No Hero, an Avatar Press mini-series written by Warren Ellis and illustrated by Juan Jose Ryp, can easily be considered the spiritual sequel to Black Summer. Both stories are by the same creative team, work in the same genre, and raise similar questions about the role of the superhero in a contemporary world. They tackle the question with completely distinct worlds, however. In Black Summer, a superhero assassinated Dubya and made the American political situation even worse, while in No Hero, a group of super heroes emerge through the use of super-soldier hallucinogens, and....make things even worse. Both stories are basically about superheroes catastrophically failing to reform society.
Since both stories appeal to the same kind of reader, I can say this; if you can only read one, read Black Summer. If you’ve already read Black Summer but not No Hero, you don’t have to read No Hero because you’d just be getting an inferior version of the same type of story. And if you’ve already read No Hero but not Black Summer, read Black Summer to get the far superior story about corrupted super-heroes.
This statement is harsh because I expected much better from the creative team. At least, from Warren Ellis-- Juan Jose Ryp is an extremely talented artist who brings an incredible amount of detail to his pages, and renders with the kind of depth that artists on most franchise superhero books try wish they could achieve. It’s Ellis that’s the problem, because he’s got such an excellent track record, starts this story with a lot of potential, and proceeds squander that potential on yet another story about how superheroes would inherently be assholes if they existed in reality.
The problem is that No Hero starts off promisingly. We’re introduced to the Front Line, a superhero team that has been in existence since the late 1960’s, and get their powers from super-drugs. These hallucinogen-based enhanciles grant incredible power, but they don’t always work reliably in the short or long term, and the transformation requires the worst forms of physical and psychological pain possible. This doesn’t deter young Joshua Carver, a man so blindly idealistic he’s taken to urban vigilantism without any powers. Front Line recruits him because they’re short-handed and are being picked off by a killer with secret knowledge on how to kill super-beings, and rush him through the process-- it doesn’t end well, judging by the fact that Joshua emerges from the procedure looking much like Gollum from Lord of the Rings.
If you’re concerned about spoilers before reading this, you might wish to stop now, because the part I’m taking issue with is the big twist just before the story’s climax. It turns out that the Front Line have been secretly ruling the world all this time, using their super-power to dispatch anyone who doesn’t fit into their New World Order. And Joshua wasn’t a hero by choice, so much as a damaged pathological people-pleaser planted amidst the Front Line by the FBI. And once Joshua takes out the Front Line, the entire world falls apart, and the last panel has a news report talking about a plane being crashed into the White House.
So Front Line Carrick Masterson basically ends up as an extremely diluted version of Watchmen’s Ozymandias, the hero with the grossly unethical master plan for peace. Similarly, both antagonists start out appearing heroic, but were scheming all along ( while hints were being dropped ). However, where Ozymandias was complex in the way he justified his actions, and managed to more or less pull them off, Carrick is in the realm of “ republic serial villain “. He talks about saving the world so there will be “ more people to breed girls who I will inevitably fuck “-- and he implies that he always had this sort of mentality, as opposed to starting out idealistic and becoming jaded and cynical over the decades. If the story ends up as a conflict between him and Joshua, it’s a matter of rooting for imperious puppetmaster versus traumatized government pawn. Since the latter rips out a man’s spine and wears it as a strap-on for no good reason ( other than to justify Avatar Press’ mature label ), there’s nobody to sympathize with.
It starts off very well, true, but these revelations make you realize that any decent traits the characters had at the beginning were an illusion. If Front Line all die? They’ve been ruling a secret empire and dispatching dissidents, so that’s fine. If the world’s governments all die? They started it by allowing the world to get so out of control that the need for a Front Line would arise, so that’s fine too. The people caught in the middle? Don’t really appear, so they don’t really matter. It’s an exercise in cultural critique that doesn’t even try to show solutions to the problems it’s presenting, which is fine for a freshman creative writing workshop, but not for a professional comics writer who’s received critical acclaim partly for his ability to avoid such shallow satire.
In order to enjoy No Hero, you shouldn’t take it seriously. You should enjoy it for Juan Jose Ryp’s visuals, his intricate, nightmarish scenes and his superhero spoof covers. You should enjoy it for the science fiction examination of the super serum, and the novel exploration of possible side-effects. And you should enjoy it for Ellis’ dialogue, which has a great sarcastic wit. But you can get all these things in Black Summer, which backs them up with a story that doesn’t reduce its characters to nihilistic stereotype.