Donny Cates is one of the biggest writers in comics right now. His Marvel books, including Venom and Thor, routinely rank among the best-selling titles on the market. He is masterminding his second crossover event in as many years next month, and his newest Image Comics series, Crossover with longtime creative partner Geoff Shaw, is the publisher’s biggest debut of the year. According to Cates himself, Crossover is the culmination of a near-death experience that left him wanting to rekindle the excitement he felt reading the first wave of Image titles in the 1990s. Which makes it appropriate that the series’ first issue is every bit as offensive and self-indulgent as those 30-year-old titles so often were.
Donny Cates (writer), Dee Cunniffe (interior colorist), John J. Hill (letterer), Geoff Shaw (artist), Dave Stewart (cover colorist)
November 4, 2020
The premise of Crossover is a well-worn one: “what if superheroes entered the real world, our world”? Where the title attempts to distinguish itself is in how it plays with the conceit, namely in how the arrival of superheroes is regarded as a disaster and tragic loss of life. When a “superhero summer event” (to quote the text) spills into Colorado in 2017, mass casualties immediately pile up before the entire state becomes sealed in an impenetrable force field. In the wake of The Crossover, as it is known, superhero stories and comics are banned and censored, with fans of those works being ostracized and assaulted.
This is Crossover’s most significant and most offensive mistake. When its protagonist, Ellipses Howell, is introduced, she is immediately assaulted by a handlebar mustache-sporting, pick-up truck driving, Red Baseball Cap wearing redneck who hucks a beer bottle at her head. All of this happens underneath a billboard reading, “God hates masks,” sponsored by the local Baptist Church. Sound familiar?
Donny Cates, a straight white man, casts superhero fans as an abused and oppressed minority in Crossover, using real-life actions of hate violence and imagery to sell this message. This decision would be grossly irresponsible and upsetting at any point in time but is especially egregious at a time when superheroes are the single most popular media franchise on the planet. Cates’ seeming ignorance of how ghastly co-opting the real-life struggles of minorities and LGBTQ people for his tale is only amplified by his use of infamous bigot Fredric Wertham as a punchline (twice!) over a single issue. A half-hearted acknowledgment over the poor taste of the joke does nothing to make up for it being told in the first place. Given Cates’ inclusion of queer and minority characters in past work, I don’t feel that this was an act of malice, but one born of a lack of perspective and non-white dude voices on the creative team.
Beyond the remarkably poor decision to trade in the imagery of real hate crimes, the story itself feels more like a pat on the back to superhero comics and Image as a publisher than an actual exploration of the power behind these stories and characters. Between the first-page name-dropping Superman, a cantankerous comic book shop owner claiming “Marvel and DC died” and Ellipses sporting an Invincible t-shirt, the constant stream of wink-and-nudge references wears thin before the issue’s final, groan-inducing, reveal. Ultimately feeling closer to an annoying sibling playing “I’m not touching you” during a road trip than pushing any tangible limits of what Image Comics can get away with when acknowledging corporate-owned characters.
To be clear, not every aspect of Crossover is as off-putting as these problems. Geoff Shaw and Dee Cunniffe do outstanding work on the issue’s linework and coloring, respectively. Shaw’s experience balancing the mundane with the fantastic in God Country is put to good use here, giving both the glimpses at The Crossover and Ellipses’ struggles in Utah equal weight and impact. Cunniffe’s colors pull their fair share, coating the fictional characters in a printer-dotted, flat-but-bright color scheme to clash with the muted color palette of the real world. It’s not a wholly original trick, having been deployed in series like Age of the Sentry before, but it works well here and helps complete the artistic package.
That is really where Crossover falls apart for me. For all the hype and thunder, from both Image Comics and the creative team itself, of the title as a bold, original take on the nature of superheroes…it isn’t anything we haven’t seen before. From Flex Mentallo to Superman: Secret Identity, superhero tales that trade in their fictional nature intruding on the real world have been out there for decades. The final pages of the issue claim it is both a love story and one about hope. While it is the first part of an ongoing tale, neither of these reveals feel anything close to well-earned by the time of their arrival, and with the edgy, aggressive tone pervading the rest of the story, both feel wholly unearned.
Given the self-proclaimed love for 1990s Image Comics titles, I feel comfortable assuming that the energy Cates and co. are chasing with Crossover is the famous double-page spread in Spawn #10. For the unfamiliar, the pages show a murderers row of Marvel and DC icons (with just enough visual obfuscation to skirt legal problems) trapped in Hell, reaching out to be freed from their eternal prison. Within the context of the Image boom and the birth of the 1990s independent scene, this page screamed with a raw energy challenging the corporate confines these legendary characters found themselves in and the creative freedom lying ahead for the industry. Now, decades later and following the rise of superheroes to the peak of entertainment media and independent titles routinely landing on best-seller lists and landing multimedia adaptations, Crossover’s attempt to recapture that energy feels lost in its muddled politics, lackluster emotional stakes, and self-congratulatory tone. It might be the best-selling Image Comics debut of 2020, but beyond the hype and bombast, there is very little to recommend in Crossover #1, and what is there has been done better elsewhere.