Early in life I had to choose between honest arrogance and hypocritical humility. I chose the former and have seen no reason to change.
—Frank Lloyd Wright
Former Iron Man and Eternals writer Daniel Knauf’s fascinating and impressive historical drama/fantasy series Carnivale offered a mind-blowing look at a slightly different world with a slightly different history of mankind. In Knauf’s universe, since a woman known as the Alpha sired two children, man has always had walking among them an Avatar of Light and an Avatar of Darkness. When the series picks up in 1934, viewers instantly met the two “Prince” characters who were to be designated as the Avatars of their generation: escaped convict Ben Hawkins and evangelist Justin Crowe. Without spoiling too much of the series or its revelations, it’s worth noting that Carnivale touched upon several of the same cultural touchstones as Warren Ellis’s second Astonishing X-Men arc, “Exogenetic.”
The main villain of “Exogenetic” is a Japanese man named Kaga, the child of a survivor of the American attack on Hiroshima, which Carnivale was building towards. Constantly ill and physically debilitated, Kaga always considered himself a mutant, what was left of his private little pride wounded by the very public presence of attractive mutants in skin-tight uniforms with flashy powers. Kaga, of course, was no ordinary mutant, but merely a comic book representation of what radiation really does to people who aren’t named Peter Parker, Reed Richards or Bruce Banner.
Kaga, then, refusing to accept his personal reality, very clearly wanted to be special in the same way as Scott Summers, Emma Frost and the others. And when he couldn’t be, he struck at them. Using their dead friends and students, Kaga engineered a psychological and physical attack on Marvel’s merry mutants, one that left the X-Men angered, frustrated and violated.
One of the more fascinating characters in the Carnivale ensemble was Professor Ernst Lodz, a fortune teller in the titular traveling circus. With Lodz, the devil was in the details, as the series was unfortunately canceled before it was able to tell his whole story. What is known about Lodz, however, is that he, too, just wanted to be special, even going so far as to engage in a magical ritual with an Avatar named Henry Scudder and a preacher Kerrigan just to gain “a fraction of” Scudder’s abilities, rendering Kerrigan insane and Lodz himself blind. To Lodz, this made sense. His quest for power was what it was: to achieve what he desired, any ends would justify the means. Similarly to Kaga, who apparently thought killing as many mutants as possible would help make him look special to the world, Lodz was never quite playing with a full deck, but after a lifetime of nothing but wanting what others around you have, well, who would be?
Suffice it to say, things don’t turn out well for Kerrigan, Scudder or Lodz, and one could argue it’s all Lodz’s fault.
In the second half of Carnivale’s first season, Brother Justin began work on his manifesto, which began with the words “Pain is an unavoidable side-effect.” But a side-effect of what? Power? Desire? Life? As viewers never got to find out the full extent of Justin’s personal theology due to the shower’s untimely, abrupt cancellation at the end of its second year, we can only surmise what Justin’s manifesto actually contained. However, until we know for sure what Knauf and his writing staff were driving at, it appears Ellis and his villainous Kaga have the answer.
Pain, Kaga was created to remind us, is an unavoidable side-effect of hubris. Altered in the womb by the atomic fire of a vengeful, self-absorbed, violent nation and eventually brought down by his own perceived greatness when those he wished to join justly attacked him, Kaga showed readers of Astonishing X-Men that the sort of pride that led to the creation of Fat Man and Little Boy still exists today.
Not long after the release of the final chapter of “Exogenetic” in Astonishing X-Men #35, American military operations in Iraq allegedly came to an end.
But never mind the special operations folks over there. Don’t worry about the privately-contracted mercenaries. Don’t worry about the litany of illegal acts already perpetrated by “our guys” during the War on Terror.
Our pride says our actions are right. Never mind what history or the fiction born of that history tells us. In the end, we’ll be proven right.
Just like Kaga was.