(May 2003 - March 2007.) Tama's thoughts on the blogosphere, podcasting, popular culture, digital media and citizen journalism posted from a laptop computer somewhere in Perth's isolated, miniature, urban jungle ...

Marvel Comics 'Civil War' and the "War on Terror"

Friday, July 28, 2006
I've been enjoying Henry Jenkins' wide-ranging posts in his new blog, but I've particularly been impressed with his look at the relevance of comic books in relation to September 11, 2001 and its ongoing aftermath (Jenkins' thoughts are in several posts: one; two; three). Jenkins points out that the immediate responses to 9-11 were very wide-ranging and far more balanced and provocative than in the mainstream news media. He also points out that the responses to 9-11 and the 'war on terror' have had considerable impact on comic books, not so much in a propaganda sense, but in terms of asking hard questions and exploring some very difficult issues.

In my PhD I also got a chance to explore the Sept 11 aftermath comics, especially those set in the Marvel Universe. (In my writing I particularly looked at how the attacks on the WTC impacted the first two Spider-Man films both in terms of their stories and their production). While I knew there were a number of special edition aftermath comics which directly engaged with the fall of the Twin Towers, I had presumed that the obvious parallels were no longer part of the Marvel Universe. However, the magic of the internets pointed me toward Marvel's summer cross-over series entitled "Civil War".

Apparently the story has been brewing for a while, but Civil War kick-starts when a group of teenage superheroes called the New Warriors are participating in a reality TV show where they take down super-villains. It goes horribly wrong, all bar one of the New Warriors is killed as one of the villains, Nitro, causes a massive explosion which kills 600 civilians including many children as the blast engulfs a school. There is a massive public backlash against superheroes of all flavours (not just mutants this year) which sees a SuperHero Registration Act pass into law (very much like the US Patriot Act in the immediate aftermath of Sept 11) which criminalises any unregistered superhuman activity (registered superheroes become, in effect, SHEILD operatives). The core Marvel superheroes are split down the middle: Iron Man (Tony Stark) with Spider-Man (Peter Parker) and Mr Fantastic are the most notable pro-registration heroes, seeing the Act as a means of legitimating superheroes, regaining public support for their actions, and preventing the even worse excesses that could occur from unregulated superhuman conflict. On the other side the iconic Captain America sees the Act as incredibly unjust--penalizing those heroes who have always sought justice--putting masked heroes in grave peril by revealing their day-time identities and worse, putting their families and at risk. When the registered superheroes under the directives of SHIELD and led by Iron Man start to apprehend (or try to apprehend) unregistered heroes, a Civil War erupts between the heroes of the Marvel Universe.

One of the things that struck me looking at the first issue of Civil War was the similarities between the way the tragedy in that issue was drawn with the way the superheroes who visited Ground Zero were pictured in 2001. Compare these two panels from Civil War #1 and Amazing Spider-Man #36 (which was the black cover issue in which the Marvel heroes visited the WTC site):

[From Civil War #1; Click Image to Expand]

[From Amazing Spider-Man #36 (Black Cover, Sept 11 Special); Click Image to Expand]

The resonance between these two stories is far from coincidental. Indeed, Captain America's decision to stand against the Superhero Registration Act parallels Marvel's editorial stance against wars of retaliation in Amazing Spider-Man #36. However, the plot line I'm finding most engaging is the story of Speedball. After all the New Warriors are thoughts to be dead, he's discovered alive but supposedly having lost his powers after the explosion which killed his teammates and hundreds of innocents. Speedball becomes a focal point for public rage against the superhumans whose interactions caused so much loss of life. In the other major cross-over mini-series, Civil War: Frontline, Speedball - or Robert Baldwin - is arrested and given the choice to either admit to part of the blame for the tragedy and become a registered superhero working for SHIELD and helping them detain unregistered heroes, or be sent to prison. Speedball refuses to admit a guilt he doesn't feel as he believes the New Warriors were trying to stop the supervillians and shouldn't be punished for that. However, his refusal leads to a situation which directly parallels the 'war on terror' prisoners held in Guantanamo Bay; Speedball is not given a trial but rather treated as "an unregistered combatant" while his interrogator bluntly informs Speedball: "I define your rights."

[From Civil War: Frontline #2; Click Image to Expand]

Speedball's experiences have marked similarities with the experiences of 'enemy combatants' (as opposed to prisoners of war) held (illegally) in the US "facilities" in Guantanamo. As Robert Baldwin is carted off to jail, he's told that a purpose-built prison is being constructed to indefinitely hold superhumans who refuse to register and follow government directives, a plot point echoing the 2002 construction of the Camp Delta detainment facility in Guantanamo Bay. While the Civil War story isn't completely black and white--Peter Parker's own deliberations certainly give the pro-registration side a humane voice--the critique of many aspects of the current War on Terror and the illegal detention and torture of untried 'enemy combatants' is bold and blatant on the part of Marvel's storytellers. Personally, I'm heartened by Marvel's stance and hope empathy with their comic book heroes will give readers a moment to think further about politics in the wider world.

I'll certainly be interested to see how the Civil War story progresses (and concludes!) so watch for another post on this topic in the near future.

In the meantime, to catch up with the Marvel Civil War thus far, take a look at these two comic-book trailers from Marvel ...
[X] Marvel Civil War Teaser large

This sets the stage for the Civil War cross-over storyline, showing a number of images from the Civil War comics with a narrator putting the pieces together. (I particularly like the question "Is either side wrong?")

[X] Marvel Trailer - Previously in Civil War

This recaps the first month of the Civil War, starting with a nightly news story about the event which acts as a catalyst for the split between Marvel's iconic heroes.

Incidentally, it's great to see Marvel making the most of YouTube and making mash-up style promotions just like so many of their core readers!

For more background information you might want to look at:
[X] The 'Civil War' entry at Marvel Universe.
[X] 'Civil War: Frontline' on Wikipedia (with full issue summaries, so very spoilerish)
[X] 'Speedball' entry at Marvel Universe.
[X] 'Speedball' in the Wikipedia.

Update (Mon, 7 August, 11.22am): For those interested in the exact details, there is a very detailed chronology of Civil War (down to individual panels) at the Marvel Chronology Project. Sam Ford at the Convergence Culture Consortium blog has a solid take on Civil War in the context of political commentary in comics, while Henry Jenkins has finished of his four-post Comic Book Foreign Policy set by addressing Civil War in some detail.

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