November 4, 2020

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Review - Crossover #1 by Donny Cates and Geoff Shaw

Crossover #1
Written by Donny Cates
Illustrated by Geoff Shaw
Colors by Dee Cunniffe
Letters by John J. Hill
Published by Image Comics

Crossover (the new comic from the creative team behind the extraordinary God Country) is an absolute home run and one of the best debut issues (really, one of the best single issues generally) that I've read all year.  If you're wondering whether the quality of this comic meets the hype? My answer is an enthusiastic "hell yeah".  Crossover is an absolute popcorn thrill ride of a comic. It's a meditation on the significance of fiction and on our relationship to fictional characters. And it's also...a story about love and hope and community?  Above all of that, it's a stunning work of art that you can stare at slack-jawed all day. Crossover is off to a fantastic start.

Crossover begins by asking an interesting question. Who is more real, Superman? Or you (the reader)? Over the course of the first few pages, the narrator makes the case that the answer is in fact “not you”. But this is just preamble, to introduce you to the main premise of the comic, and it’s a hell of a premise. On January 11, 2017, a futuristic city filled with superheroes and villains from every different company appear inside of (or, on top of) Denver, Colorado, in the midst of a giant crossover event-style battle (think, Infinite Crisis, War of the Realms, etc.). This causes mass death and chaos which begins to spread. One of the superheroes eventually creates a giant force field around all of Colorado in order to contain the damage and chaos, and after that happens, everyone outside of the bubble loses all contact with anyone inside.  

The story picks up some number of years later as we see Ellipsis (or Ellie) Howell walking to her job at a local comic shop in Provo, Utah. This isn't a riskless proposition, as Ellie is wearing superhero cosplay on her way to a job at a comic shop. Both of these things mark her as participating in activities that are now shunned by many in society (given the very real damage and chaos that these "fictional" characters have caused). The comic shop is a busy and chaotic place, and things take a turn for the even more chaotic. I don't want to say any more; this story is full of surprises that are worth your discovering for yourself. Suffice to say, the end of the first issue of Crossover sets up some really exciting and fun ideas. 

My first experience with the art of Geoff Shaw was in reading the wonderful God Country (my review here). There, I thought Shaw did terrific work (paired with talented colorist Jason Wordie) bringing to life the dual worlds of rural Texas, and the world of cosmic space gods, and somehow making all of that work seamlessly. Well, all of that time spent drawing the clash of two completely different worlds was time well spent, given that the central plot point of Crossover is that the shiny, bright, crackling world of superheroes and supervillains has spilled over into our world and is wreaking havoc.  Rest assured, Shaw (now joined by colorist Dee Cunniffe) is more than up to the challenge; not only is this a great, original, and memorable-looking comic, the debut of Crossover may be the most striking single issue of art I've seen this entire year (other than maybe Decorum). You will really want to linger on the art here.

To tell a story like Crossover, you need to be able to do both “big and bombastic” but also find ways to capture smaller human moments. Shaw excels at both, and everything in between. He’s got a distinctive line that reminds me generally of a few other artists (Matteo Scalera, Sean Murphy) but he’s got very much his own style. He’s got a way of drawing people that is exaggerated and elongated but never feels anything other than real and true. I'm particularly a fan of the heavy inks that surround his characters; the thick lines make the characters really pop off of the page.  His work feels very grounded in reality but also able to capture the extraordinary. Such as in the below double-page spread (which I'll refer back to a number of times). In order to convince the reader that the superhero world has exploded into the everyday world, you need to be able to clearly draw both and distinguish them from one another. 

Shaw’s cities and landscapes and buildings all feel completely real and true to me. They look accurate, if perfectly ordinary, which is how they’re supposed to look in comparison to the larger buildings and bizarre structures that appear in Denver. Those are very clearly from another world, and the contrast is clearly sold by Shaw. Both his “mundane world” and “superhero world” have a high degree of verisimilitude. Later on in the story when we meet Elle and see her on her way to the comic shop, and we see all of the action and the protesters surrounding the evil, immoral comic shop, all aspects of that part of the story feel very much grounded in the real world. Not photo-realism (which I’m not really a huge fan of), but a world that feels real enough that it makes sense to us.  

Throughout the issue, the pacing, the layout, all of the storytelling flows perfectly. Shaw moves the story from epic bombast to quiet introspection, and again to crowds and tension, with skillful and engaging layouts and storytelling. And every page is (as I mentioned above) full of great details, such as the world of the comic book inside the comic book, and all of the other details along the way.

But Dee Cunniffe is as much the star of Crossover as Geoff Shaw is. I’ve read a number of excellent comics colored by Cunniffe, but honestly I’m not sure any of them prepared me for the work that Cunniffe does in this issue. Shaw clearly distinguishes between the regular world and the superhero world, but it's Cunniffe's colors that really make all of this happen. In the everyday world, Cunniffe uses a somewhat muted color palate. It's fully colored, but there's nothing too bright. But when the crossover event happens, well, you can see for yourself. The "blinding light" effect below is just stunning and really captures the awe and terror of what is effectively an atomic bomb going off. And the effect of someone being vaporized is just terrifying. 

Once the superhero bubble finally does appear (in the above spread), the color contrast is just staggering. About 5 years ago I was in Seattle (for Emerald City Comic Con, a great convention) and I went to the top of the Space Needle. Seattle is a beautiful city, and it's surrounded by stunning vistas - Puget Sound, and gorgeous mountains. But then there's Mount Rainier. So, the mountains near Seattle are already huge and impressive, but Rainier dwarfs them. From what I recall, there was a color change and a layer of cloud near the top of Rainier. The total effect of it was staggering - I felt like I was looking at Mount Olympus floating above the other mountains, or just something that should not exist in reality. Something that your mind can't really fathom and struggles to make sense of.  I mention this story because the effect of the colors by Cunniffe in the above double-page spread brings to mind that same sense that I'm looking first at reality, and then at something that has made it's way into our reality that should not be there. That is masterful coloring work. 

Not every page of the issue is quite so dramatic, but every page is full of amazing attention to detail in the colors. In the scenes that show something from the world of superheroes, the art team makes great use of pixellation and other comic effects to really emphasize the colliding worlds. And Elle really stands out as well. In a sea of muted colors, her coat and domino mask and hair all stand out as being something that doesn't quite fit in the world.  Every aspect of the comic is filled with thoughtful details, from the strong lettering to the overall look and feel and design of the book. It's all excellent and feels cohesive.

There's so much happening in this debut issue of Crossover, and the comic is just bursting with ideas (in the same way that the extraordinary artwork from Shaw and Cunniffe burst off of the page).  First, let me reassure you and tell you what I do not think this comic is about: I don't think this is intended to be any sort of Watchmen-style deconstruction of the superhero genre. This isn't a story about the world of superheroes; this is a story about us. Our relationship to fiction, our relationship to problems and fear, and ultimately our relationship to each other.  But, you know, there's also superheroes involved. 

The first thing that jumped out at me in reading Crossover was the giant metaphor that's staring the reader in the face (see the incredible double-page spread above).  In Crossover, the world of superheroes literally explodes into our own world, attempting to overwrite our own world to some extent, and obliterating anything in its path. This crossover bubble is a seemingly unstoppable force with existential ramifications for our world.  As metaphors go, it's not a subtle one. Superheroes (and more broadly, corporate intellectual property like Star Wars) are inescapable. At least back when one could go to the movies safely, superhero movies completely dominated the box office (Avengers: Endgame made $2 billion, and I personally saw it like 6 times in the theater, so I contributed to that). I can't speak to the details, but you don't have to be a film industry insider to know that there have been more big franchise movies in recent years, because those are the only movies that seem to reliably do well at the box office. The popularity and critical acclaim of Watchmen and The Boys seem to indicate people continue to have an appetite for these stories, whether your story is a deep-dive into racism in America, or a cynical look at our own society through the lens of superheroes-as-celebrities. Genre IP reigns supreme, and has bulldozed right over the sorts of movies they don't make anymore. 

But the inciting incident in Crossover isn't just a benign occurrence. As the comic itself suggests, these fictional characters are more real and lasting than we are. The appearance of superheroes in Crossover does a tremendous amount of damage and harm in the world of the story.  I think this is a pretty clever idea and metaphor, as the event in this comic serves as a very striking metaphor for the ways in which people's feelings about fictional character and stories has a very real impact on all of our lives. I think about the levels of devotion that fans of a particular TV show or movie or superhero have for those characters.  Doctor Who and Star Wars may be fictional, but the feelings that people for those stories and the impact those stories have on people's lives is very real. Fandom in popular culture seems to have taken over the place that religion used to occupy for many people. There are still plenty of people who are members of various religious groups, but for a lot of people, the question of "What Would Batman Do" is a lot more relevant than however Jesus or Moses might handle a particular situation. 

So fandom for various corporate IP franchises has seemingly overtaken our society. But again, in Crossover the appearance of superheroes is *not* a benign occurrence. I think the creative team is very much saying something about real-world fans and fandom by this event. Much like religion, ethnicity, and other differences have inspired devotion and loyalty, they've also inspired equally strong negative feelings.  Towards those who don't share your love for something, and for those who feel like their opinion on that franchise (whether it's Star Wars, Superman, or something else) is the one and only true way to love and appreciate that that particular thing. I'm of course talking about how very easily fandom turns into toxic fandom.  

People love video games and comics, but the love of those things very easily and quickly turns into movements of people who harass and do and say terrible things to anyone who doesn't think how they think, or doesn't fit those people's idea of what a fan should be.  Or people become so entrenched in arguments that they can't see past their own narrow point of view, and they decide that their interpretation of a character is the one and only true interpretation. Whether it's the #SnyderCut people, or the astronomical levels of vitriol going in all sorts of directions in Star Wars fandom, people's feelings about fictional characters have real-world, tangible, harmful consequences.  Honestly, I've loved Star Wars since I was a kid, and the past few years of Star Wars fandom have made me occasionally feel like not only do I kind of hate Star Wars, but I might also come to hate the entire idea of fandom generally.  I can't even begin to list the number of times that I've seen people act in horrific, cruel, harassing behavior towards the creators of comic books and other media, or actors or other people involved in the creation of corporate IP.  I've thought about a quote people share, about how some fans treat fictional people like they're real and real people like they're fictional.  So the Crossover team is very much on to something. 

But I think the story in Crossover isn't just a critique of fandom. It's also a metaphor for crises and disasters generally, and the ways in which people respond to them. It seems like in the world of Crossover, people (like Ellie) who like and embrace superheroes are vilified and identified as dangerous and subversive.  It's pretty similar to the ways in which Americans reacted after the events of 9/11. Those terrorist actions were carried out by radical fanatics, but Muslims (or anyone who happened to look or seem like they might be Muslim) were targeted in our country. Here, Ellie clearly isn't an actual superhero from another universe, but she happens to love and believe in them (in the ways that most practitioners of religion simply love and believe in their religion and get something out of it), but someone calls her a traitor and throws a bottle at her, because she's dressed in cosplay.  They aren't subtle metaphors, but they're very effective. 

But this is the natural consequence when something terrible and unpredictable happens, right? Some people look for answers, and some people look for a larger meaning, and other people look for someone to blame. Thus far, Crossover has given us no hint at all as to what caused all of the various fictional characters to explode into our reality.  Random accident?  Or did our obsession with these characters somehow will them all into existence?  Perhaps future issues will shed some light on these questions. But what I take from this is the various ways that people try to make sense of a world that doesn't make sense.  This feels very true for the moment we are living in (except for the fact that the current state of our country and its reaction to COVID was not inexplicable and unpredictable).

But in the world of Crossover, Ellie is undaunted, and in her we can see one of the ways that people respond when who they are or what they believe in is vilified or punished. She hasn't given up on superheroes (even though she was separated from her parents inside the crossover event and presumably hasn't seen them in years). In fact, it seems like the crossover event has only strengthened her love for those stories - perhaps not so much for the heroes themselves, but for what she gets out of them, and also for the sense of community and belonging that she gets from being part of a group, regardless of whether it's a marginalized group. The terrible things that have happened to her and others has not dimmed her faith, but rather have inspired her to seek comfort and belonging in community with those who love the things she loves. Her sense of identity and self is still very much wrapped up in superheroes; wearing their clothes and reading their books still seems to bring her some amount of meaning and comfort. In fact, she refers to her cosplay as armor. So for her, regardless of tragedy, the things that superheroes stand for continue to serve as symbols of strength and hope (certainly an apt metaphor for the ways that people find hope and meaning in troubled times).

Crossover immediately sets the scale and scope of this story. It's a meta-story about our relationship to fiction, but it's also the story of a giant cataclysm and the way that our society responds to terrible things happening. And it's also a personal story about people on different sides of a divide and the ways in which huge events have consequences from the macro (i.e., society) down to the micro (i.e., people's jobs and livelihoods and interpersonal relationships).  The story of Noah is just the story of a guy who builds a boat but is also a tale of the destruction and rebirth of humanity; similarly, Crossover, from the very beginning, feels like it has the heft of a story that's at once intimate and vast. The end of the first issue teases some exciting developments, and I'm so looking forward to seeing where this story goes. With stunning, explosive art, and a story that's full of huge ideas, the possibility and potential for Crossover feels huge.