In week 22 of our Reading List series, we analyze intra- and inter-company crossovers and their discontents. Featuring Secret Wars, Batman / Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and more!
Secret Wars #9
Where to start: Secret Wars #1 Time commitment: 8 issues
Recommended if you like this: Crisis on Infinite Earths
Okay, fine. I was just going to leave it there but I guess this deserves a little bit more.
Looking back at the original Secret Wars series from the 80s should remind us that senseless universe-spanning tie-in events is not a strictly modern comics phenomenon, but at least we got Spider-Man’s black suit out of it. This time around, Secret Wars was meant to be Marvel’s version of Crisis on Infinite Earths – that is, a way to iron out discontinuities and diegetically retcon the changes that Marvel wanted to make to its mainstream universe.
The problem with this is – aside from the fact that the series was both boring and largely incomprehensible – is that while the entire Marvel multiverse was ostensibly at stake (indeed, the entire Marvel multiverse was almost completely destroyed), the end result is so close to what we started out with that there was basically no narrative or even corporate justification for the whole mess in the first place.
So the Ultimate Universe is gone, but Miles Morales (the Ultimate Spider-Man) has joined the regular Marvel Universe and will maybe become its primary Spider-Man. Fine, I mean, Miles Morales is cool. So the Fantastic Four has disbanded so that the Richards family can rebuild the multiverse, leaving Human Torch to join the Uncanny Avengers and Thing to join the Guardians of the Galaxy. Again, fine, although the real reasons for this are that Marvel wants to tank the Fantastic Four brand in order to screw 20th Century Fox, which currently owns the rights – same reason mutantkind is now an endangered species (again) and the Uninteresting Inhumans are on the ascendant.
But like, all that stuff could have been done much more simply and less disruptively. It could have happened within those characters’ own books, rather than via yet another interdimensional cataclysm, which have, let’s be honest, completely lost their sense of import due to overuse.
There’s one interesting bit about this whole thing, which comes out during the final battle between Mr. Fantastic and Doctor Doom at the climax of this issue: when Doom managed to rescue a few scraps of the multiverse that he patched together into Battleworld and made himself its God (of course), he thought that he was doing something good. He always, of course, thought he was doing something good – that the world would be an infinitely better place with him in charge of it. At the time, evidently it seemed that he was the only one capable of preserving the multiverse in any form; the Molecule Man, who had stolen the powers of the Beyonder (which ended up leading to the destruction of the multiverse in the first place – correct me if I’m wrong here, because the whole thing is just such a mess), chose to use his matter-manipulation abilities to aid Doom because it was better than nothing. But in that ultimate battle between Mr. Fantastic and Doom, Doom is forced to admit that it was largely ego that made him want to preserve the universe at all, and that Mr. Fantastic actually would have done a better job of it.
Molecule Man (at this point Doom’s prisoner) hears Doom say this, and transfers control of his powers over to Mr. Fantastic instead. Now, when Mr. Fantastic (with the help of his children) being recreated the multiverse in the wake of this event, as if to rub salt into the wound he recreates Doctor Doom with his original face restored; remember that Doom’s whole origin story is that he was so vain that when his face got screwed up it drove him nuts and he became the metal-masked villain we all know. The recreated Doom finds Reed Richards’s choice to do this hilarious, but it does prove a narrative point about the difference between Doom and Richards, about what makes Marvel’s heroism distinct from its villainy.
Thing is, Marvel didn’t need to blow up all of reality to tell that story. That could have been a great final story arc before cancelling the Fantastic Four book, rather than a nonsensical cash-grab.
Marvel is publishing some truly great books these days, but they’re also trying to do too much all the time, and the rest of their books are suffering for it – and not just that, but they’re doing real damage to the legacy of a mythology for which so many of us have had so much affection for so very long.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Amazing Adventures #6
This issue includes the second part of the “Leonardo is late for a fight because he’s playing tea party with a little girl,” which honestly is a fine but pretty generic story. The backup story is more interesting: when Splinter suggests that the Turtles have been relying too heavily on violence to defeat their enemies, whereas an using one’s mind is an equally important part of being a ninja, the Turtles challenge the Purple Dragons street gang to a gaming tournament in lieu of beating the crap out of them for trying to shake down a Chuck E. Cheese style video-arcade-and-pizza-parlour.
It’s really entertaining, actually: Donatello exhibits a mathematical aptitude for shooting hoops, Leonardo is super good at pinball, and Michelangelo is a Dance Dance Revolution wizard, although Raphael turns out to be really bad at Skee-Ball. So it’s a fun read, but it’s also kind of a missed opportunity for a more overthinkable story where one or more of the Turtles actually do try out a brains-before-brawn approach for a period of time. Plus, who really believes that the Purple Dragons will keep to their word and leave the place alone just because they shook on it? Seems pretty naïve to me. The ongoing cartoon of which this comic is a spinoff is a lot smarter than that.
Where to start: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Amazing Adventures #1 Time commitment: 5 issues
Recommended if you like this: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Meet Archie
Back to the Future #4
The frame story of this series – Doc in the Old West telling his children about his adventures in time travel – gets closer to the moment we witness at the end of Back to the Future Part 3 when Doc rides his time train back to the future…well, the present…uh, actually the past.
The first story shows us how Marty and Jennifer started dating. It’s interesting because in some ways it’s designed to parallel the situation between George and Lorraine in the first movie, which Doc knows about but which, of course, Marty doesn’t because it hasn’t happened to him yet. Marty here plays George, with Jennifer as Lorraine, and Needles as Biff. This series is really pushing the idea that Needles was Marty’s Biff, and Doc is Marty’s Marty, if you see what I mean. It’s true that one of the most jarring things about Back to the Future Part 2 was the whole Needles thing; while I guess we shouldn’t be expected to have been introduced to all of Marty and Jennifer’s classmates by then, it still seemed pretty out of the blue. This series, in working to fill in gaps, tries to fix that by fleshing out minor characters like Needles and, for that matter, Jennifer: we also learn here that Marty and Jennifer first bonded over their mutual love of Clint Eastwood. Once Doc convinces Marty to stop being such a jackass and just ask her out already, we begin to realize that Marty – for all his apparent self-confidence – did always care what other people thought about him. We knew that he feared rejection even before it was revealed that being called chicken drove him crazy.
In the second story, we learn about Doc’s very first visit to the year 2015 after he drops Marty off at home at the end of the original movie. He ends up right in the middle of a vintage car expo and wins ten percent off on a hover-conversion for his “DeLorean Hot Rod.” The first thing he discovers is that for all the flying cars and Mr. Fusions and hoverboards, the place is also dripping with nostalgia – one prediction that did come true – with places like the Café 80s and one kid walking around dressed up like a Ninja Turtle.
Where to start: Back to the Future #1 Time commitment: 3 issues
Recommended if you like this: Ghostbusters Volume 3: Haunted America
Batman / Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #2
DC Comics / IDW Publishing
And speaking of Ninja Turtles…
We open exactly where the previous issue left off: with Batman attacking the Turtles after mistakenly believing that they were complicit in the rash of high-tech burglaries that Shredder and the Foot Clan have been perpetrating in order to build a transdimensional portal that can return them to their own world. Leonardo tries to explain that they were actually trying to stop the thefts, but before we know whether Batman believes him or not, Splinter breaks up the fight and he and the Turtles flee.
It’s cool seeing Batman fight the Turtles, even if it is the inevitable continuity crossover style battle that we’ve seen a hundred times before. You can’t not do it. Batman here is portrayed as roundly outclassing the Turtles, with Mike and Don not even able to land a blow, and Raph only managing one successful hit to Batman’s solar plexus with the blunt end of his sai – which we’re seemingly meant to believe that Batman allowed so that he could take the sai for analysis. Leo is more successful , getting the Dark Knight on the defensive with a series of jumps and kicks, but it’s immediately after this that Splinter steps in so we’ll never really know what would have happened.
The politics of intercompany crossover fights is a pretty interesting topic. Back in the 90s (where all the best stuff comes from), Marvel and DC determined who would win in one-on-one battles between their characters (the results of which would determine which universe would live and which would die) by putting it to a popular vote – which made for less corporate contention but led to ridiculous results like Wolverine beating Lobo, which makes no sense since Lobo is effectively immortal, with a healing factor much better than Wolverine’s and persona non grata status in both heaven and hell. At the time, I fanwanked this as Lobo throwing the fight because, knowing that the loser’s universe would be destroyed, he wanted to be the one held responsible for getting the whole DCU fragged, even if only by negligence. I stand by this theory. Batman beat Captain America in that series as well, which, fine.
But anyway, this series is by Batman writer James Tynion IV, so the Turtles are not going to be able to beat Batman in a fight. But at the same time, the book also isn’t going to treat the Turtles’ capabilities with disrespect. So while Batman is easily able to take on all four Turtles at once, he doesn’t technically defeat them: Batman vs Leo is inconclusive, and Splinter’s use of a ninja smoke bomb to effect the Turtles’ escape does leave Batman – no stranger to quick disappearances himself – bemused.
As Leonardo points out while going over the fight later, Batman “was fighting like a detective” – a line of dialogue that’s a little bit on the nose for my taste, but forgiveably so. Leo recognizes that Batman wasn’t really fighting to win; rather he was testing them, trying to figure out their technique. Batman almost always wins because he’s always prepared, and he’s always prepared because his first instinct is to learn about his opponent because next time – and there’s always a next time – it might not be as easy as just punching them in the face a bunch of times. This is why a friend of mine refers to the Christopher Nolan version of the Dark Knight as “Guy-in-a-cape Man” – because that guy looks like Batman but doesn’t really behave the way that Batman does; e.g. after just punching Bane really hard didn’t work and left Batman paralyzed for months in a foreign country, upon healing up and returning to Gotham, Batman’s plan to defeat Bane this time was…punch him really hard some more.
Batman was also more interested in getting Raph’s sai as well as a blood sample from one of the Turtles than in kicking their asses. Acquiring these allows Lucius Fox to determine both that the Turtles are from another dimension, and also that the subtle quantum variations that alerted him to this fact are gradually naturalizing to their DC Universe counterparts – including the mutagen in the blood sample, the unique radioactive characteristics of which are becoming nullified; meaning that the longer the Turtles stay in this world, the greater the risk of demutation (another crack where you can shove in your justifications for Batman pwning the Turtles if you want to find one – they’re not in peak shape in Gotham, by no fault of their own).
So Batman beats the Turtles in a fight. But on the other hand, Splinter trails Batman completely undetected, thus managing to discover the secret location and entrance to the Batcave, which not a lot of people have managed to do before. Batman is the world’s greatest detective. He’s an expert at countersurveillance, but Splinter simply schools him in the art of invisibility.
Let’s call it a tie.
Where to start: Batman / Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #1 Time commitment: 1 issue
Recommended if you like this: Infestation 2: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Given the prevalence of licensed comics, have you looked at the Transformers/GI Joe crossover series? I don’t normally go for that kind of nostalgia-driven property but after reading a Free Comic Book Day issue I realised that it’s something rather special. It looks purposefully worn out, with name tags for characters like that you’d find on their action figure. The special effects are the only non-aged parts of the comic to make them even more glaring and basically it’s the equivalent of the games you would (hypothetically) play with all your GI Joes and Transformers. In one issue there was a GI Jeff style problem where Scarlett was led to believe that the reality she’d experienced was just a series of cartoons made to sell toys.