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Aubrey Sitterson on Shutting Up About Civil War
posted June 22, 2006

Clearly, as someone involved with the series, I’m biased.

But that aside, I think your post this morning about Civil War takes things a too far in terms of judging the potential effectiveness of social or political commentary wrapped up in fantastical story elements. Veiling allegory with science-fiction or fantasy elements is a tactic frequently used both of those genres to imbue them with something beyond plot or character concerns. Do the fantasy or science fiction tropes used liberally throughout C.S. Lewis’ canon negate the effectiveness of Lewis’ message? What about the social commentary found within The Time Machine, does the existence of monstrous Morlocks living beneath the earth cause readers to dismiss the themes and ideas Wells’ has chosen to explore? I sure as hell hope not, as it would mean I wasted a lot of my youth finding profound statements where there was only pulp…

To use a more medium-specific example: Watchmen. There’s not much that’s more ridiculous than the existence of Dr. Manhattan, yet we’re still compelled to see beyond that central absurdity to understand the complex themes explored within the narrative. Examples are a dime a dozen as whole genres, and in fact, most of fictional literature, is given meaning by the reader’s ability to find parallels between their mundane, realistic existence and the outrageous, unbelievable stories related to them. The argument could even be widened to include mythological and religious tales, as for most of them, their stock in trade is the fantastic and unbelievable.

Of course, this isn’t to say that allegories of the fantastic are always successful. All it takes is one visit to a bookstore’s Fantasy section to find truckloads of high-minded, ham-fisted, laughable garbage, that completely botches its attempt to use Elves or Halflings or Dragons to say something vital about the larger human condition. But honestly, most of any genre is garbage. However, this does not reflect on the effectiveness of the genre’s tropes or techniques, but rather the ability of the creator to utilize them effectively.

Ultimately, I think your assessment of Civil War’s social content, and more importantly, that assessment’s implication on established genre tropes is far too harsh. If you think the central conceit of Civil War is ridiculous and unable to convey any significant social message, while I’d disagree and ask you to hold off judgment until you’ve read all seven issues, that is an understandable (although untenable, if I do say so myself) position to take. To fault the work because of the genre in which it is contained and that genre’s conventions, however, is to make a crucial mistake, albeit one that has been far too common in the history of critical theory as it relates to genre material, akin to the dismissal of literary giants such as Chandler, Howard and Lovecraft as nothing more than pulp hacks.