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Civil discourse

Comic-book series says plenty on liberty, security and morals

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 7/5/2016 (470 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

When a senseless attack results in devastating loss of life in an American city, the U.S. government ushers in sweeping legislation clamping down on civil liberties, targeting in particular a minority population and subjecting many of its members to arbitrary arrest and indefinite detention in a specially-built prison. A divisive conflict erupts over the extent to which a nation can pursue security and safety without irrevocably altering that country’s principles and, indeed, very identity.

Thus is set in motion Marvel Comics’ sweeping Civil War saga, published in 2006 and 2007, which not only changed the course of the entire Marvel "universe" to this day (a sequel series, Civil War II, will be released in June), but is the basis for this month’s blockbuster film Captain America: Civil War.

Marvel Entertainment</p><p>This image provided by Marvel Entertainment shows the cover of the first issue of Civil War.</p>

Marvel Entertainment

This image provided by Marvel Entertainment shows the cover of the first issue of Civil War.

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Photo courtesy Marvel Studios / TNS</p><p>From left: actors Chris Evans, Elizabeth Olsen, Jeremy Renner, Paul Rudd, Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan in the new film Captain America: Civil War.</p>

Photo courtesy Marvel Studios / TNS

From left: actors Chris Evans, Elizabeth Olsen, Jeremy Renner, Paul Rudd, Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan in the new film Captain America: Civil War.

As an allegory for post-9/11 America, Civil War is, admittedly, not ideal: The central catastrophe isn’t a terrorist attack per se, but the result of a battle against supervillains gone horribly wrong, and the "minorities" in question are superheroes. Also, while the Super-Human Registration Act (SHRA) over which Captain America and Iron Man clash may have its parallels in the U.S. Patriot Act, some observers have also interpreted it as a libertarian critique of gun control.

For philosopher Mark D. White, however, Civil War is a richly rewarding meditation on moral and ethical philosophy, with "Cap," Iron Man and Spider-Man each wrestling with the their shared dilemma through the lenses of deontology, utilitarianism and virtue ethics. These philosophical traditions determine the correctness of a given action based — respectively — on its adherence to higher principles; the general benefits deriving from its likely outcome; or the qualities of character and motivations of the person contemplating the action.

This is all very familiar territory for White. In addition to serving as chair of the department of philosophy at the College of Staten Island, City University of New York (CUNY), he has become something of a rock star in the world of comics. Within the past decade, he’s co-edited no fewer than six …and Philosophy titles for Blackwell, examining such characters as Iron Man, Superman and Batman and the Watchmen (as the sole editor), and wrote the 2014 book The Virtues of Captain America.

In White’s reading of Civil War, Tony Stark’s decision as Iron Man to support and enforce the government’s registration legislation as the best way to deal with a bad situation represents utilitarian reasoning, while Steve Rogers as Captain America opposes registration, fearing the Act will curtail civil liberties and make the government the sole arbiter of who the "bad guys" are.

For his part, Peter Parker as Spider-Man is torn between these two forces, making him something of a surrogate for the reader. He initially joins Stark and reveals his long-concealed secret identity to the public, but later questions Stark’s motives as the prosecution of the Act becomes increasingly authoritarian, and instead takes Captain America’s side.

White’s engagement with these ideas is highly entertaining and illuminating, and he clearly adores the medium, delving into not just Civil War proper but the entire Marvel canon going back decades.

With so much at stake in our real and morally disabled post-9/11 world, it is a little disappointing the author doesn’t himself take a stronger stand on certain issues, such as the use of torture, but instead situates the arguments of unnamed others. In stark (no pun intended) contrast to more critical observers such as Noam Chomsky and Chris Hedges, who see America’s "war on terror" as a deliberate neo-liberal assault on democracy, White confines his deliberations to the quest for balance between security and liberty. A more politically nuanced reading of Civil War might have yielded some provocative insights.

As a comics fan using the medium to explore purely philosophical ideas, however, White is without peer, and Ockham has signed him on for further instalments of A Philosopher Reads… series. Indeed, so popular has the philosophical reading of comics become that they may actually be informing the comics’ creators themselves: apparently Civil War II will explore the nature of determinism versus free will.

"Spidey sense" indicates Mark White won’t be running out of material any time soon.

Michael Dudley is the librarian for English literature (including comics and graphic novels) at the University of Winnipeg.

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