Subjective Ramblings and Peripheral Thoughts from the Edges of a Comics Studies Project
This past month has been one of the busiest in my life. Not only have I had to vacate my old office and figure out where to put all the book, comics, and stuff I had kept there, while simultaneously working on a conference paper and first draft on an article about Marvel’s “Fear itself” and taking care of some editorial business for the Scandinavian Journal of Comic Art. I have also had to spend a lot of time on the phone, writing e-mails, or meeting with people in preparation for a move to New York. I will return with a bit more on that last part once all the Ts are crossed and all the Is are dotted, since it is directly related to the project to which this blog is connected.
The upshot is that I’ve been a bit sidetracked from my plans when it comes to reading and writing, which also affects what gets up on this blog. So, instead of the return to the Marvel Noir imprint that I had intended to make already a few weeks ago, I give you a few thoughts on Mark Millar, David Finch, and Andy Kubert’s Ultimate War.
* * *
Time and time again since the events of September 11, 2001, superhero comics have served up allegories on the War on Terror and the subsequent emergence of a security-focused culture. Ultimate War, a four-issue miniseries from December 2002-February 2003 that has all the hallmarks of a classic superhero crossover (not least the misunderstanding between the main supergroups or –heroes , which is a more central here than in many others) is an early, and in some way rather heavy-handed, example of this.
The series kicks off with the Brotherhood of Mutants destroying the Brooklyn Bridge, killing over eight hundred people. From there, things escalate quickly. A manhunt led by Captain America and the Ultimates (the Marvel Ultimate universe’ version of the Avengers) begins. The X-Men are forced into hiding because they fear that Magneto, who has just regained the memory of who he is, will come after them; this in turn causes the Ultimates to believe that Xavier and his students have switched sides. Throughout all this, the crossover is very much classic superhero fare, but with a few twists, among which the biggest might be that there is ultimately no coming to terms between the two groups of heroes: the crossover ends without their conflict being resolved, which spills over into later issues of Ultimate X-Men.
But, as already noted, there is also some material that can be read as commentary on developments following 9/11. New York plays a catalyzing role in Ultimate War, as one can easily expect in a series that relates to these events*: the Brooklyn Bridge attack appears to take the place of the attack on the World Trade Center. The escalation that follows seemingly takes the place of the US’ military involvement in Afghanistan and the lead-up to what would soon become a war in Iraq, placed cookie-cutter fashion into brawls and other traditional superhero things in and around the city, making it play a symbolic role for something far larger.
The allegory gets most heavy-handed in three pages in the third issue. On the first two, Captain America pulls Janet Pym, the Wasp, aside and tells her that “none of this DNA stuff matters to anyone else on the team.” This is a reference to her secretly (or so she thought) being a mutant. Janet is upset to have been found out, but Cap is quick to point out that “Fury never brought it up because it’s inconsequential to him, sweetheart. It’s a war on terror we’re fighting out there, not a war on mutants. It’s important you appreciate the difference here.” And on the third page, a news report discusses how mutant terrorists are being flown to a Cuban camp where “conditions have been described as inhumane,” and that White House spokes-people have said that they refuse to make compromises in the wake of the Brotherhood’s attack on the Brooklyn Bridge.
Throughout all this, Xavier, who along with his students, has been brought into a conflict through guilt by association, speaks in favor dialogue out of fear that continued violence will only lead things to escalate. “Opening a dialogue with your opponent is really quite different from outright surrender, you know.” Produced when it was, Ultimate War thus reads as a hope that cooler political and military heads would prevail. That there was perhaps little hope that so would happen is indicated by the fact that Nick Fury and Captain America both refuse to listen and that, once the dust settles and the event ends, he has arguably become the greatest casualty of all involved.
* But one should not take that for granted. Although it is arguably a bit more removed from the events themselves, Marvel’s massive 2007 event, “Civil War,” that also treats the War on Terror and the Patriot Act, is set rolling by events placed in Stamford, Connecticut.