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.

Advertisements

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: ● ● ● ○ ○


Article “Has Akira Always Been a Cyberpunk Comic?” published

Earlier this year I gave a talk at MSU Comics Forum, and now a journal article based on that talk has already been published:

Has Akira Always Been a Cyberpunk Comic?
Arts 7(3), https://doi.org/10.3390/arts7030032

Here’s the abstract again:

Between the late 1980s and early 1990s, interest in the cyberpunk genre peaked in the Western world, perhaps most evidently when Terminator 2: Judgment Day became the highest-grossing film of 1991. It has been argued that the translation of Katsuhiro Ōtomo’s manga Akira into several European languages at just that time (into English beginning in 1988, into French, Italian, and Spanish beginning in 1990, and into German beginning in 1991) was no coincidence. In hindsight, cyberpunk tropes are easily identified in Akira to the extent that it is nowadays widely regarded as a classic cyberpunk comic. But has this always been the case? When Akira was first published in America and Europe, did readers see it as part of a wave of cyberpunk fiction? Did they draw the connections to previous works of the cyberpunk genre across different media that today seem obvious? In this paper, magazine reviews of Akira in English and German from the time when it first came out in these languages will be analysed in order to gauge the past readers’ genre awareness. The attribution of the cyberpunk label to Akira competed with others such as the post-apocalyptic, or science fiction in general. Alternatively, Akira was sometimes regarded as an exceptional, novel work that transcended genre boundaries. In contrast, reviewers of the Akira anime adaptation, which was released at roughly the same time as the manga in the West (1989 in Germany and the United States), more readily drew comparisons to other cyberpunk films such as Blade Runner.

Read the article online for free at http://www.mdpi.com/2076-0752/7/3/32.

Fun fact: this is my 10th publication (not counting reviews, translations, and articles related to my library ‘day job’)! Find them all here: https://www.bibsonomy.org/cv/user/iglesia


Comic book reviews, Fête de la Musique edition – part 3: Hellblazer #20-22

Here’s one more brief review of a current comic in which music is represented.

The Hellblazer #20-22
Language: English
Authors: Tim Seeley (writer), Davide Fabbri (penciller), Christian dalla Vecchia (inker), Carrie Strachan (colourist)
Publisher: DC
Publication Dates: March – May 2018
Pages per issue: 20
Price per issue: $3.99
Website: https://www.dccomics.com/comics?seriesid=396186#browse

The music: In this Hellblazer story (“The Good Old Days”), John Constantine’s ex-girlfriend Margaret Ames is possessed by the soul of a criminal that has escaped from hell. John tries to magically locate Margaret through an object, a t-shirt that she had worn. It is a band shirt from John’s old band, Mucous Membrane, and this shirt is the only representation of music in those three issues. But it works remarkably well: not much is disclosed about Mucous Membrane (the members of which were last featured in Hellblazer a couple of issues earlier) except that they hadn’t been particularly successful, as evidenced by John having had “fifty of [these shirts] sitting in a moldy box” and having stayed at “rot holes” at that time. But from our knowledge of John’s background as an angry punk in late 70s England, and from their name, we get a pretty good idea of what their music must have sounded like. Interestingly, the band logo looks slightly different in each issue, event though it’s supposed to be the same shirt and it’s the same art team on all three issues…

The rest: It is a sick joke that DC cancelled Hellblazer just in time for its 30th anniversary special. But the writing had been on the wall for some time. While Tim Seeley (and his predecessor, Simon Oliver) nailed the dialogue more often than not, DC assigned a string of artists to this book who were mediocre at first and then gradually became worse. Which makes me wonder why they bothered to “rebirth” Hellblazer in the first place.

Rating: ● ● ○ ○ ○


Comic book reviews, Fête de la Musique edition – part 2: Black Science #35-36

This is the second short review blogpost (of three) in which representations of music in current comics are surveyed.

Black Science #35-36
Language: English
Authors: Rick Remender (writer), Matteo Scalera (artist), Moreno Dinisio (colourist)
Publisher: Image
Publication Dates: May – June 2018
Pages per issue: 22
Price per issue: $3.99
Website: https://imagecomics.com/comics/series/black-science

The music: Dimension-travelling scientist Grant McKay and his ex-wife Sara are stranded at the ‘Interdimensional Institute for Marital Restoration’. In issue #35, said Institute sends Sara to another dimension in which her dream of becoming a musical actress on Broadway has come true. Sara is shown performing in her musical on three panels; musical notes around her speech balloons (plus her dramatic poses) indicate that she’s singing. It’s hard to tell what the music is supposed to sound like – if it is being performed by an orchestra or band, we don’t get to see it. Which says quite a lot about Broadway musicals and the end to which they are invoked here: to Grant and Sara, it doesn’t matter which genre the music belongs to, what the lyrics are about, or whether it is good or bad; the only thing that matters is that Sara has made it to Broadway.

In issue #36 there is another instance of music being performed. Grant and Sara are in a dream-like world in which they attend a wedding party. They meet old friends there, except everything and everyone looks like it’s 1920. Once more the music is depicted in three panels: the first two show wedding guests dancing, and in the background of the third we see the musicians playing; apparently a four-piece jazz band. Interestingly, there are no floating musical notes here, and before the musicians are shown, the only things that indicate music is being played are the dancers and a character prompting Grant and Sara to dance too.

The rest: The series is already announced to end with issue #42, which is a pity. Still, having the same creative team (except for the colourist) create a story of almost 1000 pages is a rare treat nowadays, and it makes for a coherent and homogeneous comic. Black Science is a complex and finely crafted psychological science fiction story – perhaps one of the finest in comic form.

Rating: ● ● ● ● ○


Comic book reviews, Fête de la Musique edition – part 1: Archie #30-31

Fête de la Musique is a worldwide celebration of (live) music that takes place each year on June 21st. In comics, depictions of music abound, and due to the purely visual nature of the comic medium, comic creators have found a vast variety of ways to represent the auditive medium of music. Here are some random examples from current American comic book series.

Archie #30-31
Language: English
Authors: Mark Waid & Ian Flynn (writers), Audrey Mok (artist), Kelly Fitzpatrick (colourist)
Publisher: Archie Comic Publications
Publication Dates: April – June 2018
Pages per issue: 20
Price per issue: $3.99
Website: https://store.archiecomics.com/collections/archie/products/archie-31

The music: Both the regular cover of #31 and the Adam Gorham variant cover of #30 show Archie Andrews with a guitar, so you can tell already from the outside that music plays a certain role in this comic. In these two issues, the Spring Dance at Riverdale High is on, and Archie – instead of going there with either Betty or Veronica, his perennial love interests – is supposed to play live music there with a backing band. But for various reasons the band doesn’t show up. A replacement is found just in time with Josie and the Pussycats, a band that has its own Archie Comics title but co-exists in the Archie universe. This must be the first time they appear in the main Archie comic though, as Archie is apparently not familiar with them yet.

Despite the frequent occurrence of music in Archie, it’s often depicted unrealistically. The main problem in this particular instance is that Josie and the Pussycats are booked at the last minute, when the event has already begun, but they still seem to perform well with a guitarist and lead singer they have never seen before, let alone rehearsed with. But who knows, maybe “I’ll Never Let You Go”, the song they’re shown performing, is a ubiquitous, easy-to-play standard in the Archie universe, and not the obscure (probably made-up by Waid and Flynn) song it is in the real world. Apart from that, the performing musicians are depicted authentically; even all their instruments are plugged in.

The rest: After some artist shake-ups, a competent team with Mok and Fitzpatrick has been found at last who will hopefully stay around for some time. And even in its third year, Waid’s writing is still rock solid. Except for his tendency to take on big issues and then handle them with a certain heavy-handedness (see also Champions or his current Captain America run): recently it was disability (Betty’s car accident and miraculous recovery), now it’s gun-wielding at a high school. It will be interesting to see how Waid and Flynn resolve this.

Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○


Politics in Warren Ellis’s Planetary #2

Happy May Day everyone, or ‘Warren Ellis Day’ as for some reason it has come to be known in this little corner of the Web. This time we’re going to look at politics in Warren Ellis’s classic, Planetary (art by John Cassaday). Planetary was published in 27 issues by Wildstorm/DC from 1998-2009. As far as the main story is concerned, the political setup of Planetary is a standard Warren Ellis one: it’s a conspiracy of supervillains who pull all the strings in this world, and the democratically elected governments of the world are powerless against them. It takes superheroes – vigilantes, rogues, operating outside of the law – to protect the world from these supervillains.

There is more going on here, though. Among the earlier issues (collected in Planetary Book One, not to be confused with Planetary Volume 1 which only contains #1-6), some stand out in particular from a political perspective because they comment on real-world political events and figures. Of these, we’ll discuss issue #2 (“Island”) here (but #7 and #8 are also noteworthy in this regard).

“Island” is mostly set on “Island Zero”, a fictional island that “forms the far north-western tip of the Japanese archipelago. Also the closest island in the group to the Eurasian landmass – specifically, Russia”, says Shinya Fukuda, a Tokyo-based employee of the Planetary organisation. He continues, “It’s off-limits, due to an issue of war legality still under arbitration. Basically, we think it’s ours, and the Russians think it’s theirs. One of our prime ministers visited Yeltsin to try and iron it out last year, but, you know…”

Another Japanese character, the terrorist Ryu who plans to overthrow the Japanese government, describes Island Zero like this: “The last island between Japan and Siberian Russia. Unpopulated because of its nature as a political football. The Russians claim it as spoils of World War Two. We, naturally, claim it as part of Japan. Legally, this island is a nowhere thing.”

Ellis probably alludes to the Kuril Islands dispute here, even though they are located north-east of Japan, not north-west. The status of the Kuril Islands has been settled in several treaties which say they belong to Russia (as the successor of the Soviet Union). The Japanese government accepts these treaties, but claims that the four islands closest to Hokkaidō do not belong to the Kurils and are therefore not part of the treaties. Another difference between the disputed Kuril Islands and Island Zero is that the former are not entirely uninhabited: almost 20,000 people live on three of them, while on the fourth there’s a Russian border guard outpost.

The interesting thing in Planetary, however, is how the two aforementioned Japanese characters – only one of which is a fanatic nationalist – talk about Island Zero: “we think it’s ours”, “we claim it as part of Japan”. Why do they include themselves in the pronoun? It’s the government that does the claiming, so why do Shinya and Ryu adopt this claim as their own? What would Shinya and Ryu specifically gain if Russia ceded Island Zero to Japan? Sure, if Island Zero was part of Japan, Ryu could go on his hiking trip there without the risk of getting caught by the military, but the reason he goes there in the first place is precisely its remoteness due to its disputed status.

For Shinya and Ryu there’s nothing at stake in the dispute over Island Zero, so they probably don’t really “think” and “claim” much about it. More likely, there are some common but oversimplifying conflations at work here: of state and nation, of individual citizen and nation, and of state and individual politician. As abstract entities, states can’t think or claim anything – politicians such as the Japanese prime minister mentioned by Shinya can. And while it can be said that some views are more prevalent in a given nation than others, the assuredness with which both Shinya and Ryu include all Japanese people in their “we” creates the illusion of a completely homogeneous society in which everyone agrees with their government.

It’s particularly problematic that it’s the Japanese society, because this basically repeats the old prejudice of a purported Japanese conformity that borders on blind obedience. It seems like in the world of Planetary, governmental authority is only questioned by superhumans (who are powerful enough to stand above it anyway). Ryu says he wants to topple the government and become “paramount leader of Japan”, but he never says what his problem with the current government is. He is dismissed by Shinya as having “that Yukio Mishima, Aum Shin Ryko [sic, i.e. Rikyō] smell about” him. However, Aum Shinrikyō had their religious doomsday beliefs and Mishima wanted to restore the divinity of the Emperor. What does Ryu believe in? One of his followers says to him, “I believe in your theories. I believe in armed resurrection and revolution and nerve gas and acceptable casualties and all the rest of it.” But what are Ryu’s theories? Ellis doesn’t say. Ideological debates don’t seem to interest him. Apparently ideology is something for fanatics and terrorists, who make for good plot devices – but these characters must be wrong, because they’re the villains, so their ideology must be wrong too and doesn’t need to be discussed. Neither do we learn much about the political beliefs of the protagonists, the three superhero members of Planetary – they’re the good guys, so if they believe in anything, surely it must be right after all…