Comic books have always been political. Superman—the first truly super hero and a child of the Great Depression—started his career battling the symbols of a corrupt, failing capitalist order. "There are no safety hazards in my mine," proclaims a mine-company executive in Action Comics #3. "But if there were—so what? I'm a businessman, not a humanitarian." To Superman's Agrarian-Populist-by-way-of-New-York-Jewish-Socialist political sensibility, that just wasn't the American way! Pow! Bam! Take that, irresponsible crony capitalist!
In the 1940s, Superman and his cohorts-in-capes turned their formidable energies to beating Nazis and Japanese imperialists. In the 1960s, mainstream comics, especially those published by Marvel, turned politically right while the rest of the country turned left. Heroes like Iron Man fought Communists ("Wong-Chu, the red guerrilla tyrant!"), the Avengers battled Feminism ("Up against the wall, male chauvinist pigs!" cries the evil Enchantress, disguised as the Valkyrie), and Daredevil and Black Panther teamed up to tussle with militant black nationalists. "Well, well ... if it aint [sic] the Panther! The original Establishment Black Man himself!" says the black-nationalist gang leader. "Don't try to palm off that 'Establishment' jargon on me," retorts the Black Panther. "I'm old enough to tell the difference between a dissenter and a criminal!" In the 1970s, superheroes turned into tormented outsiders like Ghost Rider and Swamp Thing, and the difference between dissent and criminality became a key question.
In recent decades British comics like V for Vendetta and The Invisibles have promoted dystopian anarchist politics, depicting societies in which all dissent is criminal and all criminality is dissent from an unjust social order. But on the other side of the Atlantic, during the "morning in America" Reagan regime and throughout the prosperous, expansive Clinton years, the only interesting politics were pretty much confined to the X-Men, whose semiotically complicated mutants stood in for various persecuted minorities, from teen geeks to gays and lesbians to ethnically cleansed Genoshans ... er, that is to say, Bosnians.
Then two planes crashed into the World Trade Center, and the wars of the world came home. Initially September 11 provoked a compassionate, nonpolitical response among superheroes and the companies who publish their adventures. With the invasion of Iraq and expansion of the Bush Administration's power, however, responses on all levels of American society have gradually turned political. The debate over how to fight external threats to America's power is shaped by wider questions over the very meaning of America, and the values for which it stands.
Through its imprints Vertigo and WildStorm—in titles like Ex Machina, DMZ, and We3—DC has tackled issues of war and civil liberties in ways that have been politically thoughtful and artistically satisfying. Meanwhile Marvel confined itself to stupidly jingoistic titles like the rightly ignored Combat Zone: True Tales of GIs in Iraq, attempting to recast Iraq as World War II even as the war started to look more and more like Vietnam.
In the new Civil War mini-series, Marvel Comics finally gets off its creative ass and tackles head-on the issues raised by the War on Terrorism, from overreaching government power and individual conscience to public safety and personal liberty. After a super-powered catastrophe kills six hundred people, the government demands that super heroes reveal their secret identities and go to work for the government as legitimate officers of the law, complete with "pension plans and annual vacation time."
A group of Marvel superheroes led by Iron Man and Mr. Fantastic embrace the "Superhuman Registration Act," but Captain America and his allies refuse to register with the government. "Don't play politics with me," Captain America tells the new head of S.H.I.E.L.D. "Super-heroes need to stay above that stuff or Washington starts telling us who the super-villains are."
Marvel has gone all-out promoting Civil War as a Big Statement for Our Troubled Times, winning free media in NPR, The Daily Show, and the New York Times. "Classically Marvel is all about the world around us," editor Tom Brevoort says in one interview. "The Marvel superheroes are reflective of the environment they were created in ... Civil War has characters grounded in the contemporary world with a fantasy element. If you live in the world, you will find some point of relevance on top of having a big exciting superhero adventure with guys in costumes flying at each other and fighting."
Though writer Mark Millar, a Scotsman, is well known for his leftist sympathies (his "dream project" is a 21st Century comic-book version of Karl Marx's Das Kapital), Civil War consistently refuses to advocate for one side or the other. Its approach is to create an event—the Registration Act—that no superhero can control, and then allow the heroes of the Marvel Universe to respond in ways that are consistent with their characters and histories.
Is Civil War a good comic book? Well ... Millar is a great writer and Steve McNiven is a fantastic comics artist. In putting the two together, I don't think Marvel could have failed. The dialogue is competent, the plotting lean, the lines and angles crisp, and there's plenty of muscle-bound, gravity-defying action (highlight: Captain America high-jacking a fighter jet off the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier). But I can't say that the series feels particularly inspired as art, politics, or sheer entertainment. Warren Ellis's Transmetropolitan is a far more fun and aggressive take on overreaching government and corporate power; Millar's own series The Ultimates combined inspired re-imagining of Marvel's stock characters with a deep critique of superheroes in an age of media hype and friendly authoritarianism.
However, a cross-over series like Civil War, where so many characters are in play, must also be evaluated within the context of the publisher's universe: is the story consistent with the characters and sensibility of the entire Marvel Universe? Here I think Civil War excels. For example, some readers might automatically think that Captain America—who already works for the government—would support the Registration Act. Yet it makes perfect, if surprising, sense for Captain America to lead the rebellion against the Act. Through many political zigs and zags in the real world, Cap has always represented the Platonic American conscience. "Cap is about freedom more than anything else," says Millar. "He's about altruism and not being in anyone's pocket. He'd be repulsed by the idea of doing this as a job. He's all about civic duty. He's no lapdog and is bigger than any government, whether it's Republican or Democrat. He represents the ideal." This insight seems right-on to me.
Since Civil War is tackling, in an allegorical way, real-world threats to national security and civil liberties, the reader is right to ask: if Captain America really existed in George W. Bush's America, whose side would he be on? The answer, consistent with his character's history, is almost certainly that Cap would be punching out Abu-Ghraib torturers and exposing secret detentions in Guantanamo as un-American, even as he might defend the decision to invade Iraq.
Conversely, what would Iron Man be doing? Iron Man has always been an Establishment character, right from his origin fighting commies in the jungles of Vietnam. Tony Stark is a rich guy, a drunk, and a weapons manufacturer; he's always been a character whose conscience has struggled with the imperatives of money and power. Surely Stark International would cooperate with Bush's War on Terrorism, supplying arms and surveillance devices, turning over records and covering up the bodies. Stark would struggle to decide where to draw the line and would fight to keep from crossing it; that's what marks him as a hero.
Thus far there are no radicals in the Civil War, no superheroes who reject the entire social order on which the Registration Act is based. It is, as they say, a single-issue battle, and it'll be interesting to see if Marvel and Millar follow the war to its logical conclusion. What will happen if anti-Registration forces conclude that the roots of injustice lie not in supervillainy but instead in the inequities of the global economy and the power of the American government? Will outlawed superheroes find common cause with supervillains who have always lived outside the law?
Yes, Civil War tells us something about the Marvel Universe, deepening the characters and extending the master narrative arc in logical and interesting directions. But does it tell us anything about the real world? Does it help us to understand the War on Terrorism and 21st Century America? Golden Age superheroes derived their power from being able to act out the secret fears and desires of powerless children everywhere. Superman righted the wrongs of the Great Depression; when the time came, he kept the Third Reich at bay. In the Sixties, superheroes strived to control the changes sweeping America and the world, striking strangely conservative poses in a time of cultural upheaval. In the Seventies, superheroes became alienated outsiders struggling to find justice and community in a society that seemed increasingly fragmented.
Civil War might represent a new watershed in superhero politics, one that reflects an America divided between educated, affluent, cosmopolitan "Blue States" and religious, de-industrialized, culturally homogenous "Red States." What fears and desires does Civil War reveal? The fear is that we are coming apart; the secret desire is not for social and political unity, but instead for open conflict. The 20th Century hero fought for all of us and for an American Way that everyone supposedly shared. In the 21st Century, superheroes will fight over the very meaning of the American Way. The winners will decide who is an American ... and who is a criminal.
Jeremy Adam Smith is the managing editor of Greater Good Magazine. His articles have appeared in AlterNet, San Francisco Bay Guardian, Wired, and numerous other periodicals. He also blogs about the politics of parenting at Daddy Dialectic.