It’s been said that there are only seven different stories in the world, but even that number might feel too high for fans of event comics this week, with details of both DC’s April 2015 event Convergence and Marvel’s May 2015 event Secret Wars being released and sounding — well, not entirely unlike each other.
This isn’t the first time that the two publishers have published similar projects simultaneously; DC’s massive 2009 event Blackest Night — in which the dead returned to life to attack the living — coincided with Marvel’s Necrosha, in which the dead also returned to life to attack the living. Similarly, the revelation that Steve Rogers wasn’t actually dead, but instead bouncing around the timestream in Captain America: Reborn was hitting the stands at the same time as Bruce Wayne was also traveling the timestream while everyone in the present day thought he was dead in Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne.
Such coincidences happen. Alan Moore is fond of referencing “ideaspace,” some vague shared birthplace of ideas and concepts that everyone taps into without realizing it, an idea that feels a little bit more tangible when multiple people come up with the same idea simultaneously: They’re getting it from ideaspace, of course! When two such projects appear at the same time, it’s best to consider it an unexpected lesson in comparing how different creators and different publishers approach the same concepts and little else.
Recently, however, some events have began to look… familiar. Original Sin’s central whodunnit was very similar to Identity Crisis, from concept — beloved supporting character murdered and all the heroes have to find out who was responsible — to denouement, with another long-term supporting character having been responsible. Time Runs Out in the Avengers books feels like a combination of the time jump of the post-Infinity Crisis “One Year Later” and the everything you know is wrong in the future nature of Keith Giffen and the Bierbaum’s Legion of Super-Heroes. DC’s Flashpoint had DNA from Marvel’s House of M in its alternate world nature. If we’re honest, next year’s Convergence and Secret Wars both look like mash-ups of the original Secret Wars and Crisis on Infinite Earths to an extent.
This isn’t a new thing; DC put out collections of its 1980s events Millennium and Invasion! during Marvel’s Secret Invasion in 2008, in part to remind fans that, hey, superhero sleeper agents and alien invasions had been done before. If you squint at them, you could make the case that both the first Super Powers series and the original Secret Wars share more than a handful of similarities (heroes and villains forced into conflict by all-powerful entities in situations that end up resolving in a heroes-vs-all-powerful-villain set-up), although Secret Wars owes much more to Contest of Champions than anything else.
In fact, it’s worth pointing out that the new development in events isn’t that they’ve started echoing other events more often, but that they’ve started echoing events put out by other publishers. Traditionally, you’ve known what to expect from a Marvel event — heroes fighting other heroes — and from a DC event — time and/or parallel reality travel, preferably in the form of a Crisis; it’s only when the publishers start branching out of their comfort zones where the unintentional crossover comes in.
So does that mean that neither publisher should try anything other than their traditional ideas? Of course not — there are only so many times you can see Captain America act all self-righteous towards someone who traditionally should be fighting alongside him, after all (No, really; there is, Marvel). What it really means is that both Marvel and DC should push far further outside of their comfort zones, beyond not just their tried-and-tested formulas, but beyond all the other tropes that have been proven to succeed.
The repetition and similarity between events is happening because everyone involved — the audience, the creators and the publishers — have come to consider events in a very narrow sense, centering around “big changes,” fan-service and impossible odds that turn out not to be too impossible after all. There really is only so much you can do with that, which is why we’re seeing the same stories coming back over and over again in the hopes of repeating the impact of Crisis on Infinite Earths, Secret Wars or The Infinity Gauntlet. For that to happen, though, will require the return of the one thing that those titles offered readers at the time: a sense of the unknown, the new and the anything-can-happen.
If there are only seven stories in the world, the best way for comic events to have the impact that they used to isn’t returning to the same themes over and over again, but to try and see which of the seven haven’t been tried in superhero events yet, and working out how to make them fit.