If there was an award for most controversial comic of the year, Civil War would win it hands down. But while I’ve noticed a lot of writers willing to criticize Civil War, I’ve noticed very few who are willing to defend it. Well, I’ve never been shy of a bit of controversy. So here goes my defense of Civil War.
There was an episode of Studio 60 last fall in which a
veteran writer told two writers-in-training, “Buy the premise, buy the
bit.” In this instance, the veteran
writer was trying to convey to the younger writers that they needed to
establish the premise of the skit early. That way the audience would know what the skit was about and accept
it. Although he used the word “buy,” he
was actually talking more about selling the premise since he was addressing the
writers not the audience. Sell the
premise and you’ve also sold the bit.
While this particular bit of advice was given to the
writers, I think it just as readily applies to the audience. If you buy the premise, you buy the bit. There are times when the failure lies at the
foot of the writer as was the case in that particular episode of Studio
60. But there are also times when the
failure to accept the premise lies with the audience. The audience isn’t always willing to accept
the premise, no matter how well crafted the tale might be. But that’s why we often talk about the
“willing suspension of disbelief.” The
phrase is sometimes shortened simply to “suspension of disbelief” yet I think
it’s important that we remember the “willing” part. If the audience wants to enjoy the bit,
whether it’s a comedy sketch or a comic book series, it is the audience’s
responsibility to accept the premise. In
the case of Civil War, I think that there is a segment of the audience that
simply refuses to accept the premise and that lies at the heart of most of the
So what is the premise of Civil War? The premise is that a local tragedy prompted extreme national reactions. The populace was infuriated and the government quickly passed legislation in response. The legislation itself became controversial. People lined up on opposing sides, some supporting the legislation, others opposing it. Both sides claimed to have principle on their side, though there were also some who chose a side out of pragmatism rather than idealism. Eventually, those who had chosen one side over the other began to place more importance on having their side win than on the ideals that caused them to choose their side in the first place. People on both sides of the controversy compromised their principles for the sake of winning. And in this case, the controversy has to do with the conflict between freedom and security.
Sound familiar? It
should. In many ways, Civil War is an
allegory for what is happening right now in the
United States of America. From a tragedy that prompted extreme reactions. From legislation that became divisive. From the pursuit of victory over principles. Everything that is happening in Civil War is also happening in the real world right now. Admittedly, the division in the Marvel Universe has been pushed a little bit further than the division in the real world. But that shouldn’t be surprising. A good allegorical tale will always push past the real world in order to heighten the tension or illuminate a point. George Orwell did it in 1984 and Animal Farm. One might argue that William Golding did it in Lord of the Flies. And it’s being done in Civil War.
Either you buy that premise, or you don’t. If you buy the premise, then Civil War is a
really good story. Characters you previously
admired are on opposite sides. Characters you identify with are caught in the middle. There’s personal tragedy and high drama. There’s a clash of ideals and a conflict of
principles. And it seems like there’s no
way out. I’m not saying that Civil War
doesn’t have its flaws as a story. It
does. It’s not perfect. It’s not the best story I’ve read this
year. But if you buy the premise, then
those flaws are minor irritations. If
you buy the premise, you enjoy the story.
If you don’t buy the premise, you won’t buy the bit. You won’t enjoy the story as a whole and every flaw will be magnified. That’s a danger inherent in any story with allegorical overtones. And that’s a danger in Civil War.
Yet I will defend Civil War on this ground. I think that they have sold their premise. Even those who don’t like the story admit that they know what the premise is. And enough people have accepted the premise that it’s hard to put all of the blame in the hands of the storytellers. Some irate readers may not want to hear it but if they’re not enjoying the story it’s more likely because of their failure to accept the premise than because of any flaws in the story itself.
While I’m at it, I’d like to defend Civil War on another ground as well. Some of the criticisms that have been directed at Civil War have had to do with the added tie-ins and spin-offs. I’ve noticed a couple of theories as to why Marvel has added extra tie-ins and spin-offs besides those originally announced. One theory is that once Civil War began falling behind its schedule, Marvel scrambled to fill in the time with these extra one-shots. Another theory is that Marvel scheduled these one-shots in order to patch over the flaws in the main story. They’re different theories but they both originate out of the same place- the theory that these extra stories are the by-product of failure.
I think that the opposite is true. I don’t think that these extra stories are the by-product of failure. I think they’re the by-product of success. Civil War has been the highest selling series in more than ten years. Is it any wonder that the people at Marvel thought to offer even more stories that spin out of their most successful series in a decade? Is it any wonder that they used one spin-off to promote several upcoming titles, as Civil War: Choosing Sides had prequels for Iron Fist, Irredeemable Ant-Man and Omega Flight? I think that Marvel would be publishing these one-shots whether or not Civil War was coming out on time.
I also dispute the claim that these one-shots are necessary because of flaws in the main story. That claim gets us back to my original defense. Those who accept the premise don’t think that the story has holes that need to be patched up. Yet there is a huge difference between not needing extra stories and not wanting them. Hamlet was a pretty good play, but Tom Stoppard still thought he had a story to tell about some of its minor characters like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. MASH was a pretty good movie, but somebody still thought that there were hundreds of stories left be told about those characters. So many extra stories are being spun out of Civil War because it’s a success, not because it’s a failure.
There you have it: my defense of Civil War. I didn’t defend everything. For one thing, I don’t have the time or the space. For another, there are a few flaws to the story which keep it from greatness. But while Civil War may not be the best story I’ve ever read, it has its strengths. It’s packed with action and emotion and it’s successfully fulfilling the premise that it set for itself at the beginning. And that’s pretty good.
(Originally published at Captain Comics.us, on 26 January 2007)