This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on April 22, 2016.
Civil War #5 continues all of the bad traditions of the miniseries we’ve discussed so far, while hinting at how it could have succeeded where it fails. The biggest and most consistent problem throughout Civil War is one of structure. Things happen, events are mentioned, character go places, but it never appears to be a coherent story. This is a stew of different moments that are expected to add up to a story, and it sure tastes like a Mark Millar stew. At the center of Civil War #5 though is a plot following a single character that touches upon multiple story threads and ideas. It’s capped on both ends by more events that just happen, but the story of Peter Parker switching sides in the 15 pages at the center of this comic actually possesses a structure. It’s the most coherent storytelling of Civil War thus far.
It functions on a basic plotting level where there is a clear cause-and-effect to the events on the page. Even the opening of this story in which Nighthawk and Stature are having their meeting with Tony Stark delayed because he’s distracted by Spider-Man works to remind the readers of heroes switching sides before delivering a big reveal on the next page. Every twist of fate can be connected with a “therefore”. Even though the return of the Thunderbolts or Punisher had only been hinted at previously, within the context of this major defection these big surprises being revealed make sense. Everything is grounded in Peter Parker’s choice to leave.
On paper this seems like a pretty solid idea. Imagine if each issue had been centered on a single character, moving readers through the big moments while providing a unique perspective and philosophy on what was happening. So many of the problems of Civil War stem from a complete lack of character with dialogue and outfits being haphazardly strewn about the page with no clear narrative arcs to follow.
The focus on Spider-Man in Civil War #5 doesn’t actually fix those problems though. Dialogue is still about delivering exposition and choices are driven by plot rather than character. The exchange Spider-Man has with Iron Man when explaining why he is choosing to leave is a perfect example. Spider-Man lays out a series of horrific choices, the mad scientist style options of the past couple issues that have put the Pro-Registration heroes beyond the veil of reason. It doesn’t read naturally, functioning like a recap, but it at least makes sense.
Iron Man’s response is baffling though. He stumbles through a variety of response moving from denial to justification to self-martyrdom. For being one of the world’s smartest men, he is incapable of composing a semi-coherent response. His line about what Clone Thor did to Bill Foster seems insane when you consider an Aryan law officer murdered a black man for shoving someone. It might be what a police officer would do and that’s the problem.
Portraying that particular incident as being justified law enforcement is just the tip of this immoral iceberg though. The reveal of the Thunderbolts is another maddening step toward super villain-dom for the Pro-Registration, especially when you look at the spread of monsters on display, many of whom have committed mass murder in the same streets they’re being released to. Capturing Spider-Man is so important that unleashing hell is the best possible solution. There’s no world in which these characters or their actions make sense, not even in the heightened reality of the Marvel Universe.
This wouldn’t be so troubling if Civil War #5 was interested in saying anything with these reveals and bad decisions. The series claims to have political themes at its core, evoking school shootings, terrorism, and mass surveillance as core elements of the plot. Yet neither side is any better than the other. After the Pro-Registration heroes do everything in their power to look like the bad guys, Captain America embraces The Punisher (the only person inCivil War #5 to have killed more people than Bullseye) with open arms. The only thing Millar is interested in saying is that both sides are bad and ought to feel bad. This isn’t a moral comic, it’s a nihilistic one, only concerned with making a buck.
The Punisher’s introduction in Civil War #5 is just one more moment of missed opportunities and low writing standards. Spider-Man has been left intoxicated by a villain’s airborne toxin and is not registering the world around him. He sees Punisher as a horrible shadow of death and responds in fear, but the words he uses undercut the potency of this moment. There is an acknowledgement of who this is, stating that he is the “skull-face guy”, but he can’t remember the Punisher’s name despite being a significant part of Spider-Man and Marvel lore for decades. It’s a bizarre conflict of information. McNiven’s depiction of Spider-Man’s perspective creates a great moment thatCivil War #5 is incapable of sustaining.
That surfaces again at the end of the issue when Daredevil gives Iron Man a silver coin and call him Judas with 31 pieces. Except there’s only one piece. It’s a bit of dialogue that touches on something that sort of makes sense and that could be easily refined. Instead it is left alone to make anyone who is doing more than skim the word bubbles scratch their heads. The most interesting things about this issue really lie in what is unintentional, but clearly exists on the page. It’s fascinating how many ideas are thrown down and walked away from without any effort being put into them. The core conversation to be had about this issue lies in what could have been.
As for what actually is, there’s a whole lot of first draft-level storytelling, McNiven’s artwork (which we’ve discussed for better and worse at this point), and a bizarre incestuous connection between Sue and Johnny Storm. That’s right.
McNiven is incapable of drawing attractive characters in any way that isn’t sexy, and whenever two of them are together they appear that way… together. At the start of Civil War #5, the very attractive Storm siblings are teamed up to flee the Capekillers and thrust at one another as they fly into the night. It’s an uncomfortable position that borders on being Greg Land influenced in its facial expressions and modeling. When they reappear together later on, McNiven draws Sue draped on Johnny like a very comfortable girlfriend adding to these uncomfortable vibes They even acknowledge working under a cover story of a couple, which Johnny remarks is ridiculous because his slightly older sister would be the grandmother of most of his conquests. Is this a matter of protesting too much? Is Jonathan Storm a pedophile? Are the sexual semiotics of these two in Civil War #5 not worth actually discussing.