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How Civil War could have worked

by  in Comic News Comment
How <i>Civil War</i> could have worked

Of course, some people think it worked just fine!

Anyway, I still haven’t read Civil War beyond brief glimpses of it at the comic book shoppe (I did read the final issue completely, but none of the others), but I think I know how it could have been good.  Other, smarter bloggers than I have reviewed the whole thing and some have even put forward proposals on how it could have worked, but I haven’t seen my proposal mentioned, so if it has been, please let me know.  I’m sure you will!

I thought of this a while ago, but was actually reminded of it after thinking about Operation: Zero Tolerance when I was reading Cable #40.  Operation: Zero Tolerance was kind of a complete mess, but it started well and could have been saved if the people running Marvel back then hadn’t completely cocked it up.  But it gives us an interesting template on how something like this might be able to work.

Okay, Civil War.  A mess of a crossover, for any number of reasons.  One: lateness.  McNiven’s unbelievably detailed art takes forever, and the shipping schedule of the seven issues meant that all the tie-in issues were screwed up as well.  Civil War sold by the boatloads, of course, so in the end it did well for Marvel, but I wonder how much ill will they created among retailers and among comics fans themselves who were not only waiting for the main story, but all the ancillary books too.  The titles got a Civil War bump, to use the parlance, but I wonder if the fans will stick around because they’re grumpy with the way Marvel strung them along.  Marvel, elated by its success, has two big events coming up in 2007 alone, with the Hulk War and some Mutant Mess later on.  I imagine that they will run those crossovers the same way they did Civil War, and I wonder how long it will take for diminishing returns to kick it.  They ought to run the events my way!

So, what is my way?  Who the hell am I, to think I could run a crossover better than the All-Mighty Joey Q?  Well, it just seems to me that there’s a better way to involve the entire Marvel Universe in something and still keep the titles relatively independent.  So bear with me, as I once again play Grand Poobah of a major comic book publishing company!

Civil War begins because of the Superhuman Registration Act, right (or whatever it’s called)?  The New Warriors fight Nitro, Nitro blows up a school, children die, outraged citizens demand that the government do something, the law goes into effect, Captain America gets peeved.  It isn’t that revelatory to mention that the government has been doing stuff like this with mutants for years, but now it’s for reals!  Mayhem and death follow, with Marvel using the crossover to cull some of its black characters (because who needs them, right?).  And Tony and Reed become über-dicks.

The Act itself isn’t the problem.  Many people have ranted about keeping real-world politics out of superhero comics, because the two just don’t go and it destroys our suspension of disbelief.  I have no problem with it as long as it’s done well (which should be the criterion for anything).  The Act is introduced in a moment of hot tempers on both sides.  I understand that it’s supposed to be like the Patriot Act, and that Marvel is making some sort of statement about the country after 9/11.  But let’s consider the Patriot Act.  Even a good solid liberal like me, who thinks the Patriot Act is one of the most odious pieces of legislation passed in this country in the past 50 years or so, has to admit that it doesn’t affect everyone all that much.  For all I know, the FBI could be tapping my phone, but they haven’t broken down my door yet.  The Superhero Registration Act would have an even smaller effect on the Marvel Universe.  If I’m generous, I’d say there are no more than 1000 superpowered people in the Marvel U. – that we know about, of course (I don’t own Marvel Handbooks, so I have no clue if this is correct, but I’d bet the number isn’t much larger than 2000).  Of those, half of them (it seems) live in New York City.  So Roy in Dubuque doesn’t really give a flying fuck if the government cracks down on superpowered people.  “Let those assholes beat the shit out of each other,” Roy says.  “I’m just wondering what happened to my solid union manufacturing job and why no one speaks English anymore.”  Roy just doesn’t care.  The Superhuman Registration Act is a tiny piece of legislation that has no impact whatsoever on the vast majority of people in the Marvel Universe.

What’s my point?  My point is, legislation gets passed all the time in this country that no one knows about.  We have become much more secretive in government (due largely to the amorphous and politically handy threat of terrorists, but even before 9/11, we were moving that way) and our politicians have become much more separated from the regular folk.  It costs over $10,000 to run for a simple Congressional seat, for crying out loud, and most people don’t have that kind of dough lying around.  So politicians, the ruling class, do whatever the hell they want, knowing that there will be few ramifications.  With regard to the Superhuman Registration Act, here’s how it could work:

The Act gets introduced by some ambitious young congressperson.  Maybe, like Senator Kelly, his wife was killed in a superhuman brawl.  Maybe he’s jealous because he was next in line to get the super-soldier serum.  Maybe Elektra stole her boyfriend.  I don’t know – things get passed all the time for petty reasons.  The point is, it doesn’t have to be something as earth-shattering as a school blowing up.  It can be, but it doesn’t have to be.  This would probably get big headlines, but all a congressperson would have to do is point out the horrific property damage and deaths that have resulted from previous superhuman fights without creating a new one.  That way it ties into greater Marvel continuity.  Depending on which hero this might affect the most (I would have said Captain America back in the day, but that’s not how Brubaker is really writing him these days), have the announcement come in that book.  Probably New Avengers, because the group has often been tied to the government.

The point is: the Superhuman Registration Act is now the law of the land, and it affects very few people.  If Joey Q and Tom Brevoort and any other of the editors working at Marvel had any control over their creators, they could just send out a memo explaining the tenets of the law and tell their writers to keep it in mind.  It’s a fait accompli, and they just have to deal with it.  Each writer could deal with it in their own way, keeping in mind that it’s the law.  Some of the best Civil War arguments one way or another have been in the ancillary titles – She-Hulk, X-Factor, Moon Knight.  Instead of getting Clor and giant black men in chains and Captain America punking out, these books and others have actually had people debate the merits of the book and integrated them into the story that they are working on.  A superhero in his own book – Spider-Man, for instance – could decide to reveal his identity.  Another – She-Hulk, for instance – could argue cases about the ramifications of the law.  Marc Spector and Frank Castle could ignore it.  Other heroes could wrestle with their conscience over what they should do.

How is this any different from the actual mini-series and the connecting titles?  One big difference: there is no big mini-series, at least not yet.  And this stuff plays out over a while, say two years in real time.  I’m thinking of the American Civil War as an analogy – we can argue causes all we want, but it really came down to slavery, and the government wrestled with the problem of slavery for decades, even back to the founding of the republic.  This would be the same thing.  I certainly wouldn’t let it go too long – that’s part of what killed Operation: Zero Tolerance – but I would let things simmer.  One thing Zero Tolerance did right is keep Bastion in the shadows for a while, as various things happened to the X-Men that were inexplicable at that time but made sense once the scope of Bastion’s plan was revealed.  This would be right out in the open – there’s a law against unregistered superhumans – but there are a lot of ways writers could go with it.  In the mini-series, why is Tony such a tool?  It seems to come out of nowhere (again, I haven’t read it in any depth, so give me some slack) and I know he’s a businessman, and all businessmen are pure evil, so of course he’d support it!  Why does Reed support it?  There’s that junk about his uncle being wrong in the 1950s, but except for Ann Coulter, does anyone really think supporting Joe McCarthy was a good idea?  If in Iron Man Tony’s mindset was explored in more detail, and if in Fantastic Four Reed’s thought process was made more clear, then we would understand them more instead of just thinking they’re dicks.

This could also work to show the unintended consequences of the law.  I’m a big fan of unintended consequences, because so often our legislators don’t even consider them when passing laws.  One of my favorites was actually passed by Arizonans in the form of a proposition on our ballot a few years ago.  The writer of the proposition is a racist jerkwad who hates illegal immigrants and wanted to show them that they can’t invade our country!  But he couldn’t appear to be a racist jerkwad, so he wrote a proposition denying state benefits to anyone – not just Mexican and other swarthy immigrants – without a valid ID.  Everyone voted for it, because a lot of people in Arizona don’t like swarthy people dating their white daughters.  Of course, not long after the proposition was enshrined in law, we got a ton of Katrina refugees to Arizona, none of whom had – wait for it! – a valid ID.  So technically, they couldn’t receive any benefits while they were here.  The writer of the law protested that that wasn’t his intent, but still, he should have simply written something about denying benefits to anyone whose last name sounded Hispanic.  The point is, this Superhuman Registration Act could have consequences beyond what the government expects.  A writer in one of the books could have the star of the book not help someone because of the law, and that person could die.  Yes, a “hero” wouldn’t stand idly by and let someone die because of a stupid law, but it would make for an interesting story.  Or maybe the hero doesn’t even stand by, just hesitates enough so that someone is horribly crippled.  Yes, I’m getting macabre, but these are the kinds of things that could come up.  It would make people consider what kind of law has been passed, and whether they should have thought about it a bit more.  Marvel could also do a story similar to the New Warriors thing – an unregistered superhero could cause major damage, which would lead a bunch of people to switch sides.  Or maybe even a registered hero could cause damage, which would lead to a bunch of people questioning whether the law isn’t severe enough.

This should go on for a few years.  Not too long to make it boring, but not too short to make it come out of nowhere.  Civil War as it stands now is just the beginning of the conflict, but, if we go back to the American Civil War, that was the end of long-running tension.  One of the problems people had with the mini-series is that everything seemed to come out of nowhere.  Well, if we did it my way, there would be context to the series.  The editors could sit down with the writers and say, “Okay, we need people on both sides of this issue.  Tony Stark is going to be on the government’s side.  Over the next year  or two, you [whoever’s writing the book] need to give him a good reason for being on the government’s side.”  That person could still write the stories he wanted, but with the idea that eventually Tony would have to pick a side, and that side would be pro-registration.  This takes some of the freedom out of the writer’s hands, of course, but you know what? screw ’em.  They’re working for Marvel, so they have to play by Marvel’s rules.  If you don’t like it, go create your own damned superheroes.  So Joey Q and his merry band show us both sides of the story, with actual development of heroes’ views.  Yes, there would be editorial oversight, because when you think about it, I doubt if very few writers would want their particular hero to be pro-registration.  But it’s not that difficult to do.  Robert E. Lee is a sympathetic character in the Civil War even though he was fighting for the wrong side.  So Tony Stark could be a sympathetic character even though he supports the Act (that’s if you believe it’s the “wrong side”).

After a year or two of this, then we could get the big event mini-series.   First of all, it could be longer and it could come out on time.  With the right editorial control, Millar and McNiven could have a much greater lead time to write and draw the damned thing, and they could make it a bit longer (anywhere from 1-3 issues longer, which is about the limit).  I don’t have a big problem with the Stamford disaster being the casus belli, but if it happened after the long build-up, it would have more context.  The law would already be in effect, and perhaps this could be the last straw for someone like Stark.  Instead of using this to create the law, he could use it to strictly enforce the law.  And maybe this gives Captain America pause, because it’s obvious that, for the most part, the law is working.  But he still has his reasons.  Maybe someone close to him is jailed and killed while in prison.  Maybe someone he knows is jailed even though they are registered.  We certainly haven’t seen anyone unjustly imprisoned in the United States ever, but it could happen, couldn’t it?  This adds a personal level to an abstract argument.  To go back to the American Civil War, it’s a cliche to speak of “brother fighting brother,” but it happened.  Sure, in Civil War, long-time friends fought each other, but it was more as a plot contrivance.  All the moves the characters make would have a year or two of stories backing up why they did it.  And it wouldn’t be such a mess.

And the ending?  I’m not sure how the “fix” the ending.  Joey Q wants the Act to be the law of the Marvel land, obviously, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a lousy law.  There is no reason for Captain America to quit the way he does right now.  I look back on the parallel of Robert E. Lee, who simply ran out of money and didn’t want anyone else to die.  So Tony and his sadistic group of “heroes” would have to slaughter quite a good number of Marvel characters to make it believable that Cap would just quit like he does.  I don’t really have that big of a problem with Cap quitting, but the motivation doesn’t seem to be there.  The Marvel Universe has to be bled white for surrender to make much sense.  I don’t want to get bloodthirsty, but maybe unregistered superheroes are getting into too many situations where civilians get killed.  I don’t recall much in Civil War that gives us any clue as to how the “normal” people are reacting.  I know that Jenkins wrote that Frontline thing, but did that show how Roy in Dubuque felt about the fisticuffs in New York?  If it’s becoming obvious that what Cap is doing is bad for the country (and let’s not use people from 11 September, because that’s the height of schlockiness, especially the way Giuliani treated them), then I don’t have a problem with the surrender.  Cap’s decision comes out of nowhere, though – it should be something he’s considering for a while.  This is where having two years of stories about how the Marvel Universe reacts to the law and giving Millar a bit longer to tell the story of the final conflict comes into play.  Millar has grown increasingly rockstar-esque in recent years, but the man can write a story when he wants to.  So give him a few more issues, give him a bit more time (wasn’t he deathly ill for a while recently?), and allow him to at least make an attempt at explaining Cap’s surrender.  As it stands, it’s lame.

I realize that the book, with all its problems, still was like printing money for Joey Q and his unholy minions, but I very much doubt that, like some big “event” comics, this will stand the test of time, because despite a lot of “holyshitthat’sfuckingawesome!” moments, it really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.  I very much doubt that, even with the “registration,” Tony and Reed would suggest using a complete sociopath like Bullseye for their team.  And I still don’t get Clor.  In twenty years, are we really going to speak of Civil War in the same reverential tones we speak of Crisis on Infinite Earths or Secret War?  It’s possible, but I think it’s more highly likely it will be accorded X-Cutioner’s Song status.  Maybe Onslaught.  Without much context for the entire series, and with Hulk’s War and the next X-Men “event” coming up, I doubt if this will have a lot of long-term resonance.  But it’s still a great idea.  Hell, it was a great idea when Senator Kelly came up with it twenty years ago and it only applied to mutants.  As I’ve seen in the marginal titles, there is a lot of room for good debate over the issue.  It would have been nice to see Joey Q take a longer view of the situation.  I know he’s desperate for money right now to support his baseball cap habit (those 1924 Senators caps don’t come cheap, you know!), but it seems like this cash grab cost him a lot of goodwill among retailers and readers.  We’ll see.

Of course, this could all be moot.  Some people don’t give a rat’s ass about the Marvel U. and think that each title should have its own continuity.  I’ve written before that I have no strong feelings toward having a “universe” or not, and I would have no problem if Brubaker kills Professor Xavier off in Uncanny X-Men while Carey keeps him alive in X-Men … as long as it’s clear that they exist in two different realities, neither of which is the “true” Marvel U.  However, that probably wouldn’t work because of all the screaming from the fans, and Joey Q is not the maverick to try it.  I just love that Joey Q tries to have it both ways – pandering to the continuity nerd in all of us but ignoring it when it suits him.  Civil War demanded a tighter hold on the reins of the writers and artists of the Marvel stable, but it just didn’t get it.  I think it could have been an excellent examination of the superhero ethos and could have shed new light on what makes someone a hero.  What did we get instead?  Lloyd Bentsen references and Captain America acting surprised when Frank Castle acts like a psychopath.  Good job, Marvel.

Maybe now that the big “war” is over, Marvel writers and editors will explore the ramifications of the law in greater detail.  Or they could just forget it exists, because it’s too much of a hassle.  I wonder which option they’ll pick.

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