I’ve written before about my tentative steps into the world of comics after years of interest that was always stifled by intimidation. As I’ve explored superhero comics, I’ve so far stuck with new titles that stand alone, like Hawkeye and Ms Marvel. But with the growth of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I’ve come to love Captain America and Black Widow and several other characters from the movies. And I’m curious about other characters and potential storylines. I might enjoy some of the classic books, but then I’m back to the whole question of where to start. When a friend mentioned that a civil war storyline exists that would be a great potential storyline for the third Avengers movie, my interest was piqued. It turns out my library had a copy of the omnibus that collects all seven issues from the 2006–2007 story arc by Mark Millar with art by Steve McNiven. (This edition does not include any of the other related titles that connected to the main series, such as the Spider-Man and Fantastic Four Civil War arcs.)
The story begins with the New Warriors a group of young superheros with their own reality TV show coming across a supervillian hideout. Even though the Warriors know these guys are out of their league, they choose to go after them, hoping for a ratings boost. The ensuing fight concludes with an explosion near a school that kills hundreds. Outraged, U.S. citizens ask the government to take action against costumed vigilantes, and the Superhero Registration Act is born. All superheros must register, and those wishing to fight crime need to be trained and licensed.
This is, of course, a controversial measure that ultimately pits superheroes against each other. The pro-registration group, led by Tony Stark/Iron Man, is given the task of hunting down those in the anti-registration group, led by Steve Rogers/Captain America. As the story goes on, characters shift their allegiances, massive battles are fought, and ultimately one side does face defeat. The war doesn’t just cause rifts between colleagues and friends; it splits up families. And not every hero survives.
I’m sure that fans of Marvel Comics got a kick of the massive panels showing dozens of characters preparing to face off. As a relative outsider, I didn’t know a lot of the characters, but this did work as a quick introduction to lots of characters I didn’t know at all, like Hank Pym and Sue Storm. And I got a kick out of seeing Kate Bishop/Hawkeye turn up, although Clint Barton/Hawkeye was not part of the war because he was, I think, dead at the time. Plus, the central characters, Cap and Tony, are well-known from their own movie franchises.
One impressive aspect of the comic is that it avoids making either side the villains. Both have valid points to make. Cap is on the side of freedom, and Tony on the side of safety. Yet Cap believes in safety and Tony in freedom. You could make lots of parallels to recent political debates, like those surrounding gun control or the Patriot Act, but none are a perfect parallel. This is fantasy, after all. The storytelling seems to tip slightly to Cap’s side, but his choices aren’t above criticism.
Some of the characters choose their sides not out of ideology but out of loyalty. And some shift their allegiances because they object to certain tactics. The whole thing becomes a huge mess, as war does. And the ending, while startling and unsettling, is excellent.
Personally, I’m not sure that Cap’s position was articulated as well as it could have been. My gut was on his side, but my head says that vigilantism is not a good thing. And one thing that didn’t come up was the difference between people who have actual powers, often powers that they didn’t choose to have, and people who are just highly skilled. Spider-Man and Kate Bishop seem like different categories of hero to me, but the series puts them all in one box. Mutants are another thing altogether, and at this point in the Marvel storyline, they’re all monitored, and they remain neutral in the war. I’m not sure how Spidey and the Fantastic Four are, practically speaking, all that different from mutants, even if the means of acquiring powers are different.
The hardcover omnibus includes scripts and commentary from the Millar and others involved in the series. I enjoyed learning a bit about how this storyline bled into others, and I was interested to read about some of the struggles the team had in coming up with an ending and Millar’s own opinions about who was in the right. There’s also a highly entertaining edition of the Daily Bugle.
This book was fun to read, but I doubt it’ll lead me on a deep dive into the Marvel archives. I’m mildly curious about the X-Men arc that led up to this and the Captain America storyline that came after, but Google will answer a lot of my questions. Still, I’m figuring out that reading comics is not that different from reading any other kind of book. You get recommendations of books both new and old, see if you can find copies, and read. With comics, the books may be part of an even bigger series, but you don’t have to read them all to enjoy them.