Captain America – fugitive
Marvel's new series has your favourite superheroes fighting George Bush and the Patriot Act
From Wednesday's Globe and Mail
Captain America is about to battle his most fearsome foe yet: The government of the United States.
Today, Marvel Comics is releasing the first in its miniseries Civil War, which can only be described as a gutsy comic-book series focusing on the whole debate over homeland security and tighter government controls in the name of public safety.
The seven-issue series once again puts superheroes right back in the thick of real-world news, just as DC Comics has Batman battling al-Qaeda in a soon-to-appear comic and Marvel's X-Men continue to explore themes of public intolerance and discrimination.
It also recalls the plotline during the Watergate years when Captain America's alterego, disillusioned by White House politics, stopped donning the patriotic costume.
But with Civil War, hero is pitted against hero in the choice of whether or not to side with the government, as issues ranging from a Guantanamo-like prison camp for superheroes, embedded reporters and the power of media all play in the mix.
The Fantastic Four's elastic Mr. Fantastic has already joined Iron Man to support Washington in earlier editions of Marvel comics leading into the Civil War series. Doctor Strange isn't taking Washington's side.
But what about Spider-Man, that hero of many counterculture kids? Will he side with the Man? Or will the rest of the Fantastic Four? (There's even a rumour that Marvel's Canadian hero Alpha Flight might get into the mix.)
Civil War starts with a clever premise. A number of incidents involving Marvel's rough-and-ready heroes has turned the good guys into targets of U.S. lawmakers: There is, for instance, one accident where a group of novice superheroes gets in over its head, leading to the death of a schoolyard full of children.
The politicians are concerned about public safety. So Congress passes a bill forcing all superheroes to register with the government as human weapons of mass destruction, and to work, in effect, for Washington. Superheroes who don't comply will themselves be branded fugitives.
Washington insider Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, argues that siding with Washington is a way for the heroes to work with lawmakers, not against them, in this moment of trouble. Others see it as a way to gain recognition from the authorities, at long last, or even a way to get government funding to help fight the bad guys.
But other heroes aren't having any of it. In one comic leading up to the series, Doctor Strange gets hopping mad when he first hears about the bill (albeit in his debonair, "master of the mystic arts" kind of way). And Captain America, who couldn't be more all-American if he tried with that costume of his, finds himself leading the fugitive heroes.
In the first issue of Civil War, he brilliantly folds an entire dissertation on security into one succinct dialogue bubble by saying: "Don't play politics with me, lady. Superheroes need to stay above that stuff or Washington starts telling us who the supervillains are."
But Marvel says it isn't trying to take one side or the other.
"We need to present both sides' arguments, both sides of the coin, as fairly and as accurately as possible, and really let the readers make their own decision," said editor-in-chief Joe Quesada. "Marvel readers come in all shapes and sizes, and we speak to so many different people, different demographics. It's unfair for us to make this our bully pulpit and sit there and say, 'This bad. That good.'."
The series is also far removed from the era when DC Comics' Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman were punching out the Nazis or Japanese during the Second World War.
In Civil War, there is no Iraq war, although George W. Bush is the president in the series. The story, though, focuses on the central issue of public security versus personal freedoms with two factions of superheroes battling among themselves on the question (with comic fanboys living vicariously through them).
But what does it say about us if Captain America and Iron Man start to occupy some readers' attention more than the latest real news?
"One of the best ways to broach these conversations and bring up this discussion is through entertainment and through characters that people are familiar with. And again, for us, it's communicating both sides of the argument," Quesada said.
In the end, one of the cleverest touches in Civil War may be a few panels, a momentary breather in the story, in which the giant figure of The Watcher stands silently in the corner of Doctor Strange's sanctum. As the Strange explains: "He only appears to record moments of great change and enormous upheaval. His presence now does not bode well."
Disturbingly, that could be how many of us feel, watching events unfold.
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