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J. Michael Straczynski’s Run on The Fantastic Four – Civil War (Review/Retrospective)

To celebrate the release of Thor: The Dark World towards the end of next month, we’ll be looking at some Thor and Avenger-related comics throughout September. Check back weekly for the latest reviews and retrospectives.

J. Michael Stracynski’s Fantastic Four tie-in to Civil War is a strange beast, in that it seems to exist more as a collection of talking points and plot beats than as compelling narrative in its own right. Using the safe camouflage of a tie-in to a massive line-wide event, Straczynski is not only able to sneakily set-up his pending Thor run, but also to vent quite liberally about his own feelings on post-9/11 America. The result is a story which feels disjointed and far too talky, a simplistic and familiar opinion piece dressed up as a Fantastic Four story.

Yes. Yes there is...

Yes. Yes there is…

Straczynski is an interesting figure. On the one hand, he’s the creator of Babylon 5, one of the most respected cult science-fiction shows of the nineties. He’s a successful screenwriter in his own right. Whatever about the critical reception to Changeling, his work on the script earned him a BAFTA nomination. He is responsible for the screen story to World War Z, one of the surprise hits of the summer. (Although cynics might argue that the film’s success owes little to its screen story.)

On the other hand, Straczynski is a creator who has a complicated relationship to comic books, developing a reputation as a writer who never really finishes what he starts. His Thor run ended with a whimper, forcing the wonderful Kieron Gillen to step in and tie up all those dangling loose ends after Straczynski refused to write the event that would become Siege. He began two high-profile writing gigs on both Superman and Wonder Woman at the same time, only to hand over the reins on those before finishing.

A wrong-thinking individual...

A wrong-thinking individual…

He’s still a creator who polarises fan opinion. His latest comic book work – Superman: Earth One – is massively contentious, with some people loving his new and modernised take on the Man of Steel while others are less than impressed. I feel like I should weigh in my opinion of Straczynski as a creator, seen as it’s often quite hard to separate the man from his work. I despise Grounded, his “back-to-basics” Superman story which had the Man of Steel walking across America to get lectured about how he can’t cure cancer and so on. I thought his Wonder Woman had potential, but the outcome was ultimately disappointing.

On the other hand, I loved his Thor, despite the fact that it was essentially unfinished. Although some of his work on The Brave and the Bold skewed just a little bit too conservative for me, I also think that he wrote one of the finest Aquaman stories ever committed to paper in Night Gods. I really liked the first half of his Amazing Spider-Man run, which was exactly what the character needed to bring him into the twenty-first century, but I started to loose interest around the half-way point. The less said about the ending, which Straczynski has disowned, the better.

And hell rode with him...

And hell rode with him…

It is worth noting that Straczynski himself is less than happy with how Civil War turned out. Indeed, one of his biggest problems with the event lies at the heart of his work here on The Fantastic Four:

I’m all for crossovers if they benefit the individual books.  But it was feeling more and more like the individual characters were being bent towards the event in ways I didn’t think were appropriate.  I mean to make Reed Richards a bad guy in Civil War… I just never bought into that.  And that Captain America would surrender to a mob?  I never bought into that.  The more you have characters doing things that they wouldn’t do, because you want it for an event, I just had an increasingly hard time with that.  And you can see why after a while, I pulled back from that.

I’ll concede that I am cynical when it comes to big event books. I hate that Ed Brubaker’s Captain America run was so coldly interrupted by Civil War, derailing a lot of the momentum of his own story in order to draw the character into a high-profile crossover. I think that Matt Fraction’s Invincible Iron Man had to stumble over Secret Invasion to get going.

Something to sink your teeth into...

Something to sink your teeth into…

However, there is a bit of a catch here. It’s one of the biggest problems with Civil War as an event, and one of the biggest flaws with Straczynski’s work here. Quite frankly, Reed Richards shouldn’t be “a bad guy” here. One of the stronger hooks of Civil War, and something which the event never quite managed to live up to, was the idea that it would put the characters up in arms about big political issues. The analogy to post-9/11 America is hardly subtle, as Iron Man clamours for security while Captain America champions liberty.

There should be no “bad guy” in this debate. To suggest that one half of the political spectrum is inherently right and that the other half is inherently wrong is arbitrary and inflammatory. It defeats the purpose of trying to construct a metaphor for post-9/11 America, if you intend to paint one side of the debate as out-and-out villains. The appeal of the central concept of Civil War is seeing our heroes faced with a debate which has no singular right answer.

Dropping the hammer...

Dropping the hammer…

The problem is that the comics didn’t see it that way – even head writer Mark Millar is guilty to some extent, having Iron Man recruit convicted villains to hunt former allies, organise “cape killers” to tackle superhero resistance and construct extra-dimensional internment without trial. Over the course of Civil War, Iron Man went from a character with a defensible moral position to an out-and-out supervillain.

The character of Tony Stark was damaged so severely by the event that writers like Matt Fraction and Brian Michael Bendis spent the next few years trying to repair him. That this damage occurred in the same year that Iron Man launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe feels like the comic book writers shooting themselves in the foot, reducing a now-iconic hero to a stereotypical bad guy who stops just short of twirling his moustache.

Hell raising...

Hell raising…

While there’s enough blame to spread around for the decision to turn the characters in favour of registration into bad guys, Straczynski was a major part of that movement, writing both Fantastic Four and The Amazing Spider-Man. In both books, Straczynski is writing characters very close to the heart of the debate, and in both cases he comes down fairly unambiguously on the side of Captain America, favouring liberty over security.

The problem is that Straczynski lacks any sense of nuance. He seems afraid to concede that the opposition viewpoint might possibly be sincere or legitimate. The Fantastic Four find themselves divided by the issue. Sue and Johnny are anti-registration. The Thing migrates to Paris. Reed is in favour of Tony Stark’s policy. However, Reed is also shown to be both an idiot and morally bankrupt. Musing on his decisions, Straczynski has the character concede that perhaps he’s lost touch with humanity.

A familiar Doom...

A familiar Doom…

“I don’t think about the result, about the person in the containment tube about to be interred in a negative zone prison,” he explains. “I think only about the numbers. And I realise — maybe that’s what I’ve always done.” When Sue asks Reed to justify himself, all Reed offers is “Because it’s the law! Because it’s right!” The fact that he equates the two so quickly and so absolutely makes him seem like an unquestioning fool. As Johnny points out, superheroing has never been about the law. It is about right and wrong independent of the law.

“You break the law all the time,” Johnny suggests. “The night we all got our powers? You stole the spaceship. The FF overthrows an extraterrestrial government three times a year. We’ve depose evil warlords, defied gods.” It’s a fairly effective and smart way of dismantling Reed’s suggestion that he is obligated to follow the law. It’s a stupid argument, even before Straczynski has Sue repeatedly break Godwin’s Law, and turns the comic into a full-on filibuster for the author.

An Illuminati discussion...

An Illuminati discussion…

Straczynski can be a great writer, but he’s also insufferable when asked to express his political views. Grounded saw Superman reconnecting with the real America in the most trite and shallow way possible. Here, he makes fairly overt comparisons between Tony Stark and the Nazis. “So in helping Tony round up heroes, people we’ve fought beside, called our friends, just because they won’t betray their principles, you’re ‘just following orders’, is that it?” Sue demands. “Seems we’ve heard that before.” When Reed makes the perfectly legitimate argument “that’s not fair”, she snidely replies, “Truth hurts. That’s what it does.”

As if one on-the-nose Nazi/holocaust reference wasn’t enough, Sue later suggests, “So you’re just following orders. Is that it? Isn’t that what they said when the Nazis took whole sections of the population they didn’t like, Jews and Gypsies and troublemakers, and herded them into cattle cars for train rides to places like Auschwitz and Treblinka?” It feels like lazy writing, a cheap shot at a political strawman. Straczynski blusters so hard that some of his more well-observed commentary gets drowned out by the hackneyed cliché.

The not-so-secret Avengers...

The not-so-secret Avengers…

“Disagreement isn’t disloyalty, Ben,” Sue assures her team mate. “Sometimes the most patriotic thing you can do in a democracy is disagree.” The Thing, the most human of the characters, caught in the middle, tries to calm to tempers, “Look, just because somebody doesn’t agree with how something’s bein’ done, that doesn’t make ’em any less a patriot than anybody else.” However, even this appeal to moderation and attempt to encourage reasoned debate is undermined by the fact that Straczynski is as subtle as a sledgehammer.

He actually has a minor character exclaim, “We don’t have powers, we’re not gonna take down Galactus tomorrow, but we gotta stand up for what’s right, y’know?” Later on, the same character winds up dead, as a cheap way to underscore just how horrible and tragic all this is. Ben Grimm cradles the dead body in his arms, lamenting, “Look at what you’re freakin’ war has done. He was just a kid!” And, of course, there’s the none-too-subtle suggestion that the United States has become a fascist state. “What, you saying that because I speak out against a government policy, I can’t leave the country?” Ben asks when he’s harassed by men in suits at the airport.

A hell of a time...

A hell of a time…

Reed is put in the position of attempting to justify his position, but Straczynski seems to lack the ability to put himself on the other side of the political debate. He can’t seem to concede that there might be a legitimate justification for Reed’s decisions and actions, so he presents Reed as stupid and short-sighted and inhuman. Relating the story of his uncle’s experiences with the House Un-American Activities Committee, Reed winds up making an argument against his position, even though he’s too stupid to realise it.

In case the reader doesn’t pick up on it, Straczynski casts Peter Parker as the voice of reason. “Sounds like your uncle was a very brave guy,” Peter tells Reed. With all the subtlety of a punch in the face, Reed arrogantly responds, “You’re missing the point, Peter.” Reed loses his way so badly that he even recruits a supervillain to helps set him right. Even the Thinker can spot the logicla flaws with Reed’s decision-making process – watching Reed “understanding every intricacy of the big picture, while blindly walking further and further down the path of evil.”

They're all puppets...

They’re all puppets…

In the end, the best argument that Straczynski can make in defence of Reed’s position is an appeal to the science-fiction of Isaac Asimov. It would make a nice a supporting structure for a stronger argument, but it isn’t strong enough to support the necessary weight on its own. And Sue easily dismisses it by suggesting that it’s invalid because it fails to take into account the capacity of individual people within a larger social structure.

The Civil War tie-in feels like a bit of a waste, contributing to the sense that Civil War was never really an event built around moral ambiguity – it was just a comic where the bad guy happened to be Iron Man. It’s a shame, because Straczynski actually writes a rather superb version of Ben Grimm. In particular, the Thing’s adventures in Paris are remarkably fun, even if Straczynski’s attempts to cast Paris as some sort of nostalgic throwback to simpler comic book times (complete with homage to Fantastic Four #1 and various classic superhero archetypes) feel a little on the nose.

The hole in things...

The hole in things…

It’s particularly perplexing, because it’s fairly easy to morally justify Tony Stark and Reed Richards’ position. After all, the government registers fire-arms and monitors the possession of various dangerous substances. If those substances happen to be biological, why should they be exempt from regulation? After all, the potential dangers caused by people like this are not necessarily restricted to cases of malice or terrorism – anybody misunderstanding their power could potentially be a risk to themselves or others.

What if Franklin Richards hadn’t been raised by the Fantastic Four, or people familiar with superpowers? Imagine the damage that he might have caused to the fabric of reality. There’s a very strong argument in favour of registration without conflating it with the holocaust or attempted genocide or anything like that. The problem is that none of the writers seem willing to engage with those sorts of issues. It doesn’t matter if the writers agree with these ideas personally, it matters that they convince us the characters can. (Even Brian Michael Bendis, the most even-handed of tie-in authors, dances around the issue in his New Avengers work.)

Being Frank...

Being Frank…

It’s also notable how much of this Civil War tie-in is devoted to various odds-and-ends of Marvel’s comic book continuity, as much as serving as its own story. It serves, for example, to return Doom to the land of the living following his exile to Hell during Mark Waid’s tenure on the title. It also spends considerable time setting up writer J. Michael Straczynski’s pending Thor book, which would be launched in the wake of Civil War. In many ways, this tie-in seems to be more a collection of loose ends than a story of itself.

The Fantastic Four tie-in is actually a perfect encapsulation of a lot of the flaws with Civil War, and the difficulties raised by fact that the writers seem to lean quite heavily to one side of the political debate that the comic is trying to tackle.

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4 Responses

  1. “It’s particularly perplexing, because it’s fairly easy to morally justify Tony Stark and Reed Richards’ position. After all, the government registers fire-arms and monitors the possession of various dangerous substances. If those substances happen to be biological, why should they be exempt from regulation? After all, the potential dangers caused by people like this are not necessarily restricted to cases of malice or terrorism – anybody misunderstanding their power could potentially be a risk to themselves or others.”

    Thank you! That’s my biggest problem with the whole run of comics. If all it had been was an obnoxiously heavy-handed Patriot Act allegory, I’d probably just remember it as a guilty pleasure…

    … but, the subject matter really doesn’t lend itself to Patriot Act allegories. All the Registration Act is saying is “if you want to put on tights and go around policing the public, you, like any other police, need *some* kind of accountability to that public.” Which is quite another thing from Sentinels rounding up mutants and carving numbers in their foreheads. It’s not just sensible, it’s exactly how we’d react if something like superheroes actually happened.

    The frustrating thing is that there *is* a case to be made for superheroes being independent actors, too – it’s the one Spiderman makes in front of Congress, when he says people like him are the last line of defense for those who’ve fallen through society’s cracks, and that turning them into just another police force, guided by the politicians’ priorities, means they won’t be able to do that anymore. I’d have loved to see more of that argument.

    But mostly, that’s not the argument the anti-Registration side makes – their argument is “it is my God damn constitutional RIGHT to go around policing the world, and you’re a fascist if you try to set up any mechanism of accountability.” … Alright, I’m confused; *which* side of the civil war was supposed to represent the out-of-control police state again? I’m not at all sure it’s the one the authors intended.

    (Honorable exception for the Iron Man tie-in to the Civil War comics, where he and Cap meet up and try to talk things out one last time, because it actually allows Stark to make his case).

    • Yep. The 9/11 metaphors feel bold, but they also hamstring the comic – particularly in the years since it was originally published. After all, many liberals – and I suspect many people writing comics about how terrible Tony Stark and Reed Richards were – would support gun control laws being tightened. Turning it into the super-patriot act, and in particular – as you note – arguing that superheroes have an inalienable right to impose their idea of law and order, feels like it short-changes what was – at least originally an interesting hook.

  2. Did you read the final issue of Fantastic Four, #542, that crossed over with Civil War? That one was not written by JMS, but by the very talented Dwayne McDuffie. And it was much better.

    McDuffie had to engage in some furious back-peddling to make the issue work, but in the end it comes out quite well. He reveals that when he was 12 years old Reed Richards read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels. Reed was so intrigued by the concept of “Psychohistory,” the utilization of mathematics to accurately predict the future, that he decided to go ahead and actually invent a version of it himself.

    As Reed explains to the Mad Thinker, he eventually succeeded, but all of his forecasts for the future of the Earth predict “A series of societal earthquakes, powerful enough to utterly destroy humanity. Conflicts beyond anything that’s ever happened. The deaths of billions.” Every single time Reed “ran the numbers” each scenario was worse than the last. Until one day Tony Stark proposed the Superhuman Registration Act. Reed explains that “It was the only possible choice. In the other scenarios, mankind does not survive.”

    This was a hell of a lot better than the insane rationale JMS has Reed provide with his uncle being broken by the Communist witch hunts. Indeed, McDuffie has Reed admit that was a lie, a fiction he invented because… well, McDuffie isn’t really able to devise a good reason for why Reed lied to Sue, other than he wanted to “protect” her.

    But, anyway, at least McDuffie devises a believable reason why Reed supported Registration. In face, Reed admits that he is unhappy with the Act, but he genuinely believes that without it humanity is literally doomed.

    Anyway, FF #542 certainly added some much needed nuance to the Civil War crossover, although coming so late in the story it was pretty much the equivalent of shutting the barn door after all the horses had escaped to charge off down the hill into a six lane interstate highway where they were all horribly mangled in a series of gruesome traffic accidents.

    • A general rule of principle suggests McDuffie > Straczynski. Oddly enough, McDuffie had done something similar to Civil War on Justice League with Bruce Timm, albeit focusing on the “superhero accountability” aspect rather than the “heroes split on the issue” side of thing, and sticking to something quite close to Millar’s original “… and then the Hulk shows up and everybody puts their differences aside” ending.

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