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Operation: Galactic Storm

A column article, Comics Bulletin Soapbox by: Kelvin Green

Created by various writers and artists
Publisher: Marvel Comics

Operation: Galactic Storm runs through:
Captain America #398-401
West Coast Avengers #80-82
Quasar #32-36
Wonder Man #7-9
Avengers #345-347
Iron Man #278-279
Thor #445-446
Avengers Forever #8 (retcons some of the climax)


Generally, I abhor crossovers. They’re rarely any good, and are even more rarely driven by story rather than greed. It’s a form of behaviour I do not want to encourage in the comic companies as it seldom has any positive effects for the reader. It is for this reason that, even though I’m an Avengers fan, I’m largely avoiding Marvel’s current Avengers Disassembled event like it was The Presence. The ancillary comics that Marvel claim are essential parts of the event have little to do with the main plotline and unless it’s one of the Avengers solo titles you’re reading, you’d be lucky to see even an appearance by an Avenger, let alone an actual connection to the main event.

Operation: Galactic Storm is different. While I’m sure that it too was sales-driven, the various included titles at least share a cohesive storyline rather than just a graphic on the cover telling you that “This comic is definitely part of Big Crossover Event and you HAVE to read it! Honestly!” Admittedly, it’s not the most complex storyline, but it does run through the various Avengers titles and in doing so draws them together rather well.

Released in 1992, hence the title alluding to then-recent world events, the story concerns yet another inter-species galactic war in the Marvel Universe, and the Avengers’ attempts to stop it. It ran through twenty-two issues of Captain America, Avengers West Coast, Quasar, Wonder Man, Avengers, Iron Man and Thor, and was revisited in the relatively recent Avengers Forever.

As mentioned above, the story isn’t particularly complex, with only two or three major twists occurring, but given the amount of planning needed to get various creative teams all working together without contradiction, this would probably be asking too much of whoever planned and steered the event. The middle sections of the tale, while by no means bad, tend towards the forgettable, as various squads of Avengers really fail to achieve a great deal, and it’s fair to say that a sizable chunk of the story could be taken out without affecting much. The on-again, off-again alliance with the Shi’ar is one notable example. The Avengers go to them in peace, get attacked under suspicion of espionage, prove their innocence, get attacked again for being hotheaded, prove themselves, get attacked again…etc. Captain America’s team’s capture-escape-capture-escape adventures seem similarly pointless.

That said, the strength of the story comes not from its structure, but from the many interesting ideas floating around. While I wouldn’t go as far as saying that this crossover has elements of the postmodern about it, it is fair to say that on the whole Galactic Storm has a certain amount of self-awareness and awareness of how “big event” comics stories operate. In fact, the whole crossover seems to be defined by a tendency towards doing things differently, to defy expectations of how crossovers work. A galactic war flares up between the Kree and the Shi’ar, the latter an alien race that is usually associated with the X-Men and is normally ignored in the rest of the Marvel Universe. As such, it’s pleasantly surprising that Marvel didn’t try to crowbar the X-books into the storyline too, as they’d have good reason to. But the interesting thing about the conflict is not that it uses the Shi'ar, or that Wolverine doesn’t turn up, but that the war really doesn’t involve Earth and its heroes at all. There are no invading forces, escaped criminals or anything of the sort. In fact, the general impression is that Earth’s heroes (Mightiest or not) would be quite happy to let the aliens tear each other apart, which is an interesting inversion of the idea of the superheroes intervening in galactic affairs that do not concern them (incidentally the idea behind the more recent Maximum Security crossover). Rick Jones gets kidnapped early on, but is saved easily enough, and the heroes wouldn’t seem to be too concerned about following this up, if it weren’t for the fact that Quasar (in an odd but welcome central role) discovers that the use of Earth’s solar system as a handy jump point between the two alien empires is destabilising our sun. So the Avengers split and send a team each to the Kree and Shi’ar homeworlds, not to try and avert the war necessarily, but to tell them literally to take it somewhere else. While it is strange to see Captain America (among others) endorse this not-quite-pacifist standpoint, it’s a refreshingly different take on things.

Also of great interest, and for many of the same reasons, is the climax. I’ll not give too much away, but essentially the Avengers lose. Earth is safe, but the two warring empires are each devastated in their own ways. Again, it’s interesting to see such an inversion of the standard plots and themes. The heroes always win, don’t they? Yeah, they might face initial setbacks, but in the end they win through and save the day, right? Not here. It’s made very clear that while the Avengers might be Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, they are not as suited to events on a larger scale. While a certain amount of blame can be put on Vision and Wonder Man (they sit inside an enormous spaceship/bomb for about four issues bickering instead of disarming it), as well as the interference of the Skrulls, the team’s failure is largely down to their own loss of control over the situation. This one gets away from them, and billions of lives are lost. Seeing as the X-Men (the X-Men!) seem to save and/or defeat the Shi’ar empire every other month on their own, this is certainly a novel way for Marvel to bring the story to an end. Even though Marvel’s heroes don’t have as easy a job as DC’s pantheon, it’s unusual to see them lose, especially on such a large scale. The scale of the loss is well-handled too. It would be easy to dismiss the events off-handedly, but the writers and artists try very hard to put across the enormity of the destruction and loss of life, and for the most part succeed. It’s just a shame that once the Avengers get home, the characters seem to get over it almost immediately. Captain America does have some problems adjusting, but then he goes to a bar with Hawkeye and everything turns out fine. But for the most part, the soul-destroying despair and horror of the loss is conveyed well.

This bleak despair is most evident as the Avengers survey the devastated Kree homeworld, and in doing so, discover that the whole war was planned meticulously. Before, the slaughter was senseless, and now it becomes clear to the heroes that it was planned, and not for anything conventional like territorial expansion or resource acquisition or even revenge. It was all done in the name of cold logic and science, as if it was an experiment, and worse yet, the goal of the mastermind was to betray his own race. This view of intelligent living beings as laboratory specimens understandably infuriates the heroes, leading to the most (in)famous legacy of this crossover, as a group of them break the rule of “Avengers don’t kill”. The mastermind is executed, and the team becomes perhaps irreparably divided (of course, this doesn’t turn out to be the case, but as you’re reading this, it looks like things might have become too broken to fix). The heroes find themselves faced with a situation and a villain that are fundamentally antithetical to their own essential natures, and the result is a breakdown of their strongly held moral principles and, to an extent, their abilities to reason. The villain of the piece breaks all the rules of good honest hero-villain antagonism with his actions, leaving the heroes lost and deeply hurt. Even at a time and in a context in which almost every superhero title was relentlessly grim, the climax of Operation: Galactic Storm stands apart. The bleakness is not gratuitous; rather it seems natural and perfectly in place, serving the story rather than reaching for cheap shock tactics. It is merely another sign that whoever was behind this story knew what he or she was doing. All that said, there is a fair bit of humour in the story, albeit largely confined to the first half, including one issue of Wonder Man using Captain Marvel’s nega-bands to good comedy effect. The sense of adventure in the early issues is also fairly light-hearted, as despite the high stakes, the Avengers get to go into space and deal with alien empires, which is always good escapist fun. In the end, these elements of lightness don’t detract from the grimness, but instead complement it, providing an effective contrast to the shocking events of later issues.

I went into the writing of this piece intending to show that crossovers needn’t be examples of cynical profiteering, needn’t be creatively barren, and that at the very least they can be coherent, entertaining reads. Operation: Galaactic Storm, although it has its problems, is for the most part coherent and entertaining. What I didn’t expect to find during the writing of this piece was that there’s more to it than that. It’s rare to find an individual Marvel comic that has any sort of depth, let alone an extended storyline with such depth. It’s probably completely unknown for a crossover to have a point beyond selling copies of titles you wouldn’t normally look at, or to launch a new title that you’re equally unlikely to bother with (both the likely aims of Avengers Disassembled). I’m pleasantly surprised to find that this story, even if it doesn’t completely succeed, has a good attempt at asking serious and insightful questions about the nature and consequences of war, as well as what it means to be a hero, while also digging around in the mechanics of superhero stories. Admittedly problematic in places, Operation: Galactic Storm is a highlight of Marvel’s back catalogue, and a high point in the history of crossovers in general.

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