I mentioned during my recap of the best and worst books of 2013 that I believed Infinity would beat the tar out of the other event titles of that year, not least of all the contentious mess that was Age of Ultron. If nothing else, it can firmly take its place as the best event crossover of 2013; if you’re gonna count inter-family titles like Batman’s Night of the Owls or Green Lantern’s Rise of the Third Army, things might get messy.
After reading, I reckon Infinity did indeed kick every shade of ass it could as an event. Is it the best comic story I’ve read? No. Is it the best Marvel I’ve read? No. Is it the best event Marvel’s produced since the pre-2000’s? Quite possibly.
I’ve reviewed the book in two other chunks now, so consider this desert to the main courses as an exploration of why Infinity works as an event, what Marvel (and DC, for that matter) should take away from it, and where each big event since Avengers Disassembled fell down in comparison. Maybe, with this constructive criticism onboard, event comics can become something to look forward to with more regularity than with reflux.
At the end of the day, an event title should usually have six ingredients to really hit the mark as something other than a big, loud blemish on the ass cheeks of the superhero comics genre. Keep in mind this doesn’t apply to every event ever made, and it’s perfectly fine to have a crossover that’s not as cerebral or intelligent as something like Infinity. You wanna have a big mash-up of heroes kicking the crap out of each other just because? Go ahead. Just make sure it’s advertised that way, and be prepared for me to slap a great big 1-star rating upon it on Goodreads.
Also keep in mind these steps are for the big blockbuster events like Fear Itself, Civil War and House of M rather than littler ones. If it’s touted as a gamechanger, features every character Marvel ever held the rights to and is written by at least one A-list staff writer, chances are it falls into this category.
1 – A TANGIBLE THREAT
The most necessary thing an event needs is an enemy. Whether the Skrulls are threatening to replace the population with slightly greener doppelgangers, or the director of SHIELD turns out to have really been a crocodile all along, an event needs a clear and discernible threat for the heroes to focus on. Hell, it can be themselves if it fits the story (which, sadly, it did not for Avengers vs. X-Men). Whatever the case, the enemy needs to be present, understandable and a viable threat. They also, for the bigger events, need to be a big enough enemy to justify some Avenger assembling. Infinity got great use out of Thanos and the Builders, and whatever its failings Fear Itself did have those Asgardian bastard gods hitting people with superpowered hammers.
The nature of superheroes – i.e., the characters being a direct response to something nasty, such as crime or being the victim of pater familias – necessitates there’s a villain threatening them, the world, their goldfish, etc. Event titles, featuring every vaguely-marketable superhero a company owns, need a particularly potent enemy to get this particular band together. Which leads me to…
2 – VISIBLE STAKES
There has to be a believable goal for both sides. Obviously the heroes want to stop the villains, but for the villain this could be something more interesting than “destroy Earth and all the puny humans”. Granted, Infinity fell victim a little to this with both the Builders and Thanos, but there were reasons behind both; Thanos was actually looking for his son and wanted to give the Inhumans what for when they tried to hide the boy on Earth, and the Builders needed to trim our home from their garden of multiversal plants. “Destroy Earth” is acceptable as long as there’s a reason; doing it just because, as with the Worthy in Fear Itself or the Skrulls in Secret Invasion just feels tired and uninteresting.
Conversely, look at some stuff that didn’t involve that old chestnut; Siege (and its preceding year of misery, Dark Reign) had a villain more intent on securing the world because of his misguided idea that he was the only man to properly control it. House of M‘s villain, for lack of a better word, was just crazy and didn’t mean to do all the crazy things she did in her craziness. To stretch my credibility as a seasoned and well-balanced individual somewhat, even Avengers vs. X-Men relied on an enemy more intent on kicking ass than kicking Earth. Oh God, I just said something vaguely slightly a little bit positive about AvX; someone take me behind the shed and have me shot.
Stakes get us invested in the story, and the more varied or interesting they are the better we connect with the heroes’ plight. Make it more personal, something deeper the way House of M did, and it’s the cherry on the croissant.
3 – CONSISTENT CHARACTERISATION
Comic companies employ an army of writers, superhero comics more so than others. Ok, not an army, but at least several SEAL teams’ worth.
Point is, there’s a bunch of varied talent and style in any given arm of a comic’s narrative offerings. For all their assembling and Avenging, most of Marvel’s characters have distinctly different personalities in the hands of several distinctly different writers, each making great dishes with different flavours. For instance, Captain America’s gone through a few incarnations in the last little while; Ed Brubaker makes him a sad relic of an age gone by, Rick Remender turns him into a mashup of Buck Rogers and Dominic Santiago, and Cullen Bunn…well, the less said of Cullen Bunn, the better.
In order for a big crossover to work, characters need to have some kind of consistency. If there’s a particular flavour of story running in each character or team’s ongoing series, you’re best off striving to match (or at least attempt to) with that tone. One of the drawbacks of, say, Age of Ultron was the apparent abandonment of anything that had happened to Spider-Man – Superior or otherwise – but seemed to be somewhat within present canon. Avengers vs. X-Men also seemed not to care terribly much about Tony Stark’s recent-at-the-time character efforts in The Invincible Iron Man, ditching his newer, more positive outlook on the world and solving terrorism in favour of building superweapons to kill intergalactic forces of nature (because plot).
Infinity kept things consistent. Captain Marvel reads and speaks as if her words came from the pen of Kelly Sue DeConnick herself. Captain America seems world-weary after his recent harrowing adventure in Dimension Z. Spider-Man…well, we’re still not sure about him. But he’s got his black duds on, so there’s still some Superior in there a bit, right?
Congruency between big events and smaller ongoings is crucial, especially for longer-term readers who are invested in the character as well as the giant multiplayer mashup they feature in. Last thing we need is another Civil War fiasco.
4 – NO RELIANCE ON “COMIC BOOK DEATH”
I CANNOT STRESS THIS ENOUGH. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve railed against this trope being used either as an emotional hinge in the story or the closing chapters to the narrative, with the most egregious (and oft-referenced) being Thor’s death concluding Fear Itself. Lesser examples would also include Bucky Barnes’ death earlier in that same book, or Professor X in Avengers vs. X-Men. Relying on the death, threatened or actual, of an established, branded, marketable and famous character in order to raise tension is a wasted effort.
Look at Infinity; Jonathan Hickman had introduced a number of his own characters throughout his preceding Avengers run, and got great mileage from many C- and D-list superheroes who could have easily been killed in Infinity and would’ve raised the emotional stakes if they had. The reality is that death of heroes we know will be back whenever their next movie rolls around to snag new readers falls utterly flat, and relying on it (especially as a conclusion) is falling utterly flat onto a minefield of nail-throwing proximity charges. So, in other words, really of the not good variety.
5 – A SATISFYING ENDING
Now, when I say “satisfying”, that does not necessarily mean the ending has to wrap everything up in a neat little bow and answer every question begging. Some of the best events – particularly Siege and, to a lesser extent, House of M – wrap up the main plot but leave enough threads for further storytelling in either single character ongoings or in a future event down the line. What stops an ending from being “satisfying” is a significant enough lack of closure. Obviously one can never have a conclusive end to anything superhero-flavoured, since one needs to be able to read more of a cash-cow character the following month, but as long as the event’s main thrust is dealt with and at least some of the B-plots addressed, if not ended, you’ve got a winner on your hands.
Avengers vs. X-Men did not have a satisfying ending. Sure, the Phoenix was vanquished and the Fabulous Five mutants who got possessed by it returned (more or less) to their original selves, but the conclusion came way the hell out of nowhere and ignored several of the more interesting plot threads the book brought up. Some leeway can be given in some cases – such as Cyclops killing Professor X, an act that very much haunts him through the subsequent Uncanny X-Men run – but plots like Namor’s destruction of Wakanda, Hope’s real place in the Marvel mythos following her use against the Phoenix, and the animosity built up between the event’s titular teams are just left dangling for later.
An event needs to feel like a story in and of itself. It’s perfectly fine for it to be part of an ongoing series of events, such as the run Brian Bendis started with Avengers Disassembled, but they should also standalone as a complete story (I can tell you right now this is something DC’s recent Trinity War fails spectacularly at achieving, but I’ll get to that in a later review). Infinity has an ending, the twin A-plots of the Builders and Thanos are respectively concluded as far as the book is concerned, and threads are left for either Jonathan Hickman or another writer to continue in a different direction within the status quo the event leaves us with. Satisfaction doesn’t have to mean total conclusion, although that can certainly help. Just make sure no-one falls victim to the old Tethercat Principle.
6 – HONEST ADVERTISING
This one’s less a requirement and more a preference, but market your event properly. Going to the big guns of saying “THIS EVENT WILL FOREVER CHANGE THE FACE OF EVERYTHING YOU KNOW OMG WTF” is just going to turn seasoned readers like me off any investment we might have in the title. Fear Itself both succeeds and fails at this aspect; HEROES FALL, GODS DIE was certainly a tagline it lived up to, but on the other hand HEROES FALL, GODS DIE was a tagline it lived up to with way the wrong kind of gusto.
I mentioned the image to the left in the second part of my Infinity review, and I was pleased to see the actual book fit the tone of the movie-esque marketing material. It felt like a big film with a lot of moving parts, featuring twin driving plots, a slew of famous faces and giant stake-raising battles. It lives up to the way it was marketed. Avengers vs. X-Men, for better or worse, was touted as a beat-em-up style story between its two main teams, and certainly adhered to that with, again, the wrong kind of gusto.
Whatever you do, don’t sell your event to me as the biggest change to ever occur in the history of anything ever. Coz then we’ll know you’re just full of it.
This is, of course, in no way a definitive guide on how a comic book superhero event should be handled by writers and those associated. It’s merely a guideline, tapping into elements of events I liked as contrasted to elements I didn’t. No event is perfect, including Infinity, but damn it all if it didn’t work as an event better than any I’ve read released in the last decade. It also feels like a story borne out of actual inspiration and the desire to, y’know, tell a story, rather than just seeing how many inches can be added to the official Marvel Money Pile™ (patent pending).
At the end of the (very long) day, I heartily recommend Infinity. It’s a good story, a good superhero yarn, a good space opera and a good event title. And I know most of my regular audience are probably saying “Jeez, couldn’t you just have said that at the start and not drawn this trilogy of mediocre reviews out over several weeks?”
Well, I could’ve, but haven’t I enlightened you just a little tiny bit?
PUBLISHER: MARVEL COMICS
BEST QUOTE: “Well…first there was nothing, then there was everything. Then the Good Lord saw fit to bring me into the world to kick the asses of those who need it most. So get ready, ’cause this day or the next, it’s coming.” – Captain Marvel