By Charles Soule, Leinil Francis Yu, Sunny Gho, and Gerry Alanguilan
In May of 1984, Marvel Comics would redefine the world of comics by essentially creating the event comic with Secret Wars. Unlike DC comics’ mini-series Super Powers, a tie-in comic to the Kenner toy line that helped inspire it, Secret Wars was the first instance of a major event storyline that crossed over into prominent books. The impact was massive, redefining how comics work and helping to spawn Crisis on Infinite Earths just a year later. As the ‘80s dwindled into the ‘90s event comics became more common and more bloated, leading to forgotten blunders like Bloodlines or well-intentioned misfires like The Death of Superman. However, Marvel would reinvigorate the fading genre yet again in 2005 with the out of nowhere smash series Civil War by Mark Millar.
Civil War was one of the first attempts to take a, by now, well-worn mechanics of an event series and inject them with a greater degree of intelligence and thought-provoking ideas. What’s more, Civil War did a lot to promote an event with lasting impact that wasn’t simply a universe reboot, enacting changes and shifts that determined the course of the Marvel Universe for up to the turn of the decade. With all that history and weight at hand it ends up truly disappointing that Secret Wars: Civil War is one of the most empty and disappointing tie-in miniseries Marvel’s latest event comic has produced.
Like many of the continuity based Battleworld spin-off comics Civil War takes place in something of a “what if” scenario, exploring what might’ve been if the superhero civil war between Captain America and Iron Man continued to rage for years and years. The answer is a scenario that comes off less as a meaningful and engaging extrapolation of events or even a clever continuation of ideological schisms and more of a tragically transparent attempt to imitate Jonathan Hickman’s East of West. Sometime in the unspecified future the US has become split into 2 nations, The Iron, a state that sacrifices personal liberty and privacy in the name of security in the eastern states, and The Blue, a land devoid of central government save for basic law enforcement agencies in the western states.
From the outset Civil War is a comic that seems to want to inspire deep political thought like it’s progenitor. The problem is that by over-inflating the core ideological concepts of the central conflict, Civil War has only served to obfuscate and undercut any deeper point it might’ve made. Cap’s nation is a cartoonish strike at the idea of liberty over security, somehow translating that more moderate and sensible concept into a kind of living political cartoon on libertarianism. Meanwhile Stark’s world is the exact opposite, a totalitarian regime where personal liberty or privacy fear to tread. With both sides forced into such an extreme the audience isn’t left with any kind of moral or philosophical question to ponder because both sides are horrible. It’s possible that’s the ultimate point of Civil War, that it’s ludicrous to demand safety or liberty and that the answer lies in the middle ground. Even if that is the case it doesn’t fix how incredibly ugly and unlikable Civil War has made its characters.
Both Captain America and Iron Man are arrogant, brutish, alienating jerks in this comic. Iron Man is a preening, born to rule, upper class narcissist while Captain America is a jingoistic, macho, windbag who’s completely unwilling to compromise. This gets to the real heart of why Civil War is so bad, nothing about the plot actually makes sense. These characters aren’t actually Captain America and Iron Man, they’re warped caricatures that have been twisted to help force the narrative into existence despite how much their actions run counter to their actual personalities. This extends to the broader universe as well, like Captain America’s nation somehow lacking food even though it seems to include all of California and America’s breadbasket. This makes no logical sense, it’s just another contrivance to force conflict because the central situation has been so incredibly blown out of proportion its lost any semblance of rational credibility and needs illogical conclusions to exist. It’s incredibly frustrating with how much Civil War wants to be thought-provoking and intelligent, constantly inviting the audience to consider its deeper issues when, in reality, the book’s premise and situation is so flimsy it all collapses under the mildest scrutiny. This is what makes the difference between a comic that’s harsh but honest like Bloodshot Reborn or The Black Hood and a comic that’s simply cynical and mean spirited.
The artwork is a mixed bag, Lenil Francis Yu does good work on action poses and vistas, but a lot of the character redesigns are lackluster in the extreme. The best work of the whole issue comes from colorist Sunny Gho and inker Gerry Alanguilan. Together the pair masterfully work in dynamic lighting and unique color palettes, doing some really strong work on crowd shots and landscapes. For the most part though the artwork never struggles above serviceable and there’s a lot of trouble with character faces looking rubbery and strangely inhuman.
The worst thing about Civil War is how much it insults you as a reader. So much of the comic is made of hand waving and contrivance born of the assumption that no one will question it so the comic can get away with it. It lacks the strength of conviction or affecting ideological issues of the original and is completely devoid of the imagination and charm that has elevated other Secret Wars tie-ins. It’s just a mean little comic hoping you’ll be so dazzled by its ham-fisted and simplistic approach to political discourse you won’t realize it doesn’t make any sense.