I am exactly the same age as this, the Marvel age of comics. That doesn’t bother me, except that we’re both so old. Below you’ll find the wrap-up I did of Marvel’s Civil War super-crossover event of 2006-07. You may wonder why you should still read about the event at this late date. I think Civil War is a pivot in the development of the superhero genre: understand the nature of Civil War and you understand where superhero comics are heading, Maybe I didn’t get that right, but I sure gave it a try. Sharp readers may also guess that the piece is a bit of a self-portrait, and they’ll be right.
For one thing, Marvel stayed true to its story. Fans had made their usual bitter predictions: mind control, Loki, a non-outcome outcome. But Iron Man won; Marvel picked a side. In the great muddle of superhero continuity, it’s nice to see a decision come down hard and firm. This particular decision is huge (maybe not permanent, but huge). Marvel is rewriting the superhero genre for late middle age. We’re all a lot older now, and Marvel’s conscious or unconscious program seems to be to resolve and incorporate a backlog of decisions the genre has kept hanging since the old grim-and-gritty days.
At least Civil War is done. Big crossover series tend to be a pummeling, and War was the biggest yet. Reading it carefully made the beating worse. We had to believe in the whipped-up, bogus issue of civilian casualties, when for decades now civilian deaths have been a storytelling convenience — brought on for occasional shock effect, otherwise kept in the wings. Civil War brings on the business one more time and at least tries to be serious about it. Unfortunately, that means heavy echoes of 9-11 and a lot of scenes showing the heroes locked at full emotionalizing peak. The weight of a crisis in history bears down upon them, a very goofy crisis.
Civil War is supposed to be about civil liberties in the time of 9-11. The big problem with this, aside from taste, is that superheroes are not citizens. For safety, citizens depend on their civil rights as recognized by their government. Superheroes do not. No superbeing can be threatened or reined in except by another superbeing. That’s the lesson Civil War teaches when it sets Iron Man and his team against Captain America and his team. When Tony Stark needs reinforcements, he calls in supervillains and super-clones; other forces don’t count. Yet every time the superheroes give voice to their situation, we’re told they’re like any minority that’s getting pushed around so the majority can feel safe. The whole business is a blur, cockeyed. It’s offensive if you want it to be, but otherwise just profoundly off. Sometimes superheroes shouldn’t get to be us. It flattens things that ought to be standing up — the scale is thrown off, because a man and a superhero really aren’t the same measure. The idea of the embattled individual turns into a gimmick, and that’s how the writers use it here. They took a real-life, serious issue and stuck it on their heap of story because then the heap could be serious too. Of course Marvel has its own way of being serious. Check out the back-up items in Civil War: Front Line, the old-time poems set to super-guy battle scenes. They’re like a suite of greeting cards celebrating the basically random nature of the universe.
Looking for political allegory in Civil War is embarrassing. There it is, poking out all over like the band of somebody’s underwear. (“Captain America Assassinated!” Yes, we all feel pretty bad about the Bush years.) Viewed charitably, the “political” stuff is dreamwork. The subconscious of the superhero genre has some mighty work to do, so the whole Marvel line sleepwalks through the kind of epic bad night that sometimes goes with personality redirection. The 9-11 business lowers like a sky of thunderclouds, incoherent, a signifier of the grave and momentous. Meanwhile, images swarm together, march through the head; even if they don’t make sense, they’re there for a reason. The next day the sleeper wakes up with various heavy objects having shifted in the back of his brain. Possibly the world makes a bit more sense, though the chance of another breakdown is never far off. The superhero genre is by nature high-strung, easily distracted, easily obsessed, given to hiding within repetitive activity and minutely detailed private notions. It comes out with one spurt of fresh, productive energy, then falls back into hyperactive thumb twiddling. The behavior makes you wonder about hopeless medical conditions — Asperger’s? At the very least, the genre has daffy bedrock assumptions, beliefs that make a full adult life impossible. It believes a person’s existence takes the form of doing the same thing forever, over and over, and never dying. And it believes that existence isn’t worth thinking about unless you have a ground rule that guarantees your individual superiority.
Like any bright neurotic, the genre can sense its limitations and imagine what it’s missing; it plays with ideas from over the wall and camouflages the blunt stupidity of its worldview. But the rules stay the same, and they’re a tight fit. Tensions build up, sometimes with very interesting results, often with no results except busywork — our decades of fussing over plausibility still haven’t produced too much. The genre is sort of a nut. It keeps clearing all the furniture out of the living room because it wants to get at wrinkles in the carpet. And the problem is that the floorboards are warped, but for whatever reason the genre just can’t move out.
Now, possibly, somehow, the groping is getting things done. The poor nut is rolling up old socks and placing them here and there in the warp. Napkins, newspapers — a lot of items, repurposed and placed according to a system the nut never quite works out. The lumps in the carpet have sunk down a bit, repositioned. At least the nut has started tackling fundamentals. He wants those wrinkles out of the carpet, he wants … He wants to know who he is. The poor nut has passed a lot of decades now, enough to see how lives can take shape and how they finish up. He has business to do. He’s up from last night’s troubled dream and the horizons of everyday life now seem longer to him. He can look further ahead, see himself in the perspective of all that he has learned over the past few decades, the knowledge he has played with but also tried to keep out. He doesn’t realize how confused he still is, but he is taking longer strides in life, doing things he had not imagined possible. Maybe a new and better era has begun in his muddled existence.
That’s enough metaphor. To be clear, the average age of comic book readers has gone up. Teenagers and college kids still count for a lot, but back in the 1970s they were the top end of the range. In the 1980s the top end moved a long way into adulthood; now it’s lodged up where thoughts of death begin and one comes to terms with a lifetime spent in offices. Long ago, Frank Miller and Alan Moore redid genre rules to let in the sort of realizations that come with adulthood: that everyone gets old, that everyone has to go to the bathroom, that the clutter in the newspapers — governments, insurance companies — somehow actually matters. And for decades now, writers have been building on the Miller-Moore precedent by placing superheroes in something like a real-world setting, a world that has pretty much the feel of the one we bump up against as adults. In Civil War, the pseudo-adult world stops being an add-on and becomes the subject, or co-subject. A structure for coexistence is laid down, a formal stab at addressing how superheroes fit in the world as known by adults. As it turns out, the result has a lot to do with some sad truths: People have bosses, everything turns into routine, shaping your life isn’t entirely your business. Notice how the pro-registration heroes keep mentioning health benefits.
The readers still need to dream about superheroes, because otherwise they’d read about something else, but it’s become a much smaller dream than it used to be. The horizon has filled up with superheroes; they keep on coming and they all hang around forever. Their value per unit went down, then way down. More heroes are needed to float a title; crowds of them drift from series to series. The result is more like the world we know from growing up and living our lives. Most of us discover we’re not really the tent pole of existence. We’re part of a crowd, and learning about it is necessary to getting through life. Heroes started as dreams of individual glory, a child’s dream where each was alone in the universe; when hero met hero, it was an exception. These days we have the “superhuman community.” The heroes are social beings and understood in relation to each other, as part of the ecology of “A-list” and “B-list” and so on. Without that, without the gossip and career management, the whole business would be very pale.
At a certain point it became hard to tell who was in a supergroup and who wasn’t. Maybe the balance tipped when Spider-Man joined the Avengers. The key fact about him now is the kind of Avenger he’s become — the kind that goes underground and fights the Initiative. Somehow he’s also appearing in his own titles, but Marvel’s biggest property has been jammed into a high-profile communal activity (Peter is on the run with Luke Cage and Wolverine, from Tony Stark and Ms. Marvel), one that seems bound to take over his storyline. Guerrilla warfare and being on the run are pretty much full-time activities; as a counterweight, his solo books just have Aunt May getting shot again. [Note: Wrong! Spider-Man’s underground status has not amounted to much. His secret identity is back in place and his solo adventures are moving forward without much regard to New Avengers continuity. In fact Joe Quesada revealed a little while back that Marvel never meant for his unmasking to last. Not that I think this invalidates my argument. Spider-Man is Marvel’s top character and gets special treatment.]
As the product blends into itself more — as the heroes mix freely from title to title — what remains is the story all the heroes are engaged in telling. This overarching, overall story, of course, is managed by central authority. It’s the next phase of continuity, and continuity is something editors look after. Civil War and The Initiative are exercises in launching and maintaining a company-wide story arc that continues from phase to phase. Readers are older and have more money, so selling fleets of interlinked product makes sense. The readers also have longer memories, and years of habit have made them fussier about seeing their memories respected. It’s not just that interconnected stories make sense to them; they like watching over continuity and seeing how it meshes. They have also, I would argue, lived the lives that they have lived, and these lives resemble the superhero crowd scene more than it does the superhero as lone miracle. And, as noted above, the heroes keep piling up. A lot of all this comes down to the passage of time.
The crossover event is now standard, the accepted way of advancing continuity across one title after another. In the same way, the outcome of Civil War changes superhero institutions from a novelty (the Office of National Emergency) to the genre’s baseline, its norm. Being a superhero now means signing up with somebody or going on the run. Either way, every superhero’s life is defined by his or her standing with the institution. Superman was the super-individual. Now we have the super-crowd lined up under the government’s super-program — the Initiative, a memo sort of word that blends right in with the genre’s present state. (Consider that the next phase of Tony Stark’s story is defined by his job title.) The power fantasy we see here is different from the old superhero dream. It’s more like the appeal George Orwell described in 1930s cop fiction, where the point was that the hero’s organizational backing allowed him to beat any individual. The Initiative’s dream is all about the endless ganging together of resources, the pomp of military fly-bys (as on the waggish cover for Civil War: Battle Damage Report). A v-shaped mass of heroes backs up Iron Man on Stefano Caselli’s cover for Avengers: The Initiative. By himself Iron Man is a mid-seller; here’s he’s a spearhead, and flanking him is Ms. Marvel, who sells less, and the Black Widow, who just did stooge work in a Black Panther arc. It gets thin after that: North Star, Red Wolf. There’s no space among the heroes, and most of them don’t matter too much on their own. We’re looking at the Marvel back catalogue en masse, and it’s the mass part that’s important. It’s like someone took a bunch of action figures and pretended they were a 1930s theater poster about the proletariat.
The horizon has become too crowded with fabulous people for everyone to be fabulous. At the same time we find adult life too interesting (not fun, but interesting, because it’s the life we have). What we know has infiltrated what we imagine. Now a grand adjustment is going on, new balances are getting worked out. The process is really more of a spasm, but what can you do? At least the results look interesting. If you’re optimistic, you can see the genre evolving its way toward superhero variations of I, Claudius and Kurosawa, multicharacter sagas about titanically doomed personalities, intrigue, the embattled state, clan warfare. But with office banter. Then again, most of those sagas would still be a mess. And there’s paying for them; the bigger the stories get, the more of a commercial load they have to carry, and the industry usually hits that kind of limit sooner instead of later.
It’s all pretty shaky. Civil War itself shows what a near-run thing big attempts at title synchronization always turn out to be. The arcs and special issues were lashed together by a couple of storytelling directives, steel wires holding back the cinderblocks. First in importance was the ass kissing delivered to Captain America, a leitmotif that continued from title to title. Next was the firming up of the idea of Tony Stark as a man whose foresight had turned against him, someone being yanked into disaster by his chief strength. Those two elements give you enough for a tragedy, so the basic work of guiding the series to a climax did get done. But the wastage was immense. A friend tells me J. Michael Straczynski has a clause guaranteeing he doesn’t get rewritten. I don’t know if it’s true, but that would explain so much about the Fantastic Four arc. The best parts of it — Ben and France, of course — had nothing to do with anything, which was a relief. Because the worst parts of it — Sue and Reed, the uncle with the colored socks — made something especially dreadful out of the Civil War policy of downgrading Reed Richards, a property I happen to like. Maybe editorial decided that Reed had to shrink a bit so attention could focus on Iron Man. At any rate, it was painful seeing how he got kicked around. (Told off by Speedball!) The nastiness aside, his writers didn’t even think out why Reed was backing registration. The friend mentioned above counts three different explanations, and the worst is not the one about the uncle and the colored socks.
There you have the situation the centralizers find themselves in. They can decide to downgrade a hero of long standing like Reed because Reed’s value rests only in one title. Face it, he’s not much good for guest appearances or solo titles like Johnny and Ben. He’s interesting only as leader of the Fantastic Four, the dad of their particular family. Old arrangements need continual freshening up, so Reed keeps getting taken out of his own comic so the other team members can be matched with new faces. His role becomes intermittent and he declines into an afterthought. He used to be a figure you could build a team around. But, through the creators’ absentmindedness, his old personality got so runny he’s now a blob, a stereotype of the wimpy professor. As such he’s ready to be manhandled to meet cross-title storytelling demands.
Editorial can do that to a character, but then the committee needs help getting out of the mess that results. Character management comes down to very small things, details that a person would think of but a group wouldn’t. The right cliché in the right place somehow makes a difference; for example, giving Reed a favorite old fishing hat. Dwayne McDuffie, the group’s new writer, also provides a scene where Johnny tells Reed off but then falls in step when Reed says they’re doing an errand. The point isn’t even that the scene’s good, though I like it. The point is more its size. I’m guessing committees come up with decisions more on the scale of Reed throwing himself in the way of an energy bolt (or whatever) aimed at his wife. You need small decisions by someone like McDuffie to cushion big decisions like that.
If editorial thinks a writer can deliver, and deliver on several titles a month, the writer can amass a good deal of clout. Which is why JMS could hijack the Fantastic Four in such odd ways. It’s like the battles fought with freelance armies in Europe a few centuries back. A general could just go AWOL with all his forces; one reliable, effective war leader made all the difference. Could Marvel hold together its cross-title regime without Brian Michael Bendis? If the great lurching transition known as Civil War managed to get anywhere, it was because Bendis made something particular out of the story points set up for Iron Man and Captain America. His wrap-up to the series, a one-shot called The Confession, makes you feel like you’ve read a tragedy instead of a half-assembled mass of subplots and story points. Among other things, Bendis gives Captain America my favorite new superhero line, and he does it by means of fancy writer tricks involving story sequence. Superhero comics can do that kind of thing nowadays, but the old gimmicks are still there. In The Confession it turns out the motive for Tony Stark’s crusade was a vision he had long ago of the heroes all fighting each other. And of course he helped cause the battle by trying, in his own controlling, overbearing fashion, to prevent it — fine. But nobody ever told us about this vision before. And where did it come from? Maybe it was the effect of a time ripple (the Scarlet Witch, I don’t know) that accidentally showed him what lay ahead. That seems halfway legitimate. It’s a big coincidence, but it’s still a device for triggering his personality, not for imposing a story. On the other hand, maybe the vision was mind-control, the Puppet Master. We can only hope.
It seems like superhero stories just can’t get away from this sort of thing, from plot gimmes and double-jointed continuity fixes. The daffiness is built into the genre. I know it from my own experience, because I don’t want Captain America to die. Bringing him back would pretty much make nonsense of The Confession, one of the superhero comics I’ve enjoyed the most since I was a kid. But I’m willing to make the sacrifice. I had my thrill of drama, and I don’t mind seeing it turn a bit stupid as long as I get my character again. You could I say I want to have my cake and eat it too. Such is the attitude of the modern-day superhero genre. Pulling it off keeps getting harder, but the genre won’t give up. The poor imbecile knows that adulthood is fine, but only within limits