Civil War #7: R.I.P. Marvel

In Uncategorized on February 23, 2007 at 4:54 am

Watching Joe Quesada and Mark Millar destroy the Marvel universe has been no fun at all.

In fact—and pardon my hysteria—it’s even felt a little bit sinister. A bit? Okay: very sinister. Or maybe that should just be cynical.

How does one assess the motives of storytelling this reactionary?

Sure, sure. Cap’s “radicalized underground” (!) is still out there, no doubt itching to carry on the good fight against Tony’s evil (oops, I mean “equally valid”) machinations. And heck, maybe we’re even supposed to see that last panel as irony. But you know what? It doesn’t matter, because the problem with this stupendously awful series is bigger than whose side “wins.” Much bigger.

I’m referring to the fact that this series has changed the way we “read” Marvel superheroes, a change that has something to do with the political content of the story, but even more to do with its form.

Wishful thinker that I am, I sometimes delude myself into thinking of superhero comics as a progressive, sub-cultural pocket of the mainstream media that has at least a minimal investment in challenging particularly odious forms of authority and orthodoxy. And there might even be some justification for this semi-delusional way of thinking, despite the obvious rejoinder that comics are just a storytelling medium like any other and are home to stories that implicitly or explicitly endorse any number of political positions. Despite, too, the equally inevitable rejoinder that superheroes are inherently “fascistic” or “authoritarian,” a topic that has been explored (and refuted?) both intelligently and otherwise within the medium itself (Watchmen, The Authority, The Boys, etc.).

The argument against both of these claims—and against the claim for the inherent conservatism of the superhero genre in particular—is basically formal and goes something like this: Superheroes are not real. Superhero comics are therefore fantasies. That is, they present events that break with reality and in so doing suggest ways in which “reality” as we commonly know it is inadequate or dissatisfying. Fantasy is always, in some sense, a critique of the present. If we take the fantasy of the superhero literally, it is easy to see how it could be described as a sinister longing for fascist solutions and transformations. But must we take the fantasy literally? Not necessarily. Like any literary work that depicts events that do not happen in real life, the superhero comic and its superhero fantasy can also be taken metaphorically. And when we read superheroes as metaphors (or better yet, as symbols), their meaning—especially their political meaning—is no longer so simple or so certain. This ambiguity about how to interpret the fact of the fantasy itself (which is a formal feature of the genre) is why the superhero can be either a terrifying ubermensch or a liberating metaphor depending on how you read him (or her)—and is often both of these things simultaneously.

The reason Civil War has felt so flat and depressing from the beginning is that its architects have done everything possible to completely jettison the liberating (and less rigidly fixed)metaphorical reading of the superhero in favor of a dreary literalism that can produce only the most plodding and banal of political allegories. What if there really were superheroes?, Civil War asks earnestly. The inevitable answer follows: they’d have to register with the government! This, I submit, is a silly question that not only serves as a pretext for a rather unsavory civics lesson, but also calls forth a particularly limited form of reading. In other words, it isn’t just that the conclusion of Civil War is morally bankrupt (which it is), but that, like the rest of the series, its overblown political allegory removes the ambiguity of the superhero fantasy itself and thus robs the series of the rich metaphorical resonance that made us all fall in love with superheroes in the first place.

In the new Marvel universe, we no longer have to think about the metaphor of the superhero and what it might mean in political terms or in any other terms for that matter. Joe Quesada and Mark Millar have already done our allegorizing for us.

To the extent that they manage to contain and limit the metaphorical possibilities of Marvel superheroes in Civil War, Quesada and Millar have simply embellished and generalized the work that Chris Claremont did (much more palatably) on mutants as a metaphor for various forms of social outsidership in the 1980s and 90s. In both cases, there is a turn away from the chaotic complexity of symbols (whose meaning is unstable and thus impossible to pin down) towards the greater simplicity of allegory (where individual images or characters stand in for particular ideas). The difference between Claremont’s quite supple mutant allegory and the crude political cartoon of Civil War is that Claremont, whatever his faults as a storyteller (and they are fewer than people commonly suppose), had years to work out an allegory of enormous resonance and complexity whose delicious reversals and Byzantine storylines produced a genuinely thought-provoking narrative that frequently transcended its allegorical premise. (The fact that it was driven by a powerful and credible moral imperative didn’t hurt either.)

By contrast, the allegory of Civil War has about as much complexity as Pilgrim’s Progress. And this is reflected in the utter flatness of the miniseries’s treatment of character (something that always suffers in works of pure allegory). People (not me) accuse Geoff Johns of “action-figure” plotting; Mark Millar’s messy script for Civil War makes him the true owner of this mantle, and the lack of characterization in the series isn’t helped by Steve McNiven’s pretty pencils. Yes, McNiven is a very talented guy, but all you see on any given page of Civil War is McNiven—the characters themselves are just posed, empty figures.

Marvel has always distinguished itself from DC by rooting its stories more firmly in “the real world”—and Civil War is certainly in keeping with this tradition. It’s just too bad that by rooting its superheroes so uncompromisingly in a “real world” allegory it’s made a mockery of its own internal history, turned half its cast into monsters, and reorganized its universe into a place I can no longer recognize as a space of meaningful fantasy.


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