With Captain America: Civil War scheduled for release in UK cinemas on Friday 29th April we revisit Marvel’s graphic novel Civil War (2006-2007).
“Whose side are you on?”
That is the tagline that precedes each of the seven issues that comprise the Civil War graphic novel. The story is not the traditional comic book story of superhero fighting against supervillain but rather of a superhuman community divided. This time its superperson against superperson. Heroes team up with villains, fight other heroes, and even the First Family of Marvel, the Fantastic Four, split up.
The story begins with a young team of superheroes (the New Warriors) conducting a raid. The young heroes take on a team of supervillains above their abilities in a desperate attempt to get higher ratings for their reality TV show. The fight takes place next to an Elementary school and the conclusion is disastrous. The subsequent explosion results in both superhuman and civilian deaths. The American people are outraged. Tony Stark is spat on at a memorial service. The Human Torch is the victim of a beat down outside of a night club in New York City. Feeling the tension in the American people the United States government pass the Superhero Registration Act. Superheroes living and operating in the U.S. must give up their secret identities and superpowers to the authorities and become federal agents of the American government. The official intention is to make sure that superheroes are appropriately trained and vetted.
The Superhero Registration Act carves the superhero community in two. Iron Man and Reed Richards, always portrayed as men of vision, see the Act for its potential. They create plans for an improved tomorrow, including plan 42, a highly advanced prison for supervillains and the superheroes who now oppose the American government.
The resistance are led by the former leader of The Avengers, Captain America. When asked to register he expresses concerns about the nationalisation of super powers, arguing that if superheroes sign up to the Act it will be the elected government who will start deciding who the supervillains are. He decides to oppose both his longtime friend Iron Man and the country he has always served.
The graphic novel is focused on exploring the issues presented by the Superhuman Registration Act. For every fight scene there’s a discussion about what the act means for individual superheroes and a philosophising about the rights of the individual against the many. The series also questions the importance of individual privacy against national security and the role of the superhero in the modern world. By splitting the heroes rather than focusing on hero against villain, the series attempts to avoid the reader simply siding with their favourite characters and instead contemplate the ethics and politics being discussed.
This approach leads to a reflection of wider social concerns. The opening issue takes us from the bright vibrant colours and friendly jibes of the New Warriors into a muted grey and brown world of urban destruction as the superheroes look for survivors of the Elementary school disaster. Panels depict the superheroes alongside firemen as they pick through the rubble, images deliberately designed to reflect on still recent real life atrocities. In a subsequent scene the superhero community gather together to discuss the future. Even the Watcher, an almost mythical character in the Marvel Universe who is present for all moments of significant change, watches on. Everyone of the characters knows that change is inevitable.
In many ways Civil War feels like a contemplation of American identity and principles. The Superhero Registration Act only affects those operating in the U.S.; characters operating outside of that jurisdiction, such as Namor (the ruler of an undersea kingdom) and Black Panther (a hero from the fictional isolationist nation of Wakanda) are not convinced of the principles of the argument. Captain America, a patriotic supersoldier that dates back to comics first published in 1941, is frequently reminded that it is no longer the 1940s and that the American people no longer want old fashioned heroes who hide behind masks. The story picks up on that thread in a later issue when Captain America confronts the murderous vigilante Punisher. Both men are soldiers turned crime fighters, one a survivor of World War II and the other of the Vietnam War, but The Punisher serves as a reminder of a darker path that Captain America could go down if he places his own personal desires against the will of a larger society.
The story is not afraid to create long lasting ramifications for the wider Marvel Comic Universe. Characters are killed off, long guarded secret identities are revealed and new teams are formed. The characters are diverse but many of the larger names are absent. The Hulk is elsewhere, the only Thor present is a robot clone and the X-Men decide to stay neutral. Many of the characters present are niche and virtual unknowns. The sheer scale of the main series prevents them for having much characterisation. Many of the lesser known characters ultimately feel like bodies to verbalise key themes or get punched in fight scenes.
Civil War is a quick read and an interesting introduction to the Marvel comics event series. Newcomers might be overwhelmed by the amount of obscure characters but it is easy to see why the long lasting appeal of this series has led to a new movie of the same name. Marvel comics will also return to some of the core elements of the series with Civil War II in June 2016.
Marvel’s Civil War can be found in the Hillingdon Libraries catalogue along with a wide range of other Marvel, DC and independent titles. Please visit the Manga and Graphic Novel section in your local Hillingdon Library or ask one of our staff for more information.
By Mark – Uxbridge Library