Labeling Tie-Ins

For future reference, Secret Invasion reading order.

One of the things that annoys me about superhero crossover stories is that they’re very hard to reread later. Secret Invasion was a miniseries with tie-ins in New Avengers and Mighty Avengers. Many of those (horrid) tie-in issues respond to events in the main series, so it’s important that they be read in the right order. But how, a year later, am I supposed to remember that, say, New Avengers 47 comes after Secret Invasion 8?

DC’s solution has been to putting little “triangle numbers” on the covers of its Superman books that correspond to their placement in the larger storyline.¹ This approach works, and DC has actually been very careful about making sure that each book in the line² can be read on its own, with each following a different subplot of the larger story. So you can just read Supergirl on its own, but if you’re rereading the whole Codename: Patriot story, you can look at Supergirl 44’s red “three” and know that 1.) it’s part three of the story and 2.) whatever book has a “four” on it is next. The approach mostly works, and it’s good bait for completists who can’t stand not having every issue of a crossover story.

Publishers need to be careful with the power they hold over fans in this regard. Serious fans will buy every issue of a crossover, but only as long as it holds their interest. It’s helpful that DC tries to clearly mark which of its Superman comics are part of a given storyline, and even more helpful that the label gives you the reading order, but it also means that DC needs to make sure that those issues really are important to the story. If there are other stories to tell that relate to the events of the crossover but aren’t needed to follow its plot, they shouldn’t be assigned badged numbers on their covers. Blackest Night: Batman, for example, might be of interest to people who are enjoying Blackest Night and want to see how it has affected Gotham’s heroes, but its events aren’t likely to lead back nor be largely important to the main Blackest Night story. Reading Blackest Night years later I might want to read the Batman tie-in issues, but I wouldn’t need to read them to understand the story and it largely wouldn’t matter if I read them out of sequence with how they were originally published. Issues of Green Lantern or Green Lantern Corps., however, that do directly follow events of Blackest Night are somewhat more “required” and should be labeled with a reading order (and are not). Something like “Blackest Night Week 5” would be fine.

While numbers on the covers are I think the plainest way to show a reader how to easily find the next issue of a crossover, another classic approach has been to print a checklist at the back of the first issue of a crossover. These checklists, though, tend to list every tie-in and not just the “crucial” stories. Not that I expect a publisher to say, “you can skip these ones”, and it’s easy enough to browse the list knowing that I don’t care about, say, Hulk, and decide to skip The Incredible Hulk’s miniseries. The initially-published checklists also rarely encompass all of the tie-ins that eventually get published, as more books get dreamed up during the course of the crossover. Civil War: The Confession, for example, was about best tie-in to Civil War and wasn’t on initial rosters. Finally, using a checklist years later requires that I find a book containing a checklist (usually just the first few issues of a crossover) and lay out all the involved issues ahead of time for rereading, or I’ll have to keep going back to reference the checklist whenever I want to read the next issue. And printing a checklist in every issue means the publisher has to give up a page that would otherwise be advertisements (though mainstream comics often contain lots of house ads, and a checklist is just an ad for their own products, likely more effective than any other house ad could be, considering it just means trying to convince people to read more of a story they’ve already bought into).

The best comic crossovers don’t just happen out of nowhere. Careful writers will spend years building up to an event, as Geoff Johns did with The Sinestro Corps War and Blackest Night and Brian Michael Bendis with Secret Invasion. As the craft of comic storybuilding has matured, with continuity stretching back decades, it becomes very difficult to trace these things. Secret Invasion is mostly an Avengers story, but contains major developments in the life of Jessica Jones and Luke Cage. Their story started in Alias long before either joined the Avengers in New Avengers. Should Marvel go back and stick “Secret Invasion Precursor” stickers on trades of Alias and Pulse? Certainly not, but since they’re all part of the massive story that Brian Michael Bendis has woven throughout his work at Marvel, they are connected.

This is one of the very cool things about comics and their shared universe, but outside of comics, Stephen King did a similar thing with Dark Tower, weaving together many of his stories with characters who appear in other books. And going beyond direct prequels, homage plays just as important a part in understanding stories. Grant Morrison’s New X-Men doesn’t have any lead-in issues, but it’s impossible to decode without knowing the 70s and 80s Chris Claremont stories that Morrison plays up as tropes. Wolves of the Calla is Stephen King paying an extended homage to Seven Samuari, but it’s a western so we might as well mention The Magnificent Seven (and don’t forget that the villains look like Doctor Doom). Hamlet and The Iliad are everywhere, and woe to the discerning Simpsons viewer who hasn’t seen Citizen Kane.

Even then, I haven’t ever actually read the Claremont era X-Men stories, but they’ve been retold in cartoons and referenced enough times that I know what the key events in them are and can recognize homages to them. Someone who’s never seen The Shining could enjoy The Simpsons’s parody of it nonetheles. So much of popular culture depends on these touchstone stories that I think we’d helpless without the ability to turn into personal simulacra the ones we’ve never read out of their repeated appearances and parodies.

Anyway, to return to my initial point of how best to label superhero crossovers, there are, I’d say, five parts to any comics event:

  1. Setup issues that establish the main conflict (ex. the New Avengers stuff with Elektra skrull, but not going back as New Avengers 1, despite Bendis having planted seeds that much in advance);
  2. The main book (Civil War, Blackest Night);
  3. Crucial tie-ins, usually written by the author of the main book (Superman Beyond);
  4. Ancillary tie-ins, ideally that don’t require referring back to the main book once they’ve started; and
  5. Aftermath stuff that shows how characters are dealing with whatever happened in the main book, or that play with a new status quo resulting thereof.

My preference would be that the trade dress of books in category one have some sort of label like “Prelude to Blackest Night” and maybe a countdown. Books in categories two and three should be numbered on their covers, either in a full sequence (Blackest Night, Green Lantern, and Green Lantern Corps would all have numbers on them) or by week/month (something like “Week 5”) that let you easily know which issue to read after the one you’ve just finished.

  1. The triangle numbers originated during the Death of Superman storyline, which ran through Action Comics, The Adventures of Superman, The Man of Steel, The Man of Tomorrow, and Superman. Each book continued directly from one to the next, so you had to buy all five to be able to understand it all.
  2. Action Comics, Supergirl, Superman, Superman: World of New Krypton, and a few special issues and annuals.