Mark White Talks Comics, and A Philosopher Reads Marvel Comics’ Civil War: Exploring the Moral Judgment of Captain America, Iron Man, and Spider-Man

Marvel Comics Civil WarMark White is Professor and Chair of the Department of Philosophy at the College of Staten Island (CUNY). Mark’s writings represent a labour of love, as he has passionately explored the the intersection of politics, philosophy and the superhero world. A fixture in Blackwell’s Pop Culture and Philosophy series, Mark’s writing credits include, Batman and Philosophy: A Dark Knight of the Soul, The Virtues of Captain America: Modern Day Lessons in Character from a World War II Hero, and Avengers & Philosophy among many others. I am a huge fan and fellow contributor of the Blackwell series, and enjoy all works in this niche-genre. I was very fortunate to have a chat with Mark regarding his newest work.

Graphic Policy: In preparation for this interview, and your upcoming book, I read series editor William Irwin’s Defence on Writing Pop Cultural Philosophy. I loved his use of the Plato’s Cave analogy when describing how one must “adjust to the shadows” when communicating to a particular audience. In your writing do you experience any difficulty in writing academically for specific fandoms? If so, how do you manage this?

Mark White: I’m much more comfortable these days writing for non-academics, after writing all the chapters for Irwin’s series as well as my superhero books and economic policy books for wider audiences. Maybe it’s the teacher in me, but I like getting to the essence of a concept so I can explain it in the most straightforward and direct way possible (whether I use superheroes along the way or not). It’s when I return to academic writing that I have tend to have problems adjusting, but even then I try to retain some of the lightness from my popular writing — that’s just the way I write now, and I try not to make such a hard and fast distinction between writing for the two different audiences.

GP: You have written quite extensively on the superhero genre at the intersection of Philosophy. What was it specifically about the Civil War event that you felt warranted a stand alone book dedicated to it?

MW: It was the political context, the conflict between liberty and security, that drew me into the story, and that was the original focus of my book as well. But then I realized I was much more interested in how the main characters displayed their moral principles and judgment in supporting of those ideals, so the book changed accordingly. The political context is still there, but now we see it through the lens of the three heroes’ ethical choices rather than as broader political ideals.

GP: Plato was fond of using mythological allegory to punctuate and elaborate his philosophical arguments. Storytelling and folklore in general have been powerful tools to engage in hypothetical thought, would you consider pop cultural themes in today’s comics and other related media the modern day equivalent of this?

MW: Yes, definitely — that’s a large part of the thinking behind Irwin’s series that I’ve carried on in own books. Any story that grabs people, whether from ancient mythology, Star Wars, or comic books, provides a hook that you can use to introduce any number of philosophical ideas. And it’s commonplace these days to hear that superhero stories are part of our modern mythology, so I think they’re a natural stepping stone on the way to deeper discussions.

GP: Adaptations are tricky creatures. The Sokovia accords replace the Super Human Registration Act in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. With respect to how the event plays out in comic canon vs the synopsis of the upcoming Civil War Film. Do you expect any changes in terms of what philosophical insights can be drawn from the story?

MW: I don’t think the broad themes will be very different — as in Captain America: Winter Soldier, it’s all about how far you’re willing to go to protect people and where you draw the line. In the comics, both Iron Man and Cap valued liberty and security in general, but they disagreed on where that line should be drawn, and hopefully that will come out in the movie as well. (Spider-Man obviously won’t play the same role as a pivot between the two older heroes, where he functioned as a point-of-view character for the reader, but I assume the movie won’t use that device.)

GP: Marvel Comics is about to embark on a sequel to its classic civil war event. Not too long ago we had the seismic Avengers vs X-Men event, AXIS and soon we will see an Avengers Standoff as well as an Apocalypse War. What is it about super human conflict that has Marvel returning to similar storytelling frameworks?

MW: For as long as superheroes have existed, fans have argued about who would win in a fight between, say, the Hulk and the Thing, or who would win in a race, Superman or the Flash. So I think fights between heroes can be interesting occasionally, but lately it seems they fight each other more than they fight villains, and after a while you forget what heroes are supposed to do: protect people by fighting evil. Civil War was great because the heroes were fighting about ideas, something important and relevant to what we saw in the world we live in. The sequel, about predictive policing, seems to following the same general plan, but most hero-versus-hero stories seem more like editorial contrivances and lowest-common-denominator storytelling to me. (Maybe supervillains simply don’t sell comics anymore — it might be as simple as that.)

GP: Comics have always been an interesting space to explore sensitive political subject matter. Considering the multiplicity of positions and opinions within the fandom do publishers like Marvel owe their consumers a degree of fairness or balance in terms of subject representation?

MW: I don’t know if I would say they “owe” their fans anything, but I do think it’s good business not to alienate any mainstream points of view. Certainly Marvel shouldn’t indulge racists or xenophobes, but showing the representative array of diverse (mainstream) viewpoints in “the world outside your window,” as Marvel likes to say, is valuable — not to mention great for generating story possibilities. They handled this very well in Civil War, because neither liberty nor security is the sole province of one party or the other, so it couldn’t be reduced to a simple left-versus-right story. As far I’m concerned, that’s the way political stories in comics should be done: getting past the simplistic left-right distinction and down to core issues, so they can show where people actually disagree, rather than the labels the media puts on them.

GP: Continuing with the theme of publisher responsibility it was recently announced that Marvel CEO Ike Perlmutter donated 1 million to the Donald Trump Foundation, any thoughts on this transaction from an ethical point of view?

MW: That’s too complicated for one quick answer! But Ms. Marvel writer G. Willow Wilson laid out the various issues very well in a recent Tumblr post, and I’d recommend everyone read it.

GP: Thank you for your time Mark! all the best with your new publication!

Mark White’s A Philosopher Reads Marvel Comics’ Civil War is available for purchase February 3rd.