Readers of The Lost Art

Marvel Civil War Series

March 4th, 2009

Marvel Civil War 

Writer: Mark Millar  (and various)

Artist: Steve McNiven (and various)

Reviewer: Alex

******Some spoilers later on******

OK, this has been brewing for some time. Being a cantankerous and bile-filled cynic of the worst kind, the thought of putting the boot into bad comics in reviews holds a particular cathartic appeal for me. However, up till now, my reviews here have been mostly positive, since a lot of the stuff we’ve read has been good and deserving of promotion to a wider audience (and the stuff that hasn’t been so good has mostly been obscure enough that actively discommending it seems a bit of a waste of time).  Finally, though, we’ve read something thoroughly deserving of a damn good kicking, a series that epitomises most of what’s wrong in mainstream American comics: Marvel’s Civil War.

The first and perhaps most significant problem with it, before even considering the content, is that it’s spread over a multitude of titles. Massive ‘big event’ crossovers seemed to have died a death a few years back, but now appear to be firmly back in fashion (of course, as any superhero comic reader will tell you, dramatic returns from the dead are tediously common). Civil War doesn’t do much to justify the term ‘event’ (‘non-event’ might be a more appropriate description), but it certainly is ‘big’ – covering pretty much everything in standard Marvel Universe continuity. Now, I’m not going to bemoan ‘shared universes’ for titles from the same publisher. There’s nothing too wrong with a guest character popping up briefly in another title, or even having large-scale events being reflected across the line so that each title provides another facet to the backdrop, rounding it out for those that care to follow multiple titles. What’s so disgustingly commercial about the ‘big event’ crossovers is the way they bully and trick readers into picking up other titles for fear of missing some vital link in the story. I’m sure Marvel would claim each can be read as a standalone, but the branding slapped over each volume to ensure uniformity tells a different story. Marvel and DC have long faced the accusation that they’re trying to push other companies’ comics off the shelves simply by putting out inflated numbers of titles themselves, and the sales boosts that crossovers engender (from completist fanboys buying ‘the whole story’) keep the weak spin-off titles on the shelves a few months longer, perpetuating the unmeritocratic shambles that comics distribution is.

Maybe I’m wrong about some of the minor titles. I read the core book and several of the main titles, and though I had a look through the others, I couldn’t summon the energy to do more than skim them. Frankly, if the big story doesn’t work after a few volumes, it’s not an incentive to see it through yet another character’s eyes.

Let’s be clear though: I wasn’t totally sceptical going into reading Civil War – I’m not a vehement anti-superhero comics zealot. There’s good stuff out there on the periphery of the genre (Ex Machina is the standout, though it’s only really got a nod to superheroes) and our group has read some half-decent mainstream re-imaginings (Seven Soldiers, The Ultimates), so Civil War represented a good opportunity to see where original-universe mainstream superhero comics were at today. Unfortunately, it didn’t seem to know where it wanted to be, caught in a no man’s land between old-school superheroics and newer, more original takes on the idea.

The set up is fairly straightforward. A B-list superhero team start a battle with some supervillains that results in one of the supervillains blowing up a school. This provokes gnashing of teeth and the suggestion that all superheroes should register themselves with the government to ensure they’re all properly trained. Some superheroes like this idea, some don’t. Cue assorted ruckuses.

It seems slightly churlish to pick plot holes apart. After all, this is superhero comics – and that’s got to warrant some leeway in suspension of disbelief. I’d argue that Civil War requires waaaay too much leeway, but to avoid tedium, I’ll just use the setup as an example which seems particularly stupid and artificial. The supervillain who blew up the school seemed to have the ability to explode at will. We’re told that the team that took him on weren’t sufficiently capable of doing it and by starting a battle in the suburbs, were partly responsible for the outcome. Eh? Captain America would presumably be considered major league enough to have led the battle, but what would he have done against someone who can explode at will? Left the villains alone? Chucked his shield at them? Chucked the shield REALLY HARD? Pfooey, I say.

Although there are plenty of moments like this throughout the story, they could probably have been glossed over if the story and delivery had been sufficiently engaging and interesting. Unfortunately, whilst there are occasional moments of melodramatic potential, they’re mostly squandered and it’s hard to see exactly what Civil War’s appeal is meant to be.

A lot of superhero comics’ problems boil down to their audience: they’re nominally still for kids, yet they aspire to mature and sophisticated themes for a general adult audience, and, perhaps most problematically, they apparently have to appease their main demographic of fervent long-term adult fans. The kids can’t comprehend years’ worth of insanely convoluted back-story for each character and are bored by the po-faced ramblings that pass for mature themes. Non-fan adults also can’t be bothered with the back-story continuity and aren’t impressed when the attempts at ‘mature themes’ are risibly simplistic. So it is that in the end, this kind of comic only really appeals to the fans, which is why sales figures for comics are, on the whole, dwindling.

Civil War definitely seems to be afflicted by these issues. The myriad characters, cross-book complexity and general nonsensical plotting mean it probably doesn’t hold much appeal for kids. Neither does it hold much appeal to non-fan adults. It tries to say something about the nature of authority and responsibility in a world of superheroes – a theme that’s been done better before (in various things, including Powers and even Watchmen), but which could still have been worthwhile had it been handled better. As it is, though, it’s simplistic and unsophisticated and fails to say anything much at all.

Some heroes agree with the registration scheme, some don’t. Instead of sitting down and discussing it, they just fight each other. The Iron Man book is a great example of this. It covers several meetings of Iron Man and Captain America, old friends who now lead the opposing factions (Iron Man: pro-registration, Captain America: anti-registration). Some of it works – a sense of sadness at friendships lost comes across in their reminiscences of old times; however, there is still almost no discussion of the practical details of the registration, the pragmatics behind it, or any of the stuff that it would make sense for these two to be discussing. They’re just on opposite sides and that’s all that seems to matter, so – you know what? Yeah, they have a punch-up.

The arbitrary nature of this ideological schism (that is obviously so profound that no one can actually talk about it in any detail) is highlighted in the way it’s brought to an end in an entirely piddling offhand manner. Again, there’s a potentially nice little melodramatic moment, as Captain America is leapt on by normal members of the public (and his shocked realisation that they no longer see him as being on ‘their side’), but it’s immediately rendered stupid by the fact that not only is this all it takes for Cap to completely reverse his views, but all the other anti-registration heroes do too! What?!

This ideological black-and-whiteness is seen all over the place. A notable example is that when supervillains come along to help out one side, they’re actually referred to as ‘supervillains’; there’s no sense that there’s a scale of morality for superpersons – ‘hero’ or ‘villain’, that’s it. I suppose Civil War’s hook is meant to be that it’s largely ‘heroes versus heroes’ instead of the usual ‘heroes versus villains’, but it’s a slamming indictment of the genre that even with ‘heroes versus heroes’, the characters still try to resolve their differences simply by duffing each other up. Perhaps it’s an American thing, this desire to have ludicrously simple beliefs that you haven’t thought through and won’t discuss, but will happily go and fight for.

Another problem with all this fighting (and another classic problem in mainstream superhero comics), is that despite the incredible powers being wielded by the characters, there are minimal injuries. Everyone fights… then goes back to the status quo – that’s how it works to keep the fans happy. In those rare instances where there is a fatality, it feels out-of-place and contrived. In the big inter-hero battles, I think only one character dies, and predictably they’re just about well-known enough for this to have ‘impact’, but not so well-known as to have a fanbase that would be unhappy seeing their favourite character killed off. It feels utterly manipulative and artificial.

Another example (and another potentially interesting scene that’s ruined) is where the Z-list supervillains arrive at the heroes’ base, say “hello, we’re supervillains, we’d like to help out”, then immediately get shot in the head by the Punisher (because he’s so zero tolerance). Captain America is enraged and attacks the Punisher but the Punisher won’t fight back because the Cap is his idol; Cap, of course, furiously denies any similarity between them. This relationship is potentially fascinating, but it’s already been undermined by the despatching of two Z-list characters simply to add to the drama.

I suppose the art deserves a mention – it’s okay. It varies from book to book, some good, some less so, all pretty professional (just occasionally a little rushed or sloppy). It’s a shame that so many books-worth of potentially decent art is wasted on the pointless gubbins that is Civil War.

Well, there you go. The stuff that should be straightforward is complicated, the stuff that should be complex is simplistic, and the whole thing feels contrived. If this is where mainstream superheroics is at, the best thing to do is leave it alone till it can drop the baggage of its past to make mature comics without strictures or genuine kids comics without pretension.

Paperback: 196 pages
Publisher: Panini (UK) Ltd.; UK Edition edition (9 April 2007)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1905239602

(First published 14/11/2007.)

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