Part One – Explosions, Legislation, and Unmasking, Oh My
Recently it was announced that Robert Downey Jr. was in talks to star in Captain America 3, and reportedly a big-screen adaptation of Civil War will be introduced. Civil War, for those that don’t know, was probably one of the highest selling comic book mini-series of the last 15 years. It received mainstream media coverage and established storylines that reverberate throughout the Marvel Universe to this very day. And yet, if you listen to fans online, it’s hard to find anyone that will admit they actually enjoyed it.
My larger theory about the online comic book community is that it actually represents only a fraction of the total readership of comic books, especially on message boards. If you went by popular message board opinion, nobody actually likes Wolverine, Brian Michael Bendis, or big crossover events, but all of those things continue to exist.
To this end, I will be discussing the seminal Marvel crossover event Civil War, with the end goal of convincing the hardcore and casual fan alike, why you should disregard everything you may have thought you believed about the series, and embrace it as the rollicking good time that it is. If you’ve never read it, you should. If you’ve read it and thought you didn’t like it, I’m going to show you why you’re wrong. Let’s get started.
Commentary by Mark Millar and Steve McNiven has been appropriated from an interview conducted by Mike Cotton for Wizard Magazine #192, “Civil War – The Director’s Commentary.”
CIVIL WAR #1
Writer: Mark Millar, Pencils: Steve McNiven, Inks: Dexter Vines, Color: Morry Hollowell
Speedball and his team of New Warriors are filming a reality show about their superhero exploits. Against better judgement, they attack a group of villains too powerful for them, resulting in an explosion that kills hundreds of people in Stamford, Connecticut, including a school full of children.
(This is an absolutely brilliant inciting incident for the central conflict of the series. Nothing gets a tragedy traction in the media like an incriminating video, and there is no way this wouldn’t be played over and over again on the 24-hour media cycle. This group of screw-up heroes openly stating on camera that they were only doing this for ratings, and that the villains were too powerful for them, is just the type of thing that would throw the public into an uproar. It’s a really clever indictment of the reality television phenomenon, and how the government reacts to public outrage when whipped into a frenzy by media coverage. This is exactly how it would play out if this happened in real life.)
Millar: This is the bad thing [about crossovers] actually because my knowledge of Marvel stuff after Stan Lee stopped writing it is incredibly, incredibly small, right? It’s funny, whenever the scripts that are eventually published in hardback, people will realize that Marvel was really badly distributed to where I grew up, but we got loads of reprints of the Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko stuff… I’m really familiar with all of that. And I had never even heard of Nitro. I put in the panel descriptions and [Civil War editor] Tom Brevoort came up with Nitro. And you see that all through the script. It’s shocking. But it seems to sell well.
(I love that Millar basically admitted he hasn’t read a Marvel comic made after 1965.)
Iron Man and Captain America, among other heroes, gather in Stamford to help with rescue and clean-up operations. Both are upset about the incident and what it will mean going forward.
At a Stamford memorial service, Tony Stark is spit on and verbally assaulted by a distraught mother of one of the children that was killed. She blames him for funding the Avengers, and perpetuating a culture with no accountability.
Millar: We were kind of slightly shocked by some of the reaction because a lot of people saw Tony as the uber-villain, and if you really read the core book, we really do play a balance. But the other thing is that Tony comes off as a little safe because [Captain America] is the guy who threw the first punch and started the fight. And some of the tie-ins… I mean, there’s so many books, how are we going to keep everything under control? We just have control for our seven comics and try to make it balanced, and some of the [tie-in books] made Tony a little more evil than we even intended.
(It’s funny, when I first read this, I definitely preferred Captain America as a character, so I was one of the ones that certainly read Tony Stark as the villain. But if you think about it, he’s the one upholding the will of the people, he’s the one being spit on by grieving mothers, and he’s not the one that threw the first punch. Mrs. Back Issue Ben, when she first read it, had the opposite point of view after reading it. She was totally on Stark’s side the whole time. I found that fascinating, and so should you.)
With the groundswell for superhero registration growing, Johnny Storm is attacked and beaten by the other patrons at a nightclub. Superheroes gather at the Baxter Building to debate the merits of registration.
(This is the backbone of the entire series. The split between if heroes should register with the government, or be allowed to operate independently, is one of the strongest story concepts for any of the modern event comics. It’s instantly compelling to see which heroes will pick what side. In real world terms, there’s really no question that if superheroes existed, they should definitely have to get proper training and register with the government, which is one of the problematic things about doing comics like this. When you mix fictional characters with real world debates like freedom versus security, it can sometimes highlight everything that isn’t real about the fiction. Once you start unraveling that sweater, it will never stop. But I think it works here. However, many people felt the narrative didn’t live up to the concept. From now on we will refer to them as the misguided.)
Captain America is called aboard the Helicarrier to meet with S.H.I.E.L.D. director, Maria Hill. Maria tells him of her plans to establish an anti-superhuman response unit, as led by him, in anticipation for any heroes refusing to submit to the upcoming superhero registration act. Captain America refuses to arrest people risking their lives to save others. Tensions rise as Maria gives Cap an ultimatum at gun point. Cap refuses, takes out the team of agents, and then rides a fighter jet back to the surface.
McNiven: I think Morry [Hollowell] did a great job coloring this. He did a lovely job with setting the mood of the page, lots of blues and reds and it’s a good chance to sort of cut in with some two-fisted action, and it was great. It was fun. Mark gave me all the great beats to hit and I just went with it.
Millar: What I wanted to do is put that sequence in a little file and [send it] to these other artists: “Look what Steve McNiven can do.” And make them all really angry. But I sent it to my friends and they were just awed by it. They absolutely loved it. That’s one of my favorite sequences in the whole book actually.
(This scene actually made me hate Maria Hill for a long time. Mrs. Back Issue Ben felt completely different, and Maria became a favorite for her. She has since persuaded me to see the light. We should all love Maria Hill. Join us or perish.)
Back in the Baxter Building, the Watcher appears, signaling big trouble. Later, after the registration act has passed, the President and his advisors are at the White House debating what to do about Captain America’s defection. Iron Man, Reed Richards, and Hank Pym assure him that they’ll get Captain America under control.
(I think the reason Stark comes off as the villain here is because he’s forcing the other heroes to abide by the superhero registration act, and nobody likes to be forced to do anything. Just ask my children. Yet the new law is the will of the people. I guess it could be argued that the act is misguided, but that’s not really something that’s going to be fixed by punching. That can only be fixed by long, intense, political debate, and only JMS wants to write that comic.)
CIVIL WAR #2
Writer: Mark Millar, Pencils: Steve McNiven, Inks: Dexter Vines, Color: Morry Hollowell
S.H.I.E.L.D. agents continue to find gift-wrapped supervillains left for them by Captain America. Fifteen villains in seventy-two hours, leading Maria Hill to believe he is not working alone. The media questions if Captain America will change his mind before the registration act becomes official law in seven days.
Iron Man and his registration heroes take down a Doombot in public, in an effort to restore public confidence in superheroes. She-Hulk, Tigra, and Carol Danvers openly question if they’re doing the right thing.
At the Baxter Building, Reed Richards is excited about all the concepts that he’s been developing with Tony and Pym, including the mysterious “number forty-two.” The rift between Susan Richards and her husband begins to develop.
|Another argument against real-life logic invading fiction, this marriage.|
The deadline passes, the registration act is law, and anti-superhuman response units are tasked with apprehending any unregistered heroes. After the Young Avengers are captured, they’re rescued by the Falcon, and taken to the anti-registration forces secret base.
|Cable being on Captain America's team should automatically swing reader opinion back to Iron Man's side. Curiously, it did not.|
At a televised press conference, Stark and Miriam Sharpe (the mother that lost her son) introduce Spider-Man. As a display of confidence and support for registration, Spider-Man unmasks, revealing his secret identity to the entire world.
McNiven: I think Mark did a great job with the Spider-Man unmasking, just having Jonah disappear, like fall behind his desk and everyone react. I think it was a great moment. It was really difficult. I was worried that I couldn’t pull it off, but it read great in the script.
Millar: That was a big one because the one thing you don’t want to screw up is something as monumental as Spider-Man’s unmasking. It must have been quite scary drawing those pages because you knew that they were [going] in every newspaper in the world and fans were going to be talking about them for years.
McNiven: Oh, and I hate the pages. I really do.
Millar: I think they look great.
McNiven: Oh God, I hate them.
Millar: Well, what don’t you like?
McNiven: I left them in my drawer for the longest time. I just would redo them entirely but I think the pressure got to me a little bit with those pages and I just don’t think I did the best job that I could.
Millar: Well, I think you draw a great Spider-Man.
Millar: It actually looks like Spider-Man. You and John Romita Jr., I think, are the two best Spidey artists.
(I remember Mark Millar hyping this cliffhanger up on the internet as a big one, but I never could have imagined they would have pulled the trigger on Spider-Man unmasking. This was huge at the time, even making news in the mainstream press. A lot of fans get mad about these things when they happen, and then they get mad when they get reversed, complaining about no changes being permanent. I don’t know why they get so hung up on permanence, instead of just enjoying the stories or not. Oh wait, yes I do. Because they hate comics but don’t know how to move on.)
That’s it for this week. So far there’s been a lot of set-up, but the action ramps up starting with the next issue. The Stamford incident is one of the great openers for any comic ever, and the split over superhero registration is one of the strongest concepts in event history. Captain America defying S.H.I.E.L.D. and escaping custody is one of the ultimate badass moments in his history. Iron Man is getting pegged as the villain, but has never been more relevant in the world of the Marvel Universe as he’s starting to become here. (Despite a long run as a solo character and a founding Avenger, I never really got the impression that Iron Man was all that popular. He seemed to stick around based mostly on his status as one of the Jack Kirby originals. This series, along with a certain major motion picture, began the process of making Iron Man one of the superstars of the Marvel Universe, and a cornerstone of the company across all media platforms.) All that, along with beautiful artwork by McNiven and Vines, make for a classic series in the making. What more could you want? I mean it, people, what more did you want?!
Next time, the war begins.