Over 2006 and 2007, Marvel comics published the crossover event Civil War. It spanned over 50 tie-in comics, all based around a central seven-issue limited series. Written by Mark Millar and pencilled by Steve McNiven, Civil War is about the collateral damage of superheroics, where the responsibility lies, and questions of security and freedom.
When D-Lister group The New Warriors attack the villain Nitro, the battle destroys a large area of a town, including a school. 600 people die. No longer feeling safe with these conflicts threatening innocent bystanders, the government proposes the Superhuman Registration Act, where superheroes must register their true identity and become agents of the government. Iron Man decides that measures need to be taken to prevent a similar event happening again, but Captain America disagrees, rejecting the SRA as an infringement on personal freedom. The superhuman community is split down the middle, with half refusing to register while continuing to fight crime, even as they are hunted by S.H.I.E.L.D. and their former friends.
Jack Godwin: One of the cornerstones of Marvel comics is superheroes fighting one another, usually based on misunderstanding. 1982’s event series Marvel Superhero Contest of Champions capitalised on this, effectively finding an excuse to get various heroes in the ring with each other. This trope was wisely used in the first fully-fledged crossover movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as The Avengers introduced Thor and Iron Man to one another in a forest brawl. But the key difference between the Civil War of the comics and the upcoming Captain America: Civil War is that secret identities aren’t really a thing in the MCU. Iron Man kept his secret identity for no time at all in his own movie, and the only other hero hiding their face is Captain America, whose identity has been known to the world since the 1940s.
Another difference with the comic is the huge range of characters that are unavailable to Marvel Studios, with their rights held by Fox and Sony. While the adaptation may be questioning The Avengers’ position as world police, Millar’s story could delve into the breakdown of the superhero community – something that had been building for since 1940, where the meeting of Namor and the original Human Torch established a shared continuity. This is the element that I think Millar is most successful at capturing. From the opening pages with The New Warriors operating on their own reality show, it’s clear that this is a world shaped by fantasy and science-fiction concepts, with a diverse range of characters and ideas coexisting harmoniously. It also capitalises on Marvel’s tonal choice to have their heroes be placed in a world close to ours, with the same personal and political issues. However, instead of The Patriot Act we have the Superhuman Registration Act. There’s no pure, coherent analogy here, but the issues of freedom vs security explored feel relevant even ten years later.
Diego Crespo: Here’s a thing I should clarify right off the bat: I’m not a fan of anything Mark Millar has written. I admire certain ideas he plays with at times – specifically here in the superhero event that changed comics forever – but he’s only a broadstroke idea man to me. When he starts the scripting process, his work focuses on subject matter that is too vile or disgusting to be considered “clever” to me. It’s why I’ve also never been the biggest fan of the Civil War comic. When I first got into comics, roughly two years after this event had concluded, I immediately rushed to read the series and found myself oddly turned off by the events on the page. Ever since then when I read the work of Millar, I found myself in awe of these bold ideas, constantly drowning in his own perversions and slime. Ever since Kick-Ass 2 I’ve been completely turned off to any new work he’s done.
However, Jack hits the nail on the head specifically when it comes to the relevance of the freedom vs. security discussion. I don’t think it is explored to its full potential – my biggest fear of the adaptation is bending over backwards to put one side in the right – but like all Millar ideas, when it’s explained in a synopsis, the concept is far too tantalizing to not want to explore. Then I’m reminded Mark Millar has heroes act drastically out of character that might work for the story if they didn’t betray previously established character motives. The most glaring example for me is “convincing” Peter Parker to outright give up his secret identity to the public. This is a character breaking moment that I’ve never fully bought and only followed up by the worst comic event in history known as “One More Day” – a comic event so bad it literally crashed the economy.
All complaints aside, the artwork in this series is fantastic. Heightened, crisp, and full of iconic imagery. I would love to personally send gift baskets to the trio of Steven McNiven, Dexter Vines, and Morry Hollowell for their work on this event run.
Jack Godwin: I feel the same way about Millar’s work, and Diego is right to say he’s great with ideas, less so with the execution. Civil War is my favourite of his that I’ve read, and I think it’s mostly because it’s a expansive concept explored in a very succinct manner. A lot is expressed in small moments, and so the story doesn’t run on to the point where Millar’s writing starts to fall apart. These moments are my favourite parts of the series, as they’re beautiful images showing us different corners of the Marvel universe at a pivotal point. I still get chills from seeing The Watcher appear (something that Bendis repeated to lesser effect in Secret Invasion), or Daredevil’s “Sleep well, Judas” line to Tony Stark. I even like the scene of Spider-Man unmasking. As an iconic moment, it works. It’s a powerful image even if it’s not set up very well. The problem is that it’s the endpoint of his journey, as it goes against everything Peter Parker has shown himself to be up until that point. As soon as it was entered into the comic book canon, it painted them into a corner where both Spider-Man and the writers looked stupid.
Spider-Man’s arc is vital in other ways, as he’s the go-to guy for Iron Man at the start of the series, wearing the Iron Spider suit that Tony designed for him. His betrayal of Tony halfway through the series is an excellent action sequence, and again is mostly effective through the striking images conjured up by McNiven. I love the full-page shot of The Punisher holding a beaten, unconscious Spider-Man, but the motivations behind any of the webslinger’s actions is pretty vague. The reasons why he switches to Cap’s side is laid out in a much more interesting way in Straczynski’s Amazing Spider-Man tie-ins. In fact, the more I think about it the more it seems like the really emotional and hard-hitting moments are communicated wordlessly, and the art team deserve recognition for elevating a lot of the material. The art for the fight at the abandoned chemical plant in #3 and #4, with rain and flames surrounding them, is astounding.
The main conflict in Civil War is about Iron Man and Captain America falling on either side of this debate, eventually coming to blows. While neither of them have ever reached the levels of popularity of Spider-Man or Wolverine, they’re central figures in the Marvel universe. I remember in the build-up to the event seeing an advertisement, with that famous image from #3 of Iron Man punching Cap, and it blew my mind. Their reasoning for being on either side of the argument are both understandable and believable coming from these characters. Tony Stark is a futurist; his plans have plans. It makes sense that he would want more control over an increasingly chaotic world. Steve Rogers, on the other hand, is all about civil liberties and principles. He expects America to live up to the promise of its formation, which often puts him in the position of criticising his own government. This set-up is brilliant, but it leads into what I think is the fundamental failure of this series. The ideal response you want from a reader with a story like this with two defined sides is that they are torn over their own allegiances until they make a decision themselves. The event was marketed with the slogan ‘Whose Side Are You On?’. But I came away from Civil War thinking that they’re both wrong, and I found both of them to be extremely unlikable. By the final issue Cap comes across as a bitter, enraged man seeking vengeance, and Tony a fascist tool whose treatment of his former friends is borderline psychopathic.
Diego Crespo: That’s another issue with Millar handling these weighty themes to me. From Age of Ultron to Civil War both Tony and and Cap have understandable foundations in their differing opinions on how the Avengers should work. Tony sees them as a short term goal, means to an end, and sees legitimate world peace as an obtainable goal. His constant need to fix things ends up causing as much strife as success. Iron Man 3 embeds this idea into the plot and even refers to him as The Mechanic on multiple occasions. Tony is caught in a violent circle. Cap has the benefit of seeing problems come up, punching them away, all the while holding true to the ideals America was founded on (even if the country itself loses sights of those ideals). Ultimately they’re both correct and having not seen the film, I can’t imagine the Russos and Feige ending the movie in a clear cut winner in this battle between ideas. To bring it all back, Millar’s version has no clear cut winner because everyone is drowned down to same level of ugliness. The “Whose side are you on?” becomes and “I don’t care but these guys should probably be in prison.”
There’s a level of punk rock “Fuck everything” attitude I can appreciate about that but it all falls apart without any clear story direction to support this. In fact, when you put it that way, I can admire that outcome a little bit more now. I’d go as far to say if they capitalized on that development properly I’d take less issue with the story even if Cap and Tony fell into the monstrous agendas they saw in one another. But that’s a personal issue. The story itself, while heavily flawed, is one that set the standard of event storytelling. It’s hardly the most effective crossover event but the precedent and interest certainly wouldn’t be there if the series hadn’t hit the highs it did.
An odd issue with any form of serialized storytelling is in how the minor set ups and payoffs come to play into the larger picture. I personally admire when a tv show can do standalone episodes that tie into character specific stories rather than constant bombardment of plot upon plot (this is why “Fly” is my favorite episode of Breaking Bad). So when arguably the most impacting event in comic book history comes along with themes of escalation and responsibility, it’s a miracle anything that follows this series is even serviceable. As a standalone story there is still the striking visuals in the art (we could write another series of articles on why this work is incredible) and while I’ve given them plenty of grief, I still admire what the ideas here attempted to accomplish. Even if Millar’s nastiness can’t help but seep out from between the pages.
Jack Godwin: Civil War is difficult to assess in the same way that one would with a standalone graphic novel or a movie. Even though it’s a limited series that tells a complete story over its seven issues, it is the centrepiece of an event that spanned dozens of separate comics. The concept was utilised well by some writers, not so much by others. As well as the characters who were on the periphery getting a more fleshed-out story, these tie-in comics allowed for the series to elucidate the different ideologies at play and delve into the emotional cost of the conflict.
The final issue of the main series rushes its conclusion to the point that its last few pages gave me tonal whiplash. Despite the (at best) flawed morality of Tony’s actions, he is congratulated by a grieving mother for all he has done for his country and given a happy ending. We literally get a smile and an optimistic shot of the sunrise. With the dismantling of the superhero community, and the off-page assassination of Captain America, it feels like Millar tips his hand as to where his allegiances lie too heavily. I’m not sure what the ending was meant to make me feel – triumphant? Haunted? But it made me eager to read the tie-ins that might do the story more justice. Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev’s The Confession and Ed Brubaker’s Captain America tie-ins did a much better job of ending the series if you ask me. Civil War is very flawed, but still a compelling premise brought to the page with flair. It works as a brief look into an event that changed the marvel universe, full of iconic moments that are striking even if they don’t form a cohesive whole.
Featured Image: Steve McNiven (Marvel Comics)