Reprinted below is an edited version of the 1200-word answer I cranked out earlier this evening in half an hour off the top of my head. My response didn’t require much research, soul-searching, or structural fussiness. It’s rare that anyone asks me a question that spurs such an immediate, entry-length response, so I’m archiving it here for future reference the next time someone asks.
(The full-length, more carefully crafted version would be three times as long and take more hours to fine-tune than I have at my disposal tonight. Another time, perhaps)
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Ever since Crisis on Infinite Earths and two Secret Wars events brought in the big bucks back in the mid-to-late ’80s or so, Marvel and DC have each averaged one major company-wide crossover event per year ever since — sometimes in recent years more than one annually. At first each crossover felt like a must-read event, but after so many years you could tell this was becoming a corporate-mandated thing. Usually it’s not one or more writers telling the editors, “Hey, I have this cool idea for a big crossover. Can we do it?” It’s more like, the editors come to the writers and ask, “Okay, so we need to get this year’s crossover going. Whaddya got?” Or worse, the editors ordering them, “We’ve decided such-and-such is this year’s crossover. Deal with it.”
I’ve read complaints over the years from writers who were working on a given series, had their own plots and subplots set up and ongoing, everything mapped out for months and sometimes years in advance, only to have their plans derailed when an editor told them one or more future issues would now be crossover tie-ins. They either had to rewrite their carefully laid plans to accommodate this intrusion, junk their plans and just do crossover story only, or step aside for one or more issues while some other writer took their paycheck for a few months and wrote the crossover issues instead. And I’ve read more than a few comics where you could tell the crossover issues weren’t exactly a happy, welcome challenge for the regular writer.
It’s something that’s come to bug me ever since, every time I see it happen to a series that was going awesomely, and then it turned terrible for the span of the crossover, and then it tried to go back to being awesome, depending on whether or not the crossover had any lingering effects that messed up the writer’s long-term outline. Some writers have even walked away from series altogether when given the ultimatum of “crossover or get out”.
Here’s a hypothetical analogy of how that same approach would work in another medium. This will make more sense to Buffy fans, but the general idea should be easy to spot.
You’re running Buffy season 6. You’ve got a lot of plot lines laid out — Buffy’s return from the dead, the Xander/Anya thing blossoming, Willow and Tara as the doomed lovers later on, the Axis of Evil Dorks putting their heads together, Giles planning his exit, and so on. You’ve decided episode 7 is gonna be the one where Buffy admits she was happy in Heaven until her friends resurrected her under the mistaken, unflattering impression that she was suffering in Hell and needed to be rescued. And you’re gonna make it a musical. Songs are written, the cast is rehearsing, at least one of them is rushed through singing lessons, some light choreography is involved. Everyone’s working hard but really hyped for this thing that all leads up to a key confrontation between Buffy and her friends that’s kind of a big deal, and you’re sure the fans will get a kick out of it and be floored by the emotional impact at the same time.
And then the CW executives show up at your office two weeks before the airdate you picked months ago and they tell you that no, we need episodes 7 and 8 to be a crossover with our new hit series Smallville. Clark Kent should come to Sunnydale hot on the trail of some meteor-freak, and he and Buffy need to meet, flirt, fight the freak, punch vampires, and the fans all die happy. P.S.: Screw your musical plans, and if there’s time for that Buffy/Scoobies argument, feel free to cram it into the last thirty seconds of episode 8, or into one of the Smallville episodes involved in the same four-part crossover. Oh, and did we mention it’ll be four parts? You should probably call their producers and hash out some details. Annnnnnd GO.
This, more often than not, is how comics crossovers frequently work according to the numerous anecdotes I’ve read from comics writers over the past 20+ years, and how I came to loathe them when I could see this kind of nonsense in action.
Also: every crossover crams anywhere between ten and literally five hundred characters into a single story, and the odds of the writer(s) getting all those characterizations correct are a million to one, even if Best Editor Ever is playing traffic cop. The odds of more than three characters getting to do anything meaningful for more than one panel are even slimmer. In most cases what you get is armies of good guys versus armies of bad guys, all of which add up to one very large, busy poster cut into the shape of a comic book. If you replaced 90% of the forces on both sides with faceless henchmen, odds are great that it wouldn’t affect the story one bit, except it would contain fewer merchandise faces. I guess if the costumes mean more to you than the characters inside them, they make for pretty pictures even if their words and actions mean nothing within their own context.
Also also: there’s the part where major crossover events can’t be properly understood unless you buy all the chapters involved, which more often than not will include some books you aren’t already collecting. Publishers want you to buy all the chapters because that’s how crossover bucks are made. Some writers will try to create self-contained short stories that read well with or without the broader context. This attitude is not conducive to short-term flash-in-the-pan sales-spike bragging rights and is therefore not usually encouraged at the editorial level.
As for me, I read the series I like, and if I have to buy other books so that the series I like will continue to make any sense, I get downright resentful, especially if it’s another series — or a dozen other series — in which I will have zero interest under all possible circumstances, crossover or not. Some comics fans apparently love being ordered to try new series and/or will buy whatever they’re instructed to buy. I lost that urge for crossover compliance a long time ago.
The effects in other media aren’t normally so shoddily planned or disruptive from an artistic perspective, but they’re privileged to different circumstances. X-Men: Days of Future Past, even after a second viewing the other night, remains one of the most brilliant crossovers I’ve encountered in any medium in years. It was essentially the seventh chapter in a seven-part crossover that meant more if you watched the first six X-Men movies that led up to it, but those were released over a fourteen-year period, so fans have had time to catch them all at their leisure.
Now imagine if DoFP were the culmination of a twenty-movie crossover, and those twenty movies had to be released in theaters over a precise three-month span, March-May 2014, and they didn’t start writing eight of those movies until November 2013, and also they wanted thirty more mutants added in the mix somewhere for merchandising purposes, but they had to meet that deadline anyway, because that’s what Fox wanted, because $$$$$. No matter what shape they were in, Fox insisted all twenty films had to be released during those three months. By any means necessary, even if it meant using 8mm garage-film effects and any actors available on zero-minute notice, down to the Pauly Shore/Tom Arnold/Paris Hilton level if need be. Period.
Now how much do you think you’d like crossovers?