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Acts of Vengeance: Fantastic Four vs. Congress (Review/Retrospective)

April (and a little bit of May) are “Avengers month” at the m0vie blog. In anticipation of Joss Whedon’s superhero epic, we’ll have a variety of articles and reviews published looking at various aspects of “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.”

In celebration of the release of The Avengers, this weekend we’re taking a look at the massive 1989-90 crossover “Acts of Vengeance”, which pitted various villains against some unlikely heroes. I’ll be looking at some of the most fun match-ups. This arc is collected in the companion omnibus.

The more I read of Acts of Vengeance and its related crossovers, the more I think that the collections work best as a slice of Marvel, capturing a couple of issues from a vast array of creative teams working on a huge number of titles, to give a sampling of Marvel’s output at the time. Walt Simonson’s Fantastic Four is very highly regarded by quite a few fans of the comic book series. While it arguably hasn’t become as popular as John Byrne’s Fantastic Four or even Mark Waid’s Fantastic Four, I have to admit that I’m delighted to be able to sample three issues collected in a nice oversized hardcover. Simonson seems to gently (or not-so-gently) mock the premise of the event itself, but his three issue story arc here is fascinating and decades ahead of its time.

No, Ben, we ain’t…

Acts of Vengeance saw a bunch of Marvel’s biggest bad guys effectively swap partners and take on somewhat unconventional adversaries. This, understandably, worked better for villains associated with more street level heroes. Kingpin got to send a huge number of super-powered baddies against Spider-Man, while he dispatched Doctor Doom against the Punisher and Ultron against Daredevil. These are, of course, villains who have given the Avengers a run for their money, so it seems like Kingpin is getting a bit of a bargain.

Logically, this creates a problem at the other end of the scale. The Fantastic Four traditionally face world-ending threats and super-genius villains, so it seems a bit lopsided when they come under siege from a collection of barely-recognisable bad guys. “Yer kiddin’, right?” the Thing asks on the cover, and each of the three issues has the character commenting overtly on the situation. Sharon remarks, “Well, if it is open season on the FF, we’d better class up our act. We’re obviously attracting a lower order of villains.”

Smoke ’em if you got ’em…

When low-tier villain Ramrod interrupts the Subcommittee meeting, the guy sitting next to him asks “Who–?” and the news media can’t be bothered to get his name right. Even the super-genius Reed struggles to identify the wealth of nobodies who come out of the woodwork to harass the team. The storyline barely acknowledge the main crossover. It isn’t Loki organising these attacks, as one would expect.

It’s Doctor Doom who reveals himself as the mastermind of the team’s random confrontations with lower-order villains. Even Doom doesn’t seem convinced by Loki’s plan. “A foolish idea concocted by some who considered themselves my equals,” Doom muses. “It seemed the proper opportunity for a jest.” These skirmishes aren’t part of a big Marvel crossover event, they are Doctor Doom’s idea of a practical joke. Much like Louise Simonson on X-Factor, Walt Simonson seems to making the argument that Acts of Vengeance ultimately undermines the characterisation of these iconic villains. Doctor Doom doesn’t want to watch somebody else defeat Reed Richards, as that would imply he couldn’t do it himself.

An adept adaptoid…

In fact, Simonson doesn’t seem especially bothered with Acts of Vengeance, treating it more like a secondary concern. The opening issue uses these random attacks as a recurring gag, as numerous intruders do little more than interrupt Reed’s research and cost him “a few pennies on [his] phone bill” ringing the cops to collect them. The main thrust of these three issues sees Reed and the team heading to Washington to deal with a superhero registration act. “Yes!” one title playfully boasts. “It’s the FF vs. Congress in… Death by Debate!”

The concept probably sounds familiar. After all, Mark Millar’s Civil War was based around a similar proposal. It even featured Reed Richards on the opposite side of the debate, advocating for the regulation of superheroes. A lot of commentators are quick to argue that this represents inconsistent characterisation, but I’m somewhat more understanding. Different writers have different takes on core characters – I’ve never bought the argument that any comic book character is consistently characterised over fifty decades of publication under different writers. More than that, Simonson wrote his Acts of Vengeance tie-in in a world very different from Mark Millar’s Civil War.

Acting out…

Simonson’s Fantastic Four is much more interested in the debate and discussion itself. Simonson clever constructs the case for and against such regulation, suggesting precedents and methodologies that could be used to support it. It’s actually quite fascinating to see such procedural logic applied to a superhero comic, with characters even pondering how the separation of powers would impact such legislation. “Using Draft Registration as a guide,” Henry Gyrich suggests, “it would be easy enough to implement a superhuman registration that would stand a Supreme Court test.”

I’m a bit of a legal nerd, and it’s clear that Simonson has put a huge amount of thought into the idea of a hypothetical superhero registration act in the Marvel fictional universe. Commentators cite the fictional precedent of mutant registration, while referencing the real-world draft registration, and making comparisons to side-arms. It is all remarkably thoughtful and well-constructed. While there’s a definite liberal leaning to the debate (with Henry Gyrich presented as something of an eccentric right-winger), and Reed “cheats” a bit in convincing the congressmen to drop the idea (“did I see that you had the gain cranked up to maximum sensitivity?”), it’s sill quite clever and very astute.

Ain’t nuthin’ but a Thing…

That said, I do love that Reed essentially justifies his position by making the case that the Marvel Universe operates on its own unique principles. “And in this world,” he states, “super heroes do a job nobody else can do.” It reminds me of the way that Reed determined that Ben Grimm would always be the Thing in 1602, because the laws of narrative demand it. If Reed is truly the smartest person in the universe, one suspects that he must have some level of awareness of the fictional nature of his existence. It’s a nice little touch.

I have to admit, I’m curious to read more of Simonson’s Fantastic Four. If these three issues are any indication, it looks to be a very fascinating take on the iconic family.

In celebration of Acts of Vengeance, we’ve taken a look at some of the more memorable tie-ins and crossovers:

2 Responses

  1. Just wanted to let you know I thoroughly enjoyed this article as well as the main Acts of Vengeance one. That one is one of my all-time favorites too, especially for the all too brief Magneto VS. red Skull fight we saw.

    Yeah Reed switching stances in Civil War really does go completely against his stance here. Too bad Millar never but the amount of thought and detail into the reasonings for the pro-registration side that Simonson does here. No wonder the whole thing fell flat, not to mention we never really got a definite answers which side was right, considering just how bad and mis-characterized folks like Tony and Reed were, especially in regards to using known unredeemable supervillains and the secret Negative Zone prison(shades of Guantanamo Bay) just for the sake of trying to show that Stark’s argument was right. So flimsy.

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