Sunday, June 15, 2014

Civil War: Front Line (1-6)

For years, I had decided Marvel was not for me.  I just couldn’t get into the ensemble antics of the Avengers (aside from Marvel 1602, a rare exception).  Then recently, having been pushed, I started reading Marvel titles that I enjoyed (Daredevil, She-Hulk), which led to Civil War.  And it seems I may have to eat all my words.  I loved the first volume of Civil War.  The premise is far more arresting and compelling than Avengers vs X-Men, although in some ways built along a similar divide in opinion.  Civil War is about civil liberties, as I said in my She-Hulk review, and invites us to put ourselves in the position of Marvel’s superheroes.  In the wake of a superhero reality show gone bad which results in the deaths of hundreds of innocent people, superheroes are being vilified.  In an attempt to redeem the situation, some superheroes—principally Iron Man—are endorsing a registration act.  The opponents of the act—led by a mostly-absent Captain America—decry the fact that by registering, their identities become known, which can lead to the vulnerabilities of their families.  This is lovely stuff; this is what good literature is supposed to do, interrogate the human condition.  

There are many things to love in Civil War.  I don’t know how central to the plot they are at other times, but the fact that Civil War makes journalists Ben (of Jonah Jameson’s Daily Bugle, and therefore slightly more cautious, conservative) and Sally (of the more militant The Alternative) two of the most important characters is vastly in its favor.  Ben Urich and Sally Floyd can debate the intricacies of political theory and government—“All of a sudden,” Sally says on page 5, “journalism was going to take a backseat to jingoism, and the fight for a nation’s sentiment would be on”—while at the same time being more than mere mouthpieces:  I believe in them as characters.  Their ups and downs are at least as interesting as any of the superhero stuff.    (Sally’s encounter with Spider-Man—though why is he wearing that weird costume?—was vastly amusing—“Spider-Man was inside my apartment for three minutes and I just about jumped inside his spandex.”)  I admire their courage, especially Sally’s as she mouths off to a S.H.I.E.L.D/NSA agent and then gets arrested,
There’s also Speedball, a character of whom I had never heard before, one of the New Avengers whose storyline strikes me as particularly bold, with shades of a slightly sanitized version of Vertigo’s Scalped.  I find it very difficult not to admire the character’s uncompromising political stance on refusing to register, despite the fact this sends him to prison, makes him the scapegoat of the nation, loses him the support of his parents, and—having somehow lost his powers—causes him to go through a great deal of physical as well as psychological pain.  I love an underdog, and I love this guy Speedball. His lawyer is She-Hulk, who begins to look a lot less gutsy than she did in her own title, compared to him.  His confrontation with Reed Richards is also classic.  I was really impressed with this character’s arc and am anxious to find out what happens to him.

“War Correspondence” is an interesting experiment, bringing the struggles of the present day superheroes of varying stripes against the backdrop of (mostly American) historical precedents in the form of poetry, begun, audaciously enough, with the Japanese internment camps of WWII.  These are opportunities for beautiful art (and of course I applaud the use of poetry—Billy Joel counts as poetry ;-)) but fall in to the law of diminishing returns.  (The fact that there isn’t a story to do with the American Revolution—which, in my opinion, is the conflict most related to the questions of individual freedom vs the safety of society which make up Civil War—suggests it’s coming up in the next volume?) 
I may be one of the few people in the world to say this, but I haven’t seen any of the Iron Man movies.  Yet I am convinced, by Civil War if not other sources, that I don’t much like him.  (I would say Tony Stark seems like one of the ideologically right wing of superheroes, and yet I love Batman, who you could argue has a rather conservative agenda being from the socially elite and maintaining his cover as Bruce Wayne.)  He claims to be conflicted about the way his allies in S.H.I.EL.D go after the superheroes who refuse to register, but I find it difficult to believe.  On the other hand, Spider-Man decides to unmask himself (though the event itself must be covered in the relevant Spider-Man title; I wouldn’t mind reading more about his reasons).  There’s an appearance from the Green Goblin (who looks rather like Peter Capaldi for some reason) and an intriguing sleeper agent. Wonder Man fulfils the role of unwilling stooge, entering the scene with one of the most amusing fake-outs ever (“Who writes this crap?”).    

I don’t know how Civil War Front Line went down when it came out, but I was quite impressed overall at its relevance and audacity.  With Speedball, about to be interned in an “undisclosed” location, muttering, “ . . . God, where am I?  Am I even in America?”, it is refreshingly un-patriotic and would, I hope, engender debate.   It goes without saying that the art is quite strong, holding its own against what are sometimes very wordy panels (my favorite is Steve Lieber’s art for “The Accused”).  Furthermore, all the writing here is from the brain of Paul Jenkins, so my hat’s off to him. 

Birds of Prey: Between Dark and Dawn

I remembered having read part of Birds of Prey before, and as I did on that occasion, I thought I’d give the stories a try, given they were written by Gail Simone.  I should have re-read my review of Brightest Day:  End Run first, because that would have prepared me to be less disappointed.  Between Dark & Dawn was okay, but nothing special.  The main plot concerns Huntress (who goes undercover and thus I see her out of costume for the first time) and Vixen, a Black African minister’s daughter who somehow channels animal powers (really?!) attempting to foil a cult.  Granted, the whole cult thing is handled better than I thought it would be, but I’ve certainly seen this done better (in Can’t Get You Out of My Mind, incidentally).  Barbara Gordon/Oracle gets some interesting moments out of the wheelchair in cyberspace.  “Unravelled” starts off very enjoyably with Huntress and Black Canary crashing a supervillains’ henchmen’s union event, but veers off into territory of which I have little understanding/sympathy (Black Canary’s “revenge” on Savant doesn’t have enough emotional underpinning that I can understand).  “There Would Be No Spring” is potentially enjoyable and interesting as it channels a sort of B:tAS aesthetic, as its heroine hails from the 1940s (quite how she is still young in present-day is a mystery to me, also). There are no complaints about the art—by Ed Benes, Ron Adrian, Jim Fern, Eduardo Barreto, Eric Battle, Rob Lea, Steve Bird, Andrew Pepoy, and Rooney Ramos—from me, aside from the usual disbelief at the size of the women’s bosoms.  Between Dark & Dawn just feels kind of “eh.”   I wonder if the first issues of Birds of Prey are better?