Hey kids! Remember Battleworld?
That’s ok. Not many other people do, either. Battleworld happened waaaay back in the halcyon days of 2015, where Marvel Comics basically pushed the pause button on their regular line to regale readers with tales of places near and far or those never in between. The storyline justification happened during the Secret Wars miniseries when the Earths of the Ultimate and 616 universes smashed together and Dr. Doom pieced things back together with mental super-glue and unlimited power.
In the real world, the whole publishing line stopped and turned into What If style stories. Spider-man renewed his vows and continued his story married to Mary Jane and progressed through parenthood. Thor became Thors, a police procedural with Throgs and Beta Ray Bills and certain trixter half brothers as unreliable witnesses. Guardians of the Galaxy became the Guardians of Knowhere where… I don’t know; I never read that one. There was a lot going on. Major events like Civil War, House of M, Age of Ultron and the Marvel Zombies all were revisited, and occasionally pitted against each other. Creators were given carte blanche to try out whatever crazy ideas that had for a four issue run. It was a strange experiment that resulted in some off the wall projects. M.O.D.O.K. even got a title. Today, we’re going to look at one of my favorites from that experimental period: 1872.
Written by Gerry Duggan with art by Nik Virella, 1872 takes the tropes of our modern superhero universe and transports them to the wild west. Sheriff Steve Rodgers needs the help of the town drunk Tony Stark and the apothecary (some guy named Banner) to take out the Kingpin and his Dead Man’s Hand gang out of Timely.
It all starts when Sheriff Steve saves Red Wolf from being hanged by Wilson Fisk’s gang for trying to blow up the dam. Tony Stark, doing his best Doc Holliday impression, also gets himself into trouble with Fisk’s gang early on, all while blithering drunk and shouting about his pledge to not use guns again. Steve and Steampunk Stark take down Fisk’s initial gang of miscreants, to have the situation escalated when backup finally comes in the form of Western Elektra, Grizzly, Bullseye, and Doctor Octopus.
So much of the fun of this series is in watching the normal heroes and Marvel stalwarts in cowboy dress up. Natasha “Black Widow” Barnes wears black because of the death of her husband, former Deputy Bucky Barnes. The steampunk Doctor Octopus has 8 guns and can’t aim one of ‘em.
Carol Danvers appears protesting in the streets fighting for women’s rights, figuratively and literally. Crusher Creel shows up on a horse trying to collect a bounty. Ben Urich is still around as the put upon reporter who knows the right thing but is too afraid to print it, just 200 years earlier. That is, until Urich is inspired to tell the truth. Until Tony Stark is inspired to start inventing again and Red Wolf is inspired to fulfil his mission. Until the people are inspired to take back the town of Timely. It just gives you chills, doesn’t it?
From there, it’s up to Bruce Banner and Natasha to blow up the dam, Red Wolf to take down Bullseye and Fisk, and Tony Stark to show up in a primitive Iron Man suit and wreck shop.
Simon “Wonderman” Williams even makes an appearance as an ill-fated Roxxon goon who inadvertently unleashes the biggest bomb of all.
Since this is basically a glorified What If story, it also shares all those hallmarks, too. Many of the lead characters do not make it out alive. The brutality and the quickness of the way some characters are dispatched would be alarming if it carried the stakes of continuity. Here, characters who play with guns and have targets get shot in the head, for once. It works not only for the sense of this story, but that basic brutality of the Western genre.
Little easter eggs litter this story like callbacks to Marshal Stacy (Ghost Spider’s dad, for you kids out there), Pastor Frank and his partner, a certain merc with the mouth, taking out the “Sinister Six” whom they blame for the death of a major character, or the little boy looking for his missing father Norman. When Urich’s narration talks about how the supernatural was just beginning to come to Timely as a spider crawls out of the green irradiated water–man, I won’t lie–I cannot wait until there’s a story of old timey Spider-man taking on Norman or the new Sinister Six outlaws. Give me a JJJ with a big honkin’ chaw in his cheeks yelling about threats or menaces in the town bulletin. The last page of the story promises “the Avengers of the West will return,” and I’ll be waiting for them, too. Dugan not only tells a great tale, but he sets up a whole universe worth exploring.
Stay with me here for a minute, but I’ve got this theory that the most successful Marvel movies in the MCU are simply genre films starring superheroes, and that’s their big draw. Captain America: Winter Soldier is the 70’s political thriller…with superheroes. Ant-man is a heist film…with superheroes. Thor: Ragnorok is a buddy film…you get my point. The folks that are there for the superheroics get what they’re after, but the folks looking for the buddy comedy or the heist movie or the action thriller get what they like, too. Here, in 1872, they take that same philosophy and apply it to comics. Duggan gets to play with all of the tropes of old school westerns, mixed in with some steampunk style superheroics, and with the anything can and will happen sensibilities of the old What If series. Win on the western front. Win on the hero front. Win on the what if front.
The trade paperback also contains early Red Wolf appearances from Avengers (by Roy Thomas and John Buscema) and Marvel Comics Presents (by Alan Coswell and Jimmy Chung). Both are really just opportunities to know Red Wolf better and to pump his tires a bit. They’re both fine in their own right, but not what I came to the book for.
1872 was not one of the books to keep going after the great Battleworld experiment ended. If I remember, Weirdworld had a quick but unsuccessful go of things; Old Man Logan stuck around until just recently; and married Spider-man managed to get a title that’s still putting out new stories. Red Wolf apparently has a title that spun out of 1872, but he was swiftly displaced into the modern day. I didn’t even know he had a book until I did some googling research. Everything else basically got put back into the drawer again for another day. Personally, I would love it if every year they picked two or three of these ideas to revisit. In case you haven’t noticed, I really like when companies let their creators go all out and experiment outside of the standard superhero fare. I loved the Battleworld experiment, but I’ll be the first to tell you that it was too much all at once. As a reader, I wasn’t sure if I needed the Howard the Human book or Contest of Champions or Planet Hulk or what… where the heck were my issues of Daredevil or Amazing Spider-man? If these ideas were instead given the chance to breathe, I bet a lot more would have caught on in the long run. Old west Marvel deserves another day in the sun, as does the world of Thors and a bunch of the other Battleworld books.
Here’s hoping they get that chance one of these days.
Final Grade: 1872 A.
1872 is a fine Western with sharp writing, consistent art, and so much for fans of superheroes and fans of westerns alike to appreciate. I definitely recommend picking it up if you’ve got a hankerin’ for some wild west tales.
Until next time, I’ll be the guy with the handlebar moustache hanging out at the old saloon in Andy’s basement waiting to record the next podcast!