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Red #1-3

(Wildstorm/DC Comics; US: Sep 2003)

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Those Who Know History


The great bugbear of democracy: how much deceit can a “free society” tolerate in the name of end results? Hard times call for hard decisions call for hard actions. That political exigency requires Machiavellian policies is an unpleasant truth for most; but at what point does necessity become the mother of betrayal and invalidate the values it intends to uphold?


Warren Ellis’ Red traces society’s need to kill history. The present is not based upon truth, but built on a collective myth, romanticized by years of revisionism. Paul Moses, ur-assassin, political and military tool of American interests. He is history, the past incarnate, the great evil id of American life, uneasily lurking beneath the veneer of civilized society. Ostensibly, his status is retired, or “green” in CIA-speak. But the red-tinted cover of issue #1 belies this; he is still active, “red”, because history cannot merely be “retired”.


Enter Michael Beesley, political appointee, CIA director. Unlike the hard angles and lean lines of Moses, Beesley is plump, soft. He is the New Man, but hardly a man at all. Existing in a world created by Moses, but ignorant of the blood and the truly hard decisions and harder actions that built it. When faced with the horrific history, he wants nothing more than to destroy it. Purge America’s seething id, erase it from the history books.


What Beesley doesn’t know is that reality cannot be purged in favor of the myth. To destroy history is to destroy oneself, and Moses brings all the fire and brimstone of his Old Testament America crashing down in judgment upon the weak Michael Beesley.


Moses laments not his existence, which has caused so much pain to others as well as himself. The trauma he can live with, because he once believed that he committed atrocities in the name of a greater good. What he laments is the Lapsarian moment, the fall from grace, when men could no longer face up to their deeds and accept their punishment. If men are no longer men, then what was the fighting and killing for?


It becomes easy to side with Moses. He is strong, he is firm. He stands for something, although it may not be something we like. He is a Man, while Beesley is some unspeakable invertebrate in a man’s skin. But is he just a part of his own myth? Even if we know the truth of yesterday, and accept it was an Age more Gilded than Golden, the rationalizations craft a new collective story to ease our minds. “They did it for something greater” sounds comforting, but is it possible that the great men and women of history were as petty and small-minded as those of today?


The green-tinted cover of issue #3 suggests a resolution. To “retire” the past is a false hope, but we can come face to face with it, as Moses and Beesley come face to face. But to demonize it, as Beesley attempted to demonize Moses, only implicates us in the same cycle of blame, because it exists within us. Face it, understand it, question it, and learn.


The most beautiful principles of society, when enacted in the real world, will always require ugly deeds to survive. But necessity does not grant carte blanche, and especially today, one must always debate the efficacy and true purpose of laws and policies that threaten to undermine what they should instead protect. History cannot be ignored or forgotten. But if the past is not to be repeated, the future must be reformed.

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