Writer: Mark Millar
Artist: Steve McNiven
Written and penciled by Rick Veitch
Inked by Gary Erskine
Cover by Thomas Yeates
Image Comics, September 2011
If art is a barometer reading the deeper spiritual development of a culture, then comic books are weather vanes turning this way and that as the wind changes. They may not give us a full picture of our culture but they are a reliable indicator of mainstream opinions and mores. Since the publication in the 1980s of graphic novels such as The Dark Knight, The Killing Joke, and Swamp Thing it has been possible for the comic book medium to deal with weightier issues than it could have done before. The creators of comic books have now learned to become adept at treating controversial subjects in a populist way.
Civil War is a Marvel graphic novel collecting the complete run of seven issues of the title published in 2006–7. Written by Marc Miller, the book is primarily concerned with a violent split that takes place amongst the ranks of the Marvel superheroes resulting in a vast conflict involving dozens of characters. Whilst the focus is on the narrative excitement of the superhero battles there is additionally a great deal of political and philosophical material hung on the back of the story. Civil War becomes a post-9/11 story about the conflict between government control and personal freedoms.
The schism depicted in Civil War is prompted by an act of hubris on the part of the superheroes. A superhero group called the New Warriors is the subject of a “reality” TV series. Keen to get some ratings-friendly material, they attempt to apprehend a group of supervillains who are on the run. The main protaganist of the New Warriors, Speedball, is shown to be arrogant and complacent. Thinking only of how the raid will look for the cameras, he fails to prepare properly for the operation and it goes badly wrong. One of the villains evades capture by setting off a massive explosion outside a school. Sixty children are amongst the 900 fatalities.
Immediately, there is a massive public backlash against the superheroes, some of whom pay the price of collective guilt at the hands of vigilantes. More significantly, a bill is introduced to crack down on irresponsible behavior by superheroes. The Superhuman Registration Act requires anyone with a super power to register with Federal authorities, reveal their real identities, undergo training, and act as an employee of the government. There is a sense that superheroes are out of control, and although it is recognized that they are necessary to fight against supervillains, there is an urgent public mood that requires abatement.
Very quickly, two rival factions emerge. The anti-registration heroes are led by Captain America, the pro-registration by a technological triumvirate of Iron Man, Yellow Jacket, and Reed Richards. Initially, Captain America is approached by S.H.I.E.L.D. to front the pro-registration campaign, but he refuses. Interestingly, he comments that the heroes who oppose the registration act are those “who work close to the streets.” The implication is that they understand the reality of crime and wish to have as much leeway, and as little government interference, as possible. He adds that superheroes need to remain above politics, “or Washington starts telling us who the Super-Villains are.” In contrast, the figureheads of the pro-registration camp are all rich scientists. Tony Stark, Henry Pym, and Reed Richards are all archetypal Ayn Rand heroes, solving society’s problems through technical innovation and amassing fortunes for themselves along the way.
The conflict between the two sides is complex; both appear to have good arguments on their side. Captain America’s role, as the leader of an underground, illegal, paramilitary organization, is quite remarkable for this acme of kitsch patriotism. If we can read any meaning into this, it would seem that the old notion of comic book patriotism is too puerile even for comic books. Captain America gives no indication whatsoever of having second thoughts about his underground rebel role. His rebellion against the registration act is a form of resistance to an oppressive government, represented here in the form of the shadowy nexus between S.H.I.E.L.D. and the technocrats. Cap is doing the right thing, and this means engaging in rebellion against the government.
Civil War owes a heavy debt to Alan Moore’s famous Watchmen series. In Watchmen, superheroes have to be registered with the government, and they are tactically utilized as proxies for nuclear war, tipping the balance of American interests in conflicts like Vietnam without starting Armageddon. Interestingly, Watchmen, published in 1986–7, turns out to be about a secret plot to fake an attack on New York, killing thousands of people in a violent wake up call. The prescient cynicism of this plot continues to be felt in comics.
The Big Lie, a one-shot published by Image Comics, is about a female quantum physicist who finds a way to travel back in time to the day of September 11th 2001. Her husband was one of the fatalities on that morning, and her mission is to warn him of the impending events and save his life. She finds her husband in a meeting with some high level risk-management executives on an upper storey of the North Tower.
The brilliant conceit of this comic concerns the incredulity of the people she has come to warn. They, quite reasonably, refuse to believe that she has traveled back through time, and instead suspect that she has been sent by one of their clients to test their background knowledge to a disaster movie currently in production. Her tale of airplanes hitting the twin towers and demolishing them, they reason, is a test to see how well they know their subject.
Playing along with her, they systematically refute everything she says because it is impossible. Any hijacked planes would be shot down by scrambled fighter jets before they could reach a built up area; if planes did hit the twin towers they could not collapse due to the steel frameworks of the buildings, and so on. The comic is a didactic exercise in 9/11 skepticism. Its explicit message is that 9/11 was an inside job.
Similarly, though less controversially, Civil War has been read as a post-9/11 debate about the balance between security and freedom, and it depicts a comic book world where resistance to the powers of government is a respectable trait. Although some superheroes accept that some curtailing of their freedom is necessary for the greater good, others see their freedom as a sine qua non. In this context Captain America would seem to stand for a current of nationalistic resistance to government interference. Tony Stark, and the other techies, argue that a compromise solution in the form of registration is preferable to a blanket ban on superheroes, and should be embraced as a sensible expedient. It is notable that the apologists for government policy are all people who have benefited a great deal from the capitalist system and who clearly do not wish to rock the boat.
The image on the cover of The Big Lie is quite remarkable: Uncle Sam, Captain America’s ur-prototype, strides through the smoke of the twin towers clenching his fist, a look of contorted vengeance on his face. The innocent comic purchaser will suspect that Uncle Sam is intent on seeking vengeance against Muslims, or Iran, or whichever target Fox News has chosen to bleat about this month. The contents of the comic leave no doubt that he is instead seeking vengeance against the US government. So, Uncle Sam and Captain America can now both be utilized for the purpose of opposing the government.
If we are concerned with which way the wind is blowing, it should be of some interest that mainstream comic publishers are now producing such material. It is not so much the fact that these comics depict a complicated reality that is significant; sophisticated comics have now been published for three decades or so. Instead it should give cause for optimism that large numbers of young people who read these effective propaganda tools are now being taught to be skeptical of the interests of their government; and to perceive that the government’s interests may be very different, and perhaps inimical, to their own.