Tuesday, 17 April 2012

On Marvel's "The Evolutionary War" (1988)

If the superhero comic's dying, then it's been lingering on its death-bed for a long, long time. Today's The Week In Comics piece over at Sequart - here - takes a look back at The Evolutionary War, Marvel's 1988's summer event crossover, and suggests that far less has changed over the past quarter-of-a-century or so than nostalgia might suggest.



  1. I always found the real value of the Evolutionary War was in the very poignant irony that, if Annual stories "don't really matter" and are generally tossed-off and mediocre, then naturally, chaining all Marvel's annuals together could only lead to . . .a bloated, mediocre story that is like that, only longer.

    Plus, building a multi-part story wherein your villain is as baffling and muddled a character as the High Evolutionary is so very, very daft.

    1. Hello Kazekage:- One of the things which came through for me when reading the crossover is how close the standard was of the typical monthly and that year's annuals. The art in places was dodgy, some of the scripts were phoned in, I will agree, and yet overall, pamphlets and one-offs seemed to reflect the same mentality. The best of the Annuals weren't particularly good, but something such as the Claremont/Adams X-Men seemed to reflect a genuine commitment from the creators involved. It's odd to think that even the best of TEW was so poor; it's as if everyone's radar had collapsed, despite all that had been going on in the sub-genre. You are of course quite right; it was a bloated, mediocre story which went on and one. Did no one notice?

      Of course, there was a serious effort to make the High Evolutionary a less 'baffling and muddled character' by having more than 60 pages of his backstory spread across the crossover. Daft it was, but supremely boring too.

  2. Hm, I take it you don't have high hopes for AvX! :)

    How did you like "Atlantis Attacks" compared to "Evolutionary War"?

    1. Hello JG:- I think I'll be writing about AvX in the near future, but I want to wait until I'm less would up by how poor a business it is. I know lots of folks swear by it, and I was talking to a chap in a local comic shop just a few days ago about the good response to the event, but from where I'm frowning, it was frown-inspiring.

      At the time, I enjoyed Atlantis Attacks more that TEW, though that doesn't mean I actually enjoyed it. Having very much not enjoyed revisiting TEW, I find I'm reluctant to go back and revisit AA. But now I've started, I have a terrible feeling I'll be unable to stop ...

  3. Hi Colin!

    This is an interesting choice to re-visit - certainly the Evolutionary War is one of those comics quickly forgotten by those who read it. And yet, it was a success in some sense as it was the first in a new format of Marvel's annual crossovers where the stories were told in the annuals themselves, a pattern which continued up to 1993's "new character" theme.

    You and I have spoken before about the mainstream comics from the zeitgeist of Watchmen/DKR/Zot/whathaveyou and how they somehow failed to catch on (ie, Suicide Squad, JLI). Of course, for mainstream comic book fans, the late 80s were still a time dominated by the Chris Claremont method, which ruled the roost for more than a decade. The Evolutionary War owes more to the heyday of 80s Claremont than it does 80s Moore (or 80s McCloud, 80s Chaykin, 80s Sim, 80s Miller, et al). It was the first true line-wide crossover since Secret Wars II and... yeesh, what company! I think Infinity Gauntlet would be the first case where a Marvel line-wide crossover worked correctly (that is, the main narrative works on its own while the tie-ins support the narrative).

    As you noted, many fine talents were assembled in Evolutionary War, yet the story doesn't reflect it; the plot of the Evolutionary War only barely ties each annual together - the back-up strip detailing the High E's origins is the only real narrative, the main features have to fend for themselves. Hands-down the worst of the worst is Englehart's contribution, the notorious story where editorial complained about him using Mantis and, in a textbook case of cutting off one's nose to spite one's face, eliminated all of Mantis' speech balloons, rendering the story even less coherant.

    And yet... I rather like the finale, as told by Simonson & Bright. It essentially stands on its own and thus has no need of the other 15-odd chapters. Despite your reference to Hercules' death receiving a non-reaction, I vividly recall the sombre look on Falcon, Beast & the Captain's faces after he perishes. Simonson's bizarre lineup of Avengers was rather charming, particularly the Hercules-Hulk dynamic and Jocasta's ultimate sacrifice played out fine; it's not up to the standards of Simonson's earlier Thor (or his later Fantastic Four), nor Bright's earlier Power Man & Iron Fist (or his later Quantum & Woody), but I single out that final chapter as a pretty good super hero story.

    Beyond that, I can't argue with any of your assertions.

    1. Hello Michael:- I had pages of notes for the one single piece for Sequart, and editing it down to a single piece, and trying to give it some kind of shape, was something of a self-inspired nightmare. I wanted the challenge of trying to tackle such a big crossover in a short amount of time, but I fear it came very close to utterly defeating me. Yet some of my failure to make more of those notes was obviously a blessing; I was keen to discuss those panels where it looks as if SE hasn't dialogued some of his panels. I didn't know that editorial had made such a stupid decision, and I'm glad my time and essay-spine deserted me.

      You're quite right, I'm sure, to nail the Claremont influence on these books, although, as seems to always be the way, there's every sign that a great many of the folks involved either didn't really grasp Claremont's methods or weren't interested in doing so. And so there's a vague sense of an influence which is mostly about an impression of a style rather its content. But then, I'm not saying that more perfect Claremont clones would have helped; most of those writers had created very fine work in their own styles before. It's just that the work is neither one thing or the other, neither Claremont or the individual's writers own work in a "pure" sense. The Englehart and Gerber work is SO dispiriting. A decade before, they were the best two writers in the industry, and by '88, they were reduced to this.

      It's odd to think that DC - who have so often been feet-draggers - had the crossover working very well indeed at this same moment. Legends was VERY good indeed; although nothing but a pleasant little tale, it ws a GOOD pleasant little tale, and Millenium and Invasion were also very well organised. Strange to think that so many of the folks who'd been at Marvel during the period have now been given a desk at DC. Plus ca change ...

      I will admit that I didn't find the wordless panel of the three Avengers particularly touching, In fact, my reponse to their faces is puzzlement; I'm really not sure at all what they're feeling. And of course, they then head off and it's all never mentioned again. In fact, the last page is all laughter and buddyship in response to an innocent sneeze from the Beast, which I thought was a callous close of events. But I will readily admit that I'm not on the right wavelength here, and that I could well be missing the point simply because I feel alienated from the whole process. I do recall enjoying the book at the time!

      I hope that one day we'll get a tell-all oral history of Marvel during the period. Now that I would happily pay for.

    2. Hello, Colin!

      I'm going to buck the trend and say that, for all the warts and flaws of "Evolutionary War," I'd still take it over almost any of the crossovers done today.

      Pricing is a really big part of that. $1.75 for 64 big pages -- wow! Compare that to the $2.99-#3.99 for 22 now ... admittedly, that's not fair, since no one could know how prices would rise in 20+ years.

      And these weren't decompressed Bendis issues, with talking heads, either! Things actually happened! They may not have mattered, but they happened.

      The best thing has already been pointed out -- it was confined first and foremost to the Annuals only, and it "didn't count." I suppose that was the glaring flaw to be corrected, since if it didn't count, people didn't necessarily feel they had to buy it -- but it let the writers keep on with their stories without them being interrupted once or more a year with the big crossover event(s) like they do now.

      Maybe they were a painful harbinger of what was to come, but compared to what we have now? That kick in the shin is more welcome than the sharp stick in the eye :)

      I'm getting misty for late-80's Marvel, heh.

      Thank you for writing!

      Take it and run,

    3. Hello Earl:- Firstly, if I disagree with you, it's not to suggest that you ought to think as I do, because that's balderdash - of course - but just to help clarify my own thinking. I too think even now that those annuals HAVE to be good value for value; many of them have good if not excellent covers, there's several features, the page-count is high, I do understand that aspect of things. And yet the interior material was - in my opinion - so relatively poor. The truth is, there was no excuse for such lackluster work, and in the end, I'd rather have a brief but wonderful comic than a big chunk'o'mediocrity. Now that again is simply my own opinion: I didn't like the storytelling, so I couldn't enjoy it. In the end, I find myself warming to the package in theory, but not in practice :) Horses for courses, I know ...

      It's a good you emphasise, namely that these events were extras, they didn't count, they weren't MUST-BUY moments. Yet DC's crossovers of the period were the kind of essential event books, and they actually were rather good. DC had a string of great crossovers, from Crisis - patchy - to Legends - controlled and excellent - to Millennium - I liked it - to Invasion - still excellent, but the last of its breed until DC 1 000 000. DC were a moment well ahead of the game, but by 1990, the dead-headed were in too much of the control again. A shame.

      But as I say, what you prefer is cool by me, and I certainly recognise how being misty-eyed for a period can also give it a real value. I struggle to find anything from 1971 that isn't wonderful to me even when I know it's not :)

      And thank you for disagreeing in such a splendidly agreeable manner. When I next look at The Evolutionary War, I shall remember that my opinion is as far from objective as can be.

  4. (I can't register to post at SeqArt because of the special character in my e-mail address, so I'll do it here.)

    This piece reminds me of a truism I used to keep sane during my youth. Bombarded by a popular culture that pushed upon us young'uns the idea that music popular with the previous generation was far superior to that beloved by mine, I kept from yelling "CRAM IT WITH WALNUTS, OLD MAN!" at the TV and radio by accepting the power of selective memory.

    To echo your sentiments, if you took the best songs of a decade and compared them to the average popular songs of a given day two decades later, is it any surprise the past will look better? For a more honest comparison, either compare the best of two different ages, or compare randomly chosen dates. ("Music of today is crap? Well, let's see what specifically was big thirty years ago today. Ooh, look, isn't that a lot of drivel, my, my, my…") Past ages look so much better because the hard work of sifting has already been done and the chaff forgotten. You no longer have to look past the crap. I'd bet if you distilled the very best of the last decade, you'd have a truly impressive collection that would match the best of any other. We have to remember that, or we risk being the Old Men who deserve to have it crammed with walnuts.

    Good on ya for reinforcing the point. Comics, especially now, are a nostalgia-soaked enterprise. It behooves us as responsible adults to try and keep at least a little perspective on what times were actually like back then.

    Another truism I developed to keep sane during my youth was partially inspired by this crossover: "Every story with the High Evolutionary in it is terrible (except the first one in the FF, which was pretty cool, because Kirby)." The hit/crap ratio for any story involving the HE is appalling. He brings out the worst tendencies in comic writers. Is it the crypto-religious trappings? Is it that the cliche of "soulless science gone wrong" is so hard to get right? Is it the pink helmet?

    I'm still peeved at Marvel for borking the Quicksilver series of the late nineties by forcing the High Evolutionary and his "New Men" into it as the supporting cast. Quicksilver could be the star of a most excellent book. He has tremendous potential. But nobody could make a book work about the Knights of Wungadore and the Man-Beast and the Next Step of Evolution and blah blah blah…

    "The Evolutionary War" was a pointless, ugly cash-in sales gooser. A harbinger of crap to come. My friends and I hated it even then. At least they used to keep it confined to annuals. Were any of those annual crossovers any good?

    1. Hello Harvey:- You're right, there are few golden ages, and those that exist are always selective affairs. There's a story of David Crosby and McGuinn from The Byrds coming out of Hard Days Night and saying that 1964 was a great era for music, and it was. But that discounts the mass of trash that made up the majority of the charts. A Golden Age is just a period when there was an accidental collection of GREAT titles. There are few times when such a collection numbers more than 3 or 4 books. The High 60s of Marvel was briefly such a period, say from 62 to 65, and the Third Wave Super-Books of the 80s from about 82 to 87, but even then, the pap was predominant. In some ways, the Quesada/Jemas years of 01 to 04 actually produced more great books than many other eras. But since that all turned sour so quickly, we don;t tend to talk about it ...

      I'm not even sure that the first HE story is any good, actually! It powers through on Lee and Kirby still coming down off of their peak, but there's not a great deal that really touches the heart in it all. Great stuff as a spectacle, but as a story? He's been a duff character, as you say, for a long time. I'm much more fond of that big cow milk-nurse of his than I am of his, and I'm not joking.

      I'm with you on Quicksilver, though I do think that the character's been made almost toxic by how thoroughly evil he's been made to act. After awhile, it's hard to see a character come back from the unforgivable, given that few folks can make such an arc compelling. I liked the character in the period from around 100 of the Avengers through to Crystal dumping Johnny for him. He was an ass, but a formidable if bigoted one. But then, we all have our favourite periods of characters ...

      Were any of the annual crossovers any good? There's a case for Crisis simply because it was such a powerful force in the day for change, but it's hard to read now. I think Legends and DC 1 000 000 are the best, with Invasion a close third. Oh, and there were some great tie-ins for that wretched Zero Hour. But on the whole, and accepting that nostalgia can make these things feel better than they ever did at the time, the answer is "no". DC may have started off brilliantly after Crisis, but by the time of War Of The Gods and John Byrne's weird flat New Gods non-epic, the bloom was off the rose. Marvel, by contrast, never seemed to get how to pull the trick off, though I'm sure that won't go down well with those who actually know what they're talking about :)

    2. Theres a pretty stellar multi-issue arc of "Wolverine: First Class" by Fred Van Lente that makes good use of both the Knights of Wundagore and Man-Beast. While still staying focused on the book's core relationship between Wolverine and Kitty Pryde...

    3. Hello LurkerWithout:- Thank you for that recommendation. I'd never have known to look for those comics if you'd not have said.