Why Cross-Overs Don't Work

By | Tuesday, March 13, 2012 6 comments
Earlier today, Dynamite Entertainment sent out a press release about an upcoming comic called Prophecy, featuring a host of characters from different genres and IP owners. Vampirella, Red Sonja, Kulan Gath, Dracula, Eva, Herbert West The Reanimator, Alan Quatermain, Athena, Dorian Gray, Purgatory and Pantha were among those named. The problem, though, is that it won't work. Not that I doubt Ron Marz or his ability as a writer, but there's too many pieces that inherently don't work together.

The last cross-property team-up that I read was JLA/99, written by Stuart Moore and Fabian Nicieza. The basic plot is that Rughal (the main villain from The 99) teams up with Starro (the first villain from Justice League) to destroy the world and it's up to the JLA and the 99 to stop them. The story itself isn't bad and in fact holds together pretty well, considering how many characters are being juggled.

But the story doesn't really work at a more conceptual level. The world which is inhabited by Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman is a different world than the one inhabited by Noora, Jabbar and Hadya. They're both based off the real Earth, of course, but take off in slightly different directions. Super powers exist in both worlds, but people react to them very differently. In JLA/the 99, the heroes are all dropped into the same world with no explanation, but it's the DC world they're in and the 99 feel out of place. The unwritten "rules" that govern the powers and actions of the League aren't the same as those that govern the 99.

Kurt Busiek took note of this problem in the JLA/Avengers crossover from a few years back. He smartly did a couple of different things to get it to work. First, he maintained two distinct and separate worlds. The Avengers were very clearly tied to the Marvel universe and the JLA was very clearly tied to the DC universe. When characters crossed over, they noted some of the differences. Secondly, once he needed everybody in the same place, he had the worlds merge into a deliberate hybrid but, third, he eliminated any references to what that merged world looked like, keeping the focus almost squarely on the main characters until the threat was over and the realities returned to normal.

Alan Moore took a different approach with The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by entirely redefining all of the characters. The Allan Quatermain in LoEG is a very different one from King Solomon's Mines. The same holds true for Mina Harker, Captain Nemo, Henry Jekyll, etc. None of them bear anything but the faintest resemblance to their originals. Although ostensibly a pulp novel cross-over of sorts, Moore really created more new and original characters here than in Watchmen.

It's not impossible to make a cross-over work, as the last two examples I pulled out demonstrate. But simply dropping the characters into the same space won't work. Either the characters themselves need to be changed to better mesh with one another's worlds, or the world the characters inhabit has to be markedly different than their original homes.

Granted, it can be kind of fun/amusing to imagine Captain Kirk trying to phaser his way past Darth Vader. But if you try to start building a story around that, it falls apart quickly. How does the Federation exist alongside the Empire? Even if you assume they're just from star systems that are very far apart, can you imagine the Federation not getting immediately infiltrated by Palpatine's henchmen? Wouldn't the replicator technology effectively eradicate the poverty on Tatooine almost overnight? This is the type of stuff I'm talking about when I say the worlds don't work together.

And Dynamite wants to put Vampirella, Red Sonja, Athena and Dorian Gray in the same book? You can say I've got a limited imagination, but I can't see a way that works well, even given the limited information we have on it so far. Marz may well have fun working on it, and there will probably be some good individual scenes, but a whole story? Don't think so.
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Matt K said...

Hm, you complain about the encyclopedia at my blog, and here you are complaining about crossovers. Anything else you want to disparage? Maybe something rubbed off after you watched that Alan Moore video? ;-)

Just stay off my damn lawn!

I'm not sure I shared my story with you about how on my way to C2E2 last year, I shared dinner with a 82 year old comic fan (who was using his retirement to going everywhere they traveled in the comic strip Terry & The Pirates). As somebody who had been collecting comics since the 1930s, he never liked it when characters when Batman would crossover into Superman, because 'violated the rules' of the book he was reading. Batman has his world. Superman has his world. Every time they meet it, it makes both characters feel less special, he suggested. I've taken the same approach to cross-overs and events.

... and I'd like to add, I'll be picking up PROPHECY, because I like Ron's work and I think ARTIFACTS was a great testament to his work bringing these sorts of characters together.

Interesting he noted the Superman/Batman "problem." I don't disagree, but what DC ultimately did was redefine the characters so much so that they can work together in the same world reasonably well. For example, they mesh together pretty well in Super Friends, but there's no question that the characters were considerably altered for that world.

As I think about it, it also helps explain why I was never a big DC fan. I always thought the characters were pretty flat compared to Marvel, and the reason that's the case is because DC's characters had to relatively amorphous to inhabit each others' worlds, leaving only a vague shell of a character and a costume.

I missed Artifacts, but I didn't much care for The Darkness and Witchblade when I read those titles. (Which, admittedly, was back when they first launched. Things may have changed considerably.)

Anonymous said...

I personally think there's only one medium where DC and Marvel can cross over without any of the little 'problems' you mentioned--animation! All you have to do is make the universe BIGGER to accommodate all the elements that make up each of their separate universes. I plan to do so in a fanfic photocomic series I have in the planning stages, and I use the DCAU and MAU. But I also include a certain continuity from Transformers, GI Joe, and a few other surprises....