Back Issues discusses a major comic of the past, reevaluating its strengths and weaknesses while exploring the cultural context of its creation and how it has impacted the future of the comic-book medium and industry. This week: Civil War, Mark Millar and Steve McNiven’s explosive event series that pitted Captain America against Iron Man and inspired the upcoming film, Captain America: Civil War.
Civil War summary: Originally published between 2006 and 2007, Civil War opens during the filming of a superhero reality show. A group of C-list heroes known as the New Warriors get in over their heads in a fight with an obscure villain named Nitro, and their adversary unleashes an explosion near a school, leaving approximately 800 casualties, most of them children. As a response, the president pushes for the Superhuman Registration Act, which would see all masked vigilantes organized and trained by S.H.I.E.L.D. Captain America opposes this idea and goes underground, recruiting a number of other heroes, including Spider-Man, Black Panther, The Punisher, Daredevil, and a couple members of the Fantastic Four. Iron Man stands in support of the act, and with Hank Pym and Reed Richards, the Superhuman Registration Act is enforced and puts innumerable superheroes in an extra-dimensional prison. This conflict leads to a number of fights, including one where a robotic clone of Thor appears to slay Goliath, a teammate of Captain America’s, and eventually Captain America acquiesces and is put under arrest.
Shea Hennum: The “joke” about Civil War is that it’s implausible to think that the federal government would act to regulate deadly weapons in the wake of the deaths of school children. The allusion to events like the Sandy Hook shooting are obvious, and it perpetuates this reading of Civil War as an argument about gun control. The problem is that it ascribes a substance to the politics of Civil War that the text simply doesn’t substantiate. The book itself does beg this reading, but that’s a context that actually illuminates the comic’s fatal flaws.
For this conversation, I re-read the series for the first time since it was originally published, and I was awestruck by how unbelievably stupid it is. The last book we talked about, The Dark Knight Returns, has a certain moral repugnance to it that I don’t think any of us would agree with. There was, however, a consistency of thought in it. Frank Miller, whether you see eye to eye with him on anything, undoubtedly brought a point-of-view to the work. On the other hand, Mark Millar’s story for Civil War has no argument; it has no politick; it has no perspective. It embodies the kind of vapid, self-indulgent, nonsensical ethos of superhero comics that defenders of the genre write off as a non-existent caricature.
Reading of the book as a metaphor for gun control, which it so obviously thinks it is, then it can only be read as a book where three geniuses—Tony Stark, Hank Pym, and Reed Richards (who Susan Storm literally calls a fascist)—think they know what’s best for the people. Their mouths are filled with capital-D Democratic talking points, and they turn to nefarious means to get their way. They clone Thor, and he actually kills someone, and they write it off as collateral damage. One of their squads of secret police is literally made up of mass murderers. But they are, after all, doing the right thing.
Opposing them is a World War II veteran whose name has “America” in it, and the pro-registration side is framed explicitly as the bad guys. The narrative and way that narrative unfolds both tell the reader that Tony Stark is wrong; his way is bad and leads only to subordination and death. Tony Stark uses his Thor clone after it murders; Captain America forces out the Punisher as soon as the Punisher murders. The anti-registration side, we are told, are freedom fighters who are being oppressed.
Unfortunately, neither one of these sides is explored in any further detail, and the main Civil War series consists almost entirely of overlong and redundant exposition and fights. The final fight farcically ends with Captain America realizing he was wrong—citizens explicitly telling him they want what the story has framed as a strain of totalitarianism—and Iron Man wins the day. Throughout the whole thing, a mother whose child died in the book’s inciting incident keeps showing up magically, and the book concludes with her congratulating a proud Iron Man. The only way to describe it is that: Civil War desperately wanted to have its cake and eat it too.
Similarly, it doesn’t even attempt to sensically function as a narrative. Oliver, you were live tweeting your re-read and made comments about that. Can you expand on the gaps in the story and whether or not the book holds together as a narrative?
Oliver Sava: With Civil War, we get a great example of the problems with crossover event comics, which are a big part of the modern superhero comics tradition. The early years of the ’00s had Marvel moving away from these types of events as it worked on creatively revitalizing properties that had taken a big hit in the ’90s. Once creators like J. Michael Straczynski, Grant Morrison, and Brian Michael Bendis succeeded in making Spider-Man, The X-Men, and The Avengers popular again, Marvel returned to the company-wide crossovers. Bendis and Olivier Coipel’s House Of M was the first in this new wave, but it had the benefit of taking place in an alternate version of the Marvel Universe, allowing Bendis to alter characterizations to fit his concept of a world where mutants had taken control as the dominant species on the planet.
House Of M is far from perfect, but it had phenomenal sales and established a precedent of these events marking major turning points in the Marvel landscape. When the old Marvel Universe returned after House Of M, the mutant population had been severely decimated to the point where mutants now numbered in the hundreds rather than the millions, resulting in major changes to the X-Men line of comics. Civil War brought major changes to the Spider-Man and Avengers lines, with Spider-Man publicly revealing his civilian identity and the Avengers getting split into multiple teams divided along the lines of where they stood on superhero registration. Unfortunately, a lot of narrative shortcuts have to be taken to get to that point, and these shortcuts are glaringly obvious if you only read the seven issues of the main Civil War series.
Civil War came out at the height of my superhero comics fanaticism, and I was reading most of the books that tied into the series when it was coming out. I was the target audience, a reader that was gleefully swept up in the hype, eager to see how these big events would rattle the Marvel Universe, and willing to pick up books primarily for their connection to the event. I was also a fan of the creative team, generally enjoying Millar’s Ultimate Marvel work and fully devoted to artist Steve McNiven, whom I had discovered back during his days on Crossgen’s Meridian and loyally followed to each proceeding project. I got a much fuller experience of the event during that initial read because I was consuming all those tie-ins, which are essential to the development of the story. Without them, Millar’s main series is illogical and hollow, with consistently puzzling twists that never get fully explained.
There are huge narrative jumps between each issue that are filled in by the tie-in issues, but if you’re not reading those tie-ins, plot threads like Peter Parker’s jump from Iron Man’s side to Captain America’s come out of nowhere. Then there are smaller moments like Luke Cage saying that superheroes should be volunteers when he made his name as a hero for hire, and while Bendis delves deeper into Luke’s anti-registration decision in his New Avengers tie-in issue, these types of character inconsistencies are jarring when they’re isolated in Millar’s story. On the one hand, I appreciate that the characters’ main titles feature significant developments rather than shallow cash-ins on bigger events, but it ends up hurting the main series, which does the bare minimum in setting up these characters’ conflicting ideologies.
Caitlin, I know you have some passionate feelings about Millar’s treatment of Captain America, Iron Man, and their personal relationship in Civil War. What do you see as the defining elements of his approach to these figureheads?
Caitlin Rosberg: As Shea already pointed out, there’s this weird intellectual intelligence versus experiential intelligence thing that leaves me with the impression that Millar doesn’t know much about scientists or veterans. I can’t argue with the logic that Tony Stark would be all for finding a solution to the problem of collateral damage: he is, after all, an engineer, and engineers like to fiddle with things until they work better. And it makes sense that Steve Rogers, a man who personally witnessed the horrors of just how badly people will treat each other when allowed to would fight the very idea of registering people based on something that marks them as “other.” But what’s never really made sense to me is the speed at which they immediately turn to fighting each other.
I was not a Marvel reader when I read Civil War for the first came out, but even as a novice it struck me as strange that these two men—two long-time teammates and in many cases best friends—would go from zero to 60 so fast. Steve and Tony act like that annoyed but very much in love couple that’s been married for 30 years, and watching them refuse to even talk about things never made much sense to me. To call back the points raised in our The Dark Knight Rises conversation, it felt like a SuperFight™ for the sake of a SuperFight™ rather than a fully plotted out story.
It also feels like an attempt to make Tony Stark a villain, which is particularly egregious thing to me. As much as I’m not always a fan what Tony does in his quest to ensure that he retains his title of king of poor life choices, he’s a very human and deeply caring person, made interesting by his flaws and his ties to other people. In Civil War, he’s turned into a technocratic oligarch, coming off like a mad scientist with his cronies Reed and Hank who, let’s be honest, are not great guys, what with the mistreating and neglecting their wives for the past couple decades. It’s Tony who gets blamed for everything, though it’s Reed that comes up with nearly every bad decision they make. Tony just funds it.
It also casts Steve’s decision to surrender at the end of issue seven into the territory of the martyr, beatified and canonized before he’s even off the battlefield. Steve’s side is the one that lost real lives—they’re cast as the underdogs fighting for justice despite the long arm of Tony Stark’s new law—but Stark is granted the glow of savior, allowed his moment of glory at the end of the final issue, literally glowing as he surveys his new domain. The reader is in an uncomfortable position where they have to decide if they’re more okay with dead kids or more okay with cloned Thor going around killing people. Both options suck, and they also suck as metaphors for very real and increasing pressing problem that gun violence poses in this country.
Do you think that this story could have been salvaged by integrating some of the tie-in books better, J.A.? Or do you think that beyond just being hobbled by being an event title, the idea at the heart of Civil War was too weak or problematic to succeed?
J.A. Micheline: The ideas at the heart of Civil War are phenomenal. Look at what we’ve got here: First, there’s Cap’s implied argument that extralegal rights are key to being a superhero. Then there’s his ultimate suggestion that superheroes exist as a check to the law itself, despite refusing to be formally checked himself (who watches the watchmen?). Another issue at stake is the question of national security versus individual autonomy. Even if we look at this as a gun control metaphor (I don’t think it’s a gun control metaphor), in this case the guns are people, which changes the parameters drastically. And yet another is tyranny. Even if a majority of citizens want these heroes bagged and tagged, is it right to do so? Does it matter that they feel unsafe when it would potentially be against heroes’ civil rights to either be imprisoned or monitored by the state?
Civil War has good ideas for days, for months, for years. It’s a decade after these comics were published, but its questions and themes are politically evergreen.
However: if my first paragraph made it sound like Civil War was a smart comic, that wasn’t my intention, because Civil War possesses the unique kind of stupidity required when someone has a series of fantastic opportunities and manages to squander every single one of them. Look at what we could have had! And look at this mess that they handed us. It’s embarrassing. I resent it to such a deep degree.
Tie-ins would have been a stopgap to some of the narrative holes, but additional context wouldn’t have made the read any more satisfying. The event is cheap. No one involved took the time to look at these questions—or really any question, regardless of whether they’re ones I wanted answered—and parse out their significance. It’s lazy and empty. Things just happen because they did happen. Captain America has a come-to-Jesus moment when random citizens are inexplicably in the middle of the final SuperFight™ and trying to pull him off Iron Man. And it means nothing because none of it makes any narrative or emotional sense.
The entire thing is like a recap episode for a show that never actually existed. It might even have been a good show, but all the recap does is show you the major events, rather than why you should care about them. And, you know, nobody likes a recap episode anyway.
I laugh a lot about Civil War. When I think about it, “Rolling In The Deep” starts playing in my head. Because if I think any deeper, I just get annoyed and angry. This comic event could have been amazing, but because no one gave a damn, instead it’s largely a pile of flaming trash. A little more effort, a little more time, a little more consideration—all of those things could have made this into something incredible. And instead it’s this. If we’re going to condemn anything in this event for being too weak to succeed, it should be the creative team. It should be the editors. It should be Marvel.
So what’s redeeming here? I referred to the creative team and a lot of our discussion up to now has been about themes (or lack thereof), but we haven’t touched much on the art. What do you think, Shea? Does McNiven’s hustle, at least, make this event worth its asking price?
Shea: In a word? No.
Steve McNiven is typically given as the book’s redeemer, but his work here is average at best. Stylistically, McNiven likes to render things in a realistic manner, and I’ll admit to enjoying the quality of his acting. He’s able to give facial expressions a nuance and a depth that I think is lacking in a lot of these Sturm und Drang superhero comics, but his storytelling is flat.
With a penchant for sparse pages that emulate the widescreen, “cinematic” paneling of Mark Millar’s collaboration with Bryan Hitch, The Ultimates, McNiven’s pages simply don’t have much going on in them. There are some exceptions, but McNiven mostly favors pages with 4 to 6 panels on them, each one stretching lengthwise from end to end and organized in a vertical stack. The goal is recreate the grandeur and feel of a blockbuster movie, but it doesn’t actually work. I am not a big fan of Bryan Hitch, but he was able to use that wide-frame and organize the panels with a nice, incredibly readable pace. McNiven, on the other hand, doesn’t. To use your clip show analogy, J.A., McNiven’s panels seem more like clips from the secret ending of a Tetsuya Nomura video game; each one is this snippet of some ostensively intriguing story but its authors aren’t 100 percent sure how the pieces fit together, so even the transitions are vague and foggy.
McNiven has similar trouble with distinguishing compositions. There is a page with two vertically stacked panels, and each panel has a shadowed figure on its far left-hand side. Both figures are colored black—the same color as the book’s gutters—and it took me four readings to realize that there were two panels there. The two figures blend with each other and with the gutter, blurring the literal line between them. I eventually figured it out, obviously, but there was definitely a “Huh? Wait?” pause, which really shouldn’t happen in a mainstream superhero comic. The Wolverine story arc, “Old Man Logan,” by the same team of Millar and McNiven, is a much better drawn comic. It’s no better written, but McNiven’s paneling has more energy, and there he draws fight scenes with conviction.
What I do like about Civil War’s art, however, is its texture. Colorist Morry Hollowell gives the book my platonic ideal of superhero coloring: a realistic palette and textures so rich that they highlight the artificiality of the whole genre. Here, everyone’s skin is poreless and frighteningly smooth; they could very well be drawings of robots. Even this though is dependent on Dexter Vines inks, which is apparent in issue #7 (where Vines is joined by inkers Tim Townsend and John Dell III). In that issue’s epilogue, there is, all of a sudden, a three-page stretch that looks like someone drew it with their feet.
Oliver, obviously the series is being loosely adapted for film with Captain America: Civil War. Do you think that’s a good choice in source material, and why do you think this book in particular was chosen over others?
Oliver: Before I answer your question, I’m going to have to respectfully disagree with your claims about McNiven’s art, which I find to be much more dynamic than Hitch’s work on The Ultimates. I love the physicality of McNiven’s characters (specifically his Spider-Man), and they look great in motion, which is important when so much of this story hinges on big action sequences. I agree that “Old Man Logan” is better drawn, but that’s because it’s later in McNiven’s career, and I appreciate the simpler approach he takes in Civil War.
I also don’t see your problems with the layouts, and find the moments where he breaks from the wide-frame panels very effective, especially when they are in service of the action. I also generally find McNiven’s storytelling to be very clear throughout, and layouts like the six-panel grid for Captain America’s fight with the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents in issue #1 and the nine-panel grid for Spider-Man’s showdown with Iron Man in issue #5 make those sequences more memorable for me by changing the rhythm and flow of the action.
Now that I’m done stumping for Steve McNiven, the answer to your question: Marvel Studios is adapting Civil War because, as J.A. explained, there’s a ton of potential for this story to resonate on a deeper level than what Millar and company accomplish in the comic. Before the film was released, I saw comments that the lack of history between Steve Rogers and Tony Stark in the MCU strips the central conflict of its emotional weight, but the movie makes significant changes that make this fight more personal for both figures. It also makes the central registration concept more plausible by making it a global concern rather than a domestic one, with basically all the countries in the United Nations agreeing that there should be some sort of oversight for a superhero team. The movie definitely improves on the source material, largely because it can’t make the same mistakes as the comic.
The complete Civil War story was spread out across over 30 different titles including one-shots, miniseries, and ongoing series tie-ins, but the film doesn’t have that luxury. It needs to condense all that content into a two-and-a-half-hour movie and alter it so it works within the confines of the MCU, and these restrictions help create a stronger narrative. The main Civil War miniseries definitely doesn’t take two and a half hours to read, and the movie’s creative team fills out Millar’s general concept with the extra time they have. Much of this time is devoted to Steve Rogers’ relationship with his old friend Bucky Barnes, a relationship that grounds the narrative while also highlighting the personal feelings that cloud Steve’s judgment for a lot of the movie. In general, I really enjoy how Steve and Tony’s personal flaws have a huge impact on their ideologies in the film, which makes the story feel more human.
One of the more random elements of Captain America: Civil War is Spider-Man’s MCU debut, and while I don’t really understand why this inexperienced teenager is recruited and recklessly thrown into a global conflict, I appreciate the fun he ultimately brings to movie. With that in mind, let’s delve into Peter Parker’s role in the comic. Caitlin, why do you think Spider-Man is given such an important part in the story? It makes sense given he’s one of Marvel’s most popular characters, but do you see any greater significance in having Spider-Man be the most prominent hero to change sides?
Caitlin: Peter Parker has the unfortunate distinction of being one of my least favorite Marvel characters. The perpetual youth thing that he often gets forced into means there’s little room for growth, but that’s part of what makes him the ideal “traitor” within Civil War: Scientifically and technologically, Parker is absolutely the kind of guy that fits right in with Tony and his less-than-moral colleagues Richards and Pym. But, as a street-level fighter that is perpetually poor and often caught up in moral tangles, I can see why he would end up coming around to Cap’s side. He’s one of the few characters that fits in both with the brain trust that belongs to the Illuminati and the bruisers that are part of the Defenders, so it makes sense that he would waffle between the two.
However, casting a young, white, educated, straight dude as “everyman” is getting really old, both in the MCU and 616. The biggest problem I’ve got with Parker is that he is constantly thrust forward as the person who is supposed to be relatable, and to be honest, Parker represents little to nothing of what I am or want, so I’ve always resented the idea of Peter as avatar for the reader. The story would be far more fascinating with Cindy Moon at the heart of it, and part of me hopes she plays the Spider-Man role in Civil War II if only to make up for Millar and company’s deplorable handling of race in Civil War. There was definitely some frustration online when they announced that a third inoffensive looking white kid would be playing Spider-Man, and I think Marvel’s counting too much on Peter’s waning appeal.
As J.A. pointed out, Civil War had a lot of great ideas and basically no effective follow-through. Writing a book that’s pretty explicitly about gun control, violence, and the government policing of community action with only two major characters that are people of color is beyond just ignorance. Killing off one of those two black men in a grisly, explicit manner that’s also the only on-panel death of a hero in the entire series compounds the idiocy further, and to add insult to injury Pym takes a crack at Goliath not long after his murder.
It’s a tricky thing to judge the comics of the past based on today’s comics, but this was 10 years ago. Millar doesn’t really have an excuse for so ridiculously failing to actually represent the world as it is, no more so than the X-Men have for continuing to be a metaphor for racism and homophobia that doesn’t include enough people of color or LGBTQ+ folks to mean anything. Don’t even get me started on the fact that Rhodey apparently doesn’t exist in Millar’s vision of Civil War; it’s such a squandered opportunity to talk about how people of color who work for the government approach policing citizens. Thankfully I’ve got last year’s Fury one-shot to fill in the blanks Millar didn’t bother with, and at least the Russos did a slightly better job handling race in Captain America: Civil War than their source material did. They pulled off a lot of miracles, but fell into some of the same traps as Millar: The only on-screen major character death is a black man and this is the second Avengers movie in a row that opens with mass destruction of an African city only to spend the rest of the film focusing on Europe.
J.A., would you classify Captain America: Civil War as part of Civil War’s legacy? Or is this just another SuperFight™? Does Civil War have a legacy beyond the film?
J.A.: We talked about legacy with DKR and it’s interesting to think about Civil War’s legacy (or really, lack thereof), given its return in comics and cinema. Before I saw the film, I would’ve said that the use of Civil War as the sequel to Captain America: The Winter Soldier makes sense, given Cap 2 was about the tension between liberty and security. But Captain America: Civil War doesn’t really do much with those themes in any significant way. It pays some lip service to it, but at no point does the movie really seem to be “about” anything in the way that Cap 2 is. And by not really being about anything, perhaps it lives up to the Civil War name after all.
So what about the comics? What about Civil War II?
Really, the fact that Civil War II exists is wild as hell. Civil War II is being helmed by Brian Michael Bendis and David Marquez, but, to start with, Bendis and Marquez only agreed after Millar and McNiven said no. In other words: It was Marvel’s idea for Civil War to return, not the creators’. Already, this suggests an artificial legacy.
I don’t think it’s a stretch to surmise that Civil War is back in the comics because the movie is bringing it back. Civil War II #1 is dropping in June, a month after the movie release of Captain America: Civil War in the States. And what’s more, Bendis has specifically said that there’ll be no beats in Civil War I that reappear in Civil War II. You can see the snake start to eat its own tail here.
Regardless of whether you actually believe Bendis, the frank admission that Marvel put him and Marquez up to this and the assertion that there’ll be no beats from Civil War I mean that Marvel, Bendis, and Marquez are blatantly trying to sell you a comic called Civil War II because they know items marked Civil War will sell after the movie comes out. Civil War is happening again because Civil War is happening again. How wild is that?
We’ve got a comic that exists because a movie exists that doesn’t have all that much to do with an older comic that was a clip show of a good comic that never actually existed. It’s a goddamn shell game. And actually, I take back my “lack thereof” remark, because this is perfect. This absolutely is the Civil War legacy. The hollowness of this entire sequence is a flawless iteration of how empty the original event was. It’s so utterly lacking in solidity that Marvel is open about selling you nothing, so without a spine that even this discussion has struggled to figure out what the hell the comic is about because if you line up all the pieces as they actually exist it’s not really about anything.
Despite the disappointment of Cap 3, I still find myself hoping that Civil War II is incredible. It’d destroy the elegance of emptiness birthing emptiness, but I like the idea of a fantastic story managing to crawl its way out of a black hole. I like the idea that great stories can be built out of nothing, against all odds.
I like the idea a lot. How could I read about superheroes—and more broadly, how could I read corporate superhero comics—if I didn’t believe that this time the story will be good, this time the good guys, the readers might win. But that’s how they get you. We’re being sold dreams precisely because we’re primed to believe in them. And that’s the wildest thing of all.