Someone smash me! I’m a year late to the biggest summer comic book blockbuster of the century! Nothing will ever be the same! Wait, it’s a year later and everything’s the same. Oh well, so much for Marvel’s 2007 summer fracas World War Hulk. At least I didn’t pay $300 for all the issues and crossover tie-ins while it was coming out.

Maybe catching up on World War Hulk now is better since it allows me to read it as I like to read everything (a contained literary work) rather than how it must be read when it’s being published (a fan community social event). I’m still halfway through the Greg Pak-written main series and I love it so far. The gist of it is brilliantly simple: a group of superheroes blast the unstable monster of green destruction into space but when he lands in a far-off barbarian planet and starts a new life the spaceship in which he arrived self-destructs, killing his family. What happens next? You guessed it! But I took a sidestep to read Paul Jenkins’s tie-in story, World War Hulk: Front Line, mainly because I needed a respite from hardcore violence but also because Jenkins writes consistently satisfying superhero stories and I suspected I would like this even more.

Front Line is a series chronicling the trials of two reporters and a start-up alternative newspaper in Marvel’s superhero-laden version of New York City. Sally Floyd, a recovering alcoholic, sees it as a new lease on life while Ben Urich, a recovering lackey from the city’s biggest junk tabloid, sees it as a last attempt at a dignified career. In the middle of all this the Hulk’s warship lands with his bad-ass alien super brutes ready to start wrecking house if the guys who rigged his ship don’t surrender immediately. The aforementioned tabloid rag and other media outlets are shut down in the ensuing blackout and mass evacuation. Front Line manages to keep enough of a skeleton crew going to stay in the trenches.

Jenkins doesn’t riff on Greg Pak’s main story. He counterpoints it in ways that add meaning to the whole. When the Hulk and his brother warriors take the fight with his tormentors to Madison Square Garden, Ben finds a seat so he can cover the story for Front Line. Jenkins doesn’t let us see the fight as much as the crowd — their cheering and jeering as if this idiotic spectacle was more meaningful than the chaos raging outside in the streets. Ben writes, “These aliens had displaced twelve million people without so much as the blink of an eye. They had brought with them a lust for blood, a remorseless brutality. And I realized something. We hadn’t been overrun. You can’t be overrun when your invaders are exactly like you.” The crossover plotline itself can be seen as a kind of metafiction — it’s a sequence of events that exists regardless of the comics while the comics portray the events in different ways. Pak’s version focuses entirely on the events themselves, showing us superhuman gods engaged in an epic battle, winning, losing, tricking each other, and moving on. Jenkins’s version offers us an interpretation of the meaning of the events, a view of the superhuman gods that reveal things about ourselves we might not have seen otherwise, or paid attention to if we had. This is the superhero genre’s secret weapon.

Marvel’s primordial visionaries Stan Lee and Jack Kirby are praised for their ability to boil down a story to its essential elements, then enhance them and present them. There is nothing subtle about Captain America punching the Nazi Red Skull — there is no adornment, no layers to think about. It is patriotism, violence, and conflict resolution — concentrated emotion and condensed action — in one single panel. This is less literature than it is a kind of vending machine of impulses (and I don’t mean that as a criticism but as an observation of technique — Lee and Kirby were very intentional about their art). Some writers attempt to make the superhero genre literary by keeping the same structure intact but adding “serious” writing to it — in this example that might be a fragmented realistic first person thought narration in the panel where Cap punches out the Skull. Better writers make the genre literary by removing its pieces and reassembling them in a way that, like all literature, forces us to reflect, to relate, and to engage.

The scan above from World War Hulk: Front Line illustrates this perfectly. The big guy is Korg, one of the Hulk’s fellow warriors. The human is Danny, a detective assigned to help Korg solve the murder of his android friend Arch-E. Korg learns that it was inadvertently his fault that Arch-E died. Danny’s response is mundane — he offers him a beer as a consoling gesture. We wouldn’t think twice about this if it were two humans in a literary fiction story; it would be par for the course there. We also wouldn’t think twice if Korg flew into the sky bellowing vengeful oaths; it would be par for the course for the Lee/Kirby style that dominates the genre. But his presence here next to Danny’s quiet gesture makes us think deeply for a minute on the feelings. Self-recrimination is new to Korg so we remember what it feels like in its raw, biting form. Knowing that Danny is terrified of Korg and that Korg probably doesn’t even know what beer is makes the gesture impossibly sweet. This way of drawing out meaning through contrasting realities can only happen in superhero comics and Jenkins is one of the few people who gets it.

When the war is over Jenkins doesn’t even tell us who won. He just takes us through the city streets. Most superhero summer blockbusters end when the last punch is thrown, with a couple perfunctory pages of falling action. Here, Jenkins allows a full chapter of aftermath. One striking, mostly silent page shows the city burning unhindered for three full days. Homes that families could barely afford are leveled. Ben’s is one of these. Their insurance doesn’t cover superhero destruction and his wife is in tears when he says he’ll find a way to fix it. “But that’s always the way, isn’t it?” she says. “They always break it and we always fix it.” In normal superhero stories we only see the spectacle of huge events and we only care about those who cause or try to stop the destruction. We’re not asked to care about its victims or think about what happens afterwards.

When I finished reading Front Line I took a long walk home and I passed the 9/11 memorial on Greenwich Avenue. Memorials are common in New York, more common than outsiders might realize. To most of the world, 9/11 was a historical moment, already in the past, already reduced to a text book “trigger event” that future high school students will have to discuss in their essays on the war on terror. But to the people who live here it was fire and noise and death, and more importantly, it was individual people — unpaid mortgages, pension checks, legal battles, hospitals, physical therapy. Politicians and outsiders look at 9/11 as a sequence of grandiose events. New Yorkers walking down the street see it for its tiny, almost imperceptible consequences. It’s 7 years on now and you can’t walk ten blocks without seeing something that reminds you of the dead. I walk past the empty space where the towers used to be and I don’t think about politics or real estate — I just get a quick, sharp pang of awful grief.

The end of Front Line captures this feeling well. No one in the story cares enough to ask why any of the insanity is happening or who is prosecuting it. They carry on with their lives, trying to find shelter, trying to make their newspaper work, trying not to drink. There’s a little feeling of triumph that they made it through — the same fleeting feeling we all have when something goes right — and a lot of questions about what to do next. There aren’t any lessons and there’s not much hope; only despair and resolve. But that’s always the way, isn’t it?