In comic-book movies, a certain giddiness still erupts when a starry-eyed Ant-Man meets square-jawed Captain America, or when Wonder Woman interrupts the Batman/Superman bro-fest. But when such intra-company meet-ups run dry, the corporate overlords of Hollywood should look to an unlikely source for inspiration: crazy multi-property crossovers, such as Batman/Teenage Mutant Turtles, Transformers vs. G.I. Joe, Archie vs. Predator and the new four-issue series Predator vs. Judge Dredd vs. Aliens. The Dark Horse title, written by John Layman and illustrated by Chris Mooneyham, is further proof that corporate properties get a lot more interesting when smashed together.
On paper, such comics should be a clusterfuck, but in reality they often yield inventive, bizarre narratives that stretch the boundaries of the medium. But innovation likely isn’t the initial motivation for such mash-ups. As writer Layman told Paste, they’re “a great way to get attention.” This isn’t the first time Layman has done an unlikely crossover; his long-running creator-owned series Chew (with artist Rob Guillory) joined with fellow Image series Revival in 2014. Layman said part of the fun was figuring out “What would my character Tony Chu do in this world?” All unlikely crossovers answer similar “What ifs.”
Predator vs. Judge Dredd vs. Aliens is a natural choice for Layman for several reasons. He’s written an Aliens comic before (2013’s Inhuman Condition with artist Sam Kieth) and has been waiting to get his hands on the legendary judge, jury and executioner, saying, “Judge Dredd has been on my comics bucket list for a long time.” You can feel Layman’s glee throughout issue one, especially in instant-classic Dredd lines such as: “Tell me exactly where that psychotic robo-messiah of yours is. Where’s Archbishop Emoji, dirtbag?” The pulpy dialogue, propulsive plot and bold page design by Mooneyham make this series feel like the best adaptation of a non-existent movie ever.
Predator vs. Judge Dredd vs. Aliens Interior Art by Chris Mooneyham
Layman has a personal connection to licensed comics, since working on one helped him develop the comic he’s best known for: “I found my voice for Chew writing Scarface,” a 2006 comic sequel to Brian De Palma cinematic crime epic. Layman said writing that series built confidence that he transferred to his ever-inventive and entertaining comic about a detective who gains information by eating, no matter how unappetizing the meal. Layman disagrees with the stigma attached to doing licensed comics, pointing out a double standard: “Unless it’s creator-owned, it’s all licensed books.” Because of their market dominance, DC and Marvel superheroes exist in their own category, but it’s not like scribe Tom King can exercise the same freedom with Batman that he has with The Sheriff of Babylon, a Vertigo title. As Layman says, “The only way you play God is if you own it.”
Perhaps the best recent crossover was IDW’s Transformers vs. G.I. Joe by artist Tom Scioli and writer John Barber. This 14-issue space epic was far more artsy, Kirby-esque and flat-out bonkers than virtually any comic on the shelves. If it seems unlikely that a collision of two toy franchises would elicit such creativity, writer/artist Scioli firmly disagrees. “I apply my full creativity to whatever venue I’m offered. I think it works especially well if the subject matter is something you have some affinity for conceptually,” the artist wrote Paste via email. “If I hadn’t been asked to do a Transformers/G.I. Joe comic, I probably would’ve done a space robots and super-soldiers comic at some point anyway. I think it’s the same with Frank Miller doing Robocop Versus The Terminator. It’s not too far off from the themes in previous works like Ronin.”
Scioli also mentioned some logistical advantages of licensed books: “You also have the benefit of working with characters and worlds that have been crafted by some world-class designers. There’s millions of dollars of R&D that went into these things. That’s your starting point when you step into these things.”
Transformers vs. G.I. Joe Cover Art by Tom Scioli
Even with an affinity for the material and the benefits of that R&D, creating a multi-property licensed comic has plenty of challenges. As Layman said, there are “a lot of cooks in the kitchen,” though those cooks are apparently giving Layman and Mooneyham room to tell their story: “The approval process has been painless.” But even when the corporate overlords are kind, creating a strong crossover involve a lot of creative juggling. Layman said, “The challenges are being true to all the characters and accurately conveying what every single property is about.”
Though the list of unlikely crossovers is long (including Godzilla/Charles Barkley, The Flash/Colonel Sanders, Star Trek/Green Lantern and Jimmy Olsen/Don Rickles) there’s an undisputed, redheaded king of this mashed-up genre: Archie. Riverdale’s group of wholesome teens—so embedded in the collective unconscious—have made them perfect dance partners for the likes of Sharknado, Kiss, Glee and Frank Castle, who brought his war on crime to Riverdale in the unforgettable 1994 one-shot, Archie Meets The Punisher.
Archie vs. Predator Cover Art by Fernando Ruiz
The best recent successor to that series was 2015’s Archie vs. Predator, illustrated in classic Archie style by Fernando Ruiz and written by Alex de Campi, best known today for writing the Image comic No Mercy. De Campi, like Layman, emphasized the importance of editors who back their creators, even when the creators (literally) rip the spines out of beloved properties. De Campi wrote in an email, “Archie vs Predator worked because I had the unwavering support of the Archie editorial team and a great editor at Dark Horse. Previously, nobody had ever died in an Archie crossover—even in Archie/Punisher, the only thing that died was Frank Castle’s self-esteem. But… I managed to convince them that the only thing that would work is if we treat this as a classic summer-camp slasher and there was a lot of nasty death. I think another reason it worked is we were both really faithful to the Archie characters and their tropes, while also delivering everything that Predator fans want (gore, death, one-liners).” De Campi also praised series editor Brendan Wright for suggesting additional crossovers as back-up stories, such as “Sabrina Meets Hellboy” and maybe the most unlikely crossover of them all, “Mind MGMT Meets Jughead.”
Beyond Predator vs. Judge Dredd vs. Aliens, this is shaping up as a banner year for nutso crossovers. Wonder Woman’s going to meet the Bionic Woman. IDW’s Revolution throws together G.I. Joe, Transformers, Rom, the Micronauts and seemingly every toy franchise other than Mr. Potato Head. Crossover-happy Archie is hooking up with the Ramones. The corporate powers-that-be in Hollywood should take a cue from these marvelous mash-ups, but so should the string-pullers at Marvel and DC. Crossover or not, the best comics happen when creators are allowed to do what they want, as if they were doing a creator-owned series with corporate properties: The Vision, Midnighter and a little ‘80s comic called The Dark Knight Returns.
It shouldn’t take a bananas crossover to let creators off the leash.