Monday, March 05, 2007

Termite (Sequential) Art: Civil War 1-7

Yeah it's a film blog. Guess what: I like comics too.

I had the incredible opporunity to write extensively and, I hope, intelligently, about Infinite Crisis, last year's company wide crossover from DC Comics, for The Village Voice. IC, by Geoff Johns, Phil Jimenez and a host of supporting creators, wasn't a particularly entertaining comic, but it was, at least, infinitely fascinating in the ways in which it addressed, dismissed, and validated comics' notoriously vocal audience. Would that things were different there, I'd like to think I'd have gotten a second opportunity to pull a similar trick with Marvel's just completed, even less entertaining, even more fascinating version, entitled Civil War. But hey, this is why God (a.k.a. R. Emmet Sweeney) created Termite Art. To serve as a place to write about crap that others wouldn't pay us to write about.

Civil War, a seven issue mini-series that spun off into companion issues in just about every in-continuity comic Marvel publishes, concerns a battle, as much ideological as physical, between the Marvel Universe's super-heroes. After an accident involving the super-hero group The New Warriors (basically a bunch of young, ill-trained novices) leads to the deaths of hundreds of innocent people, the United States passes a law decreeing that all super-powered individuals must reveal their secret identities, register with the government and become licensed agents of the state. Some welcome the idea as a natural evolution of the super-hero's role in society: this group is ultimately led by Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man (a billionaire playboy industrialist who didn't have a bat handy to inspire him to fight crime, so he built a high-tech suit of armor instead). Others see the Registration Act as an infringement on civil liberties, refuse to conform to it, and head underground to fight it, thus becoming fugitives from the law who must be hunted down and captured. This faction is led by Captain America, a biogenetically engineered perfects soldier from World War II, frozen in ice for decades (whatever, it's a comic) and thawed out in our times.

The idea is sort of a comic book lover's wet dream, in that it takes the notion of super-heroes as seriously as its fans do and it addresses, in ways that were rarely addressed before some very fine books in the last several years, what life would really be like in a universe populated by beings powerful enough to melt steel just by looking at it. Since its explosive growth in popularity during the 1960s (thanks to the creative contributions of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and others), Marvel has prided itself on being the comic books that take places in "the real world." DC's Batman lives in Gotham City; Marvel's Spider-Man lives in New York City. DC's Superman protects the underprivileged in Suicide Slum; Marvel's Daredevil watches the rooftops of Hell's Kitchen. Generally this is more a marketing tool than a reality borne out by content; for all the bluster, the Marvel Universe has plenty of its own made-up crap that has no basis in our world, not the least of which is the dude's in red and blue tights flitting about the Manhattan skyline on lines of adhesive string.

Civil War was a legitimate stab at a story with direct correllations to contemporary American society. It weighed issues of privacy versus security, personal freedoms versus mass protections. The series' tagline — "Whose side are you on?" — suggested Marvel brass hoped to instigate a full-on political debate, and, for a few moments at least (most of them before the first issues were released), the inter-web's comic book message boards were abuzz with actual dialogue about rights and ideas, rather than things like "Dude, Spider-Man's costume is LAAAAAAAAAAAAAAME!"

Then it all went horribly, horribly wrong. Like NFL SuperPro wrong.

Rather than portraying both sides equally, writer Mark Millar weighted the deck in the favor of Captain America's forces while basically portraying Iron Man's crew as a bunch of facist thugs with the morals of ill-bred Nazi hookers. When Cap's buddies refuse to register with the government, Iron Man's cronies enlist psychopathic super-villains who are willing to cooperate with the government in exchange for pardons including such upstanding citizens as Venom (vengeful alien symbiote currently in the possession of Mac Gargan, formerly The Scorpion, so it's like two douchebags for the price of one) and Bullseye (Favorite hobbies: murdering Daredevil's girlfriends in brutal, ironic ways, canasta). When they capture fugitives, they skip over the whole "fair trial" thing and send them directly to a super-prison in "The Negative Zone" (a desolate, empty anti-matter universe where no life grows. Sort of like North Dakota.). They invent a clone-slash-cyborg of their dead god-chum Thor, who promptly goes on a brutal killing spree and murders Cap ally Goliath (big dude with can grow real big with his big pills) and then Iron Man's bros don't even give him the dignity of shrinking him down for a proper burial, they just dig up like a football field and bury him as is.

Now if Civil War was intended to make Iron Man and his followers look like a bunch of Big Brother-loving tools, this would be totally appropriate. But, remember, the stated purpose was to provoke a political debate: this isn't the Green Goblin taking on Captain America, this is Iron Man! Scratch that; Iron Man starts working with Green Goblin, who becomes the leader of the Thunderbolts, the team of "reformed" villains that includes Bullseye and Venom and other mighty warriors like Radioactive Man (self-explanatory) and the Swordsman (He will cut you! Stab!). Pretty quickly everyone noticed the imbalance and the fact that Iron Man and formerly sane heroes like Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four had turned uncharacteristically dickish. Soon the only people claiming they were pro-registration were guys who worked for Marvel desperate to convince the audience that they hadn't already screwed this up.

Then they screwed it up worse. Rather than building to some sort of ideological battle, the seventh issue of Civil War climaxed with a big-ass imbroglio in the middle of New York City which looked cool and solved nothing. Captain America gets the edge on Iron Man but before he can kill him or beat him up real bad or whatever, a bunch of people, each with a different 9/11-invoking uniform (Firefighters, cops, EMTs, etc.), tackle him to save their beloved Iron Man. Suddenly, Cap realizes how wrong he's been; surveying the destruction the fight's caused he surrenders, and, tears in his eyes, admits he was wrong. "We're not fighting for the people anymore...we're just fighting."

Of course, a month earlier, in Civil War tie in Amazing Spider-Man 537, Cap pulled Spider-Man aside and gave a stirring speech about patriotism, inspired by something he'd read by Mark Twain, that totally contradicts everything he was about to do (storywise) a few hours later. And his basic rationale for surrender — that the people wanted the super-heroes to register and so that's what they should do — is a disturbingly small-minded and borderline bigoted one. Rounding up a bunch of people and sticking them in the army or prison because other people want them to? Consider if Marvel tried to publish a book that showed the denizens of the Marvel universe terrified of mutants and demanded they register themselves and go into forced military camps and portrayed the regular citizens as the heroes and the mutants as the villains. They'd get hammered! In fact, Marvel's probably printed that exact story dozens of times with its X-Men characters with the reverse moral. Mutant is just a Marvelism for a minority — what if instead of 'mutant' I used a real minority? What if the citizens of the Marvel universe wanted all Muslims to register? Or Jews? Or people with pituitary gigantism? What's the difference?

SIDE NOTE: I find it interesting that the X-Men characters barely appeared in Civil War, claiming "neutrality." This, I suspect, means the creators couldn't think of a justification for them to join Iron Man's side and couldn't write their way out of the corner putting them on Cap's side would have created.

Captain America has always served as something of a moral compass and he's lost his way before; in the 1970s, following a very interesting storyline that borrowed heavily from the Watergate affair (I love when things in real life sound like comic book stories), he quit his gig as Captain America and became Steve Rogers: Nomad, tooling around the country trying to find himself. So it's not that the guy should be infalliable, but that he should be a bit tougher than how he's portrayed in Civil War 7, where a couple of angry people and a bunch of broken buildings shatter his self-confidence. He's Captain America for crying out loud.

The idea for Civil War belongs to Millar, and he deserves all the credit in the world for inventing what is easily the most promising concept for an epic super-hero comic in years. But his execution exposed his flaws as a writer. All his best previous work was in books like The Authority (a twisted version of the Justice League of America) and The Ultimates (a twisted version of the Avengers). He's very good at using analogues of existing heroes to tweak their conventions and their flaws. Here he's forced to use the real characters and none of them sound right. He can critique the classics, but he can't seem to convincingly write them himself. Comic fans are always complaining that they know more about the characters than their writers; that so-and-so "would never do that" or "would never act that way" and typically this is sour grapes. Perversely, most comic fans are most happy when they have something to complain about. But in this case they were totally right: Millar uses the characters to his own ends and doesn't particularly concern himself with how his interpretations jive with conventional ones, or even the ones presented in the characters own current books; thus writers of the Civil War tie-in books often present wildly different takes on the characters — Captain America's best speech in all of Civil War was that one that appeared in Amazing Spider-Man, not within the series itself.

For a window into a big reason why so much of the great-sounding but poorly-executed Civil War is exactly that, I recommend you check out a series of interviews with CW editor Tom Brevoort about the book. The questions come from fans and they are often literate and thoughtful, but Brevoort's answers are often dismissive and defensive, particularly when readers point out significant flaws in the book. When people complain about inconsistencies between Civil War and the myriad tie-in books they were convinced they needed to own, Brevoort explains that sometimes things change in the planning, or that it's a matter of perspective, or he sees no inconsistency. In one instance, he prints a portion of the script for a scene that was cut from the series to clear up confusion, which is sort of like claiming to people who pay to see your movie that it'll make a lot more sense if you just buy the DVD too and then watch the deleted scenes. My favorite bit comes when Brevoort explains how the spin-off one-shot The Return, a widely despised three dollar magazine that features the totally unnecessarily, mostly illogical, and hugely unsatisfying return of the long-dead character Captain Marvel and sets up a payoff of an appearance in Civil War proper that consists of exactly one (1) panel, was conceived in a day. He boasts at the incredible speed that Marvel made the comic; seemingly unaware that the obvious reason the book was so crummy was the fact that it was apparently conceived and approved in less than a day and nobody took the time to think its self-evident flaws through!

It seems that Marvel bit off a bit more than it could chew: logistically and ideologically. I want people to respect comics more than anybody, and I wanted to hold up Civil War as a glossy, card-stocked example of what happens when smart people use these disreputable ideas to tell a good story about relevant issues. The result was a well-drawn mess.



Blogger R. Emmet Sweeney said...

Wow. And what do you have against Nazi hookers?

11:00 PM  
Blogger Matt Singer said...

Don't you think hookers should be open-minded and free of prejudice about their clientele? What if they refused to service people from Buffalo on basic principle?

11:10 PM  
Blogger R. Emmet Sweeney said...


The Death of Captain America is on the front page of the NY Times website right now ( I need your sage commentary on the significance of this.

9:08 PM  

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