Friday's Cheap Marketing Ploy

All over the internet, I see the same complaint from comics fans. Crossovers suck. It's all marketing BS, it forces you to pick up a bunch of books you don't want, it's a cheap ploy, etc., etc. We hate crossovers.

But do we? I mean, publishers keep doing the things. Crossover event-type books must sell, or why do them?

I got to thinking about it this week, what with all the Civil War fallout and the Captain America hooraw. The theory goes, you get a bunch of people to sample your comics because of the Big Event, whatever it is, and then they'll keep coming back for more.

Okay. So does this actually work?

There have been times when a crossover event worked, at least with me. (More than I probably care to admit to, considering how snarky I've been in this space about the crass commercial motivations of things like Event Death comics.) But the strategy of forcing me to buy a comic I normally wouldn't in order to get a complete story, and hoping I then added that new book to my regular purchases, has in fact paid off a couple of times for publishers.

I thought it might be worth taking a look at the times it actually worked, to see what qualities those particular events had that made them successful with me. Is there a formula? What makes a crossover event pay off as actual marketing, gathering new readers to a book that otherwise they might not have bothered picking up?

Let's start with the first one I ever went for. This was the first crossover I ever bought into and it was a complete success for the publisher -- I purchased a book I otherwise would never have tried, and became a regular reader of that book thereafter.

It was just a little two-parter, but it had an inspired premise. Dr. Strange's manservant Wong is attacked by Dracula, and this sets up a battle royal between the Lord of Vampires and the Sorcerer Supreme as Strange struggles to free Wong from the curse of vampirism that must inevitably follow his 'death' at Dracula's hands.

I was a big Dr. Strange guy -- still am -- but I'd never bothered with Dracula's book. I think my adolescent reasoning was something like, it's gotta be a big cheat, the good guys can never really beat Dracula or they'd have to cancel the book, so what's the point?

But that issue sold me on the title. I was back for #45 the following month and a regular reader thereafter. What worked?

Let's start with the obvious one first -- the art. I like Gene Colan's work a lot and most people agree Tomb of Dracula was a high point for him. He was already on Dr. Strange and I liked his work there, so the visuals came pre-sold.

It was Marv Wolfman's writing that carried it, though. In addition to telling a really gripping story of Dracula squaring off with Doc Strange, he set up a great little cliffhanger, with Blade the vampire hunter meeting Hannibal King the vampire detective, as an epilogue. It didn't impact the Dr. Strange storyline in any way but it got me interested enough to come back the following month.

In other words, Wolfman made sure that even though I was there for the guest star, I nevertheless got a taste of what the regular book was about, I was introduced to the book's regular supporting cast and ongoing plotlines, and I had a reason to come back. The story's structure worked in such a way as to make the new folks welcome and show us what the book's good points were. That should be Rule One for all event crossovers, right? (The funny thing is, I remember one of the criticisms constantly leveled at Tomb of Dracula back then was how new-reader-unfriendly it was. Couldn't prove it by me... I came back the following issue and the one after that and pretty soon I was a fan.)

The example also illustrates a principle that I really, really wish more crossover event writers would bear in mind -- the idea of heroes staying in their own weight class. It made SENSE for Dr. Strange and Dracula's paths to cross, they were both in the occult, gothic corner of the Marvel Universe. And the same artist was doing both books, which meant there was a level of backstage fun involved for readers, as well as a seamless transition in visual style from one title to the other. A later adventure, where Dracula met the Silver Surfer, didn't work nearly as well. (If there's any character Gene Colan shouldn't be drawing, it's the Silver Surfer.)

More to the point, Dracula and superheroics don't mix well. (I didn't like Dracula vs. the X-Men, either.) But Dracula and sorcery is practically a gimme.

Here's another example of doing it right; one where I actually ended up returning to a book I'd completely given up on.

This title, you may recall, began as Mike Grell's Green Arrow revamp in the late 80's, and Grell went quite a ways with it. But when he left, the book floundered. There was a limping sort of long storyline called "Crossroads" that I tried for a couple of issues post-Grell, but it seemed to be all about getting Ollie out of Seattle and back into mainstream DC continuity, something I had no interest in, really. So I dropped the book.

I was vaguely aware of Oliver Queen dying and his son replacing him, I'd seen guest shots here and there, but it wasn't until Chuck Dixon's "Brotherhood of the Fist" crossover that I got my first real look at Connor Hawke in a story that was ABOUT him. It was another seamless transition -- this time because the books it went through were all regular Chuck Dixon titles.

I was already buying the Bat books -- Robin, Detective, Nightwing -- so it was pretty painless to just add in Green Arrow at the beginning and end of the month, and I liked it enough to put it back in the regular rotation.

Chuck Dixon's tale persuaded me that the fun action-movie kind of stories he was already doing in Robin and Birds of Prey and Detective were also happening over in Green Arrow, and I was on board for the ride. Sadly, it didn't last long - Kevin Smith screwed that up by demanding to bring Ollie back and the book only went another couple of issues, but I still like Connor Hawke and am following the new miniseries with considerable enjoyment. (I keep meaning to go clean up the rest of Dixon's original Connor Hawke run, too -- seems like that would be easy pickings at a convention.)

"But Greg," I hear you saying. "Those crossovers don't count. Those little ones are just for fun. We mean the big honkin' company-wide things that every book in the line gets forced into. THOSE are the ones that always suck."

Okay. Often -- maybe even mostly -- they do. But do they sell new titles to readers?

I can think of a few they sold to me. Let's start with the granddaddy of them all, the one we can blame for the trend becoming a trend in the first place.

If you were reading DC comics in 1985 you absolutely could not avoid Crisis on Infinite Earths. It was everywhere. EVERYTHING tied into that one, it seems. At the time I was only reading -- let's see if I can do this without getting up and rooting through the longboxes -- Batman, Detective, the New Teen Titans, Green Lantern, and that was it from DC. A few bright spots where my old favorite creators from Marvel were hiding out. And then the Crisis was upon us.

I can think of two books that I not only added to the pull list, but immediately went out and hunted down all the back issues as well, shortly after falling for their Crisis tie-ins. The first was Infinity, Inc.

Now, this was a case of right place, right time. I'd been enjoying the Titans revival from Wolfman and Perez, but Perez had recently left (to do Crisis) and it felt like the buzz and momentum had left with him. He'd gone out with a bang, that great Trigon story in the first five issues of the new direct-only title, but afterwards it felt tired, as though Wolfman was struggling to keep the Titans going. The pace of the book seemed infinitely slower after George Perez left. Nothing ever seemed to happen, nothing resolved, stories didn't end so much as just... stop. (This was right around the time of the Tamaran wedding story, which everyone, including Marv Wolfman, agrees in retrospect was when the wheels came off the wagon for the Titans.)

Whatever the reason, the book seemed really slow... and depressing, and whiny. Bottom line: I missed my fun teenage-heroes action book. And -- what's this? Why, here's another one! It was no Titans but it was still entertaining (certainly more entertaining than emo Dick Grayson in a loincloth, which was just plain dumb.) I liked the Infinity Inc. characters and I liked the premise -- remember, I had fond memories of all those JLA-JSA crossovers. I'd tried All-Star Squadron when it started for that very reason, but I couldn't get interested, Roy Thomas treated that title too much like a history book. But with the Infinitors he seemed to be having more fun. The Crisis gave us the new Hourman and the new Dr. Midnight along with the new Wildcat, and whatever you may think of those characters, it felt like stuff was at least happening. And when I tracked down the back issues there was all that breathtaking art from Jerry Ordway and Don Newton, too.

But that was just one. The REAL find from Crisis for me was this:

The revamped, post-"Anatomy Lesson" Swamp Thing. It was my first encounter with Alan Moore. That's right -- my first Alan Moore comic was this big dumb corporate crossover tie-in book, and it STILL blew me away. Like Marv Wolfman had done for Dracula a decade before, Moore found a way to make the new folks dropping by for the Crisis welcome, getting us interested in Swamp Thing's corner of the DCU. In addition to the Crisis stuff, he found room for John Constantine and the Brujeria and the creepiest Phantom Stranger I'd ever seen... not to mention that Moore seemed to be the only writer to really look at the scary implications of "all eras colliding at once." (There's a great bit with a woman trying to explain her outfit to some visitors that I won't spoil -- the whole Brujeria/Crisis storyline is collected in the trade paperback Swamp Thing: A Murder of Crows, and I recommend it to the seven or eight of you reading this that haven't already read it.)

Readers of Swamp Thing will know that this wasn't even the GOOD stuff. Imagine the delights that were waiting for me in the back-issue bin. And without the Crisis crossover, I probably wouldn't have bothered to look for those back issues. I mean, remember, this is before Moore made his rep in the U.S. There was some buzz on Swamp Thing but nothing like what Moore got later on for Watchmen or Promethea. It was more, "Yeah, it's actually pretty good. A horror comic that's actually scary." That by itself wasn't enough to get me to pick it up.

Sure, the original Crisis is pretty easy to pick apart as a story. There are lots of things that don't really hang together and the plot's very hard to follow -- after all these years, I'm STILL not really sure exactly what the Anti-Monitor was trying to DO, though I'm pretty sure it was bad and would have killed lots of people. And there were other repercussions from the series, across not just DC but the whole industry, that I think you can make a good case have really hurt mainstream comics over the long haul.

But as a piece of marketing? It bordered on genius. As far as readers were concerned Crisis on Infinite Earths got us excited about DC Comics and their whole line of books, for the first time in YEARS. Everything felt new again. Marvel had traditionally been the big innovator in the mainstream, and they suddenly looked stodgy and tired in comparison.

Looking at what stuck, again, the successes from Crisis either slapped a fresh coat of paint on an old premise and made it fun again -- the Wally West Flash spun out of the original Crisis, as well as the revamped Green Lantern Corps and Secret Origins -- but also, it was the launching pad for DC's newly-acquired Charlton characters, giving us new takes on the Question, Captain Atom, and the Blue Beetle. (And inadvertently, Watchmen, which, after all, started as Alan Moore's proposal for those same Charlton acquisitions.)

That's the REAL fallout from these crossover mega-events. At their best, they are launching pads. "The Death of Superman" was, admittedly, a publicity stunt that went beyond crass -- but that was just a setup. The REAL story was The Return of Superman, which launched Steel and Superboy, as well as giving a shot in the arm to the big guy himself.

Mullet aside, the fact remains that the Super books were INTERESTING for a long time after that. Sure, I sneered at the "Death" story (there's no way I can buy Superman being so dumb that all he can think of is to just stand there and slug it out. With a bad guy that makes the Hulk look like a master strategist? When Superman could fly and Doomsday couldn't? Come on.) But even jaded old me fell for "The Return." HOW were they going to pull it off? I had to know. The result? I had more fun DC books on the pull list again.

Or how about Zero Hour -- admittedly, a really, really bad story that has the honor of being even more muddled than the story it was trying to "fix", as well as displaying all the worst traits of continuity-driven, Event Death storytelling.

But it still gave us "Zero Month," a series of great jumping-on points across the whole DCU, and even better, we got the Jack Knight Starman.

I sampled a bunch of DC books that month, and though I fled screaming from Jared Stevens and whoever the hell that new Hawkman was, Starman was worth it. I wouldn't have found the book for another year without "Zero Month," probably.

Or what about Legends?

That was actually a pretty good story, and it launched the new Flash, the Giffen-era Justice League, and -- sigh -- the Suicide Squad.

But isn't it possible to launch new books WITHOUT the giant company crossover?

Sure. Happens all the time. But, you know, mainstream comics are a commercial, profit-driven business, no matter how many of us fans are screaming about artistic integrity. A new book can't be an option if it's invisible. So of COURSE publishers are going to be flailing around trying anything they can think of to get people to look at the books. The crossover event seems to work.

I mean, I have to own up. They work on me. I don't even really APPROVE of the damned things and yet, they seem to register pretty well with me -- I've found several of my favorite books that way. (More than I even realized, until I sat down to write this and really thought about it.) I mean, I thought Infinite Crisis was gory and stupid and in the end, managed to crap on everything it was trying to pay tribute to, despite all the coy hints in the beginning that it wasn't going to be that kind of story. (Okay, I am still annoyed with myself for falling for that. I admit it.) But I liked Villains United and a lot of "One Year Later." I am enjoying 52.

So now it's Marvel's turn. You win, Mr. Quesada. The trick still works. You've got our attention. We've had the silly crossover and the Big Media Event. Now where's the good stuff that spins out of it? That's the REAL payoff. What are the books you guys are trying so hard to get us to look at?

See you next week.

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