There’s a certain type of superhero comic that I’ve become fascinated with and I don’t know if it has a proper name. It’s often used by publishers as a bridge between one era of storytelling into another, usually following the climax of a crossover event, and serves as a sample platter for new titles soon to be released. However, with the benefit of hindsight, we’re able to see how important these stories were to the larger picture of their shared universe and how much impact they made on the comics landscape. Sometimes, it’s the start of something truly great but it’s just as likely that the series being established ended up dead in the water.
We’re starting off this week with Civil War: Choosing Sides #1 which is unusual compared to the rest of the one-shots in this series because it came out during an event and used it as a backdrop to set up several new series which wouldn’t necessarily tie back in. Due to the delays Civil War suffered and the impact that had on Marvel’s publishing line as a whole, it’s also not the last time we’re going to see some of these get previewed in this type of anthology.
Venom in “Switching Sides”
(Guggenheim, Yu, McCaig and Caramagna)
We start this issue with a Venom story where the Spider-Man villain is hiding out away from the chaos of the superhuman civil war only to be found and engaged by SHIELD’s “Cape-Killers”, armoured agents tasked with brinking in super-powered individuals who violate the Superhuman Registration Act. Venom takes out the grunts before the heavy hitters are sent in; Songbird and Radioactive Man of the Thunderbolts. They tell Venom that he can go to jail or join the team and the villain agrees to become a Thunderbolt.
This is an interesting artefact of the time, first of all, due to the person bonded to the Venom symbiote. Mac Gargan, the once and future Scorpion, had been Venom for about two years at this point. He first gained the symbiote as part of Civil War writer Mark Millar’s run on Marvel Knights Spider-Man and he would remain bonded with it for the rest of the decade.
This story serves as a kind of bridge between two eras of Thunderbolts; Songbird and Radioactive Man representing the team under previous writer Fabian Niecieza and Venom representing the new run by Warren Ellis and Mike Deodato. Songbird and Radioactive Man would remain members during the start of the Ellis run, but the Thunderbolts’ new leader Norman Osborn would go on to do everything he could to oust them in favor of his handpicked maniacs.
We’ll talk about this more in a future installment, but the Ellis/Deodato run on Thunderbolts sets the stage for the next five years or so of stories in the universe. However, this particular vignette doesn’t go too far in establishing what that era is going to look like and it’s less of a primer for Thunderbolts #110 and more a case of continuity shuffling, moving Venom into place for the last-page cliffhanger of the contemporaneously released Civil War #4.
The Irredeemable Ant-Man in “Conscientious Objector”
(Kirkman, Hester, Parks, Crabtree and Caramagna)
I was a big Irredeemable Ant-Man fan back in the day. The Civil War era was really when I started getting into superhero comics and the thing that excited me the most was anything that seemed like a new take on something. In hindsight, a lot of Irredeemable Ant-Man does not hold up, but at the time it seemed so different and unique compared to a lot of superhero comics and I was really into it. Please also take into the account that I was sixteen years old at this time and thought that Kevin Smith movies were the height of cinema. We’ve all come a long way.
Most of the time, these anthology one-shots serve to introduce an established character’s new status quo, but occasionally they’re used to introduce a character the audience for the first time. We’ll get there in a future instalment, but Kamala Khan’s first full appearance was in one of these kind of issues, prior to Ms. Marvel #1. That’s what we get here with Eric O’Grady, so Kirkman and Hester have eight pages to establish who he is and most importantly for a character dubbed “Irredeemable”, they have to establish why we should care about him.
Eric starts out this story content to watch the chaos of a superhero brawl as Iron Man and Captain America’s sides fight in the streets, but when a bystander gets caught up in the battle, he’s the only person to notice and steps in to get her to safety. Kirkman and Hester highlight the carelessness of the heroes during the superhuman civil war which will ultimately lead to Captain America’s surrender in the final issue of the titular event and establish Eric as a generally good guy. It also sets up some mysteries regarding the ongoing series, letting us know that the Ant-Man suit is considered stolen and Eric is on the run from SHIELD; a nice little hook to pull us into the ongoing series.
The story ends with a reminder of why Irredeemable Ant-Man isn’t remembered too fondly, as Eric uses his size-changing abilities to spy on women taking what seems to be an aerobics class. Eric’s lascivious nature was definitely the biggest misfire of his ongoing series and a scene where he spies on Carol Danvers in the shower is especially uncomfortable. While there is some really great character work in Irredeemable Ant-Man and some of Phil Hester’s best art, it will always be remembered for that one moment which kinda places a giant asterisk on an otherwise fun series with a lot of heart.
In the grand scheme of things, I wouldn’t say that Irredeemable Ant-Man is forgotten because it was different enough to be memorable, but Eric O’Grady didn’t really mesh with the Marvel Universe all too well. He became an Avenger but was killed and replaced with a villainous robot version of himself, going by the name Black Ant to separate him from the recently returned Scott Lang. In recent years, he’s become a pet character of Nick Spencer’s, appearing in Captain America: Steve Rogers, Secret Empire and Amazing Spider-Man.
The Immortal Iron Fist in “Choosing Sides”
(Brubaker, Fraction, Aja, Hollingsworth, Lanphear)
Unquestionably the best story in the anthology, this prelude to The Immortal Iron Fist could serve as the platonic ideal for how to do these kinds of preview anthology stories. Spinning out of Ed Brubaker and Michael Lark’s run on Daredevil, Danny Rand took over as Daredevil while Matt Murdock was still in prison; partly to keep Hell’s Kitchen safe and partly to spread doubt as to whether Murdock was really Daredevil at all. Murdock spent the superhuman civil war travelling Europe on the trail of Vanessa Fisk, but Daredevil continued to appear during the Civil War event to the point that fans weren’t sure if it was Danny or Matt.
If you just read Civil War and nothing else, then you can read Daredevil’s appearances as being Matt Murdock and not worry about it. During an out-of-costume meeting of Captain America’s team, Daredevil is shown as having red hair like Matt Murdock and when Daredevil is later caught and sent to the Negative Zone Prison, he makes a quip to Iron Man referencing the thirty pieces of silver Judas Iscariot received for betraying Jesus Christ — a reference to Matt Murdock’s Catholicism.
However, that doesn’t work with what Brubaker was doing with the character, so we get a flashback scene in this vignette where Matt asks Danny to continue being Daredevil while he’s in Europe and we see Danny as Daredevil get in a clash with SHIELD Cape Killers. The fight scene in this story really serves as a preview of just how big a star David Aja was going to be come with his work on The Immortal Iron Fist and in just two pages, he establishes himself as someone who is going to go on to be one of the best fight artists of the 21st century.
I’m not quite sure what the legacy of The Immortal Iron Fist is as a series because I remember it really fondly as someone that was buying it monthly, but I think in the grand scheme of things it’s overshadowed by Fraction and Aja’s work on Hawkeye where they took everything they learned on Iron Fist and perfected it. I remember at the time thinking that Aja’s costume redesign for Iron Fist was so perfect that he’d never ever go back to the high collar and exposed chest, but that didn’t last either. Certainly the concept of the Seven Hidden Cities and the Immortal Weapons has remained at the core of Iron Fist’s lore but I don’t know that The Immortal Iron Fist had quite the lasting impact people assumed it would. If you haven’t read it, you really should.
U.S.Agent in “Choosing Sides”
(Oeming, Kolins, Reber and Caramagna)
This story and the last story should have had to choose a more interesting title than what is literally the subtitle of the whole anthology.
Michael Avon Oeming and Scott Kolins’ Omega Flight is an interesting series to look back on. As I remember it, it was supposed to be an ongoing but it suffered delays related to the publication of Civil War itself and got truncated into being a limited series but I was really interested in the line-up, which we’ll talk about in a future installment. John Walker is the only member of Omega Flight that we see in this vignette and while Iron Fist’s story is the best of the anthology, I think this one plays in the sandbox of the Marvel Universe in the most interesting ways.
The story plays out over two timelines simultaneously, with the top half of the page dedicated to U.S.Agent chasing down Purple Man in Philadelphia in the present and the bottom half showing the recent past, as Walker receives his marching orders from Tony Stark. I really like this, because it feels like someone actually thought about the larger consequences of the Superhuman Registration Act and one of those consequences is that supervillains are flooding into Canada, which does not have anywhere near the level of superheroes-per-capita as even New York City, let alone America as a whole.
It’s an interesting way of framing the events of Civil War in a larger political context outside of the playground scraps of Team Cap vs Team Stark but of course John Walker doesn’t appreciate that and instead loves America so much that he refuses to go to Canada. However, the two stories converge when U.S.Agent fails to bring in Purple Man, who steals his shield and uses mind control to make him fall out of a SHIELD hovercarrier, seriously injuring him. When he wakes up, Walker learns that Killgrave has fled to Canada and chooses to take on the assignment to get payback.
In terms of long-term impact Omega Flight probably had the least out of any of the stories this anthology, to the point that there a cliffhangers and dangling plot points at the end of that miniseries that just get ignored when certain characters show up in the next appearances. When it comes to the ongoing story of the Marvel Universe, Omega Flight might as well not have happened. However, this story itself is a great use of where the Marvel Universe was in 2006 and does deserve credit for that, at least.
Howard The Duck in “No-Human-Americans”
(Templeton, Landridge, Brown, Caramagna)
This is, pun intended, an odd duck among the other stories of this anthology, because it isn’t setting up a Howard The Duck series, it’s just a fun comedy short about Howard trying to register under the Superhuman Registration Act. I’m not going to spend a lot of time on it for that reason, but it is a fun little short. It feels like it belongs in one of those comedy one-shots like Who Won’t Wield The Shield or Shame Itself but it’s a nice little palette cleanser at the end of the issue.
Templeton and Landridge are both masters in their craft. Ty Templeton wrote (and drew!) the absolute classic Darkseid vs Santa story “Present Tense” which appeared in DCU Holiday Bash #2, so the man knows how to get the most out of an anthology format. Roger Landridge, meanwhile, is possibly one of the greatest living cartoonists and at this point had already received acclaim for Fred The Clown. In 2006 (and even now) there’s perhaps no better creative for a Howard The Duck short.
Howard tries to register under the Superhuman Registration Act but find he is so infamous as the Cleveland, Ohio “Duck-Man” that the local branch of SHIELD has decided it’s easier to officially rule that Howard doesn’t exist, so he can’t register. It’s a fun little story starring one of Marvel’s sillier characters and being set in Cleveland, it’s a fun look into how the SHRA is being handled outside of New York City; it’s not setting up anything bigger than itself but it doesn’t need to be enjoyable.
Overall, this was a fun issue to look back on, especially considering the place Civil War has in my own origin story as a comic book reader. Title like Irredeemable Ant-Man and Immortal Iron Fist were early favorites of mine and Thunderbolts was my first introduction to Warren Ellis who, despite semi-recent revelations, was an incredibly influential author to me for over a decade. There’s nothing in here that makes it necessary to return to — I doubt many of these preview anthologies will end up with me recommending you seek them out in 2021 — but it’s a fun artefact of where the Marvel Universe was in 2006.