whole group of series. Write some stories in a couple of major series that lead into one big event, hype the hell out of said event, release a bunch of crossovers in existing series or in new miniseries, then spin off or relaunch several series out of the end of the event, preferably under some new event umbrella. Lather, rinse, repeat.
It never occurs to the powers-that-be that stories or characters might be able to stand on their own without constantly being a part of some larger event or continuity. You know, like it was when Quesada and Jemas started working together. When they invented Ultimate Marvel. When they diversified the Marvel line. When they experimented, and ended up lifting Marvel out of the doldrums in the early 2000s.
When everything's an event, nothing is an event. When the whole Marvel or DC line becomes an endless series of events, nothing's noteworthy. And something's gotta give.
And that, my friends, pushes us inexorably toward Flashpoint and "The New 52."
(DCnU Continuity Series: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5)