As I am writing the review for The Union #1, the British government has announced plans for the easing of this year’s second pandemic restrictions from next week, despite the rising death rate and increased cases in the south of England. Being British, it is very difficult to read The Union #1 without separating oneself from the very crisis the nation is in.
The Union was originally intended to be published as an Empyre tie-in. However, the series was put on hold due to the pandemic. I do not know if its temporary cancellation was down to delays under COVID-19 or, alternatively, because it was deemed in poor taste to publish a series about a national crisis in the summer of 2020. If it was the latter, the situation now is no better than it was then; in fact, it is becoming worse. If Marvel is waiting for some point in the year when the nation feels like it has slayed the dragon that is COVID-19, it best not hold its breath. Summer or winter, Britain is not yet unified, but falling apart at the seams.
The first issue of The Union begins with an old cartoon—its hero battling a villain and celebrating the “spirit of Britain”. Upon the defeat of evil, our hero looks into the camera—to the reader—and announces that the “stubborn” “character” of Britain means it never gives up. This is followed by a broadcast under the background of Downing Street: the government recognizes that the people of Britain have lost faith in its leaders, and are excited to introduce a super team made up of “British heroes”, intended to be an inspiring “beacon” of hope.
To plunge this issue into a well of in-depth analysis of how it directly holds up against the contemporary COVID-19 pandemic would be, perhaps, unfair. Given the series was announced before the world went into crisis, it seems very unlikely that the creative team would have known that, upon its release, the opening pages of The Union #1 would feel like they should be accompanied by the Curb Your Enthusiasm theme.
The problem is that much of the sentiment conveyed in this issue would have felt just as uncomfortable to read, let’s say, last year, as it does now. This nation has a long history of looking after the elite and disregarding everyone else, and it is difficult to find a point in history when we have had a united Britain. It is not, therefore, simply the shadow of COVID-19 that makes The Union #1 an uneasy read, but its idealistic portrayal of its national identity.
The gap between the lived experience of the average British person, on the one hand, and the representation of the British national identity, on the other, is made evident in the portrayal of team leader, Union Jack. The Union #1 boasts how the current holder of the title, Joe Chapman, does not come from the mantle’s traditional line of descent, but from a working-class family. This hero wears the British flag as a symbol of pride. This, in turn, puts forward a message that says that anyone can don the flag, no matter their background, in the same vein as Captain America. Chapman enters into a governmental institution as a representative of the country — a space that has historically worked against his working-class origins. Union Jack’s character, at least on the surface, wants the reader to think that there is a united identity of Britishness that the entire nation can get behind. There is not. The interests of the everyday British person and the nation’s ruling class are at odds.
The biggest elephant in the room, however, in this issue, is surely the concept of race. I wonder if writer Paul Grist knew what he was doing when he followed the announcement of a “truly British” team with the reveal of an all-white membership. I question if briefly mentioning British colonization and reducing it to territory grabbing was ever questioned by editorial.
If I have one nice thing to say about The Union #1, I guess I’ll use the words of the late Aretha Franklin, when she was asked about Taylor Swift: “great gowns…beautiful gowns”. Yes, I liked the art! Furthermore, the appearance of the team’s apparent antagonist may also hint that there is perhaps some critical writing in the future. In which case, I’ll have to reinspect my initial reaction to this series.
Ultimately, The Union #1 is an awkward read that spouts a great deal of sentiment about British identity, without making any effort to explore the lived experience of the British people. While I concede that this is just the beginning of the series, as a single issue, The Union #1 feels outdated and inappropriate during these difficult times.
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