So a few weeks ago, we looked at Defenders #62-63, in which a large number of heroes came together almost at random to try out for the Defenders in a huge mega-crossover. Next we looked at Marvel Super Hero Contest of Champions, which took that idea, expanded it to include every hero in the world, and shifted the event from an audition to a giant game of Capture the Flag, with the fate of the world at stake. After that came Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars, which took the same set-up as CoC, but used more fan favorite heroes and switched the game to a fight.
At least one more major comic book storyline took that same idea and ran with it, and it was by far the best of the bunch. I’m speaking of the 2003 crossover team-up event of the century, JLA/Avengers (or Avengers/JLA as it was known on even numbered issues). Writer Kurt Busiek and artist George Perez took as inspiration the setup of Contest of Champions and crossed it with Crisis on Infinite Earths, DC’s first universe-wide crossover event (which was also drawn by Perez).
One point to make before we get to the plot: Busiek makes an interesting choice here by choosing to ignore all the previous DC/Marvel cross-overs (such as Superman vs. the Amazing Spider-Man, Batman vs. the Incredible Hulk, and The Uncanny X-Men and the New Teen Titans).
Issue one opens with a couple of universes being destroyed by a mysterious figure who is not the Anti-Monitor. Next we see the Justice League in a frantic pitched battle with Tyrannus, from the Marvel Universe. On the other side of the gap, we see the Avengers fighting Starro, the giant space starfish with mind-control powers. Both sides realize something is wrong; these menaces come from somewhere else, somewhere very different. Flash finds a way to cross over to the Marvel Universe, where he learns it’s a messed-up place. Not long after, the Justice League has an unwelcome intruder: the Grandmaster.
Yes, the guy from Contest of Champions. He has proposed a contest with Krona, the unbelievably powerful dude who has been destroying universes. And the game is, you guessed it, another variation of Capture the Flag. But get a load of the flags.
And at this point, although you might be looking forward to the super-smackdown, you might also feel apprehensive and a little let down. After all, expectations were pretty high for this thing, and the echoes of the lame Contest of Champions slathered over with Shooter-style hype (it’s not just the fate of the world, it’s the fate of the universe… two universes, even) do not lend confidence that the story is going to be anything special.
But then the JLA visit Marvel-world and things get interesting. They are horrified by the darkness of the Marvel universe–the anti-mutant hatred and the idea of a villain like Doctor Doom running his own country. Superman in particular is just offended by the entire place.
Meanwhile, the Avengers visit DC-world and are amazed at how the heroes are idolized, which offends Captain America. As a survivor of World War II, Cap sees the hero-worship as a propaganda machine facilitating the heroes as fascist dictators. So when the Avengers also learn about the contest, it becomes personal.
Which leads into issue number two, in which the JLA and Avengers cross over to the opposite universes to find the items, while summoning reservists to guard the artifacts on their own worlds, which shifts everything into high gear. Busiek manages to combine frantic action with some great character turns, including a hilarious rivalry between Flash and Quicksilver.
Perez also rises to the challenge by not only rendering the characters and action beautifully with his trademark detail, but also doing some really interesting things with symmetrical layouts which complement the theme of parallel universes.
And between the two of them, there’s just scene after scene of fan-wank material, with the Justice League fighting Fin Fang Foom, Wonder Woman fighting Marvel’s Hercules, Darkseid wielding the Infinity Gauntlet (and it’s a sign of how big the scope of this story is that the Infinity Gauntlet thing is dispensed with in two pages), and this huge final battle between the JLA and the Avengers with the centerpiece being an awesome smackdown between Superman and Thor.
The contest looks as if it will end in a draw, but then Captain America, who has been investigating the Grandmaster’s motives with Batman and Atom, orders the Avengers to throw the match. The Grandmaster wins, and Krona… goes nuts. He blasts the Grandmaster and then seizes his prize (the name and location of Galactus) from Grandmaster’s mind. Then he summons Galactus and kicks the living shit out of him and a thousand fans wet their pants in glee.
And the series is only half over.
In issue three, things get seriously weird as the JLA and Avengers experience shifting realities in which frequent crossovers are a constant thing. And because we still haven’t come close to representing nearly every hero who has ever served in either team, the reality shifts seem to push characters through time as well, so that not only do both teams have constantly shifting rosters, but Wally is replaced as Flash by the late Barry Allen, and Kyle Rayner is replaced as Green Lantern by Hal Jordan.
But both sides sense something is wrong, so they investigate, learning that the two universes are being forced together. They track down the wounded Grandmaster who tells them they must defeat Krona to restore the proper reality.
And though the previous issues got some good dramatic mileage out of the DC=Conservative/Marvel=Liberal dichotomy (managing very nicely to ultimately not pick a side), in this issue, shit gets real. Because the climactic confrontation finally picks up some real stakes. And I don’t mean the empty wind of “the fate of two universes depends on you heroes.”
No, see, in order to put things back the way they’re supposed to be, the heroes have to learn the way things are meant to turn out. And it isn’t pretty. Aquaman will lose a hand. Tony Stark will become an alcoholic. The Vision and the Scarlet Witch will lose their children. Batman will lose Jason Todd and have his back broken by Bane. Superman will be killed by Doomsday. Barry Allen will die in the Crisis. Busiek even manages to make good use of the worst character betrayals of both companies, by having Hank Pym discover he will be a wife-beater while Hal Jordan learns he will become a super-villain.
In other words, this isn’t just about facing danger. The heroes have to go into battle knowing that if they win, they will be guaranteed horrible personal tragedies. I expected lots of cool fan wank; I did not expect this level of real drama. Kudos, Busiek.
Which leads to the final issue, with that awesome Perez cover. I’m sorry that I could not get good scans of the entire covers; every cover is a wraparound, but the books are squarebound, meaning I can’t lay the books flat to scan them, and if I scanned the sides separately and tried to paste ’em together, they’d have a missing strip in the middle. But the back covers of issues one through three are just as full of detail, which makes the iconic simplicity of Superman wielding Captain America’s shield and Mjolnir even more effective.
The two teams assault Krona’s headquarters as he is building the power to destroy both universes. Krona defends his fortress with wave after wave of minions, from agents of A.I.M. and Hydra to Darkseid’s para-demons and the Mole Man’s monstrous underground followers. There are also a ton of supervillains.
But that’s not the worst part. The worst part is that reality continues to shift, so that the heroes are disoriented as they battle their way through, with their teammates and costumes constantly changing. Goliath changes to Yellowjacket. Captain America briefly sports his U.S. Agent guise. And Superman not only rocks the mullet for a panel, but also briefly changes to Blue Lightning Superman. And Batman battles Batroc the Leaper. It’s not all classic.
There’s also a neat throwaway gag in which the two Captain Marvels battle side-by-side.
In the end, the story ended up being much bigger than I expected, but Busiek kept everything focused and clear. It’s a wonderful job of writing.
And Perez’s art is spectacular, delivering exciting action and cosmic spectacle, while also keeping all the characters not only recognizable but physically distinct from each other. It’s even more impressive when you realize he also inked.
As a complete package, the JLA/Avengers miniseries is in the running for the very best overall storyline in my entire collection.