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Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Panel Vision - Fury: My War Gone By

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Today marks the return of Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD, the first major Marvel show on a network.    This year’s premiere of Marvel’s super-spy series comes with a big dollop of serendipity as it’s hot on the heels of the first new Nick Fury comic book to hit stands since the ‘90s.  Given the situation and the fact I’ve meant to write about this for a while now, I’ve elected to look at the best Nick Fury comic book yet written- My War Gone By.  

I briefly discussed it back in my look at Nick’s many iterations and again while going over his best comic covers, now the time has come at least to tackle it head on and believe me, this is a long overdue review.  Aside from fitting into the double SHIELD theme of this week My War Gone By fits the much broader tone of this moment in American history.  

It’s a vast, complex, sobering cold war story of one soldier’s march through history and towards oblivion, the way we make war, and what drives the American identity- just the thing to read as we begin our own inevitable march towards oblivion. 

The first thing to understand about My War Gone By is that it’s part of a Marvel imprint called MAX.  MAX is sort of the black sheep of the Marvel imprints despite publishing a lot of my favorite comic books.  It was a mature readers line started in 2001 with Alias, the comic that would become Jessica Jones on Netflix.  The idea was that MAX would let more obscure or brutal characters shine through in a way that wouldn’t have worked otherwise. 

Its biggest success was the 2004 Punisher comic, written by Garth Ennis, that’s widely regarded as both the best MAX Comic and one of the best iterations of the Punisher ever.  My War Gone By was also written by Garth Ennis, this one in 2012 well after his run on Punisher had concluded, but many of the same themes and ideas end up present here.  Punisher himself even enjoys an extended cameo though not necessarily in the way you’d think. 

The world of Ennis’ MAX comics is basically the same as our own world.  There aren’t super beings and time regularly passes, with SHIELD itself ending up a much more opaque concept.  In this world, Nick Fury’s an old soldier who started his career in World War 2 and fought the Cold War for 40 long years, and we see them pass from story to story.  

That makes this part Cold War thriller and part historical epic, finding a way to slot Nick into various situations drawn from America’s military history in the back half of the 20th century.  He starts out as special advisor to French troops in Indo-China, is involved in the Bay of Pigs planning and execution, returns to Vietnam for a time, and finally became a key player in the American funding of the Contras in Nicaragua. 

None of that’s really a spoiler as our stories are being narrated by Nick in the present as he’s locked himself up in a hotel room somewhere, recording his life story as his surroundings slowly rot and decay around him.  The whole thing is the very definition of hard-boiled, but that kind of stock language also implies a greater level of cliché than is actually present.  

My War Gone By might be wearing the clothes of dime store spy novel, but it’s anything but, focusing a lot more on the intimate dramas and philosophies of four main characters; Nick Fury, his friend Agent Hatherly, Congressman ‘Pug’ McCuskey, and the congressman’s wife/Nick’s occasional bed partner Shirley Defabio.

The triangle formed between Nick, Pug, and DeFabio forms the base foundation of the graphic novel, they’re the characters who have the most interaction to depict the world as it is while Hatherly is more about how things ought to be.  

That’s really the crux of the comic, it’s about truth: ugly truth, made even uglier by the better philosophy it’s juxtaposed against.  Nick is our protagonist, but he’s hardly meant to be ideal.  He’s more of a willing suspension of disbelief in the name of war. 

We follow him through Vietnam, Cuba, and Nicaragua, each time fostered there by Congressman McCuskey while also drawn to the war.  He’s the part of America that loves the fight, the nature of war as an expression of strength, the lifestyle of the soldier.  As such, even though we in the present know the things Fury is involved with are questionable at best a big part of his arc is the effort he puts into convincing himself to look the other way.  

Stuff like how Cuba and Nicaragua pose no real threat to the US, war escalation used to generate military production at home and using secret back alley wars to cover for the drug trade all pass under Nick Fury’s radar because to him the war is more important than the why. 

The why is also where Congressman McCuskey comes in as something akin to the comic’s villain.  He’s probably one of the most hateful and corrupt characters Garth Ennis has ever depicted, which is saying a lot given how brutal his Punisher run was.  Everything about McCuskey’s outward persona is meant to present him as a friendly, folksy politician just out to help people come together, right down to his cutesy nickname.   

But underneath all of that is a kind of twisted oozing thing, a force for corruption that taints everything it touches.  His corruption is nearly always behind whatever backdoor conflict he’s found his way into and he’s always the one making a profit out of making other people as bad as he is.  What’s so terrifying and frustrating about McCuskey, though, is the way he exists as a part of the system. 

He’s not intended as an aberration or someone railroading the military-political system for his own gain, he is the system working as intended.  This comes up whenever Fury or DeFabio try to go against McCuskey or undo him in some way.  They can rant and rail and probably hurt him in some way, but realistically they’re both aware that anything they do wouldn’t really matter.  

McCuskey is dug so deep into the world of Washington there’s no system to appeal to, no higher authority that would ever remove him because to do so would be to go against the system.  It’s a somber and sobering revelation, a moment of clarity into the way government and war have come to function. 

DeFabio’s story is the cruelest of the three as she ends up caught between Nick’s limited desires and Pug’s corruption.  The book does an excellent job making sure she doesn’t just end up the ball in a game of keep away, actively subverting that idea by making a lot of her story about how neither of the men actually care about her just how they can use her.  She ends up married to Pug, which makes her slow twisting and corruption into his vision of her the most visceral and disturbing.  

She’s the closest thing the book has to an audience surrogate in that manner, feeling trapped between the comfort of Pug’s corruption and the thrill of Nick’s battle obsession she chose the more secure of the two but in the end either choice would destroy her.  The way her world slowly shrinks and shrinks, her spirit slowly crushed by life with McCuskey, ends up harder to watch than any war scene and is a grim commentary on the plight of the common citizenry caught within this system. 

The outsider of the group is obviously Hatherly, who is much more representative of the American promise than the system as it is.  He’s the one character in the trio he comes off fully good and, though he starts as Fury’s colleague, he abandons the life of a black ops cold warrior by the early ‘60s.  

He’s the heart of the book in that he’s framed as very much the last good man in all of this, a noble soul that the others all come into contact with and, ultimately, turn away from.  It’s his words that open and close the proceedings, his vision of America and the nature of its power that informs the overall philosophy of the comic. 

He’s not like Fury who loves the thrill of battle so much he’s willing to lose his soul over it and he’s not like Pug viewing war as a constant opportunity for personal profit, he’s not even like DeFabio- trapping herself in a choice between two extremes when there was always a better option.  

I’m tempted to call him the most optimistic part of the book, but that’d be sugar coating- there is no hope in My War Gone By, just the blunt realism that no system can maintain itself indefinitely. 

My War Gone By is not the comic to read if you’re looking for reassurance that everything will be alright, in fact, it’s pretty firmly built on a foundation that nothing was ever alright.  It’s a tragedy more than anything else, just a tragedy that happens to be grounded in the 50-year saga of American military activity during the back half of the 20th century.  

As I said, it wears the clothes of a military thriller or a Cold War spy story when really it’s a drama about the broken lives of broken people and how they reflect our broken country.  That might sound very depressing, and that’s largely because it is but, at the same time, it’s hardly unfair about it. 

Nothing the book puts forward is untrue; in fact most of it is based in some of the cruelest modern American history that we prefer to just sweep under the rug now.  It’s a somber, sobering read but a necessary one in amongst the lighter, more optimistic political comics we get nowadays like The Champions or even Ms. Marvel.  

It’s all well and good to be optimistic about the future but sometimes we need to admit that the future isn’t always bright and we’re not always moving forward, more likely we’re just standing still- trapped between two bad choices we only imagine to be our only options.   

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