Apr 9, 2014

It Conceals Enlightenment: Marvel's Conspiracy

It Conceals Enlightenment
Travis Hedge Coke

One of the most chilling pages in Conspiracy follows a stack of thin panels bringing us closer and closer to the back of our protagonist’s head as he fills a Open In Case of My Death envelop, only to go nearly black in the final panel and present without image, with only barely a flicker of color, two quotes:

“If the Government is big enough to give you everything you want, it is big enough to take away everything you have.” – Gerald Ford


“The cruelest lies are often told in silence.” – Robert Louis Stephenson

What if all the bogeymen, big monsters, and bad events in recent history were deliberate maneuvers to keep us scared and wounded? What if the brightest accomplishments and the most valiant struggles of our lifetime were dog and pony shows to keep us laughing and sedate? Would you feel safer if the military was running the show completely? What would worry you more than that? If it was run by businessmen? Scientists? Social reformers? God? A God of Mischief?

A little over fifteen years ago, Marvel published a two-issue bit of brilliance called Conspiracy. Conspiracy follows a way too eager journalist for the Daily Bugle being forcibly involved in what seems like the biggest mystery around: Who is pulling the entire world’s strings? Dan Abnett and Igor Kordey rocked the hell out of this comic, and today? Today it’s pretty much nowhere. Back issue bin filler. Why? Well, it’s too short to reprint by itself as a trade, it’s got a ton of pre-existing characters, but they’re either cameos, minor characters, or appear in flashbacks or discussions, and even at the time there was so little promotion most regular Marvel readers didn’t even know it existed.

So, why is Conspiracy worth it? The character work is solid from both Abnett and Kordey, who appear perfectly in sync. The art meshes various tones, exaggerations, and light levels together, while the dialogue, narration, and pacing maintain a constant sense that everything isn’t just about to be overwhelmed, it is overwhelmed and it may soon get worse. This is a comic wherein, learning that a character might simply be a deranged, overpowered murderer is a relief. This is a comic who used Spidercide and Clone Saga-era Jackal as a couple bricks and made them look dangerous. In a world of superheroes, it’s easy to forget how much damage even the dumbest bruiser or silliest one-off villain can accomplish, even if they can’t stand against the superhero. This comic invoked the Hulk, old Madder He Gets Stronger He Gets, to make him seem insignificant next to the people who use him as a bogeyman, as an excuse for a bigger budget.

Post-9/11, American superhero comics went through a whole cultural reevaluation, in regards to both the extent of “collateral damage” in superhero comics and, also, the power of a conspiracy that gets us all the comfort we want. Conspiracy, primarily by a couple guys who weren’t born in the US, were tackling this before the century even switched over. That is both part of why it was so ignored at the time, and also a strong part of why the comic still holds up. Bit players from old Invaders issues, elements typically treated as comedy, like Damage Control (the contract guys who clean up after superhero fights in New York) or Spidercide (a massive Spider-Man clone monster thing), and the Man vs Monster comics from Marvel’s 50s and early 60s that pretty much everyone else was busy pretending never happened, since most of the monsters wore shorts and they all had goofy names. Conspiracy pulled all this disparate material together, the absurd, the melodramatic, the metaphoric, and presented it as stuff someone had to live through.

Conspiracy never lets Ewing or the reader get a foothold. There’s exceptional thought in the comic, but the pacing is deliberately erratic. Chapter titles are declared sometimes mid-page as a scene changes, major shifts such as explosions or character reveals occur without warning, and Chekhov’s gunning is just out. Is it unfair that it’s out?

Abnett and Kordey are both exceptional planners. They think things through. Conspiracy doesn’t just involve a bunch of names and faces from decades of other comics, it weaves them together in ways that make sense. Even when the stories being spun, the conspiracies being suggested shift up, the shifts make sense. The background elements, the set pieces throughout the comic are carefully brought to life, from posters on streets to the colors of mesas at sunrise and the staff offices of the Daily Bugle, everything bleed veracity, everything has its own energy. Kordey goes straight for lifts and visual homages at points, such as the snapshots on the cover of the second issue, but even his non-referencing pages or panels can seem classic, seem genuine, as if they preexist his painting them.

While many Marvel comics of that age seem slapdash, and often were constructed on the fly off a vague marketable idea or new character, Conspiracy is deliberately constructed. Where it is vague, it is because vagueness serves the comic better than clarity. It is neither “lazy” nor “incompetent” that Abnett and Kordey do little to flag surprises before they arrive. It’s a comic about being unsettled, about having no footing, not a comic about seeing it coming. If the comic has a message, perhaps it is that shit happens, and asking questions as to why, that can get you hurt.

Marvels, which I love, was about the man on the street perspective of the Marvel Universe’s grandeur and battles, but its protagonist was, essentially, an eyepiece, when it comes to much of the comic. He feels upset, in the later chapters, he feels threatened, but to me, he never feels endangered after the 40s issue that starts it out. Conspiracy never lets up on its protagonist, Mark Ewing. He never feels safe to me, even on rereads. I know the pages won’t change, I know it’s locked in, but he feels endangered. Even if he lives, he lives in a world that’s incredibly dangerous. Supervillains blow through buildings only focused on the superhero they’re punching. Gods wreck cities or slaughter star systems. People firebomb your apartment building on the days where Hell isn’t possessing your neighborhood, in the Marvel Universe.

Even if you’re living, you’re living at the whim of other people. Post-Conspiracy, Norman Osborn was practically running the government, so it’s not like the MU is any safer now, or in other comics, but Conspiracy hits on that element harder than almost anywhere else in a Marvel comic. It’s easy to laugh off Norman, because you’re not in a room with him, you’re not subject to laws he’s pushing into effect or deals he’s brokering in a haze of mismatched medication and manic anxiety. A SHIELD mandroid looks ridiculous, but if you were being arrested by one, after a long stressful weird night? A SHIELD mandroid, which is an eleven foot tall, bright yellow, armored, super-strong prosthesis worn by a world policeman with virtually no public accountability, can be the scariest thing on the planet.

When a bank robber in an animal mask, even one superhumanly strong, hurts you, it is inevitable in a superhero comic, in the Marvel Universe, that a superhero will punish him, find him, stop him, send him away. When the Government threatens you? When SHIELD takes action? When was the last time Nick Fury, frequent Director of SHIELD, was ever punished for anything? When was the last time Doom’s human rights abuses or frequent invasions of foreign nations ever warranted even a minor retaliatory strike? You’d think Doom was selling the US oil at two cents a gallon the way he’s tolerated? You? Me? We don’t even own any oil fields. We don’t have friends who can fly experimental aircraft to Heaven and get us back. We don’t know jacket-wearing superheroes who’d blow the roof off a maximum security prison with robot guards to get us out in time for Tuesday’s poker game at Avengers’ Mansion or Stark Tower.

Conspiracy does amazing things with light sources on every page, with cast shadows in every panel. The use of harsh lighting, cartooned details, film grain, shrapnel, rapidly changing but always guiding page layouts, Conspiracy can box you in while you read, it cages you, grabs you, it can throw you around an incredibly tight scene, no floor under your feet, no sense of perspective, then once you start to feel grounded, begin to have a sense of what’s going on, get an inkling of a name or a face who can be held accountable, it blows it all up and lets you look again at the same elements to see the pattern you had was probably just trees you were staring at, instead of the forest around them.

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