Friday, October 20, 2006

Marvel's Civil War and the disconnect between 'real' and 'implied' readers

On Mark Millar/Steve McNiven's Civil War #4... (written September 23, originally posted to

Let’s get this out of the way – Mark Millar knows what he’s doing. Millar’s Professor Xavier in Ultimate X-Men cribs lines from Ralph Waldo Emerson and pits The Authority against a villain who is self-consciously modeled on Jack Kirby. In doing so, he speaks subtextually to the issues of post-humanism, nostalgia, and influence that inflect much of language used by comic book writers and critics alike. And when you consider that Millar’s reputation was built on the epic, “widescreen” pop-comic stylings of The Authority – a book where the characters’ disagreeable attitudes are dwarfed only by the absurd and outlandish foes they match up against – one can only conclude that Civil War need not be read like your typical sort of Marvel super-hero story.

On Newsrama, Millar explains that this latest issue “radicalized a lot of [heroes] we'll see in the next couple of issues, kind of like the way some Muslims were suddenly radicalized when Iraq got a little shock and awe”. Fair enough, I suppose – Millar and Marvel alike have pushed Civil War as an allegory for American domestic and international policy, and it only makes sense that Millar would encourage people to choose sides in this battle according to the politics that they find most agreeable in the real world. The specific perspective that Millar expresses in the quote above, though, is only one possible interpretation and not necessary the most useful – by obscuring and swapping many of the particulars, Millar creates a space of liminality in which each side carries markers of the patriot and the reformer, the soldier and the terrorist, Big Brother and Winston Smith. The tag-line “Whose side are you on?” is not so simple a question.

Like The Authority, Civil War is also larger than life – the super-heroic id unleashed in all its libidinal glory. It’s no wonder that the Thor clone, brandishing the most phallic super-weapon of all, is the one who should tip the balance. It’s also intriguing that the Invisible Woman – whose very power of invisibility is a quizzically active projection of her “lack” under Freudianism as a woman, or the embodiment of penis envy – should be the one to stifle his attack and defer certain defeat. Already compelled to favor one paradigm or another, we now have to consider that the symbolic order itself is at risk.*

[*October 13th Update: On Comicboards' Avengers Message Board, Omar Karindu theorizes the battle as a crisis of genre - "procedural and law enforcement on the pro-Reg side, and traditional superhero genre standards on the anti-Reg side." This is probably a more productive reading, since it takes a decidedly more meta-commentary approach - which is much more in line with Millar's past work - than my more abstracted psychoanalytic tack.]

Except that this isn’t The Authority – Thor isn’t Apollo, Cap isn’t Midnighter, and Iron Man isn’t the Engineer. And subtext tends to miss its mark when the text itself is so outrageous to the reader that disbelief can no longer be suspended.

What Millar and Co. seem to have completely missed is that Marvel readers are called “Zombies” for a reason – they show up out of loyalty to the characters, not for the high-brow conceit. While casting Iron Man as an antihero in the mode of Dr. Frankenstein (or, given his recent neuroses for contingency planning, maybe Batman) seems like a pretty clever idea, few Iron Man fans will appreciate that cleverness in the face of so much textual contradiction with his past representations.

It appears that Marvel has forgotten – or never realized – that their consumers read for the characters first. The plots or high concepts will only ever be secondary, and so editor Tom Brevoort’s suggestion that “It's human nature to root for the underdog” misses the point. The reality is not nearly so philosophical. For many readers, super-heroes were one of their first points of identification, a mirror stage in their moral development. Millar may recognize this pseudo-psychoanalytic function of the super-hero comic in his symbolic play, but his attempts to deconstruct it seem to indicate a rather stark disconnect between theory and practice. When pushed to choose between two sets of their beloved heroes, characters who they’ve quite often internalized and made fundamental to their own sense of self in some way, fans will invariably detest the side fighting to incarcerate and indoctrinate – and, yes, kill – their friends. There’s no sympathy for Iron Man when he crosses his own line and inadvertently kills Bill Foster, and Cap’s ostensibly irrational and fanatic response to being beaten within an inch of his life seems irrefutably heroic in contrast.

For the fanatic reader – who, it seems, is very nearly the average reader – the allegory collapses under the weight of four decades worth of affective sediment. But pretend, if you will, that these are not Marvel heroes but rather The Authority. Or even better, The Ultimates. Can you imagine how this would read and be received as an Ultimate Marvel crossover, with no over-burdened and over-determined history? My guess it is that it would be received rather well.

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