THE POST-CRISIS EVENT HORIZON: OSTRANDER, ENGLEHART & GIFFEN
It may be difficult for some of us to remember a time when semi-annual "Event" comics weren't the norm in the mainstream superhero world, but before "Crisis on Infinite Earths," the concept of a line-wide crossover was practically non-existent. Sure, you had the JLA bopping around with pals from parallel worlds and you had Captain Marvel fighting the assembled Monster Society and you had Spider-Man swing by the Baxter Building every once in a while, but Marv Wolfman and George Perez's twelve issue celebration/course-correction of the DCU begat something that comic book readers have lived with ever since: the idea that once every year or two, some series will tie into everything else and it will star all your favorite characters and nothing will ever be the same again.
Unless another series follows up with a complete reversal of everything in the first series.
But with "Flashpoint" and "Fear Itself" coming up and with nostalgia in the rear-view mirror, Robot 6 and Spinoff Online's own Graeme McMillan kicked off an email discussion on that holy trinity of post-Crisis event books. "Legends," "Millennium," and "Invasion!" The three comic book series that shaped the lives of young Tim and young Graeme and pointed a way for event comics ever since.
Actually, it was all Graeme's idea...
Tim Callahan: So, Graeme McMillan, when I put out the call for more collaborators for "Daredevil Dialogue"-style discussions on decidedly non-Daredevil books, you were not only one of the first respondents, but you suggested something near and dear to my heart: the post-"Crisis" DC event comics of the 1980s. Why did you want to talk about "Legends," "Millennium" and "Invasion!" so much? And do you live inside my head full time or just part time? If not, how do you know what I'm interested in at exactly the right moment?
Graeme McMillan: Clearly, I know what you're interested in at exactly the right moment because my network of spy cameras inside your house is working perfectly. That and I have the feeling we may have shared a bonding moment about our love for Steve Englehart on Twitter at some point and we're similar ages -- I think? I'm late-mid-thirties, which is what I call not wanting to say "36 years old" these days -- and therefore probably had some similar reading experiences in our misbegotten youths. Why "Legends," "Millennium" and "Invasion!?" In part because I was re-reading them when you put out the call, in part because they're massively important to me as a superhero reader ("Legends" was my first real DC series, the one that got me interested in the Flash and the Justice League and Jack Kirby's Fourth World, while "Millennium" remains my favorite superhero crossover series ever, even twenty years later) and also...they're just odd, odd reads, especially when you compare them to what superhero crossover events have become. Each series approaches the idea differently, and somewhere amongst the three approaches is the birthplace of everything that followed. These are the comics we have to blame for the way superhero comics are today and they don't get the credit for it.
Or maybe that should be the blame.
Had you been through "Crisis On Infinite Earths" before reading these? Was the idea of crossover series old hat for you by the time these came out?
I am a couple of years older than you, but "Legends" was definitely my first full-on Event experience and it came out just as I was turning from a 13-year-old who buys comics at the grocery store once in a while to a 14-year-old who buys comics from the recently discovered direct market every single week.
I had some exposure to "Crisis." I picked up that issue where Supergirl dies and I think issues #10 and #11 (maybe #12, but a part of me thinks I didn't actually ever find out the end until years later). But, yeah, "Legends" was where I started reading DC books regularly and while it didn't introduce me to the Kirby New Gods villains (Darkseid and company were part of the "Super Powers: Galactic Guardians" cartoon that came out, with Kenner toys, right before "Legends," if I remember correctly), it certainly did a good job selling me on the DCU as a place to put down stakes. And I've been on the grounds ever since.
I have not read "Legends" since 1986 and it was an odd experience rereading it this week. So many of the images have been burned in my memory the way that only formative comic book experiences can be and I was struck by the simplicity of the narrative (though I remember being disappointed, even at the time, that it was mostly set-up for a bunch of new series that launched after it ended, even if those series turned out to be pretty great, mostly) and I was disarmed by a few of its strange moments.
Like the time when Batman totally abandons Jason Todd to an angry mob.
Like the time Jim Shooter shows up and rants about how awesome he is.
Like the time the "legendary" heroes of the DCU don't even save the day in the end. Instead it's little munchkins who crawl out from beneath the legs of the angry mob with words of wisdom.
And like the time that "Legends" is pretty much the same starting premise as "Civil War," right down to the tragedy caused by hero error and the public backlash, but in the DCU, it's Darkseid and the Phantom Stranger playing a cosmic game of with the heroes and in the Marvel Universe it turned out that some heroes were just assholes.
GM: The Jim Shooter moment really is spectacular, isn't it? Especially when you realize that he's wearing the same outfit as Ken Connell did in Star Brand (except blue instead of brown) and has a Star Brand-esque power. And, of course, he loses to a Green Lantern, which makes sense considering how much of Star Brand was a direct Green Lantern left. I remember realizing that at one point on re-reading and thinking, "Wait, was that...No, it can't have been. Was it?" I have no idea if that's Byrne working out his Shooter anger, or something that was called for in the script originally or not.
"Legends" -- and to a lesser extent, "Millennium" -- is very much a series at the core of a crossover event instead of a story in and of itself; there isn't really enough of a throughline in the series itself to provide a satisfying reading experience, which is especially odd considering that its central characters aren't really wandering off to any other series; Captain Marvel, the Suicide Squad, the Flash, Darkseid, all of them were pretty much only appearing in this series at the time and yet they only make short appearances in amongst all the set-up for crossovers elsewhere (Some of which are laughably transparent; my favorite is when the Phantom Stranger says something along the lines of "Yes, Darkseid, you may have destroyed the legends on Earth -- But what about inside it, so that we can tie our Warlord book into this event?" and Darkseid responds with "Servant, go and mess with that meaningless crossover!"). It's a shame, because there's definitely potential for a story in here -- potential that was, surprisingly to me, better realized in "Civil War," as much as I disliked that event -- but it almost seems as if no-one working on "Legends" really cared about the plot as anything other than McGuffin for tie-ins.
Did you read any of the tie-ins at the time? Isn't it odd that so many of them didn't really have anything to do with the core concepts behind this series? The Justice League issues, for example, were pretty much divorced from the "outlawing of superheroes" idea altogether, which makes their double-page entrance in the first issue -- and subsequent immediate disappearance after about two pages of the second -- even more funny, in retrospect (Also, their double-page first appearance, with everyone announcing their names while standing proudly towards the reader? It's so wonderfully old-fashioned and shameless, I kind of love it. Just think: This was published after The Dark Knight Returns. And they were still doing this kind of thing!). With heroes that useless, no wonder the kids have to save the day in the end. That end is pretty spectacular, too. Haven't the mindless mob killed people by that point? Why would Godfrey slapping a kid snap them all out of it?
And while I'm asking questions I shouldn't: Robin is left to be attacked by a mob, taken to a hospital where he's taken out of his costume, visited by Bruce Wayne, who calls him "Jason," and then leaves the hospital dressed as Robin. Couldn't anyone put together the Bruce Wayne is Batman connection thanks to that?!?
Ha! Yeah, I guess everyone missed the obvious Batman/Bruce Wayne connection after being whipped into a Glenn Beck-style frenzy by Glorious Godfrey.
The Jim Shooter cameo even references a "New Universe," so the dialogue is as mocking of the man as the visuals, but my understanding is that it had something to do with Byrne's annoyance that "Fantastic Four" was taken away from him once he began working on "Superman" at DC. He was under the impression that he could do both, but Marvel said, "not so much."
I'm clearly paraphrasing and I may be making the whole thing up, but it sounds right.
I do think "Legends" works as a satisfying whole (except the deus ex little-kid-ina) because, as you said, the tie-ins weren't necessarily even part of the overall story and because it is so tightly knit as a thematic whole. There's not much plot to "Legends," but it keeps spiraling back to the idea of the DCU filled with these Legendary characters and how important they are to the populace and it's something that Darkseid can't understand.
Of course, it takes the children to show the real impact of these legendary heroes, because the adults are too easily swayed by the trends of the time to see the purity and innocence that is so obvious to the youngsters.
I suppose than it's not surprising this is a post-Dark Knight series, since it's actually an allegory for power of innocence in the age of darkness. If those little kids only knew what they were in for! As symbols of the hopeful power of old-fashioned heroism, the children remind us that, "Comics are Just for Kids Anymore," as the older crowd is taken in by the sex and violence inherent in the tainted media. If those kids only knew that they were the generation who would come of age in the 1990s, perhaps they wouldn't have been so optimistic.
"Legends" is such a quaint little series for an Event book.
Though it did directly lead into (and act as a more-than-obvious launching pad) for three pretty great series: Mike Baron's "Flash," the Giffen/DeMatteis/Maguire "Justice League," and the John Ostrander "Suicide Squad." That places it at the top in terms of pound-for-pound spin-off quality, wouldn't you say?
Then, there's "Millennium..."
Millennium is, as far as I'm concerned, the greatest crossover series ever. It gets almost everything right, whether it's the pacing (A weekly series for two months! Perfect!), the conceit that ties all the other books together (There's a conspiracy wherein all the heroes are being watched by the villains -- another idea stolen by Marvel twenty years later, although I think this is a case where DC got it right the first time), or the balancing of core storyline and crossovers. There's nothing that's really set up here without a proper pay-off until, maybe #7, where Booster Gold kidnaps one of the Chosen and she's back next issue as if nothing had happened.
It helps that I really love this era of Steve Englehart and this series is filled with his semi-snarky brand of quasi-mysticism, which really resonated with me when I was a kid reading this -- I remember reading his "Ten" theory of the universe and thinking "Wow, that's so deep" when, on re-reading...it's really meaningless. But it fits everything else he does here, somehow, whether it's the nihilism of the Manhunters, who not only believe in nothing but claim to be nothing, as well ("The Manhunters are a myth!") contrasting with the central idea of the Guardian and Zamaron on Earth to advance humanity to its next level and prepare it for the next thousand years and the optimism and hope that has at its core, or the weird takes he has on each of the characters as he gives them melodramatic internal monologues. This is the kind of over-the-top stuff that I really miss in modern-day superhero comics that aren't written by Grant Morrison, you know?
Talking of Morrison -- Does this remind you of "DC One Million," at all? Weekly, based around the idea of the superheroes getting together for a happy occasion that gets hijacked by a conspiracy they didn't see coming...?
I can't say that it reminds me of "DC One Million" even a little bit. I'm not the world's biggest fan of "DC One Million," mostly because I like the ideas, but the execution -- and particularly the art on the main four-issue series -- is weak. It doesn't hit the right beats to be an effective story, even if it seems like it almost does.
That said, I think "Millennium" is...boy, how do I put this nicely...one of the worst event books ever. I really want you to go deeper into what you find so appealing about it and I don't say that in a way of, "I dare you to show me it's worthwhile," but in a generally interested way, because I see nothing but cringe-worthy moments in Millennium.
For me, it's the ugly stepchild between "Legends" (which had its flaws, but was actually a pleasant-enough story and launching pad for a lot of goodness) and "Invasion!" (which at least involved a bunch of Todd McFarlane-drawn superheroes flying toward space ships and punching them).
"Millennium" has such a weird premise. The part about the Ten is odd enough, especially since the "Chosen" the Guardians and the Zamarons pick are such stereotypical caricatures that they make the Village People seem like subtle archetypes. But the really strange and preposterous, even by superhero comic book logic, idea is that the Manhunters have all been hiding in plain sight, waiting for this moment to reveal themselves.
And it's not just that they waited for this one moment -- I understand the sleeper cell concept -- it's that they also revealed their presence exactly 1,000 years in the future, because, um, that's when the Legion of Super-Heroes book takes place. Good timing, Laurel Kent!
The choice for "revealed" Manhunters was absurd as well: Wally West's Dad! Lana Lang! Come on! These people were really sleeper agents Those kind of revelations seemed like a bad idea at the time, even for my relatively inexperienced comic-book-reader self, and they seem like an even worse idea now.
To make it all worse, "Millennium" is eight issues of tiny panels and superheroes looking worried. Compared to the widescreen (before widescreen was cool) action of "Legends" or granddaddy "Crisis on Infinite Earths," "Millennium" was a visual debacle. It was a low-budget television special sold as a big-budget blockbuster.
It did come out weekly. I will concede that point.
But, geez Graeme, what the heck do you honestly like about the way "Millennium" is actually told?
It's taken me almost a week to reply to you, because I was so stunned by your sheer amount of wrong. "One of the worst event books ever"?
What? In a world that has seen "War of The Gods," "Genesis," "Eclipso: The Darkness Within," "Deathmate"...Seriously, I could go on and on. Even if you were going for the hyperbole vote, you're still wrong. "Image United!" Come on!
It's interesting that you see "Millennium" as the weak link between "Legends" and "Invasion," because I'm very much in the opposite direction, that it takes what works best about both series and melds them together. It's got the feeling of actual crossover that "Legends" has -- and "Invasion!" lacks, in my opinion -- but a narrative throughline that "Legends" doesn't have. I'll give you that it's not the best looking book (Joe Staton is an acquired taste at the best of times, and when he's inked by Ian Gibson and what looks like an uncredited Bruce Patterson as he is here, it's...uh...certainly individual, shall we politely say. For all the moments I enjoy, artwise, there are about five times when I wish someone had asked for another pass at a page or a panel), but in terms of writing, this is gold, Jerry.
What do I like about "Millennium?" I'm tempted to just say "It's 1980s Steve Englehart at his 1980s Steve Englehartiest," but that'd be too glib, as much as it's also true (The mix of faux spirituality and complete adoration and embrace of superhero cliche and tradition! I'm a complete sap for 1980s Steve Englehart, especially his Green Lantern stuff). So...what is it, really? It's that it plays fair with the reader, in a way that crossovers rarely do -- "This is a story about people" the first issue says and it's not entirely untrue; the entire series is about the Chosen, more than it is about the Manhunter threat or the superheroes who are trying to protect them.
Taking of the Chosen, for all the stereotypes (Hello, Extrano!) and the politically naive writing (Hello, Jet!) on show in their characterization, they're people that you didn't tend to see in mainstream superhero comics back then (Is Extrano the first openly gay superhero in either a DC or Marvel book? I think he is, right?). I like that about it. That, as clumsily as he did it, Englehart really was pushing boundaries in such a high-profile book. And, if I'm entirely honest, the clumsiness is also part of the charm for me; it's like a 1980s version of a Bob Haney book, as backhanded-compliment-y as that sounds.
Also: I love that this is such an optimistic book. It's a book about the future and human evolution and the birth of something that could've been great if only the spin-off series hadn't sucked balls. I love that about it, that it's a book where the heroes do the right thing because they're heroes -- a book where, even though they may be thinking "Well, I'm very busy in my own book right now," all it takes is a speech from Superman and everyone gets onboard the "Up With People" bandwagon. That's great! It's a book where the bad guys are almost comedically bad -- but with great accoutrement, like catchy slogans ("No man escapes the Manhunters!" "The Manhunters are a myth!" Seriously, I loved that when I was a kid) and three separate secret cult headquarters (It's like game logic at the birth of videogames; "You have found the temple in the swamps -- Level Up! Time to find the one in space!") -- and so it's easier to root against them and also makes the conflict so much simpler and easier to keep in the background so as to focus on the Chosen. Not to mention, the gimmick of a sleeper in each series? Genius. Even Brian Michael Bendis has to agree with me on that one, and Englehart and crew did it without sixteen issues of crossovers explaining everything across two series released out of sequence.
I am honestly surprised that we're so far apart on this one. Tim, I thought you had more taste.
I shall now expect the brickbats in response for that last line.
To be continued, Graeme McMillan. To. Be. Continued!
In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.
Follow Tim on Twitter: TimCallahan