Civil War

The two major comic book companies– DC and Marvel– periodically release multi-franchise epics which are meant to forever change the landscape of their universes (and drive sales). Civil War is the latest such event for the Marvel Universe. The story places the company’s heroes at odds with one another. Increasing accidents among super humans which lead to the deaths of innocent civilians causes the government to demand that a registry be taken of all costumed do-gooders. This would allow them to be insured, liable, and bonded– placing all of them on the Federal payroll. Of course, many take great exception to this, and the once large network of friends and comrades disintegrates into warring factions.

Politics and Ethics

The issues with this conflict are both numerous and obvious. While many characters choose sides based on loyalty, usually to franchise mainstays like Professor X or Captain America, most of them choose based upon what they see as the morally appropriate thing to do. On the side of the registry is Iron Man, Tony Stark. Stark is a very rich man, his need to control and dominate situations precipitates his call for the registry. He takes key heroes like Spider-Man under his wing to be poster boys for his movement, and thus enlists a great deal of support.

Opposite Iron Man is Captain America. The long time patriarch of the Marvel Universe, Captain America derides the registry as a choice between liberty and security. He opts for the conventional lay out and organizes a loose rebellion of those loyal to him and those who simply agree. His opposition is a difficult pill for Iron Man and the others to swallow, but in the end this stance only alienates Captain America from a frightened populace.

Civil War is as much a way for Marvel to turn the page on their meta-story as it is an allegory for the current political climate in the west. Currently, security measures deemed appropriate and necessary by elements in the government, are seen as brutish and unconstitutional by others. This dichotomy is troubling because while security must always be a consideration for any government, we are reminded by the words of Benjamin Franklin, who said that any man who chooses safety over freedom deserves neither. The lesson from Franklin and from Captain America is clear. If we cannot live by our principles in the worst of times, what do they really stand for? It is a question that is relevant both in this narrative and in the current political climate.

The end of this story involves another such concession. In a final demonstration of this message, Captain America surrenders himself and his forces to Iron Man. Though he was on the brink of victory, Captain America did not wish to gain victory by killing his friends, behaving as the many villains he and his comrades spent their lives fighting, or by ignoring the will of the people. Though he surrenders himself, he does not abandon his cause. Both Captain America and his war are martyred as examples of what is and will always be the moral thing to do. Captain America’s surrender and eventual assassination taint Iron Man’s victory, and subsequent continued rebellion deny him the outcome he sought. In the end, just as Franklin warned, Iron Man receives neither the safety he wanted or the liberty he gave up.

Thy Will Be Done

Many conventional reviewers and other readers have chided this graphic novel because of the lack of concrete action in it. Even the famous death of Captain America doesn’t occur until afterward. However what struck me the most about it is how similar it is to DC Comics’ epic Kingdom Come. Both novels depict the growing irrelevancy of the villains who plagued society. They both show how an accident involving younger fame-seeking heroes leads to the deaths of numerous civilians. They both describe how this leads to a break down in the community of heroes and triggers a massive civil war. In both cases, the side of forced order (Superman and Iron Man) construct a “gulag” to contain the unruly elements who refuse to get in line.

On this level, Kingdom Come outshines Civil War for several reasons. First, KC has more factions and involves a larger network of characters. There is more subtext, more lineage, and more time passes through the course of events. Second, the end involves a much more traumatic event than in Civil War. Though a lot changes at the end of the story, it isn’t the kind of massive change we see in Kingdom Come. Finally, KC is a much more artistically mature piece than CW, and this is evident in both writing and illustrations.

Despite all of that, the biggest contrast between these two pieces is the fact that Civil War is a part of the greater continuity, and Kingdom Come is a one-shot graphic novel which is based upon the original continuity but has no bearing or meaning. It was no risk at all for DC Comics to produce such an epic and sweeping text given the fact that nothing would change as a result. Because Civil War left such a large mark on the Marvel Universe, it is much more important in the greater scheme.

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