“I’m worried about what’s going to happen next. I’m worried that the power they are holding is more than they can handle. In fact I know it is…What happens when they aren’t able to hold it any longer?” – Captain America, AVsX #11
Captain America is right to be worried. The Marvel Universe is facing a dire threat to its very fabric. It’s not from Thanos, Galactus or even Scott Summers, but from an unexpected quarter. The people in charge.
Every comics fan has one – that comic book that hooked them, that opened their mind to the nigh-limitless possibilities offered within its four-colored, dog-eared pages. For me, as I suspect it was for many boys of my generation, that book was Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars. Here it was, an entire, well-defined universe, brimming with larger-than-life heroes and villains with a shared history, tackling a new, unimaginable threat. This was my entry point into the master-narrative (a term used by Douglas Wolk, as good a writer on comics as you will find) into the Marvel Universe. And as a primer, it did its job beautifully. My ten-year-old mind was set a-buzz: gods, super-soldiers, mutants, and especially Spider-Man. For the next ten years or so, I would eagerly devour their exploits, breathlessly anticipating each month’s installment, as the previous ones were carefully bagged and filed, to be revisited easily and often.
And then, like many comcis fans, I drifted away. I was in college, reading, creating and experiencing things that made those larger-than-life characters seem more and more inconsequential. This was also a period (the early-mid nineties) that saw some headline-grabbing shake-ups of some of comics’ most iconic characters: Superman was killed! (and then came back), Batman was crippled! (and then came back, like in the movie), and Peter Parker was “revealed” to be a clone! (until he wasn’t). Whatever the merits of these stories, they did, to my mind, have the whiff of desperation. And once the status quo was (inevitably) re-established, there seemed to be no place new for these characters to go. Like never before in my comics-reading experience, a sense of “spinning their wheels” set in. And so I moved on.
I never completely dropped my comic habit, picking up the odd graphic novel or trade paperback (there is a distinction, which I’ll get to later). But for years, I gave up my Wednesday habit (if you don’t know what that is, I both pity and envy you.)
The comic that brought me back into the (stapled) fold was Civil War. Here at last was a super-hero story that had captured the zeitgeist. In the midst of the second term of the Bush administration, we had a story involving heroes fighting passionately over the central debate of the era: To what extent were we willing to sacrifice our rights in the name of security? Like the country, it split the costumed community down the middle. On one hand we had Captain America and his followers, on the side, not surprisingly, of preserving our freedoms. On the other, somewhat more surprisingly, was Iron Man (not yet a movie star) and company taking the security side as a practical manner, with the resources of the U.S. government behind them. Cap and crew, presented as underdogs, were perhaps more sympathetic. But the creators, to their credit, took pains not to take sides; each view was presented as legitimate. Echoes of the real world abounded: people were branded traitors, paranoia reigned, inhumane detention centers were quickly established and filled. Spider-Man, the eternal Everyman, was caught in the middle; he first sided with Iron Man, then switched over to Cap’s team. It was an even bolder move then, when Marvel had Iron Man’s side ultimately claim victory. Iron Man was placed in charge of the country’s security, with all grey ethical dilemmas that implied.
The ending was unconvincing (after seven issues of vicious fighting, Cap, on the brink of victory, surrenders because he’s suddenly worried about losing the moral high ground). But I was thrilled by events (current events, no less!) that truly seemed to shake the good ol’ Marvel U down to its core. That, and (youthful power fantasies aside) there’s just something cool about watching all these super-types get together and throw down. (There’s a reason The Avengers movie made a hundred-gajillion dollars). And so I resumed my Wednesday habit.
With said resumption I quickly learned some things about the Marvel U that had occurred in my absence. It seems the powers that be had, at some point, decided to shift the focus away from the X-Men franchise and toward the Avengers. To speed this along, the X-men’s most popular character, Wolverine, was now an Avenger, as well as the company’s flagship hero, Spider-Man. All well and good. But at the same time there was a conscious effort to de-emphasize the X-Men.
Now the X-Men had long been fan favorites. Much of their popularity stemmed from their role as perennial underdogs. As mutants, they were heroes who were born different, forced to deal with a world that feared and hated them. This was a simple, brilliant paradigm (especially during Chris Claremont’s unparalleled run) that could encompass any number of themes on a societal or personal level; civil rights, sexual orientation (as seen in the X-Men movies) or just the onset of adolescence. Many was the comics fan who could identify with such feelings of alienation. Well, in the X-Men’s world, the Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters was a learning institution filled with such outcasts. And the X-Men, more than being just super-heroes, were their role models, what they could aspire to be. This mixture of melodrama, family dynamic (often dysfunctional), social consciousness, and of course all-out action enthralled fans and kept the X-Men at the top of the sales chart, virtually unchallenged, for twenty years. The decision by the powers that be to give a major push to the Avengers at the expense of the powerhouse X-Men seemed curious. But that’s just what they did in House of M.
House of M was the epic event prior to Civil War; the previous chapter in the Marvel master-narrative, if you will. It centered around the Scarlet Witch, a mutant B – lister who was previously best known for being married to a robot (now that was a comic with potential!) In HoM, her ill-defined hex power was suddenly and without explanation boosted exponentially. Mentally unbalanced at this point in her life, she first creates an entire alternate universe to escape her torment. When that doesn’t work she famously (and somewhat bafflingly) utters the phrase “No more mutants.” And – poof! – 99% of the world’s mutants instantly lose their powers. X-Men de-emphasized. This was actually the first manifestation of the Scarlet Witch’s most advantageous superpower: what I like to call the power of editorial dictum. In other words, why was she able to accomplish these great feats? Because the story needed her to.
Anyway, in the aftermath of Civil War a couple of things happened. Captain America was killed (very temporarily). And Spider-Man (I still can’t believe this, even as I type the words) sold his marriage to the devil. Why? Because it was suddenly decided that it was uncool for him to be saddled with a wife. So instead of having him get a divorce like a normal person, they had their flagship character, Marvel’s most selfless, noble hero, make a deal with the devil to erase his marriage (the devil has always, in literature, had the power of editorial dictum). In what warped view is a Faustian bargain a more palatable option than just ending a marriage? In any case, the result? The adventures his readers had been following for twenty years? Irrevocably altered. A disastrous decision from which Marvel’s most beloved character still hasn’t recovered.
Returning to the overarching master narrative, Civil War was followed by Secret Invasion, a series in which shape-shifting aliens, called Skrulls, had meticulously planted themselves in all levels of society in order to conquer humanity from within. This series was undeniably entertaining for a number of reasons. The Marvel writers (most notably Brian Michael Bendis) had been peppering their stories for years with clues that something was seriously amiss. This story was the culmination of all that impressive, meticulous planning; part of the fun was going back and finding the clues, and being rewarded for your patient detection. Like Civil War, this story pit hero against hero, but this time not because of ideology, but because of paranoia; anyone could be a Skrull. While this was all a lot of fun, it was difficult, in light of Civil War, not to see this in the parameters of society at large. The enemy was among us. It was not much of a leap to replace “Skrull” with “Terrorist” (indeed the Skrulls’ mission was recast in extremist, quasi-religious language). By the logic of the story then, the infringement of rights to ensure security was entirely justified. In fact it didn’t go far enough, since the Skrulls were so successful. In short, the master narrative of the Marvel U had taken a hard turn to the right.
Secret Invasion resulted in a couple of developments. First, Iron Man was fired as head of US security. The reason given in the comic was that the Skrull invasion had happened on his watch. The real reason of course was that Marvel had an unexpected blockbuster on its hands in the first Iron Man movie (largely due to Robert Downey Jr.’s magnetic performance; so magnetic that Marvel gave Tony Stark’s personality and appearance a subtle makeover in the comics to try to match it). With Iron Man suddenly a hot property it wouldn’t do to have him in the unpopular, compromising position of being The Man. But apparently removing him from power didn’t go far enough in redeeming his character. No, Marvel actually took the extraordinary step of having Tony Stark erase his memory (in a story by Matt Fraction, that was actually pretty compelling in an old-movie-serial kind of way). He then rebooted his brain (he’d been saving it on a hard drive. No, really.) But, conveniently, his rebooted memories stopped just before the events of Civil War. Character instantly absolved of all guilt and messy moral quandary! Ready for Iron Man 2! Here we have another disturbing example (along with Spidey’s erased marriage) of selective retcon-ing in order to free a character (and lucrative property) of being dragged down by any undesirable story lines (you know, the stories the fans have been following for years).
The second development was Iron Man being replaced in his national security position by Norman Osborn (aka The Green Goblin). The narrative rationale for handing control of our national security apparatus to a proven maniac was wholly unconvincing (he took the shot that killed the Skrull Queen), though, I must admit, Norman Osborn was certainly a better approximation of Donald Rumsfeld than Tony Stark was. In any case, this had the sum effect of removing all the grey areas of the previous couple of years. Moral complexity be damned! It was Good Vs. Bad. And the bad guys were in charge. The story title? Dark Reign. The heroes were once again the underdogs.
This was certainly safer from a narrative standpoint. And it did set up a compelling showdown between the forces of Norman Osborn and the newly resurrected Captain America (he’d managed to stay dead for eighteen months!) And that’s what was promised in the next Big Event in the master narrative: Siege. But that’s not what we got.
The conflict in Siege is fairly preposterous: Osborn decides to attack Thor’s home of Asgard (which is floating over Oklahoma for some reason) on the pretext that it’s an incursion on U.S. soil. Whatever, it gets the action going. Osborn’s vaunted forces are fairly quickly (and anti-climatically) dispatched by Cap’s crew (the whole thing lasts just four issues), but Osborn has an ace in the hole; a character called the Sentry.
The Sentry was a fairly new character, whose history had been ret-conned (don’t ask) to establish that he had at one point been the greatest hero of the Marvel Universe, and certainly the most powerful. Someone they all looked up to and admired; sort of their Superman. But he had a dark side/nemesis called the Void, which threatened to take over his psyche. Hence he was highly unstable and easily manipulated by Osborn. Siege culminates with the Sentry losing control, and becoming the Void. The Sentry briefly regains control and begs the Avengers to kill him. Thor obliges, striking him down with a lightning bolt (it appears Thor, too, can wield the power of editorial dictum).
So Siege ends with the Avengers killing one of their own. Not just that, but supposedly their greatest hero. Perfectly understandable right? Had to be done. There was no other way.
Except…isn’t that why we admire these characters? The best of them, like Superman and Captain America, no matter the odds, no matter how hopeless things get, always find a way. Isn’t that why they inspire?
Siege then, seems like a means to an end. Like the decision to kill the Sentry, it was expedient; driven by the need to get from Point A to Point B in a way that was cold, calculated, and dare I say, corporate? This seems to be the new mindset of the Marvel offices and sadly, the Marvel Universe. Now Marvel is, of course, a business. Like any other major publisher, they have to make decisions based, at least partially, on their bottom line; it would be naive to imagine otherwise. But never before has this attitude manifested itself so baldly in the stories, even in the characters themselves. It seems we are a long way from the legendary, free-wheeling Bullpen days of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.
(The next big event after Siege was something called Fear Itself, a story so bereft of purpose, cohesion and narrative logic, that it made Siege seem like Watchmen.)
Which brings us to the latest chapter in the Marvel master-narrative: Avengers Vs. X-Men. (Deep breath) Like Civil War, AvX features an old-fashioned throw-down between two groups of Marvel heroes. Unlike Civil War, one of the groups is clearly presented as being in the right. The Avengers, having been re-positioned over the previous few years to the center of the Marvel U (and newly-christened as box-office champs) are The Good Guys. The X-Men, overlooked for years, are repaid by being re-introduced into the master narrative not simply as mistaken or misunderstood, but as a threat to the earth’s very existence. And at the center of this folly stands the abused figure of Cyclops.
Now Cyclops is, of course, the X-Man. Central to their mythos, their alpha dog, their leader, their best (not that you’d know it from the movies.) He is their Captain America, the man with the plan, the one who will always, as I have said, find a way. Destroy his character and you delegitimize the worldview that the X-Men have represented over the last 30 years.
Let us skip the preliminaries and head straight to the nadir of the story (and indeed of the master-narrative in general): AvX #11. This particular issue is worth special consideration, emblematic as it is of the current state of the Marvel Universe. Cyclops has been infused with the power of the Phoenix, an unpredictable cosmic force capable of destroying existence (and which, years ago, caused the death of his true love Jean Grey – but not to worry! No compassion here.) Our issue begins with Captain America making an entreaty for help in the fight against Cyclops from an unknown source (the quote that began this unwieldy diatribe is taken from this plea.) Here are some choice nuggets from Cap’s opening address:
“…I am at the end of my rope.”
“…We just cannot win the fight in front of us.”
“We can’t win it.”
Again, this is Captain America. The man who never lost hope in the depths of World War II. (The fact that he’s supplicating himself to the Hulk, whose strength would be negligible against a force that could destroy the universe, is beside the point.) He may be wearing the flag, the big “A” and the little wingtips on his head, but I do not know who this character is.
To the ignominious climax. The Avengers have Cyclops surrounded, alone and raving, like some rabid dog (spittle, literally flying from his mouth). So I suppose it should come as no surprise when one of them, Hawkeye (y’know, Jeremy Renner in the movie) shoots him in the neck. Another Avenger callously observes, “Nice shot.” I’m sorry, since when do the Avengers resort to attempted murder to solve their problems? Much less the killing of a hero? (Oh that’s right. Since Siege.)
When this fails, Cyclops yells, “You see that?…They’re trying to assassinate us!!” If this is some kind of meta moment, where the character becomes aware of his creators’ intentions, then it is brilliant. Yes, Cyclops, they are trying to assassinate you, or worse, your character.
Storm, Cyclops’ former teammate (and at this point, like Wolverine, an Avenger, I guess?) pleads “Stay down Scott. I beg you.” Good ol’ Captain America adds “I don’t.”, in a misguided attempt to sound, I don’t know, bad-ass? (Maybe he’s a leftover Skrull…)
Cyclops, of course, doesn’t stay down. He is confronted by Professor X, who is, in every way that counts, his father. And then the moment that set the internet a-buzz, (and is possibly the lowest point in Marvel history): Cyclops kills Professor X.
X-Men destroyed. In one fell swoop.
Let’s be clear: it is not the death of Professor X that rankles; this is a character, after all, that has died and come back a lot, even by comic book standards. No, what is galling is the act of Cyclops murdering his father. There are some things even a comic book character can’t recover from. (DC tried a similar tack with Green Lantern nearly two decades ago in a story called Zero Hour. It took the character years to recover, and all he tried to do was destroy the space/time continuum; fairly standard super villain operating procedure. Killing Dad? Not so much.)
So take heed all you outcasts and undesirables! Professor X had a dream. And now it’s over. Society was right to fear and hate you. It turns out you were a menace after all.
(Want further proof that the X-Men worldview has been vanquished? The one holdover X-book, Wolverine and the X-Men, whatever its merits, is virtually a parody of everything they have stood for over the last thirty years. Comic books, too, repeat themselves, first as tragedy, then as farce.)
In the wake of AvX (oh yeah, Cyclops is finally put down when a mutant named – I would argue ironically – Hope, and again, the Scarlet Witch [ah that all-purpose power of Editorial Dictum] double-punch him. Game over!) we have been promised a shiny, sorta-newish Marvel Universe. It is being called Marvel NOW! and its coming has been foretold by months of advertisements which prominently feature Cap, arrogantly posed and smugly staring out at the viewer (who is this dick?) surrounded by various cohorts. These ads are further festooned with thick red-borders and imperative statements in bold, block lettering and resemble nothing so much as poorly-designed Soviet propaganda posters. Some coming highlights: Lot of Avengers books (featuring a bunch of former X-Men – I mean, where else were they gonna go?), a new, darker Spider-Man (oy vey) and, for the beleagured mutants, something called All-New X-Men. The concept: with the current X-Men in disarray, the original X-Men, still teenagers, are zapped to the present (y’know, bypassing all that messy civil rights stuff) as a way to hit the refresh button. The conceit: they are horrified by the current state of the Marvel Universe (well on that we can agree).
Which brings me to a Helpful Suggestion. The Marvel Now! initiative was done largely as a response to DC’s hugely successful New 52! relaunch of last year, in which they wiped the narrative slate clean and rebooted their entire universe from scratch. DC has a habit of doing this sort of thing every so often. A point of pride at Marvel is that they have never taken this approach. The stories you’re reading today are, ostensibly, a continuation of the stories begun by Stan and Jack over fifty years ago. Marvel has taken great pains to explain that Marvel Now! is…um…well, I’m not sure, but it is emphatically not a DC-style reboot. My question is, given the above snapshot of the Marvel Universe, why the hell not? Instead of just playing musical chairs with your established cadre of creators and using that as an excuse to haphazardly introduce some new #1 issues, why not just start the whole damn thing over? You don’t have to abandon your veteran creators, but bring in some fresh blood! Put them on your major books! The ship is sinking! History be damned!
Now. The above should not be interpreted as so much inchoate Marvel-bashing. (Just the fact that I’ve read these comics should tell you something.) They do, in fact, produce a number of very good books (just scroll down and see!) This is meant to suggest however, in the view of this lifelong fan and observer, that the master narrative (last time I’ll use the term, I promise) has been heading in an untenable overall direction for quite some time, and that those in charge (are they still called architects?) are ill-suited keepers of the flame.
So, does this mean that, once again, I’ve been disillusioned? That I’m about to give up my Wednesday habit a second time? Of course not. Having been reintroduced into the four-colored realm, I have surveyed the landscape. And I am excited by what I see. More than that; I’m convinced. The comic book medium has always had the same potential as any other narrative form (films, novels, television, etc.); that is to say, limitless. A casual glance will show that the sheer breadth of talent, diversity, subject matter (of which super heroes are an ever shrinking genre) and experimentation happening now (right NOW!) proves beyond any doubt that they are finally fulfilling that potential. It is my argument, my thesis, my conviction, that there has never been a better time to read comics. Saying you don’t like comics is like saying you don’t like movies. If you think they aren’t for you, you aren’t looking hard enough. A small sample of evidence:
Image Comics: currently the most exciting publisher around. Initially a boutique for a handful of superstars, their current mixture of established names and active scouring for new talent makes them comics’ equivalent of that cool indy music label (back when there were music labels) that is trend-setting by virtue of being fearless. Standout titles include the rollicking, sci-fi space opera, Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples, and the neo-noir terror of Fatale by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips.
Not far behind is Oni Press, with its line of intriguing creator-owned work, such as Ted Naifeh’s moody, supernatural coming-of-age tale, Courtney Crumrin, and the laid-back, funky detective work found in Stumptown by Greg Rucka and Matthew Southworth.
Like a modern-day incarnation of Universal Studios from the 1930’s, Dark Horse Comics has a wide-ranging catalog, but their specialty is horror. And nobody does it better. The cornerstone of their house of horrors is Mike Mignola’s line of books (Hellboy, Baltimore, etc.) that combine a healthy respect for the history of the genre with the cold, unblinking eye of an auteur. They manage to feel classic and edgy at the same time.
The “ID” in IDW might well stand for “idiosyncratic”, as their eclectic range of titles include Roger Langridge’s retro, thoroughly excellent Popeye series as well as the Carrollian psychedelia of The Zaucer of Zilk by Brendan McCarthy and Al Ewing.
Dynamite Entertainment does some wonderful things with the heroes of yesteryear, whether they be of the pulp variety (the exuberant fun of Flash Gordon: Zeitgeist by Eric Trautmann and Daniel Indiro) or more historical in nature (Garth Ennis’ superlative Battlefields series; not only one of the best war comics ever, but also one of the best comics being produced right now, period.)
Speaking of history, Fantagraphics does truly commendable work reprinting the classics of funny pages past (Peanuts, Barnaby, etc). They also publish the funniest comic book on the planet, Michael Kupperman’s Tales Designed to Thrizzle.
How about something for the kiddies? kaboom! (BOOM!’s all-ages imprint) provides a healthy does of childlike wonder with the comic version of Adventure Time! as well as Roger Langridge’s (him again) inspired nonsense in Snarked!.
I haven’t even mentioned the rich world of graphic novels – not trade paperback collections of ongoing titles, but singular, literary works expressly conceived in the comic book medium. There just isn’t enough space to even scratch the surface of the wide array of practitioners of – oh, here’s three: Chris Ware, Alison Bechdel, and Jason Lutes. Go discover.
And, not to leave out the so-called Big Two: DC publishes some fine work, such as Brian Azzarello’s revisionist take on Wonder Woman and especially China Mieville’s nigh-undefinable Dial H. And finally, bringing things full circle, over at Marvel: Mark Waid’s award-winning run on Daredevil justly deserves the accolades it’s been receiving. And Brian Michael Bendis’ bold, risky choices on Ultimate Spider-Man have led to the introduction one of the most engaging new heroes in years, in young Miles Morales. (Hell, I’ll even cop to my excitement over one of the Marvel NOW! titles – Mike Allred drawing a goofy cast of B-listers in FF? Yes please.)
Marvel Comics will always hold a special place in my heart for igniting my love for the medium in the first place, and then again for bringing me back into the fold when I had strayed. And who knows? Perhaps their new initiative will produce some fun comics. But now, given the state of things as I continue to indulge my Wednesday habit, and peruse the embarrassment of riches that today’s comics have to offer (of which the above is only the smallest fraction), I am more likely than ever to say, “Marvel? Nah…”