McLuhan Center Says A-Bomb May Be Good
Rick Veitch’s THE ONE, The Last Word in Superheroics, opens with the headline above, from the Sunday, February 12, 1984 edition of the New York Times. According to the Marshall McLuhan Center — named for the famous media theorist — the Bomb is the world’s greatest unifying myth. Its capacity for Biblical-scale annihilation “binds people together in a way they have not been linked since the Middle Ages, albeit on the brink of collective suicide.”
Heavy stuff. In 1984, when THE ONE was first published, it was hard to argue that we weren’t perched on the brink. The specter of impending Armageddon was so pervasive that it sublimated into military strategy: Mutually Assured Destruction guaranteed that whoever launched first would be handing the world’s reins over to the cockroaches. Yet neither side could be the first to scale back their arms; a global game of nuclear chicken.
Ronald Reagan was fond of the Manichean worldview (now back in vogue); his battle against the “Evil Empire” was the stuff of superhero comics. Ironically, or perhaps in response to Reagan’s elevation of comic book morality to national policy, comics of the time were drawing more ambiguous, troubling pictures of our national heroes. THE ONE was one of the first, preceding both Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns.
Anxiety, resignation, and a perverse amount of national pride reigned everywhere under the atomic Sword of Damocles. Veitch explodes that tension within the first few pages. Itchy Itch, a voracious Howard Hughes-like capitalist, speaks directly to the reader: “It was a situation crying out to be exploited!” For Itch has been selling weapons hardware to both the Russian and American Navies. Taking control of that hardware, he sets them against one another, making it appear to the entire world that World War III had begun. The US President and Russian Premier, acting to protect their national honor and appease their respective populations, have no choice but to launch their nuclear missiles.
The weapons, all of them, fail to detonate, stopped by a mysterious burst of light. At the same time, two-thirds of the world populace falls into a death-like trance; the remaining third takes to rioting in the streets, figuring the end of the world is at hand.
In the midst of this chaos appears The One, looking like nothing so much as a blissed-out Uncle Sam with shades and a bowtie. He impresses Grace, a single mother and artist who becomes the moral center of the book, with his calm knowingness. He keeps his head when all about him everyone is losing theirs.
During the ’60s, some proposed the consciousness expansion of LSD as the spiritual antidote to the death-worship of the Atom Bomb. This spirit incarnates in The One, who appears at the moment of mankind’s self-inflicted annihilation in order to midwife humanity into the next stage of evolution. His opposite — The Other — thrives on man’s animal nature, ruling through violence and pursuing only brute survival. His is the voice that makes the world’s leaders choose incineration to protect their all-consuming ideologies.
The great dichotomies of the Cold War were not just Capitalism vs. Communism, US vs. USSR — but also more essential divides: us vs. them, fear vs. love, progress vs. death. All of these divisions are explored in THE ONE, as barriers to be transcended.
Contemporaneous with Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, THE ONE shares those comics’ bleak view of supposed heroes: politicians, businessmen, even superheroes are manifestations of The Other’s violence and blind hatred. The President calls for a nuclear strike on Washington, leaving his subordinates to deal with the wreckage while he retires to an underground bunker; Itchy Itch, mad Captain of Industry, brings on all this misery with his naked lust for power through wealth; and the Superiors, genetic mutants envisioned as the next step in the superpowers’ arms race, only too late realize they are superhuman pawns of outdated ideologies. Their powers do not include wisdom or humanity.
Post-Watchmen, it’s become fairly common for comics to take a “No Heroes” line. Once Moore proposed that the people we normally look to as leaders — politicians, businessmen, men-in-tights — were seldom as heroic as we hoped, it was easy to conclude that there were no heroes anywhere. Indeed, that conclusion has launched a thousand pale Watchmen imitations.
But in THE ONE, Veitch was ahead of the whole game. He’d already seen Moore’s points about the corruptive power of ideologies, the naivety of looking for saviors, and the impotence of costumed heroes. THE ONE makes all those points and then some. Then the story moves on to the larger question: who are the real heroes? If our politicians are corrupt, their ideologies obsolete, our superheroes their pawns, and our business leaders out only to fleece us, who will save us from ourselves?
When Grace, who has spent most of the story vacillating between The One and The Other, falls from a building into the clutches of an angry mob, she asks the same question. She asks for help, salvation. The One, speaking as her son, answers, “I’d like to save you, but everyone has to do that for themselves.”
When you wash away all the false saviors who assume leadership for the sake of power, who is left? Who are the real heroes?
The heroes are us.