To be upfront, I've written a version of this story in my head every six months or so for the better part of the last decade. It's also the subject of frequent conversation between myself and a buddy/colleague in the business. And over the years, although we agree that while the idea has merit, we've always concluded there was no true urgency to justify publicly airing the suggestion. There was never a real impetus other than trivial fan service to override the quite legitimate logistical and fiscal reasons against. Because despite some ups and downs, the Direct Market has been doing pretty okay for a pretty long while.
But that could be on the brink of changing…
So yes ... it's now time for Marvel Comics and DC to start planning their next (ideally big) crossover event.
I'm not going to spend too many words today on potential models for what impact whole cities and states essentially shutting down indefinitely is going to have on an industry largely built on independently-owned small businesses (i.e. often cash poor) as the backbone of its distribution system. We've seen comic shops shutter temporarily and even for good already.
We've also seen comic book publishers take immediate action, from Image Comics to IDW Publishing to Marvel and more to try to slow the bleeding despite potentially being months away from a clot. And while adjustments in publishing volume to returnability, to steeper retailer discounts are all likely welcome initiatives, publishers are almost certainly also going to be doing what they can to turn out products readers and collectors old and new can get behind and be excited about.
The 'Big Two' also have some history using their editorial tools to help those in need.
In 1985, in response to the massive humanitarian crisis of Ethiopian famine, Marvel produced Heroes For Hope, an all-star X-Men one-shot featuring over two dozen creators with all proceeds going to African relief and recovery. DC did a parallel project with its own, Heroes Against Hunger.
In 2001 and 2002 Marvel published three 9/11-related projects - Heroes, A Moment of Silence, and a special issue of Amazing Spider-Man that the publisher has said generated over $1 million in profits donated to the Twin Towers Fund. DC participated in a joint fundraising publication with other publishers like Dark Horse and Image on 9-11: September 11th, 2001 (The World's finest comic book writers and artists tell stories to remember) Volume 2.
As a long time editor-in-chief of a comic book news website and short-lived manager of Marvel Comics' marketing communications office once upon a time, I can tell you from experience there are few reliable methods in today's Direct Market to generate big and broad sales figures that could help move the needle for retailers.
DC and Marvel relaunching their universes is certainly one means to generate excitement, but even that premise isn't as novel as it would have been a decade ago. And I'm not here today to suggest this situation should be the catalyst for either publisher to try to squeeze that through their pipelines.
The same argument can probably be made for 'killing' major characters. That well has been drained pretty dry.
Pairing big-name creators with big-name properties they haven't been attached to for years always scratches a nostalgic itch and is a way to generate some big orders. So hey, if Todd McFarlane would like to draw a whole issue of Spider-Man again or Jim Lee would like to do the same for an X-Men title, I would certainly suggest it could do some good in the immediate future. And as supremely unlikely the prospects of those are even in light of the circumstances, they probably have an exponentially greater probability than Alan Moore writing Superman or Batman again.
It's been 17 years since the last significant Marvel and DC crossover - 2003's JLA/Avengers and Avengers/JLA - and 23 since the publishers went whole hog with the massive interconnected DC versus Marvel and Amalgam events. Strictly from a reader/fan/collector perspective, the interest is likely there for a good twist on the crossover theme. And add to it the element of the two long-time rival publishers putting whatever differences and reasons against aside to benefit and give a boost to the market and to the real people who own and operate the real comic book shops we all frequent, and you might just have a chemical reaction that would make such a project even greater than the sum of its parts.
Hell, I'm tempted to advocate Dark Horse and Image and IDW and others to join in too, but that seems like a hill too steep to climb. At least with Marvel and DC, there is precedent, with some of the players (executives, editors, and creators) who saw the last crossover through still in place, with others who played significant roles still around and perhaps willing to volunteer their expertise if called upon.
I'm willing to speculate Diamond might even be willing to throw in their weight to help grease the wheels and somehow increase the upside for retailers.
Now I could probably spend several hundred or more words itemizing the very real reasons why this can't or won't happen. Marvel Comics now being owned by The Walt Disney Company and (since the last crossover) having been transformed into a multi-billion-dollar IP farm for movies and TV likely leads the list. Though the Chris Reeve Superman films and Batman film franchises were in full effect for Warner Bros. the last time the two companies made this work.
The current inequity in their market share is likely another reason against, with Marvel emerging as the clear industry leader over the last several years - to be fair a position they've held for a vast majority of the history of the Direct Market. Under normal circumstances, Marvel might successfully argue they'd be bringing more to the table than DC would, and a straight-up crossover wouldn't be a fair exchange.
But these are not normal circumstances.
And despite their 10 to 12+ point Direct Market share deficit, DC still has Batman and Superman and titles that have just crossed the #1000 barriers and a place in the industry's history, and more importantly, pop culture, that still makes the ‘rivalry' a thing in the eyes of fans and even the more general public if not in hard numbers.
And 70% of a marketplace is still more than 40%, even if the split is not down the middle.
If the comic book industry is going to pull through whatever we're all going to face in the foreseeable future, it likely won't be without some extraordinary efforts to fight for survival. And while there will not be any magic elixir, the instant excitement, and interest generated by comic books two most iconic and historical publishers, home to its most iconic and historical characters, teaming up to with the sole intent of helping mom-and-pop, brick-and-mortar comic book shops is likely the simplest premise with the most immediate potential at its disposal.
And while yes, there is likely a laundry list of reasons why not, those reasons will be less relevant in a market that someday could emerge as a shell of its prior self.
A new DC - Marvel crossover may be the most unlikely comic book crossover of all time.