At the start of Crossover by Donny Cates and Geoff Shaw, the opening narration talks about who is more real: us or Superman? Yes, Superman is a fictional character, but he has likely existed far longer than you have, and he’s going to be around long after you are dead, as well as leaving an impact that will live on forever. This statement is not far off from the sayings of Grant Morrison, a writer who was less interested in the Alan Moore approach of superheroes existing in the real world, and instead takes the comic book world and overlaps with our world and tries to mesh the two realities.
This meta-approach of blending fact and fiction clearly influenced Cates, who was hospitalized and close to death a second time, as he explains in the opening statement of this trade. Much like how his first hospitalization led him to write God Country, Cates’ second battle with death inspired him to re-explore the things that he loved growing up, which is comics. And thus, his love letter to the comics medium arrives in the shape of Crossover.
On January 11th 2017, a portal opens in the city of Denver, Colorado, in which fictional characters from comic books and other media come to life and cause a lot of unintentional destruction and death. Five years later, Ellipses “Ellie” Howell, a survivor of the Event, works and sleeps in a comic book store in Provo, Utah. When a young girl named Ava, a character from the other world, arrives into the store, Ellie joins forces with other humans and characters, and embarks on a quest to return to her home in Denver.
As the title suggests, the comic evokes the crossover summer events that you associate with superhero comics published by Marvel and DC. The problem with those storylines is that they are built upon strong premises, which usually climax into tedious slugfests. No doubt that Cates and Shaw are having their cake and eating it too — you do see super-powered slugfests, but they are now transposed into the real world and thus the action is horrific and the world doesn’t go back to normal afterward. The Event alters it into a dystopia for both humans and characters. The story deliberately references Fredric Wertham, the psychiatrist whose writings discriminated comic books, which ultimately hurt the industry in the 1950s.
Donny Cates can be (and has been) praised and criticized for his relentless style of storytelling, in which he can present such bonkers content without letting the story breathe for a bit. What is surprising about Crossover is that despite having a premise that could’ve fallen into the self-indulgent trappings of Ready Player One, Cates is actually restraining himself. Although the characterization isn’t always top-notch, particularly the main protagonist Ellie, who never really goes beyond her simple agency, the comic knows when to slow down and spends time with characters from Ryan, the conflicted son of an extremist Protestant, to a fan-favorite indie comics hero.
Many creations from multiple franchises pop up throughout the six issues. Okay, so it’s mostly just characters from Image Comics, but to evoke characters from other publishers, artist Geoff Shaw cleverly shows just enough without the worry of copyright issues. At the end of the volume, he also acknowledges the number of creators that approved these inclusions. As with his previous collaborations with Cates, Shaw knows how to illustrate bombastic set pieces, as with this constant clashing of real people and comic book characters, the latter of which are covered in Ben-day dots. The art could have easily felt overblown, but ends up being a benefit as the action can be bloody as hell, while knowing when to show moments of humor and even tenderness.
To really appreciate Crossover, you ought to know some comics history, as well as how superhero comics work, particularly in relation to their crossover events. With that pre-existing knowledge, you can revel in this epic story about the clashing of two realities, which is both dark and fun.
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