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The Other Civil War
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marvel

A couple of months have passed since it ended, and I'm not yet sure whether Civil War was a good thing.

No, not that civil war, not the one in Iraq. I've been pretty vocal about where I stand on that cluster-fuck since the beginning. The other civil war. I'm talking about the one that raged all through the last half of 2006 and into the beginning of 2007, and basically tore the Marvel universe to shreds.

Yes, I'm talking about comic books. I'm a big geek, okay?

Since Joe Quesada took the helm of Marvel comics in 2000, he's been a constant agent of change. First, he implemented an informal moratorium on killing heroes. Superhero death had become a mainstay of Marvel comics by the late 1990's; thus, the death of a superhero had come to mean very little. By suspending such casual deaths, and requiring careful consideration for the killing of even minor heroes, Joe was setting us up for some very big things. He also encouraged longer story arcs in his comics, translating those arcs into fantastic-selling (and fun to read) trade paperbacks. And, influenced by the smoking-related lung cancer death of his father, he banned Marvel's heroes, even Wolverine and Nick Fury, whose ubiquitous cigars had become symbolic of their characters, from smoking.

Joe spent a couple of years building up Marvel's slumping titles, renewing fantastic writing and art in several sagging books, and creating the Ultimate universe, where Marvel's staple heroes were "rebooted" in modern terms. But the Ultimate series were just the beginning.

(Warning: many spoilers ahead.)

In 2004, to the bewilderment of comic fans, Quesada oversaw a shocking development in the Marvel universe: the disbanding of the ultimate supergroup, the Avengers. Betrayed and decimated by one of their own, the Scarlet Witch, the Avengers abandoned their destroyed headquarters, buried their newly dead (after Joe Q's death moratorium, the destruction of Ant Man, Vision and especially Hawkeye hit fans hard), and said goodbye. But this was only the beginning. Shortly after the Avengers "disassembled," the same Scarlet Witch destroyed the mutant community, single-handedly reducing the mutant population worldwide from thousands of super-powered post-humans to a tiny 198 (or so) individuals. Even several well-known mutants, including Quicksilver, Jubilee and Richtor were de-powered, and all the active members of Alpha Flight were killed in the aftermath. A new, smaller, non-sanctioned, less-well-funded Avengers team eventually formed, but the mutant community remained decimated.

But then, the big one: the event (it seems) all of Quesada's machinations had been leading toward: Civil War.

In the wake of the Avengers Disassembled and the Mutant Decimation, a group of b-level superheroes (the New Warriors) create a reality TV show to raise their profile. They travel around the country fighting low-level baddies while TV cameras document the entire thing. It becomes a sort of joke in the hero community, until the group tangles with a higher class of bad guy in a suburban town. On camera, the group battles a band of super-villains led by Nitro, whose power is the ability to create explosions. During the course of the battle, a drug-augmented Nitro explodes, destroying an entire grade school and killing over 600 people, including a huge number of children and all but one of the New Warriors. It is all caught by the cameras, including the heroes' sarcastic, camera-friendly quips, and their apparent disregard for the well-being of bystanders.

The public is understandably outraged. Congress quickly passes a law that all super-powered individuals must register, and be licensed and regulated by the US government. Unregistered heroes will be hunted down and jailed. Many heroes agree that the law, while restrictive, is necessary, given the destruction which poorly-trained and undisciplined heroes can cause. Others, seeing it as hindering their ability to work, impinging on their freedoms, and/or exposing their families to grave danger, refuse to register. When the law takes effect and the registered heroes (led by Iron Man) begin to arrest and imprison those who refuse to register (led by Captain America), all hell breaks loose. America becomes a battleground as the superhero community turns inward, nearly destroying itself.

The story is told in a dedicated series (Civil War), in special supporting series such as Front Line, and in peripheral stories in almost every mainstream title in the Marvel Universe (making the last seven months or so very expensive for comic book dorks like me). You don't have to read all the supporting books to get the story, but they add amazing texture to Civil War, and show how this monumental crossover affects the entire Marvel Universe.

I loved Civil War while I was reading it. I've a deep investment in many of the central characters, so, for me, the violent internal strife was riveting. As battle lines were drawn (and I sided with Captain America's renegade band), I was dismayed to see some of my favorite heroes (Spider-Man, Reed Richards, Hank Pym, WonderMan, Ms. Marvel and Iron Man himself) siding with the government's initiative. I was horrified when Pym & Richards' robotic clone of Thor ruthlessly murdered Goliath, and I was shocked when Iron Man enlisted the Thunderbolts (a team basically made up of lethal super-villains like the Green Goblin, Bullseye and Venom) to help hunt-down the renegade heroes. The whole series was riveting, right up to the end, when Captain America, realizing that the war was un-winnable and the cost of continuing it too high, surrendered and allowed himself to be arrested. After his arrest, most of the remaining renegades gave up and registered, while a few (including more of my favorites, like Luke Cage, Dr. Strange and Spider-Man, who changed sides as the war came to an end) went deep underground. As the series came to a close, Iron Man oversaw the creation of a government sanctioned super team in every state (the Initiative), and began to encourage other countries to enact similar laws regulating superheroes.

It was a shocking and disappointing ending to the series, but Quesada was not done. In Captain America #25, as Cap was being led into court to stand trial, he was assassinated. Yes, you heard correctly: Captain America is dead, killed by a sniper working for the Red Skull (and his own girlfriend, an agent of SHIELD, who was an unwitting sleeper agent). Quesada has, in the weeks since, gone to great lengths to show that Cap is really and truly dead, sending a host of reliable heroes (most notably Wolverine) to confirm his death.

Frankly, I'm worried. While Civil war was an excellent read (highly recommended -- comic fans should go buy it ASAP), the implications to all of the ongoing stories in the Marvel universe are huge. I'm certain that was Quesada's intention - this tension in the superhero community will likely open up a lot of new storylines. Considering that many of these characters have forty years or more of backstory, that may be a welcome development. But a Marvel universe where the heroes are all government sponsored, where every state has a super team, where Captain America is dead -- I just don't know if it will work. It's exciting for Quesada and his creative teams, I'm certain, but as a lifelong comic book fan, I'm not ashamed to say I'm a little scared.

Plus, since I started writing Super before all of this happened, the Marvel Universe in which Providence lives now no longer exists. And I'm barely one-quarter done. Dammit.

So, a message to Joe Quesada: good work. You've kept me riveted for the last four years, since I re-embraced my comic nerd roots. But, you've killed one of my heroes, Steve Rogers, and entirely upended the Marvel Universe, my second home.

It had better be worth it.

end of essay
David Nett Portrait David is an actor, writer and producer in Los Angeles. He's the founder and editor-in-chief of CSP, and a founding producer of the acclaimed Lucid by Proxy theater company. Despite all this, he still has to hold down a day job in the dot-com world, where he does product and interaction design. His acting has been called "committed," "detailed," "fearless," "hilarious" and "heart-rending" by the LA Times and Backstage West. His writing has been called "articulate and commanding" and "eminently readable" by Flak Magazine. His tenth grade Geometry teacher said he "does not work well in groups." | more essays by David
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