Silent War #1-6 (2007), by Frazer Irving and David Hine. Marvel.
As often as I hold up comics as superior to other media, I've got to say we fall down pretty bad in some places too. The medium's mainstream is a failure by both commercial and aesthetic standards, the few baby steps we've made toward successful incorporation of digital processes are negligible when compared to what's being done in music and film, and there's a worrying scarcity of books that focus on the component parts of comics -- story and art -- in equal measure. But I don't feel like talking about any of those things. No, what I've been thinking about lately is how backwards comics are when it comes to addressing the times we're living in, to presenting work that not only carries the stamp of the modern on it, but takes up the big questions and concerns that are going to mark these years once they've passed into history. "Contemporary" in hero comics usually only goes as far as ill-judged cameos or embarrassing pop-cultural references; and alt-comics' brightest lights, perhaps unsurprisingly, usually don't do much better.
Which is fine. I mean, I really don't want any more graphic novels about Hurricane Katrina than we've already got, and we don't need to go the film route and produce a few supposed-to-be-good, ever so promptly forgotten comics about the Iraq War every year either. But two things irk me about the medium's relative lack of topicality -- especially within the monthly-release-schedule mainstream, which should by all means be as jacked into the constant now as any other kind of periodical magazines are. First, works of art simply hit much harder when they're speaking directly to the time and place in which they're being experienced. Watchmen was powerful for a reason, y'know, and it's the same reason why a lot of that book's aged so poorly. Timelessness is only a virtue when the work itself is actually good enough to be remembered, and the vagueness of most hero comics' settings usually feel more like a lack of teeth than any kind of iconic whatever-it's-supposed-to-be. Kirby, probably the most often cited example of lasting value in superhero comics, got to the places he did not by avoiding the present, but by grappling with it. Go back and look at your Fourth World books again, fanboy, and damned if it ain't a comic about the hippies finally getting it together and putting an armed insurrection on the crumbling Nixon empire! All that "modern myth" hogwash the genre's apologists like to spout is just the skin. The real blood and sinew of hero comics isn't some archetypal vacuum, it's artists working out big ideas about the world around them right now, from the best Truman era-progressive Eisner Spirit stuff to Kirby's firebrand liberalizations to Ditko's far-right screeding to Moore and Chaykin's anti-Reagan anarchism to Miller's acerbic libertarian rants.
But the lack of mainstream comics that tune in isn't half as bad as what the comics that do give relevance a spin usually end up as. This pretty much only ever happens at Marvel, DC being too locked into their own self-perpetuating armageddon to even look out the windows at 1600 Broadway -- and Marvel means action comics, and when they're going contemporary, that means the war. And Kyle Baker and his knife-sharp satires aside, when the war's come up in Marvel comics it's been a weird, uncomfortable propagandizing thing that kinda makes you wonder what you're reading. There was the unmitigated disaster of Captain America in "Dust", the deeply embarrassing 9/11 Spider-Man issue, Grant Morrison's waffling non-confrontations of terrorism and the Muslim world in New X-Men, and... am I forgetting something...? Oh yeah, and the Iraq graphic novel written by a member of a right-wing think tank. "Combat Zone", bitches! Is that really the best we can do?
As it turns out better was done, way better. And as with anything in comics, all it took is a good story, a hell of an artist, and no fear.
Silent War is exactly the kind of comic that bogs down the hero marketplace so bad -- a spinoff from a spinoff of the gargantuan "House of M" crossover event that oversaturated the stands with tiny shards of a story that was supposed to make perfect sense when you put them all together at a near-four figure price tag. I won't ruin it for you by saying whether they actually did or not. People tend to bash these kind of comics, the ones calculated to appeal to the most entrenched, hardcore segment of the fan base alone, the cash grabs that nobody without a solid grounding in both current continuity and the Kirby/Lee foundation-stone stories would have a prayer of understanding. And not without plenty of reason. But though the existence of these little one-shots and miniseries is surely a Bad Thing on the abstract level, in reality they serve an important function. See, the hero-comics market is so filled to bursting with artists and writers jostling for jobs that these ancillary books are necessary to keep everyone but the hottest fan-favorites employed. And since said fan-favorites tend to produce work like this, it's mainly in those random, who-knows-why comics that any work of note at all gets done. Back in 2007 David Hine wasn't the guy from Bulletproof Coffin and the best Spirit stories since Eisner, he was the guy who wrote books like Daredevil Redemption as his fan base morosely shook their heads and lived on memories of the long-ago masterpiece that was his Strange Embrace. And Frazer Irving wasn't Frazer Irving, he was a fascinating up-and-comer who did decent books more often than probability would indicate he should have. But despite who they were in the industry at the time, despite the reasons why they ended up on a spinoff of a spinoff together, both were and are gargantuan talents. And they blew Silent War the hell out of the water.
Most strikingly, the comic is a showcase for Hine's ability to turn the kind of mindless continuity exercises lower-tier Marvel miniseries usually are into a superb vehicle for personal expression. The plot, though it sure does a good job winding through conflicts featuring what's got to be more than half of Marvel's super-characters, is really quite simple: the Inhumans, a race of super-beings who derive their powers from some magic crystals given to them by aliens (Kirby!), are put down as terrorists by the US government after violently busting up a New York social function when they discover their crystals have been stolen. Obviously, a fight ensues. And though Irving can draw the living jesus out of superheroes fighting, he's matched every inch by Hine's downright fearless attack on the banally evil language and concepts, the climate of fear, the utter inhumanity the Bush administration used to legislate its frightfully random fatwas. The Inhumans, though deeply flawed in the best low-rent-humanist Marvel tradition, are undoubtedly the good guys of this story, and there's no small helping of the revolutionary in Hine's explicit presentation of the minds behind the War on Terror and the patriotic heroes who are all too willing to be their stooges as the villainous aggressors. It's a shockingly bald restatement of the events that led to the Iraq War: the Inhumans' crystals become "weapons of mass destruction", their leader, the silent, immensely powerful Black Bolt is painted as a "religious fundamentalist", and every member of the race becomes an "illegal enemy combatant".
It doesn't flinch from what it's set up, either: the war begins, with superpowered Marines causing massive civilian death, Inhumans being tortured in secret government bases, American soldiers presented as brainwashed, pitiable pawns, and the dissolution the war brings onto the remote beauty of Inhuman culture chronicled in unflinchingly brutal detail. Hine taps into the fiery spirit of Stan Lee's best proselytizing in his narration, but instead of glowing paeans to brotherhood and hope, the words in the boxes spell out damning memento mori. In a rousing monologue that slams the book's ideological point home in issue #5, the pure, godlike Sentry, asked to intervene by the government, instead floats high above the battling Inhumans and Avengers, tearing the rationale behind all war apart...
"The peace never comes, does it? There is never a better world waiting... only more conflict, more bloodshed... until one day there is an apocalypse, and we finally achieve peace... the peace that comes when we enter the void and darkness engulfs us... the peace that comes with oblivion..."
... and dealing out a refutation to the pointless, fan-demanded violence that fills the pages of every hero comic, even the ones like this that can see their own futility...
"I'm an Avenger. Avenging what, exactly? The deaths of those civilians in New York? Does it matter? Do we need a reason to battle? They call us heroes, but what we are is soldiers following orders. Everyone wants to see us fight. To watch us beat one another to a pulp. I can almost hear the roar of the crowd, baying for blood."
Obviously, this is not a comic that's on board with the Marvel program of fisticuffs and ersatz patriotism. Which begs the question, why do it at Marvel? Why the superheroes, why the high-impact violence, why the obfuscation of the point Hine and Irving have to make about America's wanton destruction of the Muslim world? I honestly don't know for sure -- though I'd imagine they definitely both wanted to get paid -- but the way superheroes are used in Silent War is far more interesting than the capes-for-capes'-sake approach that fills so many thousands of pages every week. Most obviously, it's a textbook example of subversion-by-coding: this oppositional a political message could never make it to the 20,000 readers a Marvel book guarantees without the spandex blanket thrown over it. So both sides' soldiers are given superpowers, the sad, frightened politicians of our world become the mad scientists and super-spies of Marvel's, and Black Bolt and his psychotic twin brother Maximus the Mad personify a dichotomy (oversimplified, but effective) of rational, diplomatic Muslim leaders and their militant, jihadist opposite numbers. Of course in the end rationality loses, Black Bolt's self-imposed muteness sealing whatever words of wisdom he may have to give from the ears of the youths who Maximus mind-controls into genocidal extremism. It's so grand, so overdone, so silly and comics, but only a fool could miss the breathtaking rage and urgency that mark out what's really being told here.
Irving's art performs a similar masking process, but where Hine starts with his real-world story and builds heroic layers onto it, Irving does just the opposite. There's rock solid action-comics composition and sequencing at the foundation of Silent War's every panel, and the splendor and liquid grace of superheroes doing what they do gives its pages an immense forward pull. It's beautifully made fantasy, comics-about-fighting done to perfection. But slapped over it is a thick haze of queasy, too-real discomfort, little tics and pops of crawling menace and random melancholy that distort the impression of the straight heroics. Black Bolt's costume crackles with the Kirby dynamism it always carries, but the face beneath his mask is a pale, drawn whimper, atrophied after years of holding in a voice that can shatter planets. Psychic auras appear over characters in sickly hues, revealing lust-pink and garbage-green insides lurking beneath the sculpted shells. The colors of dominant and secondary light sources clang brutally off each other or combine to put an unearthly charge in the air, a heady glow that elevates the grandeur of the story occurring in it while saturating the individual frames with menace, now shame, now coercion. This is the comic where Irving's virtuoso coloring finally found a seamless fit with his expressionistic linework, and the result is the most organic comics art ever to have come out of a computer. There's a remarkable fluidity to everything Irving draws, a sense of real, sinuous life, but it's counterpointed by the hard, slick surface sheen that radiates from the panels. It's beautiful comics that draws as much beauty from pure strangeness and intensity as its artist's incredible skill.
But more importantly, making the dusty, faceless poor who fight and die every day for rich men and religion into glorious, sexy superheroes brings out the epic drama of the war that's still being fought in a way primetime news segments and eighth-page articles simply can't. In 2007 we had lived with the war for four years, and by god we've now lived with it for four more. It's contemporary. It's part of our lives. We forget it, we make our peace with it. It goes quieter and quieter in our minds, and then it goes silent. But by amplifying it with superhero bombast and Shakespearean character, Hine and Irving bring out the terror and blood once more from something that's run so long as to become mundane, and shove something else that's supposed to be entertaining escapism right back into our faces, hot with the blaze of reality. Silent War is screaming, slamming, amplified superheroics all the way, and it never apologizes for that; but those cranked-up levels of drama and horror are nothing less than a moral challenge. Will you see it this way? Will you take it this seriously? It's real people's real lives out there, and despite the rays of glowing force and the skintight costuming, that's what's being talked about in here, too. This is the self-importance and overstatement of superhero comics turned to a topic that can use all the passionate drama it can get, thrown at a world that needs every reminder of how crazy and nightmarish the real thing is. It's certainly the most relevant, necessary hero comic of the 21st century, and though when real blood begins to flow art can only come in second, it's got the craft and vision and aesthetics to mark it as one of the very best. They don't make 'em like this anymore. But then, they never did.