Monday, March 05, 2007

Comics Rambling: Civil War, Post-Mortem

There's a bumper crop of content sitting around my apartment, but I've decided to blog about something everybody else in the comics scene has already blogged about: Marvel's CIVIL WAR. The end came on February 21st, and the end was Not Good. I've written earlier that I was enjoying the series and intended to see it through to its conclusion, and so I did, and not only did the end not live up to expectations, it brought down my opinion of everything I'd read and overall managed to leave a very bad taste in my mouth.

So, the bad guys won. That's oversimplifying it- the Pro-Registration forces weren't really meant to be shown as the bad guys, even though they ended up in that light, and it's not like their position doesn't have any logical backing behind it. Were superpowered beings to exist in real life, we would probably feel better if they answered to some authority higher than their consciences, as they probably would not think in caption boxes or thought bubbles. But we, and by this "we" I mean "we the people reading CIVIL WAR", are fans of superhero comics, and as such we subscribe to the conventions thereof, including the idea that for the most part, these extraordinary people operate outside of the law to catch bad guys who themselves manage to evade the law's grasp. It's one of the founding principles of the genre, and so the Anti-Regs have our sympathy from the start. On top of this, the Pro-Registration forces promptly sacrifice whatever moral high ground by: 1) Creating an evil clone of Thor, 2) sending illegal heroes and villains alike to a high-tech Guantanamo Bay situated in the Negative Zone, and 3) hiring known supervillains to hunt down the rogue heroes. They were acting like villains themselves. So when Captain America decides that he's been wrong all this time and surrenders, and the former villains look hopefully into the sunset as their new utopia comes to pass, one gets a very bitter, queasy feeling.

It's worth noting how much this story comes to resemble Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' resplendent WATCHMEN, rightly regarded as one of the best things comics have ever done. Those who have not read it should skip this paragraph. In said book, the "villain", Ozymandias, pulls off a horrific variation on the OUTER LIMITS "Architects of Fear" trick, staging an alien attack that really kills millions of people, thus tricking the world powers (who are on the brink of WWIII) into declaring peace so that they can stand united against the nonexistent menace. The book's heroes do the most good by failing to stop him, but for the lone holdout Rorschach, who dies rather than compromise his principles. In CIVIL WAR, the group acting most supervillainy is shown to have a utilitarian end, and they succeed for the moment, while the rogue idealist heroes fail- and it is suggested that this may be for the better. But somewhere in WATCHMEN's ambiguity and darkness, there is beauty and a sense of catharsis and closure. It manages this delicately, through depth of characterization and of imagery- the cynicism balanced against a sense of nostalgia. CIVIL WAR never manages this kind of balance- for all its grim seriousness, it's basically another beat-'em-up, and can't handle its own conceptual weight.

So, it's not really poignant or moving. Unfortunately, it's not really fun either. The first six issues passed by with nary a hint of irony, and while there are attempts in this final issue to bring in humor and fun and a sense of action, it just plain doesn't fit. I'm not sure if it's the context or just the writing in itself, but a sense of actual fun craziness is deeply lacking.

In the end, the story doesn't work because it doesn't make us FEEL enough of anything. (Except, maybe, disappointment at having spent over twenty dollars.) In a misguided attempt to be "balanced" when dealing with the issue at hand, the book ends with a finale that isn't quite triumphant, or tragic, or infuriating, or gentle, or funny. In the end it can't decide what it wants us to feel, regardless of what "side" we take; someone who views the Pro-Registration forces as heroes won't necessarily feel vindicated by the finale, in which the opposition gives up for rather contrived reasons and the moral justification for less-than-ethical actions is never explored. It's not so much that a work of art can't be ambiguous or complex or create conflicted perspectives among the audience, but it has to generate some kind of emotional impact.

It's a very cynical work, and not just in the "big event designed to get you to pay lots and lots of money" sense. On some level, the architects of this event seem not to trust the underpinnings of the genre on which Marvel Entertainment as a publisher depends. They seem determined to point out that there is something wrong with individual idealism and rogue adventurers at a time- and this is where it gets curious- when the superhero genre has gained more mainstream acceptance than it has in decades. Moviegoers flocked to see the latest adventures of Spider-Man, the X-Men, Superman, and Batman (and apparently Ghost Rider made some money against all odds.) HEROES, a show combining low-key powers and non-spandex clothing with comic-book melodrama and monologues, is a ratings smash. And superhero comics are continuing their slow crawl out of the hole they fell into in the mid-Nineties. The mainstream American audience in this post-9/11, post-Katrina, mid-Iraq-War world still has some need for the heroic ideal and the uncompromising moral paragon, to say nothing of us devoted fans.

DC, as much as I disagree with a lot of what they do, gets this- the changes of INFINITE CRISIS and beyond have all been targeted towards establishing a world where Heroes are Heroes, people who rise above their flaws. In CIVIL WAR we have Captain America, almost literally the embodiment of an ideal, throwing that ideal aside because the public doesn't agree with it; we have Iron Man and Mr. Fantastic succumbing to a grim utilitarianism, pursuing the least horrific of several projected bad outcomes. The moral tone of the world is dictated by a single grieving mother unable to see beyond her individual crusade, and (in FRONT LINE #11) a reporter who thinks Captain America doesn't represent his country anymore because he's not familiar with MySpace (I swear to GOD I am not making this up.) Maybe we're supposed to be unhappy with this, or maybe we're supposed to accept this as the Real World and discard ideals because we can't afford them. It doesn't work anyway.

That CIVIL WAR doesn't work may not be that much of a surprise. It's the sort of thing that's very tough to pull off, brilliant as it may sound on paper. But the execution is, in the long run, half-assed. At best, the book is a misguided attempt at relevance and a too-muted-to-register critique of modern America (the rest of the world doesn't get a look in during the entire series- particularly odd seeing as it was written by a Brit); at worst, one gets the vague sensation that the creators are giving the finger to those of us who slogged our way through all seven issues.

So, it was unpleasant. There is much good in the comic book world, though, and I plan to get to it soon. And remember, in five years' time things will be back to the old status quo anyway. I'm looking forward to that.

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