Justin du Coeur (jducoeur) wrote,
Justin du Coeur

Talking about the Big Stories

This is really two posts jammed together, talking about two different stories, one from DC and one from Marvel. But since both posts are really talking about the big stories that are being told by the two companies, it somehow seemed appropriate.

Okay, let's talk about 52, which just ended this week. (For historical reasons, I'm up-to-date on DC. Yes, I know that's weird.) 52 has been running weekly for the past year, filling in the gaps from DC having jumped a year forward after the most recent crisis. My overall review is that it was a moderately interesting story, with an ending that sucked hairy goat balls. (And thank you to richenza for putting *that* little phrase into my head.)

They came clean a few weeks ago, and admitted that 52 had gone wildly off the rails from its original intent. It was supposed to be about The Big Stuff. Where did the Big Three Superheroes (Supes, Bats and WW) disappear to for a year? What was happening to the other major heroes in the meantime? What was the name "52" about, anyway?

In fact, that basically didn't happen: instead, the interlaced stories that were supposed to serve as glue took over completely. And that was a good thing, because those smaller stories were pretty decent. Of the top of my head, the stories were:
  • Black Adam finding love, honor and happiness in his life, and what happens when those are ripped away from him;

  • The passing of the torch from one Question to another, and the birth of the new Batwoman;

  • Lex Luthor's attempt to take over the world by giving *everyone* superpowers;

  • A road movie starring Starfire, Animal Man, Adam Strange and (god help us) Lobo, spending a year getting from the center of the galaxy back to Earth;

  • The aftermath of Identity Crisis, as an increasingly depressed Elongated Man takes on the devil himself;

  • And, in the background, the story of the rise, fall, and rise again of Booster Gold.
I won't kid you: none of these were high art. But several of them were interesting in their own way. The Question story was probably my favorite, as Renee Montoya, a longtime background character, slowly finds a new purpose in life: it's a very human-level story about a bunch of non-metas and how they work in this weird world. The Black Adam story was downright Greek in its tale of a somewhat good but arrogant man who gets manipulated into becoming one of the greatest monsters the DC universe has ever dealt with. And the Elongated Man tale is classic DC, with a true hero who appears to be letting himself be manipulated into horror, all the while setting his own trap for the forces that would trap him. (Really, I see it as payback for Identity Crisis.)

Then there's that ending. In the last few weeks, they had to get the main plot out of the way, so they crammed it in. They added a four-part "World War III" miniseries (four issues in one week) during Week 50. This told the story of Black Adam going completely around the bend, killing an entire country in revenge for his wife's murder and turning into a one-man threat to world safety. They stuffed pretty much everybody in the DCU into this, with everybody getting a few panels to talk about what they've been doing. The whole thing was a complete waste of paper, frankly, adding nothing to what had already been said elsewhere.

And then there's Week 52. Having finally gotten everybody else's story out of the way, we get to what's been going on with Booster Gold and Rip Hunter. And do you know what they did with it? They unwrote the Crisis. Not the recent one -- the real Crisis on Infinite Earths, the one that mattered. In a story so idiotic it's scarcely worth recounting (it involved Mister Mind turning into a giant universe-eating moth that was consuming the leftover worlds from Crisis II), they wound up with 52 "new" universes making up a new multiverse. Each got only one visual-only panel, but that one panel is plenty enough to catalog them for future reference:
  • Earth 2: well, Earth-2

  • Earth 3: The Crime Syndicate

  • Earth 4: The Charlton universe

  • Earth 5: The classic Marvel Family

  • Earth 10: The Freedom Fighters

  • Earth 17: The Atomic Knights

  • Earth 22: The Kingdom (I think; I'm not certain offhand which miniseries those specific characters were from)

  • Earth 50: Wildstorm
Like I said -- they pretty much undid all the effects of the original Crisis, putting back exactly the old multiverse where it left off. I would love to know who thought this was a good idea. (Presumably it was done to placate the anal-retentive types who just *had* to know how all these stories relate to each other.) Oh, and for good measure they showed that, despite Elongated Man having given his life to trap the Devil, he's still floating around as a happy problem-solving ghost, reunited with Sue, so we get a lovely pat ending for that as well.

Putting it all together, I'm afraid I have to give the series as a whole a thumbs-down. Individual parts were pretty good, and I enjoyed the ride, but none of it was brilliant, and the ending was in every way awful, catering to the comic book industry's worst instincts. It doesn't bode well for DC, which seems to be regressing to the simplistic giant crossovers again. Quite annoying for this serious DC fan...

Now let's jump over to Marvel, and talk a bit more about the Civil War. This is mainly inspired by the first issue of the new Warren Ellis-penned Thunderbolts, which is downright chilling.

I had a mild argument with alexx_kay a few weeks ago about this story. He was annoyed about the way that the Civil War played out, particularly about the ending, in which the forces of oppression quite clearly defeat the forces of freedom. I disagreed with him there, and I'm slowly coming to understand the nature of my disagreement. Suffice it to say, I loved the whole story, and am still loving it now -- admittedly, in a sort of fascinated horror.

I'm several months behind in reading Marvel (shock, surprise), but I pretty much keep up with the outline of what's going on; forgive any current inaccuracies in the following, but here's a summary:

There was An Incident in the Marvel universe, which resulted in a substantial fraction of Stamford, CT being vaporized as the result of a battle between some bad guys and a C-list superhero team. The public screamed for Something To Be Done, and some of the heroes (who had seen this coming for a while) decided that it was time for superbeings to get regulated. This devolved into an outright war between the "pro-registration" side (led by Iron Man) and the "freedom" side (led by Captain America). In the end, the pro-registration side won. (Captain America's death at the end appears to be at most tangentially related.) At the moment, all non-registered superbeings in the Marvel Universe are being hunted by government forces.

The thing I love about this story is its sheer bloody-minded honesty. I mean, let's be clear: the story is a very frank collection of metaphors for modern American politics, mixing elements of the Iraq War with those of the modern American security state. Everything here is a metaphor, and they're very nicely crafted. And none of it is over-simplified. The pro-registration forces are painted as pretty horrible in their means, but the "rebellion" makes its share of bad decisions as well.

Best of all, nobody is cackling evil here: both sides sincerely believe that what they are doing is right, or at least strictly necessary. Iron Man is painted as an outright villain in some books, but from his point of view (which is given in his own book and several others), he's just trying to keep an incindiary situation from getting even worse. He knows that the registration thing is bad -- but he's quite sure that, if he doesn't impose some restrictions, the alternatives will be even worse.

But let's be clear here: just because the pro-registration side won, that doesn't make them the good guys. Indeed, the "end" of the Civil War seems to only be the beginning of a story that is getting more and more horrifying. In order to keep things under control, they've had to build a super-gulag in the Negative Zone to hold those who won't play along, many of whom are longtime heroes. To have enough forces to round up the holdouts, the government has co-opted large numbers of super-villains, and put some of the most unethical of them in charge. (The Thunderbolts, Marvel's team of villains-turned-heroes, has been handed over to the Green Goblin because he's unprincipled enough to get the job done.) Anyone with superpowers is required to register, and at that point they are immediately drafted.

In short, they're telling a very powerful story here, as America slowly turns into a police state. It's not an *easy* story, though, with clear lines of good and evil -- instead, it's telling a realistic story of how good people, doing what they think is best, can commit terrible evil, and how hard it is to see things in pure terms.

Nasty, fascinating stuff. We'll see where it all goes. So far, this feels like the first half of a story to me. The "Civil War" part is done, with the registration forces clearly in control. Currently, we're in "The Initiative", as Tony Stark attempts to organize all the superpeople into a well-organized civil defence force (whether they like it or not). I suspect we're going to see it all fall apart eventually -- it's clear that the system as constructed is morally corrupt, and I have to believe that'll catch up with them. But they're taking their time here, so my guess is that it's going to take another two years to fully play out...
Tags: comics

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