REVIEW: "Avengers: Age of Ultron" is a Lot of Fun, a Little Flawed, and Whedon All the Way
Comic Books, Film
Last week’s crabby column may have left some with the idea that I am averse to big ol’ superhero crossover Events. Actually, I’m not. I just want them to be fun.
What I especially object to is the idea that for the story to “matter,” A Major Character has to die. It’s become a stunt, any more. You know, you do it once in a while — like, say, once a DECADE — and you get the original Dark Phoenix story, or the original Death of Gwen Stacy. Those were deservedly regarded as big deals. But never forget that the REASON those stories were so huge were because they were unique, nobody was doing it.
If, on the other hand, you do it every six months as a stunt for comics’ equivalent of sweeps week, it’s just Snuff Lotto. It says something kind of embarrassing about the current state of comics that one of the first questions asked whenever DC or Marvel announces a big crossover mini-series is always, “Who’s gonna die?” And it’s asked with about the same level of emotional involvement as a bookie handicapping a horse race.
So, you know, that part annoys me. Nevertheless, a crossover story can be lots of fun. I mean, come on, there’s not a thing wrong with the basic idea; this is the engine that drove The Brave and the Bold and Marvel Team-Up for years and years, putting characters you don’t normally see together in one story and see how they react to each other. For that matter, it’s that same idea that gave us the Justice League and the Avengers in the first place. Here are a few of the ones that I liked a lot that I wish some smart editor would collect.
These aren’t Big Event stories, and actually, that’s why I like them. They’re just fun. Which is, after all, supposed to be what superheroic adventure is about in the first place.
The first one that came to mind when I thought of crossover stories that were more about old-school superheroic fun than angsty body counts was this one.
DC Challenge was the kind of joyous, goofball idea that you could still get away with publishing in the 80’s, before we all got so worried about the rest of the world looking at us funny for liking the stuff. It was an idea that had actually been around in SF and mystery fiction for decades: the round-robin challenge story. The premise behind the 12-issue DC Challenge was that each issue would be by a different writer and artist team, and each team had to try and stump the next one with a cliffhanger. Everyone knew it was just for fun going in, which was how you got guys like B’Wana Beast side-by-side with Jonah Hex, and the whole enterprise had a sort of gleeful energy.
AS a story, it really doesn’t make that much sense, and virtually everyone involved, from Mark Evanier to Elliott Maggin to Roy Thomas to Len Wein, has done far better work alone — but damn, it’s a good time. You have to treat it like a game you are playing along with the writers that worked on it, and indeed, that was how DC presented it — “Can you solve it before we do?” was the tagline. (I still remember how Evanier drove us all goddamn crazy for the better part of a year trying to figure out the meaning of the mysterious number sequence he put in the first issue.)
But a crossover doesn’t have to be goofy to be fun. Consider this crossover trilogy of very tough, very cool stories.
It was actually one story, “Fables.” Basically an episodic quest thing with an overarcing theme. There were a bunch of nice things about this story. First of all, it was in the annuals, rather than screwing up the regular books. Secondly, it put Denny O’Neil back on Batman and Green Arrow again, both characters he made his rep on, and had them together with his then-current Question, a wonderful run that Ditko purists hated and most everyone else adored. (Certainly I was one of those in the ‘adored’ camp; I didn’t even care about Vic Sage’s mullet.) Thirdly, and most importantly for someone plotting a crossover, it kept its participants in the same weight class. All three heroes were non-powered vigilantes who dealt primarily with urban crime. Which means you don’t have to waste time on some ludicrous reason for them to meet up, it’s a logical consequence of who they are.
The story itself is great fun, old-school O’Neil philosphical thoughts with martial-arts mayhem interspersed, and nice turns from the Penguin, Lady Shiva, and Ra’s Al Ghul, among others. With fine art jobs on each end from Klaus Janson and Denys Cowan, and a fair-to-middlin’ job from Tom Artis in between. It won’t be collected now, of course, because God forbid DC publish anything that “contradicts” the current depiction of the Question or Green Arrow. Shame. But you could probably bowl it out on eBay or somewhere without breaking the bank.
Here’s another martial-arts crossover with Green Arrow and the Batfolks. Brotherhood of the Fist.
This was when Chuck Dixon was writing Nightwing, Robin, Detective, and the Connor Hawke Green Arrow, which this sprawled all over for a month and a half or so. Another nice little twelve-dollar trade paperback that will never happen because DC is determined to ignore the whole Connor Hawke thing. But “Brotherhood of the Fist” is an interesting counterpoint to “Fables,” actually, because Chuck Dixon has the same strong sense of story and grasp of the Bat-world that Denny O’Neil does, but his riff on martial arts and philosophy is 180 degrees from O’Neil’s in the execution. Definitely worth checking out, this started in Green Arrow #134, then circled through Detective #723, Robin #55, Nightwing #23, and ended up back in Green Arrow #135. Note again that everyone’s basically got, I dunno, call it ‘power parity.’ The Birds of Prey were in there too, but their book wasn’t included. I can’t remember if Babs and Dinah even HAD their book yet or if Dixon was still just doing the sporadic specials and mini-series.
Probably one of the cleverest company-wide crossovers ever, though, has to be the late lamented First Comics’ CrossRoads, a five-issue Prestige mini-series that brought together all First Comics’ stars of the 80’s — Nexus, Reuben Flagg (well, Luther, anyway), Sable, Whisper, GrimJack, Dreadstar, and… sigh… the Badger.
The thing that was so brilliant about it, though, is that there was no attempt to team up heroes that had no business together. The galaxy-spanning Nexus never got anywhere near the urban, non-powered Whisper. Instead, each issue was a stand-alone pairing of, say, Whisper and Sable, or Grimjack and Nexus and Dreadstar. It went five issue in all and they are a terrific sampler of the whole First Comics line. The stories themselves are pretty good too; all of them are fun, especially Mike Baron’s entries.
In the interest of fairness, I tried and tried to come up with a company-wide Marvel event that I enjoyed as much as the ones listed above, and, well, I just couldn’t think of one. A pity that the company that really pioneered the idea of the Big Crossover Event doesn’t have any really good ones. Avengers-Defenders War, maybe. But that’s a little bit of a reach. So I will leave the identifying of a great Marvel crossover as an exercise for the interested scholar below in comments… though if anyone nominates “Rise of the Midnight Sons,” don’t expect us to take you seriously.
See you next week.
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