The Amalgam Age: Spider-Boy Team-Up by David Mann

There has never been anything cooler than this, don’t @ me

Backtracking: ask anyone who’s gotten a chance to take a look at them, and they’ll tell you the DC and Marvel crossovers were – with the exception of course of JLA/Avengers – never all anyone really wanted them to be.  The beauty of longform, shared-universe storytelling is in the ability to form connective tissue over time; character arcs overlapping, mythology mixing and matching and building on itself, culminating in something far more than the sum of its parts. That’s not a luxury crossovers tend to be afforded. The leads get in, they fight over a misunderstanding, they bond over their commonalities and shared sense of righteous duty, they win the day, they get out with the bare minimum achieved. You’ll find an isolated moment of glory like Joker calling Carnage a corny putz, Batman no-selling a Red Skull monologue while socking him through a porthole, or the narrator greeting the sight of Superman and Spider-Man sharing a page for the first time with “Far below, on the streets surrounding Manhattan’s Columbus Circle, eyes turn skyward and pedestrians stare. And honestly, pilgrim…CAN YOU BLAME THEM? But generally speaking, you’ll have Batman and Daredevil meet and not have it be by Frank Miller at one of the last moments in time that might’ve been a good idea but rather the regular reliable hands on deck, or Superman’ll glare because ooh, he’d sure like to arrest Doctor Doom, but there’s that diplomatic immunity. It’s clean, it’s tidy, it’s logical, it’s passable.

DC VERSUS MARVEL COMICS, however, was none of those things. In fact, contrary to popular opinion, it kinda rules, and my appreciation for it has only grown over time. It’s dumb as all get out of course, precipitated by the living consciousnesses of the DC and Marvel cosmoses essentially getting in a fanboy spat over which publisher is cooler and duking out by proxy through the characters at their full ’90s power. Beyond a base notion of both universes turning out to be pretty neat after all, there are no grand themes in play here, no weighty interpersonal drama. Thor and Captain Marvel are just going to beat the high holy hell out of one another until one falls. A once-in-a-lifetime at the time, once ever in retrospect opportunity, and in execution it’s a big dopey standard event book.

Yet what’s grown on me over time is in fact that very lack of self-reflection. If its successor in JLA/Avengers can be accused of anything, it’s that it tries so hard, goes so deep into the fundamental differences in the makeup of each world and how the leads react to every individual nook and cranny, that it becomes easy to forget that this isn’t supposed to be happening. JLA/Avengers is a Real Story by medium grandmasters at the top of their game able to sell us on the premise, and it’s a miracle that we not only got that out of one of these after all but that it was the final one…but the trade off is just a bit of the odd spectacle of it all. Matter and antimatter somehow mixing safely would be a sight to see, but sometimes you just want the big loud boom, y’know?

That’s something I could only appreciate so much as a kid. My dad was a comic collector from way back, and about as soon as I was reading I was taking a look at whatever in his collection he deemed appropriate, from Byrne’s Man of Steel to the Essential collections of Spider-Man and Fantastic Four and bits and pieces of Morrison/Porter JLA. DC VERSUS MARVEL COMICS was part of that pile, and it was neat, I liked it fine even though I could tell something weird was going on with Spider-Man (though the sequel was better because it had Superman and Spidey back in his regular clothes teaming up to fight Venom). But it was just another comic: DC and Marvel meeting in the middle was something that happened back then, and I can even still remember my dad waiting on the last issue of JLA/Avengers after drawing the cover for #3 gave George Perez tendonitis. It was a neat gimmick, nothing more. Almost 20 years later? It’s magic. The doors between worlds have been welded shut now that they’re competitors on a global pop culture stage, and this was all there’ll ever be. No movies, no reprints, no digital editions. If you want to see members of the two pantheons of the genre share the printed page, you either get them online or you go trawling through back-issue bins on the strength of a prayer that luck is on your side. They’re forbidden artifacts, secreted away, disavowed, illicit. JLA/Avengers taps that magic, and more beautifully than any of its brethren, but it also in no small part wants to explain it. DC VERSUS MARVEL COMICS couldn’t care less about explaining shit. Doesn’t DC pointedly not have a multiverse in the 90s? How do the ‘Brothers’ mesh with the existing, rigidly-defined hierarchy of Marvel cosmic? Shut up nerd, here’s Wolverine gutting a dude who can fight Superman like a trout. No letdown from a lack of substantiate character interaction when there’s no space for that in an event book like this, no disappointment it’s a big silly punch comic because it never pretended to be anything else. David and Marz both keep things enjoyable and moving at a steady clip, and Castellini and Jurgens make it easy on the eyes. It is a montage where Daredevil spring-kicks into Riddler, Etrigan and Ghost Rider’s flame powers cancel each other out, and Batman’s about to throw down with Venom, nothing more or less. It is 4 issues of the sight of all your favorite characters who don’t get to throw down, throwing down, and I love it and I always will. The history of the two companies would have been incomplete without it.

And it would have been incomplete without Amalgam Comics.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say Amalgam IS all you want it to be; a full half of that initial round is some form of X-Men mashup, though 1997’s second time up tended wilder with the likes of Challengers of the Fantastic and Thorion of the New Asgods. But it takes both approaches to the notion of a DC/Marvel crossover to their logical conclusions: there’s an inherent cleverness and degree of forethought that has to go into putting these worlds together and having it make some semblance of sense and remain recognizable as the sum of its parts while still at least somewhat working in its own right (even if said cleverness generally amounts to lovingly egregious pun names), but at the same time its very nature demands something utterly in love with how big and loud and fundamentally dumb it is. It’s not a guaranteed vehicle for success, with even Mark Waid and Howard Porter (about to kick off Kingdom Come and JLA respectively, the former the very next month!) unable to make the League/X-Men mashup JLX much of anything, but at the same time Waid and Dave Gibbons took the Superman/Captain America combo Super Soldier and made it EXACTLY the sincerely charming retro heroics that concept cries out to be.

And nothing but nothing was everything you wanted it to be like the Way-Cool, Outrageous Arach-Kid, Spider-Boy.

First off: that is an all-timer design, the iconic power of Superman and Spider-Man meshed via the vehicle of Superboy’s casual crimefighting getup. The combined logos! The placement of the reds and blues shifting just enough to evoke both sources in equal measure! Superboy’s shades becoming the Spider-Man eyes! The divine Ringo was at his best here, and while in all likelihood Miles Morales would have ended up semi-regularly wearing a jacket over his costume with or without this blazing the trail, I like to think of Pete Ross here having that little piece of legacy to call his own. And might the red on the shoulders evoking the cape just a touch have been passed down to the upcoming Jon Kent Superman suit of Future State? Is Spider-Boy in fact the visual missing link between the originals and the Super-/Spider-Folks of tomorrow? Probably.

That itself brings about the question of why this is a Superboy/Spider-Man mashup instead of going straight for the primal source in Superman to make a mashup of the companies’ two most iconic characters (a notion even acknowledged in the text), and while the real answer is ‘Spider-Man and Superboy were both clones at the time, so they did that so that they could also mesh Superman with Captain America’, conceptually it works more and more the more you think about it. Not just their shared showbiz roots – Spidey seeking wealth and fame, Superboy literally born to be a New and Improved model on an existing brand – and growing maturity that make their origins easy enough to meld, but that they’re both in very real ways What Comes After Superman. Superboy in-universe, Spider-Man not only being the vanguard of the Marvel model lead that represented the next step in the subgenre but himself being created as what’s easy to read as a Superman analogue: a bespectacled nerd with adoptive parents who secretly fights crime in red-and-blue and works for a great metropolitan newspaper – initially dating his brunette coworker who loves one of his identities but holds the other in contempt – and whose first ever use of his powers was to almost, but not quite, leap a tall building in a single bound. They’re the young and cool in deliberate contrast to Superman’s old-fashioned, and together they’re the youngest and coolest of all.

So all-in-all rock solid concept, and its first go-around with Karl Kesel and Mike Wieringo pitting him against Bizarnage and King Lizard is a hoot. But it’s his final appearance in Spider-Boy Team-Up #1 (Featuring the Legion of Galactic Guardians 2099) that doesn’t just roll with the idea, but pushes it farther and better than anything else to come out of Amalgam.

It’s still a hoot first and foremost: Kesel returns, joined by Roger Stern, and this time accompanied by the art of José Ladrönn (now of all things cover artist for the upcoming Future State: The Next Batman), who mixes springy, clean Wieringo-esque characters with expansive hyperdetailed backgrounds evoking Geof Darrow. They’re a team well-suited to evoking the sense of history and scope – however playfully – needed for the premise here of a superhero forced to scramble and survive through a time-travel escapade leading to multiple reboots happening around him. The sleek futurity of 2099 contrasted against the grit of Suicide Street, the villains of the piece and how exactly Spider-Boy’s salvation comes about, the thought put into coming up with not only an entire team of mashups but its successive generational iterations, and even the bits I didn’t notice decades ago like why the briefly-glimpsed horrific even further future is set against a nine-panel grid; there’s an energy and intelligence here that grabbed me as a kid long before it could occur to me “oh, it’s an oversized gag about how the Legion of Superheroes keeps getting rebooted”. Entirely devoid of context, it’s an exciting, funny, colorful, thrilling little adventure story that should be a gold standard for how to do these sorts of high-concept done-in-ones. But it’s with that context that its real cleverness shines.

Hard as everyone involved across the line worked to sell the combinations, it was typically clear which character held dominance: Super Soldier was broadly Captain America with some added Superman elements, Iron Lantern was Tony Stark in space, etc. But like Dark Claw – who in his first appearance is thoroughly Wolverine, the next very much Batman – Spider-Boy is framed a bit different his second time around. While the 90s kid attitude anchors him to his specific DC heritage throughout, his debut with Project Cadmus history, celebrity, and science gone awry made him distinctly Superboy; here, he’s dealing with the most Spider-Man premise imaginable of going for carryout, running into a supervillain by total coincidence, and his entire day going to hell. And it’s in that position as the Marvel kid in over his head that he’s yanked to the future to learn he becomes a legend with a legacy spanning stars and centuries, and the REAL premise becomes apparent and the Amalgam promise fulfilled: a Marvel character dealing with a DC problem. Spider-Boy isn’t the godling who flits back and forth across time,  he can’t fight off armies of supervillains single-handed or rebuild computers at super-speed or handle being broken down into his base multiversal components, he was just a dude with a web shooter out to get some pizza. But by god, the wrong kind of superhero or not he’s still a superhero, so he scrambles through and saves a kid and his good deeds pay off even if his life is more complicated than ever by the end of it. The everyman hero who could be you is thrown into a situation meant for the heroes who can only ever aspire to as could only happen in this very, very specific quirk of publishing, and he’s not found wanting. In the penultimate installment of the entire affair (I should probably check out Magnetic Men Featuring Magneto #1 someday) Amalgam and DC VERSUS MARVEL COMICS finally is, really and truly, all you want it to be. And it spent all that cleverness on making Timberwolf and Matter-Eater lad into Timberwolf By Night and Paste-Eater Pete. I say again: it is so dumb, and there has never been anything cooler.

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