[21 June 2009]
PopMatters Comics Editor
It was a strange year, 1836. It was the year that would invent the twentieth century.
Naturalist Charles Darwin stepped off the HMS Beagle on the morning of October 2nd, seeing his native England for the first time in five years. Novelist Charles Dickens would begin publishing his first novel The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club serialized for weekly publication. And Sam Colt would finally perfect his invention of the revolver.
For Darwin it would be the beginning of a long career, one that would enshrine him as one of the greatest scientific minds of his age, and one that would bring him into conflict with the established power of the Church of England and its dogma. Ten weeks into publication of The Pickwick Papers Dickens would spark a cultural revolution. His character Sam Weller would be so highly regarded that it would be openly stolen and reproduced in bootleg copies of his work, Sam Weller Joke Books and various other merchandizing. Dickens would helm a new kind of literature that would set the tone for such later innovators as Walt Disney, Osamu Tezuka and R. Crumb. And Sam Colt would, with a single stroke, reconstitute the way our species conceives of justice, law, injury and animosity. We would not need a writer the quality of Tom Fontana to remind us that with the advent of the revolver “the wound is personal”.
Each of these revolutions could be seen to engage with the writings of the Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus, whose dystopian view of the world arose from his famous slogan: “The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man”. Malthus would use this offer a savage critique of the welfare system of 19th century England. It is in this way that 1836 holds up a mirror to the global economic collapse of 2008. Economics as the crucible for three cultural revolutions; one of scientific and religious conflict, one of literary innovation, and one of civilian armament.
While the visionary work of manga writer Yasuhiro Nightow in his anime series Gungrave offers comment on the confluence of Colt’s legacy and Darwin’s (in Nightow’s series dead gangsters dressed as cowboys hunt down genetically engineered zombie supersoldiers), it is 1989’s Legion of Super-Heroes edited by Mark Waid and written by Keith Giffen and Tom & Mary Bierbaum that offers a perspective on the confluence of Darwin, Colt and Dickens.
Five years after the economic collapse of the United Planets, the idealistic Legion of Super-Heroes crawl from the wreckage, now jaded by the failure of their dream. Things were not supposed to be this bad. Now facing a galactic society on the brink crumbling into civilian militias, the Legion must confront the encroaching threat of an expansionist xenosociology. The story is told on the same 3x3 grid popularized by Dave Gibbons in Watchmen, but to a far more brutal effect.
This Wednesday’s Iconographies feature explores how 1989’s reboot of Legion of Super-Heroes offers comment on both 1836 and 2008.