On The Evolutionary War (Marvel Comics, 1988)

Those who choose to see the superhero comic’s decline as a relatively recent occurrence may prefer to keep their preconceptions away from The Evolutionary War, a sequence of often-awkwardly linked stories which were originally strung across 11 of Marvel’s 1988 summer annuals.  Collected together in 2011’s door-stop Omnibus edition, The Evolutionary War contradicts the myth that the super-book has suffered a catastrophic collapse of craft and ambition under the 21st century stewardship of Quesada, Alonso and DiDio. No matter what any memory-corrupting stew of nostalgia and contemporary dissatisfaction might choose to suggest to the contrary, the typical super-hero tale of almost a quarter-century ago was anything but a beacon of excellence. Things may be in desperate state at the moment where the majority of the Big Two’s books are concerned, but that doesn’t mean that things weren’t often moribund even in the supposedly better world of a quarter century ago.

Hindsight suggests that the creators of The Evolutionary War ought to have been in some significant way inspired by the example of the commercial success and artistic achievement carved out by the then-recently published Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns and Batman; Year One. The mid-Eighties were, after all, one of the most radical and exciting times in the history of the superhero comic, although the truth is that only a fraction of the sub-genre was engaged in anything that was at all daring and substantial. Economic logic if not artistic ambition strongly suggests that Marvel would’ve been engaged in a process of analysing and applying the innovations which had been appearing elsewhere  in the marketplace of this time. How else can an business stay vital and competitive? Yet there’s nothing at all of the work of Moore and Miller, Gibbons and Mazzucchelli to be found in the pages of The Evolutionary War. In fact, there’s not even the slightest suggestion that any of the ground-breaking work in the superhero comics of the Eighties had impacted upon Marvel’s corporate practise at all, and that includes the lessons which might have been applied from the company’s few leading-edge titles such as Daredevil. The exhilarating incorporation of sound-effects into the design of the narrative, as Chaykin had practised in American Flagg and Walt Simonson in the pages of Thor ? Gibbons’s reinvigoration of the nine-panel page? The joyful appropriation of the influence of Manga in McCloud’s Zot!? Nothing of this intrudes into The Evolutionary War, which reads as a thin, fifth or sixth-generation copy of a Marvel comic as seen from the perspective of folks who can’t quite grasp why it was that Marvel Comics ever mattered in the first place.

Yet that clearly can’t be true. Though the artists who worked on The Evolutionary War were mostly second and third division journeywomen and men, with the notable exception of Art Adams and the perpetually under-rated June Brigman, the project’s writers  included some of the finest-ever scripters of super-hero tales, such as Steve Englehart, Steve Gerber, and Walt Simonson. (*1) Yet their work is unfeasibly underpowered, seemingly complacent where it ought to be ambitious, slack where it ought to be fiercely purposeful. There’s barely a moment which inspires the slightest emotional response across the almost half-a-thousand pages which it takes to wrap up the tale, unless the reader tends to find their pulse racing at pages of exposition matched to an obsession with the less fascinating backwaters of Marvel-Earth. It’s remarkable how the reader’s presumed to be fascinated by the simple fact of the existence of a mutant Subterranean, for example, as if the fusion of the trope of very occasionally-seen underground races with that of the X-Gene is automatically compelling in itself.

*1:- In truth, it’s a wonderful line-up of writers which also included Louise Simonson, Mike Baron, Gerry Conway, Tom DeFalco , Chris Claremont and David Michelinie, which just makes the protracted mediocrity of the work all the more disappointing.

And so, Gerry Conway and a very inexperienced Mark Bagley’s Return to Sender touches upon the tension in the love affair between Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson when what appears to be a clone of Gwen Stacey re-enters Spider-Man’s life. Yet there’s never a convincing scene which ever explores this set-up in anything other than the most cursory, clichéd fashion. Instead, the attention of Conway and Bagley is predominantly focused elsewhere, as if the most important aspect of a story which dealt with the two greatest loves of Parker’s life was a punch-up involving a small platoon of obscure and profoundly uninteresting super-people who Spider-Man had never met before. Similarly, the big reveal that the Gwen-clone was never anything of the sort was thrown away at the story’s end, as if all that mattered was that the re-set button for the strip’s status quo was pushed before anything too disturbingly moving could occur. Throughout each of the 11 chapters of The Evolutionary War, there seems to be an assumption operating that it’s largely the reader’s responsibility to summon up any emotions and ideas they can from the flat and largely uninvolving pages before them, because the creators themselves have more important crossover business to be attending to.

What counts in The Evolutionary War isn’t how the characters experience the world so much as the delivery of each successive plot-beat, meaning that the essential stupidity of the crossover itself simply becomes all the more obvious. How can it be that the High Evolutionary’s plan to genetically advance humanity involves squads of armoured thugs assassinating drug dealers? How convincing is it that the same character’s distaste for mutants sits with a desire to mutate all of his fellow human beings?  On and on the absolutely fundamental plot-holes and unconvincing story-conceits pile up and fester, which leaves The Evolutionary War standing as that most profoundly unsatisfying super-book experience; a tale which is concerned with little but plot, and yet burdened by a plot which is at heart nonsensical.

With art that’s at best adequate, and with the plot and scripts so profoundly pedestrian when they’re not insultingly threadbare, what did the crossover’s editors and creators imagine was the point of this folly beyond the obvious commercial advantages offered by a line of inter-connected, thick’n’expensive extra issues? The answer seems to be that The Evolutionary War was driven by an ever-intensifying fetish for continuity on the part of Marvel’s custodians matched with a conviction that the audience were primarily concerned with the same passion. No character is ever allowed to appear without explaining where they’ve previously been, no event is permitted to pass without being placed securely, if often pointlessly, into the backstory of the Marvel Universe.  Hordes of super-people amble across these pages and yet they mostly add little beyond the fact of their presence, as if the illusion of a fictional reality might be best created simply through the presentation of an endless parade of costumed stereotypes.

Obscure Inhumans; the insipid non-entities of the Young Gods; the Sensors, a team of never-even-ran super-villains named after 6 supposed – yes – senses, including the deathlessly unintimidating “Smell”; like a small child giving names to all the faces in a photo of a crowd in the hope of summoning up a sense of what it might have been like to be there, The Evolutionary War jumps from character to character and yet never once manages to make the reader feel as if they’ve ever really got to know anyone. When the final chapter concludes with Hercules unwillingly “evolving beyond godhood” as a consequence of the defeat of the High Evolutionary, there’s not the slightest response to his sacrifice from his fellow Avengers once he’s disappeared from view. They quite literally fail to care enough to even speculate on what might have happened to him. He was there, he was brave, he was super-evolved, he blipped out of sight, so what? Obviously what counted to the tale’s makers was the manoeuvring of the Lion Of Olympus into a position where he could be used to bring events to a close, while what didn’t count was the fact that the Avengers then underwent a traumatic event which involved the loss of one of their fellows. What we might expect to be the cathartic centrepiece of The Evolutionary War is instead reduced to just one more beat to be ticked off an editor’s must-remember-to-do list. Super-people fight, super-people win and loose, but since the accent is on the “super” rather than “people,”the whole process doesn’t really matter at all.

There are perhaps just three scenes in The Evolutionary War which suggest that the whole exercise was anything other than a  cynically fan-snaring marketing exercise. In one, a typically over-wordy, over-literal Chris Claremont script takes four frames of an Art Adams page to quietly suggest that Colossus had unknowingly fathered a child during a previous trip to the Savage Land. There’s a stoical dignity to his once-lover Nareel’s refusal to even think of trying to use the existence of their son to win his affection.  Elsewhere, Steve Englehart and Kieron Dwyer succeed over three pages in summoning up a sense of how desperately Black Bolt has missed the presence of his cousin Crystal during her sojourn in the ranks of the Fantastic Four. Unable to speak to explain himself, the almost-perpetually silent King Of The Inhumans scrawls “family” in the Moondust before him in order to explain to Crystal why he longs for her to return home, an image which, for all that it’s somewhat thrown away, suggests a measure of invention on Englehart and Dwyer’s part. Finally, a single macabre panel of Gerber and Martin’s Web Of Spider-Man Annual offers the sight of the impossibly obese ganglord Slug suffocating an opponent in the folds of his belly. It’s the only moment in the whole of the chapter in which anything of Gerber’s extravagant, idiosyncratic style appears. Elsewhere, his work is no better and no worse than that of anyone else who worked on the series. It’s hard to think of anything else which could so emphasise the homogeneity of Marvel’s product during the period.

The artwork for 2012’s crossovers may be flashier, the scripting less word-heavy, the continuity less obsessively constricting; but the essential principles which underpin the all-in, big-deal Event appear to be fundamentally the same as those which informed 1988’s The Evolutionary War. What if everyone could meet everyone? What if everyone could fight everyone? What if nothing – nothing! – was ever going to be the same again? After all, if one superhero is a very big deal indeed, then a hundred, or a thousand, or ten thousand of them must be an exponentially heart-stopping, mind-wiping rush of an experience.

But that’s not a story. It’s the spine of an advertising offensive, yes, and a costume-spotter’s wet-dream too. It’s even the starting point for the world’s most incredibly torturous back-of-an-exercise-book doddle. But it isn’t in itself a coherent and compelling story. Of course it isn’t. Yet time and time again, the Big Two seem to forget that.

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Colin Smith is currently Q Magazine’s comics columnist and blogs at Too Busy Thinking About My Comics and on Tumbler.

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1 Comment

  1. Adam Crocker says:

    What’s striking is how of your description of the Evolutionary War matches my impressions of Secret Invasion, another bloated event that had very little story underpinning it, or even non-event comics like anything Jeph Loeb’s written in the past several years. It also puts into perspective how deep-rooted a lot of the problems I seen in mainstream comics are. Like say, oh to use a heavy-handed example, the Department of Aboriginal Affairs in Canada*, superhero comics have picked up on a serious of bad behaviours and lazy thinking patterns that are replicated even through successive turnovers in personnel. In that sense, the descent of of previously competent writers like Brian Michael Bendis into literary incompetence isn’t just a personal failing, but a product of the organizational culture the writers work in.

    (* I’m studying these matters due to being a law student.)

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