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Just a few days ago I finished reading the Children's Crusade crossover story on my Kindle. Despite being a Books of Magic reader (via TPB years after it was published), I had never actually heard of this story arc. I knew nothing about it until I was reading a website that had an article about some of the top story arcs not collected in TPB form. As a side note a lot of them were DC. That's understandable as DC has been pretty notorious about making things hard to get. They're improving, though. Not only when it comes to releasing things as TPBs but also with digital. This is very off topic, but I just bought all of Alan Moore's Swamp Thing run digitally through comiXology for 99 cents as issue. It's a great price considering the cost of the TPBs. It also means that at some point I'm going to be talking about Swamp Thing here in more depth than what I'm going to hit at in this entry.

Anyway we're going back to the topic of the entry now. I just sort of wanted to lambaste and extol DC in the same paragraph because that's fun for me. It's also going to be the theme of this entry so everything sort of works together in ways that I had not originally foreseen or planned. Bad me for not doing that on purpose, but I just very recently finished a rather large cup of coffee so it makes me a little spastic.

The Children's Crusade story arc was a Vertigo crossover, which might mark the first and only one of its kind. It was presented in Children's Crusade #1, Black Orchid Annual #1, Animal Man Annual #1, Swamp Thing Annual #7, Doom Patrol Annual #2, Arcana Annual #1, and Children's Crusade #2. As previously stated it's not available as a TPB or at least it wasn't when the article I was reading was written. (For those of you interested in these sorts of things, the article in question is here.



Let me start out by saying that this is a classic case of a great idea being handled poorly. There is a serious lack of cohesion in this story arc. This is actually something I was already prepared for after reading the article referenced above, but reading about something and reading something are completely different things. I was not expecting the sort of disconnect that I ultimately discovered upon reading the actual issues. I'm still recommending the story arc, though. Despite it's many failings it remains a splendid idea and a decent read. Not to mention that it introduced me to some characters and comics that I now want to read. I'm just disappointed in the way it was handled.

The beginning of the arc, Children's Crusade #1, introduces us to what should be the primary plot of the series through the characters of Edwin Paine and Charles Rowland who have set up a detective agency in London. (For those unfamiliar with these characters, they were introduced back in Sandman and are both ghosts. The short of it is that they were both students at a British boarding school where they were both killed by tormentors. When Death came to get them, they refused to go. Seeing as it was a very busy time for Death just then, she let them go. The rules governing who can see them and how they travel seem to be a little less strict than the typical ones so they can be seen, although rarely noticed by adults unless they really try, and cannot be touched.) The two are hired by a young girl whose brother has disappeared along with all the other children from her hometown. She was only spared because she was in London.

The comic alternates between Paine and Rowland's investigation and information about the historical Children's Crusade and what I'm going to hypothesize is a pocket dimension named Free Country. DC never explicitly states what Free Country is other than the fact that it was created by the sheer need of children in desperate and horrible conditions in our world needing a way out. It's also mentioned that time moves differently in Free Country. For one thing none of the kids there age any more. Also when one of the other characters--Dorothy from Doom Patrol--comes back from her adventure there what seems like a few hours to her has actually been days, which is reminiscent of Marvel's pocket dimension Limbo. DC never states that Free Country is a pocket dimension, but it makes sense. It would also make sense that it would potentially exist in the same way on all alternate earths, which DC does have although since the idea of Free Country is never really used to its full potential who knows. It's possible that I'll have to refute this information once I finish reading The Books of Magic because I imagine it's the only title that might actual be capable of examining the existence and role of Free Country in more detail.

The first issue is written by Gaiman and the artwork is done by Chris Bachalo and Mike Barreiro. (Side note to confess that I have a lot of trouble remembering the names of comic artists. I am much more likely to simply associate them with other work of theirs that I have seen. In this case I immediately went, "Oh wow. That looks like early Gen X," which I know Bachalo worked on.) This creative combination is a perfect match in my mind especially considering the plot of this story. This creative team, however, is limited to the first issue. After that it's left in the hands of whomever is working on the annuals of the regular titles. The bookending Children's Crusade #2, which wraps the story, isn't even done by the same team. Lack of a cohesive vision. You're going to hear that more than once around here.

Eventually the boys find out the the children of Free Country are working to bring all the children of Earth over so that none of them will have to suffer the horrors heaped onto them by adults ever again. This is, in and of itself, a rather limited plan. For one thing there's nothing to stop the adults from having more children. Either the denizens of Free Country didn't think this far ahead or they simply planned to leave the gates open and just pull children from Earth as they were born. Either way there are some pretty big inherent flaws in this thinking. The main problem that currently has to be surmounted is that Free Country needs more power in order to both take care of the children and pull more children over. In order to do this specific, powered children have to be brought over first. Rowland gets a message from something called the "Dark Tower" (something else that is not properly explored or explained in the story) about this plot as well as a list of the children who are going to be collected. The list is comprised of Suzy, Maxine, Tefe, Dorothy, Tim Hunter and a few others who do not actually get much story time possibly because they're from the larger DC universe rather than the Vertigo splinter. The biggest example of this is Lian.

I'm not going to do a blow by blow of the entire story and the individual issues, but I wanted to at least give you a pretty good idea of what was set up in the first issue because once that one is done the rest of sort of a downhill ride at varying degrees of bad. Paine and Rowland are barely used in any of the books. It mostly seems like the annuals were used to further the existing story of the title, which typically makes sense except when you're participating in a publishing wide crossover. Normally when that sort of thing happens, you push your established running story line out of the way to take part in the other story. These creators bent the crossover in ways to fit whatever they wanted to do. The result is that a lot of what's in the annuals doesn't make any sense. It especially doesn't make much sense to someone who has come to the title specifically for the crossover. The biggest culprits of this are Black Orchid and Doom Patrol. I've read some DP before, but other than knowing who Dorothy was, I was completely lost as to what the hell was going on. Also Dorothy's experiences in Free Country made no goddamn sense when contrasted with everyone else's experiences. I think this might in part be due to the fact that Dorothy is a teenager rather than a child. The fact that she is on her period during the comic is something that is continual stressed through the book. Dorothy's experience might also be warped by her very power. All in all, though, without any sort of external clues or explanation, this is the weakest of the issues. The Black Orchid issues is fascinating, but it also heavily relies on you already knowing something about the title. I was completely lost. The facets of Free Country that were included made sense, but they still sort of seemed tacked on to the issue.

Animal Man and Swamp Thing did a much better job of incorporating Free Country and the Children's Crusade storyline into their overall story, especially in comparison to the previously mentioned books. These two actually played into each other fairly well in that Maxine was integral to Tefe's voyage through Free Country. Of course Tefe is a toddler so someone would have to take care of her. The child barely talks. Most of the dialog belongs to Maxine. These are both well written, but there's still a definite sense of disconnect.

The thing that bothered me the most was the fact that no one seemed to want to use Paine and Rowland. These two characters should have been used as a cohesive element, a running narrative so to speak. That seemed to be a given in the first issue of the series, but they were practically abandoned in the following issues. When they do arrive it's normally when they're "too late" to do anything other than appear on the page to lament their tardiness and then try to move on and catch the next player in the game before they're also taken. Most of the time, though, they're blatantly ignored. To me this makes no goddamn sense. If you're given a story element on this like a silver platter, you use it. You find a way to use it. I don't believe it's a case of those creators not being allowed to use the characters because it would be ridiculous of DC/Vertigo to green light a crossover and then not approve the use of overlapping characters.

The ending is truly lackluster. I'm not going to give away the plot behind the plot, but I was disappointed in it because it seemed to very trite of them to do. This happens a lot in The Books of Magic too. Someone presents a truly interesting idea, a good story develops and then things are left to fall to their lowest common denominator. No one bothers to build things to their full potential. I shouldn't be too hard on The Children's Crusade because it did bring about the inception of the running Books of Magic series which had heretofore just been a limited series. Tim Hunter's importance to the Vertigo universe should not be trivialized.

It just disappoints me that no one seemed to take the time to get all the creators involved and on the same page. I know that people don't want their shit dictated to them but at least a loose storyline to follow in each book with a list of characters that needed to be included would have helped. I know that not everyone is Neil Gaiman and thus can't be brilliant all the time when it comes to story and character development in their comics, but come the fuck on. Read the other issues, talk to the other writers and then piece something together that has some semblance of flow. Readers will follow you wherever you go if you give them something to believe in. In the end Children's Crusade just seemed sloppy. It read almost as an afterthought.

I still recommend it because there are a lot of bright spots to go along with the bad. I am definitely going to be reading back issues of Black Orchid and Swamp Thing now as well as possibly Animal Man just because the characters presented in these annuals interested me. I'm also thankful to this story arc for getting Tim Hunter back and peppering his world with a few future storylines.

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Sara

July 2012

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