That’s right world, I finally did it! I FINALLY read Marvel’s “Civil War.” It only took me twelve years to do it :). This was, arguably, the biggest thing to happen to comic books during my seventeen year break in reading them. It was a company-wide crossover unlike anything Marvel had attempted before. It was a story working perfectly in-universe while also serving as one of the defining allegories of the times. Parts of it worked as comic books do when they are operating at their highest level. It was a shining example of a modern myth. Naturally, I’ve always been intrigued by it and it was certainly impossible (well impossible if you’re interested in comic books) to not have heard all about it. So it’s been a treat, as I’ve spent the last few months reading this modern epic, to find a few things which legitimately surprised me.
On the off chance there’s anyone perusing this who, like me, hasn’t read this yet, here’s the basic rundown. While filming an episode of their reality show, the New Warriors engage a group of supervillains. As Namorita tries to capture the villain Nitro, the resulting explosion kills 612 people, including sixty school children. The national outcry causes Congress to push through the Superhuman Registration Act, forcing anyone with super powers to register their identity and powers with the U.S. government. Anyone refusing to do so would be arrested. This divides the superhero community, setting the stage for the Superhero Civil War. Iron Man supports the act, seeing it as inevitable and feeling they can do more good working within the system and keeping worse versions of it from coming to pass. He also believes in it, saying it’s the only way to hold heroes accountable for their actions and make sure a tragedy like this doesn’t happen again. Captain America opposes it, seeing it as a violation of civil liberties and putting all heroes who hold a secret identity at risk when their identity is exposed. He also worries this will turn them into a super powered army to be used at the government’s discretion. Refusing to back down, Cap becomes a fugitive and leads an underground resistance movement against the Registration Act.
The story ran from 2006-07 and was a brilliant allegory for the divisions the Patriot Act, Guantanamo Bay, and Halliburton brought to the United States. It also explored the question of what civil liberties (if any) we should be willing to give up in the name of safety. It was also fairly epic in length, running through ninety-eight different comic books. Given the average cost of comic books ($2.99 an issue) in 2006 (and factoring in the guaranteed more pricey special issues/editions that were part of it) it would have cost over $300 to read this as it was released. YIKES. Cost aside, it was timely, well-executed, and has rightly become an iconic storyline.
Given how this story has permeated and shaped the modern age of Marvel comics, it was rewarding to find some things that surprised me in this narrative. If you’re curious as to what those things were…you’re in luck. Because I’m about to tell you!
1) Spider-Man was so central to the whole thing.
Obviously I knew Spidey was important. That’s one of three things that everyone seems to know about “Civil War.” Cap’s on one side. Iron Man’s on the other. Spider-Man’s in the middle. Just from hearing about this story I knew Peter Parker famously unmasked and eventually switched sides. But I had no idea he’d be so central. He was more important to the narrative than Captain American or Iron Man! More time was spent with his character across the entire span of this saga than was given to either Steve Rogers or Tony Stark (in fact, another surprise was how little Captain American was in this entire thing, respectively – I expected to see him more). In addition to more page time, we, as readers, experience the Superhero Civil War primarily through Peter’s eyes.
Side note, I’m more confused than ever about Captain America: Civil War. I remember, when the film was announced, it seemed everyone was saying, “Spider-Man has to be in this! You can’t do Civil War without him!” Okay, I get that. But then who were all the people who said, “Oh yay! We’re finally getting a teenage Spider-Man! He’s supposed to be a teenager!” Um…the reason Spider-Man’s story has gravitas here is because he’s an adult with adult responsibilities and his actions have ramifications for his family. You can’t say we need Spidey for Civil War and then be stoked it’s a teenage Spidey. They don’t fit. I digress.
2) Iron Man was (briefly) against the Superhero Registration Act. He even tried to stop it!
Going into this, I already knew Iron Man led the pro-registration forces. I also knew he was kind of a dick about it. He was stubborn, single-minded, and refused to compromise. I was (and remain) proudly #TeamIronMan when it comes to the film Captain America: Civil War. Tony was right there. (If you’d like to read more about it, you can click here.) But when it comes to the comic…yeah, it’s Steve all the way. No contest. So I was really surprised to find Tony traveling to Washington D.C. with Peter to try and stop the Registration Act! It was only after he realized it would go through that he went all-in behind it, hoping to help shepherd the act in the best interests of everyone. It added a complexity to his character arc I wasn’t expecting. It humanized him too.
3) The conflict in the comic fit the tone of the film more than I expected.
I knew the comics were about superheroes unmasking and registering their identity with the government. I also knew there was no way the film could use that plot. At the time of Captain America: Civil War, the only heroes in the MCU who had a fully secret identity were Spider-Man (who was just introduced in this film) and Daredevil (who, being a Netflix property has NOTHING to do with the MCU films). So obviously the plot couldn’t turn on the same issue. The point of contention in the film became the Avengers’ operations being sanctioned by the United Nations. I wasn’t expecting the whole government-using-them-as-a-superhero-army concern to be part of the comic too! In the film, one of Cap’s objections is, “What if this panel sends us somewhere we don’t think we should go? What if there’s somewhere we need to go, and they don’t let us? We may not be perfect, but the safest hands are still our own.” He has much the same fear in the comics.
4) There is unflinching commentary on war profiteering and corporate corruption via Damage Control.
In the Wolverine tie-ins we learn it was Damage Control (an agency who comes in to clean-up and rebuild after superhero battles) who essentially started this entire conflict and has run it from the shadows, profiting the entire way. As Logan’s story unfolds, what began as his efforts to hunt down Nitro – the villain whose explosions took the lives that justified the Registration Act and started the Civil War – became a scathing commentary on Halliburton and other similar companies who operate in unstable parts of the world and have profited greatly from military endeavors like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
5) Prison 42 was a powerful parallel to the Guantanamo Bay detention center.
On a similar note, as the Damage Control angle, I was not ready for Prison 42. Tony Stark, Reed Richards, and Hank Pym design a high powered prison in the Negative Zone to hold the heroes they capture who refuse to register. They are held there without due process and it is very clear they will be held their indefinitely. There is also abuses of power and of the inmates inside the prison. It was a brilliant if uncomfortable narrative move. The evil of the prison was clear, especially as the reader sees it through Peter Parker’s eyes and he begins to question if he’s on the right side of the war. Sadly, this part of the story has aged well. Obama ran on the promise to close Guantanamo Bay on the first day of his presidency…something he could’ve done with an executive order…something he chose not to do. Trump has said he’s in favor of keeping it running to hold the “bad dudes” we come across. Thankfully the Marvel Universe had Captain America to challenge the prison.
6) Iron Man employed straight-up supervillains to help him win.
I knew Tony was a bit of a belligerent ass in this story. I knew he came off as the bad guy (something they tried to rectify with the convoluted mess that was “Civil War II”). To be direct, I knew he was a dick. But I had no idea he’d stoop to using guys like Wilson Fisk, the Green Goblin, Venom (the Mac Gargan variety), Taskmaster, and other villains just so he could win.
7) For a comic about a Superhero Civil War, it offered a direct and scathing critique of war.
One of my major problems with comic books (as I’ve written before) is their use of and implicit justification of the Myth of Redemptive Violence. This is the idea that violence can ever bring about a positive result. It’s a natural part of the superhero story. A bad guy shows up. The good guy punches him until they stop doing bad things. The day is saved by violence so violence is a good thing, in the right circumstances. By the end of the Civil War, both Captain American and (more surprisingly, given his role) Iron Man offer a searing criticism of war. It’s powerful.
8) The iconic Captain America speech was in The Amazing Spider-Man!
This one totally blew my mind. THE classic speech Cap delivers in this story – one of his all-time most iconic lines if not his most iconic line of all time – wasn’t even in the Civil War main title. I can’t believe it! It came care of J. Michael Straczynski, and not Mark Miller, as Peter seeks advice from Cap on what he should do in the growing storm.
This is one of those moments where comic books transcend the genre and become the stuff of great literature. It’s as timely now as it was then. It’s relevant anytime and anyplace people are struggling to do the right thing in the face of an overwhelming tide of those who stand against them.
9) While much of the story still feels relevant/timeless, much of it feels dated now.
While this was surprising, maybe it shouldn’t be. Any story that speaks so clearly to the times it reflects will have parts of it that don’t age as well. Don’t get me wrong, parts of it still feel painfully relevant. When Steve is interviewed by Sally Floyd he speaks of the Divided States of America as opposed to the United States of America. Um, can there be a better phrase to capture what we’ve become since the 2016 campaign? And of course the discussion of the erosion of civil liberties is still frighteningly relevant.
However, other things don’t feel that way. For example, all the discussion of Middle Eastern terror cells – while a perfect reflection of where the American mindset was in 2007 – don’t feel as comfortable now. Nor do the combat scenes in the Middle East. Since 2001, we’ve seen a steady stream of media depicting the Middle East as little more than the producer of terrorists and terrorism, something no more healthy than it is true. Yes, there are problems in the Middle East (problems those of us in the West helped create) but there is also much beauty, culture, and worth there too. When the depiction is so one-sided, and that side feeds unhealthy negative stereotypes, it is problematic. So it’s a blessing things like this read as a bit dated now. It makes me wonder how something like “Secret Empire,” such a powerful commentary on Trump and the forces that brought him to power, will feel in a few years.
10) Lastly, it’s taken on a hallowed glow over time but it has a lot of pointless filler.
I feel like I should feel bad saying this but I really don’t. There were SO MANY tie-in titles that added NOTHING to the overall story (outside of getting the cost to read all of it closer to the $300 finale) – Thunderbolts, Cable & Deadpool, Heroes for Hire, Young Avengers & Runaways, X-Men, Ms. Marvel, New Avengers, X-Factor, She-Hulk…I’m going to be honest. I’ve spent a few months reading this thing and looking back over the titles to write this just now I realized I’d forgotten over half of them were even a part of this. They added NOTHING to the story. Even the Wolverine, Fantastic Four, Iron Man, and Captain America tie-ins, while interesting, weren’t necessary.
In fact, if I may be so bold, I’d like to offer an abbreviated reading order for anyone who hasn’t read the saga themselves. The only comics really essential to the story are The Amazing Spider-Man, Civil War (the main title), Civil War: Front Line, and a few one shots. For those interested, my suggested reading order would be:
The Amazing Spider-Man #529
The Amazing Spider-Man #530
The Amazing Spider-Man #531
Civil War #1
The Amazing Spider-Man #532
Civil War: Front Line #1
Civil War #2
Civil War: Front Line #2
The Amazing Spider-Man #533
Civil War: Front Line #3
Civil War #3
Civil War: Front Line #4
The Amazing Spider-Man #534
Civil War: Front Line #5
Civil War #4
Civil War: Front Line #6
The Amazing Spider-Man #535
Civil War: Front Line #7
Civil War #5
Civil War: Front Line #8
The Amazing Spider-Man #536
Civil War: Front Line #9
Civil War #6
Iron Man/Captain America: Casualties of War #1
Civil War: Front Line #10
The Amazing Spider-Man #537 ***This is the issue with the classic Cap speech!!!
Civil War #7
The Amazing Spider-Man #538
Civil War: Front Line #11
Captain America #25
Civil War: The Confession #1
And, if you like epilogues (and I’d say this one was handled better than most):
Fallen Son: The Death of Captain American #1
Fallen Son: The Death of Captain America #2
Fallen Son: The Death of Captain America #3
Fallen Son: The Death of Captain America #4
Fallen Son: The Death of Captain America #5
So there you have it folks, my Civil War-related surprises. I’m glad I’ve finally read this historic saga however, like the Godfather films, I’d say you have to be ready for it before you jump in. It takes time and there’s a lot to process. If you’ve read it, you know what I mean. And if you haven’t, hey! I’m not alone! I’ve just recently read it myself :).