Sunday, May 08, 2011

I’m going to talk at length about Doomwar, a Marvel comic most of you probably didn’t even read.

In 2010, Marvel published a six-issue series by writer Jonathan Maberry, a prose writer turned comics-writer, and pencil artist Scott Eaton entitled Doomwar, dealing with the Black Panther characters’ international conflict with Doctor Doom. The premise was laid out in the title and cover images, and the hook apparent and appealing—the supervillain king of a fictional Marvel kingdom versus the superhero king of another fictional Marvel kingdom.

At the time, Marvel was switching tack after a great deal of sales frustration in keeping the 2005-launched, Reginald Hudlin-written volume of Black Panther going. The previous year, Marvel tried relaunching the book with a new #1 issue and a new, female character in the title role (T’Challa’s little sister Shuri), but that lasted twelve issues, ending with an arc entitled “Prelude to Doomwar.” Doomwar was essentially just the next arc of the now-canceled Black Panther, but given it’s own title and lots of guest-stars to position it as an event. (Marvel, incidentially, is still casting about for a way to make a Black Panther comic stick; Doomwar was then followed by another miniseries, Klaws of The Panther, and then T’Challa took over the numbering, sub-title and setting of Daredevil in a perplexing publishing move).

I’m probably part of the reason Black Panther’s sales flagged so. T’challa The Black Panther is a great comics character, and one I always want to like. In 2005, Marvel made it easy to do so by assigning the book to a famous-outside-of-comics writer (when that wasn’t quite as commonplace as it was today) able to generate mainstream interest and by assigning John Romita Jr., the publisher’s very best artist, to the book.

Sadly Romita only stuck around for the first story arc, so although Hudlin proved to be a much stronger writer than many form outside of comics (and much more dedicated to the character, title and a schedule than most of his peers with similar entries into comics), the book’s visuals were inconsistent. I stuck with it through the first thirtysome issues, and dropped it around the time Secret Invasion began. Doomwar was the first thing to really pique my interest again, due to its premise and the Romita art on the cool-looking covers, but by that time Marvel had chased me away from reading their line in a serial format with their price increases (I’m not currently reading any Marvel ongoing series, although I think I’m going to try the upcoming Daredevil and Captain America and Bucky comics as serials).

So I picked up the trade of Doomwar. I found at least one aspect of Maberry’s plot and scripting to be rather weak, enough so that it distracted me from the story, but otherwise fine for what it was—a big, huge fight comic with a whole bunch of power-players. Eaton’s art was decent, with only a few really poor sequences, although it was all over-colored in the way the vast majority of Marvel’s comics are these days.

None of the images inside are as powerful as the one’s on the covers though.

*****************

When I got to the climax of the story, I remembered reading a post on 4thletter.net that was pretty critical of that climax, so shortly after finishing the story I went to look for it and reread it now that I knew the context.

It was written by David Brothers, and entitled “Superhero Comics Still For Children, Also Unbelievably Stupid”. You can (and should) read the text in full here.

In essence, Brothers’ complaint is that the two Black Panthers, T’Challa and Shuri, the rules or Wakanda, don’t kill Doctor Doom at the end of the story when they have him at their mercy, Shuri lets him off with a warning/threat, that if he ever does anything like this again, she will kill him.

Brothers:
Doctor Doom invaded Wakanda (a sovereign nation), held its queen hostage, murdered a whole gang of its inhabitants whenever he liked, staged a coup, and generally acted exactly like a James Bond villain, complete with a plan with poorly defined goals and acts of villainy for the evil of it.

If someone breaks into your house and starts murdering your family while cackling about how you are lazy and terrible and threatening your wife like he’s Snidely Whiplash? You don’t let him off with a warning. You leave his brains on the wall and sleep the sleep of the just. That is the only appropriate response. You kill him, and you kill him because he needs to be dead. Some things are beyond the pale, and what Doom did? That’s worthy of death. Past a certain level, your position on the death penalty and violence become irrelevant. And I know, blah blah blah, protect trademarks, blah blah can’t kill Doom, blah blah comic books, blah blah diplomatic immunity, but to that I say “blah blah crap.”
While Brothers clearly understands (and underlines his understanding) that Doctor Doom can never really be killed off because he’s a corporate owned intellectual property, a money making machine than can be massaged and calibrated to be more or less successful in different media and circumstances, but always needs to be around, he also has problems suspending his disbelief that a character—even a superhero character—wouldn’t kill a foe under these circumstances.

“If you’re going to wear Big Boy Pants and write comics with Big Boy Stakes, maybe you should be willing to make some Big Boy Decisions and not completely neuter your heroes at the end of the story,” Brothers notes, writing that every time he sees some variation of the hero sparing a villain who horribly wronged him or society and making a speech about why he or she isn’t going to pull the trigger, it reminds him “that superhero comics used to be aimed at children and still haven’t grown up yet.”

I disagree.

Personally—and this is all just purely personal at this level—I’m uncomfortable reading about superheroes who kill. Particularly heroes who have always shown an unwillingness to do so (like Wonder Woman, for example). I don’t like seeing heroes torture, hurt animals or perform lobotomies on their foes either.

Not only is there not necessarily anything heroic about any of the above, but it also creates creative dead ends for many characters whose main appeal is the serial, endless nature of their adventures and the never-completely exhausted potential those IPs have; and it also leads to bleak, unappealing stories that ask the reader to consider troubling questions that the texts suggests immoral, wrong-headed answers to; and it also leads to a lot of bad stories; and, most importantly, it also put the reader in the same corner that Doomwar apparently put Brothers in—suggesting a character has to die for the sake of the story, and that not killing him due to artificial reasons not evident in the text (More on this last reason in a bit).

I suppose a lot of my personal preference for whether heroes should ever kill or not comes from my own personal beliefs—I’m against the death penalty, I don’t think violence is a good answer to most problems and although I understand there are circumstances and reasons under which human beings sometimes end up having to kill one another, I feel in an ideal world they never would. Certainly, a paragon of human virtue, someone better than me, like, say, a superhero, shouldn’t ever have to take a life.

I think the fact that Batman never kills anyone, not even a mass-murderer and terrorist like The Joker with thousands of deaths to his name, is more admirable than a The Punisher, who always kills his villains…and always a hell of a lot more believable. (Which isn’t to say there are no good Punisher comics; it’s just that the Punisher is the villain in them all).

The thing about ends-justifying-the-means superhero comics, of course, is that the ends are always a foregone conclusion. Is it realistic that a hero like Batman wouldn’t kill The Joker? (Which may be a bad example, if you go with the reading that Batman’s too insane to ever actually kill anyone; him killing would be like someone with a certain type of obsessive compulsive disorder not touching a certain door knob so many times a day). Maybe, maybe not. But why would a writer put him in that position anyway, without a good answer? And a good writer should have a good answer. If a writer can’t think their way around something like why Batman doesn’t just kill all his foes all the time, and sell it to their readers, then they probably shouldn’t be writing Batman comics.

I suspect that is, in large part, what bugged Brothers so much about that scene. Maberry didn’t do a good enough job of explaining why Shuri and T’Challa didn’t kill Doom there. Or, as Brothers put it, Maberry was writing a story about the deadly consequences of war, but at the resolution just walked away from the natural ending to the story he had written.

To review, if you haven’t read it, here’s what Doctor Doom did to The Panthers and their nation Wakanda. Off-panel (or perhaps in previous issues of Black Panther, like those with the words “Prelude to Doomwar” printed across the top) Doom funded an opposition movement within Wakanda, one that eventually grew so large and influential that it deposed the royal family, banished hero/rulers T’Challa and Suki, and arrested Queen Storm for witchcraft, with the intent of executing her for the crime (This is a trifling point, but I find it amusing that anywhere in the civilized world would still believe in witchcraft and think it some sort of evil at this point in time in the Marvel Universe; clearly Storm flies and controls the weather, a relatively minor set of powers compared to many in the world, and yet their assumption is she’s also a witch, and not just a mutant…?).

From the outside—i.e. to everyone except T’Challa, Shuri and the reader—this looks like a natural turn of events in Wakandan politics, and not the work of a single supervillain who, remember, is also the ruler of a sovereign nation of his own (So maybe this would be like Kim Jong Il funding a Third Party in the U.S., and that party banishing Barack Obama and putting Michelle Obama on trial for witchcraft…?). Doom does this because he’s trying to steal Wakanda’s natural resource Maguffinanium—I mean, vibranium—which is kept in a particular vault.

It’s a valuable metal with practically magical properties, which Doom has discovered had actual magical properties. (So, Kim Jong Il is breaking into the secret super-uranium vault below the White House, because he and he alone knows how to turn super-uranium into super-duper-uranium).

He’s trying to coerce Storm into opening the vault for him, but shooting citizens in the head to motivate her. At one point, he tries to murder T’Challa and Shuri’s mother, but their uncle takes the bullet instead.

To rescue Storm, the Panthers and their allies must wage war against the faction of Doom-funded Wakandans; soldiers on both sides die.

When Doom acquires the vibranium, the Panthers begin waging war on his many hidden, international factories, many more of their Wakandan allies dying in the conflict (Doom uses robots, so no soldiers on his side really “die”). At that point, Wakdanda and Latveria are essentially at undeclared war, although it’s basically just the rulers of the two countries fighting—plus the handful of soldiers in the Panther’s inner circle.

At the book’s climax, Doom has built a new suit of invincible armor out of the magically-enhanced vibranium; he’s also gained the ability to control every particle of vibranium on earth, and thus he controls all the metal in the entire world, making him one of the most powerful beings that ever lived. The Panthers challenge him to fight on his own border, and T’Challa has to play the only card he has to stop Doom and save the world—he can eradicate all of the vibranium at once with the push of a button on some device he and Reed Richards built.

He does so. The world is saved. Doom’s armor shuts down, and he falls immobile to his knees. That’s when Shuri makes her speech about not killing Doom, the one that Brothers posted in his post on the issue.

As I said, I don’t object to the characters not killing Doom, which I would have found a dramatically unsatisfying ending, given the fluidity of death in the Marvel Universe (Doom has died and gone to hell repeatedly only to return to life later; in fact, the last issue of a Marvel comic I saw Doom appear in featured scenes of Doom waltzing in and out of hell).

Maybe Maberry didn’t sell the Panthers’ decision not to kill him very well though.

Shuri especially shows no compunctions about killing throughout the story. Her first act of war in retaking Wakanda is to have Nightcrawler teleport her to the room with the leader of the usurpers, where she promptly snaps the guy’s neck (he is, of course, a Wakandan citizen; is this good or bad? It is war…) During the fight, Shuri and her allies kill a lot of Wakandans, and at one point both Nightcrawler and Wolverine warn her about killing too wantonly or getting too used to it.

Later, she spends the lives of her soldiers at such a rate that T’Challa and others are concerned that she’s throwing too many lives away.

Her decision not to kill Doom could then be seen as her learning a lesson, about ultimately deciding not to become a cold-hearted killing machine. I suspect that was what Maberry was going for, but it’s a sudden U-turn, and not foreshadowed or explained clearly at all.

T’Challa’s not the one who talks her out of it, either. In fact, his decision to not kill Doom seems even stranger. He doesn’t seem as willing or eager to kill or spend lives as his sister, but he does hire a mercenary assassin (Deadpool) and send an elite squad of assassins to infiltrate Doom’s capital city and kill him. They fail obviously, but it does seem strange for T’Challa to attempt to kill Doom in one issue, and not kill him in the next when the opportunity presents itself.

Again, this may have been T’Challa having a change of heart—or maybe he knew Deadpool would fail and was only using him to distract Doom–but Maberry doesn’t include anything in the text to justify these readings. I’m just making guesses.

There were, of course, two very easy solutions for having The Panthers sparing Doom, even if they wanted to kill him.

First, they had Doom at their mercy in the presence of the Fantastic Four, none of whom would have allowed them to execute a defenseless Doom (A panel or two of Invisible Woman putting a shield around Doom and saying she can’t allow them to kill Doom like this would have sufficed.)

Second, this entire war was off the books. It wasn’t between Wakanda and Latveria, but between The Panthers and Doom. Both of them broke a mess of international law, and if they summarily executed Doom on the spot, it would have looked bad for Wakanda in the long run. It’s easy to imagine that, from the perspective of someone watching all this on the news, that it looked like the Wakandan royal family attacked Doom without provocation and killed him in or next to his own country.

Maberry didn’t choose either route though, so it does look like a more or less random decision by the Panthers.

********************

I suppose one could compare Black Panther versus Doctor Doom to Barack Obama versus Osama bin Laden in light of recent events. I’m not gonna get into that.

*******************

The aspect of the story that I found more distracting, that I had trouble suspending my disbelief over, was how generally unconcerned the rest of the superheroes of the Marvel Universe seemed to be in the threat of Storm’s execution and the prospect of an invincible Doctor Doom.

Now, reading universe superhero comics often requires the reader to accept a certain amount of illogic in the proceedings. There’s no real reason why Superman and The Flash couldn’t stop all of the super-crime, maybe even all the normal crime too, in the DC Universe all by themselves, but if the a villain in an issue of, say, Green Arrow or Batman is threatening a city or a country or the world with destruction, we don’t generally expect to see Superman fly in to save the day, even though a practically omniscient, practically omnipresent and practically omnipotent guy wholly devoted the preservation of human life should probably show up for any and all such events.

Maberry opens the door for the whole Marvel Universe to get involved, however, by showing Black Panther seeking allies and getting some assistance from some characters, raising questions for why so-and-so showed up, but not so-and-so.

Storm’s trial and death penalty verdict are announced on national television before the Bad Wakandans shut down the media. The X-Men make no move to rescue their friend and ally though. Even when T’Challa flies to their island and asks them for help, Cyclops says he can’t officially involve his team—which, at this point in Marvel history, is kinda sorta their own sovereign nation on an island off the West Coast of the United States—but that he can’t stop X-Men from volunteering either.

That explains why Cyclops and Emma Frost, and perhaps why all 150 X-people, don’t storm Wakanda, but it doesn’t explain why, of all the X-Men, Wolverine, Nightcrawler and Colossus are the only ones who volunteer. (From Maberry’s perspective, it’s clear Wolverine is there because he’s popular and his image on the cover might sell some books; Nightcrawler is there to provide transportation; Colossus is there for…no real reason, which makes it strange that more X-Men don’t come along to pose in backgrounds).

With those three in tow, T’Challa races back to try and overthrow his own country. He doesn’t approach his long-time allies in The Avengers or the Fantastic Four? He doesn’t call up Luke Cage or Monica Rambeau or any of those guys who were like, “Man, you should totally start a Black Avengers” heroes? The X-Men don’t loan him Namor, Doctor Doom’s greatest frenemy?

Once they’ve rescued Storm and retake Wakanda, The Fantastic Four do get involved (at which point, the three X-Men go home). During this phase of the conflict, Shuri, the FF and the Wakandan forces raid some dozen or so Doombot factories and fight a war of attrition, trying to find the right factory containing Doom and the stolen vibranium before he’s able to magically super-weaponize it. Again, no Avengers or anyone get involved.

I think that this may have been during the “Dark Reign” period, in which Norman Osborn controlled SHIELD, the Avengers initiative and his own team of Avengers, and its possible he was deliberately keeping all his forces out of it (that, or politics, since all of the above are U.S. sanctioned at that point), but it doesn’t explain the absence of the “New” Avengers, Thor, Iron Man and the like.

When Reed Richards thinks things are getting out of hand and he and T’Challa will need more help, he makes a call to…War Machine. Not Iron Man (the Bush to Reed’s Cheney in Civil War) or Luke Cage or a Captain America or Cyclops or Namor, someone with their own force of heroes or soldiers to turn the tide of a war-like conflict, but just this one guy in an Iron Man suit. This one guy who’s not Iron Man! (I don’t know if Iron Man is more powerful than War Machine or not, but the former has a bigger leadership role in the Marvel Universe, and is a super scientist along the lines of Reed, T’Challa and Doom, and thus would presumably be of more use than War Machine).

At the end of the story, when Doom controls all metal on Earth, T’Challa does reach out to The Avengers and X-Men and so on, but at that point they’re too busy fighting metal shenangigans in their own backyards.

Again, it wouldn’t have taken more than a few panels or lines of dialogue here and there to explain why so few X-Men give a damn about Storm, or where FF was at one point, or why no one else is trying to prevent Doctor Doom from gaining omnipotence, but Maberry didn’t use those panels or lines at the right times, at least not to my reading.

That bugged me more than Shuri not killing Doom, although I can see why it bugged Brothers (I’m not sure if I would have seen that scene as a real weakness if I hadn’t seen someone else raise the point, though).

********************

I did enjoy Doomwar for the most part though, and would recommend it to fans of Marvel superhero punch-‘em-ups.

8 comments:

Doug said...

It didn't occur to me until just after I read this post. Is the vibranium totally destroyed? In the current volume of Avenger - issue 6, in fact - Iron Man and a team of Avengers are talking with Ultron in the future. Ultron asks Wolverine to sheath his claws because it would be useless against his vibranium-adamantium alloy!

Do you think this is a future plot point in some story? And what about all the vibranium products in the current Marvel universe? Wouldn't they degrade or fall apart or something?

Sorry for geeking out. I'm just wondering out loud if this was something that the editors at Marvel considered when they approved that ending.

GamerGuy said...

"If a writer can’t think their way around something like why Batman doesn’t just kill all his foes all the time, and sell it to their readers, then they probably shouldn’t be writing Batman comics."

This should be tattooed on the hands of every comics writer and editor.

Nick Marino said...

I had a totally different experience with Doomwar. Namely, I was extremely impressed with how self-contained yet all-encompassing the story was. As a long-time BP reader (through many ups and downs), it was gratifying to read a Black Panther-centric event comic.

But even beyond that, I was extremely impressed with Mayberry's concepts. I can't believe you didn't talk about HOW Doom gets the vibranium, which was, in my opinion, the most impressive part of the story. Facing the Panther God naked, his ego exposed... completely selfish and completely worthy.

I mean, if nothing else at this point, I regard mainstream superhero comics as a game to try and top what came before without avoiding the limitations (for example, not killing the main characters). And in that regard, I think Mayberry's Doomwar was one of the best examples of laying out big concepts and making them stick under tight circumstances.

I didn't love everything about Doomwar. Honestly, I thought the story peaked with #4. I would have rather it peaked with the end of #6. I enjoyed the Deadpool stuff to a degree, but I thought it was a bit too much of a cash grab attempt (if I remember right, this book was coming out at the height of Deadpool saturation).

Overall, I thought the book was a fun super-powered chess game. Not perfect, but very overlooked and underrated.

cdkatuofc said...

I think it;s pretty obvious why Nightcrawler, Wolverine and Colossus volunteered to go to Wakanda. ANyone wiht rudimentary knowledge of the X-Men would know that these four were the core of the All New All Different "international" X_Men that launched with Giant Sized X-Men #1. These four were baptized by fire together and have a very familial relationship especially the brotherly bond between Colossus and Storm. Maberry was right to pick these three to hep Ororo.
Step your game up.

Nick Ahlhelm said...

Doug, it is my understanding only Wakandan vibranium that is destroyed. Antarctic anti-metal (also a kind of vibranium) is apparently unaffected.

Of course, Cap's shield has vibranium in it as well, though I'm not sure which kind. It's why he can ride it out of a helicopter and land without injury.

And yes, I am sad that I know all this.

Nitz the Bloody said...

Why is it that there's never any middle ground between the impractical no-kill absolutism seen here, and the shoot-em-all-and-let-god-sort-em-out bloodbaths seen from characters like the Punisher? Because plenty of perfectly credible and noble superheroes (including all of the Big Three; Cap, Iron Man, and Thor) have gotten their hands dirtied in extreme circumstances.

Dru said...

If Nightcrawler, Wolverine, and Colossus were picked because of their history of debuting together as X-Men, it's really on the writer to at least include one throwaway line indicating that they had that in mind. Regardless, it still fails to explain why NO OTHER X-Men came. Are they all just complete tools?

Joshua said...

I agree with most of your post. I disagree with calling the power to control weather "minor." As we've seen recently weather can be very devestating and destructive.