Comics Features

What Makes a Good Crossover?

Written by Ryan Fitzmartin

*Many spoilers for various comic events follow*

The crossover event is a time-honored media device. They are much-advertised, much-hyped, long-awaited events of comics, television, novels, and now sometimes film. Crossovers have been going on since the golden age, with the original Human Torch fighting Namor in Marvel Mystery Comics. Comic companies are going berserk for crossovers right now, with Convergence, Secret Wars, and Swords of Sorrow all hitting shelves. We’re going to take a look at some major crossovers, both successes and disappointments, throughout nerd history.

Let us start with the classic 1960s Batman television show. Adam West and Burt Ward, crusaders against crime, appeared as Batman and Robin in this delightfully campy and iconic action-comedy, famous for its ludicrous dialogue, wacky theme song, and absurd sound effects. Less well-remembered, was the 60s Green Hornet tv show, best known now for featuring Bruce Lee as the Green Hornet’s sidekick Kato. The Green Hornet, played by Van Williams, and Kato appear in the two-part Batman episode “A Piece of the Action”. The crossover episode is fun as the heroes fight to take down a pink stamp stealing ring (It was a strange show).

The writers use the Green Hornet’s public persona as a criminal well as Batman clashes with him throughout the episode. The fights don’t work, though, because the audience is expected to believe Bruce Lee’s Kato, who leaps through the air performing jump-kicks and swift punches like a trained fighter, is somehow threatened by Burt Ward’s Robin. This is a clear foul that comes up in the crossover genre. Green Hornet and Kato just seem more competent compared to Batman and Robin. The Hornet and Kato sneak out at night, investigating gangs, while Batman chats up Commissioner Gordon. Overall, the Hornet and Kato just look cooler.

The episode’s saving grace maximizes the potential of a crossover, though, as the Hornet’s alter ego, Britt Reid, meets Bruce Wayne. The two are explained as longtime rivals, and they discuss, neither aware of the other’s secret identity, whether Batman will beat Green Hornet. The scene is probably the only well-written instance in all of Batman‘s run, and gets great mileage out of the idea of secret identities. That scene makes more out of the idea of having two top-dog heroes going head-to-head than any scene with costumes does.

Lets jump forward a few decades to Doomsday and examine a more serious event. This story was one of the first comics events I ever read, and I think it stands as one of the best. In Doomsday, the titular super-powered juggernaut rampages across America before finally fighting and killing Superman in Metropolis. This entire arc is part of a great event because it uses its various heroes to build a threat. When Doomsday is first unleashed on the world, he beats up the Justice League with one hand tied behind his back. The writers skillfully use minor heroes to establish the danger for the showdown between Doomsday and Superman. It also lends credibility to the eventual death of Superman, because after beating up the Justice League and other heroes, the readers know Doomsday really is that powerful. Importantly, after Superman died, DC followed up with multiple crossovers, detailing the ramifications of the initial event. The important lesson gained from Doomsday is that when an event revolves around a big bad, writers really have to use the various heroes in the right way to establish a threat.

On the opposite side of the spectrum from Doomsday is the rather dull Marvel event Siegewhich stands to me as a low point in comic events. Siege is intended to cap off four years of Marvel storytelling, with the shadows of Dark Reign and Civil War finally being thrown off. As such, Siege is a company-wide event, involving many different characters, ranging from Spider-Man to Thor to the X-Men. Like DoomsdaySiege features heroes banding together to stop a powerful enemy; in this case, it’s Norman Osborn’s Army.

Siege opens with Osborn and Loki tricking Asgardian Volstagg into blowing up a football stadium, which feels callous, and is barely mentioned ever again. The comic fails at doing what Doomsday succeeds at. Siege takes place over a short period of time and fails to build its events. All the heroes and all the villains kind of fight at once, in one location, with the action occasionally cutting to other places. There isn’t really any build, the siege just kind of…happens. At one point, the extremely dangerous villain the Void, is released, but is rapidly defeated.

In the end, Siege lacks build and doesn’t really involve its various characters in an exciting way. Overall, Siege feels like a giant, company-wide, deus ex machina, meant to restore order. It barely serves any purpose as a crossover in and of itself. Doomsday makes it clear that a crossover centered mainly around action can work dramatically, but Siege just doesn’t have it. The story doesn’t progress,

For the final comic crossover event, I’m going to look at Fear ItselfFear Itself, like most modern crossovers, features a main event and various side stories. It is generally a self-contained story, having some repercussions, but not really shaking the comic world in the manner of Civil War or Crisis on Infinite Earths. Its more of a one-off event, like say, Maximum CarnageFear Itself was a large event, featuring nearly every one of Marvel’s earthbound heroes. In this story, the Red Skull’s daughter summons a series of Asgardian hammers of fear to Earth, and they end up in the hands of various heroes and villains, transforming them into terrifying Asgardian gods of fear. Powerful marvel characters like the Hulk, the Thing, Juggernaut and Attuma are empowered even further by the hammers, and unleashed on the world. This is a terrific premise for a crossover for multiple reasons. The premise involves a merging of both Thor and Captain America villains, which provides a serious enough threat for the whole world to be threatened. Thor’s hammer is known to Marvel readers as an extremely powerful object, and imbuing characters like the Hulk and the Thing and the Red Skull with that power is inherently threatening. To top this threat off, the Red Skull has an armored Nazi army which he sends to attack Washington D.C. and New York.

What works best about Fear Itself, is how dark it gets. A good crossover has magnitude, and pushes its heroes to limits they wouldn’t be pushed to in normal times. In this tale, the gathered champions of Earth are pushed very far indeed. As the story progresses, Bucky Barnes is killed, New York City is evacuated, the entire population of Paris is turned to stone, and Odin the All-Father plans to destroy Earth in order to protect the rest of the universe. Writer Matt Fraction uses the violent and devastating events to create great dramatic character moments. Memorable scenes include Spider-Man leaving the battle in order to see his aunt, Captain America giving up hope and freaking out at Odin, and finally, Tony Stark taking a drink. These moments are dark and desperate, and lead to a rousing finale where the heroes, with newly forged Asgardian weapons, confront the Red Skull in a final battle.

Fear Itself has a terrific arc, and combines all its characters in an important manner. It never feels like anyone is extraneous, or unnecessary, and at the end, the heroic victory is sweeter because it feels hard-won. By skillfully using so many different elements of the Marvel universe well, Matt Fraction convincingly builds an apocalypse. By virtue of its scale, a crossover has the ability to make you feel like the threat is so large that the heroes might actually lose. Fear Itself does that perfectly, and any writer planning a crossover in the future should take note.

The story of the crossover has to use the varied characters in a way that builds an interesting and special event. The fun of the Batman crossover is how Britt Reid and Bruce Wayne play off each other, and the threat is that one might upstage the other. Doomsday is terrific because the story builds Doomsday to be a terrifying and believable threat that only Superman could stop. Similarly, Fear Itself gains its drama by setting up a threat that only the combined power of many Marvel heroes could stop. Siege never really gets off the ground because it doesn’t feel special. Its fails to convincingly create an exciting foe or any sense of danger.

In my opinion, the key to building a crossover is making it seem like the crossover is really needed; like the heroes HAD to team up in order to stop a serious threat. Otherwise, ongoing stories are interrupted and readers are bored, and nobody wants that.

Are there any particular crossover events that you feel were done well? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter!

About the author

Ryan Fitzmartin