What’s so civil about war, anyway?

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Civil War

Good evening folks. Inspired by my previous column which focused on the secret identity, tonight I’ll be looking at Civil War, the 2006 Marvel event that pitted hero against hero over the issue of superhero registration. A runaway bestseller that topped the sales charts, the title spawned a host of tie ins and spin offs, having ramifications for the entire Marvel universe. The book’s success turned Mark Millar into a superstar and cemented Steve Mcniven’s position as a big name artist. Despite all this, the unfortunate truth is that, for me, Civil War is a profoundly disappointing comic on multiple levels.

The basic structure of Civil War is one that is full of possibilities and generated much excitement in the fan community in the weeks before release. During a battle between the New Warriors and a group of fugitive villains the town of Stamford, in Connecticut, suffers catastrophic damage with almost 1,000 residents killed – the majority of whom were children. The resulting national outcry leads to calls for superheroes to be registered with the authorities and be properly trained and monitored in the use of their powers. The heroes are divided over these proposals, with two rival camps forming: the pro-registration side, led by Iron Man, and the anti-registration side, a band of fugitives led by Captain America.

This rough synopsis highlights the rich potential in this premise. As well as the conflict of friends pitted against each other and the tension and moral conflict that this might create, there was also scope for an intriguing philosophical exploration of the role of the superhero in society and the question of national responsibility vs. personal freedom. The rationale for maintaining a secret identity; the question of whether heroes should be allowed to consider themselves above the law; the debate over whether powers should be registered and training provided – these are points that underpin the whole debate but are only briefly touched upon if at all, with the series instead focusing on a number of exciting, yet strangely unfulfilling, visual set pieces.

Mark Millar is incredibly talented at thinking up concepts and situations that are rife with possibilities, and has a knack for creating bombastic action scenes and eye catching set pieces. Look no further than Cap’s escape from the S.H.I.E.L.D helicarrier, stunningly rendered by Steve Mcniven. However I often find that his work (and here I refer primarily to his mainstream Marvel work with which I am most familiar) is full of exciting moments that take your breath away but is less successful at grounding these actions within an emotional context, something that Civil War would have greatly benefited from.

The stakes of the story are so high because for the majority of the heroes involved it concerns potentially huge ramifications for their entire way of life. For heroes such as Spider-man that have long guarded their identity and have suffered the heartbreak that can arise from the secret being exposed, what is being proposed for heroes is truly earth shattering. Yet within the story, both sides of the argument are only briefly alluded to, with the pro-registration aspect to my mind being the most convincing. The arguments for the maintenance of the secret id and traditional super heroic autonomy are left to Spider-man, who points out the risk to loved ones, and Falcon, who maintains that the masks are a tradition. I appreciate that we couldn’t have page after page of back and forth debate, but I feel there needed to be something more to justify exactly why these long time comrades are so quick to take up positions against each other.

This is even more apparent when it is considered how fast things jump to crisis point. Captain America has his confrontation with S.H.I.E.LD forces at the end of issue 1 and by issue 2, has a fully organised underground resistance movement. It’s as if we’ve moved straight from A-Z, with no sense of Cap reaching out to friends or colleagues on the other side, or even making contact with governmental officials. Cap’s faith in the government has been shaken over the years, it’s true, but for there to be no attempt at reconciliation shown seems contrary to the Marvel Universe Cap, appearing to be more in line with the more hard edged Ultimate Cap that Millar created.

This disappointing characterisation of Cap continues in issue 3, with the first confrontation between the pro and anti registration forces. Iron Man tells Cap that he has managed to secure an amnesty for all of his team, and begs him for a chance to have a proper conversation so that he can put forward his point of view. Cap’s response is to extend the hand of friendship, one that conceals an electron scrambler designed to disable Iron Man while he attacks him. Captain America throughout this whole story is written as an aggressive, obsessive, borderline psychopath, with his decision to work with the Punisher over the objections of his team mates further evidence of this.

Poor characterisation is a recurring theme in the book, with Reed Richards one of the worst affected. Reed has always been a driven man who can get caught up in his work, a theme that’s been portrayed as far back as the Lee and Kirby run. But his complete obsession shown here, overriding any concern for the hospitalised Johnny or the fears of his own wife, tip him almost into caricature. His cringe-worthy letter to Sue towards the end of the book, where he writes that “I cried for a full ninety three minutes when I returned home that night”, illustrates his depiction as cold and machinelike as opposed to driven and focused.

Strangely, one of the characters that emerges best from this series is Iron Man, the same character who in the numerous tie-ins and spin offs was invariably presented as an evil tyrant. As I recall, writers of tie-ins were given some freedom to choose the sides their characters would take, and the majority seemed only too happy to equate ‘pro-registration’ with ‘bad man’. Any reader containing their reading to the main Civil War series would see a Tony Stark that although he is caught up in a terrible situation, is driven by conviction and attempting to carry out his role while doing all he can for his former allies. Reading the tie ins would present Tony’s motives in a far shadier light, as proved when comparing his confrontation with Spider-man in Civil War 5, to the events depicted in Spidey’s own book.

Despite this, it’s undeniable that the pro-registration side, in general, are portrayed in an unfavourable light. If arguments were allowed to be properly aired from both sides, I think that the arguments for registration would emerge as more convincing. Thinking with my head and not my heart, the notion of untrained super humans – answerable to no one and with immense power – is a worrying thought and there are compelling reasons why super powers, like gun ownership, should be licensed. Unfortunately it’s as if the creators did not have faith in the ability of the anti-registration side to win the argument by words alone and so took steps to portray pro-registrants in the worst possible light. Cloning their friends, imprisoning others without trial in a super human prison, using known super villains to help subdue former allies – this hardly seems to reflect pre publication interviews that stated that neither side would be portrayed as right or wrong.

Civil War was also notable for implementing a new style of event presentation, where alongside the main series there was a companion title (Civil War: Frontline) featuring a more in-depth look at various aspects of the story. This was run in conjunction with a series of tie-ins across the publishing line, with team and solo titles providing greater insight into the motivations and actions of characters. While this avoided the traditional hindrance of following a multi-part crossover across several titles, it occasionally left the main Civil War title feeling like a collection of cut scenes. Spider-man unmasks in the main series, with the build up to and aftermath of this decision contained within his solo title. Similarly, the Thing moves to France during the storyline and returns in time for the final battle. Unfortunately, although his return is highlighted in the main series as a significant moment, his departure is neither shown nor mentioned prior to this.

In the most jarring example, the first appearance of the Punisher is accompanied by his declaration “who do you figure’s been running around in a ski mask and covering your backs these past few weeks.” Prior to this point a character in a ski mask is seen only once – watching anti-registration defectors leave the team’s base. Many of these examples may have been necessitated by page constraints, but would have been more effective if the writing was able to both show and tell.

I’m conscious that my other grievances with the book, including the treatment of the New Warriors and the failure to reference characters’ previous response to a similar issue (the Mutant Registration Act) are closely linked to my fanboy preferences, so it’s perhaps not fair to highlight these as faults in a book that was designed to be as accessible as possible. Even so, every time I read the series it makes me sad that so many heroes badmouth and besmirch the New Warriors, regardless of how many times they have previously interacted with them.

So that’s my two cents on Civil War. An ambitious event that succeeded in its purpose of radically altering the Marvel Universe, yet was ultimately unsatisfying, failing to fully explore the potential of its premise.

Agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments below.