By Jon Durmin
On January 21, 2015 Axel Alonso (Marvel Comic’s Editor-in-Chief) and Tom Brevoort (Marvel’s Executive Editor & Senior Vice President of Publishing) made a self-proclaimed, “announcement-to-end-announcements,” about the future of Marvel publication that did indeed rock the fan community:
“None of these stories are What Ifs are alternate reality stories, and they will have legs. They will impart new things into the Marvel Universe going forward.”- Axel Alonso, 1.21.2015
“Once you hit ‘Secret Wars’ #1, there’s no Marvel Universe, there’s no Ultimate Universe, it’s all Battleworld.” – Tom Brevoort, 1.21.2015
I’ve seen a lot of my fellow followers of the fantastic features of the Marvel U react with astonishment. Thus far I’ve seen two basic categories of reaction to the news. Some fans seem to be taking a let’s wait-and-see approach. Others see this as the destruction of their long beloved Marvel Saga, and many of them are now coping with the feelings of grief I discussed in my analysis of the events of Avengers Vol. 5, #40 (#imperiusrexforever). In the latter group there is a sub-group that perceive this as further evidence of a long-feared reboot. Others see this as the end of new possibilities or simply fear for favored characters.
Personally, I fall in the let’s wait-and-see camp, though I’m VERY apprehensive about what the future has in store for the Marvel U. I don’t believe we’re looking down the barrel of a reboot. Reboot attempts haven’t worked out so hot for Marvel in the past, and most of those, even the ones that have been more well regarded, have had a pre-programmed reset button built in. This seems like a drastic divergence from the status-quo that will continue to run in the context of the ongoing Marvel Saga. Unlike the Ultimate U attempt (Earth-1610 for those keeping score) or the Season One Graphic Novel series, it’s evident that this isn’t a splintered, parallel story that provides a contemporary retelling of existing stories. As near as I can tell, the story going forward will feature an amalgamation of place all in the solitary confines of one terrestrial body – which brings us to Battleworld.
What’s Battleworld? For those that haven’t read Jim Shooter’s original 1984’s Secret Wars series, that series also featured a planet called Battleworld. In Secret Wars (1984) socially and emotionally stunted godling the Beyonder picked up a cluster of Marvel heroes and villains and plopped them down to fight it out and teach him(?) whether “good” or “evil” was better by smashing each other’s’ brains in, in a last-man-standing battle royale. This comically immature premise notwithstanding, the Beyonder constructed the original Battleworld together from bits and pieces of a variety of planets (including Earth-616’s Denver, CO) as a staging ground for his contest. As with the original, the Battleworld being promoted for 2015’s Secret Wars as the new terrain is cobbled together from a selection of different worlds. Unlike the original, however, this Battleworld is made up not just of different planets (Hala Field? New Xander?), but more over of representations of different times (King James’ England, Valley of Fire, 2099), alternate timelines (Domain of Apocalypse, Sentinel Territories, The Monarchy of M) and parallel dimensions (Weirdworld, K’un L’un, the Eye of Agamotto).
Alonso and Brevoort have spoken about the story possibilities this change opens up. The Age of Apocalypse X-Men can go to war with the AU legions of Ultron! Killraven can recruit Captain Britain to help battle Martian armies! Finally, that Devil Dinosaur vs Hydra story we’ve all been waiting for! Miles Morales can join the Avengers! It all sounds mighty exciting doesn’t it? I’ll admit, this geography does presage some interesting superheroic geopolitical interactions. If that’s all you’re thinking about, well great, there are new story possibilities opening up.
However, taking the long view of this scenario (and I can’t help but do so, it’s who I am true believers) Battleworld seems to be closing at least as many doors as its opening. In fact, I would venture to say that moving towards the Battleworld-scenario requires a lot of sacrifices that will really ham-string the future of the Marvel U. I’d go so far as to say that the world itself may even be literally unsustainable. I don’t know that I can really talk about these issues separately, so let’s just lay it all out there. Comics scholars and historians have long noted that one of the things that, from the beginning, distinguished the budding Marvel universe from other superhero franchise was its rooting in a more real world. Even as far back as the founding of the first shared universe story, Sub-Mariner vs the Human Torch, in Timely Comics’ Marvel Mystery Comics Vol.1 # 8-10 (1940) the sights and sounds of this battle were rooted in a reasonable facsimile of the real world in which the story was taking place. It wasn’t just the locales. The heroes of Marvel existed in a world of real men and women, and they were written as people. In other comics the bystanders were just one more cardboard feature of a hollow and generic cityscape. The heroes were mannequin-like automatons in costume. In Marvel our heroes are surrounded by real people with ambitions, histories, flaws, fears, hopes, and relationships. In Marvel we could be right there. We could be on the scene as Galactus prepared to consume the world, or as the Avengers confronted Kang at the UN or as the X-Men battled Alpha Flight through the streets of Calgary. Maybe Captain America would stop in our little town in Iowa or Arkansas or Wyoming or South Carolina as he worked to dismantle the Sons of the Serpent. Maybe if we were mugged Moon Knight or Daredevil would find our attackers. Maybe we would be the next to discover we were a mutant, or to stumble onto the secrets of an ancient alien artifact, or be bit by a radioactive cricket. When the president showed up he was the president of the time (I still can’t think of Dark Phoenix Saga without feeling some amusement at Jimmy Carter telling the Beast to call the other Avengers to see what’s going on, or that time Rogue caught a fly ball and winked at Ronald Regan). Competing universes felt like just stories, artificial, but something about Marvel felt real. And I think we’re about to lose that.
Having looked at the map of Battleworld the only place that looks like it could be a world we might be able to recognize or feel comfortable in is Manhattan. Even that is a sandwich of Marvel Earth-616 and the Ultimate Earth-1610, with a tiny Atillan shmear between them and what appears to be a land of 1950’s Marvel monsters on the side. Imagine you survive to live on Battleworld in Manhattan. What is your life now? Living in an isolated city state with bizarre worlds starting to bleed in to the outskirts of town? Even for the average Manhattanite of the 616 or 1610, who’s grown cynically accustomed to the superheroic conflicts and alien invasions of their native world, this could be too much.
Let’s go further . . . imagine you’re living in the new, Manhattan territory of Battleworld. Even if you’ve been living there your entire life, is your whole life truly there? The whole rest of the world has been lost. Did you have any friends in Pittsburgh? Any family in Anchorage? They’re gone now. Was your employer headquartered in Paris? Your job no longer exists. It’s all gone. For those of you old enough to remember the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001 (and I don’t mind sharing that one of my uncles worked for Cantor Fitzgerald on the 102 floor of Tower One until that terrible morning) that was nothing compared to the level of devastation and loss we’d be talking about in this scenario. The emotional trauma, the sense of loss and weight of survivor’s guilt, for the Manhattanites of Battleworld will be devastating. Crippling. This shouldn’t just be so for the normal citizens of these places, but also for the super-powered and costumed adventure seekers among them. How well will Matt Murdock cope if Foggy Nelson has taken a trip to Cancun at the time of this tragedy? How will Steve Rogers cope with knowing his failure to prevent the death of his universe cost the lives of the over Three-Hundred Million Americans outside Manhattan? Whether they carry this guilt or not, how well will we identify with our Marvel heroes after this? Either they will, like their non-powered neighbors, be survivors of a tragic holocaust, bearing all the guilt and grief of that distinction, or they will be unaffected, which would perhaps be even more terrible and, frankly, dehumanizing in their failure to feel any grief over that massive loss of life. If Spider-Man doesn’t feel sad, or angry, or otherwise upset about the events of Time Runs Out and Secret Wars does he really have a sense of responsibility of proportional measure to his power?
It isn’t just the loss of people. No, as terrible as that will be Manhattan is at the heart of a megalopolis community that is highly reliant on its relationship with the world outside its borders to sustain itself – this is where we come to sustainability. How much food is produced in Manhattan? Not canned, or processed or sold, but grown? I don’t presume to give you statistics on the subject (to be honest I looked and couldn’t find any), but some efforts at community gardening in courtyards and on rooftops notwithstanding, the answer is not enough. As it exists now, Manhattan (or any major modern metropolitan area for that matter) lacks an infrastructure to feed itself in isolation from the outside world. Cutting Manhattan off from the rest of the world is a public health disaster in the making; a famine waiting to happen. In addition to the emotional devastation of the loss of their world, the Manhattanites of Battleworld are facing an extremely tenuous survival situation. This is not necessarily a population that will be highly ready to adapt to this situation. City-Data.com (drawing predominantly on data from the 2010 Census) Breaks down the top occupations in Manhattan as follows for Men:
• Sales representatives, services, wholesale and manufacturing (6%)
• Other management occupations except farmers and farm managers (6%)
• Lawyers (4%)
• Media and communication equipment workers (4%)
• Computer specialists (4%)
• Other sales and related workers including supervisors (4%)
• Top executives (3%)
• Media and communication equipment workers (5%)
• Other management occupations except farmers and farm managers (5%)
• Secretaries and administrative assistants (5%)
• Other office and administrative support workers including supervisors (5%)
• Business operations specialists (4%)
• Sales representatives, services, wholesale and manufacturing (4%)
• Art and design workers (4%)
with the principal employing industries being:
• Professional, scientific, and technical services (16%)
• Finance and insurance (14%)
• Accommodation and food services (7%)
• Educational services (6%)
• Health care (6%)
• Arts, entertainment, and recreation (5%)
• Publishing, and motion picture and sound recording industries (5%)
While this paints a picture of a group of people who may be very smart, very able, very ambitious and talented, it is also a population that doesn’t necessarily know how to feed itself. Even if a sufficient portion of the population of Marvel-hattan has the necessary skills and knowledge to train other citizens to take action on developing a city-based agriculture they still lack a few essential things: Arable land, sufficient seed-stock, and live-stock. Even if they had the seed stock on hand to grow major subsistence crops like rice, corn, soy, or wheat (and they wouldn’t) the city lacks the space to grow them in sufficient volume to support a population of a few million people before non-perishable food starts to run out in the city. Sorry, Central Park just isn’t enough space. Hydroponics can get you a good ways in terms of producing fruits and vegetables, and converted roof-tops might provide space for extensive hydroponic production, but again, this requires a functional expertise and the seed-stock and time to make it happen. This doesn’t even get into sources of animal protein, and even though urban chicken raising is permitted in NYC, and there are rumors of a lone cow residing somewhere on the island, this may not be enough to last long or feed many. When this runs out, I can’t help but wonder about the fate of police horses, and stray dogs, and not-so-stray dogs, and what people might sink to next.
It’s not that I believe it’s impossible for mankind to develop self-sustaining city-scapes, but we are a VERY long way from that happening. Other ‘nations’ of the Battleworld, namely King James England, K’un L’un, and Atillan, have the demonstrated capacity to feed their own populations, but the likelihood that this capacity could also support a dependent or trading-partner population of a few million seems dubious. With a smaller population and more potentially arable land, Westchester may be able to adapt but it’s positioned half a globe away on the Battleworld map and hardly readily able to provide sustenance for the cities that would have been just miles away on their Earth of origin. Other lands seem expressly hostile or may have no need for food at all (e.g. Deadlands, Sentinel Territories).
To me, this all suggests that the Manhattan of Battleworld, the most identifiably normal sector of the Marvel Universe that will be, is not going to be so identifiable any longer, and if it starts that way it won’t be in fairly short order. The civilian population that the likes of Spider-Man, Captain America and Daredevil have long been so intent on protecting will no longer be familiar to us. They will be a people of Armageddon, desperately struggling against time to live to see another day. How long before the battle for the scraps of survival? Could a hero like Captain America preserve a semblance of the democratic spirit he embodies in a world on the brink of starvation where the mass of the populace has no idea how to preserve itself against the onslaught of starvation, let alone the predations of the monsters in the world beyond the city? This is the reality of the Battleworld laid out for us on Marvel’s promotional map. In that reality, one of the first casualties of the Secret Wars will be the relatability of the Marvel Universe; that could be the true death of Marvel as we know and love it. We will no longer be able to imagine that this is the world right outside our door. It will wholly be another post-apocalyptic sci-fi dystopia populated by a desperate and dwindling powerless rabble living in the shadow of monsters and ubermenschen.
This loss of the anchor of reality that so sustains our suspension of disbelief is, for me, the great tragedy of the move towards Secret Wars. I find myself puzzling over whether the creative and editorial forces behind this maneuver have given consideration to the consequences? Will these matters be addressed at all in the coming publishing cycle? While I am currently skeptical that any of this will be broached in the latter half of 2015 all I can do is wait, and see, and hope that when the dust settles there is still something that feels welcoming, familiar and real about this universe. I hope I will still be able to unflinchingly say, “Make Mine Marvel.”