Monday, June 19, 2006

Politics in Comic books

So I'm a comic book geek.

Every couple of years the big two comic book publishers - DC and Marvel - hold gigantic company wide cross-over events with all or most of their comics to spike sales and occasionally to make real changes to their universes. DC is the universe for Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and the Justice League, Marvel the home to Spiderman, Captain America, The Hulk, The X Men and The Fantastic Four. DC recently finished their big event called The Infinite Crisis, understatement being a big characteristic of superhero comics, and Marvel just started theirs called Civil War.

Marvel's writers posit a disaster where a battle between a team of young superheros and a band of villains which results in the death of hundreds of children when the battle spills over into a schoolyard. The disaster impacts the Marvel Universe the way 9/11 affected ours and starts a movement and ultimately a law to force superheros to take off their masks and go public with their identities if they want to keep fighting villains. Some heroes like Iron Man and Ant-man support the government initiative, others like Captain America and Wolverine go underground and start fighting back at what they see as government interference. The parallels with The Patriot Act and the divided nature of America today are obvious.

The big shocker that makes it clear Civil War is playing for keeps with the changes it's making is this press conference scene:

"My name is Peter Parker and I've been Spiderman since I was fifteen years old."

I expected to enjoy Infinite Crisis a lot more than I did and I didn't expect to enjoy Civil War as much as I am.

Ultimately I come down to Infinite Crisis couldn't be really considered a failure, because frankly it wasn't ambitious enough to even risk failing. It was a self-referential super hero comic about super hero comics. Perfectly fine for the empty confection it was, but as cruel and dismal as I frequently found DC's last big crossover project, Identity Crisis which featured rape and murder in the superhero universe, it was a thousand times more compelling.

Civil War on the other hand, has been all about ambition. There are so many ideas, interesting ideas, bumping into each other in this book they're striking sparks. And instead of being about nothing more than the world of super powered people in tights it has clear and unambiguous links with the world we live in and commentary thereof.

Before it came out the authors argued they would be able to portray both sides as reasonable and good intentioned and not blatantly wrong, and despite my doubts they've so far pulled it off. After all in our world there are laws against vigilantes in masks - they're used against the KKK. I'm on Captain America's side because Iron Man's way requires trusting the government to do the right thing forever. The conservative argument in other words.

Captain America, who I've always viewed as an FDR style robust interventionist progressive liberal - and I fully accept that others read his ideology differently - is listening to his inner anarchist while establishment technocrat Rockerfeller style Republican Iron Man - again my interpretation - is throttling his inner Libertarian.

Tough questions, no easy answers - the essential challenge to any society of drawing a line between security and liberty - with muscle bound characters in tights beating each other up. What more could you want?

Here's how to find a comic shop near you if you're interested.


Ian Moulding said...

So Parker has finally come out.

The problem here is - He's married to a supermodel/actress, he's a member of the Avengers, he's connected to some of the richest guys in the Marvel Universe, and now he's a celebrity. So much for Peter Parker/Spiderman as the ordinary guy of the Marvel universe.

Cliff said...

True, but the status quo is still available to one degree to another in Ultimate Spiderman, Adventures of Spiderman, the big screen and forty years of back issues.

I can live with the change in one version of the character - of course by the end of the series a cosmic cube may have reversed everything - and of course we know Spidey will join Captain America's side before the end.

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