No Stranger To Fiction 0002: “Ballad of a Superman”
“The superpowers often behave like two heavily armed blind men feeling their way around a room, each believing himself in mortal peril from the other, whom he assumes to have perfect vision.”
- Dr. Henry Kissinger (1923-present), former National Security Advisor and Secretary of State
Since the beginning of the genre, the underlying subtext of superhero comics, so
beautifully brought to its logical boiling point over the last several years of Marvel stories (from House of M through the current Siege and Fall of the Hulks), has been the potential of the superman (or even Superman) to become a weapon. In order to stop America from creating an army of super-soldiers, a Nazi agent murdered Dr. Abraham Erskine. When the United States Armed Forces couldn’t weaponize the Hulk, they decided to hunt him. When President Lex Luthor couldn’t manipulate or control Batman and Superman, he sought to destroy them. And how soon we forget the magic words “Shazam!” and “Kimota!”…
Mark Waid’s Irredeemable and its side-series Incorruptible have made recent waves over the last several months as this concept becomes crystallized while America continues its war on the so-called “Axis of Evil”. By now, everyone knows the details of the story of the Plutonian, a Superman analog who became the world’s greatest supervillain and mass-murderer. There is no need to rehash it here. It seems, in some circles, that Waid’s work has become the focal point for comics’ take on human WMDs.
Not so. Not so at all.
Towards the end of George W. Bush’s final term in office, Warren Ellis began an informal, thematically linked trilogy, an examination of what a superhuman arms race could conceivably be like. It started with Black Summer, the inciting incident of which is the assassination of a US President by government-created superhuman John Horus; continued into No Hero, the tale of an Avengers-like superteam who police the world, and also carry their own dark secrets; and continues today with the currently-running Supergod, which subverts the origin of the Fantastic Four and even Ellis’ own work in books like Planetary and Orbiter in its quest to tell us exactly why “praying to a man who can fly will get you killed”.
Similarly, Marvel has released a duo of seemingly unrelated, though ultimately intertwined, mini-series. The Ed Brubaker-penned The Marvels Project, describing in great detail the birth of heroes like Captain America, Nick Fury and the original Angel, is of course intertwined with the modern-day revival of The Torch, which re-integrates Jim Hammond and Toro into the modern Marvel Universe while, as the original android Human Torch is also a key figure in Brubaker’s work.
The common thread between all five of these works is, of course, the creation of the superman and what happens when he is weaponized. In Black Summer, Horus and his team begin their post-human existence as a government ops team; it is only when Horus acts on his own that he is seen as threat to mankind, not when he’s ordered to go hither and thither like a latter-day Doctor Manhattan kowtowing to elected officials. The twist in No Hero’s final installment is, of course, that the series’ point-of-view character is actually an agent of several world governments, sent to trick the world’s only superteam into giving him immense powers and then destroying them from within after losing his mind and various portions of his body. Supergod seems to be leading to the end of the world at the hands of either supermen or humans reacting to supermen.
Similarly, The Marvels Project reveals the grit, grime and terror that led to the creation of the Marvel Universe as we know it -- a far cry from what could have been told at the time in which it takes place. Murder, espionage, compromise, war and other horrible ingredients seem to be involved in the concoction to create the elusive superhuman. The Torch, which takes place in modern times, sees a reactivated Human Torch captured by Advanced Idea Mechanics and experimented on by the Mad Thinker. He is reprogrammed to serve as a weapon against AIM’s enemies, including his old Invaders teammate Namor. He is no longer capable of sentient thought, but only thinks what the Mad Thinker wants him to think.
The cost, then, of being weaponized is the loss of the self, the mind, the conscience and the soul. And what a loss that is.
Though the five books are authored by four different individuals (Ellis and Brubaker for their previously-mentioned works, Mike Carey and Alex Ross for The Torch), they all seem to be making pointed comments about what the creation of weapons and their utilization does to the human spirit. If an IED goes off in Baghdad, killing a family or a platoon, is the person who created the schematics going to think much of it, or even shed a tear? No, of course not. It happened far away in another country, and it will not personally alter his or her life in any way at all. Like the powered characters of Supergod, though, the IED has done its job. Perhaps this makes someone happy, however twisted that thought may be. How deeply unsettling.
A kitchen knife, a computer, a remote control can become a weapon if used a certain way. If a DVD remote is used in a domestic violence case, will Samsung even care? As a corporation, of course not; a corporation is far from human, regardless of what Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott may postulate. Will individuals within the corporation feel bad? It’s entirely possible, but if they did, it wouldn’t do any good. What’s done is done and can’t be undone. Like the Human Torch, these items were not meant to be used as weapons, but were created to make life easier for humans.
While the comic book industry seems fascinated with tearing the Military Industrial Complex to pieces within its pages, it does so with focus, validity and heart. It’s a difficult task -- perhaps an impossible one -- to get this nightmare to become a distant memory, but so much can be done with a simple piece of art it’s hard to argue that the pages of the American comic book isn’t the right place to start tearing down the doors of those would harm our fellow man.
Next Week: An examination of various American presidents, both past and present, in post-9/11 comics such as Resurrection, The Ultimates and Thunderbolts in “We Didn’t Start the Pyre”.