News & Politics

Anti-War Comics Surge

An anti-war comic book series shows why comics are surging in popularity: because they can help us make sense of our troubled times.
This is really embarrassing. Last week I started crying while I was reading a comic book on the StairMaster at the gym. I got into this unenviable, geektastic situation because I've been reading everything I can find by Grant Morrison -- the British comic book writer who reinvented the X-Men in the late 1990s with his fantastic New X-Men series -- and it just so happened that I wasn't prepared for the plot of Morrison's "We3," a short series about three cybernetic animals. Frank Quitely's anime-influenced art on the cover had me lulled into thinking "We3" would be a tale of animal heroism about a cute talking bunny, kitty, and doggy who escape the evil government that made them into cyber-weapons and find their way home.

But no. Instead, it was one of the most horrifying portraits of war I've ever seen. Fluffy creatures are mangled. Soldiers are sliced into bits. A senator pats himself on the back for getting animals to do his dirty human work. The animals, who've been given the power of speech and turned into highly efficient assassins via cybernetic implants, couldn't be more tragic as they try to understand what's happened to them. When the bunny got shot after innocently asking a human to help him fix his broken tail, I just couldn't take it anymore. Hence, the tears.

The older I get, the more I'm obsessed with comic books. Ironically, this is partly a result of what many call the end of the comic book. These days publishing houses like Marvel and DC are making most of their money on quality paperback-style bound collections, rather than on classic, individual issues. This shift is perfect for someone like me, who started reading comics as books rather than as monthly-installment magazines. Plus, collections are really the only way for a late bloomer like myself to get caught up with the soap operas behind four-decade-old titles like The Hulk and X-Men.

Like video games today, comic books were once the objects of intense moral outrage. During the 1950s anti-comic book crusader Frederic Wertham condemned the adventures of Batman, Green Lantern, and pals for promoting juvenile delinquency and homosexuality. Now, of course, his accusations sound positively quaint. How could any type of book promote anything among young people? These days it's "common sense" that games like Grand Theft Auto and World of Warcraft are to blame for angry kids.

Maybe comic books are the bugaboos of yesteryear, but they still share with video games one subversive characteristic that makes them dangerous to anyone -- politician, moralist, or other -- who clings to the status quo. Comic books lend themselves well to fantasies about multiple, parallel universes. Because these are narratives that last over decades and spawn multiple spin-offs by hundreds of different authors and artists, comic books inevitably train readers to imagine how one scenario might lead to several different outcomes. And comics also invite readers to explore how one little change in the present can lead to whole new interpretations of history. There's even a word -- retcon, for retroactive continuity -- that comic book geeks use to describe what happens when a new comic book author changes a character's history to explain a new present. Like video games, where different characters and players take the game play in new directions, comic books remind us that there is no one perfect path to follow, and that the future can always be changed.

When the retconning and multiple story lines get too complicated, though, sometimes a crisis occurs. Thus the subject of my current obsession: the "crisis on infinite Earths" story lines from DC comics of the 1980s. This was a period when DC decided its authors had created too many parallel worlds containing multiple versions of each character. To solve the problem, DC wiped out all but one Earth and all but one version of every hero, in a plot tangle that spanned several dozen titles. In fact, I don't claim to understand it all -- I haven't read enough from that era. Honestly, it's probably better in concept than execution.

But I love the concept: the idea that there are many Earths existing in parallel and all of them are having a crisis at the same time. It's a perfect reminder that our lives are a tangle of possible futures, struggling to extricate themselves from a morass of multiple pasts. Choosing between them, and choosing justly, is what makes heroes out of ordinary people.
Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd whose favorite comic book store is still Comix Experience because Brian Hibbs is a hero.