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"I want a new war."
-Col. Nick Fury from Fury #1,
on comic stands September 10, 2001


The New Resurgence of War

The move towards comic book narratives of what writer Brian Michael Bendis would call “costumed soldiers" had its antecedent – a response to George W. Bush’s presidency – in the election of amoral Lex Luthor and 2001’s Our Worlds at War; this chronicled a cosmic conflict between an alien entity named Imperiex coming to destroy Earth, refuge extraterrestrials, and the allied planet Apokalips, all of which forced Superman and President Luthor, strange bedfellows, to work together.

Largely serving as a response to the misgivings and literal vilifying of Bush, Our Worlds at War attempted to depict the realistic horrors of war albeit through fantastic characters. This event met with only moderate success and was widely panned, though its concluding issues coincidentally corresponded with the September 11, 2001 attacks.

Following both Our Worlds at War and the new national tone, the following crossovers and series pursued this technique of spandex warfare and, particularly, commentary on Afghanistan and Iraq by proxy:

  • Captain America v.4 #1-3 (June-August 2002) from Marvel Comics by John Ney Rieber and John Cassaday. The World War II legend had his ongoing series revamped and restarted – “rebooted," as it were – with a psychological examination of national responsibility and violence.
  • JSA: Black Reign (November 2003-January 2004) from DC Comics by Geoff Johns, Rags Morales, and Don Kramer. Former villain turned anti-hero Black Adam tests the ethics of his allies by leading a force into his native Middle East home of Kahndaq to liberate it and become its champion.
  • Secret War (April 2004-December 2005) from Marvel by Bendis and Garbielle Dell’Otto. Without governmental permission, top spy Nick Fury enlists a number of superheroes to wage a stealth campaign against the Prime Minister of Latveria who has been illegally equipping American criminals with hi-tech weaponry.
  • We3 #1-3 (October 2004) from DC by Grant Morrison & Frank Quitely. An experimental trio of cyborg animals escape their creators.
  • Ultimates 2 #1-12 (February-August 2005) from Marvel by Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch. Marvel’s premier superteam, the Avengers, is reimagined for the twenty-first century in this second volume; they are both made to invade pre-war Iraq and then betrayed from within, leaving America open to foreign assault.
  • Civil War (August 2006-February 2007) from Marvel by Mark Millar and Steve McNiven. Hero fights hero as legislation passes to make the registration of identities and powers requisite.
  • World War III (April 18, 2007) from DC by Keith Champagne, John Ostrander, Pat Oliffe, Drew Geraci et al. Black Adam, now leader/dictator of Kahndaq, takes the rage over his slain family against the wider world.
  • World War Hulk (May 2007) from Marvel by Peter David, Al Rio, Lee Weeks et al. A savvy, enraged Hulk returns to Earth on a mission of vengeance after being cast into outer space – for the safety of the planet – by his former colleagues.

None of these books addressed Iraq or Afghanistan directly. Unlike September 11th – which happened suddenly, could not be denied, and had already ended – these wars appeared either too unwieldy, too complex, or too uncertain to boil down into plotlines. Rather, the aforementioned titles each presented an ersatz conflict, one that could parallel the issues raised by the real-life wars all without engaging them. Metaphorically, they would paraphrase, not quote.

By examining these titles in relation to each other over the last five years – concurrent with the Global War on Terror at home and abroad – a number of alarming themes emerge. A revised relationship to authority becomes prominent as do aspects of the abuse of power. Further, the meaning of terrorism also morphs wildly, and a sense of historicity can be seen underpinning these endeavors – and perhaps serving as their attempted justification.

First Response

After a late resurgence in the 1970s, the only mainstream war comics on the stands by 1984 were DC’s World War II-based Sgt. Rock and Marvel’s G.I. Joe. Marvel would take a shot at the Vietnam War in 1986 with Doug Murray’s The ‘Nam, but that too would fold by 1993, alongside such series as The Unknown Soldier, Fightin’ Army, Fightin’ Marines, and Weird War Tales, to name a few – each having run well over 100 issues apiece. By and large, the war genre (which, along with horror, romance, crime, and western titles, had shared a major, mid-century portion of the medium’s readership) had run its course, conceding defeat to the conquering superhero force. Sgt. Rock ended in 1988 with a series of specials running until 1992; Marvel’s version of G.I. Joe, the government forced to fight terrorism, was canceled in 1995.

Since the majority of comics’ wartime characters had been mothballed – with primarily superheroic figures serving as the medium’s most well-known faces – the for-charity works produced by Marvel, DC, Dark Horse Comics, et al. in the four months following September 11, 2001, utilized their respective stables of fantastic heroes to reflect on the real-life heroism of firemen and police. The loss experienced by imaginary characters was set against the genuine loss of life and loved ones. All of these messages echoed through a number of separate charitable publications, including Marvel’s Moment of Silence,Dark Horse’s 9-11, Volume One: Artists Respond, and DC’s 9-11, Volume Two: The World’s Finest Comic Book Writers & Artists Tell Stories to Remember. Further, individuals like Superman, Spider-Man, and the Hulk became lenses through which their creators attempted to redefine a certain loss of identity that accompanied the national trauma. Known informally as “the Black Issue" for its all-black memorial cover, Amazing Spider-Man #36 – with captions starting clearly in Spider-Man’s voice but later shifting to a more universal narrator – declares: “In recent years we as a people have been tribalized and factionalized by a thousand casual unkindnesses. But in this we are one. Flags sprout in uncommon places, the ground made fertile by tears and shared resolve. We have become one in our grief. We are now one in our determination. One as we recover. One as we rebuild."

A similar unifying moment, though more mundane, takes place in Marvel’s Heroes one-shot, where, with their “[h]ands held tight, Ellen McKenzie and Fatima Jaffal watched and cried…together." Yet for all of the brave sentiments these books eventually muster, meditations like the Black Issue contain stronger, more compelling questions. “Where were you?!" a fleeing couple asks their hero. “How could you let this happen?" As he moves between the gurneys, Spider-Man (AKA native New Yorker Peter Parker) notes, “They ask the question. Why? Why? My God, why? I have seen other worlds. Other spaces. I have walked with gods and wept with angels. But to my shame I have no answers."

Few pat answers – certainly, few convincing responses – could be given, save the idea that America would endure and, perhaps, that a sleeping giant had been awakened: “You wanted to send a message, and in so doing you awakened us from our self-involvement. Message received. Look for your reply in the thunder." For all the egalitarian, non-denominational, and embracing messages of one anthology story, there would also be an accompanying sense of hostility and anger from another. For instance, there is artist Neal Adams’ piece for DC’s 9-11 volume; beneath a torn and soiled flag held by Superman and Uncle Sam reads a plaque, “First things first. Then we come for you." Or, in keeping with the character, the massive, raging hulk stands atop a pile of city rubble, his muscles tensed, and bearing the American flag – the sole accompanying caption reads: “Strongest one there is."

That Hulk-like American strength of force was already being flexed in Afghanistan by the time the aforementioned books were each published. Some degree of false prescience leaked into the scripts, such as Beau Smith’s story with Val Semeiks and Romeo Tanghal in DC’s album: “On that day…we were all soldiers. 9-11-01. But in the days to come this country will call for a different kind of soldier. One who is trained to take the war to those what have attacked our own shores….But this is not my grandfather’s war. This is a war of rats. There’s only one way to hunt rats that bite and then scurry off into dark holes. You send rat terriers into those holes after them. And they don’t come out until all the rats are dead. We are those rat terriers…We’re soldiers."

Kabul had fallen in November, and the hills of Tora Bora were bombed and searched by American soldiers – by “rat terriers" – before the end of 2001. Constantly updated reports flooded 24-hour cable news channels and Internet sites. The White House issued aggressive “dead or alive" statements on the overseas hunt for public enemy #1 Osama bin Laden, and as talk of a new federal Cabinet department began, a Homeland Security Advisory System was fashioned to keep the populace ever-aware of the looming national threat.

It was in this developing wartime environment that a trend of increased militancy infiltrated mainstream comics. From 2002 to 2006, DC Comics and Marvel Comics would release a succession of their customary crossover events – a major storytelling development spread across several different series – and new series now revolving around warfare.

The Bush Administration

Superheroes rarely age in “real time"; even those heroes who have live through more than forty-years’ worth of government administrations will be only held narratively to roughly the last ten years’ worth of history. For example, Iron Man’s Korean War origins have been slid to the Gulf War, and Batman’s parents were murdered in the late seventies rather than the roaring twenties. Rare exceptions, such as Nick Fury, Captain America, and the original Green Lantern, enjoy extended lifetimes, thereby maintaining their World War II roots but explaining their modern-day vitality by means of some extraordinary circumstances.

Therefore, while readers have a published record of them all, only certain characters actively recall their encounters with the multiple twentieth-century Presidents. To further complicate matters, as in the case with Lex Luthor, companies will, depending on the editorial policy in place at the given time, substitute a fictional president with whom they can take greater creative liberties for the real-life Commander-in-Chief.

Few presidents and administrations, though, have elicited such strong portrayals as George W. Bush. Although the president in Secret War remains hidden in carefully placed shadows by Dell’Otto, hints of the former Texas governor can be found in Fury’s angry response to America’s inaction against Latveria: “I’ve been through 12 presidents in my time, and all I can say I have learned from it…is that the American people will elect just about anybody. And yeah, my job gets pretty complicated…but I made a promise to myself years ago that if I had to choose between a publicly elected millionaire’s back-hand oil and technology dealings…and the safety of innocent people…there’s no choice at all."

A more direct reference to George W. Bush, particularly as a wartime president, appears in Marvel’s Avengers: The Initiative, in which budding heroes are taken to a superhuman boot camp in order to train them for service in a series of state-by-state superteams. When Texas is threatened near Crawford, the Initiative is called upon, and a ranch-dwelling President Bush is shown clearly standing his ground: “I’m not going anywhere. I made a promise to the American people --  that during this time a’ war, they’d be safe at home. So the last thing I’m gonna do -- is cut n’ run from mine." On one hand, this is a noble portrait of Bush; on the other hand, his presence at the ranch – rather than in Washington DC – can be read as an inside joke, along with his use of the “cut ‘n’ run" language popularly utilized against his Democrat detractors. These same words were attributed to the president under similar circumstances in another series, Ultimates 2: A multi-national team calling themselves the Liberators had attacked the United States for using the Ultimates force overseas. Aboard Air Force One, Bush wavered, “Is hiding absolutely necessary, Danny? I don’t want to be seen like I’m cutting and running."

The election of Lex Luthor was DC Comics’ provocative attempt to capture the split sentiments over Bush’s election; other critiques of his selection would be more coy. Before the Liberators’ invasion, this public sentiment against Bush is initially aimed at Captain America: The superhero has drinks spilled over his head by people saying, “That’s for working for the Thief-in-Chief!" Putting this opinion in the mouths of rowdy club-goers allays the writers or publishing company of any direct responsibility. Further, as in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Strikes Again, drawing unnamed, derided White House officials to look like Donald Rumsfeld or Dick Cheney still leaves creators inculpable since the representatives’ identities are not ironclad.

In the recent Shazam: The Monster Society of Evil mini-series, creator Jeff Smith employs the reverse tactic – not of criticizing a person but, rather, a position. Here, the Attorney General of the United States is the villainous Dr. Sivana, eager to uncover the secrets of the massive, supposedly robotic creatures that have appeared in the city square. He says, “Robots are just machines -- tools for powerful men. Tools of war. And war…is profitable." Billy Batson, empowered with Captain Marvel’s might, brings his concerns about Sivana to his vagrant friend Tawky Tawny, who replies, “War profiteering! That is immoral -- and illegal. We can stop him, Billy!"

In short, in these worlds of supermen and leagues of justice, governmental authority is not to be trusted absolutely. As Captain America says to Nick Fury’s replacement, Commander Maria Hill, “Don’t play politics with me, Hill. Super heroes need to stay above that stuff or Washington starts telling us who the super-villains are."

Reflecting both the short-lived unity following September 11th and the political schism felt across the country, this distrust between elected officials and powerful, public avengers goes both ways. Naturally, that Superman feels ill-at-ease taking orders from his nemesis is an understatement, and he makes his feelings clear. “When this is over, there are those who will be held accountable for the choices they make under the guise of ‘wartime necessity.’ For your sake, I hope this choice was the right one." However, it is the wise and war-tested Major Lane, father to Superman’s mate Lois Lane, who expresses the alternate viewpoint: “If you had any inkling as to what may be coming, you’d get right in line behind your governing executive and pledge your support, as I have!" As the death toll and apparent futility of war against Imperiex becomes more and more apparent, even the Man of Steel begins to buckle; being near-invincible and super-strong, he has never had to experience the horrors and cost of wartime. (Again, this is the 2001 Superman whose immediate history does not date back to World War II, Korea, or even, presumably, Vietnam.) Privately, Superman pleads, “I can’t do this anyone…I can’t…[…] I’m so lost. Please, God…Tell me what to do. Tell me how to fight on." Only upon hitting this state of desperation does he come to terms with falling in line with President Luthor. As the orphan of a dead planet, he says to Luthor, “I know how to sacrifice. Believe me. Tell me what to do, Mister President. Whatever it take to win this…I’m yours." Superman’s words to Luthor echo those that he directed to God; once he saw the true abomination faced, he recognized the necessity of his supporting the president.

Heroism Redefined

This debate between Superman, Lane, and Luthor stems from the larger question: How do the heroes obtain their authority? And who grants it? In Amazing Fantasy #15, Stan Lee famously wrote, “With great power comes great responsibility" – but not corresponding authority. Captain America’s unwillingness to police the Superhuman Registration Act (SRA) leads Commander Hill to barb, “I thought super-villains were guys in masks who refused to obey the law." The catastrophic explosion in Stamford, Connecticut – its own domestic, mini-9/11 – which catalyzed the SRA is viewed by Iron Man as having a secondary effect:  “As far as I’m concerned, Stamford was our wake-up call. What alcoholics prefer to as a moment of clarity. Becoming public employees makes perfect sense if it helps people sleep a little easier." As Captain America predicted, not all of the masked adventurers agree with Iron Man, driving them to “war with one another," the germ of which can be espied from the following dialogue: Falcon says, “I can’t believe I’m hearing this. The masks are a tradition. We can’t just let them turn us into super-cops"; Yellowjacket replies, “Are you kidding? We’re lucky people have tolerated this for as long as they have, Sam. Why should we be allowed to hide behind these things?"

Unless they were to concede that might does make right in unabashed anti-Arthurian fashion, most of the superheroes seek their wartime license as agents of the state or dispel the indictment of illegal vigilantism – not to mention simple criminality in defying the SRA – by other means. Of course, there may be a third, more radical contingent, like Miller’s Batman, who accepts and even revels in a borderline status. Green Lantern is chagrined by his old teammate’s long-standing attitude: “Bruce, you were right. When you laughed in our faces, all those years ago -- when you called the rest of us a pack of fools -- you were right. Of course we’re criminals. We’ve always been criminals. On this planet we have to be criminals."

Heroism that flaunts the law, particularly idealized and pseudonymistic superheroism, is an endangered species at wartime when the chain-of-command principle is so vital. Whereas these superheroes frequently partake in life-and-death adventures, having them engage in them during a time of real-life war fatalities has the effect of foregrounding their fictionality. In confronting the Liberator leader, Captain America faces his Middle Eastern mirror image of himself minus the U.S. frills: “I am simply Abdul al-Rahman and I was a farmhand in the northwest province of Azerbaijan, Captain. I’m afraid I have no interest in these super hero codenames. Don’t you think it’s a little immature to indulge in such childish conventions?" Further, Nick Fury uses precisely this distinction between himself as a soldier and his troops as gaudy superheroes to justify his unilateral decisions: “And I’m sorry I had to unplug you a little, but I just don’t have the time or inclination to debate the finer points of wartime morality with a bunch of people who wear masks."

A soldier’s morality does not seem to match that of a superhero. Both Secret War and Our Worlds at War feel compelled to deliver similar speeches, both of which come from an authorized commander to a reluctant superheroic audience. As Fury says, “I’m a wartime general. I have weapons and I have soldiers and I have a job to do. Some of you understand this and some of you don’t. And you’ll have to forgive me, but it just doesn’t matter to me either way. What happened here tonight: This is what I’m up against -- this is what I was trying to avoid. I bought us a year, and tonight we bought another, Maybe. They hate us. I didn’t start this war, but damn it to hell, I’m not going to lose it."

Compare this to President Luthor’s own speech: “Reserve your judgments, if you don’t mind. We’re in a state of emergency here. This is, by far, the greatest threat we’ve ever faced. To combat this threat, desperate measure had to be taken, no matter what the cost. This is war. And you should consider yourself drafted, Superman."

The war has priority, and it trumps heroism. His mission complete, Fury leaves a robot copy of himself behind to explain his actions. Malfunctioning, it stutters, “You are herrrrroes. More than me. Maybe one day you’ll llllook around and you’ll see the world like I have to, and you’ll knowww I did the right thing. Or at least you’ll undersssstand why I did it." It is as if a dedication to the principles of heroism, however we might define them, blinds us to the reality Fury sees.

Fury and Luthor’s criticisms can be applied to superheroism as a metaphor for the empowerment of the individual, yet, as with the examination of the Presidency, it can be reversed; superheroes stand opposed to what defines their supervillain counterparts, namely the abuse of power. Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch have Larry King report the following to playboy genius Tony Stark, alter ego of Iron Man, live on his show: “In fact, this morning Thor tendered his resignation from The Ultimates because he says that’s exactly what Cap was doing in Iraq. According to Thor, this whole Homeland Security thing was just one big scam to get public opinion on your side before launching preemptive strikes against anyone who ticks you off."

Thor’s protestations do little to sway his partners at first, particularly the loyal soldier Captain America – they believe their ethics can still line up with the government’s orders. Eventually, though, they are told by Fury, “Something’s come up in the Middle East," and they depart to forcibly disarm an unidentified Arab nation, perhaps Azerbaijan. In effect, they have “crippled a nation this morning." Thor, now imprisoned, speaks to Iron Man about how far they have fallen from their ideals, all in the name of America’s defense: “They’ve got you, haven’t they? All they have to do now is say ‘nuclear weapons’ and Tony Stark falls into line like the rest of them. Do you think that’s how they’ll get you to invade all their other target countries? Supposing they decide China’s a threat a few years down the line? I used to think you were the smart one, Tony."

Each of the Ultimates soon realizes the abuse of power that has taken place, and they rally to fight off the Liberators and restore pre-invasion normalcy. Yet, the lesson, as spelled out in Dark Knight Strikes Again, is just how easily personal reservations can be sidelined in the name of national emergency: “The way things were, our hold on power was more tenuous than it appeared. Now we’ve got all the excuse we need to do what we should’ve done at the get-go!"

Terrorism and Living in the Now

When it comes to “the excuse we need," the word that has undergone the most development, perhaps overdevelopment, since the World Trade Center attacks is easily terrorism: Combating this threat appears to act as an authority all its own. Thieves, murderers, and rapists aside – Those who menace America and its stability now have greater import. For instance, Dr. Sivana explains to Billy what could motivate the man to interrogate the child: “Now, why would the Attorney General of the United States be standing in your filthy room while two alien monsters are threatening the American public? Because the entire city witnessed a flying man in red tights talking to the monsters – and I know that this flying Captain Marvel is actually a bad little boy! Are you plotting with the aliens to attack our country? Are you?!"

Just as Shazam! is the magic word which transforms Billy into Captain Marvel, terrorism is the word that makes any situation instantly dire. In Secret War,Fury hopes to urge the President and cabinet to take action by reformulating his intelligence. Rather than seeing each armored villain as an isolated danger, he emphasizes their shared backing, thus “by definition, these are no longer crimes and these are no longer criminals…they’re terrorists." Largely, Fury seems to accept the veracity of terrorism’s peril, especially when he addresses his own guilt in waging a Secret War: “[I]t was an act of war. Actually, without permission from the U.N and the World Court -- it was worse than that. An act of global treason -- terrorism!"

Rather than “falling in line like the rest of them," some of these tales also seek to deflate the terror in terrorism. Frank Miller cannily reminds readers that among Batman’s earliest credos and rationales for wearing the batsuit was “to strike terror in the hearts of criminals everywhere." In Dark Knight Strikes Again, a cocky, contented Batman quips,“Striking terror. Best part of the job," a line that has altogether different – though perhaps unworthy – meaning than its original 1930s use. Likewise, those labeled terrorists, such as Captain America’s opponent Faysal Al-Tariq, can easily dismiss that tag and turn it upon the accusers: “I am not a terrorist. I am a messenger -- here to show you the truth of war. You are the terrorists!" Cap may not agree, but even he has to question the origin of Al-Tariq’s animosity: “Are we only hated because we’re free -- Free and prosperous and good? Or does the light we see cast shadows that we don’t -- Where monsters like this al-Tariq can plant the seeds of hate?" Do monsters grow in that blind spot? And is it a point of darkness similar to the superheroes’ perception of war needs?

The actions – and the atrocities – undertaken in the present do not find their value now, no matter how they might be labeled. Perhaps only the future matters. “I have been through this before," say Black Adam, on the eve of retaking Kahndaq. “They are going to call us villains. They are going to call us mad. Let them. The present can never be agreed upon. But history will view us with veneration." Or, conversely, only the past matters, according to Fury: “It’s all happening again. They have the information, they have it! They know who and they -- Irrefutable evidence in their hands as to who their enemy is…and they are going to sit on it and do nothing. They are going to blink and follow rules of diplomacy that no one else plays by…and people are going to die. Innocent people are going to die because of this right here. I can’t – I can’t go through it again. It’s happening all over again."

So, we find a revision here: The present matters both in terms of future judgment and past errors. Like Fury, Cap tells himself as he digs out possible World Trade Center survivors, “This time -- This time -- Let it not be…Too late." The casualties of past wars make his actions now that much more essential. One can even hear, as he races to save civilians from Al-Tariq, a word missing from Cap’s thoughts. “Today -- It matters that you’re here. It’s going to make a difference. Today -- there’s hope. You’re not too late"…again (46). Saving these people matters all the more to Cap because of the victims of the past, particularly those dead in the recent past at Ground Zero. He does not focus on the future, because like Al-Tariq or Black Adam, Cap is certain that future parties will judge his actions correct…

…Unless there is, as noted above, a blind spot. The superheroes have already had to question whether there had long been a weak point in their agency as pseudo-vigilantes without being answerable to some consenting authority. Likewise, the very concept on which the wars both in Afghanistan and Iraq have been predicated, terrorism, has been scrutinized for its own frailties. Are there aspects to this storytelling, to these wars, that will later reveal themselves as defective, inconsequential, or – worst yet – damaging? Do comic book writers avoid setting their stories in Iraq and Afghanistan not because they may alienate readers or suddenly become out-of-date, but because history has not judged these wars yet? Luke Cage, one of Cap’s SRA-opposing Avengers, senses something awry: “I’m steamin’ because I think there’s a lot more goin’ on here. I feel manipulated. I feel someone pulling my strings. S.H.I.E.L.D., Hydra, our Secret War, the Civil War…I think they’re connected. Do you? And does that idea scare the holy crap out of you?"

If he were aware of his own fictionality, Cage could neatly conclude that this manipulation comes at the hands of his writers, particularly Brian Michael Bendis. But, more likely, even Bendis could not have had this entirely roadmapped from the outset, having instead to improvise and build his stories upon the readership’s tone. If the war in Iraq ended last year, we would probably not have the continued variety of superhero war titles from which to choose. Therefore, is there manipulation here, or does an extended wartime, one about which storytellers are reticent to directly write, create these tales simply by its pervasive existence? In response to Cage, all Spider-Man can say, all anyone can say, is that “I agree everything is upside down. I agree. But…What if there is no real bad guy? What if it’s all just upside down?"

January 2008

From guest contributor A. David Lewis

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