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.
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…
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.
Authors: Warren Ellis (writer), Declan Shalvey (artist), Jordie Bellaire (colourist)
Previously in Moon Knight: In the series written by Brian Michael Bendis, Marc Spector was working on a TV show in Hollywood, although on the last page Spector already announced he’d leave Los Angeles. He also was the masked vigilante Moon Knight, plus he had a split personality disorder.
In the new series, very little of that remains. All these things are briefly referenced, but why exactly Marc Spector has moved to New York, and why he isn’t imagining talking to Spider-Man, Captain America and Wolverine anymore, isn’t really explained. Rather than one continuous story, the new narrative structure is more like a series of one-shots: in each of the almost self-contained issues, Moon Knight fights a different villain.
Moon Knight is now more than ever a kind of Batman – a detective with high-tech gadgets and impressive martial arts skills, and not much more. It’s a pity that his mental illness isn’t as much the focus of this book as it was before. On the other hand, Warren Ellis introduces (in #3) something the previous series was lacking: the mystic aspect of Moon Knight being the incarnation of the Egyptian god Khonshu.
The larger story aside, both the writing and the artwork are a huge improvement over the Bendis/Maleev run. The dialogues are now smart and almost funny, and the drawings by Declan Shalvey and Jordie Bellaire, particularly the smart layouts in the second issue, are stunningly slick. Still, my overall impression is that Ellis is trying too hard to make a fresh start with this character and sever all ties to the 2011 series. If there’s one justification for the continued existence of monthly comic book series in the universes of Marvel and DC, it’s the continuity – readers want to follow one big story that goes on and on. By largely ignoring the old Moon Knight comics, Marvel sabotage their own format.
By the way, the series ends this month after only six issues. Warren Ellis writing an ongoing Marvel book? That would have been too good to be true.
Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○
Other people seem to be quite fond of the new Moon Knight, though; see e.g. this review by Joshua Rivera at The Beat: http://comicsbeat.com/one-and-done-it-doesnt-take-much/