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War of Kings (Review/Retrospective)

This is the twelfth in a series of comic book reviews that will look at the direction of Marvel’s shared universe (particularly their “Avengers” franchise) over the past five or so years, as they’ve been attempting to position the property at the heart of their fictional universe. With The Avengers planned for a cinematic release in 2012, I thought I’d bring myself up to speed by taking a look at Marvel’s tangled web of continuity.

War of Kings is perhaps the best thing to come out of Secret Invasion. In fact, the miniseries went out of its way to highlight its links to the Marvel comics mega-event, with the story even kicking off in a Secret Invasion: War of Kings special (note the order there, it isn’t War of Kings: Secret Invasion). However, not withstanding the attempts to tie the series back to the high-selling mainstream events that Marvel was consistently churning out, War of Kings is essentially an epic space opera, the story of an interstellar war and alien politics, told with the wit and charm that writer Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning have made the cosmic line famous for. Tying it into Secret Invasion only serves to highlight the deficiencies with that event, as the writers here attempt the same sort of story with the same sort of themes, but with more skill and grace than the bigger event could off.

Now is the time...

I have to admit that I have never really enjoyed the Shi’ar as a feature of the Marvel Universe. It just seems odd how integral this alien species became to the X-Men, a comic essentially about acceptance and a shared humanity – the attempt to tell a space opera within that framework often felt a little bit tired and worn out. Perhaps it’s a reflection on the skill of Abnett and Lanning, but it really works here – I care more about Shi’ar politics than I did when Chris Claremont, Ed Brubaker or even Grant Morrison was writing about the subject. Somehow it seems more human – the writers draw Gladiator, in particular, as a character much easier to relate to.

At the same time, the story works as a way to restore some of Black Bolt’s reputation. Being honest, one of the most fascinating aspects of the way that Abnett and Lanning have worked within their cosmic sandbox is finding a way to play with or mend concepts which seem almost lacking or in need of a quick polish. One of the chapters here alludes to the work they did with the character Nova (“he went off into space and came back a big-time hero,” Chris remarks of Nova, “he really made something of himself” – plus he got an on-going title), and it’s a fair point that this is one of the best facets of recent Marvel cosmology.

If looks could kill...

It helps that Abnett and Lanning are able to add an element of tragedy to proceedings. Sure, they’re playing with silly-looking aliens, and they never take themselves too seriously (as Rocket Racoon tries to subdue Gladiator with a mop, for example), but there’s an almost classical sense to what is playing out. In the interviews collected at the back, the writers allude to I, Claudius, the groundbreaking BBC adaptation of the classic novel and – while it’s perhaps a little too pretentious – it certainly sets the mood. The politics playing out, from the tragedy of the Inhuman invasion of Kree space (“this day was inevitable,” Ronan observes) through to Lilandra’s attempt at “a restoration of legal authority”, all of this feels grand and yet doomed. It feels somewhat epic, yet never impersonal – it’s a sweeping saga where, despite everyone’s best efforts, the consequences will be devastating.

Though they may perhaps be too revisionist in their work on a character or two (perhaps the changes to the character of Darkhawk as presented here), they do find a way to make these concepts seem new and exciting – at their best, some ideas (like taking the Inhumans home to the Kree) are so straightforward and ingenious that it’s hard to believe nobody else thought of them earlier. As such, a concept which runs the risk of becoming stale – as with Black Bolt’s, his status in the Marvel Universe being reduced to serving as a minor interruption to the Hulk’s rampage in World War Hulk and being the victim of Skrull kidnapping in Secret Invasion – becomes exciting again.

On a wing and a prayer...

At its core, War of Kings is the story of Israel – it’s the story of a heavily persecuted and victimised minority who decide to stake out a claim for themselves and, in doing so, upset regional politics and provoke their neighbours. The Inhumans are a victimised people in the Marvel Universe – originally introduced as the cast off experiments of an alien race, and then repeatedly beaten and humiliated, suffering indignity after indignity, treated “as outcasts, as exiles, as freaks”. “The Inhumans are not going to be victims anymore,” Crystal declares at one point, espousing the policy of self-empowerment that has defined the Israeli state.

The conflict in War of Kings is not necessarily one dictated by realpolitik, but by bloodlust. Emperor Vulcan of the Shi’ar – who launches a campaign against his new neighbours based on a violation he perceived as “an invitation” – does not wish to force a surrender from his adversaries, nor to claim a sector or two of space. “I’m going to kill every last one of them!!!” Vulcan declares, advocating genocide and the desire to wipe his opponents out completely – were this a conflict confined to land, he would threaten to drive them into the sea.

It's a bit of a blur...

Although the Shi’ar Empire, particularly under the thumb of Vulcan, recalls the ancient Roman Empire (because we love “space Romans”), it bares some resemblance to the states that surround Israel – there is almost a religious underpinning to the “Fraternity of Raptors” as presented here, “created to keep the imperium strong… to make sure it endures forever.” This says nothing of the fundamentalist devotion that is required from members of the Imperial Guard, and the political instability demonstrated by the attempted revolutions and coups under Vulcan’s reign – perhaps much like the political instability and fragile regimes in the Middle East shortly after the departure of the foreign powers.

The invasion of Kree space by Vulcan seems to reflect the historic “Six Day War” between Israel and its neighbours. In both cases, the sovereign state was invaded by outside forces on a festival – Yom Kippur in Israel and the royal marriage of Ronan and Crystal here. It’s an ambush, orchestrated to strike as quickly and as deeply as possible. Indeed, in both the story and in real life, the aggressors claim ground quickly through the element of surprise. However, in both cases the defending nation repels the invasion and significantly increases its territorial claim.

A bolt from the black...

Even Black Bolt’s final recourse – an unthinkable weapon of untold destruction – recalls various rumours about Israel’s nuclear programme and the unsettling impact that the country’s possible possession of an ultimate weapon has upon its neighbours, as well as the sheer weight of the knowledge that such a weapon may have to be used as a measure of last resort at some point. Abnett and Lanning make the story seem relevant to the modern world in a way that Secret Invasion just couldn’t.

While the past few years have taught us to fear the possibility that unspeakably evil individuals could disguise themselves as our neighbours or our colleagues, somehow Secret Invasion was unable to make a particularly deep or interesting analysis using the metaphor of an invasion of shapeshifters – particularly those with a theological motivation. In contrast, without expressly exploring the religious aspect of things, War of Kings is the story of past political decisions coming back to haunt current governments – the impact of various policies and protocols initiated by individuals long since departed that have led to the preset state of conflict. The sequel, Realm of Kings, explores the notion of victors “losing the peace”, so to speak, and the further consequences of past actions, but Abnett and Lanning manage to make the current story seem particularly pointed, without ever seeming especially forced or heavy-handed.

Vulcan had to deal with some criticism from some talking heads...

The hardcover collecting the event is fairly massive, collecting the prologue, the six-issue miniseries, the War of Kings: Ascension and War of Kings: Darkhawk spin-off miniseries and the on-line War of Kings: Warriors issues along with a whole selection of goodies. It’s great to have these issues collected in one place, and it’s nice that it doesn’t feel like Marvel is copping out – the cosmic crossover hardcovers don’t just collect the events themselves, but all the assorted secondary materials. Literally the only thing missing are the Guardians of the Galaxy and Nova tie-ins, although either (or both) series would do well to be consistently collected in oversized hardcover.

At times, the Darkhawk miniseries feels like a rather conscious attempt to launch another on-going series, when I suspect the market wasn’t really there for two on-going Marvel cosmic titles, let alone a third. I have to confess that, before picking up this hardcover, I had no notion of the character of Darkhawk, but I do get the sense that the writers are making some pretty big changes to the character’s status quo. The supplementary material includes a quote from Robert Kirkman describing Darkhawk as “the Spider-Man of the 90’s”, but here he’s given a backstory not too dissimilar to DC’s Green Lantern or Marvel’s Nova.

The hawks are circling...

The twist in the tale, however, is a kicker. “We’re the bad guys?” Chris asks astonished, after being fooled into believing he was being inducted into some galactic peacekeeping order. It’s a fun twist on the classic “chosen one of many” gimmick, merging it a little bit with the classic sci-fi concept of parasitic possession, and it certainly puts a different twist on the character from what came before. Without sounding too defensive or judgemental, if the previous set-up had been working, there would be no need to rework the character – and I’m glad that Abnett and Lanning took the time to do so.

The Ascension miniseries cuts in and out of the main narrative, most of time in very clever ways. When I read the War of Kings miniseries and then read the Ascension miniseries, the scenes actually worked quite well together – I got the idea that I was receiving an extended and textured narrative. It all fits together surprisingly well, despite the fact that any person just reading the two Darkhawk issues would have a tough time relating them to the main plot.

Ronan could chair some meetings for them...

My only possible complaint – and it is a very minor one – is that none of the lead-in material is included. So there’s relatively little set-up involved before the event kicks off. Even a second hardcover featuring prologue material setting up the two key camps – the Inhumans in Secret Invasion: Inhumans and the Shi’ar in X-Men: Emperor Vulcan – would have been nice, as the early cosmic crossovers (particularly Annihilation) have been effectively self-contained, while this draws on disconnected narrative strands. However, this is a minor complaint.

I say that this is a minor complaint because Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning don’t assume that the reader has read every Chris Claremont X-Men issue or every Fantastic Four issue. When they introduce characters to the plot, they don’t assume the audience is familiar with them – we are given an effective definition of character and status quo. It’s an efficient means of storytelling, and it helps that the Warriors issues do provide insights into particular characters. This has a big advantage over stories like The Rise and the Fall of the Shi’ar Empire because it makes sure the audience is familiar with the characters before it puts them in mortal peril.

Is he Glad it's over?

War of Kings is a success, definitely one of the better crossovers Marvel has produced in the last number of years, along any branch of continuity. It is epic in scale, and yet charming and engaging. It is tragic, but never self-important. It is complex, but accessible. Like Annihilation before it, it sets an example that most other of these events would do well to follow.

You might be interested in our reviews and discussions of this cycle of Marvel cosmic events:

3 Responses

  1. This is also getting re-released next August for the upcoming ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ film. I guess it’s a good time to take the opportunity and discover these great stories for myself.

    • I really did like the cosmic events cycle. Wonderfully constructed, and I think it benefited from a consistent artistic vision.

      • I’ll definitely take you word for it (until I read it all myself, at least). Thankfully the cosmic story cycle is gaining a new audience by way of the appearances of the Guardians of the Galaxy on ‘Avengers Earth’s Mightiest Heroes’ and ‘Ultimate Spider-Man’, and their upcoming film. Marvel is wise enough to take the opportunity to bring in these new fans by re-releasing the cycle (hopefully everything will get re-released).

        James Gunn has also come out as a fan of Abnett and Lanning’s work, inviting them to visit the UK set (http://splashpage.mtv.com/2013/08/06/guardians-of-the-galaxy-creators-uk-set/). It’s great to see such good work get the recognition it undoubtedly deserves, and it’s a good time for this recognition to spread among the general public.

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