Last year, I read DC's long-time-coming collection of the 1990s Vertigo crossover The Children's Crusade. At the time, I remarked that it actually made me more likely to want to pick up the original issues, not less, as the collection replaced the middle five of the seven issues with newly written content, to provide a smoother reading experience. So what was the original like, if it seemingly necessitated such a reworking?
The answer is that it's actually not that bad. I mean, these stories don't cohere tremendously, or seem to have much of a point, but I'd argue that's no different from many of DC's 1990s annual crossovers, like Eclipso: The Darkness Within, Armageddon 2001, or Bloodlines. Though, I suppose DC hasn't collected any of those, so maybe that tells us something. In my comments here I'll focus on the issues not collected in Free Country collection, as I covered the bookends pretty well in my original review.
In first bookend, The Children's Crusade #1, we learn that children are disappearing, spirited away to a mysterious realm known as Free Country, and that five special children are being targeted next: the children principal characters in five Vertigo ongoings of the early 1990s (Suzy from Black Orchid, Maxine from Animal Man, Tefé from Swamp Thing, Dorothy from Doom Patrol, and Tim from The Books of Magic). Edwin and Charles, the dead boy detectives, set out to find and protect these five children. You might expect that these stories would be pretty formulaic, with an agent of Free Country coming and taking each character in turn, but they're actually reasonably distinct from each other.
The Black Orchid story, for example, inserts an agent of Free Country into the history of the series, showing that the mini-Black Orchid known as Suzy has actually met Junkin Buckley repeatedly before, and that he was responsible for some of her decisions (unbeknownst to the readers at the time). Then he returns for Suzy one last time, recruiting her to Free Country. On the other hand, the Animal Man story is mostly part of the ongoing events of that series (somewhat confusingly; there are lots of characters who are never clearly introduced to the new reader), but at the very end, when Maxine ends up in a tight spot, Jack Rabbit convinces her to escape with him to Free Country. (And to leave a clone of herself behind, an occurrence that would be expanded upon in The Children's Crusade #2. I don't know if this ended up playing into the events of the Animal Man ongoing.)
At this point, I figured each annual would end with a child recruited into Free Country, ready to play their part in the big crossover, so I was surprised when in the Swamp Thing tale, Tefé goes to Free Country on page 8, and most of the issue (they're all about 58 pages long) concerns her adventures in Free Country with Maxine, and ends with her leaving Free Country, clearing up a point that confused me in the Free Country collection. The way Free Country is depicted here doesn't really line up with what we see in the bookends, but then again, much of it seems to be an illusion created for the benefit of Tefé and Maxine.
The Doom Patrol story is a lot like the Swamp Thing one, showing both Dorothy's recruitment and the events that drive her back home, only of all of these, this one made the least sense to someone not reading the relevant ongoing. Like, why does Dorothy normally hang out with feral children who live in the woods?
Finally, the Books of Magic story shakes things up again, but in a way that's baffling: it has two parallel stories, one about Tim being kidnapped into a mystery realm by a mystery assassin, none of which is ever explained, and one about the Free Country agent sent to recruit him wandering London, which was actually pretty cute. I guess maybe the kidnap plot is a set-up for something that happens in Tim's ongoing series? But I don't even get how he escapes, he just does.
In my review of the collected edition, I complained that in the middle chapter, the dead boy detectives just pointlessly turn up too late to help Maxine and that's about it, but in the original it's actually worse. Their quest having been set up in the first bookend, they don't even appear in the first two middle chapters-- then in the third, they claim they got to both recruitments a moment too late even though we never saw them. It's a little goofy, and of course they fail to accomplish anything in the chapters in which they do appear-- but such, I suppose, is the very nature of the crossover, whose design requires they can't make it to Free Country until the final issue. Amusingly, we see Tim travel into Free Country in both the Books of Magic issue and in The Children's Crusade #2, and the dead boy detectives are shown to be there in the second instance, when they clearly weren't in the first!
The final part isn't really rendered any more enjoyable by reading the middle issues. Some parts of it make more sense because we've seen them dramatized, but other ones make less sense, because the collection fleshed them out. It's still kind of a disappointment, because the dead boy detectives are set up as the main characters, yet Tim Hunter saves the day-- and it's still a disappointment even if you focus on Tim because he doesn't actually do anything, he saves it by accident! Still, Gaiman and his co-writers on the final issue provide some good jokes at least. Actually, they're probably the best part.
So, overall, this is a weird story, and not one I can particularly recommend-- you probably really are better off reading the Free Country collection with its new middle chapter. The original issues are much more part of their ongoing series than they are parts of The Children's Crusade, as they almost all read just fine without the bookends, but not vice versa.
The Children's Crusade originally appeared in The Children's Crusade #1-2, Black Orchid Annual #1, Animal Man Annual vol. 1 #1, Swamp Thing Annual vol. 2 #7, Doom Patrol Annual #2, and Arcana: The Books of Magic Annual #1 (Dec. 1993–Jan. 1994). The story was written by Neil Gaiman, Dick Foreman, Jamie Delano, Nancy A. Collins, Rachel Pollack, John Ney Rieber, and Alisa Kwitney. It was illustrated by Chris Bachalo, Mike Barreiro, Gary Amaro, Jason Minor, Charlie Adlard, Phillip Hester, Bruce McCorkindale, Russell Braun, Tom Sutton, Rafael Kayanan, Mark Buckingham, Dennis Cramer, Kim DeMulder, Mark Wheatley, Peter Gross, and Peter Snejbjerg. Colors were provided by Daniel Vozzo, George Freeman, Tatjana Wood, and Suart Chaifetz, and the issues were lettered by John Costanza, Clem Robins, Tim Harkins, John Workman, and Richard Starkings. The crossover was edited by Stuart Moore, Tom Peyer, and Tom Stathis.