So the last time I talked about Crossover for the site, I ended things with a cliffhanger about the fascinatingly horrifying final page. A page that invoked such a great amount of cosmic dread in me, I couldn’t help but laugh like a maniacal lunatic at the sheer scope of its wrongness. I laughed and laughed at every single element of it, because it was just… W O W. Now that the first volume of Crossover has reached its end, I think it’s time I shared with you the final page of that first page.
Now, without the context of the following six issues, I could write an extensive essay about the vast implications of that image. How the usage of the undefined term “hope” has been used to an insidious effect in the years to justify things as small as the conservatizing of Superman – who talks about how we should be valorizing soldiers instead of movie stars, or who secretly locks people up into a gulag without trial – to larger, more horrifying implications such as the Obama administration’s usage of drone strikes. From there, I could explore the relative differences in approaches between Donny Cates and one of his blatant influences, Mark Millar, and how they approached “superheroes in the real world” significantly differently. And, being me, I would have no doubt called the article “Doc Shaner Has Killed Before And He Will Kill Again.”
However, none of that amounts to much since it turns out the man in the picture isn’t Superman. It’s Madman. Madman, for those of you who don’t know, is a superhero from Image Comics. This is roughly the amount of information the comic provides a new reader when introducing this character, leading into the central issue with Crossover as a whole: It’s so excited that it gets to use these various characters from a wide array of comics (from Hit-Girl to Lucifer to Tony Chu), that it doesn’t actually fulfill the premise of the book in a meaningful way.
When reading the comic, there’s a sense that Crossover feels the fact that these characters are being used in the comic is meaningful in and of itself. Which, if decades of event comics has taught us anything, is not necessarily the case. Often times, this ends up being comics about the state of comics where the message is “We need to have hope and move away from being too dark and political.” However, Crossover isn’t even interested in that. Merely the prospect of having the toys and smashing them into one another.
This is perhaps best demonstrated in issue 3 where Cates spends an entire page bemoaning the failure of his previous venture into indie superhero comics, The Paybacks. Much like Madman (who is also introduced in this issue), the comic expects you to have read the twice canceled series before reading this series (despite claiming that no one has read the series). It’s a joke for the small number of people who have read the series, one of Donny’s Devil’s AdvoCates, rather than the people who are just getting into his work via this high profile series.
This insularity, in turn, prevents the series from exploring its more fascinating implications. Consider, for example, the date in which the titular crossover event occurred: January 11, 2017. This would put the inciting incident of Crossover at the tail end of the Obama Administration. In turn, it could be read as a final failure of a President who promised change and hope for a better tomorrow and delivered little of it, often perpetuating the same systemic failures of old. A massive blow to the American Heartland and a signifier of the failures of the democratic party.
But the more interesting, fulfilling implications of it being placed here is that the crossover event is the first major crisis that the Donald Trump presidency would have to deal with. In some regards, the Trump presidency would have deserved this. After all, the Trump campaign for presidency was built upon the attempt to overlay our reality with a false one. One where the barbarians of the south are trying to steal our women, the vampiric pedophile devil worshipers must be ousted from the seats of power by a divinely chosen President, and any news source that claimed or still claims Trump to be a grifter, a racist, a sex pest… they’re just peddling fake news.
So to have a world of fiction consume the wider world would be extremely fitting for such a presidency to have to deal with. What would come of this? Would the containment and cruelty that Crossover gestures towards without fully exploring be enough to get Trump into a second term? Would the idea of putting children into cages be unspoken of once a proper politician like Joe Biden was put in charge? Or would the vast strangeness of the world besmirch the Obama legacy such that Trump had to face a Warren/Sanders bracket?
And that’s just the political angle on this! The comic points to a rise in cowboy and cop comics in the wake of the crossover event, but what about the superhero cinema? The Marvel Cinematic Universe was fast approaching the peak of its imperial phase with countless movies still in production. Wonder Woman, the first major female led superhero film in the new age of superhero films, was preparing for a June release. What would happen to Warner Bros or the Disney Corporation of these billion dollar projects fell apart due to the end of the world?
Again, Crossover is not interested in these ideas. Sure, it invokes some of them. There is, after all a sequence where several comic book characters (including children) are locked up in cages. But its interest is in the ability to smash various IP into one another (tellingly, the “locked up in cages” scene is a riff on an issue of Spawn by noted crank and misogynist, Dave Sim). To have Hit-Girl shoot the zombies from The Walking Dead, Madman hang out with Marvelman (yeah, so one of The Paybacks is secretly Marvelman), or spend three goddamn pages reusing art from God Country is more important than anything else. This might be forgivable if this was the first instance of someone doing a project like this in comics, of the idea of a fantastical world infecting a more realistic one with the iconography of comics.
Except it’s not.
Indeed, it’s such a prolific idea, that there was a period of time where practically everyone was exploring the implications of a fictional world infecting a realistic one. Over the course of 2015, a large number of writers, artists, and creators explored what would happen if reality began to unravel. This ranged from minor, relatively insignificant works (such as Pixels, Convergence, and Spider-Verse) to major, landmark texts that still impact the world to this day (such as Providence, Supreme: Blue Rose, and the presidential campaign of Donald Trump).
But for the purposes of this article, it’s perhaps best to look at Grant Morrison’s The Multiversity. There’s a lot to compare between Crossover and The Multiversity, from the opening pages of Crossover feeling like they’re cribbed right from Grant’s notebook to the horror of superheroes colliding with the real world to the villainous nature of the narration captions (as implied in the final issue). But the key distinction between the two works lies in their approach to fandom.
Now, fandom within The Multiversity isn’t a major aspect of the text. Its main argument lies in a desire for superheroes to have Multiversial Diversity: to be invested in dealing with real world ideas that aren’t just a bunch of straight white guys (something Crossover missed with its exclusively white, predominately male main cast). But fandom is nevertheless a key factor within The Multiversity’s design.
There are many points of entry for this, but the correct one is “Ultra Comics Lives!” At its core, the titular hero, Ultra Comics, is a corporately approved, focus tested superhero made to appeal to everyone. (That he looks like a blond haired, blue eyed white guy is just “what the people want.”) Throughout the book, he changes himself to fit within the ideals of fandom: removing thought balloons to be less dated, ending thoughts on the complex nature of superheroes because fans didn’t like it, and reassuring readers that things won’t be “weird for the sake of weird.” At the end, when confronting the ultimate enemy of The Gentry (who, by their name, are out to gentrify the multiverse into their own image), he uses fan critiques to destroy the baddies and save the day.
Only, it’s not enough to defeat the forces of gentrification. Fandom is just another cog in the machine of capitalism. As the saying goes, the master’s tools will not tear down the master’s house. We can say that the flying egg looks stupid, but we still purchased the book. Still read the story. Still bought the tie ins and wasted our time reading stupid, pointless books instead of going outside and talking to people. Stories, in the view of The Multiversity, are both a trap and an escape. We must not let ourselves be soothed into thinking reading the right books is enough. They can inspire us to do something, but the rest is on us. We have to act, to change the world.
Crossover, by contrast, notes that in the wake of the crossover event, comic book fans have become a marginalized group frequently targeted by groups like the Westboro Baptist Church.
To be fair to Crossover, there has been a long history of nerd culture being framed as a thing of ill repute. Something to be looked down upon and condemned. Certainly the various burnings of Harry Potter books and the ties between the Satanic Panic and Dungeons and Dragons speaks to that, if nothing else. But there are other forces at play with those kinds of movements. Oftentimes, there’s a none-too-hidden homophobic, racist, and/or xenophobic angle to these narratives. The point of these movements is not nerd culture specifically, but what can be discussed through targeting these texts.
But Crossover never makes that connection. It invokes the Westboro Baptist Church, but it focuses specifically on their relationship to nerd culture and not, for example, anti-semitism. After all, the initial Satanic Panic that targeted Dungeons and Dragons was part of a long tradition of antisemitism with that particular strain tied to an unnamed Jewish Doctor who works for the CIA. Where The Multiversity ties its views on fandom with the commodification and gentrification of capitalism, Crossover leaves its nerd culture untethered to anything bar nerd culture itself. And there are horrifying consequences to leaving such things be.
In the advance review I did for the first issue, I noted the existence of #gamergate as one of the many, many horrible groups that highlight just how wrong the phrase “comic book fans are a marginalized group” truly is. But let’s take a different angle on the subject and look at its ultimate legacy. The obvious one is the attempt at a sequel: Comic$g@te, a follow up inspired by the hate movement but with the iconography of comics instead of video games. That there have been multiple groups calling themselves Comic$g@te, (be it over the removal of the Joker variant on an issue of Batgirl, or getting irate at a bunch of female Marvel staff getting milkshakes) highlighting the degree to which that movement has failed to gain any traction beyond the meager right wing assholes who could make a quick buck by hating things for a living.
But the meaningful legacy of #gamergate is, ultimately, that Steve Bannon got involved. Bannon, through one of his reporters, used #gamergate both as a means of developing a mailing list for future endeavors and as a means of figuring out specific tactics for said endeavors. Such as helping Donald Trump become President of the United States of America. A lot of the tactics used by #gamergate found themselves resurfacing in other arenas, from the memeable Fake News to the gamification of Qanon, a conspiracy theory that claims there is a secret cabal of pedophile satanists ruling America through the Democratic Party and only President Donald Trump can stop them. Hell, both Qanon and #gamergate thrived and were propagated on the forum 8chan.
And this all is fueled by the idea of marginalized nerd culture as something to be treated with utmost sincerity, rage, and infectious hate.
There are other horror stories I could tell, both personal and ones I only saw the aftermath of. But that would dilute the point. In the end, Crossover is fine. The art largely works (save for when Geoff Shaw tries to evoke the more stylized artwork of Tradd Moore or Skottie Young with his realistic styling), the writing is competent enough (though by no means Cates’ best), and the premise still has potential. It just doesn’t try to grasp for that potential and ultimately ends up being too insular to be mad at. I’m just… disappointed.