Since the release of Captain America: Civil War, a lot more people have been seeking out the Civil War graphic novel that the film is based on. Which means now all of Planet Earth gets to experience the frustration that comic book fans went through a decade ago. While Mark Millar and Steve McNiven’s Civil War has its merits (i.e., stunning art, and some genuinely exciting set pieces), it is haunted by two questionable editorial decisions: placing the story’s climax outside of the main series (spoiler alert: Captain American gets assassinated), and reserving almost all character motivation (and development) for the tie-in titles. As a result, the main book (which – ten years later – is almost certainly all a casual reader will experience of the cross-over) is an action-packed thrill-ride, with little sense of what is driving any of the characters, and huge swaths of plot and story wedged in with no explanation.
Of course, Marvel’s solution is a simple one: purchase the entire 98 issue cross-over series. This is neither a financially reasonable nor aesthetically advisable option. The sad truth is that while there is some great stuff hiding in those cross-over issues, you’ve got to sort through a lot of crap to get to it.
And that’s where I come in! What follows is a list of Civil War cross-over titles that I think best supplement that Civil War graphic novel. The idea here is minimalism – which is to say I am not claiming that these are the only good ones. (So back off, Black Panther fans.)
New Avengers: Illuminati (written by Brian Michael Bendis, illustrated by Alex Maleev)
One of the primary motivations for Captain America’s (and Sue Richard’s) anger and umbrage regarding the Super Hero Registration Act was that it coincided with their discovery of The Illuminati, an organization of Super Heroes (including Iron Man and Mr. Fantastic) that had been meeting in secret for years, taking it upon themselves to make decisions that affected the rest of the world.
This group was retconned into existence by Brian Michael Bendis a short time before Civil War began. New Avengers: Illuminati presents the history of the group, showing how they shaped and steered several key moments in the Marvel (Earth-616) Universe.
Eventually, Iron Man gathers the group to discuss the upcoming Super Hero Registration Act
Somehow futurist Tony Stark is unable to foresee what comes as no surprise to anyone reading the comic: this is the moment when T’Challa’s prediction comes true.
And the stage is set for Civil War.
New Avengers 21 (written by Brian Michael Bendis, penciled by Howard Chaykin)
Taking place between issues 2 and 3 of Civil War, this issue shows Captain America on the run, demonstrating how he goes from making a rash decision to becoming the leader of a movement. It also gives The Falcon some much-needed panel-time.
There’s two good action sequences (a fight with SHIELD and with Henry Pym) but ultimately this is about Cap – with the help of a good friend – getting his head together, and his game face on.
New Avengers 22 (written by Brian Michael Bendis, penciled by Leinil Francis Yu)
Each New Avengers Civil War tie-in issue focuses on how the war was affecting a single member of the team. Issue 22 (which takes place between issues 3 and 4 of Civil War) follows street-level hero Luke Cage. It opens with Iron Man and Ms. Marvel making a final plea with Luke (along with Jessica Jones and their newborn) to sign the Registration Act, which goes into effect the next day.
Jessica then leaves for Canada – taking their baby but failing to convince Luke to accompany her. After a conversation with his neighbors, Luke settles in for the night.
At the stroke of midnight, Luke is attacked by the absurdly-named SHIELD “Cape-Killers.” Expecting to be arrested, Luke is rescued, first by his neighbors, and then by Cap and his team.
This issue shows how a personality very different from Steve Rogers might come to be on his side.
Amazing Spider-Man 537 (written by J. Michael Straczynski, penciled by Ron Garney)
One of the more frustrating aspects of the Civil War graphic novel is that Spider-Man’s entire arc is contained outside of the main book. All you know reading Civil War is that he is a key player on Iron Man’s team and then suddenly he’s on Captain America’s side. Amazing Spider-Man 537 (which takes place between Civil 6 and 7) goes a long way toward explaining how this came to be. More importantly, it contains one of Captain America’s most famous speeches, made even more famous by its inclusion in Captain America: Civil War, spoken by Sharon Carter as she eulogized her Aunt Peggy.
Iron Man/Captain America: Casualties of War (written by Christos Gage, penciled by Jeremy Haun)
Insanely, even those who read all 98 issues of the Civil War cross-over have to muddle through a staggering 74 comics before Captain America and Iron Man have a real conversation about the Registration Act. The overly-dramatically-titled Casualties of War finally delivers on this conversation, and it’s worth the wait. Both men are written in character, their motivations aren’t plot-driven, and they respond emotionally to each other as you would expect old friends to. Importantly, it does a great job of presenting both men’s arguments without seeming to come down on one side.
And it’s also some serious continuity-porn, as there are visual and verbal references to all sorts of Avengers history throughout the issue.
Civil War: The Confession (written by Brian Michael Bendis, illustrated by Alex Maleev)
For those of you who don’t already know, the Civil War series ends rather anti-climactically, with Captain America surrendering on the verge of victory. Marvel assured their readers that someone big was going to happen at the end of Civil War, and we were let down. For about two weeks. Shortly after the last issue of Civil War came out, Captain America 25 ended with “The Death of Captain America,” which Marvel milked for another five years or so.
(I should add parenthetically that while I did not include any issues of Captain America in this list, Civil War completists will almost certainly want to read Captain America 25. In fact, I whole-heartedly recommend the entirety of Ed Brubaker’s fantastic character-defining run on Cap. Ed Brubaker is the guy who created the Winter Soldier, folks. It’s all in his run, so check it out.)
One of the unintended consequences of Civil War – especially when you tack on Captain America’s death – is that it became harder and harder to see Tony Stark as a hero. Sure, he was always sort of douchey, but Captain America vouched for him, so we assumed he was all right. With Cap his martyred enemy, and most of his friends either in jail or on the run because of him, Tony’s mustache was clearly starting to twirl.
Then in comes Bendis with the save! Civil War: The Confession is Brian Michael Bendis’ single-handed attempt to rehabilitate Tony Stark. He does this with a little-known writer’s trick called “giving your character a clear motivation.”
The Confession is told in two chapters. The second chapter (which I am discussing first, because reasons) is a brief confrontation between Tony and Steve while Steve is in custody, shortly before his assassination. As you might guess, Steve isn’t in a good mood.
The first chapter is a Tony Stark monolog. Tony pours his heart out to Steve, explaining why he did what he did. He acknowledges the negative stuff, claiming he felt he had to do what he did, and was willing to take on the mantle of the bad guy for the greater good.
Alex Maleev does the heavy lifting here, portraying a weeping, repentant Tony Stark who is worthy of our pity, if not our forgiveness. The final double-page spread delivers the gut-punch, with Tony answering Steve’s final question, but only able to deliver the response to his corpse. This image is presented in an overhead shot, as is the law when presenting a man weeping over his fallen comrade.
Civil War: Fallen Son: The Death of Captain America: Chapter 3: Bargaining (written by Jeph Loeb, penciled by John Romita, Jr.)
Someone at Marvel thought it would be “cool” to have a five issue series focusing on the effect Captain America’s death was having on the greater Marvel Universe, with each issue mapping to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ Five Stages of Grief – you know this one: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. Jeph Loeb wrote all five of them, and – in a nice metaphor for his career – two of them are really great.
The Bargaining chapter (or, CW:FS:TDoCA:C3:B, as I like to call it) focuses on Hawkeye, who [heavy sigh]was dead during the Civil War, and came back to life (we’re still not sure how) to find his mentor dead and his friends at each other’s throats. Never one to waste a good crisis, Iron Man tries to convince Hawkeye to take over as Captain America.
After confronting some legacy heroes who point out the difference between honoring your mentors and replacing them, and realizing that Tony is still in the business of arresting his friends, Hawkeye tells Iron Man to shove Cap’s shield up his shiny metal ass.
Civil War: Fallen Son: The Death of Captain America: Chapter 5: Acceptance (written by Jeph Loeb, illustrated by John Cassaday)
And we end with Cap’s funeral. Beautifully illustrated, this respectful sendoff has a nice eulogy by Sam Wilson, along with several double-page spreads illustrating Cap’s most well-known adventures.