Power Corrupts

Today, under your very noses, there is a crime being committed.

This cruelty is being enacted by rank amateurs, wielding precision instruments, inflicting the utmost pain, and suffering upon their subjects. As they sit, in the glare of their computer screens, inputting data that can fundamentally alter the look and genetic make-up of their helpless prisoners, one can only wonder how they can live with themselves by doing this act of desecration.

You want to grab them by the scruff of their necks and shout “WHY!!?” fully in their faces.

“Why? Why, have you done this? Did these poor things not give you comfort when you were younger? Did they not offer succor when the other children called you speccy-four-eyes? Were they not there for you? In the lonely, cold, dark nights, when you thought that no one else understood you and called you a fat baldy?

Why have you pumped them full of testosterone and steroids, given them the morals of an alley cat? Is it just to satisfy your curiosity? To see if it can be done and give them “Meaning!!?”

That their lives, before you came along, were just doing the same old routine, again and again? That evolution had stopped for them and they were in danger of becoming extinct?

Or is it simply because you are just some sad, sexually, inadequate bastard, who gets his kicks out of it.”

And we, the public, the consumer.

We are no better. For we put up with it. We buy the product knowing full well the process behind it. We turn our faces when confronted with the crime. Better not to know. Better just to wish it away. It’ll be alright tomorrow. But it will not be better. And for some of the test subjects, there will not even be a tomorrow. For the ranks of these amateurs keeps on growing, and everyday, new criminals enter the business.

Some will be lucky. They will get to meet proper professionals. Teachers and sensei’s who will show them how to do the job right. To make sure that the test subjects are treated humanely. That what they do and make can help people. Give them confidence and help grow into adulthood full of the joys of their childhood. Show them that might does not make right, and that not all is darkness and emptiness.

That with just a little thought and compassion, humanity can break free from the chains of everyday, soar into the heights of imagination, and make it all be real.
I am talking about the crime of super-hero deconstruction.

This is not a relatively new phenomenon. Deconstruction of popular heroes has been going on since the modern version of the comic strip and comic book arrived. It could be said that The Tijuana Bibles were the first to do it (putting popular comic strip/book characters and movie stars into sexual situations), and then Mad was perhaps the first to bring it above ground. Although Mad was primarily satire, it did question the make-up of heroes and their motivations*. Making the readers think about a lot of them in a new light**

But the middle of the 1950’s was a different time and the first “real” deconstruction of super-heroes appeared in Frederic Wertham’s book Seduction of the Innocent. This was the book that put a bombshell under comics for the next 30 years. By tenuously connecting such concepts as violence and homosexuality to comics, and thereby exposing their young readers to this, Wertham brought about the creation of The Comics Code (which succeeded in emasculating comics for a long time) and the destruction of EC Comics. A hot house of talent that included such titles as Mad, The Crypt of Terror, Tales From The Crypt, Vault of Horror, Weird Fantasy etc ***.

Today, Wertham’s theories are largely shown to be false. But the homosexuality one is the one that still sticks to some super-hero characters, Bat-Man in particular. Even now, superb writers like Alan Moore will use this hoary, old concept. One of the plotlines in Top 10 was about a group of super-heroes, obviously based on the JLA, that were in charge of a pedophile ring. All those young wards!! What writer could not resist taking such a radical position about super-heroes (yawn)?

The next route was the Underground Komix period. This saw the return of putting (now primarily) super-heroes, back into sexual situations, but also giving them a political slant. Characters like Superman were now parodied to become tools of the fascist state and with the upheavals of the sixties, the radicalism of a lot of writers in the comics industry (plus the fact that sales were falling), the heroes were brought back to their roots. Most of these were re-vamps as opposed to deconstruction. Superman’s world was rid of Kryptonite, and his powers lessened. Spider-Man was given a group of hip friends (including the first appearance of Mary Jane Watson- “Face it tiger. You’ve just hit the jackpot”). Bat-Man was back to fighting urban crime.

What deconstruction is, as opposed to a re-vamp, is taking a character and doing something with it that totally changes the readers’ concept of the character and give it a different meaning. A good example of this is Alan Moore’s run on The Swamp Thing. Whereas, in the beginning, the Swamp Thing was a creature that was once the scientist Alec Holland, Moore changes it to a creature that only THOUGHT it was once Alec Holland. The truth that it was all along an earth elemental, with a greater history and motivation than had been previously seen enabled Moore to do things with character than just being a creature of the month comic. In this context, the first real mainstream deconstruction of characters came with The Green Lantern/Green Arrow stories from Roy Thomas and Neal Adams in the `70’s. The plotline with Green Arrow’s sidekick Speedy becoming a heroin addict helped lay the future use of characters for upcoming writers (although this wasn’t known at the time).

Of course the two greatest examples of super-hero deconstruction came in the 1980’s- The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen.

The writers, Alan Moore and Frank Miller, had already been tinkering with the hero concept in both V for Vendetta and Daredevil respectively. But whilst Dark Knight deserved to be the masterpiece it became (even reverting back to an earlier time when Superman once again became a tool of the state), Watchmen’s reputation has lessened over the years. What seems on the outside to be an incisive dissection of the super-hero is revealed to be nothing but a James Bondian plot derided by even one of the main characters. The symmetry, frame segues, parallels between the Watchmen and a pirate comic plus musings on the role of vigilantes in society hide what is really a very nicely packaged Easter egg but completely hollow on the inside.

No. Alan Moore’s masterpiece on the super-hero genre, and a piece of work that had much more to say about it, was Miracleman (or Marvelman in the UK). Unfortunately now out of print, and still in legal entanglement, it took the basics of the super-hero and successfully married them to a British type of cynicism. The fact, as with V for Vendetta, that it was finished at a later date than when started, helped Moore to go beyond what he had originally intended and create something that had more meaning and motivation. Giving heroes a feeling that they were no longer part of the human race, human massacre by a once hero and a graphic depiction of childbirth is only a small part of what really could be the final word on super-heroes.

Unfortunately, the success of Watchmen and Dark Knight plus the fact that sales were soaring, and that the readership was becoming more mature led writers, artists and publishers to believe that grim and gritty was where they should be. Nearly every character in a publisher’s catalogue had some kind of makeover, but not every writer is a Moore or Miller. Who can forget the horror that was Shade the Changing Man, or the second volume of Animal Man, or Jamie Delano’s run on Hellblazer, or even (God forgive everyone involved in this), The Scarlet Spider. Writers forgot the simple enjoyment that many of the super-heroes brought them as children and instead started putting them through untold indignities just to be meaningful and relevant. Also, with a lot of the writers being British, we got to see a lot of anti-Americanism, anti-imperialism, and ranting against Thatcherism (so much so, that it even began to infect the American writers. One of the best was from Steve Englehart, who as the writer on the DC mini-series Millennium, in one caption box wrote- “Birmingham, Fascist Britain.” He later admitted that he had never been to Britain, but had heard a lot about what was going on. Guess who from?). A lot of middle-class guilt was also on show over how we treated the world and its wildlife, so much so that you wondered why the entire readership just did not slash its wrists there and then.

It could not last. With the sales implosion of the `90’s, comics started to return to safer ground and the publishing houses characters began to return to their old selves. Grim and gritty, with social realism was out, entertainment was in. And with Hollywood now realizing that comics can (sometimes) equal big bucks, DC, Marvel, Dark Horse etc, were not about to rock the boat and lessen receipts from their ancillary merchandising rights and licensing by admitting that some of their characters had developed some unsavory habits. This was the period that continues to this day, wherein writers take a more mature, rather than sensationalist, look at super-heroes. Brian Michael Bendis with Powers, Alias, the Ultimate Universe stable, Warren Ellis with Stormwatch, Transmetropolitan, Planetary, and The Authority, Alan Moore (back again!!) with League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Mark Millar with The Ultimates, Ultimate X-Men, and Wanted are at the forefront of this rebirth. They have now been joined by Michael J. Straczynski and Gary Frank, the writer and artist on Supreme Power.

The Squadron Supreme was a super-hero team comic book, published by Marvel in the eighties that, like The Avengers, were based upon the JLA. The Squadron though was even more so with counterparts for Superman (Hyperion), Bat-Man (Nighthawk), Wonder Woman (Power Princess), and Green Lantern (Doctor Spectrum) etc. They did the usual super-hero thing on their counter-Earth planet but it was when the writer Mark Gruenwald took them on a different journey that they became the pre-Watchmen team. Gruenwald had the Squadron Supreme actually take over their world in a form of benign dictatorship. If humans cannot be trusted to get it right, reason the heroes, then we will do it for them. This led to all kinds of questions being raised about how far super-heroes should take their roles and how they would dispense justice and punishment. When Nighthawk breaks away from their ranks, fearing that individuality and the right for humans to decide their own course is being compromised, civil war breaks out amongst the heroes, humans, and the super-villains. Until the human race finally bring nukes into the equation and Hyperion is the only one left standing on a charred planet.

With Supreme Power Straczynski and Frank take the Squadron Supreme on a new journey and in doing so tell one of the best super-hero deconstructions so far.
MJS goes back to basics with both the Squadron and the DC mainstays. How would Superman/Hyperion turn out if not brought up by a farming couple, but the United States Military? What if Bat-Man/ Nighthawk were a black man with the same fortune and physical superiority but a racial problem? What if Wonder Woman/Power Princess was a real war-like Amazon brought up on an island of women were lesbianism was the norm? Green Lantern/Doctor Spectrum being a ruthless assassin, doing the United State’s dirty work utilizing the power source of Hyperion’s capsule?

Questions are asked, such as- What are super-heroes for? What do they actually do? How would an alien view our world and its social and political structures, even when looking and brought up as a human being? Can different races be racist, or is what we understand racism to be, primarily a white trait? What do you do with people who can run faster than Mach 2, or destroy whole armies? How does a powerful being like Hyperion come to terms with thinking that he is the only one like himself on Earth? How do you tell the world of such a being, and how does the world react (quite calmly actually it has been hypothesized. Hyperion and others become media celebrities). These are some of the questions that have been raised (but only partly answered), so far.

Of course, being primarily a super-hero book, the very structure of them is also questioned. Leaving aside the fact that Hyperion is the most powerful being on the planet, with no apparent weaknesses, Supreme Power looks at more logical explanations for them. In fact, it has put across that the appearance of so many meta-humans maybe a viral disease, released from Hyperion’s intelligent escape capsule, so that he would never be alone on his adopted home world. This leads to some disturbing origins like the Aquaman (here, now a female) one. In a quite chilling scene, the child is born by the oceanfront where upon the mother instinctively knows that she has to take the baby into deep water for it to survive, but in the process, ends up causing her own death by drowning. The Power Princess has not yet been fully seen, but The Blur loves the life he has been given.

The Doctor ends up being molecularly bonded to the capsules power source (causing the death of anyone who tries to remove it) and may have become more like the ship than anyone in the Pentagon thinks. In one part, the ship seems to have taken him over and is not too happy about the way the Earth’s affairs are conducted. Believing that no one on Earth is worthy of redemption. When Hyperion finds out about his existence, they clash over Africa (devastating huge swathes of land and wildlife) and its here that Hyperion starts to grow in terms of his role and meaning.

When punched by The Doctor, he is exhilarated:-

“I felt that. I felt that…. This must be what pain feels like.Do it again.”

Franks artwork through the entire story so far has been superb. Detailed and expressionistic, but it has been in two points that he has really shone. One is during the fight with The Doctor in Africa. Relentlessly questioning The Doctor about who he works for and where he got the crystal, The Doctor then asks: – “….you really going to kill me? Huh? You got the stones to do that, asshole?” In the following panel Hyperion is startled and surprised by the question, in the next his face takes on a grim, steeley determination.

He would.

The other is during Hyperion’s first meeting with Nighthawk. When Hyperion has given his lecture, Nighthawk tells him that he has not done anything about the white skinheads desecrating a church below them. Hyperion then says: – “I never get between a professional and his work.”

The look of surprise from Nighthawk just by utilizing the eyes is a delight.

The dynamics of the Hyperion/Nighthawk, Superman/Batman relationship have not yet been fully explored, so it will be interesting to see Straczynski plays it out. Nighthawk gets the Bat-Man origin, with his parents being killed by southern rednecks (one of whom, looks like the Joker, and repeats a line from The Killing Joke). But because of his color he gets the most interesting take in the whole book so far. Upon his first meeting with Hyperion, Hyperion tells how he sees the world, trying to see it through color-blind eyes. All through Hyperion’s statement we see the different ways that Nighthawk sees him. As a member of the Ku Klux Klan, a bleeding heart liberal, an alien. In the background, there are the legs of a lynched black man. Nighthawk’s view of the world is just as black and white as The Bat-Man’s. Its one line though from Hyperion that sets up the whole tone of the book. Hyperion says to Nighthawk:-

“There’s nothing SPECIAL about you, is there?” (Ouch, THAT must have hurt)

What Hyperion really means is that Nighthawk is not a meta-human, just someone with a lot of training. But because Hyperion does not look beneath Nighthawks mask and realize that he is black, it takes on a more subtle meaning. That in the end, to a powerful alien being, with feelings of loneliness and rejection, we humans are all the same, no matter what our color or creed.

God has come to Earth and he will make us better ourselves.

Whether we like it or not.

Straczynski and Frank have joined the ranks of the latest writers and artists to have something meaningful to say about super-heroes. It can only be hoped that others, will this time properly follow in their footsteps and create other works that will allow super-heroes to once again take their rightful place in pantheon of epic storytelling.

Supreme Power: Contact by Michael J. Straczynski and Gary Frank is published by Max Comics, an imprint of Marvel Comics and priced at £10.50. Available from all good comic book shops.

*I say heroes here because Mad would include others from the genre such as Archie, The Honeymooners, Tarzan, Little Orphan Annie, Flash Gordon, Disney, Terry and the Pirates, Blackhawk, The Lone Ranger et al.

**The first piece to appear in Mad was a superb deconstruction of Superman called Superduperman. This was one of Mad’s finest from Harvey Kurtzman and Wally Wood (my favourite Mad satire is the Dragnet (BOM-BOM-BOM-BOM!!!) one (which reminds me. How’s your mom, Ed?))

*** Only Mad survived the culling

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