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Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Greatest Super-hero Story Ever Told, Part 1

I am not a Marvel Comics reader. In my tender youth in the early nineties, I enjoyed Spider-man, and even Ghost Rider, but I liked Batman better than either of them. In fact, just about the only Marvel creations I can stand these days are the Great Lakes Avengers/X-Men/Champions, an admission that will surely result in the revocation of my geek license.

Part of the reason for my Marvel antipathy has to do with Civil War, and how it made villains of heroes, while suggesting that there are only two courses in life: anarchy or government control. But since I was never a Marvel reader before Civil War, I can't blame the story-line alone for my avoidance of the Marvel Method. No, I am a DC man, through and through - Blue Beetle, Booster Gold, Batman, Metal Men, and even the detritus at the bottom of the DCU lake, Crime Bible, are my literature of choice when I head on down to the trusty neighbourhoode comick shoppe. And I think that's because DC has adopted the editorial philosophy of asking the big questions about what the consequences of super-heroes would be in real life, with titles like Watchmen. Although Marvel was the first to put their heroes into the "real world," their method was to give them problems and angst - to make them people. DC took the characters and made them into gods. DC asked "what would be the impact of super-heroes on the world at large? What would need to be different to make super-heroes a possibility?" I don't know how much of this paragraph makes sense, but my point is that DC made super-heroes philosophically fascinating, rather than topically relevant.

I must concede, however, and honor Marvel Comics with the award for the Greatest Super-hero Story Ever Published. That story is the second tale in December 2007's What If: Civil War.

If you're unfamiliar with the mechanics of the What If series, let me break it down for you: What If is published approximately "whenever the hell Joe Quesada needs to reassert his power to make his whims reality," and revisits crucial, and often cataclysmic, events in the history of the Marvel Universe. These events are re-imagined with different initial circumstances, occurrences, or outcomes, and the result is usually explored. Some of them don't turn out so well. This one turned out half-well.

What If: Civil War contains two stories, as shown to Tony Stark by the mysterious Stranger. The first is rather inconsequential, and includes artwork of this caliber:

So you'll understand why I think it's best if we just skipped ahead to the good bits: the aforementioned Greatest Super-hero Story Ever Told.

Written by Christos Gage (who, in an unpublished post for this blog, concerning Union Jack: London Falling, I mistakenly berated for being the creative genius behind the script for Teenage Caveman), and featuring art by Harvey "thank-god-it's-not-the-same-guy-who-did-the-first-story" Talibao, "What If Iron Man Lost the Civil War?" doesn't really deal with Iron Man losing so much as it... well, you'll see.

Our story begins at a critical impasse - Captain America faces a choice: does he attack Tony Stark as his enemy, or does he listen to what Stark has to say? In this possible future, Tony Stark sincerely asks Cap for his help, and that's enough to convince Steve Rogers to call a temporary truce.

And then some trigger-happy bureaucrat notices the concealed weapon that Captain America's packing, and prematurely releases the Thor clone.

In the ensuing battle, Tony Stark proves his sincerity by coming between Faux-Thor and a lightning bolt meant for Goliath. Captain America and Iron Man realize that they're both fighting the same thing - not just a giant, blond-haired, dreamy he-man, but also the universe's many threats to humanity's safety.

Iron Man knows that superheroes need to be held responsible for the damage that they inadvertently cause. In this universe, he's able to articulate this reasonable, and clearly - not like the dick that exists in our current universe. And Captain America understands where he's coming from - after all, it was this collateral damage that motivated Captain America to surrender in the real Marvel Universe. Super-humans are motivated to go around fighting criminals, but the power to do something doesn't make one qualified to do something. And it is here that history is forever changed - or, er, it would be if this was the real universe.

Iron Man and Captain America join forces to create the Avengers' equivalent of the ESRB! An industry standard for superheroes, overseen by Captain America!

Iron Man is a hero again! Captain America isn't dead!

But the best line? This one:

Young superhumans were trained by their elders; taught both tactics and responsibility; serving only by choice, their identities protected.
The government is not a quasi-fascistic slave-driver, drafting the extraordinary to fight against their will! Free will and individual rights are once again championed within the pages of a comic book! I'm so excited, I've worn out my exclamation-mark key!

So, why is this the best super-hero story ever written? Well, that's a question I'm going to have to answer tomorrow night, because things may get heady. Things may get philosophical. And things need to be mulled over to make sure they're clear. Stay tuned, true believers!

Oooh! And I almost forgot: BUY THIS BOOK, EVERYBODY. Show the Mighty Marvel Bean-Counters that this is how super-heroes settle their disagreements; show Mr. Quesada that super-heroes don't have to be stupid louts punching each other to get the job done, but that freedom, and the individual spirit, and the qualities of Captain America can be present in all heroes. Show them that you want Cap and Iron Man to be buddies again - and alive, too, I guess.
And tell them to give Christos Gage a raise. And an assistant.

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