Back in March of 2015, a full-page advert appeared in the back of various DC comics, which asked; “Would you sacrifice another world so yours can live?” If you were following Jonathan Hickman's Avengers titles around the same time, you might have asked yourself, just for a moment: since when does Batgirl run ads for Marvel's next big event That question presents essentially the same set-up as Marvel's Secret Wars, which saw Reed Richards, Black Panther, and their Illuminati friends facing the threat of alternate Earths on a collision course with their own. Eventually, it all went wrong, and Dr Doom had to take the remnants of the multiverse and combine them into a single multi-dimensional world.

Turning the page, the ad was revealed to be promoting Convergence, DC's own big event for 2015, and an entirely different story. In Convergence, an omnipotent villain pitches characters from disparate realities against one another in a multiversal battle royale. Each reality co-exists on a planet apparently of the villain's creation, a kind of 'battle-world'. Oh, hang on...

 

 

This is hardly the first instance of two near-identical ideas tumbling out of Marvel and DC at the same time. Look at Swamp Thing and Man-Thing, or the X-Men and Doom Patrol. But the thing is, Secret Wars and Convergence weren't the only alternate-universe crossover stories coming out at the time. They weren't even the only ones from these two publishers.

As those two series launched, Grant Morrison's long-gestating Multiversity project was just wrapping up. As the name suggests, the series jumped across the 52 Earths of DC's multiverse, each issue telling the tale of a universe plucked from a different point in its long publishing history, as an all-powerful enemy caused them to bleed over into one another.

Multiversity is, in spite of sharing the majority of its cast with Convergence, the least alike of the three. Heroes from various realities do gather in one place to rally together, but their worlds aren't pulled with them.

Also, unlike the line-wide crossovers of Secret Wars and Convergence, its story is restricted to a single series --- though Morrison and his collaborators work hard to make every issue feel like its own self-contained tie-in. Each took readers to a new world, illustrated by artists as stylistically distinct as Frank Quitely and Ben Oliver, and gestured only vaguely in the direction of the uniting plot. You know, just like in a real crossover.

 

Multiversity: Pax Americana #1 and The Just #1

 

Tie-in titles serve a unique purpose in these multiverse crossovers, by giving the reader a chance to visit a world they might only otherwise glimpse. The main Secret Wars title has been frequently wonderful, but for all the bombast of Esad Ribic's art and the breadth of characters on each recap page, the plot's focus is actually quite narrow, boiling down to roughly 'Doom versus Richards'. The series' wider conceit, however, lays the groundwork for other creators, who have pretty much free reign to tell whatever story they like in their own little pocket of the multiverse.

In some cases, tie-ins are used to explore the different genres that make up the superhero. With their science heroes and sword-and-sorcery fantasy, The Society of Super-Heroes and Weirdworld both look back at the superhero's roots in the pulp fiction of the 1930s. Marvel's 1872 draws out the lone gunslinger trope that vigilante stories share with Westerns. Multiversity's The Just plays up the soap opera elements; Thors the police procedural.

In other cases, the tie-ins are more out about picking out a particular style, perhaps one that has slipped out of the mainstream. Pax Americana pushes the rigorous formalism of Alan Moore to its logical conclusion. Shazam! and Thunderworld Adventures revisit the old-fashioned simplicity of the Captain Marvel family's adventures. The outright strangeness of The Atom, which concludes with the hero's one gigantic hand transforming into a resurrected ally, harks back to the DC comics of the '50s like Sensation Comics #109, which features on its cover the immortal line “My fingers --- alive! And threatening me with --- death!”.

 

Secret Wars: Thors #1

 

All of the above examples are greatly enjoyable comics, but they do borrow heavily from comics' past. And the multiversal nature of these crossovers means different versions of the same characters appear over and over again. At times it can feel like each publisher is a gone-to-seed football player watching back the old tapes and reminiscing about the good times.

Secret Wars in particular leans on this nostalgia, resurrecting just about every fondly-remembered event and alternate timeline in X-Men history (Age of Apocalypse, Inferno, Years of Future Past, X-Tinction Agenda), and all of Marvel's recent crossovers (Civil War, House of M, Planet Hulk, Spider-Verse, Spider-Island). Even the title of the event itself is recycled, having appeared on three different stories over the past 30 years.

This kind of endless repetition just isn't healthy, especially when three separate events all pull the same trick in the same year --- but could that be the whole point? Read a certain way, all three dramatise comics' over-reliance on reader nostalgia, turning it into the story's big bad.

 

Convergence #1

 

 

Multiversity is fairly explicitly about the gentrification of comics. The baddies are called The Gentry, after all, and their main threat is the ossification of an entire multiverse into something simple that can be more easily packaged and sold on, with less diversity and colour in every sense of the word.

Okay, given it's a Grant Morrison comic billed as “the ultimate statement of what DC is”, you'd expect nothing less. But it's not hard to see the same strands running through Convergence and Secret Wars.

Let's look at that shared premise again: an all-powerful figure (Telos, Doom) selects the best parts from the multiverse, from all the stories that have come before, and effectively edits them down into a best-of collection. This gestures towards a truth of any superhero universe: they're a patchwork, stitched around each character as they're created or acquired. It's an admission that the Punisher and Howard the Duck --- or the Question and Etrigan the Demon --- don't really belong in the same story.

 

Secret Wars #6

 

Doom and Telos, the higher-ups who make all the important decisions, want to separate out these characters into their own fiefdoms. But the friction between these contradictory elements is what really brings the shared superhero universe to life, and so naturally the plot of the crossover works against these villains to crash each world into one another.

Captain Marvel shouldn't co-exist alongside Batman, both tonally and --- given that the former was acquired by DC from another publisher in the '70s --- historically. But Shazam! not only brings the two together, it uses versions of the characters that emphasize their different roots. It's a classic portrayal of the Marvel Family, the colorful magic of which could be lifted straight from a Fawcett comic of the '40s, which is contrasted against the Batman seen in Gotham by Gaslight, generally considered to be DC's first Elseworlds story, and really turning up the moody darkness of Batman to eleven.

 

Convergence: Shazam #2

 

These are all familiar elements, from just about as far back in the history of superheroes as you can go, but the way they're brought together manages to create something new. Namely, the wonder of seeing the zeppelins and skyscrapers of Gotham's perma-twilight broken by a gigantic robot piloted by a psychic caterpillar.

Not every book in these crossovers contains a moment of such sheer majesty, but just reading a handful of them each week could create a similar cumulative effect. Jumping from Master of Kung Fu to Runaways is like switching screens halfway through a Shaw Bros marathon to catch The Breakfast Club. Further down the pile, you might hit the social commentary within a 2000 AD pastiche of Captain Britain and the Mighty Defenders; or Marvel Zombies, zombie horror turned quiet character study by writer Si Spurrier; or the Looney Tunes silliness of Skottie Young's cartooning in Giant-Size Little Marvel: AVX.

Over and again, you're reminded of just how wonderfully versatile a creature the superhero story is. And it's an effect that you can only get through repetition.