We here at DC in the 80s are BIG fans of DC's Vertigo imprint. While it was officially instated in 1993, in our hearts & minds it already existed by the end of of the 80s when it was pretty obvious that Morpheus, John Constantine, Alec Holland, Cliff Steele and Buddy Baker were occupying a world of their own (detached from the rest of the DCU). Nearly five years in the making, The Children's Crusade was the first MAJOR cross-over of these Vertigo characters. Erik Tramontana decided to give us the run-down on this cross-over event...
1993. The year after The Year Punk Broke. Jurassic Park made us all hold on to our butts, while Tag Team's "Whoomp! (There It Is)" caused us to fall in love on the dance-floor, and a young Joe Piscopo taught us all about the magic of Cybergenics Phase 1. Meanwhile in the world of comics, seemingly every publisher hopped onto the Image bandwagon, with Topps Comics, Bongo Comics, and Malibu all debuting new universes, while Marvel and DC gave us Maximum Carnage and Knightfall, respectively. In hindsight it was obvious the bubble would burst, but at the time comics were big business, and new superhero lines were cropping up everywhere.
In 1993 DC also created the Vertigo imprint, partially as a home for creator-owned works like Moonshadow, and partially as a way to tie together the DC mature readers Berger-verse titles like Animal Man, Swamp Thing, and Doom Patrol. Considering that The Sandman was one of DC's biggest financial and critical successes, it only made sense to make their first crossover Annual event a direct sequel to a Sandman storyline, written by Neil Himself.
The Children’s Crusade picks up the story of the Dead Boy Detectives from Season of Mists. An eleven-year-old girl hires the boys to solve their first-ever case: all of the children from a small rural village have disappeared without a trace. We see flashbacks to the Children's Crusade (where an evil man disguised as a monk led children to slavery under the guise of religion) and of the Pied Piper of Hamlin (who stole away the town’s children as payment for services rendered).
One of the boy detectives has a prophetic vision of children of great power in "The Free Country". During the course of their "investigation", the boys use nursery rhymes to summon spectral children from the Free Country -- a magical place where children go to escape the cruelty of the adult world. This is where the missing children have gone, our detectives are informed, and soon all of the world’s children will be "safe" in the Free Country. The Free Country children plan to use the talents of some special kids, all of whom happen to be featured in the Vertigo launch titles: Black Orchid, Swamp Thing, Animal Man, Doom Patrol, and the brand-new Books of Magic ongoing series.
The main problem with the idea of a Vertigo crossover is that while most of the titles were technically in DCU continuity, most hadn't crossed over with another superhero book in years. Animal Man, for example, had left the Justice League Europe before his psychedelic meeting with Grant Morrison, well before any of the Peter Milligan wackiness. If I remember correctly, by this point he was mainly going by "Buddy" and not even wearing a costume most issues! The tone differs wildly from issue to issue; some titles like Books of Magic advanced huge chunks of plot, while others (looking at you, Doom Patrol) barely even mentioned the Deadboy Detectives and the missing kids. In Swamp Thing, Tefé Holland and Maxine Baker (Animal Man's daughter) go on an adventure reminiscent of Wizard of Oz or Narnia, while in Doom Patrol there's a serial killer stalking kids, and Animal Man features federal agents in a Ruby Ridge/Branch Davidian standoff with the Baker family. Tonally, it's just all over the map. There's a hilarious "On The Ledge" for that month about how bad and dumb crossovers are that pretty much sums the whole mess up:
As I said on my blog's writeup of each issue of the crossover, I am a Neil Gaiman superfan. I will buy any comic his name is on, even crap like the Marvel's Angela mini-series or Tekno Comix' Mr. Hero the Newmatic Man. As an English major obsessed with comics, The Sandman trade paperbacks were everything to me. The Children’s Crusade doesn’t match the lofty heights of The Sandman (or even Marvel's 1602), but Gaiman's bookend chapters are as readable as anything else Vertigo was putting out at the time. If they had just jettisoned the whole crossover idea and had Gaiman pick and choose characters he liked (like in the original Books of Magic or Black Orchid) the whole thing would read much more smoothly, rather than trying to bash all these square pegs into round holes.
If the point of this stunt was to convert the reader into a line-wide Vertigo subscriber, then it failed miserably. As a snapshot of where "mature readers" DC Comics were at in 1993, it’s interesting. If you're a true Sandman or Books of Magic fan, Children's Crusade is essential; DC finally put out a trade paperback last year, with the annuals replaced with an all-new middle chapter that presumably reads a lot smoother. So read the trade, unless you can get the whole series on the cheap someplace like ebay or comixology.
How about some house ads?
Erik Tramontana is a teacher, a dad, and a lifelong Batman fan. He blogs about 1990s DC comics at jlaclassified.tumblr.com