Superheroes spin web around red-blue divide

POW! (How far should I go to protect my rights?) BAM! (What's my position on gay marriage?) ZING! (Look out for that embedded reporter!)

In today's comic books, superheroes aren't just thinking about how to defeat the usual kryptonite-wielding villains. They're also tackling topics such as terrorism, war, and civil liberties as a heavy dose of 21st-century reality seeps into their alternate universe.

In "Civil War," a sprawling new Marvel series, superheroes like Spider-Man and Captain America must choose sides over whether the government should be allowed to register them. In a comic book called "Ex Machina," a 9/11 hero-turned-mayor copes with political hot buttons and his own superpowers. Not too long ago, Iron Man became secretary of defense under President George W. Bush. In a separate comic, Superman debated the invasion of a dangerous Middle Eastern country.

"Comics have always had one foot in reality, but it's probably been more so in recent times," says Alex Segura, spokesman for DC Comics. "The audience has gotten older, and the reader is more prone to read about stuff that's going on outside their window."

"Civil War," for instance, explores the issue of civil liberties in the wake of a deadly explosion in a Connecticut neighborhood during the filming of a superhero reality show. Soon, superheroes are at war over mandatory registration, with dissenters facing terms in a prison that will remind readers of Guantánamo Bay.

"There's a lot of real-world echoes," says Joe Quesada, editor in chief of Marvel. "We're posing this argument: Would you sacrifice your privacy for your public safety or your civil liberties for your public safety? This is happening, literally, while we're still in the turmoil of asking ourselves these very same questions."

"Civil War," a seven-part series, will draw in a variety of Marvel superheroes, and the conflict will cross over into their own comic books. In another reminder of the real world, there's also a spin off about two embedded reporters (one from a liberal newspaper, the other from a conservative one) who chronicle the action.

"Ex Machina," a popular R-rated comic book published by DC Comics, also explores the divides of American society. It tells the story of Mayor Mitchell Hundred, a superhero turned New York City politician who must address issues ranging from gay marriage and the death penalty to legalized marijuana.

Comic books aren't strangers to the news. Decades ago, superhero tales mirrored World War II and the cold war, with Nazis and Communists often playing the role of villain.

More recently, Superman and archvillain US President Lex Luthor tangled in 2003 over plans to invade the imaginary Middle Eastern country of Qurac, which was linked to weapons of mass destruction.

Modern life can serve as fodder in other ways. Taking a cue from the newspaper industry's real-life struggles, a certain mild-mannered reporter named Clark Kent found himself sacked by the Daily Planet when Mr. Luthor bought the paper and replaced it with a web-only publication.

Even if they don't touch on specific events, comic books often explore "broad themes, such as paranoia or terrorism, things that the writers perceive as being at work in society," says John Jackson Miller, a comic-book writer and editorial director for the publisher of Comic Buyer's Guide. "They figure that they can do allegories on these things and make it feel relevant."

Indeed, the mutant creatures of the "X-Men" are widely considered to be metaphors for the struggles of outsiders in American society, including minorities and gays. (The third "X-Men" movie reaches theaters Friday.)

What may be different in today's comics is a higher degree of ambiguity about the boundaries of right and wrong.

In "Ex Machina," creator Brian Vaughan says Mayor Hundred has the distinction of being both "hero and villain"; readers are left to ponder the wisdom of his political decisions. And "Civil War" never says which side of the superhero-registration debate is the correct one.

"It's one of the first stories of this magnitude that doesn't really have a villain," Mr. Quesada says. "It's heroes vs. heroes, it's people's feelings and opinions vs. other people's feelings and opinions. The villain really is in the eye of the beholder."

But don't expect to ever see a superhero comic book without a bad guy.

"Hero versus villain - it's constant, it's forever," says Don Markstein, a comic-book writer and the creator of the online encyclopedia toonopedia.com. "It will never go away. It's only exaggerated in comics because the whole medium is based on exaggeration. It's what it's all about."

For more on 'Civil War,' visit www.marvel.com/comics/22

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