“Momma’s Boy,” the issue of Green Arrow that’s a showcase for publisher DC’s “Villains Unleashed” event, produces Werner Count Zytle as more than a nemesis—the issue establishes Zytle as a true ideological opponent and philosophical threat to Oliver Queen’s titular Green Arrow. With Zytle being renamed “Count Vertigo” to bring him closer in line with the more garish nature of comicbook conflict that writer Jeff Lemire sees Green Arrow sliding into, the dizzying array of themes takes on a more postmodern feel. Like Vertigo himself, we as the audience are positioned to always return to the scene of the crime. A return Vertigo effects by returning to the Crius Institute, his own Frankenstein’s Womb where as an adolescent he was weaponized. And a return we effect by not only lingering on Sorrentino’s elegantly visualized decay, but by perpetually reassessing Lemire’s flashbacks, in the hope of eliciting more well-hidden clues, and going that one level deeper, descending into Count Vertigo’s monstrous psyche.
The great classics of horror are all really available in “Momma’s Boy.” The Monster from Frankenstein, as much Frankenstein himself seem projected against the inner psychic walls of the imagination as Count Vertigo traverses the now abandoned Crius Institute. Or Harker from the pages of Dracula, his natural rhythms disrupted as much by Abraham Van Helsing as by Vlad the Dragon, now racing a labyrinth at true end of which he must confront something no longer human. Or the Minotaur itself, the granddaddy of stories about monsters, lurking in their lairs, who Daedalus escapes, only to open the door on a far greater tragedy. And while this postmodern domino effect whereby the very act of reading the story, mirrors the journey of the protagonist, while at the same time evoking great monsters from literary classics, it’s a singular achievement, it is not the main show in the big tent.
No Dear Reader, that honor is reserved for the structure of the story itself. “Momma’s Boy” is nothing short of a bildungsroman in the grand tradition of Proust. And “Momma’s Boy” is such a thing as this because it leverages both the psychological and the geopolitical between the haunting images of a helicopter and a mom.
Maybe it’s nothing more than a visual jest by Lemire and Sorrentino that leads us into the notion of the helicopter mom (the non-Asian version of “Tiger Mom” that new seems nothing more than a dated 2006). It certainly could be with Zytle’s own mother ultimately proving to be a failed helicopter mom, if not a failed a mom entirely. Maybe, maybe not, but the unbridled achievement in “Momma’s Boy” (and I use that word unabashedly) lies in how Lemire and Sorrentino lead you down a labyrinth of their own making. “Helicopter mom” isn’t an idea that comes prefabricated, that the creative team then simply hands you. In the participatory mechanism inherent in reading comics, you’d need to assemble that visualized metaphor of the helicopter mom for yourself. But the image is one that can only be assembled after you walk the labyrinth of reading the book. And in waking that labyrinth, you’re exposed to two psychologically vivid stories—one of the geopolitics of Eastern Europe, and the other of the Frankenstein’s Womb wherein Zytle was weaponized.
At a momentous time, around the year 2000, Stephen King wrote of his then recent work, Hearts in Atlantis, that it was a meditation on how we entered into Vietnam, and what it took to extricate ourselves. Lemire offers a similar meditation it might be said, but on Eastern Europe rather than the Pacific Rim. Lemire offers a more incisive framing than the convivial tale spun by Misha Glenny and his ilk, where old Soviet-era intelligence apparatuses become retrofitted for 21st century crime. Lemire instead demonstrates how the notion of monarchy becomes an actual problem in Eastern Europe where Zytle hails from, and himself heir to a time of. Words like “self-determination” and “nationalism” hold sway here, but they’re very much words that are used in absentia of any well-formed philosophical concept of “liberty” or “patriotism.” Zytle is shaped by these forces as much as he’s shaped by a mother who both honored him as the heir to her family’s throne, as she sold him to be weaponized.
In the final analysis, “Momma’s Boy” is so finely crafted and do richly woven, and so singular an achievement, that you’ll find yourself returning to it like Vertigo returns to the scene of a crime perpetrated against himself. As a project it remains singular among the other takes from DC’s “Villains Month,” and reads like an unremitting portrait of an adversary worthy of confronting Green Arrow philosophically as much as physically.