Probably the biggest commercial success — in terms of risk, ambition and presentations — in the world of comics in 2006 had to be the Top Shelf Productions release of its hardcover, slipcase-edition of Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie’s Lost Girls. But in terms of satisfying retailers and the super-hero genre fanbase of the direct-market industry, Marvel’s Civil War probably reigned supreme, racking up strong sales and boosting sales of the publisher’s other ongoing titles significantly with crossover issues. However, Civil War has been plagued with problems over the past few months. At first, what bothered people, and especially retailers, were the repeatedly delays in its publishing schedule, which impacted some of the publisher’s strongest selling ongoing series. By the midway point of the event, though, complaints about those delays were eclipsed by another concern: inconsistent storytelling. Events in the Civil War limited series conflicted with information presented in key tie-in stories, and many feel that two of the most prominent players in the drama — Reed Richards and Iron Man — aren’t behaving in a manner that’s consistent with their personalities and history.
But there’s good news. There is a super-hero civil war that avoided many of the same pitfalls. There’s a story, released in the same timeframe as Civil War, that didn’t require crossovers, that didn’t require massive change and didn’t alter classic characters in implausible ways. In other words, DC did it better; you just didn’t realize it.
Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters, an eight-issue series penned by Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray, features battles between government-sponsored super-heroes with questionable morals and colorful outlaws fighting for the ideals and rights that serve as the true foundation of America. It features plotlines about questionable government registration legislation that undermines individual rights while promising greater national security. Many of the core members of the outlaw (and ethically centered) team of heroes started out as symbols of the establishment. There’s even a traitor among them, and they’re led by more than just a super-hero, but a living, breathing symbol of America itself.
Sound familiar? Yes, DC’s Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters bears a number of traits in common with Marvel’s Civil War, but it boasts a number of differences as well. And those differences are what sets it apart as a superior story. It’s been released on a regular schedule, with only about a month between issues. And this was still possible even though a hot, new industry talent — Daniel Acuna, in this case — is illustrating all eight issues.
Don’t construe my comments about Civil War‘s chronic lateness as a condemnation of the creators involved in the core series. I don’t think writer Mark Millar and penciller Steve McNiven should be held responsible for poor planning higher up in Marvel. McNiven has done enough work for the publisher so editors and executives should know that a monthly schedule wasn’t feasible. It appears that the Powers That Be at DC seem to have given Acuna the time he needs to complete an entire series while maintaining a monthly schedule. But forget the timing. It won’t matter once both stories are released in collected editions.
When Marvel was initially promoting Civil War, it argued that the two polarized groups of super-heroes each had a valid point of view about the Superhuman Registration Act. The plotting was clearly designed to mirror the division in opinion in America about security versus personal freedoms in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. As the story has progressed, it’s become clear that those defending privacy and individual rights are on the side of the angels. Heroic figures are suddenly behaving in villainous ways, compromising what’s right for what’s safe.
That’s not the case with the Freedom Fighters and their story. Though initially the core team worked for a corrupt government, the conflict arose when the actual heroes cast off the goal of security and safety for defence of ideals. From the start, the good guys are clearly defined. The bad guys aren’t people who are compromising their own ideals, but those who manipulate the ideals and emotions of others to achieve their own ends. The evil President of the United States, put into place by the head of the corrupt director of a government agency, is literally a puppet, an automaton that hides its malevolence behind smiles and soundbites.
America is under political siege, and the best known heroes are powerless to stop what’s happening, but there’s no special cover design for other titles. The characters aren’t showing up in Action Comics or Teen Titans. America is subject to a coup, and super-heroes engage in public battles to determine the outcome. But it quietly unfolds in this limited series and nowhere else. Writers Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray, as well as DC’s editors, both acknowledge continuity and refuse to allow it to hinder the story. This happens in the DC Universe, but it’s not the only thing that happens or has happened. Yes, the story has its origins in Infinite Crisis and Crisis Aftermath: The Battle for Bludhaven, but one needn’t have read those stories in order to appreciate the action in USATFF.
In Civil War, we’ve seen familiar characters in unfamiliar roles. Captain America, instead of representing the establishment, fights against it. Reed Richards essentially becomes Doctor Doom, in that he is willing to do anything to achieve an orderly world he can control. A version of Thor kills a hero. Iron Man batters a friend bloody. The real world taints the heroes, these icons.
DC’s story focuses on obscure characters (and new incarnations of obscure characters), so we’re not really dealing with that many icons. Initially, the newer Freedom Fighters are representative of modern super-heroes… darker, more intense incarnations of characters that started out as simple, classic and fun. Converse to what’s happened in Marvel’s world, these characters end up taking on softer personalities. They let inspiration, morality and love guide them to new lives.
Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters makes the concept of a new version of the Red Bee seem cool. “The Red Bee” and “cool” are not terms that have appeared in a sentence together without some kind of negative qualifier. Marvel can’t make the same claim about Clor. And yes, these new Freedom Fighters seem to appear from out of nowhere. They appear only because the properties have been associated with the Freedom Fighters in the past, perhaps only in passing. But in addition to the political commentary that’s thinly disguised as a super-hero story, Palmiotti and Gray (and presumably Grant Morrison, who provided notes that serve as the foundation of the series) have ensured that tradition and nostalgia are integral parts of the book as well.
But it’s about more than nostalgic looks back at the history of comics and the cheesy but enjoyable heroes of yesteryear. Uncle Sam and his compatriots, who acknowledge they’re carrying on heroic traditions, also represent lost ideals in America. They harken back to a time when Americans were told there was nothing to fear but fear itself, and they’ve been supplanted into an era in which politicians use “fear itself” to herd the electorate rather than to lead them.