Marvels Snapshots: Civil War, by Saladin Ahmed and Ryan Kelly, is a poorly named book. It’s not really about Civil War, the 2006-2007 event book and storyline by Marvel Comics. Yes, it talks about registration and Captain America vs. Iron Man and Maria Hill, and all that. But it’s not really about Civil War.
What this really is is Marvels Snapshots: 9/11. Perhaps, thinking broadly, Marvels Snapshots: Global War on Terror. That’s the subtext of the book. That’s what the characters are really talking about, translated through the metaphor of the Civil War event.
The plot itself is pretty simple: it follows a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent and a young superpowered teen, each of whom are radically affected by the events of the instigating incident for Civil War, when a supervillain called Nitro blew up the town of Stamford, Connecticut. The S.H.I.E.L.D. agent is convinced that super-people are a threat, and joins the special superhero hunter unit that the eponymous agency is putting together; the young teenager is convinced that he needs to do more, and help more people. After arresting the teenager, and seeing the brutality of his fellow S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, the agent turns on his compatriots and helps the hero escape.
This isn’t a very complex metaphor, or even a hidden one. There is quite literally a “See Something, Say Something” sign in the middle of the book. Ahmed is quite obviously drawing a comparison between the attacks on the World Trade Center and the attack on Stamford, and using that to condemn the response to 9/11 and the War on Terror as a whole.
And the ultimate problem is that that analogy just doesn’t work. Listen, I’m a libertarian. I’ll be the first to tell you about the flaws in the War on Terror. But the 9/11 attacks did happen; they were the result of a planned attack by a malevolent foreign entity, and more attacks would have likely followed had there not been a response of sort. Stamford, in the fiction of Marvel Comics, was a one-off, unplanned, event. It wasn’t going to be the first of a series, and you can’t use the obviously flawed response to Stamford to then argue that the real life response to 9/11 was flawed.
Registration is one of those areas where the metaphor that the fiction is attempting to draw runs straight into the fiction’s actual text. For instance, obviously, registering all queer people, or Jewish people, or Muslim people, or what have you, with the government is deeply immoral and should never, ever be done. But unless I’ve been missing something very important, us Jews don’t shoot optic blasts from our eyes, and Muslim people can’t turn into green rage monsters. Living in the same neighborhood as a Jew, a Muslim, a queer person, or anyone else isn’t dangerous; you’re not more likely to get injured or hurt, or even break a nail, then you would if they lived elsewhere.
But living in the same neighborhood as Bruce Banner or Scott Summers obviously is. The metaphor that superhero comics discuss, and often discuss really well, in some fantastic comics – your Days of Future Past and their ilk – just doesn’t hold up if you want to do something like Civil War, because the anti-Registration takes were, in the universe that Marvel Comics presents to us, deeply flawed. In that universe, and only in that universe, superhero registration is probably right. But not in our world, that the Civil War was metaphorically discussing.
For instance, look at it from another angle. 2020 was, among many other things, the year of protests for police reform. Superheroes are, from that angle, absolutely terrible. Spider-Man, Captain America, Wolverine, Iron Man, and their ilk are enforcers of a moral code that doesn’t necessarily align with the law, and completely unaccountable for their (many) mistakes. If Spider-Man beats up the wrong person, Peter Parker might feel guilty, but the person who got punched in the face by the superhero who can juggle cars doesn’t get any help.
We know, as people living outside the pages of a comic book, that Spider-Man wouldn’t do that. Spider-Man is a fictional character, and his actions end up being morally justified. But if you lived in the Marvel Universe, then yeah, you probably would feel better if you knew that if Spider-Man hit you, you had legal recourse. You probably would feel better if you knew that once a kid developed laser ears or some superpower, they would be trained, certified, and held accountable by the state’s legal system.
I’ll be the first to tell you that the government, much more often then not, shields its agents rather then holds them accountable, and that the training for agents of the state is atrocious. But those are fixable problems. You can make the agents of the state accountable. End qualified immunity. Break the police unions. Regulate what sort of force agents of the state can use. Change how agents of the state respond to crises. For that matter, stop over-policing in general.
But if I lived in the Marvel Universe, then yeah, I would feel safer if Spider-Man wore a body-camera, and wasn’t able to toss me off a building at will.
Take the two superpowered kids in the book. One is just a girl, who is caught while flying. But flying is regulated for a reason. The FAA’s flight regulations exist for a reason. What if she strayed into the path of a plane? Or hit a power line? Or, honestly, did one of the many hundreds of possible ways that she could injure herself or others through flying? We require people to get a license to drive a car; I can’t see why we wouldn’t require a license to fly.
The abuse that the children suffer at the hands of the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents is inexcusable and unjust. These kids are superheroes – they’re the good guys. I’m perfectly happy to concede that S.H.I.E.L.D. is probably filled with jumpy, trigger-happy idiots who are more likely than not bigoted in some way. That’s what real police forces are like. But I’m unable to justify taking jumping from S.H.I.E.L.D. being bad, or at least filled with bad actors, to the entire registration idea being bad.
Because that’s where this metaphor falls apart. To be clear, I think that this sort of detailed dive into the actual nuts and bolts of a fictional universe actually undermines all the other comics stories set in that universe. It’s the same chain of thought that leads to Hot Takes on Twitter saying that Batman should just write checks. But it was Mark Millar who opened the Pandora’s Box of the registration issue. Ahmed was given the task of making a good story out of Millar’s mediocre original, and he does his best.
As a comic, it’s still pretty good. I disagree with Ahmed’s argument, but that’s my opinion. It’s a well-drawn and well-written book. Frankly, I haven’t read a bad book by Saladin Ahmed in years. And, in general, I tend to agree with Saladin Ahmed says. He wrote a fantastic argument against the penal system in Black Bolt, for instance, and while I admit that I haven’t been reading it, I’ve heard really good things about his Miles Morales. Honestly, even in this book, I agree with many of his specifics: yes, policing in America is pretty screwed up. Yes, the racial tenor to the War on Terror was bad. Yes, many of the programs in the War on Terror were invasions of individual rights.
But Ahmed’s argument is not one that I think you can make in the context of the specific metaphor given to him through the lens of Marvel’s Civil War. I’d like Ahmed to write an OGN or a novel about his experiences as a Muslim POC in the aftermath of 9/11; Ahmed clearly has interesting things to say about it. I’d even be happy for him to write about it somewhere else in Marvel. But this specific take on it, in my opinion, doesn’t quite work.
The way that this website works is that we are asked to give a numerical score to a comic. I’m scoring this book not fantastically, but I think you should read it anyway. Ahmed and Kelly have interesting points to make, and even if you think they’re wrong, they’re points that deserve consideration.
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