Happy Labour Day! And welcome to the second blog post of what is now a series of posts on Warren Ellis and politics. (If you’re wondering why Ellis and why politics, read last year’s post here.) This time we’re going to look at the first couple of issues of Trees (Image 2014-2016, art by Jason Howard).
Trees is a science fiction story set in the near future. The comic starts as a collection of episodes that are only loosely connected through the ‘Trees’ phenomenon, extraterrestrial pillars that have landed on various places on earth. There are three settings that are visited repeatedly and extensively in the first few issues:
- Cefalù, Sicily, Italy. This part of the story centers on Eligia Gatti, a young woman whose boyfriend Tito runs a neo-fascist gang. Tito sums up the situation: “Mafia to the south of us, ‘Ndrangheta to the north, the government collapsing, and us in the middle. Cefalu is ruined. Someone needs to take control of things.” (#2). This is the ‘strong man’ rhetoric once again: government has failed to protect society from crime, so a few individuals take matters into their own hands. Only this time, Tito’s gang merely seeks to replace organised crime by their own flavour of it, using mafia-like methods such as extortion. Furthermore, the gang members are clearly portrayed as villains, and as the story progresses, Eligia tries to break free from the fascists.
However, Eligia’s emancipation is not achieved through a reinstatement of governmental power. Instead, she turns to another individual who stands outside the law (as evidenced by his gun-wielding), the enigmatic elderly Professor Luca Bongiorno. Thus Ellis doesn’t provide a proper solution to this case of government failure.
- Spitsbergen, Norway. A group of young scientists from all over the world lives and works at an Arctic research facility. Due to the harsh climate, they live an isolated life removed from the rest of society. Ellis portrays this quasi-anarchy as a double-edged sword: on the one hand, the scientists are free to go about their work as they please without much supervision, and they don’t have to worry about food and housing. On the other hand, any possible conflicts are difficult to resolve because there is no impartial authority: when Sarah suggests to Marsh that he should return home, saying “I don’t think it’s even been legal for you to have been on station for two and a half years”, he answers, “So send someone up here to arrest me” (#2). Clearly, government has little power over the inhabitants of Blindhail Station. Marsh even implies that their life is a regression to barbarism: “What’s civilized? We live in bears-that-eat-people country” (#1).
- Shu, China. This appears to be a fictional city which has formed around one of the Trees. Access to it is restricted, but once you’ve managed to get inside the city walls, it turns out to be an artist colony of utopian qualities. We see Shu through the eyes of Chenglei, a young artist from rural China (or, as a citizen of Shu puts it, “from Pigshit Village in scenic Incest Province”) who is overwhelmed by the freedom and permissive attitude he finds there. The Shu story arc is Ellis’s love letter to anarchy. Unhindered by government authorities, Chenglei is for the first time in his life able to explore his sexuality, while back in “Pigshit Village […] people are still beaten by their own families for being gay”, as Chenglei notes in a later issue (#6).
In all three scenarios, Ellis asks what happens when governmental power loosens and anarchy (in different degrees and different flavours) sets in. The overall picture he paints is ambiguous – he shows both the risks and the opportunities of anarchy – but this exploration of anarchy can also be read as a refusal of authoritarian forms of government: clearly, the future as Ellis imagines it does not lie in governmental law enforcement.
It should be noted that some of the other story arcs in Trees are more explicitly political, but they only become important in later issues.
Depending on where you live, May 1st may have some connection, historically or actually, to labour and workers’ rights, or even socialism and class struggle. On this occasion I thought I’d write a little blogpost about politics and comics. Some years ago at a conference, I attended a talk on a certain political or ideological stance in the comics of Warren Ellis,¹ which made me wonder what stance, if any, can be found in one of his latest comics, his short-lived Moon Knight run from 2014.
Each of the 6 issues is beautifully illustrated by Declan Shalvey and Jordie Bellaire, and tells a largely self-contained story. I have already reviewed issues #1-3 on this weblog, so today we’re going to look at the second half of the run, which consists of the stories “Sleep”, “Scarlet”, and “Spectre”.
Politics is sometimes defined as “beliefs and attitudes about how government should work” (Macmillan), and that is the definition with which we’ll work here. At first glance, there seems to be nothing political about these typical masked vigilante stories: Moon Knight comes to the scene of the crime, confronts and eventually defeats the criminal(s). (At least in “Sleep” and “Scarlet”, whereas “Spectre” is told from the antagonist’s point of view, but the result is the same.) On closer inspection, though, society and government appear in all three of the stories.
Government is always present in the struggle between police (i.e. enforcement of the law made by the government) and crime (i.e. defiance of the government and its law). The New York Police Department is portrayed in an unfavourable light: unable to solve the crimes themselves, they rely on Moon Knight, who works outside of the law. Unlike in other superhero stories where police officers try to solve the crime themselves, overextend themselves, get into trouble and need to be rescued by the superheroes, the NYPD in Moon Knight doesn’t even try. Moon Knight does their work for them, and he does it in a way police couldn’t (or shouldn’t), killing, maiming and unnecessarily hurting his opponents instead of arresting them.
The criminals, on the other hand, – including Ryan Trent in “Sleeper” who starts out as one of the ‘good guys’ but ends up killing innocents – are basically given free rein in this New York City. In all of the three stories, their crimes are ultimately avenged by Moon Knight, but only after they were able to placidly commit them. Moon Knight is not one for preventing crime.
Warren Ellis has created a world in which government has failed. To maintain order, it takes a force – Moon Knight – that has the necessary financial and physical power, without being controlled by the government. This is a political vision that has little to do with democracy, in the sense that the people had any control over Moon Knight’s ‘work’. But it has a lot to do with ‘might makes right’ and the ‘longing for the strong man’ – ideas more closely associated with dictatorship. Granted, many superhero comics operate within a similar mindset, but in Moon Knight these ideas are particularly noticeable.