On Armageddon 2001 and the Annual-Based Crossover

Armageddon 2001 #1Armageddon 2001 was the first DC universe-wide crossover to run through the company’s annuals. The central mini-series of Armageddon 2001 was only two issues long, acting as “bookends” to the tie-ins, which ran exclusively through that year’s annuals.

The first issue was written by Archie Goodwin, the second by Denns O’Neil. Both were penciled by Dan Jurgens. Dick Giordano inked the first issue; Art Thibert, Steve Mitchell, and Giordano inked the second issue.

The idea of a universe-wide crossover that ran through a company’s annuals had already been pioneered by Marvel, where the universe-wide crossover evolved differently (as discussed in the context of Crisis on Infinite Earths). After Secret Wars II (the company’s first universe-wide crossover that both was based in a mini-series and tied into ongoing titles throughout its run), Marvel abandoned the nascent format. Meanwhile, DC kept tweaking and experimenting with this format, year after year, through 1988’s Invasion. Marvel instead pioneered a different format: a crossover that would run through a year’s worth of the company’s annuals – first, with 1988’s The Evolutionary War; and second, with 1989’s Atlantis Attacks.

Although universe-wide, these two crossovers weren’t grounded in a mini-series. Instead, the stories ran from one Marvel annual to the next, without a central mini-series. It was the inverse of Marvel’s earlier Contest of Champions and the first Secret Wars, which offered a crossover mini-series without tie-ins (or, in the case of Secret Wars, tie-ins as we now think of them). Instead, The Evolutionary War and Atlantis Attacks were nothing but tie-ins, the central mini-series having been removed.

(Marvel took the same approach with 1988-1989’s “Inferno” crossover and 1989-1990’s “Acts of Vengence” crossover, both of which similarly ran in the company’s monthly titles, without a central mini-series. The former was focused on Marvel’s X-Men titles, and the second around its Avengers titles and The Fantastic Four. As such, these weren’t that different from the crossovers that often occur within a certain family of titles, although both reached out to include some other titles too. Whether they really constitute universe-wide crossovers is open to debate. More important for our purposes, they demonstrate Marvel’s avoidance of any central mini-series for its crossovers, in the wake of Secret Wars II.)

Crossovers that ran through a company’s annuals had a few advantages over what would become the more traditional model, which Marvel had only really practiced with Secret Wars II. First, the creators of the company’s ongoing titles couldn’t complain about their running storylines being interrupted, since the crossover story didn’t appear in those titles. Second, annuals typically don’t sell as well as their companion monthlies, and the excitement of a big crossover event was thus a way to boost those sales. Third, annuals featured longer page counts than standard issues, leaving room for longer crossover stories or even back-up tales, elaborating upon the crossover or showing how they affected secondary characters who might otherwise be ignored.

After Atlantis Attacks, Marvel abandoned this format too – without ever developing it by adding a central mini-series. In 1991, Marvel returned to the crossover mini-series (only the company’s second) with The Infinity Guantlet. In the following two years, it offered two sequel crossover mini-series. All of these had a very limited number of tie-ins. Other than these, Marvel’s many other crossovers didn’t have a central mini-series again until late 2000’s Maximum Security. To date, the company has never returned to the format of the crossover that runs through a year’s annuals.

By 1991, DC hadn’t published a universe-wide crossover mini-series since 1988’s Invasion (already DC’s fourth, compared to Marvel’s one). In 1991, DC suddenly produced two such crossovers. One was a conventional crossover mini-series, with tie-ins in the company’s monthly comics: War of the Gods. The other – Armageddon 2001 – ran through that year’s annuals, adopting the format pioneered by Marvel and merging it with the crossover mini-series.

The Armageddon 2001 mini-series would only be two issues long – but because they were the length of the company’s annuals, these two issues were about as long as five standard issues. The tie-ins (in DC’s 1991 annuals) would occur between these two issues. Thus, the two issues of Armageddon 2001 could be understood as “bookends” to the whole event. While this limited interaction between the mini-series and its tie-ins, since they didn’t run concurrently, the result was an ordered, easily intelligible structure that any reader could understand.

And while two issues doesn’t make for a very detailed crossover mini-series, the length of those two issues helped correct one of the problems of many such crossover mini-series: that the beginning and ending can feel rushed. Properly setting up and concluding the big drama of a universe-wide crossover requires more pages than a standard issue allows, but tie-ins generally run from the first to the final issue of the crossover mini-series, often distorting the story’s pace. Boiling the crossover mini-series down to two issues may have let readers get the main story easily and cheaply, but it also reduced the entire format of the universe-wide crossover to its essential, simple core.

In a way, this might be seen as a response to the failings of Invasion, which consisted of three extra-long issues – although the third issue felt more like a post-climax dénouement than a conclusion. Armageddon 2001 can be understood as simply removing this final issue, while retaining (most of) the other issues’ added length. Sure, you can look at the crossover as a bunch of annuals with a shared premise and a couple of specials slapped at either end. But you can also look at it as another of DC’s experiments with the format of the crossover mini-series, one that responds to the strengths and weaknesses of its predecessor.

And because the tie-ins were episodic, readers could purchase whichever ones they wanted – unlike Marvel’s crossovers using the company’s annuals, in which the main story continued from one annual to the next.

Of course, none of this would have worked without an interesting premise. But Armageddon 2001 sold well, with the first issue and several of the early tie-ins going into multiple printings. And that’s at least partly a testament to the crossover’s structure – which took the idea of a crossover running through a year’s annuals, pioneered by Marvel, and turned it into a full-fledged, universe-wide crossover mini-series for the first time.

In comparison, War of the Gods, the more typical four-issue monthly crossover mini-series produced by DC the same year, seems a bit like a regression. It too preserved something of the expanded page count of Invasion: its issues were extra-long, though not as long as those of Armageddon 2001, nor the even longer issues of Invasion. Unlike Invasion or Armageddon 2001, the four issues of War of the Gods didn’t have their own, easily understood identity. Readers were less excited by the premise than that of Armageddon 2001, the tie-ins could be confusing, and the central mini-series itself ran late. Ultimately, DC chose not to produce another monthly crossover, running through the company’s monthly titles, until 1994’s Zero Hour – a pause of some three years. Meanwhile, in a testament to the success of Armageddon 2001, DC produced similar crossovers for its annuals in 1992 and 1993, then continued tying its annuals together by a shared theme, or a Justice League-focused, non-universe-wide crossover, through the year 2000.

Yet none of these other annual-based crossovers, nor their spiritual successors, would be as creatively successful as Armageddon 2001, which still stands – despite some criticism of its conclusion – as the very model for what the annual-based crossover can be: simple, intelligible, gripping, and a whole lot of fun.

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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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