Sunday, February 3, 2013

Sufficiently Complex To Be Engaging, Civil War Pleasantly Surprised Me!

The Good: Philosophical arguments, Decent plot progression, Basic concept, Most of the artwork, Not as choppy as most crossover events
The Bad: Not a huge character-building piece, Still references missing material, Neglects an important philosophical argument
The Basics: When a group of young wannabe heroes end up at ground zero for an explosion that kills hundreds in Connecticut, a Civil War starts among the heroes of the Marvel Universe!

A few years back, when I did my Daredevil Year, I did not get into the whole Marvel Civil War crossover arc. I was still very focused on Matt Murdock and being married again that I did not look for a lot of tangent works. So, now that my She-Hulk Year is well underway and the Marvel Civil War had a great impact on her storyline, I figured now was a good time to pick up Civil War, the central volume of the crossover event.

Before picking up Civil War, I had a pretty firm notion of where I stood on the issues involved in it. Civil War is the Marvel Universe’s reaction to a September 11, 2001 style tragedy where superheroes are involved and public opinion takes a turn against superhumans in the United States. The allegory was obvious and when the solution was the Superhuman Registration Act, which would require all superhumans and superheroes to register with the Federal Government and get training, as a staunch civil libertarian, I knew exactly where I stood. This was a monstrous idea! Comic book geeks who loved X-Men (reviewed here!) knew that!

So, when I encountered a tangent story to Civil War as part of my She-Hulk Year and I glimpsed part of the rationale – in the allegory, the idea of Muslims being kept track of post-9/11 is truly horrifying – I was actually surprised that the concepts and philosophies behind Civil War might be a bit more complicated than the initial issue of “is it morally right to register and train superheroes or do they have a right to privacy?”

The basic plot of Civil War is fairly simple: the reality-show superheroes the New Warriors attempt to take down a house full of super villains in Stamford, Connecticut when one of them detonates themselves and blows up most of the city, killing some eight hundred children. In response, the Federal Government of the United States is prepared to make superheroes into outlaws when Tony Stark, Reed Richards and Hank Pym come up with a compromise: superheroes will have to register, get trained, and S.H.I.E.L.D. will monitor them and given them assignments, much the way the Sentinels monitor the X-Men. With the Superhuman Registration Act rapidly moving forward, the superheroes begin to feel edgy, a condition that changes to outright fear when S.H.I.E.L.D. tries to contain Captain America when he resists turning on his friends.

Captain America is labeled a fugitive and quickly the heroes divide down the center, where many join Captain America’s resistance and the other half side with Tony Stark when Peter Parker publicly unmasks himself as Spider-Man! But the conflict escalates quickly and when Captain America’s team walks into a trap, a cyborg clone of Thor accidentally kills Goliath, causing a rift between Sue and Reed Richards (a rift growing since the moment Johnny Storm was nearly beaten to death after the Stamford incident), Spider-Man and several others to switch sides and S.H.I.E.L.D. to do the unthinkable; attempt to employ super villains to take down the heroes who resist the will of the government!

For what is on the page, Civil War is surprisingly good. It is fast-paced, exciting and much more clever than the simple dialectic originally used in the advertising for the crossover event. Unlike most crossover events I have read, most notably the Blackest Night Saga from DC Comics, Civil War has far less missing chapters, the flow between the chapters in this books, which contains only the books originally published as comics Civil War 1- 7, is much better. In other words, in the main thrust of the story in Civil War, there is surprisingly little that happens “off camera.”

Given that I am reading this as part of my She-Hulk year, I was a bit disappointed by how Jennifer Walters, the She-Hulk is immediately on Iron Man/Tony Stark’s side and she never wavers (she is a background character in Civil War). However, her presence on Iron Man’s side made me realize that Civil War neglects an essential argument (two, actually). The main argument that never gets raised in Civil War is this: the characters who stand for the Superhuman Registration Act are all the characters who are either “out” already (the Fantastic Four, She-Hulk – in her book is known by an insane number of people in both her identities, etc.) or in the best possible position to take care of themselves (Iron Man has billions of dollars to protect himself with/litigate against those who come after him, Spider-Man has a new high-tech suit from Stark Industries, She-Hulk is more or less invincible). Civil War neglects to point out that the Superhuman Registration Act is demanding the most vulnerable superheroes and vigilantes (Daredevil is blind and his mundane identity, Matt Murdock, is an often cash-strapped lawyer doing pro bono work!) to join the U.S. government! It’s like the rich demanding the poor pay more taxes.

The other big argument that Civil War never brings up is how the super heroes are being punished for an action of a super villain. For sure, the New Warriors go into a situation underprepared, but it is the villain Nitro who blows himself up! Nitro is the direct cause of the Stamford tragedy, not the losers who tried to stop him. It is Nitro, a super villain, who caused the tragedy. In allegorical terms, the Superhuman Registration Act would be equivalent to making new regulations for pilots after the September 11, 2001 tragedy instead of hunting down the terrorist cells that led to the attacks!

That said, what is in Civil War is very good. Tony Stark tries to do a good thing, but goes about it the wrong way and bad things happen. The Thor Clone, deporting heroes to the Negative Zone where they have no civil liberties, and reorganizing the superhuman community is an escalating series of terrible acts to react to a comparatively minor bad act (just like the reaction to the September 11 attacks!), but it leads to an exciting story that makes fugitives out of some awesome characters and even gets a few of the b-players a chance to shine (the panel where Hercules confronts the Thor cyborg is pretty awesome!).

When writer Mark Millar does take on the character conflicts, Civil War is at its peak. Sue Richards (she is referenced that way once, Invisible Woman, did she take Reed’s last name? I’m not a Fantastic Four buff!) has a legitimate conflict and when she sees the violence done to her brother, she makes a hard choice that is treated that way in Civil War. Moreover, Millar is smart enough to note how creepy it is that she and Johnny have to play husband and wife as opposed to brother and sister to lay low!

The artwork in Civil War is some of the best and most consistent I have found in a Marvel book to date, which is refreshing. The pacing is good, the conflict between Captain America and Iron Man is a compelling one. The argument that superheroes are volunteer workers who should be properly trained and licensed is an interesting one, especially when they are compared to doctors, police officers, and firefighters. The civil libertarian in me notes that there are not enough safeguards for the right to privacy for the superheroes in the Superhuman Registration Act (Law), but the essential idea is not as offensive as it originally seemed.

And reading the conflict that ensues as a result of it is far more entertaining than it is troubling!

For other Marvel Comics books, please visit my reviews of:
Shadowland: Blood On The Streets
She-Hulk: Superhuman Law
Daredevil: Lady Bullseye


For other book reviews, please check out my Book Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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  1. Yes, Sue uses her husband's last name. In John Byrne's FF#245, some feminist TV newswoman called her subservient for doing that. Sue replied that she loved her husband, and is happy and proud to use it (the woman further tried to put Sue down with accusations of being the weak link in the group, with Sue calmly defending and proving it was not the case).
    The change to Invisible WOMAN happened later in JB's run: A horrible, violating (but nonsexual) experience led to Sue making an action that symbolized a loss of innocence. Thus, seeing herself in a mature person, she discarded the 'Invisible Girl' name and took on the title of 'Invisible Woman."

    1. Thanks for the info and thanks for reading!

      I've always thought it weird when characters are clearly women and go by "girl," so I was happy to read about "Invisible Woman." Her arc in "Civil War" was almost enough to get me interested in The Fantastic Four!