In the Beginning… #4

Whether it is uninviting and difficult or fascinating and exciting is a matter of opinion, but it is undeniable that at the moment the DC Universe is a confusing place to newcomers. In all probability, it confuses a few long-term fans as well. With 52 and “One Year Later,” DC is dealing with the fallout from perhaps its largest and most hyped crossover, infinite Crisis.

These crossovers, encompassing whole universes and making irreversible changes to much loved characters, began in the 80s with DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earths that I touched on in last week’s column. It was a way to clean up the DC Multiverse with a storyline that destroyed all but one of many parallel universes which took with them many outdated and unwanted characters. It also allowed DC to re-imagine many of their successful established characters, tweaking origins written in the 40s and 50s and bringing them up to date for a modern audience.

It did its job and was very popular and successful and is described, elsewhere on this very site, as the best crossover ever. Its influence, not just on DC’s characters and future but on the way all companies handled cross brand crossovers in the future, is immense and inarguable. What’s more, all twelve issues are available in one trade paperback with a beautiful wraparound Alex Ross cover. So, given that it’s so great and important and it changed everything forever, probably better go out and buy a copy then, right? That’s what I thought when I made my way down to my local comic book store and ordered it for the best part of twenty pounds. However, it turned out not to be that cut and dried.

The intricate plot involved a character called the Anti-Monitor who tries to destroy the Multiverse with anti-matter. His opposite, the Monitor, has to gather some of DC’s heroes to help save it. Meanwhile, a group of super-villains led by Brainiac and Lex Luthor attempt to use the situation to their own advantage. Along the way, writer Marv Wolfman crowbars in just about every DC character, past and present, apparently all carefully researched to make sure their costumes were right and that their dialogue and behaviour was true to their character. Many of them die in their battles, including a few big names, the Flash and Supergirl.

This may sound interesting, even exciting, but in truth the book is a dull read. It’s not that it has been terribly written, it’s just that the book’s whole nature makes it difficult for younger readers to enjoy. The book is a celebration of all the old characters that the Crisis was getting rid of. If you’re old enough to remember them then that’s great, you’ll probably get a lot out of the book, but anyone else will quickly come unstuck.

Most of the characters will be completely unfamiliar to the modern comic book fan, and many have never been seen again since. There are so many of them, with most enjoying the spotlight only fairly briefly, that it’s difficult to make any connections with the characters. The plot is complex and towards the end, every time you think they’ve defeated the Anti-Monitor and saved the day he comes back again. After a while this just gets annoying.

There are some touching moments, like Wolfman’s slightly cheesy but affecting tribute to the dying Losers. ‘People called them the Losers,’ he writes, ‘but they were winners to the end.’ However, when I first attempted to read the book I gave up before I reached the halfway mark. The friend who had been the one to get me into comics borrowed it from me but despite being an avid comics fan, he couldn’t finish either. I put it aside for almost a year before finally reading it all about a month ago but what with the cost and the time spent trying to read it, I didn’t feel I was getting much return on my investment.

The last issue ends with Psycho Pirate gibbering away to himself in Arkham Asylum. The Crisis has turned him mad and he is the only person left who remembers everything that has happened. As we leave him cowering in his straight-jacket he cries after us, “…I like to remember the past because those were better times than now…I mean nothing’s ever certain anymore. Nothing’s ever predictable like it used to be.”

The clear message is you’d have to be mad not to be excited by DC’s exciting new future where, “You just never know who’s going to die…and who’s going to live.” Although you can’t help suspecting that Marv Wolfman himself understands Psycho Pirate’s point of view. Certainly, there have been some great DC adventures since the mid 80s, and it’s worth knowing about the Crisis on Infinite Earths in order to better understand the DC Universe, particularly if you want to read Grant Morrison’s superlative Animal Man series. However, actually reading the whole thing is a bit of a chore.

So, leaving aside Crisis on Infinite Earths, it’s time to look at another comics crossover, bringing us back up to date with a current series. This one is a Marvel Comics crossover, although they prefer to style Civil War as an ‘event’. When a bunch of young superheroes with their own TV show try to surprise some supervillains at home, things go horribly wrong, one of the bad guys blows up most of a small town called Stamford, killing a school full of children and causing public outrage. The government use this ill-feeling towards costumed vigilantes to pass a controversial bill that demands superheroes register and reveal their identities to the government. The stage is set for a war between all Marvel’s heroes. Pro and anti-registration heroes are pitched against one another.

I’ll be honest, in the relatively short time I’ve been reading comics, I’ve never been much of a Marvel fan. Not sure why but the DC characters grabbed my heart first and I guess they don’t much like to share me. Either that or it’s the lack of capes. Yeah, that’s probably it. Not enough capes. All the same, I like a big exciting idea and Civil War was certainly that. Secret identities revealed, heroes fighting against each other, great!

At the back of Civil War‘s first issue is a column by some guy called Joe who explains that Marvel tries to make its big events accessible to new readers which sounded promising. There was also a rather daunting checklist of Marvel titles that tie in with the Civil War story. Just about every Marvel title has dedicated a few issues to incorporating the Civil War story. It would be great to be able to collect them all, but I don’t have the time or the money. So far I’ve restricted my self to Civil War‘s main seven issue miniseries and Civil War Frontline. Although I’m not reading everything, you can follow the story and get all the major plot developments from the main title alone if you don’t want to bother with the rest.

It helps that most of Marvel’s biggest names have starred in their own blockbuster movies in the past few years, so I’m already familiar with many of the characters. Every moviegoer will be able to recognize the importance of Marvel’s biggest star, Spider-Man, revealing his secret identity to the public, even if they’ve never picked up a comic before. So Civil War isn’t difficult to get into, though I could have done with a better idea of Iron Man’s back story.

For me, one of Civil War‘s main draws is that the writer comes with real pedigree. Mark Millar is the writer behind some of my favourite comics. He wrote Red Son, discussed in my last column, and he also wrote the best issues of The Authority, a series in which heroes forgot about policing their own backyards and instead took on third world dictators and war criminals, not to mention the US government. So I knew Millar could handle big ideas and widescreen action. I was keen to see what he could do with a concept like Civil War.

Now so far, and bear in mind that we’re four issues into the main Civil War title out of seven, I’ve not been blown away by it. That’s not to say it’s badly written or anything, and I can follow it well enough despite knowing all the characters. It’s just that plot twists and turns that will be steeped in significance for Marvel fans doesn’t really mean very much to me.

I understand, for example, that the return of Thor is supposed to me a big deal, but I’ve never heard of him before. So I found it hard to get as excited as the guys behind the counter in Close Encounters, my local comic shop. On top of which, Civil War is so busy pushing the story along and giving us flashy action sequences that it doesn’t really address any of the questions raised by the Civil War concept.

Far more interesting for me is Civil War Frontline, the more thoughtful concurrent series which has several stories running through each issue. These include a strand following two journalists reporting on the registration for different newspapers and another featuring Speedball, one of the superheroes responsible for the Stamford incident, now powerless and dealing with the consequences of his actions. These stories offer a different perspective on Civil War.

At the back of each issue of Frontline, there is some poem or letter from a soldier in a real war from history, drawing parallels between the action in the comic book and real life war. This might sound a bit pretentious, but it does make for some interesting reading.

I’m maybe leaving it late to be recommending a crossover that’s about halfway to completion but I’m sure the books can be found online somewhere and then of course at some point there will be the inevitable trade paperbacks. So, I guess if you only read one universe-changing, future-altering event this year, Civil War and Civil War Front Line would be a pretty good choice.

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