A few months ago I started reading comic books again, for the first time since I was a teenager. The thing that got me to walk into a comic book store for the first time in twenty years was an NPR interview with a couple guys from Marvel comics, touting their 7-issue Civil War series. The premise is essentially a non-tongue in check version of The Incredibles backstory: the people have grown tired of the often massive collateral damage that results from super-powered vigilantism. But instead of The Incredibles solution of forcing all of them to retire from the superhero business, the Congress passes a law requiring them to register with the US government as “persons of mass destruction” and to start taking orders from S.H.I.E.L.D. (a fictional counter-terrorism/intelligence agency). The Registration Act is framed as a civil liberties issue, and it splits the superhero community down the middle. Iron Man leads the registered superheroes, and their first job is to arrest those who refuse to register, which is a group led by (wait for it….) Captain America.
This sounded like a potentially interesting political allegory for our times, so I decided to check it out. I have to say it’s a pretty good read, and I’ve gotten sucked into several of the tie-in stories to regular Marvel titles. One thing that’s clearly changed since I was reading comics in the 80s is the sophistication of the stories – the target audience is adults now (in our local comics store, there’s a very small section for the comics aimed at kids under 12, and the rest of the store is for the big kids). What holds the Civil War series back from being really great though is that the premise just doesn’t hold water: by no stretch of the imagination is being a superhero a “civil right.” There’s no constitutional right to vigilantism, let alone super-powered vigilantism. Having said that, the quality of the artwork and the overall storytelling goes a long way towards making up for this flawed premise.
The Spider-Man Civil War side story is even better than the Civil War series itself. In a major change for the character, Peter Parker reveals his identity as Spider Man and comes out as a supporter of the Registration Act. But he is deeply conflicted about his choice. The current writer for The Amazing Spider-Man is J. Michael Straczynski, creator of one of my favorite TV series, Babylon 5. He does what good writers do – he gets you in Peter’s head and gets you to identify with his struggle. Here’s an example – this scene takes place shortly after Captain America loses his shield in a scuffle with Spider-Man:
For me, the one Marvel series that really outshines the others is Ultimates 2. Marvel has created a whole series of “Ultimate” titles (Ultimate Spider Man, Ultimate Fantastic Four, etc.) which they use to tell stories without being tied to the decades of history the characters have accumulated in their regular series’. This universe has much fewer superheroes in it, and is much closer to the real world (e.g. George Bush is President, we’re at war in Iraq, etc.). The Ultimates 2 series is a re-working of the Avengers. It’s much grittier, realistic, and overtly political than any comic I’ve seen before. The Ultimates team is controlled through S.H.I.E.L.D., and is used only for domestic law enforcement. But then Captain America is used to rescue some hostages in Iraq, and so the trip down the slippery slope begins. Not much later the whole team is used to perform a pre-emptive strike on one of the “Axis of Evil” countries. Here’s a snippet of a conversation between Tony Stark (Iron Man) and the imprisoned Thor after the attack (the writers have brilliantly re-cast Thor as a sort of Earth First/Greenpeace left-wing activist):
Stark: “And when did I become one of the bad guys?”
Thor: “Around the same time you took part in that pre-emptive strike against a Third-World country”
At the same time, an alliance of Middle East and Third World nations, with covert assistance from China, are planning to use their own superheroes for an assault on America. But before they strike, they infiltrate the Ultimates with a spy, and take most of the team down one by one: Thor is framed for getting his powers from stolen high tech weaponry (nobody really bought his whole “God of Thunder” story to begin with), Hawkeye is captured and his family murdered, and Captain America is framed for doing it. Bruce Banner is put on trial for a deadly rampage by the Hulk, and then secretly executed. With most of the Ultimates out of comission, “The Liberators” attack is swift and successful, including the capture of the President and control of the US’ nuclear arsenal. This situation effectively deters the Europeans and their superheroes from intervening. The leader of the attack videotapes the final moments of the assault, announcing at the end “the Great Satan has been liberated.”
The Liberators’ Leader: “This is what happens when your ambitions outstrip your capabilities”
Tony Stark narrowly survives an assassination attempt, and with the other surviving Ultimates members, they begin to organize a counter-offensive. That’s where the story stands at issue 10 of this 13 issue series – I don’t want to give away anything beyond that. Issue 12 just came out. You might have a hard time finding the earliest issues, but I think most comic shops would have it back to issue 9, which isn’t a bad place to pick it up, as that’s when the attack on the US happens. Issue 12 is just one giant battle though, so I wouldn’t recommend starting there, as you’ll have no idea what’s going on (the series tends to have 2 or 3 dialog-heavy issues, followed by a non-stop action issue).
UPDATE: The series is now available in hardcover. Here’s the Amazon link: The Ultimates 2