A superhero house divided

Over the holiday weekend, I had the privilege of traveling to Missouri, there to visit with Mark and family. While packing up for the trip, I found myself faced with that most difficult of questions: what to bring along as reading material for the plane flight? None of the usual suspects appealed, so I decided on a change of pace: comic books. I stopped by the local comic store and picked up a number of recent comics–the first several issues of Marvel’s Civil War and several related comics.

Civil War is a seven-issue story (only the first three have been published thus far, I believe) that has gotten a fair amount of hype even in the mainstream press this summer. (You can hear a bit about it, and read the first several pages of the first issue, in this NPR story).

Here’s a quick rundown of the Civil War plot: while filming a superhero reality-TV show, a reckless band of superheroes goes after a group of supervillains that are hiding out in a residential area. Their desire for TV ratings trumps common sense–the heroes are in over their heads, and in the ensuing confrontation with the villain Nitro they are all killed… along with a few hundred innocent people in the neighborhood and a nearby elementary school.

The incident creates a massive public backlash, as people demand some form of accountability for superheroes. More than a few famous superheroes agree that something needs to be done to keep “the kids, the amateurs, and the sociopaths” (as Iron Man puts it) from wreaking havoc. Before long the Superhuman Registration Act is before Congress. The Act would require superheroes to register with the government. Once registered, superheroes would be free to keep doing their work, but they’d be on the government payroll and subject to government oversight.

Iron Man and Captain America aren't getting along too well these days

The “should superheroes be regulated by the government” issue is not a new one, and has cropped up in many comics and movies. But Marvel’s Civil War makes the issue more compelling than many previous efforts by placing popular superheroes on both sides of the debate. While a narrative bias against the Registration Act does shine through (the idea of such a thing flies in the face of an awful lot of genre tradition), the writers are careful not to portray either side as evil; each is motivated by a sincere desire to Do the Right Thing. The result is a fun fictional event that is certainly inspired by contemporary politics, but which is not (thus far, at least) being used as a soapbox for the writers’ political views.

That’s certainly refreshing to read these days. And Civil War is made more interesting by the fact that certain famous superheroes have wound up on unexpected sides of the debate: for instance, uber-patriotic Captain America is leading the resistance against the Act, while Spider-Man has stepped forward in support of it. There’s a certain excitement in finding out where Your Favorite Superhero falls on the political spectrum.

If the Civil War story falls short, it’s mostly because seven issues isn’t really enough to tell such an epic story without skipping over a lot of interesting details along the way. With a cast of dozens of well-known superheroes, each with years or decades of backstory and personality, a seven-issue story just doesn’t have room to explore these heroes’ choices in more than a superficial manner. Marvel is dealing with this by issuing a large number of Civil War spin-off comics that focus on specific superheroes’ reactions to the Registration Act, but personally I’d prefer to see the core story arc expanded to fit more of this info into the main plotline. But lacking that, the spin-off comics should fill the gap reasonably well.

And of course, this stuff ain’t exactly Shakespeare. For most readers, that’s a feature and not a bug; but before sitting down to Civil War you’ll need to prepare to have your reading periodically interrupted by full-page ads for Pokemon toys. You’ve been warned.

All in all, it’s good stuff. And let’s be honest: if you suspect that all this political plotline stuff is essentially one big excuse to stage an epic battle where Iron Man, Captain America, Spider-Man, and the Thing beat the living crap out of each other… you’re probably right. May the best mutant win.

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