A Brief History of the CrossoverS

For most of us, the crossover is an established part of the landscape of popular culture. We've seen it all before, whether it's the Avengers, Eureka's Fargo visiting Warehouse 13, or members of Star Trek meeting the Legion of Superheroes. But you'll be surprised to learn just how old the crossover really is, and how many varieties of the crossover there have been — even Sherlock Holmes got in on the action.

The crossover can be defined as a story in which characters or concepts from two or more discrete texts or series of texts meet. Historically there have been eight major types of crossovers: the fusion of myths; crossovers in which one author's characters are brought together by another author; crossovers within one author's fictional universe; crossovers in which the characters from different creators are brought together by another creator; the afterlife or Bangsian fantasy; the use of real people as fictional characters; crossovers where characters from different creators are brought together to form a team; and crossovers where a fictional world contains characters from numerous authors.

The Argonauts and Cloudcuckooland

One possible first historical crossover is the Greek myths. They were a synthesis of legends from Indo-European invaders and the local, pre-Hellenic religions. One of these syntheses was the myth of Jason and the Argonauts. The myth, whose earliest form dates to the ninth or tenth century B.C., is about the hero Jason, who sails to Colchis in search of the Golden Fleece, accompanied by a band of fifty notable heroes. Many of these heroes, including Castor, Polydeuces, and Hercules, were the subject of myths of their own. The standard account of this myth is the Argonautica (3rd century B.C.E.) of Appolonius of Rhodes, which combines earlier scattered versions of the myth into a connected story. By bringing the heroes of various disparate myths together into one story Appolonius performed one of the first crossovers in popular culture.

A Brief History of the CrossoverS

This type of crossover, in which characters from folklore and legend meet in new stories, would appear in a variety of cultures over the next twenty centuries. Around 150 A.D. Lucian of Samosata wrote The True History, a satire featuring one of the earliest trips into outer space. During the trip Lucian and his companions fly past Cloudcuckooland, the floating fortress of the birds from Aristophanes' The Birds (414 B.C.E.). In the Middle Ages the stories of King Arthur were synthesized by the French author Chrétien de Troyes out of several pre-existing sources, including Celtic and Welsh stories and various legends of the Holy Grail. In the 17th and 18th centuries the rise in widely-distributed fiction in Great Britain and Europe, via chapbooks, penny novelettes, the canards of France, and the volksbüchlein of Germany, led to an increase in crossovers, so that an anonymously-penned c. 1760s volksbüchlein portrayed Dr. Faustus meeting German trickster figure Till Eulenspiegel.

Ongoing Universes

The second significant type of crossover began in 1834, when Honoré de Balzac began linking his novels into a coherent, whole, individual fictional universe. Before that year Balzac's novels had possessed an internal consistency, but it was only in 1834 that he systematically began making use of recurring characters, with 23 of them appearing in the first edition of Le Père Goriot (1835). Almost 600 recurring characters appear in the nearly 90 books that make up Balzac's La Comédie Humaine cycle of novels.

The idea of a universe of one author's characters was not new with Balzac. In the 18th century British writers routinely invented sequels for their favorite characters. The 1709 Statute of Anne, the first modern copyright law, shifted the rights of ownership of texts from companies to authors, but popular sentiment went against the Statute, and a number of writers produced unauthorized but popular "further adventures of." One notable sequel was George Sackville Carey's Shakespeare's Jubilee, A Masque (1769), in which Falstaff is "charm-call'd from his quiet grave" to attend the 1769 Stratford Jubilee. Falstaff is taunted by Oberon and Puck and kidnapped by the witches from Macbeth, but eventually allowed to march in the Jubilee progression alongside Caliban, Pistol, and the rest of Shakespeare's best characters. Shakespeare's Jubilee can be seen as an early form of fanfiction, but it also functions as one of the first examples of one author's characters, from different fictional universes, being stitched together into one fictional universe by another author.

A Brief History of the CrossoverS

But Balzac was the first 19th century author to create an ongoing fictional universe in an organized and ambitious way. Several other French authors imitated Balzac, including Alexandre Dumas père, detective writer Emile Gaboriau, pulp novelist Paul Féval, and Emile Zola. The most notable example of this use of linked, reappearing characters occurs in the novels of Jules Verne, which are nearly all interrelated, from Five Weeks in a Balloon (1863) to The Ice Sphinx (1897).

A Brief History of the CrossoverS

The concept of the recurring character spanning different series became increasingly common in the late 19th century. Crossovers in which an author had two of his or her series characters meet were no longer unusual in either high or popular culture. Albert Aiken wrote stories about detective Joe Phenix and highwayman Dick Talbot for two different dime novels, and brought them both together in Beadle's New York Dime Library #419 (1886), in a story in which Phenix pursues Talbot but fails to arrest him. Luis Senarens wrote Edisonade (proto-steampunk boy inventor) stories about Frank Reade and Jack Wright in several different dime novels, and had the pair race around the world for a $10,000 prize in Happy Days #1 -8 (1894). This type of crossover continued into the 20th century in the American pulps and British story papers.

Fiction as a Quilt: Stitched Together From Scraps

The first truly modern crossover, in which characters from different creators are brought together in a story by another creator, was created in 1849, when Mary Cowden Clarke published Kit Bam's Adventures; or, The Yarns of an Old Mariner. In the novel Kit Bam, a retired sailor, tells a brother and sister about his adventures. Bam's shipmates are analogues for Shakespeare, Chaucer, Spenser, Johann Paul Richter, and Shelley, and in his wanderings Bam encounters characters from Greek and Arthurian myths, The Arabian Nights, Bernardin de Saint-Pierre's Paul et Virginie (1794), William Painter's Palace of Pleasure (1566-1575), Richter's Himmelsschlüssel (1796), Shakespeare's Othello (1604) and The Tempest (1612), Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" (1798), and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818).

The idea of a character meeting other creators' characters while traveling was used by several authors in the 19th and early 20th century. Henry Lee Boyle's Kennaquhair (1872) is about a Utopian city in which various fictional characters live. The narrator is escorted through Kennaquhair by Yorick from Shakespeare's Hamlet and meets a number of fictional characters, including Mrs. Sairey Gamp from Charles Dickens' Martin Chuzzlewit. Another author to use traveling as the vehicle for a crossover was Walter de la Mare, who in Henry Brocken (1904) had the titular character meet Shakespeare's Titania and Bottom, Bronte's Jane Eyre and Rochester, Cervantes' Rosinante and Don Quixote, Poe's Annabel Lee, and Swift's Houyhnhnms.

A Brief History of the Crossover

Ghosts in Hell

The next major crossover is the afterlife or "Bangsian" fantasy, about an afterlife in which the ghosts of famous men and women come together and have various (usually genial) adventures. The afterlife has been used for centuries as a meeting ground for characters from different creators. One early example is Virgil's Aeneid (c. 29-19 B.C.E.), in which Aeneas sees a number of heroes and heroines from earlier Greek epics. John Kendrick Bangs began a new vogue in afterlife fantasies with The Houseboat on the River Styx (1895). In Houseboat most of the ghosts are of real people, including Shakespeare and George Washington, but the ghosts of Hamlet, Yorick, Adam, Shem, Noah, and Ophelia also appear. In Bangs' sequel, The Pursuit of the Houseboat (1897), the ghosts of fictional characters appeared: Sherlock Holmes (Holmes had "died" in A. Conan Doyle's "The Final Problem"), Shakespeare's Shylock, Emile Gaboriau's Lecoq, Tom Taylor's Hawkshaw, and Harlan P. Halsey's Old Sleuth.

A Brief History of the CrossoverS

In Mexico in the 1950s the afterlife fantasy returned as a film sub-genre in which a number of ghosts were shown to be haunting the same house or apartment. This sub-genre began with Adolfo Fernandez Bustamente's La Rebelión de los Fantasmas (1949), in which an old house in Mexico City, scheduled to be demolished, is inhabited by the ghosts of La Llorona, Samson, Don Quixote, Romeo & Juliet, Chopin, Paganini, Tutankhaman, and The Wandering Jew, none of whom are inclined to take the demolition lightly. La Rebelión de los Fantasmas was popular and spawned numerous imitators.

The Six Degrees of Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes' appearance in The Pursuit of the Houseboat was his first appearance after his "death" in 1893, and the first use of Holmes by a writer other than A. Conan Doyle. Holmes quickly became the subject of pastiches and crossovers, far more so than any other single character. The first crossover involving Holmes and another series character is in Maurice LeBlanc's "Arsène Lupin" story, "Sherlock Holmes Arrive Trop Tard" in Je Sais Tout #17 (1906). (After pressure from A. Conan Doyle's lawyers the title of the story was changed to "Herlock Sholmes Arrive Trop Tard").

A Brief History of the CrossoverS

Following LeBlanc's story Holmes was often used in crossovers, usually illegally (that is, not authorized by Doyle). In Miss Boston, la Seule Détective-Femme du Monde Entier #1 (1908) Miss Boston is inspired to fight crime by the murder of Holmes, which she solves, thus beginning her own career as a detective. Holmes was not the only character to be illegally appropriated and used in crossovers in this way.

Crossovers involving the use of fictionalized versions of real people became common in the last decade of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th century. Celebrities have often been used by authors in their stories, but before the rise of the news media in the 19th century these men and women were the products of folklore, like British highwayman Dick Turpin (1705?-1739) rather than reality. The growth of the newspaper in the 19th century allowed individuals other than heads of state to become internationally known, and allowed them to be used by authors as supporting characters in serial fiction. Thomas Byrnes (1842-1910) became a national celebrity for his transformation of the N.Y.P.D. into a modern, professional police force. He was incorporated into at least eight different dime novel detective serials in the 1890s as "Superintendent Byrnes" or "Inspector Byrnes" and the man responsible for giving Nick Carter (or Broadway Billy or Dave Dotson or Gideon Gault) their orders. During the years of his presidency Theodore Roosevelt was almost as popular a subject for appearances in the dime novels, as were the internationally renowned strongman Eugen Sandow (1867-1925) and the Russian double-agent Evno Azef (1869-1918).

Internationally the crossover became much more common than exceptional in the 1910s and 1920s. The spread of American and British popular literature through Europe, Africa, and Asia in the late 19th and early 20th century, and the international growth in the technology of the popular press, led to European, African, and Asian authors imitating American and British authors and writing crossovers of their own. In 1921 the Chinese writer Cheng Xiaoqing began a series of crossovers between his character Huo Sang and Lu Ping, a series character created and written by Sun Liaohong. The joke of the crossovers is that Huo Sang began life as a Sherlock Holmes copy and was deliberately written and billed as "the Oriental Sherlock Holmes," while Sun Liaohong had created Lu Ping in imitation of Maurice LeBlanc's Arsène Lupin (the similarity in names is deliberate). The first duel between Huo Sang and Lu Ping was an homage to LeBlanc's first Holmes-Lupin crossover, "Herlock Sholmes Arrive Trop Tard," and like LeBlanc's story the Huo Sang-Lu Ping duel took on a life of its own and was repeated in several different stories.

A Brief History of the CrossoverS

The most notable crossovers in American pulps took place in the Street & Smith western Wild West Weekly (1927-1943). Like many pulps, Wild West Weekly had a rotating cast of regularly-appearing characters. Some of these characters, like Paul Powers' Johnny Forty-Five, appeared for nearly the entire fourteen years of Wild West Weekly's existence. Wild West Weekly's two editors, Ronald Oliphant and John Burr, encouraged their writers to have the series characters meet each other, so that J. Allan Dunn's Whistlin' Kid met Paul Powers' Sonny Tabor, and Tabor met Ben Conlon's Pete Rice, and Pete Rice met Cleve Endicott's Billy West, and so on. The cumulative effect was to create a shared universe. This took place to a much greater degree in the German heftromans of the 1930s, when numerous crossovers and team-ups between series characters were written. (In my next column I'll describe how the German heftromans created the first Marvel/DC-like shared universe).

Teams and Societies

The next significant type of crossover, in which characters from different creators are brought together as a team, appeared in a comic book in 1940 rather than in a book or pulp magazine. By 1940 the idea of a crossover featuring a team of characters from different creators was well known. The Argonauts were such a team, as was the group of detectives in Pursuit of the Houseboat. In 1905 Carolyn Wells created such a team in the first of five "Society of Infallible Detectives" stories. Presided over by Sherlock Holmes, the Society meet to solve crimes. Their membership is Jacques Futrelle's S.S. "The Thinking Machine" Van Dusen, E.W. Hornung's Raffles, Maurice LeBlanc's Arsène Lupin, Edgar Allan Poe's C. Auguste Dupin, Emile Gaboriau's M. Lecoq, E.C. Bentley's Philip Trent, Anna Katherine Green's Ebenezer Gryce, Francis Lynde's Calvin "Scientific" Sprague, William MacHarg and Edwin Balmer's Luther Trant, E.C. Bentley's Philip Trent, Arthur Reeve's Craig Kennedy, Gaston Leroux's Rouletabille, and M. Vidocq.

A Brief History of the CrossoverS

The comic book crossover in 1940 was the first team crossover specifically intended to be ongoing. In All-Star Comics #3 (Winter 1940-1941) Sheldon Mayer and Gardner Fox, along with artists Everett Hibbard and Sheldon Moldoff, brought together characters from several DC comics: Sandman and Hourman from Adventure Comics, Flash and Hawkman from Flash Comics, Green Lantern and the Atom from All-American Comics, and the Spectre and Dr. Fate from More Fun Comics. These characters formed a team, the Justice Society of America, the first ongoing crossover team in popular culture. The Justice Society appeared in All-Star Comics until 1951.

All-Star Comics #3 is particularly significant in the history of crossovers because it was the single greatest vector for the concept of the crossover. During World War II, comic books had very high circulation rates, with some selling over a million copies per issue. Comics were bought and read by children, teenagers, and adults, and thanks to their distribution via the United States Armed Services during the war comics were read by millions of servicemen and women. While crossovers had proliferated before All-Star Comics #3, significantly more men and women were exposed to the concept of the crossover through All-Star Comics #3 and other, similar comic book teams and crossovers.

A Brief History of the CrossoverS

All-Star Comics #3 was also influential internationally. The Mexican reprints of American comics were popular and helped propagate the idea of the crossover. In the 1950s films featuring the fictionalized exploits of real-life luchadors (masked wrestlers) such as El Santo became popular. It was inevitable that the writers and directors of the films would show the luchadors teaming up, and in 1961 El Santo and fellow luchador Black Shadow were shown fighting a Haitian zombie master in Benito Alazraki's Santo Contra los Zombies (1961). Santo Contra los Zombies was the first of the luchador crossover movies, a trend that continues today and which has featured dozens of luchadors meeting in over two hundred films.

Wold Newton, Anno Dracula, and the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

The penultimate in crossovers was not published until 1972, when Philip José Farmer published "An Exclusive Interview with Lord Greystoke" (Esquire, April 1972) and Tarzan Alive, a "biography" of Tarzan. In Tarzan Alive Farmer theorized that eighteen men and women had been present when a radioactive meteor landed in Wold Newton, Britain. These eighteen men and women had been irradiated, altering their genes so that their descendants were superhuman. Farmer went on to theorize that the members of this "Wold Newton family" included Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes, Bulldog Drummond, C. Auguste Dupin, Doc Savage, the Spider, Nero Wolfe, and many more. In the sequel to Tarzan Alive, Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life (1973), Farmer added a number of other fictional heroes and villains to the family tree. Farmer's idea, which eventually became known as the "Wold Newton Universe," is a world in which dozens of fictional heroes and villains co-exist and are related to each other.

A Brief History of the Crossover

The 1990s and 2000s have brought the ultimate in crossovers. Kim Newman's first novel, The Night Mayor (1989), brought together a number of characters from noir films, but his Anno Dracula novels and stories (1992-present) feature numerous characters from literature and film coexisting and interacting. Egyptian playwright Hani Mutaweh, in The Last Whisper (1999), brought together an array of figures from Egyptian culture and history, from King Farouk to actor Zaki Rostom to Naguib al-Rihani's village headman Kishkish Bey, in a world in which any significant Egyptian person or character can meet and express an opinion about each other. Finally, in the world of Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comics (1999-present), as in the world of Anno Dracula, any fictional character can co-exist with any other character-which is the ultimate in crossovers.

Jess Nevins is a librarian, pulp fiction historian, and comic book annotator. He also writes encyclopedias. You can find out more on his blog.