By Ken Tucker
May 10, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT

Civil War

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”Whose side are you on?” asks the ”Marvel Comic event in seven parts” titled Civil War. This miniseries, written by Mark Millar and drawn by Steve McNiven, is intended, at least in part, to compete with the big ”event” over at rival DC Comics, Infinite Crisis. The overarching notion is to come up with a plot big enough to include all the major superheroes in a company’s ”universe,” and Civil War turns on the long-gestating notion that, in the Marvel universe, civilians have been suspicious of masked superheroes. Ordinary folks love being rescued, but they also fear the power these figures possess, because what’s to stop them from turning as bad as the supervillains? Marvel has long teased out this theme in its various X Men books. There, as in the X movies, the idea has been that ”mutants” are potentially dangerous freaks of nature and are periodically persecuted by politicians and lawmakers as well as by their superpowered enemies.

X Men comics trade on the idea of prejudice and persecution as metaphors for racism and xenophobia. Civil War broadens this out by making all sorts of heroes — from ordinary men with superior minds and bodies (Iron Man, Captain America) to people with extra-special powers (Spider-Man, the Human Torch) — the objects of a McCarthyite witch-hunt: The plot pivots on the idea that all superheroes must register their identities with the government, and not embark on adventures that interfere with the best interests of the country.

Writer Millar is trying the most difficult thing in superhero-comics writing: to impose realistic strictures on characters. What if, as the series’ first issue shows us, a batch of costumed do-gooders ended up killing and hurting innocent civilians in the course of battling some supervillains? The resulting outcry leads to a national debate about how superheroes can be controlled. The ”civil war” breaks out within superhero ranks: Some, like the conservative businessman Tony Stark — a.k.a. Iron Man — think going along with government rules is inevitable, even sensible; on the other side, Goliath tells Ms. Marvel, ”This is the start of the witch-hunts, honey. They’ll be coming after us with torches and pitchforks.”

I’m not so sure, yet, that this makes for interesting drama — the first issue of Civil War is talky and obvious. What makes the issue special is McNiven’s art and the inking and coloring by Dexter Vines and Morry Hollowell, respectively. They achieve a superbly burnished look — the pages have a pulsating glow to them, and the cliché of superhero art, the exaggerated musculature of both men and women, doesn’t seem melodramatic or foolish at all in this context.

I don’t want to give a grade to Civil War until I see more of it. It doesn’t bode well, from my point of view, to see, in the final pages, the gigantic, silent, looming figure of the Watcher appear. The Watcher, as Dr. Strange helpfully explains to Spider-Woman, ”only appears to record moments of great change and enormous upheaval.” Okay, okay, we get it, we get it — in the immortal words of Steve Allen, this could be the start of something big. Maybe too big for its narrative britches.  On the other hand, I do like the closing moment when Iron Man tells a group of government officials worried about Captain America leading an anti-registration splinter group, ”You push ahead with registration as planned, gentlemen. Leave Captain America to us.” If Millar can get away with making familiar, beloved characters announce their politics explicitly, it really might reveal some interesting things about these creations. And even more about the readers of these comic books, who’ll be forced to decide which side they’re on.

Civil War

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