By 2006, Marvel was already pretty solidly into its new wave of crossover events (see more on the eventification of Marvel here). Many of these turned into overwrought and underdeveloped cross-promotional stunts to increase readership. But in the summer of 2006, Mark Millar and Steve McNiven released a seven-issue miniseries that would rock the core of the Marvel universe unlike anything ever had before. It was Marvel’s first real attempt to modernize their universe’s continuity to the post-9/11 worldview, integrating the fear and skepticism that were (and continue to be) very prominent in the real world into a comic book setting. The Civil War event focused on the distrust in authority and general feelings of divisiveness that had been growing in the American subconscious. The battle lines were drawn along ideological lines and began a superhero-wide debate about how to balance privacy and security. Many characters preferred to mortgage privacy and personal liberty in order to promote a broader sense of security and accountability, while others saw this choice as government overreach and a forced invasion of privacy.
This debate could have easily happened over any number of key political issues in the modern American media environment, ranging from gun control to the Patriot Act or whistleblowers, but the clever creators, Millar and McNiven, created a fictional analog that still held these tenets. Civil War presented a national tragedy caused by the negligence and inexperience of a group of immature superheroes chasing reality TV show ratings, rather than justice. The whole event, deemed the “Stamford incident” involved this inexperienced super-team losing control of the apprehension of some supervillains outside of an elementary school in Stamford, Connecticut. The result was a massive explosion that killed hundreds of innocent children. The event was a national tragedy, inspiring the US Congress to draft legislation to limit superheroes in an unprecedented act to regulate superhero vigilantism. The “Superhero Registration Act” would require all masked superheroes to register their identities to SHIELD and sign up to participate in a broader “50 State Initiative.”
The fallout from the Civil War was also pretty wide-spread. It set the tone for the rest of the decade’s mega-events, creating a rift in the superhero community that wouldn’t really be healed until the Heroic Age. Driving a large subset of the Avengers (led be Luke Cage) underground, and keeping peacekeeping and security agencies like SHIELD occupied with enforcing the Registration Act left the world vulnerable to multiple rounds of hostile takeover attempts in the Secret Invasion, Dark Reign, and Siege storylines. The far-reaching influence of the Civil War on the broader Marvel Universe makes this ambitious event even more essential reading to any Marvel fan.
I would be remiss not to mention the movie coming out later this week that shares the comic’s name: Captain America: Civil War. Though the movie will clearly drawn on Millar and McNiven’s source material, such as using civilian deaths and property destruction to demonstrate growing skepticism of the superhuman community. It will likely involve a similar Superhuman Registration Act, and the subsequent rift in the Avengers is very much like the comic. With Iron Man and Cap leading the two sides, it could seem, at first, like the movie will be a fairly direct interpretation of the comic.
However, I predict that the similarities will stop there, as key members of the cast will be vastly different. First, the scale of the comic included an enormous cast of characters from across the Marvel Universe, including the Fantastic Four and some members of the X-Men, none of whom can appear due to copyrights. This is particularly a bummer for the FF characters, as the comic does a great job of portraying how the event affected Sue and Reed’s relationship, but instead we have to suffer through more hackneyed attempts by Fox to make money off of their FF rights…
A second reason that I don’t think the comic is predictive of the movie is a *Spoiler* for the Avengers: Disassembled event that preceded Civil War by a few years (Side note: it’s a good read for those that want a jumping off point into the Bendis era/ 21st Century Marvel). Half of the characters that are in the MCU currently and make up this movie’s cast were either dead at the time (Hawkeye, Scarlet Witch, Ant-Man II – Scott Lang) or were portrayed as being members of the opposite team (Black Panther, Vision). Bucky, who presumably will be a key character in the film, doesn’t appear in the main 7-issue arc, though he is, admittedly, a primary character in the concurrent (and tremendous) Brubaker run on Captain America, which has significant tie-ins to the Civil War event. Black Widow and War Machine, though they don’t appear in the comic, are presumably on Iron Man’s side (Black Widow joins Iron Man’s Mighty Avengers shortly thereafter). That leaves only Cap, Iron Man, and Falcon as being consistent in their team alignments between the comic and movie.
I have now read this event a good number of times, and each time I find that I am more impressed with it than the last. There are a significant number of characters featured in this event, but almost all of them seems like important cameos. The key characters really are Captain America, Iron Man, Spider-Man, and Sue and Reed Richards, but there are probably hundreds of characters that show up at one point or another. The only prominent characters who sit on the sidelines are the X-Men, who largely stay out of it because of self-interest, their repeated attempts to combat legislation requiring all mutants to register left them unwilling to draw any more interest upon themselves. But each read-through highlights another character’s fantastic cameo, whether it is Daredevil’s snarky Judas reference to Tony Stark, the attack on the Human Torch outside of a club, or the contrasting views of Captain America and the Punisher, this seven-issue series is absolutely packed with iconic Marvel moments.
Sure, there are those who say that this crowding distracts from the story, or makes it a bit unmanageable to read, but that’s where some of the gazillion tie-ins come in. They are designed to flesh out some side character arcs to explain their alignment and/or participation in the broader progression of the event. The primary Civil War miniseries is sufficient reading all by itself, but there are some good tie-in stories in the Captain America, Iron Man, and Amazing Spider-Man series that do a great job of showing each character’s position more fully. I think that this event is truly impressive in its scope and its allegorical assessment of the modern American psyche. The idea that our fear can drive us to punish those who are most invested in our interests strikes a very real chord in its readers, and inspires some further introspection.
Some other critics have opined the creative decision to reveal certain characters’ secret identities to the public, largely because of their impact to the solo titles. I can certainly understand and appreciate that frustration, however, I primarily looked at the Civil War event in terms of how it accomplished its own goals and the success with which it developed the central argument of privacy vs. security. In the end, that means that I found this event to be one of, if not the best, mega-event, crossover spectacular Marvel has ever released. The political allegory does what the best science fiction does, and critiques our modern society through a fictional portrayal of our fears and our hopes. Though some of the after-effects of this comic were detrimental to the overall Marvel universe, I think that this series’ readability and overall execution was fantastic. It is definitely on my short list of comics to recommend, to new and old readers alike.
Overall Rating: 8 of 10