Eye on Comics

Comics criticism and commentary from Don MacPherson

Our Worlds at War

Posted by Don MacPherson on July 4th, 2007

War, what is it good for? Well, selling comic books, apparently.

War is the new black for super-hero comics these days. Marvel earned its strongest sales this century with Civil War in 2006-2007, and the publisher has developed a new brand for its lesser-known cosmic characters with its Annihilation titles, featuring space-faring heroes embroiled in armed conflicts as well. Marvel’s also grabbed fan attention with the recent launch of its latest event-driven crossover, World War Hulk, and it has just wrapped up the story of the Inhumans’ retaliation against mankind in Silent War. Marvel’s chief competitor, DC Comics, has embraced war as a dominant motif in its super-hero line as well. It’s easy to see in such titles as World War III, Amazons Attack and last week’s Green Lantern Sinestro Corps Special #1. It’s hardly a brand-new phenomenon either. Alien civilizations rallied behind bitter planetary enemies Rann and Thanagar in 2005, the Fantastic Four usurped control of a Balkan nation in 2003 and the Authority overthrew the U.S. government with its 2004-2005 Revolution. War and invasion have proven to be vital themes in super-hero comics today. And it’s no wonder — the industry and the genre are just proving to be true to their roots. After all, one could argue that without war, the genre just wouldn’t have taken hold in pop culture when it first took off seven decades ago. But are the super-hero comics of today holding true to form, repeating a familiar pattern? Or is the incorporation of war in the genre today something different than we’ve seen before?

Armed conflicts stand out as times of tragedy in our historical consciousness. Though pride in ideals arises amid those memories as well, we think of lives lost first and the battles that were won second. But wars are also times of technological, political and social evolution. Tech that’s made life simpler in the Western world and beyond has its roots in military science (such as the worldwide computer network that allows you to read these very words). The Vietnam war reminded Americans that the people have a responsibility to question its leaders.

Superman and his colorful colleagues in the super-hero genre started appearing in 1938, the equal and opposite reaction to the despair of the Great Depression, but they proved to provide an boost as the world went to war two decades after the so-called war to end all wars. Superman, Captain America and more fought Axis powers. Though created with kids as the target market, by all accounts, super-hero comics found their way into trenches in Europe and the Pacific Theater. Imagine having Captain Marvel in your battalion as the office in charge of inspiration.

The masses devoured super-hero comics in the late 1930s and early 1940s. As war raged, the world of comics was a booming business. Peaks in comics sales and creativity would coincide with America’s wars as the years passed. As the war in Vietnam raged in the 1960s and the world held its breath during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Silver Age of comics was already underway. However, Marvel Comics breathed new life into the genre and the business with its new titles. In the 1980s, the world wondered if the Cold War would lead to visions of The Day After. At the same time, specialty comics stores started popping up all over the place. The direct market emerged, and super-hero comics matured.

Comics experienced another boom in the early 1990s, as Marvel moved millions of units, Superman was killed and Image Comics was born. In 1991, the United States led forces to reverse an Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. And now, with the U.S.-led coalition back in the Middle East for more than four years now, super-hero comics are once again selling in strong numbers, much to the pleasure of direct-market retailers.

The relationship between war and both the business and craft of comics is hardly a new development, but it seems as though the 21st century super-hero stories are approaching the notion of war — and more specifically, war makers and war motives — in a different way than in times gone by. In the 1940s, the Nazis and the Japanese were the bad guys. In the 1960s, Marvel’s super-villains routinely hailed from Communist countries; remember Crimson Dynamo, the Gremlin, the Red Ghost, the Mandarin, Radioactive Man? But today, the enemies are to be found within. The heroes are the warmongers, the ones committing the transgressions. In Civil War, Tony Stark championed legislation that favored public safety over individual liberties. In World War Hulk, a perceived threat justifiably retaliates against supposed “heroes” who declared war against him.

In the Sinestro Corps Special, while the Green Lanterns remain a respected organization of peacemakers with a strict code, they face an assault from a new superpower that believes that the key to maintaining order is to instill fear rather than to inspire confidence. And that new superpower, that invading force corrupts one of the heroes’ most important soldiers, a symbol of good and a vision of the future.

These examples demonstrate where creators’ heads are at the moment and perhaps where the readers stand philosophically as well. Pop culture and creative forces reflect society, after all. That is one of their roles, as it always has been and always should be. Western soldiers have been dispatched to Iraq and Afghanistan, but in the comics, the wars are at home for the United States. And despite the presence of those U.S. soldiers overseas, there are ideological wars at home as well.

I admit, my examples here and the comics history presented are oversimplifications. I’m writing an editorial, not a dissertation. These issues merit discussion, and it would seem super-hero comic writers and publishers agree, as they present visions of art imitating strife.

8 Responses to “Our Worlds at War”

  1. Lou S. Says:

    We’ve talked about this before, Don, but I still do not see what “civil liberties” were infringed in Civil War. I understand that was the point, but it seems that we have a very broad definition of civil liberties these days. As an attorney, I’m very much concerned that the press and the public talk about “civil liberties” and “rights” in increasingly ill-defined terms and that it harshens the political discourse in this country.

    The federal and state governments certainly have limited powers, but undeniably, the federal government has the power (through the commerce clause and possible through executive powers) to regulate dangerous activities. There are any of a number of federal gun laws, racketeering laws, and white collar crime laws that serve as examples. While there are disputes at the margins, this is pretty well established.

    States have police powers to protect the safety and welfare of their people. Moreover, they have the power to license and sanction all kinds of professions. As an attorney, I report to a state bar. My aunt is a hairdresser, and she has to be licensed by the state. Again, no one seriously argues that civil liberties are infringed here.

    It was pretty clear from the beginning of Civil War that superpowered individuals could choose to hang up their tights and call it a day if they wanted. Firestar did that, no? But if they wanted to continue engaging in vigilante-type activity, they had to register with the government, get trained, and submit to a government authority. Which, as it turns out, is pretty much equivalent to what both my aunt and I had to do.

    I understand the anti-regs may have had problems with the people in charge, with how Stark acted, etc., and he may have acted improperly. But that’s really not my point. People throw around “violation of civil liberties” and its a code word for criminal behavior, an almost shorthand for villainy, and I think its pretty clear that there weren’t any violations of “liberties” or “rights” here.

  2. HipHopHead Says:

    The “Civil Liberties” that were infringed upon in Civil War and will eventually be infringed upon us: having to register (maybe it has already happened, selective service anyone).

    As with past totalitarian regimes, we will be required to carry our “papers” to justify our right to walk the street.

    The question one must ask; “Is it necessary in this country?” If the answer is yes, then are we truly FREE?

  3. Stephen Says:

    >>It was pretty clear from the beginning of Civil War that superpowered individuals could choose to hang up their tights and call it a day if they wanted. Firestar did that, no? But if they wanted to continue engaging in vigilante-type activity, they had to register with the government, get trained, and submit to a government authority. Which, as it turns out, is pretty much equivalent to what both my aunt and I had to do.

    Is this still true?

    I think that’s the way the Registration Act started out but somewhere along the way it became the equivalent to a draft. Now it’s no longer enough to say, if you have superpowers and don’t want to register, you can stop being a vigilante. Now, everyone with powers has to register with the government, be trained in their use, and work on government-approved missions as needed – those who disobey the law are sent to a Guantanamo-style prison where it is unclear whether their rights to legal representation and a fair and speedy trial (e.g., habeus corpus) are being honored.

    In other words, the government is exercising overweening power against an entire class of individuals and putting limits on individual liberty all in the name of national security.

    I’m not saying that a good argument can’t be made for registering people with superpowers, training them, and holding them accountable for their actions. After all, in the real world, we don’t let just anyone practice law or medicine. They have to be trained and accredited by professional organizations and be held accountable in cases of malpractice. But what’s happening in the MU seems to go beyond that. It would be the equivalent of telling a private citizen who happened to be well-versed in the law that they had to register with the government or face going to jail, even if they never intended on using their legal knowledge to practice the law.

  4. Don MacPherson Says:

    Lou wrote:
    We’ve talked about this before, Don, but I still do not see what “civil liberties” were infringed in Civil War. I understand that was the point, but it seems that we have a very broad definition of civil liberties these days. … It was pretty clear from the beginning of Civil War that superpowered individuals could choose to hang up their tights and call it a day if they wanted. Firestar did that, no?

    Though the premise varied from crossover issue to crossover issue, it was my understanding that anyone with metahuman powers was required to register and serve as a government agent. We’re not just talking about regulation of a “profession” or anything. We’re talking about taking away people’s choices.

    Analogy: let’s say the government commissions a study that shows that high-school quarterbacks make for ideal police officers, so the government issues a decree: anyone who is or has been a quarterback must sign up for police academies. Sounds like an infringement of rights to me.

  5. Lou S. Says:

    If that’s what’s going on Don, then I would agree with you. I haven’t read Slott’s Initiative, although I have all the issues.

    I will say though, that if you read the Civil War series and Frontline only, there was a different situation described. If a superpowered human wanted to retire, s/he was left alone.

    Maybe that’s changed since then. Although I wonder if it has changed because writers/editors are lazy, and want a clear-cut antagonist.

  6. Mark Engblom Says:

    “Pop culture and creative forces reflect society, after all. “

    Select portions of it, actually. Certainly not all of it, or even most of it.

  7. JohnnyZito Says:

    I think that was the “slippery slope” that Civil War was trying to get at.

    Today you’re being asked to register if you’re gonna be a hero. Tomorrow you HAVE TO register cause you have a power. Next thing you know the gov’t gets to tell you what to do with your power.

    I don’t think that anyone who’s seen the bureaucracy and pettiness of the gov’t think we’d be safer if they some-how had all our names and information on file.

  8. Comics Should Be Good! » Comic Book Cheers and Jeers for 7/11 Says:

    […] A late CHEERS to Don MacPherson, for this interesting look at superheroes and war that he wrote for the Fourth of July. […]