[11 May 2004]
Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose
In an early scene of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, the female protagonist shatters a sculpture, a piece of art she loves so much that she cannot bare for it to be viewed by others. Even in my younger, Randian days, I always found this extreme display of selfishness and possessiveness to be a bit disturbing. How is her freedom to love a beautiful thing damaged by others having the same freedom? How is her freedom more fully expressed by the ability to destroy it? Then as now, I always felt this act was a classic case of cutting off your nose to spite your face.
The nature of Freedom, with a capital-F, and how people judge their freedom, is a central concern of Stephen Grant’s My Flesh Is Cool. This three-issue series tells the story of Evan Knox, the world’s most dangerous and mysterious hitman, and the chaos unleashed when the secret of his skills is discovered.
Evan’s prowess as an assassin derives from his anonymity. Just as the question “Who is John Galt?” haunts the pages of Rand’s epic, the question “Who is Evan Knox?” graces the inside cover of each issue of Grant’s story. No one knows who Knox is, what he looks like, or just how he manages to infiltrate the most heavily guarded areas, take out his targets, and escape unscathed. The answer, of course, is deceptively simple: Evan Knox is everyone and no one.
Yes, there is a man, born and raised Evan Knox, who happily collects large sums of money for contract killings. But he never comes anywhere near his intended targets. His secret is one word: Go. Go is a drug, specially designed for Evan. Once he’s mainlined it, his body goes into hibernation, and his mind is set free. In this state, Evan can take over the mind of anyone, anywhere. Under a series of human masks, Knox can kill with impunity, because he never actually pulls the trigger.
But Evan is soon betrayed, and a ruthless mafiosa puts him temporarily out of commission and starts mass-producing the drug for her own profit. A few months later, Evan wakes up in a hospital to a country in shambles. As another proverb goes, “give ‘em an inch, and they’ll take a mile”. With the newfound freedom to escape the confines of their flesh, Go-junkies all over the country are hoping from body to body, looting, murdering, and raping. With the power to be anonymous, personal morals are thrown out the window in favor of doing what you want, when you want.
For all the sex and violence, Grant’s story is primarily a character study of Knox, an examination of his completely self-centered, amoral personality. The story itself is fun, high-energy action, with the kind of slightly excessive blood and nudity that readers have come to know and love from publisher Avatar’s line of creator-owned titles. Grant manages to avoid most of the problems that tend to plague stories based on such paradox-creating concepts as time-travel and identity-conundrums (ie. the terrible and nonsensical Identity). The only problems seem to come near the end, where the interesting revelation about Evan’s betrayer is resolved a bit too quickly in order to make room for the climax and resolution.
But back to the story itself: while I can understand, and certainly imagine, such mass anarchy erupting, it is predicated on a view of freedom (which is obviously the characters’ view, not writer Grant’s view) that strikes me as odd in the same way as does Rand’s view. Do the freedoms of individuals conflict with one another, such that for one person to be truly free means that he or she can violate another? Or can individual freedoms be fully expressed without impinging on each other? It seems to me that the heart of a truly democratic society must uphold the latter value, in which individuals are both wholly individual, yet also part of a society in which their freedoms are protected and experienced. The former view of freedom, that I will have mine even if it means you can’t have yours, is more an expression of childish selfishness, a solipsistic, ego-centric idea that only what I directly experience and believe is important, a view that when taken to its logical conclusion, such as by the characters in Grant’s story, causes society’s very foundation to crack and falter.
No one more fully embodies such a mercenary outlook than Evan Knox. When he embarks on a mission to stop the flow of Go, it isn’t out of any desire to save the country. It is strictly so that he can get back his special toy, and so no one else can have it. Ultimately, that’s what freedom is to Evan. It is having something that no one else can have.