A House Divided – Civil War Examined in Light of Today’s Avengers

Civil War remains the most iconic Marvel Comics storyline of this century. Not only was it recently voted as the second greatest story ever by Marvel fans for their special 75th Anniversary Issue, but it was also given a special honor by the movie side of the company. When announcing the new slate of movies, it was the lone subtitle that they tried to hide from the live crowd, knowing that just posting it on a screen would cause more attention and excitement than anything else that they would be presenting that day, even more than a two-part Avengers sequel.
It’s served as a gateway for many new readers, a storyline newly collected and completely palatable to novices who were, for instance, interested in getting into the comics after watching Iron Man on the big screen. In it, Mark Millar carefully crafted a story that spoke to the concerns of the time and that featured heroes being torn down in the most sensationalist way, a product that would appeal to the masses and that could be summed up in just a few words: hero pitted against hero over an ideological tear. It’s a marketing masterpiece, one that obviously still resonates with readers, but also one that’s full of aesthetic and narrative flaws.
Currently, Jonathan Hickman is crafting a wonderfully flawed masterpiece of his own. At the time of writing, he is more than 38 issues into his run on Avengers and more than 26 into his run of New Avengers, comics published concurrently. He’s also had a hand in the fifteen or so Avengers World issues that have come out as well and the Infinity event that bounced around the Marvel line. For the sake of this essay, we’ll be primarily looking at the current storyline, Eight Months Later, which began in Avengers 35 and New Avengers 24 respectively.
It is admittedly not a perfect comparison to Civil War. Obviously, Hickman’s story is still in progress. Civil War can be looked at as a total whole. Eight Months Later (like Hickman’s Avengers’ run in general) cannot. Although the scope and theme of the stories can be compared, Civil War served as an end unto itself while Eight Months Later is actually part of a road to bigger events, Time Runs Out and Secret Wars, to launch in 2015. This is less of an issue to me, however. The serialized shared universe nature of Marvel comics means that every event, no matter how definitive its end, always leads to whatever comes next. Civil War spun into Avengers: the Initiative and Mighty Avengers and a revamped Thunderbolts, not to mention the next line-wide events: Secret Invasion and Dark Reign.
With all of that said, where can fair and accurate (if admittedly imperfect) comparisons be made? First, in high concepts. These are storylines meant to transform the Marvel Universe but that are also pieces of commerce created to generate revenue. One is certainly more palatable and accessible than the other, though that may come at a narrative cost. Along these lines, they can be looked at in how well they utilize the preexisting stories and characters of the Marvel Universe or in how they create their own groundwork for the story being told. Do the characters define the story or does the story define the characters? Or, instead, do they work together, hand in hand to create a greater whole? Both stories are ultimately about a ideological divide caused by a certain external pressure. Most of all, then, how the stories choose to deal with this divide thematically can be compared. Civil War worked very hard to tear down certain structures of the Marvel Universe while Eight Months Later, as of yet, has used its unique narrative device to start from a point of collapse and instead hint at building these fictional castles back up once again or even in creating new ones.
High Concept
Mark Millar is a genius. So is Lex Luthor, of course. In specific, Millar is a genius at self-promotion, at distilling a storyline into its most marketable form, and in understanding the lowest common denominator of the culture for which he is writing. We love to see our heroes fall. We love to see celebrities hit rock bottom. We love to see the very worst of our very best. Sensationalism is the nectar feeding the 24-hour news cycle culture. Civil War tapped into it so well.
There was no ultimate villain in Civil War. There was no Loki or Kang or Red Skull pulling the strings from behind the curtain. People were scared. People had suffered. They looked to the government for an answer, out of fear, and because Millar wanted to tap into the real world implications that can even be found in the escapist fantasy of superhero comics. Civil War bathed and rolled around in the question of “what if this really happened?” What if a superhero battle destroyed a town? What if it was captured on video? What if it came at the heels of one disaster after another? What if the government responded harshly? How would the superhero community react?
Marvel Comics were always somewhat grounded in the real world. Using New York City as a center-point instead of Metropolis or Gotham wasn’t an accident. For decades, the strength of Marvel’s line and characters was in finding the balance between the fantastic and the familiar. Early on, the Fantastic Four bickered like a real family and Peter Parker experienced everyday problems of making ends meet and dealing with the awkwardness of being a┬áteenager. Mutants have always been a much less hidden parallel to race, sexual or gender issues than, for example, Superman was for hiding one’s Jewishness back in the 30s and 40s. The balance had arguably gone too far in the early 00s. With a mandate to reach a lost audience, a generation of writers enamored of Alan Moore and, more pointedly, Frank Miller had pushed things away from the fantastic and deeply towards the mundane. The Avengers had become street level heroes, dealing with gangsters, ninjas, and mobsters. The comics were more often than not no longer about the adventures themselves but somehow featured the characters talking about them instead. It made for interesting and very human stories, but some of the old wonder was lost in the transition. Civil War was the ultimate realization of this shift.
Hickman’s current run on Avengers is, in many ways, its opposite, with Eight Months Later serving as an ultimate realization of that. It begins, as early as page one, with the idea of an “Avengers World,” and really, that’s an understatement, as the ultimate scope isn’t just global, but universal, even multi-dimensional. The high concept of Eight Months Later is a twofold beast, one medium driven and one story driven. The former is exactly what the title would suggest, a jump in the narrative eight months or more accurately, to the comics that would be published eight months after the issue that preceded Part 1 of the storyline.
Story-wise, the high concept is as follows: something has caused universes to collapse upon themselves, with different versions of Earth colliding into one another. During these incursion “events,” if one of the two Earths are not destroyed, then both (and maybe a great deal more) will be wiped from reality forever. In the face of this, the Avengers have schismed into three groups: the Illuminati made up of the great thinkers of the Avengers, a SHIELD-driven unit hunting them for the secrets they held and the crimes they committed, and a more traditional team that’s trying to pull back everything together and find a path through this darkness. On top of this, there’s a monstrous villain-based group that’s become globally sanctioned to destroy the other worlds since none of the Avengers units are willing to do what seemingly needs to be done. Muddying this high concept are strange and outlandish characters and ideas, giant and sometimes fascinating ideas that stretch the limits of the imagination but that also add layer after layer of complexity to the mix.
Civil War is as grounded in real world angst as could be. Eight Months Later is as far out and cosmic as possible. Both, however, are centered in how these heroes deal with an impossible situation and how, then, this situation puts them at odds with one another. Civil War can be encapsulated very easily. I write this essay, in part, to praise what Hickman is creating, but I’ll admit freely that even I don’t fully understand everything that’s going on in Eight Months later. Whatever it is, it’s pretty trippy and exciting though. It’s just so much harder to boil down.
Civil War only nominally built on what came before it. It was the events of Avengers Disassembled and House of M that was supposed to prime the fictional general public for the disaster at Stamford which opened issue 1 and led to the call for government action against metahumans. In truth, it was the real life events of 9/11 and the Patriot Act that followed which set the stage.
One side effect of Marvel keeping their universe as much like the real world as possible is that the general person on the street is often stretched far past the point of believability. We, as readers, are supposed to accept that something like Galactus’ arrival in New York was shrugged away as a weather balloon or mass hallucination. That’s fair to some extent, or at least practical from a storytelling perspective. A world that saw threat after threat after threat, as well as one that embraced all the different cultural or scientific advances, would quickly become unrecognizable to us. When it’s the linchpin of a story such as this, however, it makes for shaky foundation.
An even shakier foundation came from positioning characters for the sake of the story. The central conceit, that Iron Man would fall on the government’s side and that Captain America would oppose him had some basis both in Stark’s history, longer and recent. Armor Wars, a seminal story from the 80s, where Stark’s designs leaked to the public, including the Government, and where he took severe action to stop their spread, was referenced as a cautionary tale, as was the fact he had just come off a stint as Secretary of Defense in Jonathan Jackson Miller’s highly underrated run on the title. In truth, placing Tony in the role of a reactionary futurist who felt the need to go with the repressive flow so that he and his colleagues wouldn’t be swept under simply didn’t follow well from any previous stories, even these. Captain America as the voice of reason and resistance worked better, but “reason” would be a dubious term at best given his reactions in the story, reactions necessary to move the plot where Millar wanted it to go. Other characters, such as Reed Richards, had to be stretched (figuratively, not literally) in multi-issue tie-ins in order to try to make them fit into their required but obtuse roles. The plot was straightforward but so much so that it defined the characters. They were shaped by it, not the other way around.
In this regard, Eight Months Later has something of an unfair advantage. It’s a story within a larger run on a title. Jonathan Hickman is known for laying groundwork and paying it off. For instance, his writing stint on Fantastic Four began with a number of seemingly unconnected done-in-one stories, but they all came together in a spectacular manner in the last third of the run. Avengers has worked in much the same fashion, with issue after issue dealing with seemingly unconnected symptoms to what was slowly revealed to be a larger problem. His Avengers felt very much like Grant Morrison’s JLA; big ideas; big crises; little bursts of character here and there; nontraditional and unconventional. Unfortunately it, perhaps, has not quite had the iconic moments of Morrison’s seminal work.
His New Avengers, however, has dealt with the problem itself instead of just the symptoms. It’s dealt with the colliding worlds. Here he’s built off of Brian Bendis’ Illuminati concept, placing the intellectual giants of the superhero world in a situation where they, and only they, know about the impending danger and are forced to balance the needs of their world against their own morality in combating it. Where his Avengers began in a positive light, the invoking of an uplifting and triumphant Avengers World, New Avengers began with the destruction of the Infinity Gems, used to stop the first of these incursions, and then with the wiping of Captain America’s mind so that the rest of the Illuminati could continue their dire and morally dubious work unopposed.
For issue after issue (with more Avengers than New Avengers as the former double shipped), Hickman has been able to set up pieces while Millar had to rely on what was already on the board, whether it synced with his intentions or not. Hickman had far more free rein to populate the boundaries of his story with the elements he needed, be it Thanos and his generals or AIM ascendant or the strange beings that arrived during or due to the incursions, obtuse cosmic creatures that gave the tale a sense of the unknowable and strange. It all escalated to a well-planned breaking point due to the revelations of the Original Sin crossover where Captain America’s memory was restored. This paved the way for the final framing events setting up Eight Months Later.
By laying out his own groundwork over the span of dozens of issues, Jonathan Hickman was able to create a rich tapestry to draw upon. Millar on the other hand, without that room to build and perhaps due to his own creative inclinations, took a hatchet and wrench to the canvas he was given, cutting where he had to, forcing square pegs into round holes for the ultimate sake of the story he was trying to tell. By doing so, he created a more streamlined story. There might be some level of head scratching on why one character ended up on one side or another, but in this regard, it’s ideal for newer readers who can take such decisions at face value; the less knowledge one came in with, the better. By writing a simpler story, Millar made a much more accessible one.
Civil War occurred at the tail end of Marvel’s post-bankruptcy recovery era. During this period, many stories were written in six issue arcs in order to fit perfectly in trade paperbacks to appeal to a bookstore audience. Pacing-wise, this didn’t make the best use of the serialized monthly medium of comic books. Civil War came off like candy for those with small attention spans in comparison. There was a big reveal or moment at the end of each issue. Action moved quickly even if it crashed about in a somewhat circular fashion. Like many other Marvel events to come, smaller, more personal, moments were relegated to tie-ins, leaving the main comic full of bombastic action and strife. It left things flashy and exciting, but all rather hollow.
Eight Months Later, on the other hand, is taking place now, in an age where binge reading is a bit more prevalent due to digital accessibility. It better allows for the sort of denseness that Hickman has packed into it. That said, he still created an entry point hook to clear the slate for his story. He moved things along eight months from Captain America regaining his memory, bridging it with a story that propelled Cap and a few other Avengers deep into the future to see potential consequences of their actions. Moving ahead to a point eight months later in the publishing cycle was definitely a gimmick but one that felt more significant than a simple chapter break; it was more similar to the shift between a movie and its sequel, a way to really create that jumping on point.
As mentioned above, eight months later the Illuminati are on the run. One group of Avengers, wearing monochromatic uniforms, work with SHIELD to track them down before they enact any more extreme solutions. Meanwhile, the world has rallied, in desperation, behind a Cabal of villains introduced or reintroduced earlier in the run who are more than willing to destroy other worlds’ for the sake of their own. Finally, there is a disparate group of remaining Avengers that did not choose either side who are trying to traverse through the middle of the situation and restore things to what they once were. Though logical in its set-up, it’s a very different scenario than what was presented just a few issues before.
Civil War touched upon the entirety of the Marvel Universe, but did so in a bare bones way. Characters were forced into one camp or another, and in the main book, primarily used in large fight scenes or as casualties to be captured. The New Warriors, straight off one of their many failed relaunches, this one a mini-series where they were presented as reality stars, were chosen to be the failures of superheroes who launched the event by being unable to stop Nitro from destroying Stamford. They were thrown under the bus, as it was, which is not uncommon in large events. Goliath was killed off as well. Obviously Iron Man was thrust into a new role as Director of SHIELD. The Mighty Avengers were spun off of this and a number of A-level villains were forced together to be the new Thunderbolts. That and the new Initiative comic were the two big winners from the event. In general, it tore apart and broke down much more than it created.
Hickman’s Avengers, on the other hand, has built up various characters throughout. First and foremost, he dusted off the New Universe and brought it back into the heart of the Marvel Universe. Three or four of his Avengers are from that experimental line. He’s also included a new version of Hyperion, Captain Universe and Shang Chi who ended up with a lot more panel time, than, let’s say Wolverine, in a rather interesting deviation from the norm. Millar’s goal was to tell as marketable a story as possible, so that wouldn’t have happened in Civil War. AIM was made into a far larger threat than it ever had been before. Moreover, he created a number of new characters, not just the strange beings of the incursions, including the Builders whose threat, along with Thanos’ new generals, was the focus of the Infinity crossover. He also created brand new Avengers such as a human inheritor of the Shi’ar Smasher legacy. Finally, Sunspot and Cannonball, relegated previously to occasional New Mutants revivals, were included as an element of comic relief.
Throughout Eight Months Later, he’s positioned these characters in key places to help build them up more. Sunspot is the leader of the third group of Avengers, having purchased AIM. Cannonball is off in space with Smasher, the two of them now with a young baby. Black Swan, a harbinger of the incursions, is now with the Cabal. He’s expanded the Illuminati to include Captain Britain as well as more obscure characters such as Amadeus Cho and has added Susan Richards to the SHIELD-positioned Avengers. There is a sense of him trying to elevate characters or use them in new and interesting ways. Again, this was an opportunity provided to him by the number of issues at his disposal, and given the world-changing stories to come, could be wiped out in one fell swoop, but it was an opportunity used to its fullest and the Marvel Universe is richer for it. After Civil War, the Marvel Universe felt a little poorer to me, as if the story had somehow used it up.
Put bluntly, Civil War was a tale of deconstruction. Eight Months later seems to be one of reconstruction. It’s the nature of serialized, never-ending superhero comics that the characters will, at times, get broken down and torn apart. Civil War brought that idea front and center. Its tagline from a marketing perspective was “Who’s Side are You On?” and part of its goal was to present both sides as in the wrong, albeit with a point. By its nature, they couldn’t reason with one another, whether it was in their character to or not.
Hickman’s run has presented a situation full of shades of grey, but, as Eight Months Later begins, the Avengers have already been pushed apart. He has made the conscious choice to show the events leading up to that dissolution but then to skip ahead past the dissolution itself, no matter how marketable such stories have previously been. While the story begins in a darker place, and while there’s always the specter of universal destruction and impossible decisions above the characters’ head, they’re presented in a heroic light. At this stage of the story, Sunspot’s group of Avengers look poised to pull the other groups together and maybe, just maybe, find a solution to the threat. There is an underlying sense of youth and optimism from them, even as they inspire a fallen Thor or eternally jaded Spider-Woman and Black Widow to join in and fight for the future.
It’s always harder to build something up, or back up, then to tear it down, even if the latter might get more attention and appeal to the baser instincts of people. That doesn’t mean that the emotional burden isn’t shown on Hickman’s characters. Captain America, re-aged and de-powered in his own comic and now serving in a leadership role at SHIELD, was so frustrated from losing the trail of the Illuminati (and from months of hunting his friends) that he took it out physically on a room. On paper, it should have been an uncharacteristic moment, but through the skill with which it was written and the weight of the groundwork behind it, it was both believable and respectful to the character. The emotion was presented tangibly on a level that was much harder to reach in the loud and bombastic Civil War. Captain America responded with such frustration because he cares so much and since the emotion jumped off the page, it’s hard not to feel a connection to him as a reader. All of these little character moments that had been set up with a panel here or a panel there in previous issues (be it the friendship between Sunspot and Cannonball, or Hyperion’s sense of failure and refusal to let down his new world and his new family, or Beast’s doubt in what the Illuminati were doing), have been slowly paying off issue by issue. moment by moment.
There is good reason that Civil War was a sales monolith and is still remembered fondly. It was a dynamic and electric storyline meant to shock and resonate. Mark Millar knew exactly what he was doing. It remains accessible to new readers and doesn’t require all that much thought to enjoy, despite being about a key issue of the time. Eight Months Later, and truly, Hickman’s run as a whole, has been far denser. I couldn’t in good faith suggest it to a casual reader as easily, especially as it’s not yet completed. That said, it is covering the similar ground of ideological opposition as Civil War, only it’s doing it from an entirely different perspective. Where Civil War was ground-level, Eight Months Later is cosmic. Where it shoehorned characters into the needs of the story, Eight Months Later utilizes them in a more holistic, organic, and constructive manner, Where it broke down the elements of the Marvel Universe for shock and entertainment, Eight Months Later is creating and rebuilding. Even though it’s not as flashy, as streamlined, or as easily consumed as Civil War, for readers willing to put the investment, Hickman’s current work on the Avengers titles offers the promise of a far higher payoff in return.