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Taking Sides

Civil War Pits Superheroes Against Each Other In Its Battle Of Art Vs. Commerce

WHO WATCHES THE WATCHMEN?: A panel from Civil War

By Vincent Williams | Posted 10/11/2006

Does this sound familiar? Thereís been a man-made disaster and an untold number of people have died horribly violent deaths due to it. And itís all been captured on film. In the aftermath, certain powers-that-be use the event as an impetus to legislate and monitor specific types of people under the banner of security and vigilance. Those in opposition to this legislation argue that it undermines civil liberties and the Constitution.

No, Iím not talking about Sept. 11 and its aftermath--Iím talking about Marvel Comicsí newest big event, Civil War. And while the limited series certainly alludes to the current political climate, the real issue is whether or not itís appropriate to address real-world controversies with characters named Captain America and Spider-Man.

The details of the initial story line certainly donít help. Speedball and his team of superheroes, the New Warriors, while originally just a group of young heroes, have in the past year metamorphosed into reality-show stars. With a camera crew following their latest exploit in Stamford, Conn., the team surprises a group of supervillains and, of course, a fight breaks out. Whatís different about this fight, however, is that one of the villains, the aptly named Nitro, takes the battle to a new level and explodes right next to a school bus full of children. When the smoke clears, at least 300 people, including all the children on that bus, are dead. And it has all been captured on film. Afterward, thereís a backlash against superheroes, and a group of veteran heroes led by Iron Man argue that people with superpowers should be registered and licensed much like police officers or federal agents. Another group, led by Captain America, says that this legislation would go against their right to privacy and lower their effectiveness. Thus, once the law is enacted, Captain America and a band of other heroes go underground and become outlaws. And there you go. Is security more important than liberty? To quote Civil Warís ad campaign, whose side are you on?

Appropriately enough, comics fans are as divided about the story as the characters in the story itself. On the one hand, superheroes historically have been political and dealt with real-world concerns. In the 1940s, years before he was used to sell underwear and toothpaste, Superman was dropping crooked politicians from great heights and, all through World War II, dozens of comic-book covers depicted superheroes punching Hitler and Tojo. By the í60s comics became "relevant" and tackled such topical issues as drug abuse, racism, and hippies. On the other end of the spectrum are those fans who only see superheroes as the province of children.

Within the superhero genre, however, are efforts that transcend their kidsí-books origins. Last yearís Batman Begins movie was based both tonally and, to some degree, plotwise on Frank Millerís work with the character over the past 20 years. Year One and The Dark Knight Returns, respectively set at the beginning and end of Batmanís career, are unabashedly superhero works, with all of the conventions of secret identities, over the top villains, and garish costumes. Still, the level of craftsmanship in relation to the visual storytelling and script turned both works into pop-culture masterpieces. While not as well known, writer Alan Mooreís Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow is a touching examination of Superman that not only embraces the more fantastical elements of the characterís mythos, but also celebrates them and reminds readers why they love Superman in the first place.

Still, while the form can support any type of narrative and itís possible to make quality superhero works, is it appropriate to use superheroes to address real-world issues, particularly one as sensitive as Sept. 11? Just to put the question in perspective, the recently released comics adaptation of the 9/11 Commission Report has received criticism because of the use of classic comic-book conventions such as sound effects. Once superheroes are added, the results thus far have been mixed at best.

The problem is that when you mix the fantastic with the real things can very quickly become ludicrous. For instance, right after Sept. 11, Marvel Comics released a tribute comic depicting many of its characters at the World Trade Center disaster site affected to the point of crying. Although the creatorsí hearts were in the right place, the scene became absurd after any amount of scrutiny. Here was a group of characters, including villains, who dealt with entire cities being destroyed and, in some cases, precipitated such destruction, crying over two buildings. Since then, the comic, particularly panels of a weeping Dr. Doom--who has spent 40 years destroying huge sections of New York in his ongoing war with the Fantastic Four--have drawn quizzical looks and outright derision.

So, where does Civil War fit into this equation? The juryís still out, but itís not looking good. Main writer Mark Miller and his cohorts Brian Michael Bendis and Paul Jenkins are very, very earnest about the whole thing, weaving in references to the American Civil War and World War II into the proceedings and swearing that there is no bad guy, just differences in philosophies. Thus far, though, itís hard to see the miniseries as anything other than another costumed crossover. What began as a fairly thoughtful thesis on security vs. freedom has quickly broken down into an excuse to have a bunch of stereotypical fight scenes complete with macho banter, dramatic entrances, and--the Marvel Comics kiss of death--clones.

Even more troubling, in relation to being a real-world parallel, is the fact that the "security" side is increasingly being shown as being out and out evil. Instead of following up on the early speeches about the importance of training, Iron Man and his cohorts are building secret prisons, hiring villains, and, well, murdering people. Now thatís fine as a mindless superhero comic, but you canít have it both ways--either Civil War is a thoughtful analysis on our current post-Sept. 11 culture or itís a punch íem up. Recently, comics news sources have reported that the series has been postponed, and conspiracy-minded fans believe that the story is being changed because there was a bad guy: Hatemonger, a purple-hooded clone of Adolf Hitler. Now, I donít know about you, but Purple Hooded Clone of Hitler sounds much more interesting than "philosophical differences"--but, hey, thatís comics.

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