Monday, November 8, 2010

Disasters to Marvel At: A Comic Discussion.

While I generally leave anything referring to comic books or superheroes to others, I am now stepping in.  The disaster known as Marvel Comics has become a wasteland of jibberish for years now.  Finally, there is a solution at hand.

Dear Disney, you own Marvel now. Have Joe Quesada walk the plank off the roof of 666 5th avenue. You can have Johnny Depp hold the sword that nudges him off, if you like.

Why do I say that? About five years ago, DC Comics started their epic of the week. Marvel, in perfect monkey-see-monkey-do fashion, has tried to keep up. In this effort, the result has been … nothing I can adequately describe using PG-13 language.

Let's see if we can all follow this round of abject stupidity.

Civil War

The Road to Civil WarMarvel's Civil War is more or less where everything starts going sideways for the Marvel. Let's face it, it was a seven-issue arc that interfered in everything else in the Marvel Universe. To little or no purpose. Individual series sold as always, and Marvel should count themselves fortunate that those didn't hemorrhage sales during that period.

Premise: Amateur superheroes chase down badguy. Badguy goes critical, nuking school, and killing hundreds of poor widdle children. Washington issues edict: superheroes are to register with the government, because D.C. doesn't want every other random idiot who acquires superpowers by the luck of the draw to get any ideas about fighting crime and accruing massive property damage.

It's called the Superhero Registration Act (SRA ... not to be confused with the X-Men's Mutant Registration Act, always brought in with Nazi-like implications, right? Of course not).

Now, I'm not a great political thinker. Honest I'm not. I've said a few times how I hate politics.  And I mean seriously. The most political experience I've ever had is from watching every episode of The West Wing at least twice. However, when a law such as the SRA becomes a fait accompli, it would have been an easy matter of public superheroes taking up a petition to make a change to the new law.

What change?

Word the amendment to the law as follows: “All superheroes active as of Y date, with a history of successful superheroing, are automatically grandfathered in, under the umbrella of this law.” Or some such wording. I'm not a lawyer, that's the best I can do.

Simple version: “If you're a superhero who actually has experience and doesn't make a habit of wrecking the city, you're in.” Automatically, Captain America and Iron Man should make the list, as well as Luke Cage, the Fantastic Four, all of whom should easily be listed under “They know what they're doing.”  Even Spider-Man had a S.H.I.E.L.D. file (New Avengers, Vol. #1). If it's a matter of protecting humanity from the stupidity of any random moron who gets himself a cape and some flashy powers, then target them accordingly.

Can't you imagine it? They make a Marvel hero, someone who starts operating locally, and S.H.I.E.L.D. comes down, says “Hello, my name is Nick Fury, we're going to bring you in for training, and give you a license, then you can go about your business. Thank you.”

I think that would have been rather cool.

Nope. Instead, they wanted a chance for everyone to talk each other to death. Instead of a classic “My hero can beat up your superhero,” contest (known to science fiction fans as “Who would win in a fight, Spock or Kirk?”), it was a rant. I think Mark Millar and Joe Quesada wanted to make it a political screed of some sort … but I don't even think it works well as that, either. As I've mentioned, I can take “save the whales” if you make it into a good story, but Civil War wasn't.

The sides of Civil War broke down into the camps of “Super-Patriot, Captain America,” fighting … against the government? Versus evil big businessman … Tony Stark?

Did I miss something?

Captain America, who had been created by the military, trained by the military, and all but living his entire life in some form of military structure, is the one fighting the government. And Tony Stark, who doesn't play well with others, who has a history of substance abuse, and has all but said, “Screw you, I don't need anybody,” is the one on the government payroll, leading a war of superheroes, and taking over S.H.I.E.L.D.?

If someone was trying to draw a parallel between Tony Stark and, maybe, Halliburton, I think this qualifies as a fail.

Also, I don't think these authors talked to each other as they wrote their separate storylines.

The Amazing Spider-Man: Civil WarFront Line,” which was about a drunken newspaper reporter, made it look like Tony Stark was using the war as a method of making money (remember when I said “evil big businessman”?). Then, in Amazing Spider-Man #535, Peter Parker makes a comment to Tony Stark that “You're making a killing, in the stock market,” and you get the sense from Stark that he's too damn busy running a war.

One of the few people who actually tried to make Civil War into a discussion was J. Michael Straczynski, during his run on Amazing Spider-Man. We got to see Tony Stark, up close and personal, as tired, tiring, and all but falling apart, and even confessing that he hated the whole thing, he hadn't slept for weeks, but “The law's the law, damnit.”

But then, NO DETAILS ABOUT THE SRA are given over the course of the entire storyline. It's never spelled out. It's never explained, to the audience, what exactly is so objectionable about it. So of course it's incoherant, because no one knows what's in it, so everyone has to make up what the hell the problem is as they go along. NO ONE KNEW WHAT THEY WERE DOING.

At the end of the day, and seven issues of talking at each other, and waging war on the streets of densely populated New York City, wreaking havoc in residential neighborhoods, Captain America essentially concludes, “We're hurting so many people, we have to stop. I'm going to turn myself in to the justice system, and we'll work it out in the courts.”

Really? Work it out in the courts? That couldn't have been the thing to do five minutes after the law kicked in? There are at least two superhero lawyers I am aware of, Daredevil and She-Hulk; no one thought of this the first time through?  What was the point of all that that fighting?

Answer: There was a point?

People who have read Civil War have broken it down for me as “Blah blah blah,” destroy a city block, “Blah blah blah,” clone Thor, “blah blah” destroy Yancy Street. “Blah. Blah.” “Oh my God, we're hurting civilians.”

Then we shoot Captain America with a bullet that makes him unstuck in time.

This last part has nothing at all to do with the events of the rest of the year-long arc, by the way.  (Captain America writer Ed Brubaker had wanted to shoot him for a while, in order to make Buckey Barnes Captain America.  However, the geniuses at Marvel discovered that, when they started Civil War, they didn't have an ending, so the Powers from On High decided to pull the trigger on Brubaker's idea. No pun intended).

And, of course, amidst all of this stupidity, everyone missed an option. Civil War only works if everyone jettisons a third path. Marvel had to make it a matter of “Join the eeeeevvviilll government program” or be a fugitive, or else their "event" had no teeth. In addition to throwing character development out the window, they gave every character a lobotomy … and you thought that was obvious just from the “sudden” revelation that “Oh no, we're hurting innocent people!”

The third option: “Hi, I'm your friendly neighborhood hero. I'm going to retire rather than put up with this idiotic registration. I'm not a superhero anymore. The government's superheroes can handle all of my psychos. Let's see how well they deal with it. Have a nice day. Call me when you're tired of arresting Doctor Octopus for the fifteenth time.”

This third option would probably mean that any hero who tried this route would, undoubtedly, spend their time playing detective, without spandex, for the entire run of Civil War.  We could have watched said title character observe the big government heroes try to do the same job, with villains they've never dealt with before, and not handling it well.  Watch lone hero, without any overt display of powers, outwit the villain and outperforming "The Man."

If you think that wouldn't have been fun to watch, then you've never seen Murder, She Wrote.

But, noooooo, a hero without spandex would jeopardize the comic book run!  We'll ignore that Frank Miller did that for a whole story arc during his time on Daredevil.

Amusing tidbit: despite that the Superheroes Registration Act is almost a direct ripoff of the X-Men Mutant Registration Act, the X-Men were completely neutral in Civil War … funny, considering that this would have been a perfect time for any government official to absorb them into the universe. But Joss Whedon wrote X-men at the time, and you do not mess with Whedon, or he will sic Summer Glau on you. She bites.

Back in Black

Spider-Man: Back in BlackA shameless tie-in with Spider-Man 3, Back-in-Black was a Spider-Man storyline where it's no more Mr. Nice Spider.

During Civil War, Spider-Man unmasked in public. 

Parker then switched sides during Civil War, putting a target on his back.  The Kingpin put a hit out on him; the assassin shot Spider-Man's aunt instead. Then, Peter Parker puts on a cloth version of his black suit as a sign that he was out to go all Jack Bauer on everyone involved in the shooting …

Okay, I'm with them so far.

The scenario takes us with Peter Parker as he works his way up the chain of command, from the assassin to the Kingpin.  Back-in-Black ends with Peter beating the heck out of the Kingpin, with the proviso that “If my Aunt dies, I'm coming back here, and then, I'm going to fire my web shooters down your throat, wait for it to harden, and then literally rip your lungs out. Start praying.”

It was at least entertaining … if and only if you followed J. Michael Straczynski's Amazing Spider-Man arc, or perhaps Peter David's Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man. From what I've seen, everyone else gave Spider-Man whiny emo powers.  Now, I know that some things are popular, but I don't find anything entertaining about Peter Parker as Edward Cullen.

Now, as I noted, Peter Parker had unmasked in public during the civil war storyline. By the end of Civil War, Parker was on the run with his family, and everyone knew his name.

And this was the perfect time to show us a fugitive Parker and family.  Peter reels from the critically injured / death of Aunt May. Peter is hunted by his old friends, and his old enemies, and he can basically have a bounty on his head that anyone can claim, including former criminals.

Although Peter had outed himself during the Civil War storyline, there was little-to-no interaction with people from his old life. There was a brief tussle with J. Jonah Jameson in the rarely-seen or -read Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man run, as well as an issue with two ex-girlfriends, but that was the full extent of any blowback Peter Parker felt from the revelation.

But just consider what Marvel could have done.  Can't you imagine Peter Parker running into all sorts of people after he goes on the lamb?  Each of these people having a whole spectrum of reactions to the revelation of who Spider-Man is?  Or, for those who knew, that he came out in the first place? Old girlfriends. Old enemies. Doctor Octopus saying “Peter, I had you in class. You were beating me up for years? Damnit.”  Or, as a fugitive, on the run with his wife, MJ, asking for aide from his sometimes-fugitive ex-girlfriend Black Cat.  Etc, et al.

Spider-Man: One More DayNo, that would have been creative. That would have been interesting. That would have shown a level of inventiveness that these people do not have.

Instead, Marvel settled for a Deal With The Devil. Where Peter makes a deal with Mephisto to save his ninety-year-old aunt, at the expense of his marriage.

That giant snapping sound you hear is my credulity breaking.

Why did Marvel decide to end a marriage that has lasted for twenty years?

Because Marvel's editor-in-chief, the brilliant Joe Quesada, decided that he liked Peter Parker better when he was a bachelor. We will ignore that there are about two or three other series where Peter Parker is still single, but why ruin a good story with fact-checking?

Oh, and, conveniently, Parker's wife, Mary Jane, makes a side deal with the devil so that no one knows anything about who Spider-Man really is. Can you say plot contrivance?

They honestly thought that this was a good idea?

You know something is bad when J. Michael Straczynski, who had written Amazing Spider-Man from 2001 to One More Day, left the series after this, and had expressed a desire to remove his name from One More Day entirely.

Spider-Man: One Moment in TimeLater retcon (retroactive continuity) resulted in a storyline called “One Moment in Time.”

When I heard about this, I thought “Great, a massive event that will show how history changed because the marriage never happened.” They try to explain why the marriage never happened (Spider-Man KO'ed during a fight the night before the wedding), and how no one remembered he was Spider-Man (Dr. Strange, magic spell, while Peter is aided by everyone hunting him during the Civil War... huh?).

 That was it.  No attempt at anything really innovative, merely an acknowledgment that some of their readers are still suffering from reality-shift whiplash.

Way to tell your readers to go screw themselves, Marvel.

World War Hulk

Incredible Hulk: Planet HulkOne of the few things Marvel did well during Civil War was to have the Planet Hulk storyline. In order to get the Hulk to stop going on his occasional rampages (and from being a major player in Civil War), Tony Stark and company decide to launch him into outer space. The Hulk landed on an alien world, fought his way up from being a gladiator to being planetary leader, found himself a wife, had a son …

And then the planet was nuked, killing both wife and son, and it looked like Tony Stark and company might have been involved. Hulk comes to Earth to smash puny humans. We discover that one of the Hulk's alien buddies was responsible for killing off the wife and son. Hulk has complications arise in his life.

World War Hulk
Overall, WWH was a simple, straightforward smashup. There's not too much to point out, except …

One question: Why was Spider-Man wearing his black suit, fighting the Hulk, alongside other people on Tony Stark's team? Back-in-Black was a storyline that (in comic book time) took place over the course of two days. His aunt was in a hospital in lower Manhattan, which the Hulk was busy trashing. And, oh, yeah, Spider-Man was still a fugitive during that time. I don't mind some temporal overlap, but could someone notice what they're doing in their own scripts?

Secret Invasion

Skrulls, shape-shifting aliens, come to earth, infiltrate all sorts of organizations, wreaks havoc.

Round one, fight!

Dark Reign

Dark Reign: Accept ChangeAfter the Skrulls have wreaked their havoc, Tony Stark is deemed ineffectual and thrown out of his position as Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. So, they decide to install a new head of S.H.I.E.L.D. …

Norman Osborn.

In case you are not a comic book fan, or have never watched comic book movies, Norman Osborn is better known as the Green Goblin, a super villain that has been the closest that Spider-Man ever had to an enemy that was pure evil. He has been thrown in jail repeatedly, killed repeatedly, and has come back from the dead repeatedly.

And somehow, they put him in charge of S.H.I.E.L.D.?

To be honest, they took Osborn from another government-sanctioned group, the Thunderbolts, who are basically super villains who have been given a pardon if they work for the government. But, still, Hannibal Lecter would be a better director of S.H.I.E.L.D.  I wouldn't go to any of his dinner parties, though ....

Anyway, with Osborne in charge, there was Dark Reign, with Dark Avengers, Dark X-Men, Dark Wolverine (because he was so bright and sunny to start with), and Dark Spider-Man (starring Venom), and Bullseye, Dark Avenger, and the rest of the Dark League of Darkness.

Sorry, they lost me at Norman Osborn, Director of S.H.I.E.L.D.

However, this had the makings of something interesting: “The Cabal,” which involved Norman Osborn working with Loki and Doctor Doom. Watch and see who stabs who in the back first. Muahahaha …


Dark S.H.I.E.L.D. vs. … Asgard?

To start with, the Dark League of Darkness immediately has a falling out, with Norman Osborn alienating Loki and Doctor Doom…

Let us pause here and digest that a moment.

Norman Osborn, whose biggest superpower is that he's a freaking psycho with fancy, high-tech equipment, has managed to piss off a Norse deity and the world's deadliest despot, two super villains in the Marvel universe with egos the size of the galactic core. Osborn even attempts to kill the good Doctor...

And, somehow, Osborn doesn't have a war on his hands with either of them.

In fact, Loki acts as an adviser to Osborn (but secretly driving him crazy … um... crazier?). Norman would like to take over Asgard because it's something that's not nailed down, and not under his direct control. Yes, because being a psychotic megalomaniac means that you kick over a hornets' nest of deities who have been leaving you alone, just because they don't answer to you. Right.

So … Osborn and his Dark League of Darkness take on Asgard, which is currently parked over New Mexico (long story).

Leaving it as the Dark Avengers vs. Asgard. This quickly turns into …

Dark Avengers vs. Everyone Else On The Planet.

In the middle of this story arc, there is a five-page sequence where Osborn goes postal on camera, which makes everyone decide that Norman Osborn is evil …

Wait. No! Really? Whatever gave you that idea? Everybody suddenly remembers: It's Norman Osborn, most evil psychopath in the entire Marvel universe. Lex Luthor looks normal compared to this guy.   What have you people been smoking?!

In writing terms, this is called a deus ex machina, which is usually what a writer does when s/he has written the heroes into a corner and can't get them out by any other means.  It's the writing equivalent of having a villain holding a hero at gunpoint, and having an elephant fall out of the sky and squash him flat.

At the end of the day, Captain America (no longer unstuck in time) is put in charge of the “Fifty State Initiative,” the government's teams of superheroes, formed under the Superhero Registration Act, and the registration act itself is abolished …

So, what was the point of Civil War?


Daredevil: Shadowland
Meanwhile, in another part of the universe, the Dark League of Dark Ones extends to … the evil Daredevil.


Ed Brubaker, who is now known for running Captain America, had been on Daredevil before that. He had shown a civil war within the Hand (ninjas + Yakuza + magic = The Hand), and this war ended with Daredevil taking over at least a part of the Hand, if not the totality.

The next person to write Daredevil decided that now, Daredevil had to be evil.

Daredevil kills longtime enemy Bullseye … superheroes pause and think that something might, just MIGHT, mind you, be wrong with Daredevil.

Of course something is wrong with him. Daredevil is taken over by a demon

A what now? Quick, someone, call Joss Whedon, we need a Daredevil / Buffy crossover, STAT!

And so, Daredevil has to die, leading to a new comic line: Black Panther, Man without Fear.

Ahem … let us have a thought about this, shall we? One of Marvel's bigger black characters, an African King, is brought to Hell's Kitchen to clean up the mess of a rich white lawyer.

So they made their biggest black characters a janitor.

In Summation...

Civil War: Talk each other to death. Captain America “dies” (but gets better), Peter Parker outs himself (later goes back into the spandex closet). Net result: nothing happens.

Back-in-BlackOne More Day: Find Kingpin. Beat up Kingpin.  Make deal with Devil to undo the marriage. Net result: nothing has happened since the eighties.

WWH: Hulk Smash. There is property damage.  Net result: everything that has happened to Hulk for the previous two years didn't happen.

Secret InvasionDark ReignSiege: The Rise and Fall of Norman Osborn, who is replaced by Steve Rodgers. Superhero registration act abolished. Net result: Nothing has happened for five years.

Shadowlands – Daredevil will be reborn, again. Eventually. Net Result: What the Hell was that?

I say again: Disney, Joe Quesada is over there, make him walk the plank.

Now, what does this have to do with A Pius Man? Seriously, what am I doing? This is a page for a thriller novel, not a superhero novel, or anything else that tangentially touches on comics.

However, I can comment on bad writing.

I'm serious. Fans of Marvel, can we agree that the net result of their world-shaking, game-changing epic story arcs have resulted in … nothing?  Or, in the case of Spider-Man, at least nothing good?

If you say that “oh, they brought back some characters we thought were dead,” I will refer you to almost every other person who has died in comic books … which adds up to every other superhero in comic books.

I know that it is common practice in most franchises to have few things change until the last possible minute.  How many tv shows will keep a pseudo-romance going for years without a conclusion because to have the leads get together would finish the show?  How many characters should have died, but "you can't risk the franchise"?  Rod Serling referred to it as the Velvet Alley -- a trap where you are ensnared by your own success, and you can't risk changing something lest someone take the success away from you (be it the audience or the Powers that Be in the industry).

But it is now getting stupid.  Marvel has had five years of massive, epic wars, and nothing has happened.

Basics of story telling: you have a beginning, a middle, and an end.  The story order doesn't have to be linear, you can put the end first and the beginning last (not often, but it can work).  At the moment, Marvel is working with an eternal middle that goes nowhere.  The artwork is pretty, they have some cute moments, and look, this fight scene is shiny, but the plotlines resemble endless laps of a hamster on the wheel.

The philosopher Plato had a premise that stated that, out in the world, there is a perfect example of an object, and all other variations of that object are mere shadows of that perfect thing.  There is a perfect chair, a perfect tree, a perfect stick.  If we follow this to a logical conclusion, then out there, somewhere, is the perfect example of a complete and utter moron, and he is named Quesada..

And he is currently running Marvel.  Into the ground.  With pointless fight-fests, Dark-everything, tossing character out the window, and arbitrarily rewriting Marvel history, someone should chat with management.  Possibly with a 2x4.

So, my conclusion is simple: Disney, Quesada, plank.  Assemble those words in the appropriate order.

Next week, we look at an issue at the opposite end of the spectrum: DC comics.

UPDATE (2-14-2011)
Joe Quesada is now "promoted."  We have some thoughts on that, here.


  1. At the risk of out-dorking myself, the SHRA and the MRA are very, very different pieces of fictional legislation.

    The SHRA establishes a pecking order for super-hero law enforcement. Its principle purpose in the story is to highlight the tension between the need for organized law enforcement and the harms of reactionary legislation. (Also, as to a "court battle," I might point out that She-Hulk was pro-registration, and Daredevil was incarcerated at the time of the SHRA.)

    The MRA, by contrast, was an apartheid-type proposal, aimed at highlighting the anti-minority fear. The natural and inalienable rights of a small minority of Americans born different was going to be taken away by government edict. The MRA is a civil-rights story device.

    I now feel very, very nerdy. Thank you.

  2. Hey, John--

    Is this a (second) case of "Holywood killed the comic book hero"? I read a lot of comics in the 90's, and discovered a familiar variant on this phenomenon. Upset me so much I went to the newly burgeoning indie comics.
    Once there, ran into other problems. (Long story, but the short form can be summed up as "The Preacher" and "Exit" respectively.) Shortly thereafter I left comics period. The things that most grrrls complain about in terms of comics are easily surmountable if there is at all an interesting story.

    PS. Tom: Thank you. Some of us appreciate that sort of information. But then, I listened to "Law of the Geek" for fun. I miss it now.

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