There are 102 comics listed in Marvel Unlimited for the "Civil War" event. I read almost every single one of them in 36 hours. This is what I've learned. Uh, spoiler alert for some comics that came out 10 years ago, I guess.
I'd love to tell you more about why I did this and my feelings on comics in general, but fuck all that, I'll do it later. We're going to get right to the meat of the discussion here: Marvel's Civil War was dumb as hell and not good.
For those of you who don't know what Marvel's Civil War was, and may be mistaking it for the movie that's coming out this summer - why are you still reading this?
For those of you who DO know, but need a refresher - Civil War was a main-line Marvel comics crossover event where months of comics all fed the same storyline, centered around a central conflict.
The central conflict is dumb. It is referenced in every single page. You know how the Fantastic Four have to remind us twice a year that they got their powers through cosmic rays, or Spider Man has to bring up "the bite" every third issue? Well, for about a year, in every single Marvel comic, a character would, not just on every issue, but on every page or so, remind you that the government wants superpowered people to register with S.H.I.E.L.D. because a bunch of people got blowed up real good.
In most Marvel comics, SHIELD (Stategic... uh, howitzer.. intervention.. elite... you know what, nevermind) is a cryptic worldwide superspy agency that used to be headed up by the eternally 50 year old hardass Nick Fury. Don't confuse it with that TV show "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." On TV, SHIELD is that group that accomplishes exactly one interesting thing per season and spends the rest of the time making gallows humor wisecracks. Unlike the Civil War comics, it's pretty okay!
In Civil War, SHIELD is a cross between hi-tech Nazis and the NSA. Those two are easy to confuse if you live in a world where Frank Miller wrote a few stories. The new Spiderman costume wasn't the only thing that straight-up changed without warning. In fact, all the characters in Marvel seem to have suddenly developed a bad case of not-being-themselves.
Look. Knowing and training and tracking a dude that can punch a hole in a battleship? That's a pretty straightforward and reasonable idea, even when done by our clusterfuck of a government - and in Civil War, the government is not only a bit clusterfucktastic, it's run by a President Bush that may or may not be a robot, who asks Deadpool for help because a dude from the future is attempting to talk to him.
Honestly, that's the most realistic part of the whole thing.
Over the years, the Marvel Universe has seen planets get eaten, galaxies and universes have died, and anything that can explode, has exploded. There's usually sort of a general "we evacuated just in time!" or "the Hulk miraculously didn't kill everyone in that tank when he threw it to the moon" post-destruction handwaving. It's likely a comics-code leftover, and took a dive in the Carnage and Apocalypse 90's, but it does make you feel better about things, for the most part.
However, that goes out the window in the first act, in order to provide PLOT! It's the most transparent 9/11 allegory since Cloverfield didn't show you the monster (the monster was you all along, okay?) - a terrorist (I mean supervillian) blows up a town and we instantly know exactly how many people died because it's all on TV. Reality TV, because this is 2006.
Ah, the oldest problem in government: Security vs. Safety. Fortunately, the Marvel Universe has Reed Richards and Tony Stark, ostensibly two of the smartest men on Earth, in places of political power that aren't occupied by intelligent people in the real world.
Yes, they decide to provide icing for a perfectly reasonable pie by shitting all over it. Why? I guess these mega-geniuses didn't know any better, even though everyone they knew was screaming "DON'T SHIT ON THE PIE." Pies don't even GET icing, goddamnit.
The shit on the pie? There's a lot. You're not going to salvage this pie. First off, supervillains get leniency if they sign a paper and agree to work for the government if they help hunt down superheroes who don't register. If you don't see how this could have disastrous consequences, think if your average criminal confidential informant could shoot lasers out of his ears or mind-control people.
Superheroes who've saved the multiverse on a daily basis can become a Gitmo victim, and just as easily, Mr. "I'm a literal Nazi who murders people with glue" Baron Zemo can get a sweet government gig hunting them down, with the assistance of "I make weird traps and fight Spiderman" Z-listers like Paste-Pot-Pete, who wisely changed his name to The Trapster because... no, wait, that's not any better, Pete. Look, I don't care what your equations tell you, if you're working with Nazis to hunt down Captain America, you done fucked up.
Let's talk more pie-crap topping. Failing to register is punished harder than murder. In a move that could only be a 9/11 allegory - keep in mind that 9/11 happened in the Marvel Universe - the superfolk entirely forgo trials, lawyers and Captain America's Constitution - even when She-Hulk and DareDevil are perfectly good lawyers. Instead you're just exiled forever to the Negative Zone super-prison, named Project 42, in the biggest slap to Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy fans since the 2005 movie came out and featured "queuing" as a scene.
You know what could have avoided the entire deadly Civil War conflict? A jury. Imagine Iron Man throwing Captain America in jail after a trial where a conflicted jury decides to reduce his sentence to six months and a ten thousand dollar fine. Tony Stark tells Spiderman "You can't just put these guys in jail" while he's touring a jail he built to put them in. You don't have to make the Negative Zone trip last forever!
How long did it take me to come up with that idea? Twenty six seconds. Why haven't I invented flying tank armor or faster-than-light travel? We could have had more "nobody does anything but talk" scenes that would have worked out better, and been more interesting than the punch-discussions these characters had.
When it comes to thinking up "better ideas than the central conflict of Marvel Civil War," I'm like Reed Richards in his Delicate Mind room, scrawling equations on the walls. Sealed trusts for costumed heroes. Make everyone employees of Stark Enterprises and Damage Control. Expand Avengers membership. X Men charter schools. Listen to the Black Panther.
If "I'm not listening to Captain America and the Black Panther" is something you're saying, then stop what you're doing. Honestly, I spent thirty seconds here, Reed Richards. Did you stretch your brain out so that the synapses don't connect anymore?
I would never claim that the writers at Marvel are going to be any good at legalism. They treat law and civics the same way they treat science. The "Super Hero Registration Act" is to law what "Radioactive Spider Bite Made me a Spider" is to biogenetics.
Do you wonder why every Marvel event plays out in New York? It's because Marvel is based in New York, and their writers aren't allowed out much. They can't handle buses because they stand there for ten minutes saying things like 'the card reader senses magnetic information imprinted on this plastic wafer, so by vibrating this coin at the specific frequency, I should be able to fool it into thinking that this bus is actually a giant robot, allowing me to..." before they're thrown into the streets and forced to wander back home. The Marvel writers live in the same city as Neil deGrasse Tyson in order to keep him occupied so he doesn't build a death ray.
Even The Thing wises up. He goes to do his superhero thing in France for a while, which is really weird. I don't know if these French superheroes are real, but I kind of want them to be.
The poor writers even rope the X-Men into the thing. The X-Men, who have been fighting various forms of mutant registration their entire life, suddenly develop a case of extreme, out-of-character apathy for everyone who's having to do that thing they always fought against.
Why? I have a theory. See, I don't know if you knew this, but ever since the 90s, nobody - not even the people who write X-Men comics, have had the slightest idea what the hell is going on with the X-Men. There's alternate universe brothers, robot clones, people from the future, aliens who are dead people who later turn out not to be dead, mind-wiped assassins, people brainwashed to believe that they're in alternate universes, more psychic possessions than a soap opera, and more resurrections than a Jesus convention. When Wolverine becomes the most relatable guy in your series, maybe you should dial it back a bit?
Through plotholes, wheedling, and needling, the X-Men kinda-sorta get involved, even though Cyclops is a massive tool.
Why? It involves people from the future or some alternate universe or something, I think? I read the books and I have no goddamn idea.
X-Man Wolverine (in his solo series) provides yet another metaphor for the whole Civil War. I honestly think some of the writers and artists were chaffing at being forced to write this claptrap, and kept providing clues. The only thing the characters do more than remind us of what is going on is remind us that "this is so stupid."
Wolverine goes on a killing spree to get to the bottom of the whole shebang, which is ironic since "the whole shebang" is broadcast live on National TV a few times. Since Wolverine is "...the best there is at what I do..." and what he does is "stabbing people," you'd think the writers would have tasked him with escaping a Negative Zone prison, or fighting off an alien invasion, or hunting down supervillians while the rest of Marvel is fighting itself.
But no, Wolverine is instead tasked with "making sense of all this." Yes, in a comic 'event' where there's a whole series devoted to journalists covering the news, Sir Stabsalot Fistknives is charged with getting to the bottom of something that's not a bottle, a chest cavity, or a throat. And, like the bewildered reader, he goes on a rampage, tearing through page after page of entirely extraneous nonsense - robots, conspiracies, Atlantis, shapeshifters, only to find out that a business is egging this all on because they stand to make money selling the government superhero-damage control.
In a better world, he could have picked up a newspaper. But in this world, the newspaper is entirely useless. Why? Let's go to that aforementioned series about journalists. This is a pointless excuse wrapped in a pointless exercise. Civil War is the only attempt to tie a war to a 9/11 that's more blatant than the war in Iraq. "Embedded," the 900 (or maybe it was just 11) part series embedded in the Civil War: Frontline comics is a "what it says on the tin" excuse to draw some parallels to modern journalism and war reporting. But yet all we get are reporters being grim and cynical and uncovering mind-blowing stuff they fail to report. It's significantly less exciting than finding out about J. Jonah Jameson's hair stylist. The intrepid reporters could expose the machinations of Tony Stark, and even give him a mic-drop style dressing down in his "totally not supposed to be Ayn Rand's book cover" penthouse office, then heroically... don't report it.
They even go out of their way to shit-talk Captain America for not having a MySpace account, not watching baseball (which is funny, because Captain America totally watches baseball) not watching American Idol, or going to NASCAR races. In other words, he's not their America. I don't know what the hell that's supposed to accomplish, other than making me proud of J. Jonah Jameson for firing these inconsistent, wildly ignorant reporters.
Embedded is a good look at two of the biggest sins in Civil War, other than the out-of-character actions and general stupidity of the plots.
One: It's needlessly grimdark and cynical, in that comic book edgelord way - rather than taking a single pull-back of the camera and revealing the crushing nihilism of the might-makes-right comic book world, it piles on things like gore, deaths, dripping voice balloons, and all the grit and angst you'd find in a high school D&D game, without the consequences. A great illustration? They turned Speedball, the happy-go-lucky speedster teen, into Penance, who wears spiked armor that hurts himself when he moves. That's not a joke or an overstatement. NONE OF THIS IS AN OVERSTATEMENT. If anything, I'm understating the sheer ridiculoucity of this shitfest.
Secondly, the comics go way out of their way to show you that Tony Stark and Reed Richards are right and Captain America and Black Panther are wrong, because that's the only way you can make them appear sympathetic. Mr. Fantastic proves he's right, mathematically. The reporters who do the Tony Stark mic-drop? They don't tell America because they know he's right, like ethics and justice and morality were all equations that the right engineer would balance out. It's like something a TEDx presenter would spout off before assigning everyone breeding licenses based on a single viewing of Idiocracy.
Now, I'm sure you're thinking "there's no way it could be this pompous and overwrought. It's not like they took touching poems and stories of warfare, spanning everything from Caesar's crossing of the Rubicon, to the American Civil War, both World Wars, and Vietnam, just to make some point about superhero war super-sucking?
Of course they did. Each issue of Frontline ended with three page specials where the first half of the page was some conflict in which hundreds of thousands (or millions) of people died, and the second half was superheroes punching shit. This would be overlaid with some heart-wrenching poem or song or historical ballad, because at this point, the Civil War writers were like drug pushers, trying harder and harder each time to make you feel - feel anything - in the cold and dead world they'd weaved around you.
Civil War is the kind of story that a half-aware writer would write an out for - the obvious ones being "Professor X shows up and pulls the whammy" or "Doctor Strange magics the shit out of this thing," but Professor X is too busy enjoying his new magic legs, and Doctor Strange pulls the Sorcerer Supreme equivalent of saying "sending thoughts and prayers!"
I'm having trouble finishing this off, much like the writers had trouble finishing this storyline. Part of me wants to just throw my hands into the air like Captain America after being punched too many times by Iron Man (causing him to change his mind) and part of me wants to go into a grinding war of attrition to finish belittling every last detail of this story - the uneven art, the clear disdain the writers had, the muddled stories, the conflicting information, the confusing sequence of books, the repetition (repetition repetition repetition).
Comic books can be about serious matters without being fake serious. Serious comics can be over the top. Look at Preacher, before Seth Rogan burns it to the fucking ground. Comic books can be silly AND SERIOUS works of pop art, like The Invisibles. Comic books can be Zen perfection like Maus.
Hell, just look at the simple lines and overblown stories of Strange Tales, in the Marvel milieu of the 60s, with their thick inks and single-color backgrounds - they did a lot, even while not doing much at all, because they weren't trying to be groundbreaking BIG IDEA books - they weren't trying to be cool (and believe me, The Invisibles seems like it's trying to be cool at every step, but it's just an Illuminatus! level illusion) they just went out and told big dumb stories from cover to cover - but page to page, they were filled with life.
Civil War does the opposite of the old Kirby/Lee/Ditko bombast. Those old books spent ten lines on a man you could know. Civil War books spend a hundred lines on abs and biceps to draw something you can't place. An old Fantastic Four would spend a page of dialogue that brought you up to date and into a world that, as broadbrush and obvious at it was - could be figured out on that one page. Civil War spends thousands of lines of dialogue trying to drag you one screaming inch into their world. They can't, because they want this Marvel world to be our world, and I'm not getting dragged out of this world just to be put right back in it.