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Civil War (Review/Retrospective)

This is the fourth in a series of comic book reviews that will look at the direction of Marvel’s “Avengers” franchise over the past five or so years, as they’ve been attempting to position the property at the heart of their fictional universe. With The Avengers planned for a cinematic release in 2012, I thought I’d bring myself up to speed by taking a look at Marvel’s tangled web of modern continuity. Get an overview of what I’m trying to take a look at here.

Civil War was Marvel’s big event of 2006-7, and – as this lovely deluxe edition loves to remind you – it was “the industry’s best selling series in over a the decade”. The premise of the series is straight-forward enough – it’s a conflict between the heroes of the Marvel Universe (it’s all there in the title) – and perhaps that is the reason that the series has arguably had more crossover mainstream appeal than the vast majority of comic book crossovers. Marvel have produced a lovely deluxe hardcover which contains just about everything you could possibly want from the event, it’s just a shame I’m not overly impressed by the event itself.

I'm sure we can iron this out...

The series follows the introduction of a Superhero Registration Act, the kind of document that the X-Men have been dealing with for decades (and in the first Bryan Singer movie) and the kind of law which underpinned Alan Moore’s Watchmen, following a horrible accident which results in the death of 600 civilians. The government attempts to introduce a law requiring would-be heroes to register and under go training. Naturally, some of Marvel’s more iconic heroes see this a logical requirement to ensure public safety, and the others see this as an affront to the types of civil liberties upon which the nation is built.

The comic does, in fairness, ask some important philosophical questions about the state and its monopoly on the use of coersive force – questions which are particularly relevent in a fictional universe where you don’t just carry weapons, you can be born as one. However, the problem is that the book’s political discourse runs along the following lines:

Iron Man: We must ensure that these powers are properly regulated, and that those with powers should be properly trained.

Captain America: The notion of punishing someone for how they were born is contrary to every principle upon which this great nation was founded.

Iron Man: Security!

Captain America: Liberty!

Iron Man: Yo mama!

Captain America: No, yo mama!

Iron Man: Sod this, I’m creating extra-dimensional concentration camps… oh, and a robot clone of one of my best friends.

And that’s about really the extent of the insight offered here, which is a shame – the premise of the series offers a unique opportunity to explore the conventions of the superhero genre, but it’s mostly wasted, used to provide a hint of motivation between gigantic and beautifully rendered set pieces.

Iron Man screens prospective heroes...

The fundamental problem with Civil War is that its premise – while fascinating – stretches suspension of disbelief beyond what’s normally comfortable. Of course, accepting super soldiers and men in armour suits and aliens and demons obviously requires a great amount of suspension of disbelief, but Millar never makes his premise – as fascinating as it might be – seem like anything other than an excuse for these characters to knock various amounts of stuffing out of each other.

The notion that these vigilantes can work without government intervention is a cornerstone of the Marvel universe – whether you’ve been reading from the original Stan Lee issues or even the past decade or so. To suddenly reverse such a core concept (and one which, however ridiculous it may be, has been embraced by the audience) feels like a bit of a cheap shot – perhaps even less credibly than the initial somewhat holey premise that it reverses. In expository dialogue in the first issue, one character outlines recent events which have brought the issue to the fore – events in Ed Brubaker’s Captain America or Mark Millar’s Enemy of the State – but this just draws attention to the fact that this sort of nonsense happens within the Marvel Universe all the time. Hell, entire countries are wiped off the map without anyone batting an eye.

In many ways, perhaps the Ultimate Universe, being younger and priding itself on more verisimilitude or pseudo-realism, might have been the forum for this story, as it offers a more cynical take on superheroes (watched and monitored by the government, even trained and employed by them) than the slightly more idealistic Marvel Universe (where anyone has, for decades, been able to throw on a mask).

Captain America makes a good point...

Even that’s beside the point. The simple fact is that Iron Man and Captain America seem determined to use any excuse to jump at each other’s throats. Nevermind the reckless danger that a conflict of this nature poses to civilians, surely there were proper forums and channels to discuss this. Not withstanding the argument that a few people get tetchy and have itchy trigger fingers, real conflicts like this arise as a result of extended periods of simmering tension culminating in an action (sometimes even minor) which provokes the conflict, rather than the vague notion that “something being discussed down the line might cause a fundamental schism, so let’s get it over with now”. There’s no such build-up, even within the mainstream Marvel titles leading up to it. Of course, Iron Man and Captain America talking about this situation like mature adults doesn’t sell conflicts, and the plot really just seems like an excuse to see the two iconic characters at each others’ throats.

It feels weird to be writing this about a seven-part miniseries written by an author famed for decompression (indeed, it’s a recurring joke that The Ultimates would be the perfect book… if anything actually happened), but the series feels hyper-compressed. By the end of the first issue of the miniseries, the disaster had happened, the legislation has been drafted, Captain America has gone rogue and Iron Man has been sourced to stop it. Perhaps the original idea for a twelve-issue miniseries might have allowed for more development and perhaps some better plotting and character work.

... and Iron Man makes a convincing rebuttle.

Civil War is, at its core, an Iron Man story. Or, at least, it should be. Tony Stark has always had responsibility issues – perhaps even more than Spider-Man. Rather than someone who has been granted super powers, Stark’s power is one that can be taken apart and rebuilt, sold and distributed without his consent. Most of the key Iron Man stories – Armour Wars, Demon in a Bottle, Extremis or The Five Nightmares of Tony Stark, for example – have hinged around the idea of Tony’s technology being stolen/duplicated/usurped to cause harm. So he knows more of the great responsibility that comes with great power.

While Captain America’s defence of individual liberty and civil rights has always been a part of his character, Tony’s position in this conflict comes from his growth over the years – he knows the harm the unchecked power can do in unprepared hands. However, the problem is that the story doesn’t necessarily justify this position. The original draft of the script would have had Stark adopt his stance following the death of his assistant’s child, a personal loss close to him. Of course, that would have been blatantly manipulative and side-stepped the same issues that this approach side-steps, it would have felt much more solid than the angle used in this story – which has Tony emotionally manipulated by a stranger who spit in his face following the death of her son. It feels like a shortcut which ignores some crucial issues and ones which merit discussion.

Iron Man assembles his own damn Avengers...

Then there’s his actions. The comic – and its authors – suggest that “there is no right or wrong in this debate”, however the comic seems intent to present Iron Man and his pro-registration side as unambiguous bad guys, not through their philosophical stance – which can be debated (and, some might  suggest, he was on the right side of) – but through his actions. The only “major” casualty of the event (and, Millar concedes in the commentary, “major” is perhaps a slight exaggeration) is inflicted by Iron Man’s side, using a clone of a Norse god (and his close personal friend). Plus the fact that Iron Man and Reed Richards operate an extra-dimensional prison camp, where they intern unregistered individuals without trial. Indeed, the book suggests that the pro-registration side are “so blinded by your graphs and social projections” that they have lost contact with their humanity – the inference being that the logic behind their stance is misleading, and the anti-registration side is inherently right.

In the supplemental material, Tom Brevoort defends the way Tony was written, suggesting the bias comes from the other writers at Marvel:

In all honesty, I don’t think that Tony comes across as especially evil in the main Civil War book – I think that many of the people who feel he’s coming off that way are those who are reading the assorted tie-ins. But this was the compromise I made, good or bad – to let each writer address the issues of Civil War in their own way, telling the truth as they saw it. I think that, overall, the handling of Tony Stark is reasonable balanced, but especially because we started with primarily Anti-Reg focused tie-in issues, opinions were set early on that proved difficult to shake off in the long term. So, knowing what I know now, I might have tried to shuffle some of the tie-ins around more, and I might have asked some of the tie-in writers to perhaps reign in their depiction of Tony a little bit.

I am not convinced. Even just reading the miniseries, a lot of his actions are pretty much damning – regardless of your opinion of his philosophical stance. It’s worth noting that the only use of internment without trial on American soil in modern history is the universally condemned decision to arrest and detain Japanese-Americans during the Second World War. That’s the pedigree that Tony’s decisions place him in.

Captain America isn't the only one whose voice commands a god...

I’ll be looking at some of the tie-in issues surrounding the miniseries over the next few weeks as part of my on-going exploration of mainstream Marvel continuity, but it’s fascinating to consider the difficulty Marvel had in getting its writers to tow the line with regards to the crossover. In fairness to Millar, it never feels essential for a reader to open the tie-ins to the series – and that, being honest, is great. I’ll let you know if reading the tie-ins helped address some of my concerns about the shading and pacing of the miniseries, but I’ve never bought the argument that one should have to read a large volume of other titles in order to fundamentally understand a comic book event. I think Millar should be praised for making his story easy to follow. Still, it’s worth commenting on the sheer volume of craziness that this miniseries spawned in tie-in issues, crossovers and spin-offs – they’re all advertised here in The Daily Bugle Civil War tie-in, which doesn’t even bother to hide its nature as a plug, informing you that “Story continues in [comic book and issue number]”, basically serving as an advertisement for the assorted series related to the big event. At certain point, it becomes ridiculous.

But I’m getting off track. I’m here to talk about the main miniseries, aren’t I?

Okay, you got me, it's just a comic books series about bulked up guys hitting each other really hard...

The miniseries sells itself as something as a “brave new world” for superheroes, particularly in the coda, where a character refers to “this new America we’re trying to create” and another speaks about how “the best is yet to come, sweetheart… that’s a promise”. However, the big ideas which the series pushes and the changes it suggests (“creating new heroes, revamping old ones… decentralising this community from a single coast”) don’t represent a shift in the superhero genre, nor an attempt to create “a super-power for the twenty-first century” – it’s just reinforce the Marvel status quo. Even viewed in these terms, the series doesn’t necessarily reinvent the Marvel universe in any tangible sense – it’s fundamentally the same place, even before continuity ultimately reverts back to its default position.

Maybe it’s unfair to expect anything more from the miniseries, but it’s one that has been heavily hyped and brought up time-and-time again as a model for the crisis crossover. I’ve heard it referred to as a defining moment for the genre and a redefining of the paradigm, a fundamental exploration of the tropes and roots of the genre which has grown even more important in the past decade. Instead, it’s just some big fight scenes and needless conflict. The most honest moment of the miniseries is the one panel when it’s revealed just how much damage the climactic superhero brawl has caused, and Captain America observes, “We’re not fighting for the people anymore, we’re just fighting.” It’s a moment which concedes, perhaps, the potential and principle of the big Marvel comics event was lost amid the carnage – it’s a line which pretty much sums up the miniseries. However, it’s not an insight which necessarily justifies a seven issue miniseries.

It's not sophisticated by any stretch...

It’s been said of writer Mark Millar before (and I’m fairly sure even I’ve said it) that he is a master of style over substance. So it’s perhaps not really a surprise that the miniseries is far more intriguing in concept than in execution. And it leads to weird moments of dissonance, like Spider-Man making wise-cracks in his fight against the anti-registration forces (referring to the “butt-kicking button” in his armour), which really should be a far more solemn affair. Indeed, it’s weird to hear Captain America speak to Iron Man is if the two had been enemies for most of their natural life, rather than friends forced against each other by circumstance (“You really think I’m going down to a pampered punk like you?” he goads Tony during their first brawl).

Still, there are some nice moments here, even if you could argue a lot of them are shallow and superficial. Spider-Man’s observations about the Punisher and Captain America, for example, with Spidey suggesting that Frank’s time in Vietnam should be considered against Cap’s time in the Second World War (“Same guy, different war”) is at least a bit of interesting food for thought.

What’s fascinating is how – without expressly stating it – Millar pitches his Civil War as a class struggle within the Marvel Universe. When asked who will oppose superhero registration, Captain America suggests “the street-level heroes” like Luke Cage and Daredevil. Indeed, the commentary in the script stresses Captain America’s own working-class origins – reminding the reader that Steve Rogers is “from the Bronx”. In contrast, the pro-registration side is represented by billionaires like Tony Stark or Reed Richards, a man who owns his own building in central Manhattan. It’s rare to see class actually explored in the Marvel Universe, with heroes drawn from hugely different social backgrounds all interacting as if it doesn’t matter that Peter Parker is a freelance photographer who has difficulty paying his bills and yet is treated as an equal with Tony Stark, a man easily on the world’s most wealthy list. It doesn’t entirely work, but it’s interesting to see the idea brough to the fore, even in the abstract.

Peter Parker's secret identity is a casualty of war...

I actually have a soft spot for the way that Millar writes the Fantastic Four. So much so that I may eventually pick up the omnibus, assuming it’s ever published. Here it’s the same portrayal of the family that we got in Enemy of the State, with Sue representing the real core of the family and the one who holds them all together, with Reed’s scientific mind frequently delving too far into the abstract – losing sight of things as basic as his children. One of my favourite moments in the entire miniseries is a brief moment between Mister Fantastic and Black Panther, where Richards remembers to ask about the science of T’challa’s rainforest, at which point his friend observes that Reed is drifting out of touch and offers him advice, “Call Susan.” In many ways, the disintegration of the Fantastic Four, that most iconic of Silver Age super-teams (and perhaps the most famous superhero family in the world) represents the most effective narrative thread, as Millar successfully picks the family apart – and hints at the actual emotional complexity that arises from his central premise.

The artwork by Steve McNiven is incredible, and perhaps the unqualified success of the entire miniseries. It looks absolutely stunning, with faces perfectly rendered (there’s never ambiguity about how a given character feels in any of his scenes) and “widescreen” panels offered beautifully and effectively. McNiven was born to illustrate this sort of “big” event, with big splash pages and panels and lots and lots of characters to render.

At least the art is a bullseye...

The collection here is absolutely beautiful. Whatever my feelings about the event (and, as you can tell, they are certainly mixed to say the least), Marvel have put together a perfect little package. It includes an introduction from Millar, a first draft script, some illustrations and a set of interviews. However, the most fascinating special features provided here are the complete annotated scripts (peppered with nuggets of wisdom from the parties involved by way of commentary) and Millar’s original proposal. You can see how the idea changed and evolved, with certain concepts being dropped or picked up as the series come closer to print. It offers a tantalising insight into what might have been – there are any number of incredible ideas that got lost in translation, but it also offers a hint of the difficulties in putting an event of this scale and magnitude together.

Civil War is a big event. Perhaps it’s inevitable that I’d be disappointed. It’s just a shame that so much of the tantalising promise of the series goes to waste. Despite a few insightful moments here or there, the event feels like a Michael Bay blockbuster – big and loud and full of explosions and fight scenes, but equally empty.

This is part of my continuing trek through modern Marvel continuity. I figured I should give it a go – so I’m following the big events in mainstream Marvel continuity during Brian Michael Bendis’ run on New Avengers. Next week, we’ll be taking a look at World War Hulk (told you that review of Planet Hulk was relevant) and then I’ll be looking at the second section of Bendis’ run on New Avengers (including the tie-ins to Civil War), and after that I’ll be looking at his tenure on other title spinning out from this big event, Mighty Avengers. Stay tuned, true believers.

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6 Responses

  1. I started reading Civil War but gave up about 5 issues in. I couldn’t keep up. It was pretty interesting. I liked the heroes taking sides… but I hated Peter Parker giving his identity away.
    I also remember it being the first time that Iron Man was really cool in a comic.

    • Read through all the hardcovers, leaving out “The underside” and “X-Men”. I felt, that the main story was rushed, and the repetitivenes of the “you have to register” got on my nerves. I have a great difficulty in taking registering for granted, as this concept does not interest me much at all as a back story for a huge event. As far as I can tell only Peter Parker is affected by this, as his identity is not known to the public. Some of the heros, above all Iron Man and Cap are out of context in their actions, doing things and behaving differently as they should do, sometimes to a degree, where I couldn’t stand it any more. The presentation hardcover-wise was subpar, as you had to switch books a lot of times to stay in the timeline and to not spoil your reading experience. Missing introductory pages to stories from other superhero-comic-stories was also a hurdle. To sum it up: a whole big of nothing and I sold the books, as this was an uninteresting event. The only book, that was really good and that that I should have kept, was Frontline, but without the main story it would have been a bit silly.

      • Yep, I have to admit that I’m not too taken with any of the tie-ins. They just seem to disrupt on-going narratives. Straczynski’s Spider-Man was coming out of The Other, of course, but Civil War completely knocked it for a loop. The Fantastic Four became a soapbox for Straczynski. Brubaker’s Captain America arc stumbled and lost a lot of momentum just as it reached its first big climax. Brian Bendis’ New Avengers became tied up in a series of crossovers it never escaped.

        I like the central crossover quite a bit – but my biggest problem isn’t the “out of character” stuff, with most of the sides making a great deal of sense. (Tony is a recovering alcoholic, so his sudden sense responsibility and desire to “fix” things makes sense, his morality has always been somewhat flexible. Cap is the Sentinel of Liberty, so his opposition to eroding personal freedoms is in character.) My biggest problem is the sheer randomness of the violence and the fact that the debate is so absurdly one-sided. Everybody comes to blows too fast, and nobody is willing to actually talk about stuff with each other. And it’s clear the writers all sided with Captain America, so the contest becomes less a hero-vs-hero debate and more a story about how a bunch of characters became sociopathic villains for some reason.

  2. You have to wonder what’s going on with Marvel right now, at least in terms of big events. Secret Wars and The Infinity Gauntlet certainly hold up much better than anything published in the 2000s.

    • I’ll give you Infinity Gauntlet, but Secret Wars was a bit too random and scattershot for me. (As one might expect for a comic designed to sell toys.) It is fun, and self-aware enough that it works, but I think that World War Hulk is about on par with Secret Wars. (Not that I consider either a classic, but I have a soft spot for the big dumb fun of World War Hulk.)

      • Infinity Gauntlet finally made me realize why Thanos was a great villain.

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