Secret Wars, Crisis on Infinite Earths, and the Development of the Universe-Wide Crossover

While Crisis on Infinite Earths was DC’s first universe-wide crossover, there’s some dispute over whether it was the first in comics. The answer largely depends on one’s definitions. Whatever one thinks about this, one shouldn’t pretend that the format of Crisis on Infinite Earths was created out of whole cloth by Marv Wolfman and DC Comics. But to understand the evolution of this odd, or at least rather particular, form of narrative, we have to examine the publishing history of DC’s rival, Marvel Comics. There, the crossover evolved much more organically than it did at DC. And it’s important to remember that, while the two companies are rivals, they have often responded to one another, most frequently by adapting the tone, format, or other elements of one another’s successes. It’s not too much to say that this constitutes a kind of evolving dialogue – sometimes friendly, sometimes contentious – about how to run a line of super-hero comics.

Marvel Super-Heroes Contest of Champions #1 (June 1982)In 1982, for its very first mini-series, Marvel offered a story that justified this then-special format. The three-issue Contest of Champions (#1-3, June-Aug 1982) would feature virtually all of Marvel’s well-known characters. To justify this, the plot had two powerful extraterrestrial beings compete by picking from Marvel’s super-heroes and making them fight (a Marvel tradition).

Despite the somewhat flimsy excuse for a plot, readers loved seeing all of Marvel’s super-heroes in one story – and fighting each other, no less! The mini-series wasn’t a crossover: no characters “crossed over” into one another’s titles, and the story had no tie-ins, nor were events of the mini-series reflected in the various heroes’ various regular series. But it helped to pave the way for later mini-series that would do those things.

In 1984, Marvel wanted to attract Mattel, a toy manufacturer, to produce a line of Marvel toys to rival Kenner’s “Super Powers” line of DC toys. But Mattel was only interested if Marvel had a big publishing event to focus the toy line around. Mattel suggested that kids liked the words “secret” and “wars.” It also wanted several characters (such as Doctor Doom and Iron Man) redesigned and for the characters generally to be given new weapons, vehicles, and settings that could be turned into toys. Jim Shooter, then Marvel’s Editor-in-Chief, shrewdly agreed and figured out how to incorporate these into the story. He himself wrote the 12-issue Secret Wars (May 1984 – Apr 1985), penciled by Mike Zeck and Bob Layton.

Secret Wars #1 (May 1984)The plot of the series was reminiscent of Contest of Champions. The first issue introduced an all-powerful entity called the Beyonder, who kidnaps many of Marvel’s heroes and villains, transports them to a planet he has created called Battleworld, and tells them to fight. To accommodate Mattel’s demands, the Beyonder has stocked Battleworld with technological weapons, vehicles, and castles.

One real innovation of Secret Wars was that it made changes to its characters, such as introducing new characters, giving Spider-Man a black costume (which would later be revealed to be an alien and would become the villain Venom), and ending with the Thing staying on Battleworld, because he’s able to return to human form there, leading to his (temporary) replacement by She-Hulk in the Fantastic Four. These developments, unlike those in DC’s Super Powers mini-series, occurred in Marvel’s regular continuity. (Perhaps it helped that the writer of Secret Wars was also the company’s Editor-in-Chief.) This meant that, unlike Contest of Champions, Secret Wars had tie-ins.

Well, sort of. These issues weren’t tie-ins as we’d recognize them today. They didn’t carry the Secret Wars logo. In a few cases (Amazing Spider-Man, Avengers, Hulk, and Uncanny X-Men), the Beyonder’s presence was hinted at for a couple issues (cover-dated Feb-Mar 1984). Typically, the issues in the month before Secret Wars (cover-dated Apr 1984) ended with the heroes vanishing to go to Battleworld, which helped focus readers on the mini-series. But instead of those titles proceeding to tell what have since become traditional tie-in stories, those titles’ very next issue, published the same month as Secret Wars #1 (May 1984), depicted the heroes’ return, revealing any changes that were going to be made during the just-started Secret Wars. Many title’s continuing plots continued with little interruption.

In fact, these titles undid some of the changes the very next month, in issues published alongside Secret Wars #2. The Hulk returned with a crutch (in Hulk #295, May 1984), and Iron Man returned with an enhanced version of his armor (in Iron Man #182, May 1984); both ditched these in the following issue (cover-dated June 1984), published alongside Secret Wars #2. Some changes, such as Spider-Man’s black costume, lasted longer. The Thing had his own series at the time and used Secret Wars to change its setting. The issue of The Thing depicting his departure for Battleworld (#10, Apr 1984) was followed by him staying on that planet. This storyline lasted throughout the run of Secret Wars, ending in issue #22 (Apr 1985), in which he returned to Earth and Battleworld was destroyed.

Like Contest of Champions, Secret Wars wasn’t really a crossover, but it was closer. In the technical sense, this is true because both of those mini-series simply featured many characters; therefore, they didn’t involve characters “crossing over” into one another’s titles. Of course, this is also true of all “crossover” mini-series. The reason we call some of those “crossovers” isn’t because of the mini-series itself (which is simply that) but because of the larger crossover event these mini-series generate, in which most of a publisher’s titles do cross over, in some substantial way, both with that central mini-series and often with the characters of other titles. The universe-wide crossover mini-series isn’t itself a crossover, but it serves as the axle for a universe-wide crossover event.

In the case of Secret Wars, the unlabeled tie-in issues occurred before or after Secret Wars (or sometimes placed Secret Wars in the middle of an issue), but didn’t tell stories that occurred during the mini-series, fleshing out its story. Effectively, these were prequels or sequels to Secret Wars (or both), rather than tie-ins per se. Also, it wasn’t uncommon for super-hero titles to reference events in one another, especially during guest appearances. The key difference with Secret Wars was that more titles made such references than ever before, and they referenced events occurred in a separate mini-series, starring lots of characters and even making changes to some of them, rather than in one of these ongoing titles. So Secret Wars was more a mini-series referenced in several titles, rather than a universe-wide crossover. It was, however, a major step towards a universe-wide crossover – a proto-crossover, if you will.

Secret Wars was also engineered to feel like an event, and it accomplished this. The series proved popular, and readers liked the increased continuity, which helped make the Marvel Universe feel more coherent and united than ever before. Meanwhile, the Secret Wars toy line, which had engendered the mini-series, produced an intial wave of 1984 offerings and a second (and final) wave in 1985. (A smaller third wave was released only outside of North America.) Secret Wars II #1 (July 1985)Capitalizing on all of this, Marvel followed Secret Wars almost immediately with a nine-issue sequel mini-series, Secret Wars II (July 1985 – Mar 1986). Also written by Shooter, now with art by Al Milgrom and Steve Leialoha, the story focused on the Beyonder coming to Earth and having misadventures, including a turn as a gangster and falling in love with the heroine Dazzler.

Most importantly, Secret Wars II had a few tie-ins (one to five in number) during each of its nine months of publication. This time, these didn’t occur before or after the mini-series; they occurred during, in the manner we now associate with crossover tie-ins. The covers of these issues even featured the Secret Wars II logo in their top right-hand corner. Thus, Marvel produced its first proper universe-wide crossover.

Looking at the company’s history, it’s easy to see how this format evolved: from a mini-series featuring Marvel’s top heroes all together; to a similar mini-series featuring villains too, changing and introducing several characters, and referenced in the company’s various titles; and finally to these titles containing true tie-ins, labeled as such and running alongside the unfolding events of the main mini-series.

If Secret Wars II was Marvel’s first full universe-wide crossover, it wasn’t the first in comics history. Crisis on Infinite Earths #1 began the month Secret Wars ended – three months before Secret Wars II. Because Secret Wars II was three issues shorter, it and Crisis on Infinite Earths concluded in the same month. They were therefore concurrent, although Crisis on Infinite Earths began slightly earlier and was planned long in advance.

Crisis on Infinite Earths #1 (April 1985)Perhaps it’s ultimately irrelevant whether Crisis on Infinite Earths or Secret Wars II (or even Secret Wars, if we strain some definitions) was the first true universe-wide crossover. Marvel’s Contest of Champions and Secret Wars clearly demonstrated that an event featuring all of a company’s heroes could sell. Meanwhile, the most popular titles at both companies – Marvel’s Uncanny X-Men and DC’s New Teen Titans (and although less popular, DC’s Legion of Super-Heroes) – were still telling episodic stories but with more continuing plot threads than ever before. Complexity and continuity sold. This was part of the zeitgeist in comics at the time, and both publishers charted a course in a similar direction.

This shouldn’t be taken as an indication one should equivocate between Secret Wars (much less Secret Wars II) and Crisis on Infinite Earths on a creative level. Secret Wars originated as a condition of Mattel creating a line of Marvel toys. In this respect, it’s closer to DC’s Super Powers mini-series than to Crisis on Infinite Earths, which was created to solve DC’s long-running continuity problems and remake the DC Universe as a more reader-friendly setting. In other words, Crisis on Infinite Earths had a creative agenda that went beyond getting all of a company’s characters together and having them fight.

It’s also important to note that, while Marvel pioneered the mini-series starring its biggest heroes, DC didn’t necessarily need to do that. It had the Justice League, which had been conceived as combining the company’s most popular heroes in a single title. One could argue that DC had begun its own Contest of Champions as an ongoing series in 1960! Marvel never had such a title; its closest equivalent to the League, the Avengers, didn’t take the same “big guns” approach.

To be fair, the roster of the Justice League hadn’t kept up with changing tastes, so that later popular characters (e.g. the New Teen Titans) weren’t included. And the League had recently abandoned its original approach (in 1984, when Justice League of America began its “Justice League Detroit” years).

However, the League had a long tradition of annual team-ups with its (now alternate-Earth) predecessor, the Justice Society, beginning in 1963 (with Justice League of America #21 (Aug 1963). These team-ups usually ran multiple issues in length, long before that was common in super-hero titles. They also came to feature entire universes of additional characters, often with major that required such an expanded set of heroes. No, these weren’t universe-wide crossovers: they neither embraced the whole of the DC Universe nor had tie-ins. But as precedents for the universe-wide crossover, there were a lot more of these stories than Marvel had mini-series uniting its characters.

Marvel certainly innovated the concept of a mini-series starring a diverse set of its most prominent characters. But it had to do so, because it didn’t have a Justice League. DC didn’t need to evolve such a concept, the way Marvel had. DC already had a home for these kinds of stories (at least until 1984) in its annual team-ups in the pages of Justice League of America, many of which had an epic scope, a roster of characters, and a narrative maturity that dwarfed what was seen in Contest of Champions or Secret Wars. Marvel may have won sales and attention with these two mini-series, but DC had been doing these kinds of stories for more than two decades.

DC certainly emulated what Marvel had done, but it did so in a way that emphasized its own traditions. Thus, Crisis on Infinite Earths took its title from those annual team-ups in Justice League of America, the titles of which typically started with the word “Crisis” (right back to the very first, 1963’s two-part “Crisis on Earth-One!” / “Crisis on Earth-Two!”). It’s not too much to say that the title of Crisis on Infinite Earths was ideological, reminding readers that, if they liked these kinds of stories, they were nothing new to DC.

But if this title looked backwards to DC’s celebrated past, it positioned the mini-series as the culmination and conclusion of that past. The end result of “Crisis” on one Earth after another was a “Crisis” on infinite Earths. And this was the perfect title for a series that would depict the end of DC’s system of multiple Earths, inaugurating a new phase of DC history.

If DC took inspiration from Marvel’s Contest of Champions and Secret Wars, it made the concept utterly its own, adapting it in a way that flowed from and honored DC’s own traditions. And whether one considers Crisis on Infinite Earths to be the first universe-wide crossover mini-series or not, there’s no debating that DC took the concept to previously unparalleled heights. In terms of scope, sense of purpose, and narrative sophistication, there’s simply no comparison.

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In 1996, while still an undergraduate, Dr. Julian Darius founded what would become Sequart Organization. After graduating magna cum laude from Lawrence University (Appleton, Wisconsin), he obtained his M.A. in English, authoring a thesis on John Milton and utopianism. In 2002, he moved to Waikiki, teaching college while obtaining an M.A. in French (high honors) and a Ph.D. in English. In 2011, he founded Martian Lit, which publishes creative work, including his comic book Martian Comics. He currently lives in Illinois.

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