Politics in Warren Ellis’s Dark Blue

On this year’s Labour Day we’re going to look at a comic that was published at around the same time as Planetary but which is not nearly as well-known: Dark Blue (Avatar Press, first collected edition 2001; apparently originally published in 2000 as part of an anthology series called Threshold, the cover images of which are definitely ‘not safe for work’…). The black-and-white artwork is by a young Jacen Burrows, with relatively elaborate screentones for which no less than three people are credited, Terry Staats, Jason Crager, and Mark Seifert.

About halfway into this 60-page story there is a major plot twist that has some relevance here, so just this once I’m giving a spoiler warning: if you haven’t read Dark Blue but intend to, you might want to stop reading now.

The story starts out as a violent cop tale. Protagonist Detective Frank Christchurch is introduced beating up a suspect in custody in an attempt to find out the whereabouts of a serial killer, Trent Wayman. Frank’s partner Debbie stops him before he kills the suspect and Frank is told off by his boss, Lieutenant Abbey, but in the end Frank gets away with it. Abbey has problems of his own: he is a heroin addict who even shoots up in his office. The whole police department is morally depraved, to say the least. According to Frank, one police officer is “trying to sell me pills when I come in for my shift”, another “was raping a whore in the holding cell” while a third one looked on, “jerking off into a firebucket”.

So far, this seems to be the typical Warren Ellis motif of a failed democratic government with a law enforcement that not only is ineffectual at fighting crime but commits crimes itself. However, then the aforementioned twist happens when the entire city in which the police department is located turns out to be a drug-induced consensual hallucination shared by three hundred people. “Every person who takes the drug goes to that city and believes it to be utterly real”, explains Debbie, who in reality is a doctor at the hospital in which the drugged people are actually located.

Furthermore, Frank isn’t a police officer either, but a CIA agent who was “gathering intel in the former Yugoslavia”, as Debbie reminds him. “You got caught outside when shelling started and you ran into the nearest big building. It was a schoolhouse. And some fucker shelled it anyway.”

The story continues with Frank returning to “narcospace” and continuing to chase the murderer, Trent Wayman, but the really interesting questions are left unexplored. What kind of hospital treats traumatised intelligence agents by administering experimental “shamanic” drugs for several months on end? What kind of government operates such hospitals? Is it morally justifiable for a government to lie to its citizens and entrap them in an illusory world, even if this is intended as mental health treatment? Is the risk acceptable that they end up permanently confusing their real life with their illusory one (as happens to Frank)?

One could also ask what exactly a CIA agent was doing in Yugoslavia in the first place. What are the interests of the CIA (or of the American government, or of the American people) in the Yugoslav Wars? As Debbie tells the story, it seems to be clear who the good and the bad guys are: Frank was only peacefully “gathering intel” and becomes the victim of an attack, whereas the attacker is a “fucker” who stops at nothing, not even killing schoolchildren. Debbie doesn’t say which of the factions of the Yugoslav Wars the attacker belonged to, or where the school was located. Ellis’s vagueness concerning Frank’s backstory is particularly regrettable in the light of a certain conspiracy theory according to which a “Former CIA Agent claims: They gave us Millions to split up Yugoslavia”.

In any case, in contrast to what it seemed like in the beginning of the comic, Ellis presents a vision of a government that is very much in control and doesn’t need any help from superheroes: apart from minor problems with individuals such as Frank Christchurch and Trent Wayman, the United States have total control domestically (as exemplified by the hospital) and a strong influence abroad. Civil rights and democratic legitimization, however, fall by the wayside once more. Thus Ellis’s view on democracy in Dark Blue is yet another cynical criticism.

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A sad anniversary: Review of Moon Knight #194-200

Language: English
Authors: Max Bemis (writer), various
Publisher: Marvel
Publication Dates: June – December 2018
Pages per issue: 20
Price per issue: $3.99
Website: http://marvel.com/comics/series/20488/moon_knight_2016_-_present

Another year has passed in which Moon Knight was largely ignored by critics. Rightfully so? The last story arc by Max Bemis and Jacen Burrows, collected in a trade paperback titled “Crazy Runs in the Family”, showed great potential. What came afterwards, though, was quite a mixed bag:

#194, drawn by Ty Templeton, is seemingly a one-shot which introduces Uncle Ernst, a supervillain from Marc Spector’s childhood.

#195-196, with brilliant artwork by Paul Davidson, is a weird and charming little story about The Collective, a new supervillain (or group of villains?).

#197-198, drawn by Jacen Burrows again, seem to tell a very similar tale about another group of adversaries, the Société des Sadiques. Their leader turns out to be none other than Uncle Ernst, which in hindsight makes #194 the first part of this story arc.

Although the story appears to be finished with #198 (which is also the last issue to be collected in the TPB, “Phases”), #199 (art by Davidson again) continues it with another face-off between Moon Knight and Ernst.

#200 (still drawn by Davidson), finally, brings back the supervillains from the previous arc, Sun King and The Truth, the former allying with Moon Knight while the latter has been corrupted by Ernst.

Thus, with the interruption of #195-196, we basically have a five-part finale, the cohesion of which is futher damaged by the change of artists. Bemis has injected a lot of clever and darkly humorous ideas into these issues, though their connections to the Nazi Holocaust are sometimes bordering on tastelessness. Still, the cancellation of this series after this anniversary issue is a remarkable marketing failure, even for Marvel. Usually, such an anniversary would be used to invigorate and generate new interest in a series at least for the next couple of issues (which has recently worked well for e.g. Action Comics at DC), but Marvel didn’t even seem to have had that much faith in Moon Knight. The 200th issue itself is not that flashy either: a slightly increased size (30 pages) for an increased prize ($5), some guest artist pages (one each by Jeff Lemire and Bill Sienkiewicz), and an action sequence of two double-page spreads by Davidson – that’s it.

What remains in memory of this Bemis/Burrows/Davidson run is a number of whacky characters, stunningly drawn panels, witty lines of dialogue, and ways of storytelling that at least feel fresh. And three comic creators to watch (although Bemis seems to identify more as a rock musician). However, the lack of success of a rock-solid series such as Moon Knight also says a lot about the current state of American superhero comics in which such a vast amount of material is published each week that the comic books are cannibalising each other in their competition for reader attention.

Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○


It’s ‘differently abled’ now: Review of Moon Knight #188-193

Regular readers of this weblog might have gathered from earlier posts that the two previous Moon Knight incarnations, the Ellis/Shalvey run and particularly the Lemire/Smallwood run, ought to be regarded as highlights of the superhero genre of this decade. Now that the first storyarc in the first six issues of the latest Moon Knight run (#188-193 in the annoying new “Legacy” numbering) has been completed, it’s time to ask: how does it hold up?

Language: English
Authors: Max Bemis (writer), Jacen Burrows (artist), Mat Lopes (colourist)
Publisher: Marvel
Publication Dates: November 2017 – March 2018
Pages per issue: 20-25
Price per issue: $3.99
Website: http://marvel.com/comics/series/20488/moon_knight_2016_-_present

In the afterword to the first issue, artist Jacen Burrows says, “Moon Knight has been in a sort of creative renaissance since Warren Ellis and Declan Shalvey relaunched the character in 2014, all the way through the amazing arc recently completed by Jeff Lemire, Greg Smallwood and company, and we hope to continue this by making the next important chapter in Marc Spector’s life thought-provoking, intense, a little scary, and a little funny.”

It’s reassuring to read that Bemis and Burrows decided to honour the – ahem – legacy of Moon Knight instead of wiping the slate once again, as some previous Moon Knight authors have done. The first issue (#188) is even entirely told from the perspective of Dr. Emmet, Marc Spector’s psychiatrist, a character created only recently by Lemire and Smallwood. Telling a story about a character from the perspective of his or her psychiatrist isn’t a new device. Neither is the introduction of an ‘evil twin’ sort of villain, a character similar to Moon Knight who is set up as his rival. However, combining these two devices to the effect that Moon Knight himself doesn’t directly appear in the whole first issue is quite a daring move.

The second issue (#189), however, introduces another villain, “The Truth”, who is chased and confronted by Moon Knight. The concept of Moon Knight’s split personality disorder (Marc Spector / Steven Grant / Jake Lockley) is expanded to the effect that he now, more deliberately than before, switches between his personalities so that he has e.g. Jake Lockley do all the dirty work. Jake is the personality that contains Moon Knight’s darkest, most violent and ruthless aspects, from which the other personalities are kept clean.

In #190, Jake and Marc have a conversation about this in his (their?) mind. Jake says, “Kid, you sliced me off your personality and sent me to live among freaks, addicts, and criminals. There are things you don’t want to know. […] Look. Steven is the wealthy benefactor. Khonshu is our connection to the bigger picture. You’re the voice of reason. And I deal with the grimy leftovers. You built us this way.” Just how great the divide between these personalities is becomes clear later in this third issue, when Marc visits his ex-girlfriend Marlene and finds out that, unbeknownst to him, as it were, she had been dating Jake instead after having split up with Marc.

Khonshu does a lot of talking too, as he is the narrator for most of this story. In #191, he dispenses a peculiar theological lecture to Moon Knight in which he suggests that the Lovecraftian Old Ones, the Judeo-Christian God, and Ancient Egyptian Ra (father of Khonshu) are one and the same. However, as always, we can’t be sure whether Khonshu is really a supernatural individual or just another aspect of Moon Knight’s twisted mind.

Meanwhile, the other supervillain, who calls himself Ra because he believes he’s the avatar of this Egyptian god, has teamed up with The Truth and lured Moon Knight on a remote island. In the final issue of this storyarc (#193), Moon Knight and Ra fight. It’s not a very fair fight because Ra is a pyrokinetic, whereas Moon Knight doesn’t have any superpowers. Or so one might have thought, but then Steven Grant figures it all out: “Khonhsu. Are you saying […] if Sun King’s [i.e. Ra’s] belief is a part of him, and in some weird metatextual way relates to his abilities, that, in a way, Marc has powers of his own?”

Some weird metatextual way indeed. The power which Moon Knight’s delusion grants him is only his near-superhuman tenacity (“the power of crazy”), but doesn’t that also mean Ra got his pyrokinetic ability because he became mentally ill? More precisely, ironically it was Dr. Emmet who gave him ideas about Egyptian mythology and thus unintentionally awakened his superpower. Quite a problematic plot point, but then again, this is the Marvel Universe, where people acquire supernatural abilities through gamma rays and the like, so why not through the sheer power of imagination…

So the writing is a mixed bag of good and not so good ideas. As for the art, it’s more than solid, even beautiful. Jacen Burrows’s style is perhaps best compared to Frank Quitely’s, with its thin clear outlines and little shading. However, while there are many clever compositions and layouts to be found here, Burrows’s art lacks the groundbreaking creative force and the eagerness to experiment for which his predecessors on the title, Smallwood and Shalvey, will be remembered. An unfair comparison, perhaps, but unavoidable. Nevertheless, I’m looking forward to finding out where Bemis and Burrows are going to take Moon Knight – this still has the potential to turn into another historic run.

Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○