In 1996, something happened that most superhero comics fans thought was impossible: DC Comics and Marvel mashed their characters together into an all-new fictional construct. The Amalgam era was truly a once-in-a-lifetime event, because the comics published during this brief experiment probably aren’t getting reprinted anytime soon.

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Originally published 3/22/16

It’s long been a ritual of comic-book fans to pledge allegiance to either DC or Marvel. Talent may go back and forth between the two biggest superhero companies, but they’ve both stoked the fires of rivalry for decades now. Ever since the days of Stan Lee dissing the Distinguished Competition on the other side of Manhattan, corporate figureheads from Marvel and DC have snarked at the other side’s offerings, crowed when their sales outstrip those of their competitors and taken in-continuity potshots at each other. Even amongst readers who try to stay neutral and follow series from both houses, there are characters who ignite ire like no other. Punisher loyalists hate that Batman doesn’t kill the Joker. Superman enthusiasts argue that Thor could never take out the Man of Steel.

Crossovers between DC and Marvel have been rare. 20 years after the wall-crawler and Man of Steel faced off in 1976’s Superman vs. the Amazing Spider-Man, the two companies reconvened on an even bigger scale. The 1996 DC vs. Marvel miniseries mostly consisted of meet-cutes and the kind of fights that had been fueling nerd arguments for ages.

I’m okay with this.

It’s fan service of the highest order, where Superman brawls with the Hulk and wins, Wonder Woman picks up Thor’s hammer and Elektra takes out Catwoman. The best stuff came after Marvel and DC’s characters came into conflict, after a cosmic plot device character named Access fused the two universes together.

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What happened next was the debut of the Amalgam Universe, a conceit that presented a landscape where composite characters like Super-Soldier had been around for decades. Amalgam was essentially fan-fiction created by the biggest enthusiasts of all, comics professionals themselves. (Here’s a great oral history of the project on SKTCHD.)

The Amalgam books came out in two chunks that were a year apart, one-shots that lived and died by the strength of their individual fusions. Some of the comics were awful, others were sublime artifacts from a publishing history you wished really existed. The best of them thrived on either the commonality of the original mythoses that were mashed up or found raucous energy from splicing together seemingly diametrically opposed bits of lore in surprising ways. Iron Lantern knotted Hal Jordan and Tony Stark together to make Hal Stark, a character who periodically needed to recharge the armor that he made from an alien lantern artifact.

The creators on that book found synergy in the old-school military sci-fi tropes in each character’s history and presented fun combos of their antagonists.

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Bruce Wayne, Agent of SHIELD doesn’t sound like the kind of thing that would work, but layering the jet-setting playboy aspect of the character on top of super-spy tropes winds up being really fun.

It’s one of the better books to come from the project, splicing together old-school Nick Fury with Batman against criminal mastermind The Green Skull, who’s aided by daughter Selina Luthor, a combo of Madame Viper and Catwoman. Bat-Thing is Man-Bat + Man-Thing and stars in a comic that channels the gloomy macabre horror elements of each hero.

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Specific fusions yielded different results in different titles, too. Dark Claw was a mash-up of Wolverine and Batman, but felt more engaging in the Dark Claw Adventures comic that pinged off of the animated series-inspired Batman Adventures. The work there was much better than the straight-ahead superhero drama in Legend of the Dark Claw.

Challengers of the Fantastic paid homage to Fantastic Four and Challengers of the Unknown science-hero teams and the work that legendary artist Jack Kirby did for both publishers, blending elements of the New Gods, Inhumans and other space-age cosmic threats in Doctor Doomsday, Galatiac and more.

Also drawing on Kirby’s prodigious legacy with each publisher, Thorion of the New Asgods felt like it was fated to happen.

The story here pays fitting homage to the operatic cosmic tone that Kirby evinced in stories featuring Thor at Marvel and the New Gods at DC. It’s a space fantasy feast where the Mother Box and Cosmic Cube become the Mother Cube and where Odin and Highfather are one benevolent skyfather figure.

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In Bullets & Bracelets, a odd couple pairing of The Punisher (a Frank Castle/Steve Trevor hybrid) and Diana Prince (she wears adamantium bracelets) fell in love and had a kid who was kidnapped.

While the art is fetching, the oddball stew of street justice and sci-fi—as seen in the Monarch character who’s equal parts Jim Rhodes and DC’s time-traveling bad guy Monarch—wasn’t as engaging as in better Amalgam titles. A lot of the Amalgam comics suffered from having to have huge backstory exposition dumps on their pages. You can tell both companies feverishly wanted to create a false sense of history for the conjoined universes, cramming as many in-jokes as they could into each one of these one-shots.

The wry nods to comics history were also metatextual, as seen in the Amalgam company’s publisher figure Stan Schwartz (a combo of important creators DC Stan Lee and Julie Schwartz) and references to Secret Crisis and Final Onslaught crossovers, which are word-salad nods to Secret Wars, Final Crisis and Onslaught events done by Marvel and DC. [Correction: As many have pointed out, The “Final” comes from Final Night, not Final Crisis. I need more sleep.]

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In at least one case, the Amalgam books capitalized on long-simmering conspiracies about events that seemed too tidy to be coincidences. The Doom Patrol, a second-tier DC super-team of freakish outcasts led by a genius in a wheelchair, appeared three months before the X-Men, who could be described the exact same way. People have long wondered if 1960s Marvel ripped off the Doom Patrol template for their more famous mutants. So when X-Patrol folded together the Doom Patrol and X-Force (the mutant squad that used rougher tactics than the main X-Men teams), it was a nod to decades of speculation.

But not all the Amalgam books made clever use of the experiment’s fusion power. Assassins is amongst the worst of the lot, filled to the brim with the stilted writing and artistic overindulgence that characterized the worst of 1990s cape comics.

Lead characters The Dare and Catsai are wince-inducing combinations of Daredevil and Deathstroke and Elektra and Catwoman. The bad guy is Enigma Fisk, a terrible mash-up of the Riddler and the Kingpin. The prose stylings read like everyone lost a bet, spitting out wannabe-clever nods at the root characters’ real continuity while strenuously trying to seem edgy.

Thanks for the superpowers, dead baby Kal-El!

My favorite Amalgam creations were Super-Soldier and Spider-Boy, patchwork heroes expertly sewn together from elements of the Superman, Captain America and Spider-Man mythologies. The two Super-Soldier comics perfectly captured the Greatest Generation optimism and whimsy of 1940s comic stylings, along with the more angsty man-out-of-time vibe that hovers around both Clark Kent and Steve Rogers.

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Spider-Boy Team-Up offered the most fun canvas of all the Amalgam titles, riffing on reboots, time travel, costume changes and heroic legacy with just the right amount of effervescent snark. The crazy plot twists, melodramatic character reactions and feverish sci-fi pseudo-science found here pay homage to the reason that many fans read comics in the first place.

I loved the Amalgam project when it was happening because it felt like an end-of-the-rainbow payoff for all those years of reading footnotes and absorbing minutiae about DC and Marvel’s histories. These were comics that gave the superhero genre’s biggest fans a big warm hug, with in-jokes and fan-fic logic that actually became canon. But, while the acknowledgement of that deep trivia knowledge was a great reward, it also limited the project’s appeal beyond geek circles. The Supes/Spidey projects from 1976 and 1981 were written broadly enough to hook non-nerds whose curiosity was piqued by the unexpectedness of those team-ups. But Amalgam wasn’t pulling in anyone who wasn’t already invested in all the lore and plotlines accrued in decades of DC and Marvel’s superhero fare. It’s a crystallization of the editorial problems and policies that resulted in a drastically smaller comics-reading population.

When the DC vs. Marvel and Amalgam comics were collected, the two companies took turns releasing the anthologies. That way, DC and Marvel each got their share of the lucrative sales to be found in the bookstore market. But the companies’ rivalry feels less congenial nowadays, especially since the competition has scaled up into the realm of TV and movies. DC is a Warner Bros. company while latter-day Marvel is owned by Disney. The animosity is such that it’s highly unlikely that new printings of this material will ever happen. For now, Superman and Captain America seem destined to be competitors forever, which makes the moment when they were parts of a whole even more special.