Politics in Warren Ellis’s Trees

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.

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Linda Hutcheon’s Postmodernism – in comics?

There have already been five posts about postmodernism on this weblog, so why a sixth one? Linda Hutcheon’s 1988 book A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction is interesting because it directly engages in a dialogue – or should I say, argument – with previous texts on postmodernism such as Fredric Jameson’s.

Hutcheon defines postmodernism as:

  • “fundamentally contradictory”,
  • “resolutely historical”, and
  • “inescapably political” (p. 4, my emphasis).

This seems to contradict Jameson’s and other authors’ view of postmodernism as ahistorical and depthless. But what exactly does Hutcheon mean by ‘historical’ and ‘political’?

The treatment of the past in postmodern works is indeed different from earlier, modernist works. Postmodernism “suggests no search for transcendent timeless meaning, but rather a re-evaluation of and a dialogue with the past in the light of the present. […] It does not deny the existence of the past; it does question whether we can ever know that past other than through its textualized remains.” (pp. 19-20, emphasis LH).

Likewise, the political nature of postmodernism is a complex one, “a curious mixture of the complicitous and the critical” (p. 201). “The basic postmodernist stance [is] a questioning of authority” (p. 202), but at the same time it is also “suspicious of ‘heroes, crusades, and easy idealism’ […]” (p. 203, quoting Bill Buford). “The postmodern is ironic, distanced” (p. 203).

The contradictory nature of postmodernism, on the other hand, is something everyone can agree on. This characteristic seems to be more of a prerequisite for or superordinate concept of the other two.

Hutcheon’s idea of postmodernism is a relatively narrow one. Although she references many examples of postmodernist works (mainly novels), it becomes clear that those examples represent only a part, and probably not a large one at that, of contemporary cultural production. Which brings us to today’s comic, which is not quite as randomly selected as previous examples in this column: it might fit Hutcheon’s criteria (well, see below), but some other comics that have a more ‘postmodern’ feel to them might not.

Brahm Revel’s Guerillas vol. 1 (Oni Press, 2010) opens with a quotation attributed to French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau (1841–1929). The first words of the comic proper are in a caption box that says, “Vietnam, 1970.” For the next 50 pages, the story follows John Francis Clayton, an “FNG” (Fucking New Guy) in a military unit in the Vietnam War. Revel pays a lot of attention to detail, such as military equipment and jargon. There are references to historic figures like Richard Nixon or Jane Goodall. And the depicted events are typical of what is commonly known about the Vietnam War: U.S. soldiers raping native women, torching villages, falling victim to the Viet Cong’s guerilla tactics, etc.

All of this serves to create a sense of historical accuracy. While the story narrated by Clayton can with some certainty be identified as fictional, the events just might have happened as depicted, in Vietnam, in 1970.

Then there’s a rupture around p. 56, at the end of the first chapter, when the chimpanzees are introduced, a rogue squad of trained apes equipped and dressed as U.S. soldiers, who fight against the Viet Cong on their own. Chapter 2 tells their origin as an experiment conducted by scientists (of German descent, of course). The chimpanzees exhibit a mix of human and animal behaviour; they thump their chests but smoke cigarettes.

This appears to be the contradiction that is central to Guerillas: the outlandish, ‘unrealistic’ motif of the scientifically enhanced apes clashes with an historically accurate, ‘realistic’ setting. While the beginning of this comic might be read as Revel’s version of what really happened in Vietnam, the story of the chimpanzees can hardly be interpreted this way: here we’re clearly in the realm of fiction, or entertainment, or fantasy. Of course, earlier fantasy and science fiction stories have used similar setups (e.g. Bram Stoker’s Dracula). However, the main difference is that in those classic stories, the authors went to great lengths to make the improbable seem plausible and fit into the realistic setting, whereas it’s harder to suspend one’s disbelief when reading Guerillas (not least because we’re reading it with the experience of many of those older similar stories).

According to Hutcheon, such a treatment of the past tells us something about the present, and this is also where the political nature of the work comes from. It is unreasonable to assume that the depiction of the grimness of the Vietnam War is a protest against, reassessment of, or coming-to-terms with it, given that the comic was made over 30 years after the end of the war. The ostensible reason for the Vietnam setting is that it makes more sense to deploy chimpanzee soldiers in the Vietnamese jungle than e.g. in the desert of the Gulf Wars, or in WWII in which the U.S. experience of the tropical regions was dominated by naval and aerial warfare (The Thin Red Line perhaps being the exception that proves the rule). But maybe Guerillas isn’t so time-specific after all. One of its themes is that a man learns from animals what humanity truly is, and this is a message that is relevant regardless of time and place: not unlike Pride of Baghdad by Vaughan and Henrichon, Guerillas can also be read as a commentary on the dehumanising effects of the war in Iraq, and by extension also Afghanistan and any other armed conflict.

But wouldn’t this – i.e. extrapolating from the specific to the universal – be a rather modernist reading? Indeed, Guerillas doesn’t seem to be the ideal example of Hutcheon’s postmodernism, but then again, few comics would meet her criteria without reservation. Still, Guerillas comes close. One can easily imagine how it might have qualified if Revel had made some different choices, e.g. if the protagonist would have been made identifiable as a real person (thus creating a contradiction between the genres of biography and fiction, cf. Hutcheon p. 9), or if the chimpanzee experiment would have been based on more advanced science and technology (thus creating a contradiction between different time layers, cf. Hutcheon p. 5). The resulting work would have been postmodern in Hutcheon’s sense, but whether it would have been a better comic is another question.


Politics in Warren Ellis’s Moon Knight

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.

There's absolutely no reason for Moon Knight to do this. (from #4 "Sleep")

There’s absolutely no reason for Moon Knight to do this. (from #4 “Sleep”)

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.

For all we know, this corrupt policemen never gets caught. (from #6 "Spectre")

For all we know, this corrupt policeman never gets caught. (from #6 “Spectre”)

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.


¹ This blogpost has very little to do with that conference paper and I don’t mean to evaluate (or even paraphrase) its hypothesis; as far as I know it hasn’t been published anyway. But just for the record, I’m referring to “The Paranoid Style in Warren Ellis’s Comic Book Politics” by Christian Knöppler, presented at the 2012 ComFor conference in Freiburg, Germany.