In 2003, D.C. and Marvel comics did the unthinkable, at least from a modern perspective: they collaborated. The two major comics houses combined powers for a huge four-issue mini-series that featured their respective headline heroes and was alternately titled JLA/Avengers or Avengers/JLA. And with due respect to Avengers: Infinity War, this was the most ambitious crossover in history.
It's not that this was the first time the two monoliths of the American comic book market would come together. Over the nearly 30 years prior, there had been a smattering of special "once in a lifetime" meetings between characters from each of their toy boxes. Superman and Spider-Man met in a tabloid-sized one-shot in 1976. Five years later, they met again, while Batman and the Hulk crossed paths that same year. The Teen Titans and X-Men capped a busy era with a team-up in 1982 written by Chris Claremont and Walt Simonson. The mid-'90s also saw a number of significant crossovers.
This JLA/Avengers collaboration was envisioned as taking the biggest and best of both companies. It was to be drawn by George Pérez, the only artist gifted enough — and to a certain degree crazy enough — to take on the task of drawing every character who had ever been offered an Avengers ID card or a membership to the Justice League or one of its offshoots. The two men who were at the time in charge of shepherding both teams, DC's Mark Waid and Marvel's Kurt Busiek, were tasked with writing the book. Tom Brevoort, the Avengers editor, was on board, as was Stephen Wacker, an assistant editor at DC.
Most important was that this comic actually get made. In 1983, the companies had wanted to build on the success of their team-ups with a book called JLA/Avengers, which was to be co-written by Gerry Conway (co-creator of Punisher for Marvel and Firestorm for DC) and legendary writer Roy Thomas, with art chores to be handled again by George Pérez. DC would have handle most of the heavy lifting in producing the book and Marvel would have handled distribution. This should have been a slam dunk, but through a series of misunderstandings and miscommunications between Marvel Editor-in-chief Jim Shooter, and DC EIC Dick Giordano, the project ended before it ever really started.
SYFY WIRE spoke to those key contributors for an unprecedented look back at how the crossover did, indeed, get made. I reached out to both people from Marvel and DC, with far more luck with the former than the latter.
Full Disclosure: I was on staff with DC Comics at the time this project was coming together, working alongside the editorial department. So I can speak firsthand to the DC side of the equation and the work that went into making this mini-series possible.
Kurt Busiek: I don't know if this is actual irony, but it's a coincidence at least, so it's the Alanis Morissette version of irony. One of my last jobs as a fan journalist, when I was working on a news magazine about comics, was to do an article announcing what was going to be the 1984 book. This was back in 1981 or 1982. I didn't know much about what was in it at that time, but over the years as it fell apart, there were interviews that were done about it where everybody kind of shouted at each other.
The problem with the first one was really a matter of personality clash. Dick's style of editing was "let's just get moving and we'll fix it along the way." Dick Giordano, as a long, long time award-winning inker, didn't believe there was any comic book you couldn't fix in the inks. And Jim Shooter was a very intellectually driven writer, who wanted it all in the outline. If it wasn't in the outline, it was wrong. So Dick was like "Yeah okay we have a plot, and maybe bits of it that don't make sense but we'll fix it as we go along" And Jim was like, "no, you can't start until you have an outline that works."
The final tally on work produced on JLA/Avengers '84: one fully plotted issue that may or may not have been approved, 21 pages of penciled artwork, and a litany of memos back and forth between Giordano and Shooter detailing which of their respective editorial teams were not at fault. After management changes at both companies, new crossovers between Marvel and DC characters to began to hit the stands.
Between 1994 and 1999, the companies would collaborate on 11 standalone stories featuring the likes of Spider-Man, Batman, the New Gods, Galactus, Superman, the Silver Surfer, Captain America and dozens more characters from each companies' respective library. They also put out Marvel vs. DC, a four-issue mini-series that was more like a battle royale pitting iconic characters against one another, with the outcomes voted on by gleeful fans.
It took another change in management to get the original JLA/Avengers idea rolling again.
Tom Brevoort: I was intimately involved in getting this crossover to happen. At the time, Joe Quesada had been installed as Marvel's new EIC and he was working through a program he referred to as "unfinished business": creator relationships that had fallen on hard times, projects that had never been completed as a result of some difficulty or another, that sort of thing. And so, at a given point, he asked me why the JLA/Avengers project hadn't happened back in the day. I gave him a rundown, and he said, "Okay, go make it happen."
I checked with our contracts people about the particulars of the overall deal for the Marvel/DC crossovers, and I discovered something: the deal called for each company to produce an equal number of books, but at that moment, DC had done four more than Marvel had. So that gave me some bargaining leverage.
I don't know what the decision-making process was like on DC's end — for Marvel, that was the whole of it. We did all meet once or twice to hash out some of the business aspects, agree upon the length and the creative team, as well as the publishing rights to the collection. That went to DC, as Marvel didn't have a machine in place at that moment to do collections—something else that Joe Q was instrumental in building.
So as the wheels were set in motion to get JLA/Avengers started, the talent currently working on both books were becoming aware this project might suddenly have new life.
Busiek: When things were fine between Marvel and DC, we heard about it and that there might be a possibility. I was writing Avengers while Mark Waid was writing Justice League and we came up with elaborate plans to do a JLA/Avengers #1, and then have the story appear in the next six issues of Avengers and JLA. Then there'd be a finale in JLA/Avengers #2 where we'd write our halves of it and we'd co-write the bookends. Ultimately Marvel and DC didn't want to do that because they didn't want to have any issues of the Avengers that they couldn't reprint because they were subject to a co-publishing deal.
An unlikely player then got involved: an upstart comic book company called CrossGen, which was founded in 1998 by Mark Alessi. Determined to make a huge first splash, they offered exclusive contracts to many of the industry's most talented creative talent. Two of the creators who chose to take Alessi up on his offer were Waid and Pérez.
Busiek: I was still on Avengers, while Mark left DC to go to CrossGen. There was no new writer on JLA. Mark was finished, or at least on the way out. I was the only guy left standing and they offered it to me and I thought, well gee, that sounds nice.
Brevoort: We also had to work around George's situation. At the time, he had finished his run on Avengers for me, and joined CrossGen as a staff artist. But he had a clause inserted into his contract that stated that, if an Avengers/JLA project ever happened, that he would be free to do it. So we needed to negotiate a little bit with Mark Alessi in order to work out the timing and make this happen, because the book was going to take George a year and a half to draw, since he wanted to ink it as well, which is a long time to have a key artist off the boards. And this is why we announced the project at the Orlando Megacon, a show which at that time was affiliated with CrossGen — it was their hometown show.
Stephen Wacker: I believe I only found out that it was finalized just a couple days before the 2001 Megacon where it was announced.
The creative team was finally set.
Brevoort: George was a no-brainer based on his connection with the original, aborted JLA/Avengers project from 1984. And I think DC wanted to be in the Kurt Busiek business, and saw this as a way to begin to establish a relationship.
The next step was hammering out the logistics of this event.
Brevoort: In all honesty, it wasn't too difficult. We had made arrangements to stay down in Florida an extra day following the Megacon announcement, and so myself, Dan Raspler from DC, Kurt and George sat around talking through the project and the story. Kurt already had a bunch of the pieces for what he wanted to do, and we very quickly all agreed that we weren't going to approach this from a company vs company standpoint where we'd be counting character appearances or worrying about who "looked better" or not.
We were just going to build a story that worked for us, like any other story — it just happened to star characters from two separate companies. Thereafter, there was a snowstorm that blanketed New York, and so Kurt and I rented a car and drove for 26 hours straight up the coast to get back to New York, and during that time we had plenty of further weary discussions about the project.
Wacker: We had some lunches which were friendly but the bulk of the work was done in email. And there were thousands. You could probably fill three omnibuses with them!
Busiek: I wanted to do a bigger project. The original idea to do it back in '84 was a 40-page book and I had impressed upon Tom a number of times, let's go bigger than that. Marvel versus DC and other projects that had been done as multi-issue projects. At one point, they came back to me with wanting to do three prestige format comics. I said, let's do four, because there are two publishers and you can't split three books into two publishers.
Wacker: I recall there was some worry that this was really just Marvel's Avengers creative team handling something that was supposed to be half DC. On the other hand, Kurt had co-written a Wonder Woman mini as well as a Red Tornado mini that only I bought in 1985, so I was on his team!
Busiek: I came up with the idea of having Marvel issues be called JLA/Avengers and the DC issues Avengers/JLA, because that way nobody seems more important. And more to the point I thought JLA/Avengers had a better rhythm than Avengers/JLA.
They also wanted a more ambitious story than had been done before.
Brevoort: The key idea was to not just do a typical fight between characters as had been done before, but to really delve into what made the Marvel Universe and the DC Universe different — to point out the stuff that each company did differently.
Busiek: I didn't want it to a story that just said, hey, here's the JLA, here's the Avengers. They team up, they fight somebody. They win, nothing happens that isn't on a pure superhero level. I said I want something deeper and that turned out to be exploring the differences between the two universes.
There's a reason why DC characters and Marvel characters don't just cross the dimensional gulfs — other than ownership — and team up all the time. It's because they're different places with different styles and even different physical laws. And I made the point along the way that the DC earth is slightly larger than Marvel earth because it's got more fake countries and fake cities to fit in.
Wacker: I know there was a lot of anger from fans about who could beat who, but I was always a believer that any character could win against any other character given the right set of circumstances.
Busiek: We wanted to get into the idea that, that the Marvel Universe is a place where heroes struggle and the DC Universe is a place where heroes are lionized. Superman is everybody's big brother, and The Flash is the pride of Central City. Even in Gotham city, Batman may be a scary guy, but he's THEIR scary guy. In New York City, Spiderman's a scary guy, but he's just a scary guy. Marvel has a lot more of a sense of the superhuman as dangerous. Whereas with DC, it's traditionally neatly divided into hero and villain.
Brevoort: That idea permeated throughout the plot and the series, including the one sequence that we couldn't make work to our satisfaction in issue #3 wherein we postulated what the Marvel characters would have been like had they been created in the DC Universe and vice versa. That failure led to the situation that broke the story, as it turns out.
While somehow making the heroes work together was crucial, they didn't ignore the villains, either.
Busiek: Tom and I were talking about what could be done and I had cooked up the idea that we need to involve Krona and the Grandmaster, right from those early discussions. Tom and I said this doesn't need to be exactly balanced at all. If we have Krona vs. Grandmaster and we have Metron involved, we don't need to have another Marvel supervillain involved at the same level just so that everybody gets the same number of seconds of dance montage.
So they had an outline. Now they just needed a story. That story told over four issues ended up being starting with a cosmic scavenger hunt with Krona on one side, and the Grandmaster on the other. The JLA and Avengers wound up being used as the chess pieces in this high stakes quest to gather 12 objects of power from the Marvel and DC universe, including a Green Lantern power battery and the Spear of Destiny from the DCU, and the Cosmic Cube and Infinity gems Marvel.
The story begins with the present-day versions of both teams at the time — Cap, Iron Man, Thor, Quicksilver, Vision, Scarlet Witch, and Hawkeye squaring off against Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Aquaman, the Flash and Plastic Man — but through the course of the four issues would grow to touch on and contrast the full rosters of both squads.
The final issue ends with a knock-down, drag-out fight against Krona for the fate of both universes that is remembered by most (whether fondly or with scorn) for the image of Superman wielding Captain America's shield AND Thor's hammer during the battle. And in the end, Hawkeye (yes that Hawkeye) ends up winning the day for the heroes. Kurt's affinity for the character may have had had "something" to do with that.
It was an amazing four-issue run, but it didn't happen without its share of hiccups, as what goes on the page at times can pale in comparison to what it takes behind the scenes to put these projects together. often due to two completely different (and in DC's case shifting) editorial teams.
Busiek: I always got the impression that the DC was looking over their editors shoulders on JLA/Avengers. That when I sent something to Tom and Dan Raspler for approval, approval came back from Tom 20 minutes later. He said this was fine, let's go. Dan read it. And I got approval back three days later because — they never said this, but I got the impression that it had to go up the chain and had to be seen by, Mike Carlin, by whoever was above him.
We had at least a lot of flexibility on the Marvel side since this was the Avengers creative team putting together the comic. Joe Quesada was not looking over Tom's shoulder. He would say "It's just going to say JLA/Avengers on it? It's going to have George Pérez art? It's gonna sell through the roof? I honestly don't care what Dr. Light does."
The main hiccup seems to have occurred around the story in the third issue.
Busiek: Issue four was difficult to do, no offense to anybody involved and I'm sure they were always all using their best judgment. But, the DC side of the process broke issue three. We had an outline. It had been approved by everybody. Issues three and four were originally intended pick up the merged Earths in 1983, and we see the teams that would have met in the original 1983 crossover. And then as time and reality collapsed and warped, they keep shifting to later versions. We would get to see the different forms that the JLA and the Avengers have taken, with multiple teams and such over the years.
We got told by the DC side of this, by Dan (Raspler) — I don't know how much of that was Dan and I don't know how much of it was people looking over Dan's shoulder — that no, we could not spend all this time in a JLA/Avengers crossover with Hal and Barry as a Green Lantern and the Flash. And the reason was that Hal and Barry were dead. They were never coming back. No one cared about them. It was Wally and Kyle Allen. So spending too much time on Hal and Barry was just aiming it at the oldsters. And we needed to aim it at the younger fans so we had to pull apart issue three and put it together differently.
That meant that what was supposed to be a structured flow of time moved forward in a chaotic way. There just wasn't any structure anymore. It was just chaotic things as they're happening. And we tried to make as best an emotionally satisfying event out of it.
Brevoort: Mike Carlin — who was then DC's Executive Editor — and I got along very well, and were almost always on the same wavelength, which made coordinating and conceptualizing these crossovers relatively pain-free. Mike came on to edit the end of JLA/Avengers for DC, and that made things even easier. I kind of regret that he didn't come in just a few weeks sooner, as that was the point where the interaction happened that broke the back half of the story in my opinion, and that would almost certainly have been avoided had it been Mike at the helm at that moment.
Busiek: Issue #3 pretty much got reworked in ways that we weren't happy with. And issue #4 was kind of a mess because of that, but people seem to like it. So I guess we did it well enough. But yes, it was a lot of work at the last minute and I think we would've had a better book if we'd stuck with the original outline.
What no one had any regrets over was the work down by George Pérez
Busiek: We had close to 200 pages and we had George. When I started writing Avengers, George was the artist, and I asked do you know which Avengers do you want to use? And he said all of them. When JLA/Avengers comes along I said, well, which characters would you like to focus on? And I knew it was coming: George said "all of them." So everybody up to and including the Yaz showed up at least once.
Brevoort: We were able to schedule the series in such a way that George was able to ink as well as pencil every single page of it. I'm not 100% certain, but I'm pretty sure that it represents the largest body of work that George both penciled and inked himself.
Wacker: Dealing with George was without a doubt the highlight of the project. I couldn't believe my life had progressed in such a way that I now had his phone number! My favorite memory was a voicemail message from George that I kept for years. He was … shall we say very "frustrated" that none of the references for JLA's moon base were consistent. I geeked out at every minute of him yelling at me!
Brevoort: The one fannish thing I did insist on in our earliest story meetings — and it's something that nobody objected to — was that the Flash be the first character to breach the dimensional barrier between the DC Universe and the Marvel Universe, much as he was the first character to travel from Earth-1 to Earth-2. In my office, that sequence was referred to as "Tom's page", and in fact, I did buy the original art for that page from George when he put it up for sale after the event had seen print.
Busiek: George finished the cover to number three that had every JLA member ever and every Avenger and he wrecked his hand. The fourth issue was late because George had had tendonitis from drawing that, which was a huge complicated cover.
Brevoort: At a certain point, we needed to send the original artwork for the cover to issue #3 — the huge piece in which George had drawn every single Avenger and Justice leaguer — back to George. But my intern at the time had misunderstood our instructions and instead sent George back a full-sized Xerox.
I remember coming into the office in the morning and finding a message on my answering machine from George, and I've never before or since experienced him speaking so quickly and so breathlessly. He was afraid that the original art was either lost or destroyed, and he was half out-of-his-mind with concern. Upon looking into things, we worked out what had happened, and were able to calm things down and get it back to him.
Given the size of the superhero business now, with sprawling cinematic and television universes even more prominent to the general public than the comics source material, it would seem unlikely that these two companies would team up again. The fact that they're owned by two multinational conglomerates — Marvel is Disney property, while DC is owned by the freshly minted Time Warner/AT&T — as unlikely as Captain America and Superman becoming North Korean citizens.
Brevoort: Those were really the final days of both companies being "Mom & Pop" shops. Now, with both Marvel and DC being integrated multi-platform companies, the inter-mingling of competing IP is a much more complicated and complex situation, along with the fact that you wind up spending considerable resources on a project for which you only recoup half of the eventual profits (and that you cannot utilize across other lines of business beyond the publishing) make it a lot more difficult to justify. It's hard to justify both the allocation of resources and also the difficulties of navigating the politics between two competing corporate giants. So it's not impossible that it could never happen again, but the factors against it happening are considerable.
It would be nice, though, if we could get JLA/Avengers and the other Marvel/DC crossovers of the past back into print.
Busiek: We got to do JLA/Avengers. I had a lot of fun with it and a lot of people read it. They thought it was cool. So the fact that it didn't stay in print is disappointing to me, but it doesn't outweigh the fact that we got to do it in the first place.
Wacker: At the time Marvel was in the beginning of a cultural reawakening that would climax with the movie and TV studios getting built. DC was just starting to wake up as well and really start taking seriously the need to compete with Marvel.
So JLA/Avengers felt like the end of an era (that I'm not sure ever really existed) where the companies were just playfully in competition. The stakes are much higher now and the two universes have moved in very different directions. It'd be fun to see another crossover one day, but I know at Marvel we focus our attention on building up the vast amount of unexplored characters in our own library. Our universe is so rich that every story already feels like an event. And I'm sure our Distinguished Competition feels the same.