Creative Destruction: Civil War


August 6, 2012 by Ish

The term “creative destruction” is a theory of economic innovation and the business cycle. Derived from Marxist economic theory, where it refers to the linked processes of the accumulation and annihilation of wealth under capitalism, and basically a capitalist economic development arises out of the destruction of some prior economic order. But, to be frank, I don’t like Karl Marx so I am going to co-opt the term to describe how the creator of a work of fiction or popular culture can destroy their fanbase with careless mishandling of politics.

Civil War was a 2006-2007 Marvel Comics mega-crossover storyline built around a self-titled seven-issue limited series written by Mark Millar and penciled by Steve McNiven. In the grand tradition of Crisis Crossovers there was no way Marvel Comics was going to let the events stay in that limited series, thus the storyline was pushed by the senior managers into a nearly every other title Marvel published for those two years. The storyline built on earlier events that had developed in previous Marvel crossovers, particularly Avengers Disassembled, House of M and Decimation, and Secret War.

But, to sum up, a team of perpetual B-List superheros The New Warriors, had become “stars” of a Reality TV show and during the filming of the program start a fight with several fugitive supervillains in the middle of a residential neighborhood in sleepy, suburban Stamford, Connecticut. One of these supervillians is the D-Lister known as Nitro, who inexplicably demonstrates a level power way beyond any he’s ever shown before (it was later revealed to be a due to secret drug treatments provided by, who else, a Corrupt Corporate Executive), Nitro quite literally explodes – killing 612 civilians and all but one of the New Warriors. Among the dead, the entire population of an elementary school… Grim, dark, and timely.

The Stamford Incident was an obvious stand-in for the events of September 11, 2001. You hardly have to have a crystal ball to puzzle that out… and I remember really looking forward to seeing this storyline play out. Enough time had passed in the real world that a comic book treatment of the events of 9/11, the political and social debates that had followed — do we trade freedom for security? Do we want our heroes to be Lawful or Good? This storyline should have been epic…

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’ve been reading comic books pretty much since the day I learned how to read. So although I know that comic books can be sometimes be great literature and are frequently just damn good storytelling… Well, plenty of the time, it’s just dumb action-adventure yarns about guys in tights thumping each other. That’s fine too! I love comic books like Sandman or Maus, but sometimes you just want the simple escapism of straight superheroics. I was prepared for Civil War (especially in the ‘also-ran’ bits of the crossover shoehorned into the other titles) to have some weak moments or even a few moments of outright suck. I had no idea that the final panel of the first issue would make me hate not only Civil War, but one of my favorite characters, and, ultimately the entire Marvel Comics stable.

My Google-fu has failed me, and I have been unable to locate a scan of the panel in question, but it came on the final page of the issue of Iron Man that kicked off the whole deal. The United States Congress had long wanted a law to control all metahumans, and the Stamford Incident was just the crisis they needed to the Superhuman Registration Act (SHRA) passed at long last. But they needed support from the more influential superheroes to get it to work. So, cut to Tony Stark’s office, and we find him discussing the Stamford Incident and the SHRA with one of his supporting characters, I think it was Pepper Potts but it might have been Maria Hill. I wish I could find this panel online, but it is burned into my memory, he tells Pepper that superheroes are all living weapons, and then looks directly at the “camera” and says: “They last time I checked, weapons had to be registered.”

So, yeah, the ultimate cause of the Civil War: which would lead to the death of Captain America, Goliath, and numerous other heroes. Which would see Ironman and Mr. Fantastic imprisoning their friends and foes alike in an extradimensional concentration camp — without trial! And would see control of S.H.I.E.L.D. handed over to none other than Norman freaking Osborn… all of the terrible, terrible things that would happen were being justified by Tony Stark’s belief in gun control.

Thankfully, Jon Favreau and Robert Downey Jr., would come along a few months later and redeem the character with the Iron Man film. Casting Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Start was one of the best decisions ever made in comic book movie history. He plays the role masterfully, with a perfect mix of charm, intellect and even the shadowy spectre of alcoholism… which long time readers of the comics know is a major piece of Iron Man’s history. More importantly, they made Iron Man 2. Within minutes of the film’s opening credits — and in the first seconds of the first trailer — Tony Stark refutes the efforts of his political enemies that want to seize control of his technology.

Here we see the all-too-common intersection of the politics of envy and the nationalization impulse of government: a sense of entitlement to the achievement of a private citizen. One almost expects to see Gary Shandling’s smarmy congressman leading an #Occupy_Avengers_Tower rally in the next film.

There are political implications for geeky hobbies like comic books and super hero movies. Now, I don’t want to be the guy that read tea leaves and star signs in order to puzzle out the hidden conspiracies or secret meanings behind every piece of fiction. But Mark Millar’s suddenly Leftist, Gun Controlling Tony Stark has meant that I haven;t purchased a Marvel comic book in nearly six years… Jon Favreau and Robert Downey Jr.’s celebration of American exceptionalism and the unapologetically capitalist Tony Stark has me eagerly awaiting every sequel that’s to come.


5 thoughts on “Creative Destruction: Civil War

  1. Temnota says:

    Welcome to the blogosphere!

    So, comic-book Stark has his head inserted rectally about at least one area of public policy – as do we all, viewed from one perspective or another. Feet of clay maketh for better dramatic characters, and gives them room to grow in the story. I might have written him the same way, if only to make an anvilicious libertarian “be careful what you wish for” parable out of him.

    • Ish says:

      A flawed hero is certainly a more interesting hero, and Tony Stark’s many, many flaws have always been the very thing that made him so much more than “happy Batman with better toys.” In fact, before the Civil War issues hit the newstand, comic nerds like me already had some basic idea of what the plot was goign to be from previews and sneak-peaks… so we knew it was going to be about a registration act, that there were proing to be a pro- and anti- faction, and that all our favorite heroes were going to have to start thumping one another to prove who was right. Captain America and Iron Man were leaked as the leaders pretty well in advance.

      It isn’t that Iron Man was on the government’s side, the Avengers had been an official government group for at least the last decade, he’s been shown to have a close workign relationship with the military since, roughly, the 1980s, and heck, he was the Secretary of Defense at that time… Tony Stark as a Regan Conservative or even a full blown Neo-Con (or more likrly a New York City comicbook writer’s sterotyped idea of what a Neo-Con was) would have been more in keeping with his character, would have served the same story goals, and would have made a lot more sense.

      “Last time I checked, weapons had to be registered.” is just incredibly out of character… factually wrong… and just plain weird, when you remember this guy’s only superpower is owning an unregistered weapon.

  2. We have a Civil War graphic novel (either part 1, or an “essential” collection, I don’t know, I didn’t buy it) sitting around to read, but I haven’t gotten to it yet, so could you clarify something for me? Is this incarnation of the registration act for ALL mutants/superhumans, simply for existing, or only those who want to engage in vigilante activities (i.e. be superheroes not subject to the rule of law)?

    • Ish says:

      The SHRA was handled slightly different (and occasionally inconsistently) across the dozen-plus titles that were involved in the mega-crossover, which is to be expected when you’ve got that many different writers and editors involved… and it was pretty much just a MacGuffin to get the plot rolling anyway, its not like they could look the SHRA up in THOMAS.

      But, for the most part the SHRA was show to have covered three main areas: 1) Mandatory registration of all superpowered (regardless of “origin”) individuals (whether active as superheroes or not); 2) Mandatory licensing of all costumed crimefighters (whether superpowered or not); and, 3) All crime-fighting and lifesaving activity by non-registered superheroes was made illegal.

      In a remarkable level remembering of long-forgotten continutity, the X-Men books all had their characters sit-out the whole Civil War. With Cyclops giving a rather biting speech about how anti-mutant sentiment was never on the radar of the heavy hitters in the superhero community, and comparing everyone’s horror at Stamford to the Genosha Massacre (where no oher heroes helped).

  3. Temnota says:

    This sort of thing is why the only comic I ever really got into was “Cerebus” and why I wandered off when it started taking itself seriously.

    I think I’ll go download the new Discworld novel onto my Kindle.

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