The collective individual and the triumph of tone.
Thomas Jefferson was well known for stating that the “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants…God forbid we should ever be twenty years without such a rebellion.” DC comics seems to agree, as early 2009 brought about the revival of R.E.B.E.L.S., originally known as R.E.B.E.L.S. ‘94, R.E.B.E.L.S. ‘95 and, yes, R.E.B.E.L.S. ‘96. Despite the fifteen years between the two incarnations, there are, as Vril Dox once again discovers, immense needs for the refreshing of the tree of cosmic liberty. L.E.G.I.O.N., the intergalactic peacekeeping organization he created, has once again been compromised, this time by a far more mysterious, more threatening foe.
Surprisingly, the villain is eventually revealed not as someone with striking similarities to America’s recently-defunct Bush regime or their terrorist opponents Al-Qaeda (as is so common in allegorical fiction these days), but a character who represents the terrifying prospect of faceless, universal conformity, an all-too-real threat demonized in speculative fiction since at least the middle of the last century. In that regard, R.E.B.E.L.S. is more like the late Patrick McGoohan’s television epic The Prisoner or Don Siegel’s adaptation of Invasion of the Body Snatchers then it is like oft-cloned sci-fi programs like Firefly, Lost and the recently-concluded revamp of Battlestar Galactica.
This terrifying “new” foe is, in fact, a revamped version of JLA rogue Starro the Conqueror, now portrayed as a sort of hybrid of the original Starro, the Borg Queen and any number of Frank Frazetta creations. Succeeding where Geoff Johns failed with his reinvention of Brainiac in Action Comics, writer Tony Bedard has crafted the definitive Starro, giving him the weight and menace that so many comic book “big bads” lack these days.
A longtime staple of speculative fiction that has permeated the works of such luminaries as George Orwell, Rod Serling, George Lucas, Gene Roddenberry, Aldous Huxley, Yevgeny Zamyatin and others, the threat of social conformity, of falling in line with the faceless drones of what Lucas called “the masses”, will always be an unavoidable societal fear, as well. Many depictions of conformity in science fiction are direct responses to atrocities committed in the former USSR under its once-Communist rule (Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s Brave New World and Zamaytin’s We). Yet just as many arise from two political figures of the 1950s America: President Dwight Eisenhower and Senator Joe McCarthy (The Twilight Zone’s “Eye of the Beholder” and “The Obsolete Man” offer these insights). Additionally, 1970s consumerism is a constant source of satire with that decade’s advent of the shopping mall, as depicted in Lucas’s THX 1138 and George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. A clear descendant of this threat of anti-individualism, Bedard’s Starro takes things just a little deeper by introducing the notion of a sort of “central” Starro, a George Patton by way of Genghis Khan who, like the Borg Queen first seen in Star Trek: First Contact, completely alters all preconceived notions of individuality in what was once thought of as a collective. It’s brave stuff for sure, and Bedard’s Starro could very easily carry his own spin-off series.
It is often said that the hero is only as good as his villain, and in this case, the heroic and brilliant—but egotistical—Vril Dox is just as fascinating as the villainous, detestable ex-giant starfish who brought the Justice League together much as Loki did the Avengers. Both are egotistical, and probably far too egotistical to admit they have virtually everything in common if one looks at it from the right angle. They both desire a universe on the terms they each define as fair and just; however, where one wants order, the other expects control. One wishes to free the universe from a future of conformity, and the other desires creation to embrace that quite literally faceless future. The tone of R.E.B.E.L.S., possibly Bedard’s greatest achievement on the title, extends solely from these two characters. It is at times whimsical and intellectual like Dox, but also dark, foreboding and outright menacing, much like his infinite opponent.
This in itself is a unique achievement in modern comics. Most regular publications from DC and Marvel, the industry’s so-called “Big Two”, have their tone more or less decided by the company’s overall direction, with the rare exception being books set in different timelines or epochs. Thus, Superman must be affected by the formation of New Krypton, Batman must reflect the seeming death of Bruce Wayne in Final Crisis, and most of the Marvel Universe has to suffer under either the weight of Norman Osborn’s “Dark Reign”, a mutant “Second Coming” in the X-Men line, an interstellar “War of Kings”, an unholy “Siege” on Asgard or any number of other “status-quo shaking” events. By the sheer virtue of being one of DC’s very few cosmic books, and possibly being the only one that doesn’t have the words “Green Lantern” in the title, R.E.B.E.L.S. has the ability to decide not just its own tone, but (largely) its own direction, status quo and nearly every other element key to serialized storytelling. The energetic, charismatic artwork of Andy Clarke most certainly reflects the title’s uniqueness, injected as it is with immediacy and intrigue.
However, no matter how hard Bedard and Clarke try, none of these positive attributes can exactly distract an unfamiliar reader from the fact that so many of these characters and situations are, pun intended, alien to them. Aside from the recent revitalization of the Green Lantern franchise and Earth-bound heroes like Animal Man and Starfire’s recent adventures in space (where they, no doubt, were used as reader surrogates to make the readers feel more familiar with this part of the Universe) in books like 52, the cosmic corner of the DC Universe has been quiet for years. Its vastness and complex, interlocking narratives and characters almost necessitate a guidebook for new readers. Bedard and Clarke repeatedly try to make the series accessible to readers old and new, causing R.E.B.E.L.S. to constantly trip over its own feet while it tries to find its audience.
This all leads to some very interesting queries. With both the economy and the comic book industry the way they are, can a book not afford to know what its audience is despite serving up a strong, specific tone unseen anywhere else in comics, crisp, top of the line art, fun, compelling characters and a chilling political allegory straight out of the works of Rod Serling and Jack Finney? Only time will tell, but the sooner R.E.B.E.L.S. figures out who its catering to, the sooner DC will have another bona fide cosmic smash on their hands.