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.