Apr 12, 2012

Retrospective: JLA/Avengers

The AVENGERS movie is coming out in a couple of months, and it's made me want to write about this almost decade-old crossover, which is also the last DC/Marvel crossover as of this writing. In 2003, DC's Justice League of America met Marvel's The Avengers in a four-part crossover written by Kurt Busiek and drawn by George Perez.

The key to this crossover was really Perez, who was already on board to draw the JLA/AVENGERS crossover in 1983, to be written by Gerry Conway.

For various reasons (which are detailed in the JLA/AVENGERS ABSOLUTE EDITION), the 1983 crossover fell through. Busiek and Perez got on AVENGERS in 1998 during the "Heroes Return" event (known on The Comics Cube as "The Time Superhero Comics Turned Good Again"), and really placed Earth's Mightiest Heroes back in their classic, traditional template. It was good stuff. Great stuff. It gets criticized these days for being too much of a throwback. It could be argued that Roger Stern and Steve Englehart had better, more groundbreaking runs, yes. But after several years of leather jackets, pouches, and Rob Liefeld, the throwback feel is exactly what the title needed at the time. It sort of reminds me of the way Mark Waid's DAREDEVIL is being perceived now.

At the same time, the JLA was undergoing a resurgence at DC under the pen of Grant Morrison. What the Avengers went through in the early 90s, the JLA also went through, and by 1996 they were pretty much an X-Men clone. Morrison and Howard Porter relaunched the JLA with its most basic concept: use DC's biggest and most marketable heroes.

And so the stage was set for the 2003 crossover. By then, George Perez was under exclusive contract to CrossGen Entertainment, with an "out" clause stating that if DC and Marvel were to offer him JLA/AVENGERS by a certain deadline, he could take it. That's how much the project meant to Perez; it also shows how much it meant to Mark Alessi, the head honcho at CrossGen, that he would even put that clause in George's contract. And DC and Marvel did make the deadline with minutes to spare, showing just how important it was to them that Perez was the one who drew it. And why was it so important? Because when Perez says he wants to draw everyone. He means it: He wants to draw everyone.

If I had to pick a favorite cover based on pure enjoyment alone,
this is it.

The crossover itself became my favorite crossover of all time rather easily, and one of the books I'd take with me to a desert island. It reeked of fan service, sure, but that's like complaining that your hamburger was made from a cow. It hit so many appropriate beats, and it really felt "classic" because it was done at the right time with the right rosters. As DC and Marvel become more and more homogeneous over the years, the more similar they become and the less stark the differences between them are. (For example, Byrne's treatment of Superman was criticized as "Marvelizing," while Kyle Rayner was known in the 90s as Peter Parker with a Green Lantern ring.) But because of Morrison and Busiek bringing comics' two premiere teams back to their archetypal selves, the crossover could then explore all those classic differences.

Spoilers follow.

The basic gist of the story is that DC's Krona and Marvel's Grandmaster are playing a game, with The Avengers representing Krona and the JLA representing the Grandmaster (with both teams unaware of this, natch). If Krona's side wins, the Marvel Universe would be destroyed. It's basically a big scavenger hunt with the teams having to find six items from each universe.

From the start, the differences between the two universes are obvious. The Justice League is not particularly impressed with the condition that the Avengers' earth is in.

Likewise, the Avengers are completely startled by the hero worship that the Justice League gets.

This crossing over also has an adverse effect on the heroes' abilities to think rationally, with no two heroes being more affected than Superman and Captain America.

No one is immune though, and when the two teams finally meet formally for the first time, leave it to a normally temperamental Thunder God to be even more temperamental and draw first blood.

Seriously, how cool is that?

The entire scavenger hunt is a look into the two differences between the two universes. For example, Marvel heroes also tend to have to deal with a more cynical populace. This may actually make the Marvel characters more heroic, but Superman isn't impressed. Captain America, however, is equally unimpressed because he believes that the DC heroes are doing too much and ruling like dictators.

DC characters also tend to be stronger and more powerful. The Scarlet Witch, for example, derived her power from the realm of chaos magick, which made her rank in the second tier of magicians in the Marvel Universe. Once she gets to the DC Universe and is able to tap into DC's chaos dimension, however, she's barely able to control her power and herself.

This leads us into the main event, featuring Superman going up against the Mighty Thor.

Superman ends up winning this one, leading to Marvel Zombies complaining about this scene for years to come. It makes complete sense to me (and just as a refresher, I love Thor), though. Busiek and Perez spent two issues explaining that the DC heroes had more raw power — Flash is faster than Quicksilver as well, until they get to the Marvel Universe, because Flash's powers are derived from DC's Speed Force — so Thor would have to fight intelligently in order to beat Superman. He wasn't going to beat Superman in a blow-for-blow fight, because, again, Big Blue is stronger than he is. But Thor didn't fight intelligently. He fought like a brute. And of course he fought like a brute, because, again, everyone's ability to think rationally was being affected. Thor was not beating Superman under these circumstances, and he says later on that he could probably take him next time, since he had his measure now. In other words, now that he could fight more intelligently, he would probably win. I think we'll take that, no?

And it's not as if the Avengers got shortchanged here. Here's Photon outmaneuvering Green Lantern.

And although it was disappointing to see Captain America and Batman only go a page long, the story called for it. Moreover, Batman says that Captain America could conceivably beat him, and if you know Batman, that's the closest thing you're going to get to an admission that he would lose.

The biggest point here is that even with more powerful members, the Avengers still manage to fight the Justice League to a draw, marking the biggest difference between the two teams. The JLA is the equivalent of an All-Star Team in sports. But the Avengers are that sports league's best team. The All-Star Team may be the best collection of individual talent put together, but it's the league's best team that truly understands things like teamwork, chemistry, and optimal success. It was the difference between training for uncounted hours with Captain America in drills in Avengers Mansion, and splitting up into teams of two to handle a menace (the JLA's usual tactic).

Things take a turn for the worse in the third issue, when reality keeps shifting, playing havoc with everyone's memories, and taking us on a tour throughout time. We're treated to a bunch of alternate realities, and as readers, we're treated to a bunch of Easter eggs. I promise to cover a bunch of them soon.

Finally, the two teams head over to the Grandmaster's lair, and the dying Elder of the Universe is forced to explain everything. Everything. Check out this spread.

Thanks to this particular Facebook album for this.

As you can see, Perez just went nuts on this crossover (to the point where he got tendonitis after drawing the cover to issue #3), and it all culminates in a big fight in issue #4 where the Avengers and the JLA attack Krona in his home base (and wait till you see what it is — that's not something I'm spoiling for you), where Krona throws just about every villain these two teams have ever faced against them. This leads to some interesting match-ups.

Superman vs. Count Nefaria

Tigra vs. Cheetah

Captain America vs. Prometheus

At the same time, chronal waves keep bringing Leaguers and Avengers in and out of the fight...

Three Captains Marvel in one panel!!!

...as well as changing them to different versions of themselves.

Yes, even Electric Superman shows up.

The whole crossover is fun superhero comics, running at breakneck speed, with the right touches of characterization and Easter eggs sprinkled throughout. You couldn't do this crossover now, not with DCnU's Justice League becoming "younger" and more dysfunctional (becoming more like The Avengers... or the X-Men) while the Avengers have become more like the Justice League, revamping their roster in the last decade to feature the All-Stars of the Marvel Universe (including loners like Spider-Man, Daredevil, and Wolverine).

It would certainly be an interesting crossover, but it wouldn't be "classic." Therein lies the paradox: the JLA/AVENGERS we got was timeless specifically because it was a product of its time, with both the JLA and the Avengers going through a resurgence after years of attempts to be "modern." Even if they went through with the 1983 crossover, it wouldn't have been the same, as it's one thing to create something at the height of a classic era and another to create something while making sure to pay tribute to that era. The latter lets you focus on the truly classic stuff, while the former would have the items that wouldn't stand the test of time (such as Starfox playing a prominent role).

If you plan to see The Avengers, track this one down. And if you have it, reread it. It may not be the best Avengers story ever, but it's certainly the most fun. You won't regret it.


Thefanboyseo said...

You also have to consider the ramifications of this crossover for Scarlet Witch.

While it has never been proven that Wanda finally went bonkers after making contact with the chaos lords of the DC universe, its still an interesting thought.

Paul C said...

Here, here! I love this crossover so much, it makes me sad when people complain about it.

One of my favourite bits is when Wonder Woman punches Hercules and cries "Despoiler of Hippolyta!" and he says "Well, I have had the pleasure.."

I also love that two of my favourite characters, Aquaman and She Hulk, face off against each other.

Duy Tano said...

The two main complaints I've heard about it are:

(1) That it's too much like fan service, which to me is like complaining that your burger is made out of a cow.

(2) That people were out of character, which was explained in the story. Does anyone actually think they would have fought if they had been in character?

Ben Smith said...

Thor could beat Superman! :)

MOCK! said...

Great post! I liked the Batman/Cap interaction....much like the one in Byrne's "Batman & Captain America" Elseworld's story...

Duy Tano said...

Just a little less smiling in this one!

Shawn Levasseur said...

I've liked how the DCU's magic effected Wanda. I even mentally chalk it up to contributing to what happened in Avengers Disassembled.

Or as I like to say, she had a bad case of "Vertigo".

Anonymous said...

Man, saw this in a comic shop about 5 years ago, didn't grab it, regretted it ever since. I've read and heard nerd rage about Superman beating Thor for years, and all I can say is....live with it, because on Supes' world, the dials go up to 11 ! Those panels never get old, no matter how many times I look at them. A lot of the cross-over battles are stupid ( I love DC, but no way does Aquaman beat Namor, or Batman beat the Hulk, or Storm beat Wonder Woman) but the best of the bunch is definitely Teen Titans/Xmen great art, good story - overall an A+, sets the standard no other crossover reaches.

Duy Tano said...

After JLA/Avengers and Punisher/Archie, my favorite is definitely the first Superman/Spider-Man.

I actually don't really lke X-Men/Titans despite being a big fan of Walt Simonson as I felt it leaned too much in one direction (not the direction I want either), and I really like Batman/Hulk despite not liking either character, because I just love Garcia-Lopez so much.

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