Each time we convene a PANEL meeting to discuss the theme of the next anthology, I throw out the incredibly unwise idea of doing an issue in the format of this series. Deciding it was time to do a WBM entry on this mid-1980’s “maxi-series” I sat down to read these twelve issues for the first time since high school and have come to the conclusion that those who politely acknowledged my suggestion then changed the subject were being far more thoughtful than I.
Don’t get me wrong, I love this series. The premise lies in it’s form, not it’s content: a long list of comic creators divide themselves among eleven chapters of the series, each one contributing their part with no knowledge of where the previous writer may have intended for the story to go. Each writer is required to end his chapter with the toughest possible cliffhangers he can conjure (though he must later reveal in the lettercol how he would have solved them himself). Furthermore, each writer/artist team cannot use characters with whom they are normally associated. Then for the twelfth issue, the whole gang reassembles to write the conclusion to whatever story has evolved over the course of the year.
The result is a sprawling,, convoluted mess of a story which is obviously the most fun-to-create series I can imagine was ever made. It only takes a couple of issues before bewildered writers, unsure of their predecessors’ intentions, start throwing out the most outlandish plot points since the Batman TV series was broadcast. Midway through the series, creators who are hopelessly lost from the plotlines established by the first issue and still far removed from any obligation to tie up loose threads start gleefully throwing sh*t against all four metaphorical walls just to see what mosaic emerges. Readers hoping for a coherent story had better look elsewhere, but there’s plenty of fun to be had.
The prohibition against using “regular” characters also leads to an ever-shifting cast which allows writers to dredge up old forgotten favorites or show off their knowledge of obscure comic trivia. Chapter one starts with the Superman/Batman/Wonder Woman team one might expect from an epic series, but they drop off the radar pretty quickly in favor of jewels like B’Wana Beast, Congorilla, Jonah Hex, Viking Prince, Space Cabby, Son of Vulcan, Adam Strange, The Unknown Soldier, Darwin Jones, Blackhawk, Deadman, Geo-Force (!), Vigilante, Enemy Ace, Hawkman, Captain Marvel, Plastic Man (those two not being very common in 1985), and one of my personal favorites, Doctor Thirteen– among many, many others, including an apparent throwaway character named Eli Ellis who takes on surprising significance by the end of the series.
The list of creators is impressive: Moench, Colan, Wolfman, Heck, Infantino, Thomas, Giffen, Kane, Conway, Andru, Janson, Gibbons, Swan, Giordano, and Evanier, among others. Roy Thomas is the standout for me, coming in around issue nine and using his super-editor powers to pull the whole shambling mess into a semi-orderly story in time to start building towards an ending. There’s no way I could begin to outliine the plot, so I’ll just point to a couple favorite elements:
The big mystery! In the first issue, Mark Evanier gives Batman a vital clue in the form of a numerical riddle, then passes the story along to the next writer without revealing the solution. A few writers struggle with the puzzle and offer absurd answers until Marv Wolfman nails it just in time in issue #11.
The cliffhangers! These get outlandish pretty early on as the writers start to just have fun. Batman gets dropped into an active volcano! Demons take over the Daily Planet and put out an extra edition exposing Superman’s secret identity! Sinestro beheads Superman and operates his body by remote control! Every hero in the world lapses into a coma just as Darkseid reaches for the trigger of a doomsday device! My favorite by far: a time travelling Jonah Hex is trapped in the back seat of an out of control car headed for a group of nuns and schoolchildren! Bewildered writers having to tie up their predecessor’s cliffhangers occasionally resort to extreme solutions, such as the arrival of a strangely helpful Mr. Mxyzptlk, or the appearance of a cosmically-powered Albert Einstein.
All good stuff, if you can bear the headache it gives you. As for the solution to that numerical riddle– if you haven’t read the series, try and take a stab at it. No googling.