When Comics Get Political
In this column I will dive into times, throughout superhero history, that comics got political. There seems to be a constant debate if political discussion has a place in the medium. I hope to show that politics and superhero comics go together. This time we look at the Marvel event Civil War
The Set up
The inciting incident of the comic is when a villain, Nitro, kills many innocent people in a community in Stamford, Connecticut. The event takes places after a botched attempt by a group of superheroes to contain and capture Nitro, for a reality TV show. The high concept in this series is that the American government wants to register all the superheroes, in order to avoid incidents like this happening again. This leads to a split among the heroes as many do not want to give up their secret identities or become agents of the state. Many find that vigilantism and working outside the confines of the law is the entire point of their existence. Others think that having public oversight, and a greater power to answer to, will help with maintaining their responsibility to the public. Eventually, this debate between the heroes, on whether to register or not, leads to an all-out “Civil War.”
Post 9/11 and the Patriot Act
It is no coincidence that the comic starts off with a massive attack that leads to the loss of many innocent lives. The parallels between the fictional event in Stamford, Connecticut, and the real terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on 9/11 are not subtle. Even the cleanup and looking for bodies in the comic are eerily similar to ground zero at New York City in the aftermath of their tragedy. More concerning was that the public wanted a place for their blame after 9/11, and sadly many saw Islam as a threat (this thread is still being seen today). This is seen in the comic where the public blames all superheroes for the actions of a few. The Human Torch is even beaten on the streets while trying to enter a club. The only reason for this attack is the fact he has super powers.
The heroes facing the aftermath/cleanup and rescue after the attack on Stamford.
In the real world, the government decided to combat terrorism by creating the Patriot Act. The act vastly expanded the government’s ability to monitor, surveil, and detain suspected terrorists. Guantanamo Bay went from a military base into a prison for terrorists, that were not afforded a trial or representation. All of this was done under the guise to protect the general public. With the common thought being, “if you are innocent then you have nothing to hide.” This is mirrored again in the Superhero Registration Act. If you are truly a hero then you should welcome giving up your privacy to become an agent for the government.
The government’s side is represented primarily by Tony Stark, Iron Man. He sees registering with the government as an act of good faith. It is also interesting that Stark is a corporate leader. Large corporate interests are the same groups that really backed Bush with both his runs in office. Being pro-government meant being pro-Bush, as the Marvel universe does reside with “our world.” With all that said, Iron Man’s reasoning does have a logic to it. He sees unregistered vigilantism as something that has no oversight and leads to destruction without consequences. With the heroes unmasking and becoming government agents, they can receive training and become accountable for their actions. However, like the Patriot Act, this is not done voluntarily and forces all of them under surveillance. While Iron Man has been under government control in the past (The Avengers have been agents of the government) he is still a private citizen. One that is willingly backing a public initiative.
Captain America was created to be an agent of the government. He goes around wearing the flag as a symbol of pride. If there was one hero who could be expected to side with the government on this issue, it is Captain America. But, he is the one who leads the side against the government in this comic. He sees the government as overstepping their bounds on private citizens. Furthermore, and the thing that really pushes him over, is that the government wants to use the registered superheroes to forcefully detain the non-registered ones. He sees this as an attack on innocent people. People who risk their lives to make the world a better place, and do so outside any public service requirement. While some may have felt this was out of character, Captain America has gone against government protocol before (most notably under the Nixon administration, even giving up the flag and title). He is often written and shown to be a symbol of American values and not nationalism. He is symbolizing the side of freedom.
I admit to writing this article with a bias, and you can probably tell which side I am on. Mark Millar, the writer, has come out and said he didn’t see the comic as being political (more specifically right vs left). But I am unsure how he can claim this when there are clear real-world connections to the debates between the democrats and republicans at the time. But putting that aside, there has been a debate as to which side was he writing as “the right side.” In this case, it is more difficult as both sides have “heroes” on it. The ideas of both sides were given time and reason in this series and beyond in other comics. However, for me, it is hard to see the side that Captain America is on as the “wrong one.” When one side is actively trying to change the fundamentals of how superheroes have operated since 1938, punishing and attacking good people, how can you see it another way?