So a couple of weeks ago, I said I wanted to see how this seven-part, big-deal Marvel Comics project Civil War shook down before passing judgment on it, but with the release of this week’s second issue, I’m totally on board. The big news this week — and it turned into news reported in even semi-legit ”real” news outlets like the New York Post — is that Spider-Man doffs his mask at a press conference in Manhattan and announces, ”My name is Peter Parker, and I’ve been Spider-Man since I was 15 years old.”
Flashbulbs go off like sparklers in Steve McNiven’s glossy artwork, and Parker’s long-time employer, newspaper editor J. Jonah Jameson, takes a swan-dive faint behind his desk. In Mark Millar’s script, Spider-Man is prompted to make his identity known in the wake of the Superhuman Registration Act, a government bill being debated in Congress which would require anyone possessing superpowers to register with the government, divulging true identities, and to work in tandem with the government agency S.H.I.E.L.D. All this was preciptated in the previous issue, when a group of superheroes-slash-reality-TV stars, the New Warriors, tried to capture a villain who ended up blowing up most of Stamford, Conn. Two things I’d like to say here: (1) Can anything good come from reality TV, even in comic books? And (2) Stamford, Conn., is my hometown (no, really), and I hope they didn’t blow up Curley’s Diner — I had some great times there.
Now, then. The argument for maintaining a secret identity is at least as old as — sorry, Marvel — Superman: If you’re being hunted by supervillains, you want to protect your loved ones from harm by keeping your real name unknown. Of course, we never bought this idea; we knew it was ridiculous that Lois Lane couldn’t see past Clark Kent’s glasses to recognize Superman. But Spider-Man’s full-head-mask get-up was as believable a secret-identity-insurer as any in comics, so his gesture is dramatic.
What’s more dramatic are the politics attached to that gesture. By pulling off his mask and agreeing to the terms of the Superhuman Registration Act, Spider-Man becomes, along with other heroes such as Iron Man and Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four, one of the biggest sellouts since Elia Kazan named Communist Party members during the McCarthy era. By aligning himself with a government that wants to control a segment of the population, Spidey and Co. are making common cause with practices that are starting to suggest the internment of the Japanese during World War II. I’m not exaggerating: Reed Richards was shown in this issue working on a secret plan dubbed ”Number 42,” a ”new pen they’re building,” as one law-enforcement official comments here, for the ”super-creeps” who resist registration — among them, no less than Captain America, who’s gone AWOL and is leading a rebellion against this stuff.
Millar is a clever writer. He’s taken a hero most of us thought of as the John Wayne of superheroes — World War II-vintage Captain America, whom we always sorta assumed leaned toward the right — and made him not just a liberator, but a kind of libertarian: He wants to be left alone, to do what he wants, because he knows that what he wants is for the good of the country.
Spider-Man’s revelation — a pretty baffling turn of events, given the fact that he didn’t have to go public (he was only pressured to reveal himself to the government, not the media) — is only the final couple of pages to all of this more interesting setup. Millar’s writing in Civil War is weak in one respect: We never doubt for a minute that he’s anti-Superhuman Registration Act, because he portrays its supporters as having gone overboard. Iron Man is a self-righteous prig; Reed Richards is manic and excessive, shutting out his wife and becoming totally enraptured with the scientific possibilities of expanding an understanding of superheroes by having them all, in essence, bagged and tagged.
In other words, the reader is being nudged to side with Captain America and his hardy band of renegades. But I find even that interesting: the fact that people can write and draw comic books in such a way that they work as propaganda and as pop-culture provocation… that’s a Civil War worth following, and maybe even fighting over.