Creating Conflict: X-Men Utopia and Justice Society of America


The key to any story is conflict. Without conflict, there’s no drama. Without conflict, there’s no action. Without conflict, there’s no story. However, saying that every story needs conflict is easier than creating that conflict. Sometimes, the conflict is over-simplified. That’s why many critics deride the basic conflict of good vs. evil. Sometimes, the conflict is forced. That’s why readers will lament that a character is acting, well, out of character. And yet, sometimes conflict is crafted well. When that happens, it’s appropriate to point to out and congratulate it.

I read two comics in the last couple of weeks that did an especially good job of creating conflict. The first is the introductory chapter to the Dark Avengers/Uncanny X-Men crossover Utopia. The basic conflict begins with Simon Trask. Trask is part of a family that is long known for opposing mutants. He is currently the leader of an organization called Humanity Now! which advocates against mutant rights. In the recent past, the number of mutants around the world has been greatly diminished by a magical event. Trask sees an opening. He actually has the opportunity to end mutantkind within his own lifetime. Trask may be evil, but he is not stupid. He knows that Americans won’t condone concentration camps or mass extermination. Therefore his organization promotes the idea of sterilization- protecting humanity by preventing mutant population growth in a safe and humane way. In order to spread his message and garner support for it, Trask organizes a march from the California state capital of Sacramento to the current mutant haven of San Francisco.
Again, Trask is not stupid. He files all of the necessary paperwork for permits to assemble and march. And he contacts the media so that the march will be filmed.


Naturally, the mutant population is appalled by Trask’s proposal. They completely oppose the idea of being forcibly sterilized. A number of mutants decide to stand in Trask’s way. They are led by Beast and Northstar and their numbers include students Anole, Glob Herman, Hellion, Pixie, Rockslide and one of the Stepford Cuckoos. The mutants take up position in the street, blocking Trask’s progress. Northstar accuses Humanity Now! of spreading hate. Beast tells them to go around.

Simon Trask, however, does not do what we might expect of a villain. He’s civil and rational. He points out that they have filed the proper papers and that the X-Men have no legal grounds to stand in their way. He insists that the X-Men end their illegal action and step aside.

This infuriates the students. Hellion, who has always been a bit of a hothead, leads a charge. He becomes the aggressor and the previously peaceful marchers respond in kind. The result is a full-blown riot between Humanity Now! and those who favor mutant rights, including mutants and mutant supporters.


This is a wonderful set-up and a tricky conundrum. The X-Men are morally right. It is despicable that anyone should advocate forced sterilization. Yet Humanity Now! is technically right. They have the proper legal standing and the X-Men do not. This little twist changes the traditional good vs. evil dynamic. When it comes to the riot, the X-Men are to blame, not the hate-filled members of Humanity Now! Pretty clever.

The Utopia crossover is an example of an external conflict: the X-Men vs. Humanity Now! Yet some of the most interesting conflicts are internal in nature. Since the days of Stan Lee, fans have been fascinated by teams that don’t get along with one another. Whether it’s Johnny and Ben squabbling like siblings, Hawkeye challenging Captain America’s authority to lead the Avengers or Angel and Cyclops competing for Marvel Girl’s attention, internal conflicts have become key ingredients in most team titles. This can be done well, as in the examples just given. Or this can be done poorly, as former friends are forced into heated arguments for little reason (see Geoff Johns’ and Chuck Austen’s Avengers).


Recently, I read a comic that did this well. The second example of crafting a good conflict comes from Justice Society of America#30. This is only the second issue by the new writer, Bill Willingham. He had inherited a huge cast and a huge team. In the past year, the team had already divided once over the question of whether or
not to support the self-proclaimed god Gog.
That rift had apparently been healed. However, there was some room to stir things up again.

The Justice Society was attacked by the combined forces of a new Injustice Society. The bulk of the team went out to fight these villains. However, a few stayed behind: new members who weren’t considered ready and former team leader Mr. Terrific who wanted to study some things in the lab. The external conflict itself was fairly interesting as the Injustice Society was able to take down most of the JSA before the Flash brought in Dr. Fate as a ringer.


But it was after the Injustice Society was defeated that things got interesting. Some of the heroes suggested that they should track down the retreating villains and capture them so that they wouldn’t be able to wreak more havoc in the future. Other heroes insisted that they needed to return to headquarters and tend to their own wounded. Power Girl, as team leader, made the call. She split the team into two.
Several of them, including Wildcat, Flash and Dr. Fate, would escort the wounded. The others, including Power Girl and Magog, would go after the villains.

Neither mission was successful as one would have hoped. The proactive heroes were able to capture a few more of the villains, but not all of them. Magog was especially upset that so many had evaded capture. He blamed the other heroes, arguing that if everyone can come on this mission, they would have been much more successful. Meanwhile, the returning heroes discovered that they were not coming back to a safe haven. The headquarters had been attacked while they were gone. The big fight was a distraction. And Mr. Terrific had paid the price. He was shot while everyone else was out. Both Flash and Wildcat were upset with themselves for not getting back sooner.


The other group of heroes returned home, while Dr. Mid-Nite operated on Mr.Terrific. Up to this point, Bill Willingham had been sowing the seeds of discord. We saw that Flash and Wildcat were emotionally upset. We saw that Magog was ready to point the finger of blame. It was like watching two trains heading toward each other on the same track. You knew that it was going to result in an explosion. And it did. Magog accused the other heroes of being amateurs for abandoning the mission. Wildcat told Magog that he was new to the hero business and didn’t know what he was talking about. The argument proceeded from there, and on the last page, the two heroes came to blows.

This was a great example of a natural and understandable disagreement between two people. It was true to both of their characters- opinionated, emotional and a little belligerent. It was believable as a source of disagreement. It’s likely that even the readers were divided in their opinions as to which side was right. There was a great set-up and a great pay-off. For me, this compares to the great internal conflict during Bob Harras’ Avengers when the team split over the decision to kill the Kree Supreme Intelligence. It’s internal conflict at its best.

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Comment by Rob Staeger (Grodd Mod) on October 5, 2009 at 12:18am
I'm glad to hear good words about the new JSA storyline -- I've dropped the book for now, but have been planning to follow it (or them, when it comes to it) in trades.


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