Yes, I'm Going To Complain About Civil War #7

By | Friday, February 23, 2007 1 comment
The "big" news this week was the finale of Civil War #7 and, like Abhay, Graeme, Jim, Chris and so many others, I found it lacking. Not so much that it was poorly scripted or drawn, but that it was absurdly anti-climatic and disappointing. It's an ending that really isn't an ending; it's an ending that just peters out.

But that's not what I'm going to focus on here today!

Let me take a moment to present you with an image. This is from last summer's Superman Returns movie.

Before I saw the original teaser trailer for Superman Returns, I was uninterested in the movie. Just not a huge fan of the character; I could take him or leave him. But that scene where Superman flies up above the clouds into the sunrise with Brando's voice-over...? That totally sold it for me. Why? Mostly because of the imagery.

The sun is an extremely powerful image. In the first place, everyone knows the sun. No matter where you live on the planet, no matter what your cultural background is, you know what the sun is, what it does for the planet, how it's important for all life on earth. Consequently, the rising sun is an almost universal metaphor for continuing life and, therefore, hope. The rising sun shows every day that there is a tomorrow to look towards. No matter how absurdly bleak things get, there is still something to look forward to. And silhouetting a hero against a rising sun conveys a very powerful message, directly comparing that rising sun's hope to the hero standing in front of it. In this image, Superman is the herald of tomorrow's hope just as the sun is.

Now, let's look at the final panel from Civil War...
We can't tell if the sun is rising or setting here, but it's cutting through an upside-down horizon created by the SHIELD Helicarrier. The arc of the earth is not present at all, and the sun is hung behind a massive, man-made structure hovering thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of feet in the air. We see what is essentially an image 180 degrees opposite of the universal image we have of tomorrow's hope.

You ever wonder why people hold a flashlight under their chin when they tell ghost stories? It's because they're forcing the light to shine on their face in a decidedly unnatural way -- we are used to seeing people's face lit by sunlight, which always comes from above. That a light shines from below makes them appear unnatural and adds an aura of fear and uncertainty to their tale.

The same principle applies here. The sun is universally above the earth. No matter how much of a horizon you find yourself looking at, the sun will be above it. By shifting the horizon (shown here as the underbelly of the Helicarrier) and having the sun hang below, artist Steve McNiven has created a wholly unnatural image.

Was that a deliberate and discussed story-telling point from the whole creative team? Was that something McNiven threw in to suggest his opinion of the story? Was it a conscious choice, or a more visceral and intuitive design decision? Am I reading too much into one piece of art?

Questions I don't have answers for. But I think the end result is extremely metaphoric -- I don't think there's much to look forward to in the Marvel Universe.
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Anonymous said...

Well now, that really is rather interesting, Sean! I've never really thought about how my brain makes sense of the upside-down dawn before...and though I'm not totally sure this is what I get from it as a rule, in this case I have to say yeah, you bet, that's it exactly.

Actually, now that you've pointed it out, I think the weird tone I was subliminally noticing most of all because of that construction is that there's sunlight on Tony's face...and somehow, it seems there shouldn't be. So something is wrong, therefore.

Now personally, I don't think it can be an accident, since the inverted sunrise is also mirrored by Tony and his companion's upside-down orientation in that bubble, feet seemingly pointed towards the sky at the same time they're "actually" pointed at the ground. In fact I wouldn't be surprised if that's straight out of the script. But I do wonder if Millar quite knows what he's doing in Civil War, as I see the symbolic messages flying thick and mixed in it. Some way or other, the whole thing's gotten a film of visual/verbal untrustworthiness laid on top of it, as though the writer and artist themselves have become "unreliable narrators". Everything that points to an ironic inversion of apparent meaning in CW seems to me to fail in completing that inversion -- and yet, it's there! So why is it there? Every panel is loaded with all these aggressive suggestions of irony, and then the irony doesn't pay off, and this image seems to sum that feeling up, for me: I'm not lost, but that doesn't mean I get it. It just doesn't add up, that's all.

And, it's odd that with such a hyperrealistic style of drawing, I can still never really trust its visual cues. Hints don't seem to be hints, in this puzzle: it's like that "mystery villain" thing in Thunderbolts (although I gatherthat's Ellis and somebody else, not Millar and McNiven, but it feels of a piece with CW, as of course it is), first they show the ten-foot-wide table, and then they show the MV's hand two feet away from Norman Osborn's face, so you think "has to be Reed Richards, then"...but then they show the table again, and it's now apparently only three feet wide, so you think "well, is it a clue, or isn't it? I can't tell".

Same thing with the political allegory for me, like I was saying on Jim's comment thread: what is it that Millar is actually saying? That Reed and Tony build an internment camp in the Negative Zone and use "the public good" as their alibi (not to mention running the new Thunderbolts) is certainly stacking the deck in the eeeeevil direction, as some rightist commentators on CW have noted with anger...but then if they can see that, then so can everybody else, and so what's the nature of the argument we're supposed to be having here? How can it possibly still be what it purports to be? And, how can the writer possibly come down on the side of the devils, when the artist is with the angels? Or vice versa. That inverted dawn looks more and more to me like the events of the last Ultimates bit, where America is invaded by foreign super-soldiers: we're as good as told that we should be rooting for the villains, and yet they're such palpably evil monsters that we can't; but does that mean we're to root for the Ultimates instead, who we've been as good as told are superpowered stormtroopers in the service of a malign state, and really no different from their enemies? Any answer to this question would make sense except a simplistic yes...and then, impossibly, that very "yes" does indeed turn out to be the answer we're given. Except that everything else in the story says it isn't. But, it still is!

And how in the world can we be expected to swallow that?

Say what you will about the ending of "Wanted", but at least it made sense. You know, I've been totally willing to play along with Millar in most of his stories; I can tolerate a dark message, a cynical story, even a plot that scorches its own earth just for the kick of it. And, I like the device of the unreliable narrator. Hey, I even like visuals that mess with my head, I'm the only person I know to willingly watch Eyes Wide Shut three times! But what drives me crazy about all this is that Millar would seemingly rather I didn't play along with him: evry verbal and visual cue I get from him recently seems to say: "for Christ's sake, don't get this. I don't want you to."

Like that upside-down sun. It's the mysterious size-changing table all over again.

Sorry for the comment-hijack, Sean! I'm doing this a lot today, I guess. But like Jim, you've brought up something I didn't know how to articulate for myself about how this brave new Marvel bugs me.