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One, Two, Three, Four, We Don’t Want Your Siancong War!

The Siancong War, as some of you probably know, was Mark Waid and Kurt Busiek’s solution to having MU characters with origins or backstories tied to specific military conflicts. Create a new Vietnam-style war set in Siancong (which originally appeared as Sincong in Avengers #18) and have everyone — except for characters unbreakably tied to WW II such as the Invaders — fight there. As the war is fictitious, the era it takes place in can slide forward the way WW II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War can’t. There’s no longer a need to keep adjusting backstory to reference the most recent wars — it’s all Siancong now.

When I first heard of this, I thought it was a reasonable solution. I’m no longer so sure of that.

First off, I’ll note that even given the sliding scale, I’m unclear about the dimensions of the war. Mark Waid’s description makes me think he envisioned it as a small war that began  about 10-15 years before the current heroic age starts (this gives young Reed Richards and Ben Grimm a chance to participate). This Marvel fan wiki refers to the war as “decades long” which suggests it started considerably earlier. I haven’t read History of the Marvel Universe so I don’t know if it’s more clear there.

Either way, we’re talking a war that runs at least 20 years. It has to start early enough for Ben and Reed (and a few other characters) to appear but last long enough for Frank Castle and Flash Thompson to serve. That’s a rather massive change to American history, and I’m not sure I can swallow it.

As Busiek has observed, it’s the kind of massive change comics have always hand-waved so that they can keep their world looking more or less like our own. At DC, Lex Luthor became president; at Marvel Norman Osborne effectively ran the country during the Dark Reign. Once it’s over, politics in both worlds went back to looking more or less like our world. So creating a new war and ignoring the fallout isn’t totally crazy.

Then again, there are limits to how much suspension of disbelief can stretch. We’ve seen entire countries wiped out in both DC and Marvel but it’s always fictional ones: Sokovia in the MU, Count Vertigo’s home of Vlatava in DC. If Ultron had nuked a real country, I think it would be too jarring to the sense the MU is sort-of our world — and perhaps make what’s happening too hard to stomach. A twenty-year war would have massive impact on American life and politics that’s hard to hand-wave. Of course, so would the Skrulls invading, but a mundane human war (even with some metahuman aspects) feels very different to me in that regard.

Second, there’s the race issue. As Women Write About Comics says, the Siancong War and the way it’s portrayed ——invokes a lot of Yellow Peril stereotypes (the post makes several errors but I think the point is still valid). The Siancong War was a good war, where America nobly went in to stop a Communist takeover. That’s a lot more morally uncomplicated than the Vietnam War or most of America’s wars since. As the linked post says, does it leave any room for the nuance comics occasionally displayed about ‘nam? Or will it just be heroic white Americans against Sinister Orientals (as I used to hear villains like the Mandarin and Lady Lotus described).

This is, again, something easier to do with fictional countries. The Spectre wiped out Vlatava (in the excellent Ostrander/Mandrake Spectre) because everyone in it had blood on their hands. When he visits Northern Ireland he kills one person, then gives up because things there are morally complicated. In Vlatava, apparently, there were no nuances. If comics refer to the Siancong War in the future, I doubt we’ll go any deeper than that old Avengers story did, though I could be wrong.

Third, I really don’t see the point in retconning Reed and Ben into Siancong. Sure, it’s unworkable for them to be WW II vets, but why make them veterans at all? Their military history has never defined them the way it does Frank Castle, Carol Danvers or the post-Crisis Captain Atom. Stan and Jack had to write them into WW II because they were old enough to have served, and what sort of heroes would they be if they hadn’t? There hasn’t been a war since where that’s been true, so why not make them civilians?

For other characters simply acknowledging they’re veterans might be enough. Post-crisis we know Steve Trevor and Etta Candy are military but I don’t recall any details on specific wars or battles they’ve fought in. It hasn’t hurt the characters any. Then again, comics are always going to be retelling origins and backstories and it would be hard to mention Tony Stark’s origin or Frank Castle’s military service without going into detail.

I don’t think creating the Siancong War was a disastrous decision. I don’t think it was really that clever, either.

#SFWApro. Cover by Jack Kirby, page by Javier Rodriguez.

10 Comments

  1. conrad1970

    I don’t even know whats going on with most characters these days, is Frank Castle still a Vietnam veteran for example?
    I think this kind of problem runs in to tv shows as well. The new Magnum Is now a vet of the Iraq war, although I flat out refuse to watch it, Tom Selleck is Magnum dammit.

    1. Castle is very definitely now a Siancong War veteran. The origins/backstories this affects are Tony Stark, Rhodey, Ben Grimm, Reed Richards, Castle and Flash Thompson. Plus it’s part of Night Thrasher’s backstory (the Dragon’s Breath referred to in the illustration was very big in New Warriors).
      Good point about TV. The MCU Punisher is an Afghanistan vet come to think of it; I imagine the dreary Thomas Jane movie Punisher must have been Desert Storm or the like.

  2. At least Siancong, if not the war, is apparently being referenced in Busiek’s new The Marvels, because the solicits for that book were the first time that I’ve heard of this.

    I have the History of the MU that Waid did a couple years back now (damn, already that far back?!), but I haven’t read it to know how this war is referenced.

    I believe that whenever Ennis writes him, the Punisher is a Vietnam vet. It seems to me due to the nature of that conflict that Frank should probably be linked to it, although I suppose it’s not absolutely necessary either.

    1. I feel he’s very Vietnam (as Jeff says, the stereotype of the unstable veteran — not unique to ‘nam, but it reached a peak then), but that may reflect I’m old enough to have watched the Vietnam War on TV as it happened. Quite possibly Gen Z and millennials wouldn’t see it that way.

  3. Jeff Nettleton

    To me, it still comes across as a Yellow Peril plot device and displays a rather casual attitude to war, in general. Also, the visuals pretty much depict a time period that can’t be 10 to 20 years ago, if you have ever seen a photo of a soldier in those time frames. Those visuals are so obviously 50s and 60s as to be ridiculous. A flight helmet with goggles? Yeah, they wore those in Afghanistan and Desert Storm. OD Green fatigues and steel helmets?

    It’s better to drop any reference to that past and just due an updated origin that accomplishes the same story; but a different setting, like the Iron Man film putting him in Afghanistan and turning Red Chinese or Vietnamese into a more nebulous East Asian or larger terrorist group. Are there really enough actual readers to care about a retcon? Didn’t bother many before the 80s and 90s and so many things have been changed to more closely match the movies, anyway. That’s what really counts, for both DC and Marvel, since comics, these days, are mostly about trademark maintenance.

    Personally, I’d rather see the Punisher just go away; but, I never liked the character and felt that he perpetuated Vietnam stereotypes, rather than any sense of reality of the war. To each their own, though.

  4. Jeff Nettleton

    ps You also have to consider that those earlier tales came from veterans, working in comics, who had some familiarity with the military and wanted to reflect something of the world, at the time. You run into fewer comic people with military experience the further you get away from the Silver Age creators. There is a core of Vietnam-era creators (Mike Grell, Steve Engelhart, Dave Cockrum, Larry Hama, Jim Starlin, Don Lomax, and Doug Murray, to name a few); but not much aside from them, after the Korean and WW2 generations.

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