July 29, 2006
Marvel's Civil War

Earlier this week, I wrote about the decision to include Marvel comics characters in the newest version of the Comic Book Creator software. But the biggest news in the Marvel universe is the current universe-wide storyline that the company has enmeshed its various heroes in--the Civil War.

I've been meaning to write about this for several weeks now when I picked up the first two issues of the flagship title that launched several weeks ago, the Civil War series, but it kept slipping through the cracks. Then, on Thursday, I saw Marvel editor-in-chief Joe Quesada on The Colbert Report.

The main seven-part series brings together top talent in the industry to show the biggest events of what is happening in the aftermath of a supervillain blowing up the city of Stamford, Connecticut, as part of his own suicide. Now, you would think the major reprecussions would be the death of WWE Owner Vince McMahon, but the series doesn't even give World Wrestling Entertainment a mention, from what I've seen.

Instead, they focus on the political events that result in the fallout. While the X-Men stories regarding the nature of mutants have brushed on these issues, Marvel tackles questions of civil liberties and the public good whole-heartedly in this series. The government issues a demand that all superheroes must reveal their secret identities and register as employees of the national government to continue their work, or else be declared as weapons of mass destruction for letting their powers run unchecked.

In the first issue, The Iron Man leads the charge to comply with the requests of his country as a patriot, while Capt. America decides that the most patriotic thing he can do is to refuse to obey this order and to retain his own private rights as an American. As the title implies, these questions of public safety and civil liberties divides the Marvel Universe, with each hero making his or her decision based on their own circumstances.

As a cross-titled enterprise, the storyline appears to be a huge success, bringing in a lot of former comics fans or new fans and exposing them to a variety of characters so that they can get a taste of what the Marvel Universe has to offer. The storyline crosses over into 14 other regular Marvel titles and has also launched short series such as Civil War: Front Line, Civil War: X-Men, and Civil War: Young Avengers & Runaways. The profitiability of these umbrella stories that get people to collect issues from titles that they would never buy otherwise also serves as a good sampler platter to get people hooked on various series. The innovation hammers home some of the points I've made formerly about the DC series 52.

More than that, though, the Civil War storyline shows how comic books--and all works of art--can have content that means something and that makes a commentary or has impact on the culture. While any marketing plan can be neat, if the storytelling and the content is not fresh, interesting, or provocative, all you really have is a marketing exercise and nothing more. Yet, why is it that you have people worried and constantly writing about the representation of minorities in American films or gay characters on television or Christian singers in mainstream media? Because people believe that popular art matters...not necessarily that it has direct media effects in the way some sociologists have written about but that it does send messages that can influence or inform people in some meaningful way. I've written about this previously with the Green Lantern story of hate crimes against a gay character.

So, whether looking at it as clever marketing, good storytelling, or a call for political awareness and discussion, I think Civil War is a perfect example of what storytelling is capable of in the convergence culture...even when the story chiefly remains in one traditional popular media form.