gray rage in silver jars

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Warning: mainstream comics geekery ahead. Further warning: there's going to be even more of this sort of thing after 52 starts.

A day after reading the New Avengers: Illuminati special, I'm still not sure how to take it. It's a lead-in to Marvel's forthcoming "Civil War" crossover, and its function is to move a bunch of storm clouds into place, and to set up the crucial events that open the Civil War (helpfully previewed in a seven-page excerpt at the back of the book). I really enjoyed it on first reading, and there are things I love about it--for one thing, it's a very rare example of a "continuity implant" that doesn't seem like a dodge or a pasting-over of inconsistencies or something that will be instantly forgotten, and lets everyone stay in character. There's even a compelling reason we weren't told about it at the time, and "powerful men form secret cabal" is a reliably entertaining plot.

The idea, I suspect, was that Illuminati should feel like a videotape of some horrible governmental roundtable discussion of an impending conflict that it's too late to stop, and it sort of does. Tony Stark's summary of what he suspects is going to happen in the war is maybe a little too prescient as a presentation of "Civil War" plot points, but it's a smart piece of drama that he can see it all coming.

But the more I think about Illuminati, the shakier it seems. For one thing, what's up with Black Bolt not being able to communicate? He's a king--he has to be able to express what he's thinking somehow, even if he can't talk--and the idea that he would come to a meeting to whose discussion he could add nothing is very odd. And, in fact, not everybody is acting in character. T'Challa, as we understand him from Christopher Priest's run on Black Panther, is the guy who is always prepared for contingencies, and his first priority is Wakanda; he'll do whatever it takes to get the information to defend his country. That means that if anybody would join the star chamber, he would. The Iron Man vs. Namor slugfest feels shoehorned in to satisfy the "any superhero comic must have a fight scene" rule, too.

Really, though, my biggest problem with Illuminati is the "Planet Hulk" scene that kicks off its second act. The concept is that the Hulk's latest rampage has killed a whole lot of people, that this happens all the time, that (we're told third-hand) he wants to kill himself but is unable to, and that even under those conditions most of the Illuminati have been his friends and teammates for years--and only now have they decided that Something Must Be Done.

Well, the "Civil War" argument goes, sorry to wreck your cherished illusion, but did you really think the Hulk was supposed to be a fantasy about violence without real consequence? That every time he smashed up an identifiable landmark or a generic cityscape it'd be like the end of Scott McCloud's Destroy!!: "well, at least no one was hurt"? There's only one good counterargument to that: actually, yes, I did cherish that illusion.

It's the illusion, the let's-just-pretend, that's made the entire concept of the character viable beyond the short term. Wrecking it makes every creator and reader who's played along with that polite fiction for 40 years seem like a dupe or worse, and every character who's regarded him as an ally or even a necessary evil seem horrible. (How is Banner supposed to have become anyone's friend, anyway, under those circumstances?) The idea of the Hulk as a genuinely murderous force has been explored neatly before--in Mark Millar's Ultimates, whose vibe seems to be bleeding over into Illuminati. I'd hoped that "Civil War" would have a different tone, but the advance taste of it here makes me fear that it'll be more of the grim same.

Even so, I like the (relative) understatement of Spider-Man killing Norman Osborn being described as "doing what he has to do." If there's one thing that defines Spider-Man's character, it's his obsession with understanding and acting on the idea of what he has to do, or ought to do; I hope some of that discussion makes it into "Civil War" proper.

Countdown to the first time some writer who doesn't quite get it has a character refer to the Xavier/Black Bolt/Tony Stark/Namor/Dr. Strange/Reed Richards ensemble as "The Illuminati": I say seven months.

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This page contains a single entry by Douglas published on March 31, 2006 12:58 AM.

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