W.W.A.Civil War: The Comic Edition

Marvel Civil War | Marvel.com

With the release of Captain America: Civil War trailer officially hitting our screens fan and viewer reactions have been mixed between the positive and negative. At WWAC our staff began discussing in detail about both the upcoming movie, and the 2006 Marvel Civil War comic event written by Mark Millar. The event pitted Captain America against Iron Man over the proposed Superhuman Registration Act, which would force superheroes to reveal their identities. Iron Man was firmly for, while Captain Amierca was utterly opposed. The result?

“…Civil War has long been one of the most contested and disliked events in Marvel history, with the major critique being that the behavior of all the characters involved was way off the map and that it dismantled years of continuity for what ultimately was not that compelling of a story. In my experience as both a fan and a retailer, Civil War is often cited as the reason a lifelong reader dropped Marvel for a while.” Dear Marvel: Literally No One Wants a Civil War Movie

But not all of us disliked the event and our discussion revealed a civil war of our own. What we quickly realized was that our staff had strong feelings about the original event and were as strongly divided on it as Cap and Tony themselves.

So we decided to do what we do best: break our thoughts down bit by bit in detail with passion and snark. Welcome to the WWAC Civil War Roundtable.

JAM: Civil War was a garbage fire.

Kate: Civil War was the event that made me take Marvel seriously.

Kat: Civil War is a big ole waste of a really good premise. When it kicked off I was like, YES, and then by the end I was like, thank god comics forget this shit every five years because none of this is sustainable. I wasn’t really “in fandom” at the time though, so I moved on without thinking too much about it. I reread it summerish of 2014 as I did a reread of the Brubaker Cap run to prep for Winter Soldier, and just ran straight through it and realized 1) how many tie-ins I missed initially, and 2) how badly everyone is used to tell an increasingly nonsensical story that is about … nothing.

The premise that public opinion would come to a head after a disaster like the New Warriors accidentally nuking a town was fascinating to me, and I really could have lived with exploring the fallout from that without tackling a Superhero Registration Act as well (especially since it’s a perennial X-Men storyline). But no one has well-thought-out stances, the characters often seem like they were just randomly split up, and then the story goes completely off the rails once it’s discovered that Tony is cloning superheroes and building an alternate dimension Gitmo for superheroes (all of which could be interesting, but not all in the same damn storyline).

Essentially, after powering through Civil War, I felt like I had learned nothing about these characters except that I was going to hate Tony Stark until his characterization was fixed, because I couldn’t handle any of his decisions. It put me off from straying from the comfort of X-Men titles for a while, since at least they managed to come out it of it relatively unscathed. I think it’s tempered my expectations for Big Idea comics, though, especially out of the Big Twoif it’s publisher-wide, there’s just no way to get tightly allegorical about anything.

It also put me off Marvel Events for a long time, up the point where Hickvengers stopped making sense unless I accepted that I would have to read Original Sin, which now I think that Jonathan Hickman was much more effective at creating a sort-of-evil, sort-of-justified cabal of superheroes being led by Tony Stark than Mark Millar ever did.Marvel Civil War #1 (2006) Nark Millar, Steve McNiven, Dexter Vines, Morry Hollowell

JAM: Civil War, A Summary:

Megan: I have been reading comics since the ’90s, and I hate no comic crossover like I do Civil War. I have read a lot of crossovers and events. Some of them were incoherent, nonsensical, or weirdly abusive of the characters. None of them are as bad as Civil War, which wrapped up the Marvel Universe with the thinnest of “political” themes and tossed it off a cliff.

What are the two sides? What is the core ethical issue? Who knowsit’s a constantly shifting morass, where one issue Reed Richards is a maniacal pulp villain and another he’s halfway reasonable; one issue Tony Stark is deeply concerned about responsibility and another he’s using casual sex as a delivery mechanism for nanobots. And then, the core issueshould there be government oversight of superheroes? Or was it, should the government track powered individuals? Or wait, maybe it wasshould Tony Stark be the boss of all heroes? But then again, maybe it wasliberty, justice, something something, stand in the river and don’t move?

I read Civil War live, so to speak, and it was an agonizing experience. Every month brought on another glut of tie-insmore than most fans could afford to read and few of which had any real connection to the main plot. The main book itself was hollow, more a series of set pieces and anxious speeches than a story. The tie ins circling it in a confused packthere’s no indication that writers of the tie-ins had any idea what was going to happen next in the main book, as if everyone, including editorial, was working off a vague white boarded outline from two retreats past.

And the sum of all this frantic activity was, in the end, very little. I know that Tony sided with Registration and Steve did not. I know that Tony cried over Steve’s body and Peter Parker flip-flopped before siding with Steve. I know that the mutants were just tired of all this shit. But what about the basic political and ethical questions purportedly at stake? Sometimes some of them advocated one of the things. Sometimes some of them advocated one of the other things. Government goodsometimes. Government badsometimes. Absolute power. Much corrupt. Explosions.

JAM: trashflames.jpg

Wendy: Civil War was my reintroduction to comics after a long hiatus. It was the wrong place to start, because it succeeded only in reminding me of why I quit Marvel in the first place. It was a convoluted plot that served no other purpose than to pit good guys against good guys under the guise of “government invasion of privacy.” I was in the middle of fighting the Google+ anti-anonymity clause at the time, and I could certainly appreciate the relevance of the themes presented, but the story itself ended up being a clusterfuck.

"Spider-Man Unmasked" by Ryan Estrada (ryanestrada.com) based on Marvel's Civil War
Peter Parker struggles with Google+’s “Nymwars.”

This was the first in Marvel’s new crossover event format, and I am fairly certain, after then reading the next clusterfuck that was AvX, that these events are basically the result of people sitting around a table trying to decide who would win in a fight: Cap or Tony? BOOM. Civil War. Cyclops or Cap? BOOM. AvX (with added Phoenix and more drunk Tony). And the most insulting part about these events (other than the lack of internal consistency from book to book—do they not have staff progress meetings?) was the inconsistent characterization.

I’d been away from comics for a decade, but I wasn’t so much out of the loop that I couldn’t see that these characters were acting completely out of character all of a sudden. Tony was a complete asshole, Reed Richards and Hank Pym were just gross, building a fake Thor to trick and kill people. Nick Fury fucking off to wherever and dumping the responsibility of capturing Cap on Maria Hill’s lap? Enlisting bad guys to frame people? What purpose did it serve to paint all these characters with the evil despot brush? Ultimately, this whole plot just dissolved into an explosion and testosterone-filled punch fest, where Cap and Tony even took center stage at Storm and Black Panther’s wedding. And by the time I’d read it, long after the event actually happened, Cap’s noble sacrifice had already been erased by Marvel’s resurrection policy.

Black Panther vol4 #18 | Marvel Comics - Civil War Cover art by Frank Cho
Cap and Iron Man “cease fire” during Storm and Black Panther’s wedding. How nice of them.

JAM: [*Rolling in the Deep plays in the distance*]

Desiree: The original Civil War event had loads of potential. It connected with a lot of political strife happening in the U.S. at the time, namely the issues of personal privacy, the Patriot Act, and to much government interference with citizens. Not to mention the concern about public safety and what liberties we as citizens would be willing to give up in order to stay safe.

That being said, the event blew. It became less about political allegories, and more about big named heroes fighting other big named heroes. Characters were twisted to suit the storyline, creating huge retcons of their entire personalities so that fans would be encouraged to pick sides instead of characters reacting to the situation organically. Not to mention, this storyline about registration was already previously done with the X-Men who were pretty much ignored during the entire event.

In my opinion, this was the start of Marvel distancing itself from mutants, because then you had Avengers versus X-men, and again, the same narrative issues began to arise that you saw in Civil War. With one side obviously the “good” side, and the other the “bad” side. At the cost of the actual characters at hand. Tony became the bad guy, someone you could barely root for or even sympathize with.

And since, Marvel events have mainly been about pitting good guys against good guys. Avengers vs X-Men is a prime example of this. There wasn’t really any purpose or reason other than sales dollars, shock deaths, and making good guys fight good guys so fans could wank over it in both positive and negative ways. Worse still, because these stories were created to sell instead of be a story, they twisted characters to suit the plot. Why are these characters really fighting each other? No one really knows, because no one really cares.

I’d say what I dislike most about Civil War is the aftermath of it all. When you go back and reread, it feels forced, unresolved, and messy. Steve and Tony fight. Steve dies. Tony cries. End of story. And nothing about registration or the like is ever heard about again. Civil War squandered any actual potential the series could have had.

JAM: If you include all the tie-ins, you could heat a one-bedroom apartment as well as save on toilet paper.

Ray: Civil War had me quit reading comic books in general for six years.

I was 12, I had my Spider-Man subscriptions and nothing else. Then Marvel had to come in catering to its 40-year-old man demographic and fuck my shit up. That’s probably why I still massively dislike the publisher to this day and don’t trust them to do anything right 99% of the time (although nowadays the problem is less about them creating stupid, badly executed events to pump more money out of adults and more about them pretending to be progressive by releasing books with two-dimensional female leads and shoving all their queer characters back into the closet).

To this day, I admit, I have not read Civil War and maybe some readers will think I shouldn’t be talking in this roundtable for that reason. But, that kind of rationale from other people also had me see The Avengers: Age of Ultron and come out of it with the same exact opinion I had of the movie before I saw it. So, based on my reading of those who summarized the event for people like me, I’m going to say I have enough information to agree with all my ladies above that Civil War was a shitshow like none ever seen before.

That being said, my experience with Civil War points to enormous issues the comics industry still faces to this day. Marvel couldn’t come up with accessible books for people who watched the Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies and 600 of its own movies later, it can barely come up with accessible books now. And what are we left with instead? Mediocrity (at best) to look back on.

JAM: The categorical worst.

Ardo Omer: I read the main title, which consisted of seven issues if I remember correctly. I read it after the third Captain America film was announced. My thoughts? It was a comic event where things happened. I didn’t read beyond the main seven issues, so I didn’t think it was as bad as it was made out to be but I also read it thinking: “So. This is it. The thing people talked about. Oh, Spider-Man.” I didn’t care enough to read more, and I don’t care enough to have a strong opinion on whether it was good or bad. I guess you can call me the Spider-Man of this discussion. Witty, young, and … who am I kidding? I don’t care.

Civil War was an event based on something I could understand and could feel echoed in my own life at a time when I was questioning my identity

Kate: I care a lot. Civil War was probably only my third event and second event in Marvel comics after House of M and that whole Avengers Disassembled thing that I couldn’t understand and didn’t care about or have context for. I’d jumped the DC ship and run headfirst into Marvel comics with Runaways and Young Avengers, and here, finally, after months of feeling confused about how Marvel worked and the shape of the universe, I had my answer in an event that was real. Civil War was an event based on something I could understand and could feel echoed in my own life at a time when I was questioning my identity and how much I could “be myself” in public when I was working for a public university.

I always think of that scene in The West Wing, when President Bartlet is considering a supreme court nominee. What it comes down to is what is going to be “the issue” of the next 20 years—privacy:

“’20s and ’30s, it was the role of government. ’50s and ’60s, it was civil rights. The next two decades are going to be privacy. I’m talking about the Internet. I’m talking about cell phones. I’m talking about health records and who’s gay and who’s not. Moreover, in a country born on the will to be free, what could be more fundamental than this?”

Say what you want about Aaron Sorkin—he was right about this. So when people say that the sides feel cartoonish or a false dichotomy, I can only think that’s how it felt in the political climate at the time too. The year 2006 was before Obama was really a viable candidate and two years into George W. Bush’s second term in office. As a born and raised west coast liberal who was teaching in the conservative middle of nowhere Indiana, I felt a real pressure to hide different aspects of myself from my students, from my professors, and from my colleagues. The institution wasn’t an abstract thing to me anymore. It was part of my everyday life, both professionally and personally. So when people say things like this event was garbage or the worst thing to happen to comics, I take that personally, because it was the first comics event to have meaning for me and the first comics event that taught me that comics could have meaning and resonance.

That said, I understand that my experience was different from people who were already into comics or who weren’t in comics at all and only got into it years later. When it came out, I only read a few of the titles, because I was still learning what a pull list was and how the comics industry worked. It wasn’t until years later that I was able to read the entire event, across all titles, and I recognize now, as a comics event veteran, that you have the same event comics bullshit that you see in any event—a wide range of quality in terms of writing and art, a wide range of connections to the main event, a wide range of characterization (I mean the same characters across different books in addition to general characterization), and a wide range of timeliness (meaning for some heroes it worked with their storylines and others it was forced or interrupted).

There are things, when I look back at Civil War, that I’m WTF? about. There’s a tone throughout the comics of self-congratulation that is unattractive and inappropriate from the editors and writers and an over-the-top almost hyperbolic self-importance in the main Civil War title. There’s narrative WTF-ness as well. Johnny Storm getting beaten up outside a nightclub was almost as weird and out of nowhere as he and Sue going undercover as husband and wife. That’s just Big Two Event comics. What made Civil War work as an event was the political climate at the time.

Also, without Civil War happening we wouldn’t have had this panel during the Dark Reign event:

Fantastic Four: Dark Reign #2 | Marvel Comics
Fantastic Four: Dark Reign #2 where Tony and Steve finally kiss and make up.

JAM: Okay, I’ll break it down. Last summer, I read every issue of Civil War. And when I say every issue, I don’t mean the main title written by Mark Millar. I mean some 100+ issues including all the tie-ins and the side plots and every damn thing related to this godforsaken event. So, please understand that I am taking the full context of the event into account when I say that Civil War is a shitpile.

Ms. Marvel's Registration Act ID card
Ms. Marvel’s Superhuman Registration Act ID card [Wikipedia].
Basically, everyone was awful. At first, I surprised even myself by discovering that I was Team Registration—that is, until Team Registration became Team Fascism. Regulation is all well and good until it evolves into superhero police states, prisons in isolated dimensions, war profiteering and, wait a second, zombie resurrections?! Really, Tony? Really?

And then on the other side of the fence, we have Team Self-Righteousness. Steve Rogers is having a hissy fit because of course superheroes have the right to be heroes and how dare the government … enforce extant laws against vigilantism. The Secret Avengers had absolutely no leg to stand on; they were just mad no one was letting them be superheroes the way they wanted to be (which was already against the law).

The main plot is just issue after issue of people throwing unnecessary tantrums and just being terrible. I was kind of joking with that Spider-Man image, but not really. Thank god for the side plots, which were where I learned to love Black Panther, Misty Knight, Namor, Doctor Doom, and Moon Knight. There’s also some truly fascinating Punisher material in there, particularly with regards to Frank Castle’s relationship to Steve Rogers. Speaking of Steve, to give credit where it’s due; the only time he wasn’t being sanctimonious in the event was in Amazing Spider-Man #537 when he makes that amazing “No, you move” speech. And then he goes back to being trash.

Amazing Spider-Man #537 | Marvel Comics
“No, you move.” Amazing Spider-Man #537

The thing is—the “good guys fighting each other” schtick is only compelling when both of them have a point. Magneto fighting Xavier is compelling, because Magneto is not entirely wrong. Civil War is just a group of babies sitting and screaming at each other for over 100 issues. The conflicts were largely trumped up and the details of the registration act—which no one seemed to care about—were inconsistent. I’m disagreeing with Desiree below, but Frontlines was the only tie-in to actually further the plot and figure out why “the Stamford incident” happened in the first place.

Also, credit where it’s due again, Civil War did gift me with the greatest set of comic panels to ever grace the face of this earth. Everything was absolutely awful, but these panels have brought me everlasting joy:

Civil War: X-Men #1

Civil War was an obvious political allegory to real U.S. conflicts at the time. Did you find that the political aspects of Civil War rang true?

Megan: No. NO. Not even a little bit.

Kate: Yes. This was the first time I saw that comics actually could make a political statement, and at that time, the right to privacy was at the forefront of everyone’s mind, and one we’re still dealing with.

Privacy is still a very timely and important issue with NSA tapping our phones and watching us talk about Civil War the comics event.

Ardo: Privacy is still a very timely and important issue with NSA tapping our phones and watching us talk about Civil War the comics event. So being inspired by that via the Marvel Cinematic Universe makes sense. Does the comic event series do it well? Nah.

Desiree: HA! Ahem, sorry. Okay honestly, the event tried and did hit those notes of a powerful political allegory but it fumbled hard by paying more attention to who was fighting who. It lost it’s way and ended on a complete whimper without solving any of the problems it put forth. That’s what makes the event so disappointing to me, I can love the Spider-Man bits, but honestly, the fact that it could have been great is what upsets me the most.

The storyline went the easy route of making one side out to be the bad guys (Tony’s) and the other the good guys (Cap’s) instead of really digging into the political aspects of what they were arguing or even including the Marvel metaphor of minorities in the X-Men, who were near completely forgotten and pushed aside even though they had dealt with registration before. One of my favorite scenes of Civil War is when Carol Danvers—then Ms. Marvel—pleads with Emma Frost to side with them. Emma smacks her down—rightfully—with how apathetic the Avengers have been towards the X-Men and mutants in general for decades. Which is completely true.


You see this again when the X-Factor team is confronted with the Avenger’s civil war. It goes to show that Marvel editorial team isn’t very good at creating a solid political allegory at all. They fumble with the X-Men all the time and they dropped the ball with how Civil War was developed and resolved.

Do you think the movie will improve the source material?

Desiree: The movie is barely taking the source material into account and is more using the nostalgic famous name than anything. But I guess it can’t be any worse?

Ray: From what we can glean from the trailer, directors, and other information available on the internet, the movie seems to be taking a far more intimate look into the relationships between those involved rather than their opinions on the issue. This indicates that when Cap and Iron Man start beating each other to death they are going to do it with more blatant remorse instead of obsessing over how right they are. So … yes? I like it when people cry as they beat each other to death, because it adds an extra layer, but people never cry for the right reasons in Mark Millar comics.

Kate: I feel like in some ways, it can only be improved upon, and I say this as someone who liked the original event. I feel like the way they are updating it, at least based on what can be gleaned from the trailer, is by updating the politics to this political climate, and also by adapting it for the landscape of the MCU, which is very different from the landscape of the Marvel Comics universe at the time. That’s smart. They’ve also had a lot more time to work on the storyline and fewer writers, so it has that going for it. I’m excited.

WWAC talks more about the new Captain America: Civil War trailer here!

J. A. Micheline

J. A. Micheline

JAM's been reading comics since she was 8. As a critic, she focuses on race and gender issues. She also writes prose fiction, comics, and the occasional angry tweet before bedtime. Find her on Twitter at @elevenafter.