Book Reviews

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| November / December 2006

Not Your Father's Captain America

Superheroes battle over civil liberties and the meaning of patriotism

by Jeremy Adam Smith

Hundreds are killed. The president asks for, and gets, expanded powers. Preemptive war is waged in the name of national security. More people die. Only a few voice their dissent. 'War is just a diversion,' writes embedded journalist Sally Floyd. 'We're so busy watching ugly pictures on TV that we lose sight of what's really going on. The hurt doesn't seem real . . . which suits the warmongers just fine.'

Who is this perceptive and opinionated journalist? She's a fictional reporter for the imaginary New York Alternative-and the war she's covering is between two groups of superheroes in the Marvel Comics Civil War mini-series, launched in May. One group embraces a 'Superhuman Registration Act' that forces costumed heroes to reveal their secret identities and register with the government; another, led by Captain America, goes underground and resists the expanding power of the state. Later, Sally is arrested for refusing to reveal a confidential source.

Comic books have always reflected the social and political environment in which they are created, but only recently have superheroes started to address the issues raised by the war on terrorism and the war in Iraq. Though writer Mark Millar, a Scotsman, is well known for his leftist sympathies (his 'dream project' is a 21st-century comic book version of Karl Marx's Das Kapital), Civil War consistently refuses to advocate for one side or the other. Its approach is to create an event, the Registration Act, that no superheroes can control and then allow them to respond in ways that are consistent with their characters-and illuminate contemporary political dilemmas.