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Charles & Daniel Knauf’s Run on Iron Man – Civil War (Review/Retrospective)

To celebrate the release of Thor: The Dark World towards the end of next month, we’ll be looking at some Thor and Avenger-related comics throughout September. Check back weekly for the latest reviews and retrospectives.

You really have to feel sorry for the father-son team of Charles and Daniel Knauf for their work on Iron Man. Picking up the book after the fantastic introductory Extremis arc by Warren Ellis and Adi Granov, the duo quickly found the character’s direction swept up in the maelstrom of Marvel’s event-driven larger universe. Mark Millar’s mammoth superhero crossover Civil War did its best to turn Tony Stark into a supervillain, a fascist in a suit of armour presiding over internment without trial, cloning of gods and the use of psychopathic villains to hunt down his former friends.

The duo do their best to try to deal with the obvious problems that this approach generates for an on-going Iron Man book, managing a fairly concise two-issue tie-in that tries its best to offer a defense for the characterisation of Tony Stark during the crossover.

On top of the world...

On top of the world…

To be fair, hindsight makes the characterisation of Tony Stark during Civil War seem particularly questionable. The event was published a year before the release of the Iron Man theatrical film, arguably the highest profile exposure the character had ever received up to the point. Given the movie was intended to spear-head the launch of a cinematic universe, turning Tony Stark into a massive villain in the middle of a line-wide crossover feels like a pretty big mistake to make.

Of course, Civil War wrapped up in January 2007, a year before the release of Iron Man in cinemas, but the film had been in production for quite some time at that point. Intending to launch Marvel Studios as a movie production company handling its own properties, it seems likely that everybody involved knew just how important Iron Man would be – even if they didn’t know quite how successful. As a result, turning the character you are using to launch a large-scale cinematic universe into a gigantic fascist is hardly the best example of brand management.

Things look Stark...

Things look Stark…

(That said, the numbers suggest that comic book films have been relatively unsuccessful at attracting fans to monthly American comics. The trade paperback market generally sees a bump from a high-profile cinematic release, but monthly sales haven’t really seemed to trend upwards in line with major theatrical motion pictures. So perhaps this is a moot point. Still, the difficulty that writers like Matt Fraction and Brian Michael Bendis had trying to retroactively reverse the damage that Civil War did to Iron Man as a character indicates that the company realises it was probably a mistake.)

Of course, the great irony of Civil War is that – at least in theory – Tony Stark shouldn’t have needed aggressive rehabilitation in the aftermath of the crossover. Certainly, Matt Fraction’s Invincible Iron Man shouldn’t have needed to put a literal “reset button” in Tony’s head to win back reader sympathy for the character. The appeal of Civil War, on a conceptual level, is the idea that it might be possible for two equally valid ideas to come into conflict.

The best laid plans...

The best laid plans…

Captain America’s concerns about liberty and freedom are valid, but the assumption is that Tony Stark’s issues with security and protection must also be legitimate. The biggest problem with Civil War was that the writers never really struck that balance. As a rule, most of the Marvel writers supported the point of view espoused by Captain America. J. Michael Straczynski, writing both the Amazing Spider-Man and Fantastic Four tie-ins, is perhaps the most obvious example. Both of Straczynski’s books “straddle” the debate, positioned so as to view both sides, but ultimately come down firmly against Tony.

As a result, Tony isn’t a hero with a legitimate point of view, he becomes an out-and-out monster. This creates understandable problems for Charles and Daniel Knauf, the team who are already in the middle of telling their own Iron Man story. Not only do the duo have to deal with this massive crossover event, but they also have to deal with the fact that the company’s editorial division has pretty firmly classified their protagonist as a fascist supervillain.

A Hail Mary play...

A Hail Mary play…

The Knaufs’ mount a credible two-issue defense, even if you can feel the script straining at times. Charles and Daniel Knauf’s Iron Man might not be the strongest run in the history of the character, but it’s a very solid comic book considering all the external factors weighing it down. Following Warren Ellis is always going to be tough, but Civil War was hard-going even for those comics less directly affected than Iron Man.

There are quite a few hints that the pair are a little uncomfortable with the position that Marvel’s editorial has put them in. The first issue opens with Tony narrating a Public Safety Announcement, while the director informs him to ham it up, to increase the angst. What should be a thoughtful debate is turned into grand over-the-top spectacle by those in charge. Meeting with a government insider, Tony is told precisely which end of the stick he got here. “You definitely made the rough play on this deal.”

Droid rage...

Droid rage…

And yet the duo have continued to claim that they support the decisions made around Tony’s characterisation in the event:

Not at all, our relationship to Tony Stark has changed. He knew perfectly well what is going on, and besides, in my view, Tony could not have acted differently in this extremely difficult situation. Support of the U.S. government means a lot not only for himself but also for all the other members of this act. As a true leader, he creates all the conditions for a sustainable future not only superhero community, but the whole of humanity as a whole. But in order to achieve that goal, he has to stand up in opposition to people like Captain America, whose friendship he will surely cherish.

Charles and Daniel Knauf do manage to offer a convincing defense of Stark’s position on the issue.

A real (Civil) War machine...

A real (Civil) War machine…

“All of us miss the days when we could charge into a crisis, taking down the bad guys and disappear into the night,” Tony explains, acknowledging the way that the Superhero Registration Act will change the way that people in costumes operate. However, the Knaufs also hit on something that is far too easily over-looked by the other writers working on the event.This isn’t just about people in tights. “All of us resent being painted with the same brush as those responsible for this tragedy… but the very people we’ve pledged to serve no longer trust us.”

After all, what moral authority to Spider-Man and Daredevil have to do what they do? If the people they save are uncomfortable with the damage and destruction and lack of accountability, isn’t that their right? Civil War frames Tony’s position as equivalent to supporting the Patriot Act, which makes sense given the timing of the miniseries. However, the Knaufs point out that his position is just as close to advocating gun control.

Voicing concerns...

Voicing concerns…

What gives Spider-Man the right to get involved in whatever he sees going on? If he accidentally breaks the neck of a civilian during a rescue, who holds him to account? If he redirects the Lizard’s rampage in such a way that an innocent gets caught in the monster’s path, is there any way to question or review his decisions? Captain America and his troops seem to advocate a position similar to the military or the police in the sixties and seventies – they resist any attempt at transparency and accountability, resenting any hint that their motivation or capabilities might be questioned.

At the same time, the Knafus cleverly try to distance Stark from more extreme points of view, to insulate from some of the more questionable conduct on his side of the debate. Over dinner, one of Stark’s friends remarks, “Tony’s just saying that a lot of players on team are…” The friend’s wife finishes, “Butt-monkeys?” Stark himself seems uncomfortable with the way that he seems to have cosied up to authority. “I know I’m doing the right thing. I know that in order to protect our role in society, there needs to be some accountability… but every time I turn around, there’s another political opportunist who supports my cause for all the wrong reasons.”

Simply shocking behaviour...

Simply shocking behaviour…

All of this stuff is very clever, and very necessary. The Knaufs steer clear of apologising for Tony’s political beliefs, and instead allow the character to justify his own actions and conduct – there’s a very conscious attempt to mount a counter-argument against what was already becoming the over-arching narrative of the event. There’s a sense that the Knaufs are willing to run with the position that they’ve been given, and are willing to try to make a clear and logical defense of it. This is more than most other tie-in writers attempt, and they deserve a great deal of credit for that.

The Knaufs even strain and stretch to justify the decision to push Tony Stark to the front of this whole debate. Millar obviously chose Stark and Rogers because they are the two highest profile Avengers available to him at the time, with the motivations and history necessary to justify being included in such a way. I also like the idea that Stark sees registration as his attempt to atone for past recklessness, to put order on his life and to rehabilitate himself.

Locked away...

Locked away…

The Knaufs offer a somewhat more contrived explanation for Stark’s involvement. “You, my friend,” Happy tells Tony, “are that only cape in the bunch that’s both: one of us and one of them. Who else can see both sides the way you do?” It’s a clever idea, but I’m not entirely sure that it works. After all, didn’t Steve Rogers start out as a normal kid who wanted to fight for his country? Tony made his suit of armour, but Hank Pym manufactured his own growth formula. Peter Parker may have spider-powers, but his main character hook is the fact that he’s the most relatable of superheroes.

The Knaufs also over-egg the pudding a bit with the death of Happy. It feels a bit too much like an attempt to offer a “get out of jail free” clause for later on – as if Stark could claim to have just been upset over the loss of his friend. Similarly, it feels a bit contrived that Happy’s last conversation with Stark ends with the former boxer urging Stark to stay the course and stick by his guns. It feels like blatant emotional manipulation, and it undermines the notion that Stark could actually be right. Instead, it seems to suggest that emotion could be clouding his judgement.

Punching above his weight...

Punching above his weight…

That said, I do like the plot point concerning Happy’s final wishes. It’s a wonderful character beat, and it’s a beautiful moment between Tony and Pepper – the suggestion that nobody would ever know, apart from Tony. It’s a clever use of the powers that Ellis introduced back in Extremis, creating a compelling moral quandary for Tony – and raising interesting questions about Pepper. Her desire not to know about Tony’s decision is understandable, but is it also a cop-out? Is it fair for her to even ask Tony? These are big questions, and its to the credits of the Knaufs that they refuse to commit to firm answers, leaving it to the reader to decide.

In retrospect, a lot of Civil War would be a lot stronger if other writers had adopted a similar approach.

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2 Responses

  1. It’s good to see that Civil War is still provoking debate six years on, I really enjoyed the Knauf’s Iron Man run (especially the post-Civil War arc). So much so that I initially had a hard time accepting the first IM film – I really didn’t expect (but now understand the reasons) such a difference in tone.

    Anyway, great retrospective (as always)!

    • Thanks. The whole Civil War thing is a great idea, but a muddled execution, I think, and the timing of it – just before the launch of a massive multimedia on-screen universe – is weird.

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