DC's Invasion! (1988): A cosmic cash-grab crossover event

This week, the DC/CW superhero shows launch their very first four-night crossover event, lasting from the final scenes of Supergirl on Monday and continuing through The Flash on Tuesday, Arrow on Wednesday, and ending with Legends of Tomorrow on Thursday. And in the case of the latter three shows, this week’s episodes are all titled “Invasion!”, and if you’re a comics fan you probably already know this crossover is loosely based on Invasion!, DC Comics’ company-wide event of 1988.

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I vividly recall the original 1988 comics event from my youth, mainly because it was the one of the few times I actually made an effort to seek out all the various issues that tied into a big company crossover. So I decided to dig up my collection and dust off those old issues to remind myself of what it was all about.

[Mild disclaimer: I don’t actually own every issue of the Invasion! crossover, but I have about 75%-80% of them. I considered tracking down the missing issues after the fact, but based on the lackluster storylines presented in the tie-in books I do have, I can’t imagine it being worth the time and effort.]

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Company crossovers weren’t a new thing in 1988, but up until the early ‘80s, they were mostly limited events like Marvel’s Kree-Skrull War or DC’s Crisis on Earth-Prime! that were confined to two, or at the most three ongoing series. But after the success of intra-company events like (the original) Secret Wars and Crisis on Infinite Earths, pretty much every crossover from that point forward was obligated to be a huge free-for-all encompassing not only its own limited series, but also every ongoing title currently on the publisher’s roster. This was of course a blatantly profit-minded decision to make readers feel compelled to collect issues of obscure titles like Animal Man or Checkmate! for fear of missing out on the full story.

But when it comes to the Invasion! three-issue limited series itself, I have no major qualms. Despite some clichéd plot devices and some on-the-nose dialogue, it’s mostly an interesting attempt to take a lot of the alien races depicted over the course of DC’s 50+ year publication history and meld them into some kind of cohesive interplanetary milieu.

In the first issue, we meet the Dominators (previously a minor enemy species introduced in Legion of Super-Heroes stories), a race of toothy, yellow-skinned, large-headed aliens where individual members don’t have names and are only identified (and divided into castes) by the size of the red dots on their heads. And yes, it’s difficult in retrospect not to see the Dominators’ design as an unfortunate Asian-inspired caricature—they even have the flag of Japan on their foreheads.

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When the mini-series starts, the Dominators have decided to launch an invasion against Earth, primarily due to the human race’s peculiar ability to produce beings with incredible powers. In fact, they’ve discovered the true reason that Earth has so many super-powered individuals. In a big revision for the DC universe, they’ve isolated a “metahuman gene” that’s responsible for most super powers. So while heroes may have disparate origins where they get splashed with chemicals, or exposed to radiation, or struck by lightning, it turns out those near-lethal events were just triggers that activated the “metahuman gene” within them all and gave them powers. This was a bit of a midichlorian-like retcon at the time, but it’s since become firmly ensconced in DC lore, and is now the fundamental premise behind most of the CW’s superhero shows.

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To test this theory, the Dominators round up fifty humans and subject them to a ray-gun firing squad, whereupon they discover six humans (among them Lucas “Snapper” Carr, former Justice League mascot) have miraculously survived, most likely due to the stress of the situation activating their metagenes. Later on, these six metahumans will join together in a team called the Blasters, which would appear in a couple of one-shot stories before completely falling into limbo.

The rest of the first issue depicts the Dominators bringing together an alliance of alien races, all seen previously in DC continuity, mostly in their 30th Century incarnations in Legion of Super-Heroes stories. These races include the Khund, the Thanagarians (Hawkman’s race), the Gil’Dishpan, the Durlans (shapeshifting aliens, and Chameleon Boy’s race), the Daxamites (Mon-El’s race), and a few others. Also in this issue, much time is spent explaining why various powerful entities and organizations aren’t able or willing to intervene to stop the invasion, including the Green Lantern Corps, the Spectre, and Darkseid. It’s a sprawling story that doesn’t really focus on any one group of characters and gets a bit too detailed and bogged down by continuity porn; the invasion force doesn’t even arrive at Earth until page 49 of an 80-page comic.

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Once they do arrive, the aliens first attack Australia for some reason, easily defeating the entire continent. After they assert control of Australia, they demand that Earth surrender all its meta humans to them. Earth’s response is characterized by a Daily Planet headline that’s a riff on a legendary NY Daily News front page about Gerald Ford (which was also parodied the previous year in Superman IV: The Quest for Peace), and DC even published a mock issue of the Daily Planet to coincide with the crossover.

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In issue #2, the superheroes of the world fight back, and make significant progress in beating back the alien alliance. But the turning point happens when the Daxamites, who initially joined the alliance as neutral observers, discover that they acquire the same powers as Kryptonians when exposed to Earth’s yellow sun. The Daxamites choose to side with the humans, and the rest of the Alliance, upon realizing that they can’t possibly stand up to an entire planet full of people as powerful as Superman, quickly withdraw in defeat.

However, there’s one lower-caste member of the Dominion who, unbeknownst to his superiors, has been working on a device to neutralize super-humans. He detonates a “gene bomb” in Earth’s atmosphere, and the third issue of Invasion! features all superheroes and supervillains on Earth losing control of their powers, and then falling into comas. But the bomb only affects humans with the metagene, and those who acquired their powers via magic, technology, or, you know, being aliens themselves aren’t affected.

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But the really bad news is that none of them will have health insurance come January 2017.

And so it’s up to Earth’s remaining heroes like J’onn J’onnz, Robotman, Green Lanterns Hal Jordan and Guy Gardner, the ‘80s version of Starman, and many more (though not Superman, who’s in self-imposed exile at this point) to journey to the Dominator homeworld and find the antidote. Eventually they succeed, and while some (generally inconsequential) characters don’t survive the ordeal, most of the heroes and villains are cured and the world returns to normal.

The concept of a big alien invasion isn’t exactly novel, but the Invasion! mini-series is a solid effort. The story leaves a bit too many plot threads dangling to be resolved in some future tie-in issue (or never), but I’d say the trade paperback collecting the three issues is at least worth a read if you can get it cheap.

But when it comes to the tie-in issues of DC’s concurrently running titles, well… those are a much different story.

The Invasion! storyline played out for a couple of months in the pages of Firestorm the Nuclear Man, Justice League International, Superman, The Doom Patrol, Swamp Thing, and many others. One would assume that with a big crossover event like this, the writers of each individual title would take the time to make sure their issues were easily accessible to new readers. Instead, I spent most of the time bewildered and confused about just who all these random characters were and what the hell anyone was talking about.

The only truly accessible story here happens in the pages of Superman and Adventures of Superman, where Superman discovers he’s developed a split personality and has been leading a double life as vigilante Gangbuster, and for the safety of the planet, he decides to exile himself into space. Reading it again, it’s fun to see all the clues scattered throughout the stories, like a moment where Gangbuster shrugs off a “buzzing” in his head, followed by a panel showing Jimmy Olsen using his signal watch to summon Superman to no avail. But other than a brief attack on Metropolis by the Thanagarians, these issues have nothing to do with the Invasion! storyline.

The only other moment of interest—and only because it’s so bizarre—comes when the Flash (who at this point is Wally West, who’s taken over for Barry Allen after his death in Crisis on Infinite Earths) travels to Cuba and learns that the Durlans have used their shapeshifting powers to infiltrate the Cuban government and even impersonate the late Fidel Castro. Along with another hero named Manhunter (couldn’t tell you the first thing about him), he defeats the aliens, leading to a surreal couple of issues where they both party with Fidel Castro himself as he educates Wally about how life in his worker’s paradise is a vast improvement over what came before.

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Damn, that Fidel was a real cutup. He will be missed.

Also, and this is a problem for the entire crossover, it seems there wasn’t much agreement among the artists on what Durlans look like in their natural, non-shape-shifted state. Half the time, they’re shadowy figures in dark robes with only a hint of green tentacles underneath. The rest of the time, they look like aliens from ‘50s B-movies complete with pointy ears and antennae (similar in appearance to Chameleon Boy). I’m guessing the Durlans were supposed to have been given an updated, post-Crisis makeover, but half the artists didn’t get the memo. One could argue that there are two different species of Durlan, but at no point do we ever see these two designs coexist in the same comic.

So other than a completely unrelated Superman storyline and a strange bit of pro-communist propaganda, the Invasion! tie-in comics are pretty much unreadable. A lot of this can be chalked up to how the crossover happened at a time when the new, revamped Justice League was a big hit for DC, owing to its much more comedic tone. And this “all quips, all the time” mentality had apparently infected at least a few other titles at the time.

The one-shot Blasters special is about the worst offender in this department, as writer Peter David (who had just come off writing a Star Trek comic) pummels the reader with the worst puns and wordplay you can imagine, along with fourth wall-breaking references to Marvel’s Rick Jones, Omaha the Cat Dancer, the Vogon Constructor Fleet, two spider-like aliens named “Lee” and “Dit-koh”, and another alien named “Pee-card” who wears a Starfleet badge and says, “Make it so!” No wonder this was a one-shot.

This is actually one of the funnier puns in the book, if you can believe it.

This is actually one of the funnier puns in the book, if you can believe it.

I assume that, being on a TV budget, the CW version of Invasion! will be majorly scaled down. Going by the official episode descriptions, it seems that only the Dominators will appear, though they’ve given us hints of a few of the other members of the alien alliance in the past on these shows: We’ve seen the K’hunds and Daxamites on Supergirl, and the Thanagarians on Legends of Tomorrow, but it’s looking unlikely that any of them will be included in the TV version of this story. I’m certainly not expecting earth-shattering episodes next week, but it should be at least a fun watch, if for no other reason than it finally brings Supergirl into the fold as she jumps universes to meet the rest of the CW lineup.

And now that we’re all up to speed on this crossover, I can at least say that the $28.60 I spent back in 1988 collecting these issues wasn’t a total waste.

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  • Naked Bunny with a Whip

    It’s funny how I recognize all the panels from the main Invasion! book that you included, so I obviously read the thing. Yet I don’t remember anything about it except the gene bomb going off, and Superman looking back as Earth is changed into black background and white outline, and basically shrugging it off.

  • Thomas Stockel

    I remember really enjoying this series, but sadly the follow up kinda sucked. If memory serves the gene bomb was supposed to produce a whole bunch of new heroes but I don’t think any panned out, kind of like that annual crossover event with those aliens that sucked humans’ sweet, succulent spinal fluid. I do remember Grant Morrison using the event to turn the Doom Patrol’s Lodestone into one weird-ass looking alien life form that left Earth.

    Y’know, I think I still have that promo newspaper laying around somewhere, now I’m tempted to look for it.

  • Kenneth Peter Shinn

    I’m still very fond of Grant Morrison’s Animal Man issue of Invasion, with the suicidal Thanagarian artist determined to make his final artwork one which would destroy the Earth. Genuinely moving, the Thanagarians were at their coolest, and the genuinely funny punchline stolen from Goldfinger.

  • Nemo Smith

    Ah, those Flash issues of the time…I was a regular reader and didn’t notice due to my young age, but a recent read of my old issues showed that that particular writer put a LOT of socialist and communist propaganda into the comic, not just those Invasion issues.

    • Jeremy Pinkham

      Your conflation of socialism and communism suggests your objection to the material in the comic comes from a right-wing viewpoint rather than being an objective observation of the comic book being “propaganda.”

      • Nemo Smith

        And where does your assumption that I object to the material in the comic come from? As I said, I never noticed it in my younger years, the message I got from it was to be kind to poor people, and to listen to other viewpoints,and that in fact help shaped the person I became. It was only in my later years that I noticed the sympathy for those ideologies, and I called it propaganda because the stories would stop to include them, even though they had no relevance. From partying with Castro after the Invasion, to Wally looking at his friend dancing at a club and thinking “Wow, Cassiopia sure is trying hard to pretend to be happy that he defected from the4 Soviet Union to because successful in America. Just look at him dancing with supermodels and hiding his true inner sadness, it makes me wonder…oh wait, a mugging outside, time to go!” it just seems forced and out of place.

        • Jeremy Pinkham

          Sorry I jumped on you.