Saturday, September 23, 2006

The Real Casualty of Marvel's Civil War, or Death in Comics Part III

The fourth installment of Marvel's Civil War shipped this week. Whoop de doo. Does it seem strange that I, someone who has so enthusiastically supported this book since day one (when it clearly doesn't need my endorsement to sell like hotcakes) should be so turned off at the rather critical halfway point of the story? I shall explain.

Steve McNiven is still brilliant, and has now conclusively snapped up the title of comic artist of the new millenium from Jim Lee, who for some reason cannot get more than three issues out in a single year. Mark Millar's script, except for the parts I will discuss, is still a crisp, gripping read.

So what's my problem?

(Spoiler alert)

I can name two.

First of all, the death of Goliath, which was clearly written to be some kind of emotional turning point for all of the characters involved, came across as a cheap stunt. This is a genuine shame, because it was actually rather well-written. The problem was that, because Civil War is an "event" book, Marvel's marketing arm had to trumpet the killing of one of the characters involved months before the book even came out. As a direct result, probably every self-respecting comic fan knew that Goliath would be the one to get offed. Hell, they probably would have known even without the announcement, but by screaming in all the press releases that they would be killing someone, Marvel practically turned the poor guy into a dead man walking for the first three issues.

Killing B-List characters can be done well, and by well I mean with real emotional impact. Four years ago, Brian Michael Bendis brought a b-list character named the White Tiger out of obscurity. On trial for a murder he did not commit, he turned to Matt Murdock, Daredevil's alter ego, for help. Bendis had spent an entire year messing with Daredevil, and as a result this storyline seemed like a way to finally make things better for him. Unfortunately, Matt and the White Tiger lost the case, and unwilling to go to jail the White Tiger ran out of the courtroom brandishing the bailiff's gun, only to be gunned down on the courthouse steps. And life got a whole lot worse for Matt after that.

THAT is a sterling example of how the death of a b-list character can be used to stunning effect. Nobody saw it coming, in that case. There was no reason to believe Bendis (who was relatively new to Marvel back then) would kill off a character in so tragic, so brutal a fashion. They usually die fighting supervillains, don't they? Marvel should have followed THAT template in killing off Goliath, meaning, they should have really just kept their mouths shut about it, and let the story just play out properly.

But Goliath's violent demise notwithstanding, the REAL casualty of Civil War is Reed Richards, also known as Mr. Fantastic, leader of the Fantastic Four. I have never, in my twenty-odd years of reading Marvel Comics, seen a flagship character so callously scripted.

To the people who say Iron Man is getting the short shrift in this story, being depicted as a villain, I say bullshit. Tony has been given generous helpings of self-doubt and rational thought since issue #1, conspiracy theories of some idiot pro-registration fanboys notwithstanding. Even Hank Pym, both here and in an issue of New Avengers, was shown to be sympathetic character, which is a shift for Millar considering what a schmuck Pym is in the pages of Ultimates.

But Reed, both here and in the pages of Spider-Man and Fantastic Four is written as one stone-cold son of a bitch. Johnny Storm, his brother-in-law gets beaten up and fucking hospitalized, and instead of even visiting him, he burns the midnight oil figuring how to imprison Captain America and other superheroes? He clones Thor, who kills another superhero, and at the funeral of that superhero, where everyone else is beside themselves with grief that things have gone so wrong, all he can think about is how "suspiciously" Peter Parker is acting? His WIFE, the mother of his CHILDREN, leaves him because of how tunnel-visioned he's become over this whole thing, and scarcely a page later, apparently none the worse for wear, he's assembling a team of mother fucking SUPERVILLAINS to hunt down the anti-registration team? WHAT THE FUCK KIND OF WRITING IS THIS? THIS IS JUST AS BAD AS WONDER WOMAN SNAPPING SOMEONE'S NECK!

Why is editorial removing every trace of humanity from one of its most cherished heroes? Are we going to have some explanation later on that he was being mind-controlled by Doctor Doom or something? Granted, Reed ruled over Latveria with an iron fist three or so years ago, but that was after Doom had put his family through hell (literally) and scarred him horribly. The guy was pissed. So is Marvel saying that Reed regards Captain America and the other anti-reg superheroes the same way he does his arch-nemesis?

Probably the single biggest sign that Marvel is staunchly anti-registration is the way they have completely hollowed out Reed Richard's character and replaced him with someone else altogether. This is not Reed, the family man. This is not the Reed who has saved the universe countless times from Galactus and the Skrulls and countless other menaces. This Reed is cold, calculating and, truth be told, rather poorly motivated. At least we've been given glimpses into Tony's head. What possible excuse do they plan to give us for Reed's behavior. For God's sake, not even Sue's leaving him is enough to snap him out of whatever's possessing him!

I truly hope that this character assassination (and I mean that in the worst possible way) isn't just some contrivance to buttress Marvel's "families ripped apart" thesis. America is divided already; we get it. I just hope they realize at some point that Reed is simply behaving out of character here, and that they rectify this situation.

Or he might as well be dead.