Hard-Traveling Fanboys: Countdown (Best Event Books)

Mild-mannered reporters by day, Greg Phillips and Nick Duke share an intense love of comic books that has made them the Hard-Traveling Fanboys. And if there’s anything that fanboys love, it’s debating what book is better than another book or which character is “cooler.” Enter Countdown, a monthly column where Greg and Nick will give a top five list and debate the merits therein.

Nick: We’re back again folks for another round of Countdown, where we offer up our top five in a particular area. If you read Secret Origins last week, you’ll know that we talked pretty extensively about Blackest Night, one of our favorite crossover event stories. To that end, this month’s Countdown will feature our own personal top 5 company-wide crossover events.

Greg: For better or worse, the modern age of comics has been defined by “events.” Dating back to Marvel’s Secret Wars and DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earths in the early 1980s, these event books have received the bulk of their companies’ promotional efforts while purporting to effect major changes throughout a superhero universe. Even today, both DC and Marvel are in the midst of major events.

This week’s Countdown will not be looking at merely crossover stories between existing titles. Rather, we’re focusing on the major “event books” that had their own title, whether they were mini-series or maxi-series. That means you won’t see “The Sinestro Corps War” or “The Dark Phoenix Saga” in this column, as those stories took place in the regular monthly titles (Green Lantern, Uncanny X-Men, etc.) rather than existing as their own titles. So while today’s readers are in the midst of Forever Evil and Inhumanity, here are our five favorite event books.

Greg’s No. 5: Crisis on Infinite Earths

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Greg: While this massive 12-issue event book came out long before I started reading comics (I was only 1-year-old when the first issue was released), it shaped the very fabric of the DC Universe I grew up reading. Never before, and rarely since, has a story so fundamentally altered the fictional comic book universe around it. Crafted by the renowned New Teen Titans creative team of writer Marv Wolfman and artist George Perez, Crisis involved every hero, villain and supporting character in the DC Universe (and crossed over into virtually every title), changing the fabric of reality and condensing DC’s multiverse into a singular universe.

Nick: It’s hard to find a story that had a bigger or longer lasting impact on a universe than COIE did.

Greg: Indeed, it had such an impact that the entirety of DC’s catalog is now classified into “Pre-Crisis” and “Post-Crisis” books, stories and characters. You can’t say that about any other event in mainstream comics, except perhaps the New 52. But regardless of what people thought about the changes instituted by Crisis, we can’t forget the sheer scope of it. To involve this many characters and literally an infinite number of worlds, the story had to be perfectly crafted to avoid overwhelming the reader. Wolfman and Perez did their best, with some of the most gorgeous comic book art ever created. Perez gained his reputation here as the best ever at fitting hundreds of characters on a page while retaining their distinctive qualities.

Among the hundreds of moments and thousands of character deaths, two in particular stand out — Barry Allen’s heroic sacrifice and the death of Supergirl. Both are iconic moments that shaped not only the Post-Crisis DC Universe but many of the characters who were forged afterward. And best of all, these deaths came at a time when they still meant something. Allen stayed dead for nearly 25 years, and a Kryptonian Supergirl wouldn’t exist again until the early 2000s.

Nick: Well said, Greg. In fact, I agree with nearly all of this, including where COIE should rank.

Nick’s No. 5: Crisis on Infinite Earths

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Greg: A great selection. Original, too!

Nick: Greg really has covered most of this so well already, so I’ll keep my thoughts brief. Crisis, while it might seem outdated or convoluted to a modern reader, is the book that set the stage for most of DC’s next 25 years. The impact it had on the DC universe as a whole was remarkable, with it providing writers like John Byrne the opportunity to establish new origins and continuities for Superman and the rest of the DCU. It also still stands as perhaps the most iconic moment in the fictional life of Barry Allen, and the villainous Anti-Monitor popped up from time to time to threaten existence over the years. For the legacy of earth-shattering events it created, COIE takes the No. 5 spot on my list.

Greg’s No. 4: 52

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Greg: While it may seem a stretch to call it an event book, I think it qualifies for two primary reasons: it was its own standalone title, and it altered the course of the DC Universe in some major ways. Along the way, it introduced new characters, redefined old ones and gave some B and C-list characters a chance to shine. It also helps that it may be the most ambitious project either major company has tried in the last decade that actually managed to succeed.

Written every week for a year by the all-world writing team of Mark Waid, Geoff Johns, Grant Morrison, Greg Rucka and Keith Giffen, 52 managed to touch every corner of the DC Universe, provide pretty much every type of comic book story imaginable and do it all without relying on the crutch of DC’s Trinity — Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman.

There was the Question’s quest with Renee Montoya. There was Ralph Dibny’s detective story. There was Adam Strange fighting for survival in space. There was Lex Luthor practicing one of the most evil schemes ever devised. There was Booster Gold and his return to relevance.

And, of course, there was the show-stealer Black Adam. All these threads came together in what has to be the most impressive collaborative writing effort in modern comics history. How they managed to meet their deadlines and avoid stepping on each other’s toes creatively is a mystery to me. It was well executed from top to bottom.

Nick: 52 was certainly ambitious, as the creators had to adhere to a strict weekly schedule for an entire year, and, as you said, telling 52 issues worth of DC stories without using any of the “Big 3” is a challenge, especially if the story is as wide in scope as 52 was.

Greg: Add in the fact that it made me appreciate characters like Adam Strange, Animal Man and Black Adam, and remember the value of folks like Renee Montoya and Booster Gold, and you’ve got a winner of an event.

Nick’s No. 4: Secret Wars

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Greg: The origin of the black symbiote suit that later formed Venom.

Nick: Marvel’s big entry into the world of universe-wide crossovers, Secret Wars casts a shadow over the Marvel Universe not unlike the one the aforementioned Crisis on Infinite Earths cast over the DCU. The story is a fairly straightforward superhero tale that featured a team of heroes battling a team of villains on a distant planet at the behest of a cosmic character known as the Beyonder.

However, it is notable for not only assembling many of the Marvel U’s main players in one place for one of the first times, but also setting up some notable plot threads that would be paid off over the years. The most iconic image of the series is Spider-Man’s introduction to the black suit, which set everything in motion for the eventual introduction of everybody’s favorite ‘90s antihero, Venom. The Thing’s longtime girlfriend, Alicia Masters, was eventually revealed to have been replaced by a Skrull spy while Ben was away fighting the Secret Wars. All in all, the story was a fun and important trip through the Marvel Universe. Secret Wars II, however … the less said, the better.

Greg: I have to confess, I’ve never actually read this series, but as a child of the ’80s and early ’90s, I was certainly aware of its consequences. Speaking of major Marvel events …

Greg’s No. 3: The Infinity Gauntlet

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Nick: Like you with Secret Wars, I’ve never actually read Infinity Gauntlet, even though I know it’s something I need to do, especially as the Marvel Cinematic Universe gears up for its Phase 3. Since I haven’t read it, I’ll leave this one to you.

Greg: Perhaps the most overused word in the Internet Comics Community is “fun.” But that’s the only word I can think of to describe this event. Was there humor? Not a ton. Was it whimsical and lighthearted? Not at all. But this event is a perfect encapsulation of why comics can be “fun” without being any of those things listed above.

This story came out when I was 7 and just hitting the peak of my fandom. This was the first event I’d read that included basically every Marvel hero in a single story. All the kids at school were talking about this one, both the older kids and we young ones. As I recall, the story is basically this: Thanos is a mysterious, intimidating badass with the most powerful, unstoppable weapon in the universe and the heroes are powerless to stop him.

To a second-grader, that’s some heavy, heavy stuff, but in a great way. Many a playground fantasy battle was had at the peak of The Infinity Gauntlet, with one kid getting to be Thanos and the rest choosing Marvel heroes.

Basically, the story (penned by the legendary Jim Starlin) was an excuse to give readers some of the greatest battles ever seen while stacking the odds against our heroes in John Cena-like fashion every single month. It also opened a lot of eyes (including mine) to what became my second favorite area of the Marvel 616 universe: space. I discovered just how awesome cosmic stuff could be, from Adam Warlock to Silver Surfer and everyone in between.

Modern events could learn a lot from the linearity and pace of Starlin’s classic.

Nick’s No. 3. Blackest Night

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Greg: As we discussed last week, this was a huge one for both of us personally.

Nick: I struggled for a quite a while on whether to go with Blackest Night at 2 or 3 before eventually settling on this slot. While I enjoyed Blackest Night immensely, it also had the weight of nearly impossibly high expectations. While I would never call it a disappointment, I think my excitement actually wound up hurting my overall enjoyment of the story. But, that’s neither here nor there. Blackest Night served as the crescendo of a roughly five-year story that Geoff Johns had been building in the pages of Green Lantern, first in “Rebirth” and later in “The Sinestro Corps War.”

Greg: Johns’ Green Lantern and Dave Gibbons/Peter Tomasi’s Green Lantern Corps had featured little pieces in the background that, over time, began to build the tapestry Johns ultimately envisioned for Blackest Night.

Nick: The story got off to a bang, with the shocking deaths of Hawkman and Hawkgirl closing out the first issue. It also gave us some pretty cool fan service moments, such as Scarecrow becoming a member of the Sinestro Corps and Lex Luthor sharing the powers of the Orange Lantern with Larfleeze. Plus, who can forget the first appearance of the iconic Orange Lantern oath, “Eh?”

Greg: And it seemed like every issue found a new way to surprise readers. This was easily the most gruesome major event book DC has done, yet it ultimately came down to heroism. Hal Jordan and Barry Allen took the lead here, but almost all the major DC heroes got their opportunities to shine. No pun intended.

Nick: It also served to further the dynamic between Sinestro and Hal Jordan while also resurrecting characters such as Martian Manhunter and Maxwell Lord and placing them right back into the thick of the larger DC Universe narrative. With the advent of the New 52, Blackest Night’s “dead means dead” edict is no longer in effect, but it provided an interesting obstacle for writers to work around in the event’s wake. Years from now when I look back at Geoff Johns’ iconic Green Lantern run, Blackest Night, Sinestro Corps War and this year’s GL #20 will be the works I remember most fondly.

Greg: What was your favorite Blackest Night moment?

Nick: I’ll go with a severely underrated moment that may not even be in some of the trade collections. While it took place in Blackest Night #0, a Free Comic Book Day giveaway, I thought the scene with Barry Allen and Hal Jordan standing at the grave of Bruce Wayne and reflecting on their own experiences of death and rebirth was tremendously well-written. Just another example of how Geoff Johns seems to have the perfect “voice” for so many DC mainstays.

Greg: That was a great, poignant moment. And it certainly stood out to me as one of the reasons for the following ranking.

Greg’s No. 2: Blackest Night

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Greg: Piggybacking off what you mentioned earlier, Blackest Night felt like, to use wrestling parlance, the blowoff match to a huge feud that had been building. It was WrestleMania to the Sinestro Corps War’s Royal Rumble. People tend to forget this because of the whole “Black Lanterns” thing, but this was really the big “War of the Light” payoff. We got the Indigo Tribe reveal, an all-out donnybrook between the Green, Yellow, Red, Blue and Orange Lantern corps, numerous outstanding character revalations (including, outside the main title itself, the huge Sinestro-Soranik Natu reveal) and, once again, some of the most epic battles ever drawn.

Ivan Reis really made himself a household name with this book, and he was outstanding. The entire Johns Green Lantern epic was a story of emotion, and in Blackest Night, Reis managed to capture that emotion while also crafting epic battles of a universal scope.

Nick: Yeah, it took a while for me to move on from the Ethan Van Sciver era, but Ivan Reis was the first to approach Van Sciver’s GL work, in my opinion.

Greg: For me, probably the most memorable spread was the reveal of Nekron as the big bad guy — something longtime GL fans assumed would happen but had no idea when or how. In addition to that, another of my favorite moments came, of all things, from a kiss between the just-revived Jade and Kyle Rayner … who was very much in a relationship with Soranik. It was just a delightfully awkward moment in a series filled with crazy battles and deaths.

Nick’s No. 2: Civil War

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Greg: Perhaps one of the most intriguing premises of any story on our list.

Nick: Unlike Blackest Night, Civil War didn’t bear the burden of meeting my high expectations. It was my first foray into the world of crossover events, and my lack of experience helped me to be more engaged in the story and not as cynical about the level of earth-shattering change the creators were promising.

The story told the tale of political pressure being exerted on the heroes of the Marvel Universe following a series of tragic events, most notably the accidental deaths of hundreds of elementary school children when the New Warriors engaged villain Nitro in combat near a school. The story posed questions about the nature of costumed heroes, and whether they should be required to meet certain standards or requirements in order to serve the public.

The Marvel U’s government responded by instituting a superhero registration act, with half the heroes taking a pro-registration stance and the other half coming down on the anti-reg side. Iron Man led the pro side, while Captain America surprisingly found himself opposing the American government. Spider-Man, however, was the character who found himself caught in the middle. His public reveal of his secret identity was an extremely important moment at the time, but he soon saw the error of his ways and swapped sides midway through the story.

Greg: The idea of heroes being opposed to one another wasn’t exactly original, but neither company had ever presented the idea on the scale of Civil War — dividing the superheroes into two distinct parties and leaving it (mostly) to the readers to determine which side was in the right. Oddly enough, DC had just done a similar story, but not to quite the same degree that Mark Millar took it in Civil War. Captain America’s group against Iron Man’s faction was a really intriguing idea at the time.

You’re right about the story posing interesting questions. In the wake of 9/11, it seemingly presented the ethical battle between freedom and the perception of safety. I’m not sure it completely succeeded in its quest for moral ambiguity, but it certainly strived for it early on. Tony Stark seemed to be veering toward the dictatorial side, but the story kind of abruptly switched gears by the end. Despite my issues with the ending, though, I liked the story a lot.

Nick: The book also had its share of shocking moments, such as the apparent return of Thor, who murdered Goliath by blasting a hole right through his chest. Granted, it was eventually revealed to be an android clone of Thor, but still. Now, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the ending. I love Civil War for 98 percent of its run. I love every page of every issue…

… until the ending of the climactic battle comes. Spoiler alert, but having Captain America just quit at the end of the battle against Iron Man seemed like a giant copout to me. I understand wanting Cap to realize that he should be fighting for the public’s best interests instead of those of the superhero community, but having him essentially beat Iron Man and then drop his shield at the last moment only seemed to weaken both sides for me. I’m not saying Cap should have killed Tony Stark, but perhaps Mark Millar could have found a different way to make the points he sought to make.

Were you pro-reg or anti-reg? I was pretty vehemently on the side of Iron Man and the pro-reg efforts. The idea of wanting heroes to meet a certain standard in an effort to ensure public safety actually made a lot of sense to me, especially in a post-9/11 world where threats seemed to still be around every corner.

Greg: Perhaps it’s my X-Men upbringing, but I leaned toward the anti-registration side. I thought both sides raised excellent, valid points, but registration is a slippery slope. It certainly reminded me of the mutant registration/Nazi Germany parallels of Chris Claremont’s X-Men run, and I thought registration would’ve given far too much power to a government that had already proven to be corrupt in Marvel’s recent history.

Greg’s No. 1: Infinite Crisis

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Nick: Hey! Guess what!

Nick’s No. 1. Infinite Crisis

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Greg: No way!

Nick: While I didn’t read Infinite Crisis as it was published like you did, when I did discover it a few years ago, I wound up absolutely loving it. Then, when I revisited it a few months ago through the massive Infinite Crisis omnibus DC released, I wound up enjoying it even more than I did the first time.

Greg: About a year before Marvel’s Civil War, before DC handed Geoff Johns the keys to the kingdom, the company let Johns captain the biggest crossover the company had attempted since Crisis on Infinite Earths. Paired with a rotating group of super-talented artists (including Phil Jimenez, George Perez and Jerry Ordway), Johns proceeded to hit a grand slam on his first swing.

Nick: Seeing the seeds that had been sown to get to the actual Infinite Crisis event was awesome, and it was just another example of the creative power of Geoff Johns. Juggling characters, concepts and the legacy of Crisis on Infinite Earths, Johns’ story may still be his best work, and it did for the modern DC Universe what COIE did for the DCU of the ‘80s and ‘90s.

The story gave us the return of Golden Age Superman, and built one of the more intriguing villains I’ve ever read, Superboy-Prime. While many people’s mileage may vary on Prime, I thought he instantly joined the pantheon of iconic DC villains thanks to his actions during Infinite Crisis.

Greg: In fact, the story serves as almost a direct sequel to COIE. It also, however, serves as Johns’ own commentary on the state of DC’s superheroes at the time. Through the eyes of the Golden Age Superman, Superboy-Prime and Alexander Luthor, Johns says what many comics fans were thinking at the time (and many are thinking these days): the heroes are no longer inspiring.

Nick: It also gave us perhaps my favorite line of Batman dialogue in the last decade, when he says to Superman in issue 1:

“Everyone looks up to you. They listen to you. If you tell them to fight, they’ll fight. But they need to be inspired. And let’s face it, “Superman” … the last time you really inspired anyone was when you were dead.”

That line summed up the feelings of many on the last 20 years of Superman stories, and helped to further the idea that Bruce had become far too cynical and untrusting, and might never be able to recover and find his place within the superhero community again.

Touche, salesman.
Touche, salesman.

Greg: For that reason, Infinite Crisis is one of the best examples in superhero books of providing “villains” with a completely understandable point of view. While Prime and Luthor went too far in their quest to restore the joy and wonder of the pre-Crisis DCU, you could certainly empathize with the Golden Age Superman as he watched his successor become ineffective, the modern Batman become paranoid and obsessive, and the modern Wonder Woman becoming a borderline-ruthless killer.

Nick: Yeah, while I’ve never been the world’s biggest Superman fan, one of the book’s biggest accomplishments was that it got me to empathize with Golden Age Superman in a way that I never connected with his modern counterpart. The pain of seeing all the modern versions of his friends losing their morality as well as the danger of losing his Lois Lane, made me really pull for the guy. His Lois Lane’s death scene was perhaps the book’s most emotional moment.

Greg: The story does a wonderful job showing the gradual mental deterioration of Superboy-Prime, a teenager with the powers of a god who is unleashed on a new world that is completely foreign to him. Along the way, DC’s Trinity is forced to regroup and come to terms with the changes they’ve undergone. And, in the end, they decide to actually do something about it. Only by Wonder Woman regaining her compassion, Batman learning to trust again and Superman stepping up as the beacon of hope he was meant to be can the heroes defeat their Machiavellian foes.

Especially when read in the context of the massive Omnibus mentioned above, the story reads as an incredibly deep superhero epic that manages to do what most great superhero stories do in the end — inspire. You see how these men, women and kids pull together during a disaster, and the ones who survive come out of it better heroes than they were before.

We can’t forget about the dynamic fight scenes, either. Most of the great ones belong to Superboy-Prime. My favorite moment, other than the aforementioned powwow between the Trinity on the Justice League Watchtower, is probably Superboy-Prime’s sheer terror at realizing he accidentally beheaded Pantha. It’s a wonderfully emotional panel that also had some dark humor going on. Golden Age Lois’ death was suitably poignant, but Earth-2 Superman’s had just as much of an impact to me — beautiful scenes in a chaotic, action-filled event.

I hate it when that happens.
I hate it when that happens.

While it’s outside the main title itself, we should also give credit to the other writers who helped weave the threads included in the Omnibus collection that paid off inside the pages of Infinite Crisis — folks like Greg Rucka, Gail Simone and Dave Gibbons.

Nick: Absolutely. Stories like Countdown to Infinite Crisis, OMAC Project, Villains United and Day of Vengeance all helped to set the events of Infinite Crisis into motion and also showed how deep the Alexander Luthor conspiracy truly ran. Gail Simone’s Villains United, which led to her Suicide Squad run, perhaps stands out as the best of the bunch.

Greg: I agree. And those stories made it easier for Johns to keep a quick pace in the main title. He could focus on the important character beats that separated Infinite Crisis from later event books while maintaining a cohesive narrative that was lacking in prior attempts at post-Crisis “crises” like Armageddon 2001 and Zero Hour.

Nick: Well, that about wraps it up for this month’s edition of Countdown. Greg, tell the good people what we’ve got coming up next week.

Greg: We’ll be back, as The Longbook Hunters, to look at the first collected edition of Gotham Central by Greg Rucka, Ed Brubaker and Michael Lark. It’ll be my first time reading the series, while Nick is partaking his second read-through.

Nick: In the meantime, drop us a line at GregP@placetobenation.com or NickD@placetobenation, or contact us on the PTB Facebook page or on Twitter (@gphillips8652 and @nickduke87) for any feedback you have. We’d love to see/hear your own favorite event books.

Author: Greg Phillips and Nick Duke

Greg and Nick share two passions above all others, both of which involve people in spandex punching each other. Reporters by day, they also insist on being called "Two Dudes with Attitude" but can't decide who is Kevin Nash and who is Shawn Michaels.