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Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Heroic Age And Its Discontents

One year ago, Marvel's big thing was the Heroic Age, returning to a place of heroes being heroes and villains being villains after years of Civil Wars and Dark Reigns. Today, this is giving way for Fear Itself, which so far has the Marvel Universe public returning to their usual state of apocalyptic panic and incompetent xenophobia. The age of the bright, cheery shared universe status quo is ending, in favor of Mighty Marvel chaos and trepidation.

And I, for one, am relieved by this development.

The Heroic Age reminded me of Civil War in the sense that the only good titles published under that banner were rebelling AGAINST the basic premise, wether intentional or not. When Civil War was going on, the framework set up by Mark Millar was so shoddy that every other writer ended up contradicting the original intention, as seen in stories where Iron Man is portrayed as an outright villain (which, to be fair, is the only thing you can do with the creator of Clor) instead of one of two morally relative sides, or stories where the heroes' attempts to capture actual wrong-doers are hobbled by bureaucracy and petty in-fighting. The Heroic Age doesn't suffer from the same problem in the sense that it's not a poorly built world-- the premise is pretty straightforward. The problem with the Heroic Age is that the setup is anti-dramatic.

Marvel's marketing of the Heroic Age was the kind of "everything's going to be alright" optimism seen during Obama's inauguration, and lost after reality set in. Because the Marvel Universe is fictional, the authors could convincingly sweep the recent past under the rug and move forward, as seen by Cyclops dodging any and all penalties for his sins in X-Force. But by the same token, peace and prosperity is NOT ideal for a fictional universe. Conflict is what motivates good drama, but the Heroic Age moved the Marvel Universe into a peacetime state, with the conflicts largely regressed back to isolated supervillain fisticuffs.

If this meant a return to books that were relatively self-contained with shared universe compatibility becoming optional, I would be all for the Heroic Age. But Marvel launched it as the new status quo for all the books. The new Director of SHIELD, a job whose occupant is required to appear in every Marvel book, is Steve Rogers. Since his reputation makes Abraham Lincoln look like a child pornographer, he'll never be caught doing the kinds of morally dubious things Nick Fury and Tony Stark had to do (and which gave Norman Osborn a hard-on). His Avengers are basically every hero under the sun, pro-registration and anti-registration alike (though that issue's been removed). And his enmity with Tony Stark was resolved in Avengers Prime, which amounted to an Asgardian adventure making Tony beg for forgiveness (despite having a good case for pro-registration, random acts of evil like Clor aside), and Steve forgiving him.

The X-Men's DeciMation dilemma was resolved, but in a half-assed way that swept the issue of the limited mutant population under the rug and exonerated Cyclops for unforgivable sins-- note how Steve Rogers doesn't seem to know about X-Force, the Legacy Virus strain in Secret Invasion, or other war crimes. Their first Heroic Age story basically ignored the hard questions and had them fight vampires, offering little more than inconsequential fight scenes and Twilight-bandwagoning*. Daredevil's descent into fanaticism would have been justified by what he'd been through and what the heroes had conveniently forgotten, but it turned out that it was just a demon using him as a meat-puppet. And the Secret Avengers' first mission (not sure about their later ones) hardly fit the tone that black ops requires, instead having them fight villains on Mars. As Ellis put it (IIRC), it's secret because nobody cares.

The books that have been genuinely compelling in the Heroic Age have been the ones questioning this optimism. Avengers Academy is the best example, because it deals with the kids traumatized by Norman Osborn's experiments, and has them counseled by the Avengers with the most baggage of their own. Captain America has made a big deal about how Bucky can't escape his past, especially when standing next to a living Steve Rogers. And the new X-Force, with Wolverine leading a team of hardened anti-heroes instead of child soldiers, openly acknowledges that some situations will require resolutions that can't be seen in the Heroic Age. Of course, these are all stories going against the nature of the Heroic Age's naive optimism. They're saying, don't let the bright marketing fool you-- the life of a hero still casts shadows.

What's been the most interesting example of the Heroic Age's tension is Stark Resilient, the first post-lobotomy story by Matt Fraction and Salvador Larocca. Thanks to erasing his brain (and the Registration Database with it), Tony doesn't remember any of his Civil War-era sins. But he's pieced together what he's done, and has almost completely stepped out of the military-industrial complex that informs modern superhero stories. Not only has he retired from his role as all-seeing police chief a la Major Zero**, but he's given up trying to engage in conflict unless provoked. His goal is to win wars preemptively by eliminating reasons for conflict, be it with the repulsor batteries threatening to replace oil, or by creating new jobs in the rebuilding of Asgard. Unfortunately, his engagement with the bad guys has gone beyond self-defense and towards an obstructive pacifism, as he simply tries to avoid conflict rather than resolving it (as seen by his show of faux-groveling in the Doc Ock story). He'll have to once more learn that sometimes force is a necessary solution, and that some enemies can't be coaxed with the promise of an improved quality of life.

Still, it's preferable to slugging vampires.

*Thank God Jubilee lost her original mutant powers, otherwise she'd be a Sparkling Vampire.

** If you've played Metal Gear Solid 4, you know just how well this comparison fits.


  1. You've articulated a very good reason why the "Heroic Age" was boring as all hell, but I'll offer a different one: I was actually interested in seeing the long road to rebuilding the Marvel Universe after all of their Civil Warring, Secret Invading and Dark Reigning. We'd need to deal with the fallout of the Invasion, the SHRA, and the political equipment in place that allowed Osborn to abuse the system so easily...

    Oh, what's that? We're just gonna' do a reset? It's all better because Steve Rogers is back? Ah, well. Forget all that, then.

    (Which is the EXACT same trick they pulled with Spider-Man's corner of the universe regarding the consequences of his actions during and after Civil War. Just less demonic. Sensing a pattern, here...)

    I also love how the qualifications for being Director of SHIELD appears to be nothing more than having achieved anything somewhat positive the same week the previous director screwed up. Stark, Osborn, and Rogers all got the job the exact same way, and each time we're assured *this* guy's our guy. The only difference this time is that everyone in the Marvel U is practically volunteering to perform fellatio on Steve. And they say Geoff Johns writes like a fanboy...

  2. Cont'd from above...

    Even Fear Itself has a villain that's basically the personification of a negative emotion, a new player among the dozen or so one-dimensionally wicked "fear gods" and demons Marvel already had. Thor himself has at least two already: the Lurking Unknown from the Lee/Kirby era and the Dark Man, who was introduced in the early 1980s as the Asgardian personification of fear. And for that matter, the fear-demon called the Dweller-In-Darkness was first created as part of a Thor plotline in the 1970s about fear possessing ordinary civilians...

    One of the odd things about Steve Rogers, by the way, is that he hasn't recreated an organization -- there's actually no successor to SHIELD/HAMMER right now, as I understand it. Secret Avengers could have been a book that was more deliberately about why "more Avengers" can't replace a real black ops group, but bizarrely Brubaker seems to have taken the premise seriously.

    It's not optimism that's the problem, it's writers who have no idea how to write optimism except *as* naivete, and think that a Heroic Age means that the moral palette must be limited to two shades.

  3. Nuts. It at the first half of my very long response. Suffice it say that I was arguing that optimism doesn't have to mean naivete, and that I gave examples of the way the Heroic Age's binary moralism is the deeper problem with the way the concept was executed.

    I pointed out that a side effect is that villains and heroes alike cease to have complex motives or plans. The new Red Skull's random wickedness compared to the old one's admittedly dated ideological underpinnings was one example. So too were the frankly incomprehensible actions of Baron Zemo and Doctor Faustus in various Captain America and Far Itself stories, action which moved the plot along but come from nothing resembling consistent or credible character motivations.

    I also point to the way Iron Man's current villains have a perfectly good scam going with Detroit Steel but, through the inertia of continuity, gratuitously attack Tony even though he's taken himself off the board and out of their way. They hate him mostly because they're Iron Man villains and thus are supposed to hate him, not because anything else they're doing currently requires them to clash with Tony Stark in particular.

    Oh, and I suggested that Fraction's Iron Man may or may not be deliberately deconstructing both optimism--portrayed-as-naivete and the one-dimensionality of the villains that the Heroic Age has created.

  4. Well, Omar, how are we defining Optimism? Some sort of optimism is necessary to be a hero and believe your sacrifices will amount to something beneficial to people. However, there's optimism as personal hope, and then there's optimism as a marketing tool, a (stereotypically) Capraesque warm-and-fuzziness that hopes to lull the audience into a docile, less critical state. The Heroic Age, if in brand more than individual stories, does the latter. I was actually with Zemo in his desire to drag Bucky through the muck, because he could've gotten off way too easily.

    And I do think that Fraction is deconstructing the premise (albeit with varying degrees of success), by having the villains circle the wagons in an attempt to prove that the evil personas into which they've invested so much time, money, and ego still matter.

  5. Was there ever a "warm-and-fuzziness" or a starry-eyed optimism in the Heroic Age stories? I remember Marvel in their press about the Heroic Age saying specifically that those stories weren't just going to be "everything is swell" tales and I don't remember reading any that really qualify as being like that. It was, to me, just that things weren't in the crapper like they were during the Civil War and Dark Reign.

    The idea that Steve Rogers is director of SHIELD is a good one but I agree that I don't like what's been done, or actually, what's NOT been done with that. I don't see a problem with how he (or Stark) got the jobs. Tee leader left and they needed a new one and someone was picked. Obama just asked CIA head Leon Pinetta to step down and replaced him with general Petraeus which seems like a similar event.

    But what has been done? As Omar said, is there a SHIELD now? Where are the agents? Steve isn't shown any of them to engage in missions. but why isn't there a SHIIELD again? I also agree that the Secrey Avengers was another good idea handled badly. A Mars mission is their first task? Of course it's secret -- there's not many people on Mars!! They should have been the Seal Team 6 of the Marvel U and instead they've just been another group of Avengers.

    And Omar has articulated the problem with iron Man that's been rumbling round in the back of my head without being really concrete. It's as if Tony is sending Justine Hammer and co e-mails that say, "Nope, not going to do weapons any more." Which somehow whips them into a frenzy: "We're making weapons and he's not -- so he's a threat! Must wipe him and his dastardly clean energy car out!!!"

    And I do agree with Neil that this passivity that Tony is espousing seems naive and is taking him out of the way of interesting potential conflicts. I mean, is he going to start putting flowers in the rifle barrels of his enemies??

  6. Well, right -- the Capraesque optimism is the naivete you're describing, and I think we both want a different sort in our comics. I'm arguing that the Heroic Age branding could have been used to explore the latter, more complex kinds of optimism. After years of stories in which heroes went insane, brutalized each other over ideological differences, and proved largely ineffectual against their opponents, I think a story about their exploring ways of being effective -- with failures, pitfalls, and misjudgements along the way -- would have been both interesting and entertaining.

    We didn't get that, of course, but I also don't think the return of the darkness we're getting is terribly compelling, since it's all fomented by antagonists whose motives are purely malicious

    I must admit I really don't understand the idea that Bucky was "getting off easy" for anything; wasn't he a brainwashed pawn not responsible for his actions as the Winter Soldier? That's what was so odd about the prosecutor's monologue in the "Trial" storyline, too: to agree with it, you essentially have to believe that people should be punished for actions they didn't willingly commit, and that it's just to condemn an essentially innocent man because you're upset that another guilty person of the same class was let free.

    In any case, Zemo's method for getting at Bucky was to have a random crazy woman become an armored villain and wreak havoc in a residential neighborhood, and then to work with a nihilistic terrorist who -- thanks to Zemo's idea of "morality" leading him to do her a favor -- is now responsible for a world-threatening menace in Fear Itself. Most of what Zemo's actually done makes nonsense out of Zemo's stated motivation at the end of that Cap arc. That story and the Trial arc were simply not well-written stories.

  7. Great article, Neil. I've been kinda bummed out by Marvel's developments over the past few years. There was nothing new or interesting about "Heroic Age" other than a marketing slogan that they used for a few months and then threw out. A lot of these characters are so screwed up there's no way to repair them, even if they make deals with the devil to unmarry their wives.