Comics : Civil War (Prose Novel)

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This review was first published on: Jul 2014.

Background...

It's an understandable instinct. "Product A" is successful in "Format X", and in order to "maximise realised value", a marketing team comes up with the idea to re-release in "Format Y" and grow associated revenue.

In theory, this is all very well. It works splendidly for SpongeBob Square-Pants pillow cases, Barbie Lunchboxes, and raspberry-flavoured Iron Man condoms. Unfortunately the results are far less reliable when you adapt comic books into Broadway stage-show productions, or even into prose novels.

This "Civil War Prose Novel" attempts to transcribe the events of the 12-part Civil War title (plus a couple dozen more tie-in crossovers) into a 400-page text version.

In Detail...

Civil War (Prose Novel)
Mar 2013 : SM Guest
Find ISBN 9780785160366
Summary: Spider-Man Appears
Writer:  Stuart Moore
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The story scrambles through the key events. It begins with the Stamford accident which triggers the Super-Powers Registration Act. Iron Man and Captain America very quickly take sides. Spider-Man supports Iron Man initially, publicly revealing his Peter Parker identity to the world before turning his coat to join Captain America's hunted rebels.

The Young Avengers are captured. The Fantastic Four is rendered asunder. The Secret Avengers go into hiding. Punisher is violent. S.H.I.E.L.D. under Maria Hill is border-line psychopathic. The Fifty-States Initiative is launched, while Aunt May and Mary-Jane go into hiding.

Reed Richards builds a prison in the Negative Zone. Captain America stages a jail-break, Tigra is a double-agent, the fight spills into the street, the Sub-Mariner's army aids the rebels, but Captain America surrenders in order to bring peace. Four epilogues follow.

All the above is ticked-off like a well-executed laundry list. Stuart Moore is a capable writer who can turn a decent phrase when he puts his mind to it, and he faithfully discharges his obligations in this case with commendable professionalism.

The problem is, the whole concept is flawed. Like the mindless clone of Thor which features so prominently in the story, the erstwhile copy duly waves a hammer and shoots lightning – but the heart and soul of the original is long dead, and no good can come of this ill-considered act of re-animation.

Every chapter reeks of indecent haste. Sure, it's not quite the "Cliff's Notes of Civil War", but the characters have been pared down to the bare essentials. It's as if an old English Lord has had to sell his house and half his furniture, moved what remained into a too-small apartment, and is now walking around feeling the pain of absence. The problem is not so much with what Moore has put in, but with what he has been forced to leave out.

In General...

Look, here's the problem. Fifty-year old comic characters are fundamentally different from novels. "Civil War" is not "Under the Volcano" or "Fahrenheit 451".

A true novel introduces a carefully selected handful of protagonists and antagonists and develops them before us. By contrast, a massive Marvel Cross-Over Event begins with fifty major well-formed characters, and relies on the "educated" reader having context and back-story for each of them. This allows the action scenes to flow freely. Even when Marvel characters do undergo major changes in the comics, they do so in the context of the decades which came before.

To try and fit the "standalone novel form", Moore has (with the best intentions) stripped his versions of these bloated characters down to a one-sentence summary in order to make the book accessible to the newcomer, and to make space for the intimidating list of "things that need to happen before the pages run out".

Among the various "simplifying" changes, many characters meet "for the first time" in this novel, whereas they have met countless times in comics. Spider-Man supposedly enters the negative zone for the first time in the book, whereas in the comics he previously entered several times (including when he acquired the costume in which he became "Dusk" in the Identity Crisis cross-over).

Perhaps the most major simplification is the relationship between Peter and Mary-Jane. Of course in the comic world, Peter and MJ were still married during Civil War, then are famously unmarried by the subsequent deal with Mephisto to save Aunt May. But in this novel, Peter and MJ were never married, with Peter having failed to make it to the altar – as if "One More Day/Brand New Day" has already occurred (although no mention is made of Mephisto).

I think you get the point. But before I wrap up, I want to mention a couple of embarrassing "shameless commercial plugs" contained in the book that really offended my sensibilities and added injury to insult.

The first is a reference to a Pixar film. Of course Disney owns Marvel and Pixar. The reference is small, but utterly unnecessary. But the second is an in-your-face description of Reed Richard's lab containing a couple of the latest "SUN Systems" super-computers, as well as some "antique Cray assemblages". Of course Sun is owned by Oracle, which paid a great deal of money for product placement in the Iron Man movies.

Perhaps I have not been paying attention, but this is the first product placement I have ever noticed in a novel, and it made me sick to my stomach. I grew up to respect books, libraries and literature as something special. To encounter an advertisement in a novel is as shocking as having my girl-friend pause mid-coitus and offer me a pitch for Amway.

What's worse, the offending self-assigned accolade is utterly undeserved. I just checked the 2014 list of the top-ten most powerful super-computers in the world. Cray systems hold three of the top-ten slots, while neither Oracle nor SUN makes it into the top ten at all! Although SUN does get an indirect honour, as the number four position is held by a Fujitsu machine which is assembled from the same Sparc CPUs which go into some SUN systems.

Overall Rating...

Trying to novelise a major Marvel Comics Event is like submitting a "Days of our Lives" movie to the Cannes Film Festival. The similarities are superficial. The fundamental differences are overwhelming.

The New Avengers: Breakout (Prose Novel) was small enough and by executing some literary gymnastics, it became isolated enough in both cast and plot to (mostly) succeed. But "Civil War" is a completely different beast. No amount of wriggling or squeezing will make these characters and this plot fit into a standalone novel.

As for the two glaring "product placements" in the book, well they tell a sad tale by themselves. They expose this book for what it is. It is not a work conceived from any artistic desire – it is simply the realisation of commercially valuable intellectual property assets.

This book made me sad, for all the wrong reasons. One Web.