So after reading Straczynski’s Spider-Man: Civil War, which de-soured me on the series, I figured I’d read J. Michael Straczynski’s Fantastic Four: Civil War , to see if Straczynski could pull this one out, too. And, amazingly, he did.
It seemed like an insuperable task, because Reed Richards’ motivations in the main storyline were so implausible that no amount of skillful writing could make them consistent with his previously established character. (I’m going to spoil things a bit here, because I want to talk about this concretely, so skip down to the next book if you don’t want any spoiling.) In Millar’s hands, Richards’ motivation for rounding up his friends and building a concentration camp in the Negative Zone was “It’s the law, and we have to follow the law.” Which is insane, as no superhero ever has been lawful good, and there are tons of instances of Richards himself breaking laws to do the right thing.
So what Straczynski does is reveal that, while this is Richards’ public motive, secretly he’s got a different one: He’s invented psychohistory, and his equations show that this course of action, as much as he hates and detests it, is the least bad of all possible options. This is way, way better, because it’s consistent with his character, it gives him a more involved personal conflict, and it makes the whole Civil War battleground suddenly more nuanced — because Reed might be right, and he and Iron Man may really be saving the world in an unconventional, difficult way.
So my question is this: Did the minds in charge of Civil War have this in mind the whole time, and decided that the secret should only be parceled out in the pages of Fantastic Four? Or is this Straczynski getting Millar’s Civil War story handed to him, going, “Jesus, I can’t write this character — he doesn’t make any sense! What’s really going on here?” and freelancing up a retcon on the fly? I suspect the latter, but will probably never know. Either way, credit to Straczynski for saving an implausible plotline with skillful writing.
Meanwhile, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s Peter Parker, Spider-Man: Civil War shows the immediate consequences of the big Spider-Man plot development in Civil War. This isn’t as strong as Straczynski’s Spider-Man work, but it’s not supposed to be. Straczynski is carrying the main plotline, and Aguirre-Sacasa is working around the edges to tell little stories. The first story is very strong, told from the point of view of one of Parker’s students, and illustrated with attractive painted art. The rest of the stories are still well-written, but more conventional (featuring an always-hackneyed “Spider-Man’s villains team up to take him out!” story), and with regrettably manga-influenced art. A solid batch of Spider-Man stories, but not revelatory or critical.
Peter David’s Friendly Neighorhood Spider-Man: Mystery Date is actually incredibly similar to Aguirre-Sacasa’s volume, featuring post-Civil War developments and villains attacking Parker’s school; but it’s brighter in tone than the Civil War grimness. (Perhaps that’s why they didn’t put the Civil War branding on it? Either that or they figured two Civil War Spider-Man volumes were enough.)
Paul Jenkins’ Front Line: Civil War, vols. 1 and 2 have four interwoven stories. “The Accused” is about the sentencing of the hero who inadvertantely triggered this whole Civil War mess, and basically involves a lot of political posturing in the service of a ho-hum story. “Embedded” features two reporters pursuing angles behind the Civil War stuff, and is more interesting (and fairly relevant to the larger plot). “Sleeper Cell” follows an investigation into Atlantean agents getting ready for action; it’s important in the context of the main plot, and reasonably interesting. Finally, there’s “War Correspondence” which juxtaposes images from history with those from the Civil War event, set to poetry or letters or whatever; it’s pretentious twaddle, and totally skippable. Overall, this is worth reading if you’re getting all into the Civil War stuff (as it should be clear by now that I did), but not if you’re just looking for a good story. It’s all “fill in the plot holes” stuff, not valuable in its own right.
Okay, so the major players in Civil War are Spider-Man, Iron Man, Captain America, and Reed Richards (for some reason, writing “Mr. Fantastic” sounds really stupid, so). Three of those guys are in the New Avengers, so it’s pretty clear that Brian Michael Bendis’ The New Avengers: Civil War is not going to be a tale of unity and comity. Which it’s not. This is very nearly indistinguishable from the main-line Civil War volumes, and pretty much required reading for anyone trying to follow this whole big interwoven story. I confess, though, to being highly curious where the New Avengers comic goes from here. I mean, they went to a lot of trouble to get rid of the old B-grade-laden Avengers and replace them with A-grade guys; now that they’re all at each others’ throats, are they just going to toss the team? Reconstitute it with different members? Unclear, but intriguing.
You’d think that Ed Brubaker’s Captain America: Civil War would be essential Civil War reading, since Cap is the leader of one faction and all. But it turns out not to be. The very strong sense I get is that Brubaker signed up to write the kind of stories he wanted to write (lots of spy stuff, heavy on the Cold War remnants) and he’s a bit resentful that the Powers That Be are fucking with his character, and will only mention these new developments in as grudging and reluctant a fashion as possible while still trying to tell his own story about the Red Skull and Bucky and all those other Captain America staples. The result may be a successful Captain America story (as I’ve mentioned before, I’m not the guy to judge, as I don’t really care for Captain America), but it’s a highly disposable Civil War story.
Frank Tieri’s War Crimes: Civil War is a miniseries focusing on a just-out-of-prison criminal re-establishing himself in the underworld and figuring out the new lay of the land. That lay is shaped heavily by the Civil War events, but this isn’t really a Civil War story — Tieri could have written basically this same story if Civil War didn’t exist, and I suspect he would have, but got co-opted into the Big Crossover Event. Arguably to his benefit, as the only reason I read this was my omnivorous Civil War-related reading. As a straight story, it’s basically okay, but I don’t love stories where the protagonist is a criminal and all the stuff he’s doing is criminal stuff (which is why I don’t watch the Sopranos, didn’t enjoy Goodfellas, and have no interest in The Wire).
Marc Guggenheim’s Wolverine: Civil War follows the popular badass as he sets off to kill the villain behind the tragedy that set off the Civil War events and finds that it goes deepr than he thought. This is a fine story, well-written and -plotted, with medium relevance to the main storyline. About the only drawback is that the art is hideously manga-esque. Worth reading for both Wolverine and Civil War devotees.
And finally, we come to Reginald Hudlin’s Black Panther: Civil War , which features a really odd cover decision. Every single Civil War volume so far has had a picture on the top half of the cover, and a white bottom half, with a distinctive font and the Civil War logo in the middle. This has the exact same cover layout... except the bottom half is brown. Okay, we get it, The Black Panther and Storm (apparently now his wife) are both black; perhaps it doesn’t really need to be pointed out that obviously?
Inside the covers, though, this is a very well-done volume. It’s extremely relevant to the main Civil War storyline, while also being (one senses) essential to the Black Panther’s own story. Christopher Priest’s run on Black Panther took this third-rate token character, and pointed out that he really is the king of a technologically advanced and wealthy African nation, and that this makes him a bit more than just an acrobatic guy with no particular powers. Hudlin’s working off the Priest template here, and his Black Panther is enormously important, in general and to the Civil War events specifically.
Take that kind of significance, mix it up with some interesting moral and political dilemmas, surprisingly well-written interpersonal relationships, and some solidly good writing, and you’ve got a volume that’s one of the non-Straczynski highlights of the Civil War cornucopia. (Despite which, it’s still not up to the level of the extraordinary Priest volumes, which comprised one of those character-defining classic runs, but that’s not much of a complaint.) I suspect I’m going to have to order the rest of Hudlin’s Black Panther volumes.
So! That’s pretty much all of Civil War (I think there are a few more volumes coming to me from Amazon, but I’ll get to those some other time), and after reading this whole great wodge of story, I think I need to revise my initial take on it. Once you have this whole tapestry, the Civil War plotline actually is interesting, and it actually does make a sort of sense (thanks to Straczynski), although there’s still a large amount of plot-driven, rather than character-driven, activity. I still think Millar’s skeletal volumes weren’t very good, but moving forward this huge multi-character story in seven issues is really a hell of a task, so perhaps he did as well as anyone could have. And I still absolutely think that the collection editors fell down on the job. I understand why you’d want to stay with the hero-centric collections, but in a crossover of this magnitude, it makes a lot more sense to collect at least the core books in a multi-volume Civil War collection, interleaving them as appropriate.
I can’t say I’d recommend the Civil War stuff to anyone who’s not interested in being immersed in the Marvel Universe, but to those who are, this ends up being a solid crossover event, and it’s worth picking up the essential stories as well as those related to characters you’re particularly interested in.