Wednesday, January 10, 2007

More comics! To heal the rift!

It was a rainy day here in Palo Alto, and we wandered into the Android's Dungeon looking to be amused. As a result, we walked out with a small batch of comics bought with our own ducats, not borrowed from Elmo or filched from my arch-nemesis Pepito.

A winning batch of comics! On the strength of its Civil War tie-in cred alone, I stooped to buying an ... ick ... Punisher title: 'Punisher War Journal.' And boy! Am I glad I did! The luminous scripting by Matt Fraction and the incredible artwork by Ariel Olivetti, the combination, is just stunning (stunning enough to insure that I go back and buy the first issue of 'Punisher War Journal' and every subsequent one that features this pair) but also perfectly distinct: at no point did I feel like I was reading any other comic on the market.

The plot of course revolves around where the Punisher fits in with the overall Civil War storyline - specifically, whether or not Captain America can trust the most notorious and ruthless vigilante in the Marvel Universe.

The best thing about Fraction's writing is that he can write dialogue for these two men - the polar opposites of the Marvel Universe - in which both are completely in character.

My favorite part of the issue was the way Fraction consistently portrays a Frank Castle who knows that Captain America is every bit as tough and brave as he is, but who's somehow managed to hold on to all the higher intangibles he himself believes he can't afford.

I have only one question about the issue, one point I liked but didn't derive. At one point, a gigantic retired S.H.I.E.L.D. agent says something to himself as a kind of private mantra: "Whatever he commands along the way ... we must without recalcitrance obey." I confess, I can't place the quotation - I wonder even if Fraction invented it. It has the ring of dependency-prose, but I kind of like it nonetheless: any of you out there recognize it?

The second issue we bought on that rainy afternoon was the latest issue of Spider-Man, with wonderful scripting by J. Michael Straczynski and fantastic artwork by Ron Garney (he gets better and better with every issue, but he's not at all right for Spider-Man ... but I can't quite figure out where he WOULD be perfect - any thoughts? Not a team book, certainly, but still ... the perfect match eludes me...).

The centerpiece of this issue is the rooftop heart-to-heart between Captain America and Spider-Man. Naturally, having defected from the government's fold, Spider-Man is looking for some consolation from the man running the opposition. Cue a standard-issue Captain America set-piece, but despite Spider-Man's wonderfully delineated awestruck reaction ("Can I, like, carry your book to school? For the rest of my life?"), this is like no Captain America set-piece ever written.

He recalls a passage from Mark Twain, about what constitutes 'the country' - it's a long passage, and I couldn't help but be grateful for its quotation, since, for very different reasons, I've always treasured it too (it was the favorite of a friend of mine, a long time ago). It's a call for individual responsibility, and it ends with this:

"If you alone of all the nation shall decide one way, and that way be the right way according to your convictions of the right, you have done your duty by yourself and by your country. Hold up your head, you have nothing to be ashamed of."

Cap finishes and then adds this on his own: "Doesn't matter what the press says, doesn't matter what the politicians or the mob say. Doesn't matter if the whole country decides that something wrong is something right. When the mob and the press and the whole world tell you to move, your job is to plant yourself like a tree beside the river of truth, and tell the whole world ... no, you move."

This is something new, a Captain America who basically equates politicians with the mob, a Captain America who disavows duty to elected officials, presumably including the President, a Captain America, in other words, who no longer espouses patriotism in any of the ways it's been previously understood.

I submit that this is a Captain America set-piece specifically tailored for the age of W.

This isn't just a speech Captain America gives when Reed Richards and Iron Man are spearheading a Registration Act with which he disagrees - this is a speech Captain America makes when his writers feel their own participation in the democracy of their birth has been violated - violated not by the other guys being in power, darn them, not by lawful legislation with which they whole-heartedly disagree, but ... well, by EVIL being done in their name.

I'm not completely sure that isn't what the entire Civil War storyline is and has always been about: the particular tension felt by all thinking Americans living under the unelected rule of a crude, stupid man who maintains without irony that he receives governmental instructions from God. The country awoke one morning and found that the Supreme Court had awarded the presidency to this man (by a majority composed entirely of justices who owed their appointments to Republicans), and ever since there's been a schism, a rent in the psyche of the country.

Certainly the ur-text of this little theory of mine would have to be the Civil War mini-series itself, and the latest issue is a textbook case.

My twitchy, hyper-intelligent young friend Elmo scalded this issue, saying he's eager for the NEXT issue so the whole thing can be over and we can wait ten years for 'some smart writer to undo it all,' and I can see his point of view.

Because this is more and more looking like a mistake, this entire plotline. And it's a mistake because it can't GO anywhere good. That wouldn't be a problem in a novel - novels thrive on such plotlines - but comics are all about GOING somewhere ... the Avengers, the Fantastic Four, these aren't limited mini-series featuring new characters.

You can see the incredible appeal of the initial idea. Super-heroes fight super-villains in downtown Manhattan, doing massive amounts of property damage before the heroes win - what if the government decided to crack down on the whole business? Demand that super-heroes register, etc? (that step right there is where W. comes in - that the government would force you to register, and that it would incarcerate you if you refused AND say it was because you weren't being patriotic ... ). Easily understandable that a bunch of writers would think the idea had enormous potential and want to leap at it.

But this is starting to look like a story that shouldn't have been told. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby knew that such stories existed, of course: they flirted with the mother of 'em all - what if our heroes are faced with a foe who's simply too powerful for them to beat? Stan and Jack did it with Galactus and treated us to three issues of the Fantastic Four getting protractedly, indisputably beat.

But then they hauled out the Ultimate Nullifier (if ever a plot device were more aptly named...), a thingamagig even Galactus feared, and he packed his bags and left town.

Back then, we all concentrated on how NEATO the concept of an 'ultimate nullifier' was - but today's comic audience rightfully demands more. Any variation of a deus ex machina for this Civil War storyline will, I think, be met with pitchforks and torches.

For the longest time, I assumed the ultimate nullifier in this case would be Doctor Strange. But there he is in this latest issue, vowing (to his close personal friend the Watcher - when did THAT happen?) to stay above it all. The only other possibility for a solution (because the storyline obviously NEEDS a solution, not a conclusion - the Marvel universe can't go on if half its heroes, including Captain America, are hunted fugitives) that's arisen so far is in the latest issue of 'Frontline,' where ace reporter Ben Urich says he's figured out the 'real reason' for the Civil War. We'll see what that turns out to be.

In the meantime, those of us who DO expect more complexity from our comic-stories will have to cross our fingers that in a month's time we don't encounter a dream, a hoax, or an imaginary story ...


Jeff E. said...

The quote you mention was written by the 12th century Persian poet Farid ud-Din Attar. It's from "The Conference of the Birds".

They heard the tale; the birds were all on fire
To quit the hindrance of the Self; desire
To gain the Simorgh had convulsed each heart;
Love made them clamour for the journey’s start.
They set out on the Way, a noble deed!
Hardly had they begun when they agreed
To call a halt: “A leader’s what we need,”
They said, “one who can bind and loose, one who
Will guide our self-conceit to what is true;
We need a judge of rare ability
To lead us over danger’s spacious sea;
Whatever he commands along the Way,
We must, without recalcitrance, obey,
Until we leave this plain of sin and pride
And gain Kaf’s distant peak. There we shall hide,
A mote lost in the sun; the Simorgh’s shade
Will cover those who travelled and obeyed.

Kevin Caron said...

Good get, Jeff! I came up empty.

Glad you enjoyed your brave foray into the murky waters of Punisher purchasing - I myself have enjoyed one (and only one) Punisher arc, and that was the first few issues of Punisher War Zone, by Dixon, Romita Jr., and Janson, from back in the 90's. Ariel Olivetti is pretty talented - he's promoted by Marvel as one of their "Young Guns", even though he turns 40 this year, and broke in over 10 years ago (maybe there's hope for me yet!).

As for Ron Garney, I haven't read any of his Spider-Man stuff, but that seems like it should be a great fit! His stuff even has a slight hint of the Frenz/Rubenstein work of yester-year (not that that's my favorite run or anything). I can't imagine what book would be a better match (He's had runs on quite a few, over the last few years...)

Can't wait 'til Civil War's Ultimate Nullifier arrives - maybe then I'll buy more than two Marvel books.

steve said...

I could kick myself about Ron Garney - of course I forgot his blink-and-you-miss-it stint on Captain America, which was just top-notch wonderful ...

Elmo said...

We may be able to predict how Civil War will end by realizing where it came from: the JSA scenes occuring in the 50's, and the Phantom Zone. DC never let these devices overshadow the characters, but Marvel clearly believes they should. What DC story will they feel up and make filthy in a drawn out, "adult" storyline? The KIngdom Come gulag, perhaps? The answers, like the questions, are out there already, in better comics.

Gianni said...

I hope you're right about the solution coming. I'd hate to see for an extended period a Fantastic Four manned by She-Hulk and Hawkeye, and it would be a shame to see the New Avengers dismantled so soon after getting started. All I know, though, is there had better not be some stupid reason behind it all, such as mind control, or a kree (or skrull) infiltration. That's pretty much been done to death.... And where the heck is Thor??

locke said...

>I'm not completely sure that isn't what the entire Civil War storyline is and has always been about: the particular tension felt by all thinking Americans living under the unelected rule of a crude, stupid man who maintains without irony that he receives governmental instructions from God."

at the risk of being a smug prick (oops, too late!), allow me to add, "ya THINK?!?!"

("ya THINK" being the 21st century version of the now outdated retro "well DUH!")

of course, that's EXACTLY what Civil War was all about -- I don't keep up with the funny books trade papers anymore, so I don't know much of the "inside scoop/hype", but i seem to recall that Marvel hype managment was SAYING that the whole Civil War notion arose from an "even" philosophical split between two halves of the writers' meeting (since there is no longer anything like a Marvel Bullpen of artists and writers -- just editors and assistants, and from what I can tell, they don't actually DO anything-- they all jet in a couple times a year for an editorial pow-wow). Jumping off from the past few years of American "cultural wars" and the simmering wet dream of a new red state/blue state "civil war", supposedly, half the writers theoretically agreed with Cap's side, the other half agreed with Stark and Richards. I don't by that for a second, especially given how the actual "epic" story has played out -- clearly there is NO sympathy or editorial balance on Stark's side -- nor SHOULD there be, but I'm just saying that for Marvel to try to preserve some fairy tale about how Civil War is a balanced look at both sides of the argument (the argument being "what America do we live in, and what America do we WANT to live in) is pretty silly. In fact, what I LIKE about Civil War is that Marvel said it set out to show both sides, but in the end they (the writers) ended up saying "you know, honestly, when you break it all down, there is NO reason any sane American would side with Stark and Richards". It's a nice little bait and switch.

Though I would be curious to see what the political demographic of comic book readers is, other than "overweight, single men in their '40s" -- are they overwhelmingly liberal? it seems to me that certain strains of cultural conservatism (namely warmongering and xenophobia) arise from the adolescent power fantasies (hello, Conan!) born out of impotence (and trust me, I say this as a single guy in his early '40s who has spent a lot of his life mentally wallowing in adolescent power fantasies).

Oops, back on politics... damnit!

Elmo said...

I actually wouldn't mind a Fantastic Four made up of FOUR Hawkeyes- each with different a hairstyle and belt buckle- phew, is the AC on?