Enduring Events: Marvel’s Civil War

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Posted November 11, 2013 by Stuart Kirkham in Comic Books

Whether you love them or hate them, Events and Crossovers are mainstays of the comics medium. Every year a big name creator is given the task of uniting characters from various franchises and telling a compelling story, and they achieve this with varying degrees of success.

A good event does wonders for the industry; the big plot-points can make the national news, so new readers are driven into stores. Worthwhile tie-in stories can grow the readership of an overlooked series and the aftermath can create interesting story opportunities for other titles. These are the benefits of telling stories within a shared universe.

Unfortunately the knife cuts both ways, and a poor event can do more harm than good. Readers become fatigued with prolonged and uninteresting stories, series that were previously enjoyed get derailed for months at a time so people jump off the book, and the aftermath can make the main series feel like a means to an end.

Some events stand the test of time and hold up to multiple re-reads even though they’re no longer relevant, that’s the benefit of involvingthers are just something to be suffered through. This feature will focus on a specific event, discussing the build-up, tie-in stories, and aftermath to determine whether the series holds-up, or falls flat.

Last week we went through House of M, which is a decent but decompressed story that suffered from an overabundance of pointless tie-in’s. This time we’re talking about Marvel’s biggest blockbuster event, Mark Millar and Steve McNiven’s Civil War.

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The Build-Up

The catalyst that started Civil War was the introduction of the Superhuman Registration Act; a law that required all meta-human’s to do three things:

  • Register their identities with the government
  • Be trained by the government
  • Work for the government

It made perfect sense at the time, there had been several superhero snafu’s that caused the deaths of a large number of innocent civilians. In the first issue several recent story-lines are name dropped including the Philadelphia bombing during Ed Brubaker’s Captain America, Wolverine’s attempt to kill the president in Mark Millar’s Enemy of the State, and the Hulk’s rampage through Las Vegas in Fantastic Four by JMS.

New Avengers: Illuminati Special

New Avengers: Illuminati Special

The Las Vegas incident also precipitated a meeting of the clandestine superhero organisation the Illuminati, who first appeared in the second volume of Bendis’ New Avengers when they decided to do something about the Sentry situation. In the New Avengers: Illuminati special we’re given a glimpse at the origin of this team, which dates back to the early days of the Marvel Universe. Then in the present day they make the decision neutralise the Hulk problem by tricking him into repairing a satellite then blasting him into space. This issue was a timely reintroduction to the Illuminati, who would play a key role during Civil War, but it also teased the Superhuman Registration Act and set-up Greg Pak’s Planet Hulk story.

A few issues of Staczynski’s Spider-Man run are also important to the prelude as they help justify the unexpected position Peter Parker takes during the event. In these issues he forms a close relationship with Tony Stark, who gives him the Iron Spider costume and takes him under his wing, warning him about what was coming and influencing (or manipulating) him into joining the pro-registration side.

The Storyline

Another superhero related disaster occurs in the opening pages when the town of Stamford, Connecticut is obliterated by Nitro after the New Warriors botch an attempt to detain him while trying to make a TV show. This becomes the straw that broke the camels back and the Registration Act is quickly passed into law, forcing every superhero to choose a side.

As you’d expect (because it makes a better story) the superhero community divides down the middle; friends become enemies and enemies become friends, as both sides discover how far they’re willing to go to fight for what they believe in, making some strange bedfellows in order to tip the balance in their favour.

The entire conflict is personified in three characters:

  • Captain America represents Anti-Registration, as his devout belief in freedom simply can’t co-exist with the Registration Act’s principles
  • Iron Man represents Pro-Registration, as his futurist mentality understands the need to change with the times and win back the public’s confidence
  • Spider-Man represents the reader in many ways, he is the moral centre of the Marvel Universe and as arguments are made for each side he must decide which he belongs on

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Convincing arguments are made for both sides, but every story of this nature has to have a good guy and a bad guy. Both Steve and Tony compromise their beliefs to some extent in the pursuit of victory. Cap allies with the Punisher, but ends up bitterly regretting it in one of the more powerful scenes of the story. Tony creates an android/clone of Thor from a strand of his hair, but it ends up going crazy and blasting a hold through Goliath. Not content with only selling half of his soul, he recruits a handful of super-villains to bolster his numbers and they end up taking things too far. During the final battle when triumph is within his grasp, Cap has a moment of clarity and realises that winning simply isn’t worth the price he’d have to pay. He gives himself up and loses the war, but ultimately retains the moral victory.

The story is actually quite strong, there are lots of big moments spread throughout the series, and a handful of them were even headline worthy. Mark Millar’s characters sometimes sounds the same and come across like assholes, but he handles the pacing and balance quite well until the last couple of issues. Steve McNiven’s artwork is worth the price of admission alone, as he delivers some of the best pencils of his career. As usual there were some shipping delays towards the end, but Marvel made the right decision in waiting for McNiven rather than using fill-in artists, as all these years later the story still holds up as one of the better Marvel events.

The Tie-Ins
Winter Soldier: Winter Kills

Winter Soldier: Winter Kills

As you’d expect, there’s a large number of connected stories in this event as Marvel capitalised on the mainstream attention it was receiving. Fortunately (and rather unusually) some of these tie-ins are actually good, and well worth buying to enhance the experience of the main story.

Ed Brubaker skilfully wove the events of Civil War into his own narrative, which doesn’t slow down for a second and comes off like it was planned from the start. Winter Soldier even gets a fantastic one-shot of his own called Winter Kills, which is set at Christmas and involves him teaming up with the Young Avengers for a raid on a Hydra base.

Speaking of Young Avengers, they have an enjoyable team-up with Brian K Vaughan’s Runaways, which will be the first of many meetings between these two groups. Both series are fantastic in their own right, and anyone that’s enjoyed either of them can’t go wrong checking out this mini-series.

Paul Jenkins teamed with various artists to tell a street-level story of the Civil Wars impact on regular people. Civil War: Frontline followed Ben Urich as he reported on the pro-registration side, and Sally Floyd as she investigated the dissidents. It covered the main plot points and focused on the more character driven human angle, while the main series delivered the blockbuster moments.

The Amazing Spider-Man issues are worth reading as Peter Parker probably has the most interesting story-arc of the whole cast, flip-flopping between sides and having his life turned upside down in typical Parker fashion. he personifies the argument really well and is caught between the two arguments like no other character in the series.

Amazing Spider-Man #536

Amazing Spider-Man #536

An absolute tonne of series tied into Civil War for one or more issues, and several one-shots were released as well, some of them definitely worth reading. New Avengers tie-in issues were a series of one-shots focusing on specific characters and their stance on the war. The Fantastic Four were fractured by the war, with Reed joining Tony Stark and Sue & Johnny joining Captain America. JMS wrote the tie-in issues which are worth checking out for fans of the series.

The Aftermath
Civil War: The Confession

Civil War: The Confession

The main thing to come out of Civil War didn’t actually occur during the event, but just afterwards in Captain America #25, where Steve Rogers was gunned down on the courthouse steps. This began an 18 issue Death of Captain America storyline which is arguably Ed Brubaker’s finest work on the series. Jeph Loeb wrote a Fallen Son mini-series which was based around the five stages of grief, each issue featured a different character and artist as they dealt with one of the stages. This was a particularly personal project for Loeb as it was released soon after his son’s death. Brian Bendis and Alex Maleev re-teamed for a one-shot called Civil War: The Confession which is one of the finest single issues in modern comics.

The immediate fallout of Civil War was the Registration Act itself; Iron Man was became Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. and started a new team in Mighty Avengers, while Luke Cage took over leadership of the New Avengers. Bendis wrote both books and the teams had several run-ins with other for a couple of years. The Registration Act had implications for most books, but it was moved to the background and didn’t affect that many stories in a serious way.

"Taste my lightning, F$@ker!

“Taste my lightning, F$@ker!

Iron Man eventually got a great new solo series called Invincible Iron Man, but it didn’t start until a few months after Civil War. Before then, Tony Stark spent the better part of six months getting his ass handed to him by every hero who cared to try, including Bucky Barnes, Spider-Man and Thor, who’d returned to the mortal world and was less than pleased to discover Tony had cloned him and the abomination had murdered one of his friends.

JMS started a storyline in Amazing Spider-Man called Back in Black which spilled into the Spider-Man family of books and involved Aunt May taking a bullet intended for Peter, who then went hunting for the persons responsible while she lay dying in hospital. It was a pretty dark chapter in Spider-Man’s life and it ultimately lead to the infamous Mary Jane retcon in One More Day, which returned Peter Parker to the life of a bachelor, upsetting a lot of fans but reinvigorating the series and attracting a lot of new readers.

The villains Tony Stark recruited to fight in the Civil War formed a new Thunderbolts tea, lead by Norman Osborn. This series was written by Warren Ellis with art by Mike Deodato, which was a lot of fun and would have some implications down the road. All in all, there was some pretty interesting stuff to come out of the series, even if the Registration Act was the least of it, and was largely ignored after a few months.

The Verdict

The Civil War series had three major selling points:

  • Heroes fighting heroes, Captain America vs Iron Man
  • Spider-Man unmasking in front of the world
  • The death of Captain America

All three drove new and relapsed readers into comic shops for the first time in ages, generating a lot of money and interest in the medium. It wasn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but it does stand as one of the better executed summer events with some of the most interesting tie-in stories and fallout.

The storyline can still be read and enjoyed today even though the storyline is largely irrelevant, it reads like a blockbuster movie (which is Millar’s speciality) and looks great from start to finish. There are several ancillary titles worth owning depending on personal interest, but The Confession one-shot is essential for anyone reading the series.
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Come back next week when we’ll be discussing a smaller and lesser known event, World War Hulk by Greg Pak and John Romita Jr.

Enduring Events Articles

Avengers Disassembled
House of M
Civil War
World War Hulk Coming Soon


About the Author

Stuart Kirkham

Stuart is a comic book collector, film and TV enthusiast, and video game crackerjack. Unfortunately these pursuits are occasionally interrupted by having to go to work and do real-life things.