This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on March 24, 2016.
In retrospect Civil War is the most Mark Millar comic of all Mark Millar’s work at Marvel Comics.
Just take the first nine pages of Civil War #1. There’s a lot to this event series and both my writing partner Mark Stack and I will be digging into it, but these first nine pages provide a very clean encapsulation of what this comic is to anyone who has never read it before. Your reaction to these pages will most likely predict your reaction to the following 199. They are the inciting incident for everything that follows, the Stamford Incident as it is labeled in the story, where The New Warriors, a team of C-list superheroes, confront the supervillain Nitro and indirectly cause the deaths of more than 200 civilians, many of them children.
It’s a horrifying scenario and one that is introduced in an innocuous fashion. Millar and artist Steve McNiven enter the story through the point of view of The New Warriors focusing on the silliness of this group of teen superheroes and their reality show. They are all jokes from the start, specifically Speedball who acts as a low-rent Spider-Man. The pages themselves aren’t really funny though. Millar opts to focus on the most basic and meanest jokes available, failing to make The New Warriors likable to anyone not already familiar with the team.
Homophobic cracks are made by both villains and heroes about the outfit and name of Night Thrasher, referring to him as a bondage queen. Directly before the fight begins Speedball points out the “big, ugly zit” on teammates Namorita’s face and directs her to makeup. Everything about the humor is superficial and denigrates someone besides the thin, white man Speedball. The phrase “reality show” is repeated often and with great fervor to reinforce that this comic is current. Yet there’s no real commentary being made about the concept of reality television. Instead, it is an easy touchstone that gives the opening a sense of relevance and intelligence whether or not it actually possesses any. It’s a Millar trademark to touch upon subjects of diversity and pop culture for nothing more than the sake of shock value, and it’s on full display here in the opening pages of a tentpole title for the largest publisher of comics in North America.
McNiven plays into these impulses making the team an excellent tonal fit, if nothing else. Every character is a caricature to some degree. The fat team member borders upon being Blob-esque in fashion. Meanwhile, Namorita is shocking gorgeous and her pimple promptly disappears when she is splayed across the page to show off T&A. Even the supposedly goofy Speedball appears very handsome. McNiven has only two settings when drawing men and women, beautiful or ugly. He might add some stubble or a scar, but these people are all either stars or character actors.
That opening sequence plays like banal superhero comics shooting from the hip for the lowest common denominator and, based on the series success, hitting its target. Looking too deeply at that story feels like taking cheap shots at a cheap comic, but that’s not the story Millar and McNiven are telling here. That’s just the set up for what’s to come, both in regards to storytelling mechanics and plot. When Nitro detonates next to a grade schoolCivil War shifts from superhero schlock into “complex” political allegory.
Having hundreds of civilians, including the silhouettes of easily imagined children, brutally murdered by an uncontrolled, unregistered weapon doesn’t make it difficult to start drawing connections. Whether you examine this as a story about terrorism or gun control, it is a potent concept that drives right at the heart of many Americans greatest fears. There’s a certain promise present here of an engagement with culturally relevant topics. For some that promise is enough, but if you demand that people actually fulfill their promises, then what follows is deeply disappointing. There are no powerful polemics being made or brave statements. This is the same current-events based shock value of bondage gear and reality television being treated with more seriousness based upon the props of dead children. It is this instant that simultaneously exposes why the conversation that surrounds Civil War is taken so seriously and why the actual comics is nothing more than a bad joke being played upon its readership.
It’s the size and impact of that explosion that propels the rest of Civil War #1, a comic that is almost as lifeless as the crafter where an elementary school used to be in Stamford, Connecticut. Millar leans into his worst storytelling tendencies in the collection of scenes that follow. Rather than setting up the story or characters through organic or naturalistic means, Millar focuses on telling readers what is happening rather than showing them anything.
Many of the scenes following those at Stamford could be scrambled to little effect. A funeral, television interviews, and multiple meetings are all written purely to establish what will happen next. Millar needs to lay the groundwork of conflict and motives for that conflict in this issue, but he approaches that problem with a hammer rather than a paintbrush. It is with brute force that he rams each new idea home ensuring that no subtext is not pounded into pure text.
A long meeting at Avengers Tower presents a string of dialogue that is simply baffling. Millar leaps between random superheroes who drive each element of the plot home. Despite having such a varied cast, none of their voices are recognizable. Two different characters use the phrase “camel that broke the camel’s back” just in case readers might have missed that point the first time, or the giant hole in the ground where a school used to be. Only the occasional phrase, like Wolverine’s iconic “bub”, serves to differentiate between who is speaking in any recognizable capacity. The men and women in this room are not characters, but action figures being mimicked by a four-year-old prepared to bash them together very soon.
These moments are all provided with an appropriate tone by artist Steve McNiven though. Captain America’s escape from the Helicarrier is thoroughly ridiculous, but McNiven plays into the superhero antics and gives readers a respite from what Civil War is purportedly about to enjoy a moment of insane action. Dodging dozens of tranquilizer darts, jumping out of a flying battleship, and riding a jet like a surfboard are reasons to buy an event comic and McNiven delivers here. It’s big and bold, capably ignoring the corpses and tragedy that litter the ground below the Helicarrier. These tonal shifts don’t improve the comic any, but they do provide enjoyable spectacle.
McNiven’s tendency towards extremes of beauty or ugliness does not stop him from differentiating characters either. He draws superheroes in iconic costumes and makes a wide variety of similarly handsome leading men stand out from one another in a crowded room. While you can’t tell who is speaking based on words alone, these depictions contrast clearly and make the enormous character scope of Civil War sing like it ought to, despite long sequences consisting of nothing but talking. In a more basic superhero story this would just be a sad, but normalized element of the narrative. Here it highlights the horrifying approach towards human tragedy.
It’s colorist Morry Hollowell that provides the one true cool moment of the back half of Civil War #1 though. As the focus shifts from the over-sized meeting of superheroes to Captain America’s confrontation with Maria Hill and back, Hollowell maintains a sense of constant timing from page to page. The sun is beginning to set in New York City when readers first see the meeting and it is entirely down when they return to it. Hollowell shifts the color pallette further from warm oranges and yellows and closer to cool blues and violets with each turn of the page. In this way he informs readers that the two scenes are occurring concurrently and also hints at the darkening of events in the future in a far less obvious manner than the appearance of the giant baby-headed Watcher on the last page of the sequence.
Hollowell and McNiven’s achievements reveal the strengths of Civil War from the get-go. It’s all about surface-level appeal, making things look nice and hoping no one will bother to dig in beyond the enjoyment of seeing all their favorite Marvel superheroes in the same room or watching Captain America surf a jet.
The flaws of Civil War #1 aren’t as easy to cover up as a pimple on a reality TV show however; they’re much bigger and much uglier than that. Millar’s craft is almost non-existent when it comes to elements of characterization and theme. Civil War #1 is purely about plot and only goes so far as to begin grouping its heroes into two distinct camps. It’s the thematics that are much more deeply troubling. This is a story that opens by making connections to the hundreds of children murdered in America each year due to gun violence and the omnipresent fear of terrorism in the wake of 9/11 and all the corpses discovered in the rubble of that day. It openly stakes a claim on those events, then fails to do anything more than shrug. The banality of bad superhero comics is ignored easily enough in most circumstances, but in Civil War it becomes something offensive instead.