THE POST-CRISIS EVENT HORIZON PART 2: WAY TO GO, BATMAN!
Last week, the nimble-minded Graeme McMillan and I began our discussion of the holy trinity of post-"Crisis on Infinite Earths" series by looking at "Legends" and debating the merits of "Millennium." We conclude the discussion this week as I set Graeme straight on what good event comics look like. As in, not-"Millennium," but rather, "Invasion!"
Tim Callahan: Okay, it's true that when I said that "Millennium" was "one of the worst event books ever," I was blocking the likes of "Genesis" and "Deathmate" and "Armageddon 2001" out of my mind. But I will stand by the following, revised, assertion: "It's the worst of the event books from the first batch of them running from 'Crisis' through 'Invasion,' and then jumping ahead to the event books starting from 'Infinite Crisis' through today, if you ignore all the bad crossovers in the middle." A bold stance, I know!
I have grown to love Joe Staton's art, so it's not the visuals in "Millennium" that are the problem for me. (Here's how I grew to love Staton's art, by the way: I read "E-Man" when published by Comico. That's all it took. Before that, I thought his art was too 'cartoony' and 'angular' and 'ugly' and after that, well, I got it. Completely.) And I completely respect the pro job Staton did on "Millennium." I mean, he wasn't originally supposed to pencil the series -- Ian Gibson was -- which is why the first issue looks so much more Gibsony than the later issues, because Staton was just coming in to help out with the launch, but he ended up pencilling the whole thing, quickly. And eight weeks, shipping on time with the series and all the tie-ins! DC will never do that again, I'm sure.
I agree "Millennium" does have the feeling of a crossover, but that's not inherently a good thing, and an Event comic doesn't necessarily have to slide its slippery tendrils into every single series to become, well, an "Event." Maybe "Millennium" was the last real crossover Event in that original "Crisis" mold, at least until recent years, because once "Invasion" hit, the new model seemed to be that the annual, or semi-annual, crossover Events were more like big summer blockbusters and less an attempt at line-wide coherence or significance.
Just big villains, big explosions, and lots of costumed characters.
And, yes, "Millennium" attempts to actually be about something, and it's a Steve Englehart book through and through, but as much as I love that era of Englehart comics (and I love it significantly less than you, apparently), does the faux-spirituality even make sense in the comic? No, it really doesn't. And it doesn't even have the kind of charming cadence to the language that would make something like Jack Kirby's Fourth World faux-spirituality so invigorating.
Shall I quote from the Book of Englehart now?
"ONE becomes aware of TWO because of the RELATIONSHIP between them! The relationship is SHAPED BY BOTH, and thus is DIFFERENT FROM EACH -- and so a NEW concept comes from their SUM!"
"And SIX can be JUST ANOTHER NUMBER -- another FINITE number -- or SIX can be the BEGINNING of a SECOND HALF to the unfoldment -- a CONSCIOUS half to complement the UNCONSCIOUS half that created SIX!"
Yes, these quotes are taken out of context, but it's not like the context of a big, blue-headed guy talking to a group of superheroes provides that much insight into this mumbo jumbo. I mean, even for comic book mumbo jumbo, this stuff is beyond incomprehensible. But its the clunky way that it is incomprehensible that makes it fail. There's no poetry in it. I don't care whether or not it makes sense, really.
Still, I do find myself enjoying "Millennium" a bit more since you have so enthusiastically championed it. I don't have the same giddy joy you have when I read it, but I do find its ambitions to be noble. Englehart is trying to say something about human potential, and trying to tie it all into the superhuman ideal, and he does give us some crazy action scenes and moments of betrayal and surprise once he gets the series rolling toward its final apotheosis.
Plus, "Millennium" does give us a splash page of the assembled superheroes shouting "Way to go, Batman!" to a slightly-grinning caped crusader. How has that not become the catchphrase that it was destined to become? I mean, nobody has a "Way to Go, Batman!" page on Tumblr or Blogspot?
So, yes, yes, I don't have the sophisticated taste it takes to appreciate the grand unified Englehart theory of being and super-being, but even I can appreciate a good Batman cheer.
Just to recap. "Legends" gave us Ostrander's "Suicide Squad," Giffen and Dematteis's "Justice League," and Mike Baron's "Flash." What did "Millennium" give us, again?
Graeme McMillan: What did "Millennium" give us? Well, there was the horrible, horrible "New Guardians" series (AKA The Chosen, AKA Trumps, so at least we know that the re-titling could've been so much worse), which was worth reading for entirely one issue before settling in for eleven more of a gradual increase of sucking. All I'm saying is, when both of the creators of your series are gone before issue 10, then something has gone hideously wrong. Hell, when the writer bails after issue one, something has gone hideously wrong. But there was also "Manhunter," the really rather wonderful series by John Ostrander, Kim Yale and Doug Rice (I think? I may be misremembering that name) that everyone always forgets about, and surely that has to bring it some points, right?
It's funny that you make the comment that the (admittedly, insane) Englehart theory of relativity has no poetry to it, because I'd disagree -- It has the weird cadence of Englehart dialogue (and narrative voice in general -- there's some great stuff in his "West Coast Avengers" of the same era, I seem to remember) that is genuinely a large part of what I love about this part of his career. I can't really explain why, because it sounds confused when I try: It's like having an entirely sincere and genuine appreciation of the campiness, if that makes any sense -- There's an otherness to it that does sound poetic to me, if not necessarily a beautiful poetry. So, yeah; on the one hand, that whole issue of the Guardian and the Zamaron explaining reality from one to ten is just bullshit, but on the other, there's something so especially Englehartian about it that I can't help but love it wholeheartedly.
Here's a question for you, then: You've said a couple of times now that "Invasion!" is better than "Millennium" for you, and I completely don't see that. "Millennium" has a sense of personality, a continuity in terms of creators and viewpoint, and manages to fully engage current-day DC Universe characters in a way that I think "Invasion!" avoids in favor of using Legion of Super-Heroes toys and forgotten characters for the most part. So... what did "Invasion!" do for you that worked so well?
I do have fond memories of the Ostrander/Yale/Rice "Manhunter" series. I always enjoyed that comic, and I had completely forgotten that it was a "Millennium" spin-off, but, yeah, that's kind of an obvious spin-off, in retrospect. I give "Millennium" ten extra points for that "Manhunter" run. Which gives "Millenium" twelve points total. Twenty for the main series, ten for the one good spin-off, and minus eighteen for the existence of any and all issues of "New Guardians." I don't know what the points mean, but that feels like the right amount.
So, "Invasion!" You imply, in a bafflingly critical way, that "Invasion!" using Legion toys and forgotten characters is somehow a bad thing. That's precisely what I love about it. It's odd and clunky, but it a completely charming and Keith Giffen-esque way. It doesn't have any pseudo-mystical mumbo jumbo like "Millennium," because it uses pseudo-scientific mumbo jumbo instead! The meta-gene explains why there are so many superheroes on Earth! It's a scientific fact.
But I think you're underselling how subversive and delightful "Invasion!" really is. First of all, it's presented in massive, 80-page chunks, which is a way of telling an event story that had never been tried before or since. (Probably for good reason, but still...) But take a look at the first issue of the series. Not a single DCU hero on the cover. Snapper Carr is the first character even close to a recognizable hero who appears in the series, and in 1988, who remembered Snapper Carr? He's more prominent now than he was back then, honestly, because of all the JLA "early years" kinds of stories that have been told and retold since. Adam Strange pops up, and a few Green Lanterns no one knew, and the Omega Men. The Spectre appears, hanging out with the Lords of Order in magic-land. The first real Earth-based, traditional superhero to appear in the series is the Tasmanian Devil. That's right, the Tasmanian Devil, with the giant "T" on his chest. And that is on page 73. There are seventy-two pages before that, with nary a Superman, or Batman, or any Justice League member to be found.
That's kind of brilliant, don't you think?
To kick off an Event/Crossover/Whatever series without the normal formula of the heroes of the world assembling? "Invasion!" doesn't follow the normal rhythms of a mega-event. Instead, it tells the story, especially in the first third, almost completely from the point of view of the alien invaders. It's a series about the Dominators and the Khunds and the Durlans and the Daxamites and their not-quite-space-pals and their schemes to destroy and-or-take-control-of Earth.
And I love it for being that.
Plus, it's got that Keith Giffen sensibility, that irreverent sense of humor that tempers all of his work, no matter how cosmic or epic. I mean, just look at the opening sequence of "Invasion!," a moment that echoes the very core of "Millennium." Just as in that Englehart/Staton series, this alien enclave attempts to find those among the normal humans with the potential to be something more. While "Millennium" showed a Guardian and a Zamoran floating down and speaking in Time Cubisms while selecting "The Chosen" from among the billions of humans, "Invasion!" gives us a Dominator/Khund experiment where they line up fifty humans and shoot them in the face to see if any survive.
A few do survive, and later become a spin-off called "The Blasters," and that's just as bad as "New Guardians," but at least Snapper Carr and his blasted-in-the-face colleagues only had a comic that lasted for a single issue.
And do I have to mention the art? Late-80's Todd McFarlane on half the series, Keith Giffen drawing a couple of chapters himself, and Bart Sears coming in to wrap up the explosive finale? Why, this is bombast fitting for a series which features an exclamation point in its title!
Wow, when we disagree, we really disagree. Most of the reasons why you think this series is so subversive are reasons why I dislike it so much. I mean, yeah, I guess it's subversive, but not necessarily in a good way. What makes "Invasion!" so flat for me is that it doesn't really do anything I want a crossover, or event, and part of that is... well, I want to see the superheroes. I want to see them team-up (or even fight amongst themselves). It's part of why I like crossovers and events, the interaction between characters that don't really interact that much. Giffen removing that in favor of an oh-so-long-much-longer-than-it-needs-to-be introduction about minor characters, and worse, non-characters to introduce what should be a much snappier high concept? Yeah, not my cup of tea, because it really makes me wonder why it couldn't have been done as something that wasn't a massive crossover and probably been stronger as a result, if that makes sense; the crossover/event nature of it feels so inorganic and forced that it becomes unenjoyable for the reader, as well. And then the following two issues pretty much avoid the majority of what the first issue had built up! At what point does subversive become willfully obtuse? I'm pretty sure "Invasion!" crosses that line pretty early on and never looks back. (I also have disasterporn problems with the "THEY'VE DESTROYED AUSTRALIA WE WILL NEVER MENTION IT AGAIN BUT OH MY GOD THIS IS HOW BIG THIS IS DO YOU UNDERSTAND" opening of the invasion. It's cheap, and it completely doesn't make sense -- The aliens can completely decimate a continent, and they choose Australia? They don't even try to go for America while they've got the element of surprise? Also, they can decimate Australia and somehow not do anything to Europe? Or Africa? Or ANYWHERE ELSE? Are there only two continents in 1980s DC?) And that art! Oh, man. I remember loving McFarlane's Hulk run and being excited to see him on this series, and it's horrible. It's like all of his worst traits with the dynamism of his best work surgically removed (It also reinforces how bad he is at features; it's a good thing that the humans in the alien gulag have crazy hair, because McFarlane draws them all with the same face -- or, rather, draws them all with wildly different faces in each and every panel). And then he's gone midway through the second issue, and Giffen fills in before Bart Sears comes on, and the whole thing is just a hodge-podge of different styles, none of which mix well or compliment each other. It's just a mess (And I say that as one who liked Giffen's "I want to be Kevin Maguire" style of that period).
Of course, I must continue to disagree with you on both the existence of the Metagene -- John Byrne has convinced me that the GenesisWave is clearly behind everyone's super powers -- and the greatness of the Blasters one-shot, which was genuinely my favorite thing to come out of the whole "Invasion!" shebang. Yes, I know "Justice League Europe" also spun out of it, but let's be honest for a second: JLE was the Justice League book that Giffen and DeMatteis pretty much phoned in from the first issue.
The first issue of "Invasion!" is the best part of the whole series, so I certainly wouldn't call it "longer-than-it-needs-to-be." And do you really need to see superheroes interact and fight amongst themselves yet again? That has happened exactly one zillion times. But the Dominators, Khunds, Durlans and Daxamites teaming up to mess with Earth in the present day? That had never happened before in the history of comics, Graeme! Doesn't it blow your mind to experience something brand new? Sure, I'll admit that the pacing is odd and off-putting, but that's only if you're expecting some crazy action, mega-Event superhero comic. Which you'd be right to expect, I suppose. But if you let "Invasion!" just be "Invasion!" and accept it on its own wonderful terms, I think you'll find it to be like that strange uncle who tells those enchanting stories about his time in the Alps that one winter. Partially drawn by Keith Giffen. And I'll stand up on behalf of Todd McFarlane's art here. It looks like a rush job, but it's still more expressive than most of what was on the stands at the time (or since). I mean just look at the typical DC comic of the day and who was drawing it: Graham Nolan. Chas Truog. Tom Lyle. Dan Jurgens. These guys wouldn't know dynamic it if came up to them wearing twenty-foot long chains and spiked gloves and a cape. McFarlane's work on "Invasion!" was so unusual for the DC mainstream that it made the series all the more interesting. Giffen is always great, so that helps. And Bart Sears does just fine on the finale with his muscles on top of muscles. Yes, "Justice League Europe" was terrible. True. But better than "New Guardians." And that counts...for something? And I see your ploy at the end there -- bringing in "Genesis" to underline how great all of these other event comics are by comparison. But do we really want to go there?
(I should probably mention "L.E.G.I.O.N. '89," too. Consider it mentioned!)
I could lie and say that, yes, of course we want to go there, but as someone who's only recently read "Genesis" for the first time... No. No, I don't think anyone in comics wants to go there ever again. What's interesting about looking back at "Invasion!" and "Millennium" and "Legends," and comparing them with something like "Genesis," though, is how... rough they seem, I guess would be the best way of putting it. There's definitely an element of the event book as a sub-genre really finding its feet in these three series, and almost everything from this point on -- "Genesis," "DC One Million," "Blackest Night," all of the Marvel crossover series -- ends up having its roots in these three books almost moreso than either "Secret Wars" or "Crisis On Infinite Earths." (Mind you, I'm purposefully ignoring all the "Annuals crossovers" like "Eclipso: The Darkness Within," "Armageddon 2001" and "Atlantis Attacks" because they're almost a sub-sub-genre all by themselves. And not in an >"Ain't No Love, Ain't No Use" sense, either.) "Invasion!" strikes me as an event that worked best as a demonstration of how to push the format too far -- I think by the time the defense of "Well, if you expect [product A] to be [the type of product it was advertised as being], then you'll be disappointed" has to be used, then it's pretty clear that something has gone wrong somewhere (Which, yes, means that I think that "Final Crisis" is, on some levels, a failure. A fascinating one, yes, with lots of great elements and things that I love, but still...). The pacing, the uneven art, even just the format of it, mark it out as something that just didn't work as what it was originally sold as and expected to be. I think we agree on that, right? Where we disagree, perhaps, is that I don't think it really works as a story outside of that -- it's very rushed and flat, without particularly interesting dialogue and not enough payoff for the set-ups, and without the "Look! All of DC's heroes standing in one room!" nerdbaiting -- something Millennium was smart/cynical enough to do in full-page splashes twice in just eight issues -- there's just...not enough there for me. I know: Clearly I hate all fun.
Okay, so here's a potential closer question (or maybe just opening up a can of worms): What's the legacy of these series for you? Do you agree that they played around with the event book genre enough to lay down a guide on what you can and can't do in this type of book? Or is it just that Keith Giffen got to blow up Australia?
I'm not sure what "Invasion!" was advertised to be, other than a series that featured a bunch of DC heroes and an alien invasion. And that's exactly what it was, even if it took one whole issue of pre-invasion buildup before it got to the "as advertised" bits. Then again, I am much less likely to care about a comic meeting the expectations of the advertising than you are. The way something is hyped often has little bearing on what's inside the covers, and that's always just fine with me. "Final Crisis" is, as you imply, the poster child for that kind of thing, and that's probably my favorite event book ever.
The legacy of "Legends," "Millennium" and "Invasion!" though? Well, it's pretty clear that the spin-offs out of "Legends" have had the most impact on the DCU. We cannot overstate how important "Suicide Squad" or "Justice League International" has been to the shape of that universe -- those comics have left their DNA on so much of what has come after, even if the story "Legends" itself is basically irrelevant and never referred to ever. "Millennium" has had no lasting impact. And neither has "Invasion!" Not continuity-wise.
But, yes, as guides for what event comics should and shouldn't be, you get the entire scope of everything that has come after within the span of those three series -- with "Crisis" thrown in as a fourth option, but one DC takes and never Marvel. As I've said, "Civil War" is basically "Legends." " "Secret Invasion" is "Millennium" in terms of the sleeper agent stuff and "Invasion!" in terms of the actual alien invasion. "Blackest Night" is, in some ways, a combination of all three, with heroes fighting (corrupted) heroes, pseudo-mystical explanations, and a space-born threat. And, as problematic as so many contemporary event comics can be, with their multitude of inconsistent tie-ins and their overall lack of satisfying conclusions, this newer breed does read much more smoothly than the classics of the 1980s where the rules were being made up as everyone went along.
Of course, now we have "Flashpoint" and "Fear Itself" coming our way. And we'll have to wait and see how those fit into the larger scheme of event-comics-throughout-history. But I bet neither one will blow up an entire continent.
As always, Giffen wins in the end.
Even if everyone ignored it the next day.
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