pulp (2006-39)

Civil Lore

Competing comics’ publishers recast their super-heroes

by Paul Lewis

Several weeks ago, we took a look at DC Comics’ publishing initiative, One Year Later , an attempt to jumpstart the company’s entire line of comic books following their massive Infinite Crisis event. It just so happens that its chief rival for market share, Marvel Comics, has chosen this time to launch its own world-rebuilding project. Titled CIVIL WAR, this seven-issue series seeks to place the Marvel super-heroes into a real-world paradigm.

C-list teen super-heroes The New Warriors are stars of their own reality television series.  When they stumble upon a hideout of super-villains, the resulting melee destroys a good portion of Stamford, Conn., and kills hundreds of people. Because this inciting event was captured by television cameras, it fuels a public outrage against all super-powered beings.

The government’s solution is to force any persons using superhuman abilities either to register their secret identities and be regulated or be hunted down and imprisoned. Some heroes see this as a natural evolution of their role in society, while others feel that it is an invasion of civil liberties that cannot be tolerated. After much debate among themselves, ultimatums are issued and fisticuffs eventually ensue, because these are still super-hero comic books we’re talking about. The two camps are led by former friends and Avengers Iron Man and Captain America, and they had already beaten each other bloody by the recent fourth issue of the series.

Huge, line-wide crossovers are par for the course in super-hero comics and have provided big, dramatic events with which to juice a series of titles and drive up sales for years.  Sadly, a good number of those events result in empty hype and little real substance in the books.

CIVIL WAR seems to be avoiding that trend by clearly extrapolating current hot-button issues in American society and, at this point at least, creating lasting changes in some of its characters. The big dramatic moment in CIVIL WAR thus far has had everyman hero Spider-Man choose the side of government registration and unmask himself as Peter Parker at a press conference. 

Marvel Comics has lessened its editorial concern about the standby “secret identities” of many of its characters over the past few years, but Spidey was a stalwart in that regard, and to honestly change his status beyond an easily retracted cosmetic fix clearly illustrates that Marvel Comics is determined to throw out a lot of preconceived notions about the nuts and bolts of what makes super-hero storytelling work.

Though a series of this magnitude has many chefs, the actual writer of the book is Mark Millar, a Scotsman with a talent for big hooks. He also knows how to lace his books with humor, then gravitas, and his style works perfectly for the epic feel needed in this story. Penciler Steve McNiven is producing the best work of his career and is a genius with facial expressions. If I have a nit to pick, his work can seem static, not showcasing the possibilities of movement within a frame, but that is a slight criticism indeed. Inker Dexter Vines complements McNiven’s clean lines with a strong, sure definition. The result is that most of the characters, though dynamically idealized, still look human. 

Comic books frequently substitute other artists on titles when deadlines are blown, but Marvel chose to stick with McNiven, despite an outcry from retailers whose bread and butter are high-profile super-hero books, when it became apparent that he wouldn’t have the fourth issue ready on time. Mindful that most readers would likely read the story in a collection rather than in the monthly “pamphlets,” Marvel chose to delay much of its line for a month to keep a uniform artistic style and to allow the story to flow as intended. Considering how good McNiven has been, it was a wise choice for the story (though miffed retailers may be another matter).

Frequently these mini-series are simply an excuse to goad fans into buying the books of the characters involved in the story, but Marvel is keeping a clean through-line in the mini-series (though it’s also a good idea to read the 10-issue series FRONT LINE, which details some of the smaller CIVIL WAR stories through the focal point of a couple of journalists covering the story). 

Of course, if you want to see Spider-Man wrestling over his decision with his wife and his beloved Aunt May, or if you want to see which member of the Fantastic Four becomes disgusted with the infighting and up and leaves the country, then you’ll have to buy the books. Happily, Marvel Comics has mostly solid creative teams on most of its titles at present, so it’s well situated to take advantage of the increased attention coming its way with CIVIL WAR.