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Comics 201: Crisis In Infinite Issues; Or, How To Read A Crossover Event

civil war

It’s happened to many of us: You’re reading a comic series, enjoying all the superhero shenanigans, when suddenly: BAM! random issue that has nothing to do with the story and other heroes are showing up and things are happening and what the actual hell?

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Friend, you’ve just stumbled into the infamous Crossover Event, one of the inevitable challenges faced by fans of the capes-and-tights genre. The good news is that these events can sometimes be a lot of fun to read and can do a lot to revitalize a comics universe. The bad news is that they are usually a nightmare to keep track of and can be confusing and intimidating for new readers. To that end, here are some handy tips to help you read crossover events without driving yourself up a wall.

Wait, so what is a crossover event, exactly?

Let’s back up for a second. Before we can talk about crossovers, we need to talk about the concept of a “shared universe” and what that means for your favorite caped crusaders.

Nope! Nope. Stop that eye-rolling. Navigating the multiverse might be second nature to regular readers, but folks who are used to self-contained stories might need a second to catch up, so just put on your patient grown-up pants, okay? Okay.

Anyway. A shared universe just means that characters and events in different stories exist in the same reality and can potentially interact with each other. Think of it like a friendly neighborhood, but with explosions. Most of the time, characters stay in their own houses, doing their own thing, occasionally popping over to borrow a cup of sugar or save a small country. Then the Powers That Be decide to, I dunno, build a strip mall in the middle of the block. That strip mall? That’s a crossover event. It’s an incursion so big that it affects the whole neighborhood, and everyone has to come out of their houses and deal with it.

How that usually looks for comics readers is a limited event series with a bunch of interrelated tie-in issues for ongoing series. Depending on the size of the event, the tie-ins might be a single issue in each series or a whole arc.

That sounds like a lot of comics. Do I have to read every tie-in?

Thankfully, no. I once had the noble goal of reading all of Marvel’s House of M event. Then I remembered that I had a life.

How much you read depends on the size of the event and how invested you are in the universe. If you’re already reading a series that’s affected by an event, you may need to do a little extra reading for background, but that could be as little as finding issue summaries or skimming the Wikipedia page. If anybody tells you that Wikipedia is cheating, ask them to give you the major plot points of the original 52 in chronological order and see what they do.

Okay, but there’s still a gajillion volumes here. How do I know what to read?

This is kind of the key question when it comes to these storytelling monstrosities, and it ultimately comes back to two smaller questions: How big is the event, and how much do you care?

Like I said, most events are organized around a limited series that deals with all the Really Important Stuff. These are usually about a dozen issues or less and will typically be titled with whatever snappy name the publisher came up with for the crossover, e.g. Infinity, Infinite Crisis, Civil War, Secret Wars II, Secret Invasion, etc. Reading the title series will give you the broad strokes of the event and – assuming the writers have done their job – should be pretty entertaining as a story on its own.

For some events, the tie-ins will be limited to a single issue in participating series. With that kind of event, you can really just read the tie-ins for the characters you care about and skip everything else.

With other events, there might be volumes upon volumes of extra material to sift through, so you’ll probably want a more methodical approach. Here are a few strategies that might be useful for choosing which side arcs to pick up:

1. Major Players – Read through the central series and see which characters are doing all the heavy lifting, narratively speaking. Chances are those characters will have solo series with event tie-ins that are worth picking up.

2. Your Favorites – Not everyone gets a solo series or a tie-in arc, but seeing what your favorite heroes are up to during the insanity can be fun. If they’re not involved at all, then just imagine them on vacation somewhere, watching the news and laughing.

3. Other Standalones – In addition to the central series, there are sometimes other miniseries that are connected to the event and can be read on their own. Sometimes these are stories leading up to the bigger happenings or epilogues that deal with the fallout, and some offer a different perspective on the event itself.

These are just general guidelines for choosing which parts of an event to read, but it’s just as valid to grab a volume off the shelf at random and go for it, though you might end up more confused than when you started. For mega crossover events, a few clicks in your favorite search engine will get you your choice of reading guides to help figure out chronology and how everything fits together.

This seems kind of dumb. Why do publishers do this?

The same reason publishers do everything: to sell comics.

Events give publishers something concrete to promote and provide a vehicle to haul existing properties back into the spotlight. They’re a way to pique the interest of former readers who’ve wandered off and can offer a jumping-on point for new fans. They also, as noted, encourage people to buy a lot of extra comics just to keep up.

Is it a little maddening? Sure. But they keep doing it, so we have to assume it works, at least some of the time.

Can I just, y’know, skip the whole thing?

Short answer? Yes. Long answer? Yes, but don’t give up just yet.

Reading every event ever in the history of the Big Two would be a fulltime job for the rest of your life, and even keeping up with every event that happens during your actual tenure as a comics fan would keep you pretty damn busy. Skipping some or most of them completely is a good way to keep yourself reasonably sane.

That said, there are a few really good reasons to at least consider reading major events:

Impact on the shared universe – Crossover events are designed to have consequences for the universe (or universes) they take place in. They change the narrative landscape, sometimes in deeply significant ways, and skipping over them can be like starting Return of the Jedi without having seen the last act of The Empire Strikes Back.

Good introduction for new readers – The fact that an event changes the status quo is one of the things that can make it a good starting point, sort of like picking up a show with the finale of one season and moving on to the next. Events also tend to include a ton of characters, which might introduce you to your new favorite or give you some direction for back reading.

Fresh take on old characters – If all this makes it sound like crossover events are huge, operatic set pieces, it’s because they are. Still, Like any good story, they’re also character-driven and thrive on throwing established characters into new situations, which can do a lot to revive (sometimes literally) properties that are approaching rigor mortis.

Fantastic creative teams – If you’re still pretty new to comics, you might not recognize the names attached to an event series, but the work usually speaks for itself. Publishers tend to invest a lot in these things, and part of that investment means getting solid writers, artists, and editors to run the various projects. In addition to characters and continuity, events can also be a good way to find creators you might want to check out.

In reality, crossover events are like any other story. They can be hit-or-miss, and you may love some and hate others. Also, people fight about them. Oh dear gods, do people fight about them. Don’t believe me? Check the “marvel civil war” tag on Tumblr and watch the friendship-ruining in progress.

Whatever you end up reading, you’re going to have questions and opinions, and there’s going to be someone, somewhere who thinks you’re doing it wrong. Ignore them. There’s no right or wrong way to read comics, and there are plenty of fans ready to welcome you to the weird world of crossover events without being dicks about it.

Of course, if you want to avoid the drama and extra reading, sometimes your best bet is to just skim the wiki and move on with your life.

Got it? Good. Now go read some comics!

Jordan West is an obsessive writer, dedicated cosplayer, and fake geek girl living in Minneapolis. Specialties include ultra angsty fan fiction, feminist commentary, and co-captaining the WTF Comics Club. Follow Jo on Facebook for ongoing hijinks.

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Jill Pantozzi
Jill Pantozzi is a pop-culture journalist and host who writes about all things nerdy and beyond! She’s Editor in Chief of the geek girl culture site The Mary Sue (Abrams Media Network), and hosts her own blog “Has Boobs, Reads Comics” ( She co-hosts the Crazy Sexy Geeks podcast along with superhero historian Alan Kistler, contributed to a book of essays titled “Chicks Read Comics,” (Mad Norwegian Press) and had her first comic book story in the IDW anthology, “Womanthology.” In 2012, she was featured on National Geographic’s "Comic Store Heroes," a documentary on the lives of comic book fans and the following year she was one of many Batman fans profiled in the documentary, "Legends of the Knight."

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