Marvel Comics launched the twelve-issue Secret Wars miniseries on an unsuspecting public in 1984.
In that series, for the first time, nearly the whole universe of Marvel heroes and villains was brought together in a single story, a story that--though it took place in between issues of all the regular monthly books (despite the miniseries itself taking a year to run its course)--had immediate consequences, some major, for a number of long-running characters. The Thing left the Fantastic Four to go walkabout in space; Spider-Man suddenly had a new, alien costume. Secret Wars was a big, big deal.
For more than thirty years now, Marvel and DC have been trying to replicate that excitement, and the sales it generated. By the time the second Secret Wars series arrived in 1985, Marvel had figured out that they should run the events concurrently with the timeline of the monthlies, and explicitly tie in as many of them as possible. That's the formula they've repeated nearly every year since. Sometimes the scale is smaller--a series will be confined to the X books, or the Avengers-affiliated titles--but the concept is the same: make a big Event that readers will feel they can't miss, which will lead them to buy more comics.
The closest Marvel has come to repeating that success was with its Civil War series in 2006.
In that series,the accidental destruction of a whole town and its inhabitants by a relatively young, little-trained superhero team leads Congress to pass a superhuman registration act, requiring anyone with superpowers to register, and to essentially become a military or policing agent of the government. This splits the heroes, and that split is embodied in the rift that develops between longtime best friends Tony Stark, who supports registration, and Steve Rogers, who views it as un-American.
I was largely on a hiatus from reading comics when Civil War was published, and its obvious political incoherence kept me away for years. The biggest problem with superhero comics is that they rest on a concept of vigilante justice that is insane; though occasionally comics have taken that question seriously, for the most part if you're going to read superhero comics, you have to basically pretend it's not an issue--no series will hold up if you give that question serious thought. But that problem is at the heart of the dispute in Civil War. Tony Stark is right: you can't have superpowered vigilantes running around. Cap's position is indefensible. Yet the way the government uses the registration act, which includes secret prisons and "rehabilitated" criminals put to nefarious uses, makes Stark's position impossible as well.
Read today, as I did (including every crossover--98 comics in all!) over the summer, Civil War remains almost wholly incoherent in its politics. What's most striking a decade on is how powerfully the issues bring back the air of America during the George W. Bush administration, to which the story is all but explicitly a reaction. For all the problems of the premise, and for all that the parallels are at times overplayed, the way it captures the inchoate, ambient fears and excesses of that period is striking.
What's most important, however, and what makes the story interesting despite its flaws, is that the central question is one that would divide heroes, along lines by which any fan could roughly sort them, and that say something interesting about the characters. Luke Cage, for example, is never going to trust the government, whereas Peter Parker can be coopted by Stark's authority and attention. It's a fundamentally interesting divide, and one that, especially when embodied by Steve and Tony, rests on, and draws power from, decades of storytelling.
For fans of long standing, watching Steve and Tony fight over a principle is painful, both because we've watched their friendship develop over decades and because we see how they each represent different aspects of heroism. They're at their best when they're working together; when they're irreconcilable, heroism feels imperiled to a degree that a villain like Doctor Doom can never threaten.
This past year, Marvel went back to the well for Civil War II. And while the politics of it are more interesting, the dividing question more legitimate, the results weren't nearly as good. The question? If you've got a hero whose power brings him visions of future crimes and disasters, how should you use that power? Can you ethically detain (or worse) people who have yet to commit a crime? Well, of course you can't. But what if he sees that the person in question is going to kill thousands and thousands of people?
Not an uninteresting dilemma, right? The problem, however, is that it's not a dilemma that naturally sorts people. It doesn't quite speak to a person's character or background the same way that registration did. (You could ally it to racial profiling, certainly, and get somewhere in sorting some characters, but that doesn't end up playing a big part for many characters in this story, in part perhaps because even today, after strenuous (and I think honest) efforts, the Marvel Universe remains pretty white.) The key antagonists this time, rather than Captain America and Tony Stark, are Captain Marvel and Tony Stark--and you could imagine either one on the other side without a lot of trouble. (Want to guess? OK: Captain Marvel is pro-precog crime prevention, Tony against.) The same goes for nearly every other character. So rather than a battle of ideologies, we get, well, just battles.
That said, the series did lead to two comics that I'm quite grateful for, and that demonstrate almost to a T the potential of endless serial narratives that continue for decades. Both are mostly about characters talking, with little to no fighting; they're about people coming to terms with themselves and their relationships to each other. In one, Invincible Iron Man #14, by Brian Michael Bendis and Mike Deodato, Tony goes to an AA meeting to get his head straight and focus on something other than the battle with Captain Marvel.
At the meeting, however, is . . . Captain Marvel, Carol Danvers, who is also a recovering alcoholic.
Their dialogue, constrained initially by the setting, which they both respect, is tentative, difficult, tense.
It feels real, and it feels like an actual place where these characters, with their backstories, together and apart, might have ended up.
The other is Scarlet Witch #9, by James Robinson and Joelle Jones, in which Wanda's brother, Pietro, the speedster known as Quicksilver, arrives to basically order her to sign up with Captain Marvel.
Pietro has been a persistent difficulty Wanda's whole life, in the way of siblings but taken a bit further. He's always been a domineering hothead, ready to give orders and judge and condemn while rarely looking at his own actions.
This time, for a number of reasons, Wanda has had enough. Watching Pietro realize that something has changed, that this relationship is now what it was, is wonderful for anyone who's been reading about these characters for decades.
Each of these stories is only twenty-two pages. The total word count can't be more than a couple thousand. But because these stories rest on nearly fifty years of earlier stories, we get so much from every panel, every word of dialogue; we see its refractions back through time and memory. It ends up bearing so much more weight, so much more power, than any standalone story could.
Month to month, reading superhero comics as an adult can be frustrating. No other medium with which I'm involved is as clearly deformed by the needs of the marketplace (like in its endless crossovers, to take but one example). So often it fails to realize its potential, brought down by simplicity, pathology, or the low and narrow expectations of its fan base. But every once in a while you get a comic like these two, and you remember why you're drawn to this medium, the connection it makes between your long-gone childhood self and the adult you who knows better but still looks to stories of people and events that are larger than ourselves but nonetheless, time and again, resolve to the human.