Ruby Nation

Ruby Nation
Ruby Nation: The Webcomic

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Review of Warren Ellis' No Hero

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.

Mildly Recommended.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Joss Whedon, Cyclops, and Overcoming Brain Damage Through Willpower

Joss Whedon, accomplished writer of television, films, comics, and online musicals, has a lot to say about issues of identity. The good news is that he offers a genuinely unique perspective, and openly addresses identity politics ( particularly gender and sexuality ) in pop cultural spaces where others blissfully ignore them. The bad news is that his messages, as expressed by his ensemble casts of sci-fi anti-heroes, don't always succeed. Then again, this is another product of Whedon's constant experimenting; he'll follow Buffy Season Five with Buffy Season Six.

When Joss Whedon took on writing the X-Men with his artistic collaborator John Cassaday, it seemed as though he would be exploring identity issues thoroughly-- given how Marvel mutants have been used as a metaphor for any group to ever experience systemic oppression, this would give him ready-made tools to tell those sorts of stories. As it turned out, he and Cassaday preferred to tell their own version of the " classic " X-Men formula, which tends to put them on various sci-fi " vacation " adventures instead of dealing with their race's problems. But there was one disability-themed issue that was brought up by the text-- and then tossed aside in the final act, not to be picked up by his successors.

The question Whedon raised was; why can't Cyclops control his eye beams? Was it because of head trauma, or was it really because of a psychological block from childhood?

As anyone who has read/watched an X-Men story for a five minute interval knows, Scott " Cyclops " Summers' life has been one big conga line of tragedy and despair. Not only did he grow up in an orphanage, after his parents " died "* in a plane crash and his brother was adopted instead of him, but Scott's mutant powers manifested as force blasts that poured out of his eyes, unable to be contained except by his eyelids or his " ruby quartz "** eyewear. At times it has been suggested that Scott's mutant power would naturally have been something he could control, were it not for the head injury he sustained in that fateful plane crash. So, aside from the occasional plot deus ex machina temporarily healing his skull, Scott remains unable to control his optic blasts, and lives in a state of constant self-control and emotional repression.

What Whedon did was have his morally ambiguous new girlfriend/former enemy Emma Frost give Scott a psychic " therapy session ", where Scott was taken on a tour through his many insecurities and traumas, and was confronted with the truth about his lack of power control-- at some point in his childhood, Scott subconsciously decided to make his optic blasts uncontrollable, so he would be forced to stay constantly vigilant. At that point, Cyclops decides to make another choice, and switches his power to " Off "-- for most of the second half of Whedon's story, he's basically a regular human in an X-Men jacket, his eyes even returning to their natural brown instead of a red glow.

There are two ways to view this story; one, that Whedon had Scott really deconstruct why his abilities are such a convenient curse, and another, that Whedon is equating real physical brain damage with a psychological problem you can just " snap out of ". The latter would be a problem if it were a real person's medical history being misrepresented, instead of a fictional superhero with a science-defying power*** who's been around in 47 years of stories that often contradict each other and keep him from aging past 29. As it stands, I can accept that Scott's lack of control is due to deep-seated PTSD instead of brain injury, not only because I don't want to bother with the rigors of making it fit or not within continuity, but because it's " all in your head " doesn't make it any less real or painful. However, the deconstruction would only work if it was part of an ongoing story where Cyclops further learns about how to master his powers and his emotions alike.

Since Whedon was only writing the X-Men for two years' worth of stories****, he did not take Scott much further on the journey. No, what Whedon did-- which is the really troubling part-- is show that ultimately Scott could control his optic blasts without completely shutting them off, but all this amounts to is a surprise attack against an unsuspecting bad guy. As he explains to Emma later, it is possible for him to control his power, but it takes a tremendous amount of willpower, and too taxing despite the " clarity " he feels.

So what we have is not that Scott is unable to control his blasts because of physical disability or mental illness; the problem is that he can control his power, but it's just very hard and not worth the strain. Are we supposed to infer that Scott is now content having force beams that can smash a tank constantly pouring out of his eyes, held back only by gaudy red eyewear? Is it that he's too weak and/or lazy to want total control, despite his entire life being one desperate attempt to hold onto what little order he can find? Or is the message that Scott has accepted that there's an aspect to him that he can't control, and has found piece with it?

Whatever Whedon was trying to say with this story, it doesn't matter-- it's never come up again, and Scott's still forced to wear his mask 24/7. And since Whedon didn't really go deep enough into the issue to allow for any well-founded interpretation, it's just another interesting failure for the man's catalog*****, the exploration of trauma and recovery reduced to another ill-conceived sci-fi sub-plot.

* ( As any X-Fan knows, they didn't really die, but I try to keep the backstory minimal in these essays. With the X-Men, this is a Herculean endeavor. )
** ( Why ruby quartz? Co-creator Stan Lee thought it sounded cool. Things like this make the literary reader of pop culture increasingly self-conscious about their analysis. )
*** ( According to one of the Marvel handbooks, he doesn't have eyes so much as portals to another dimension that unleash energy, with a psychic field allowing him the experience of sight, or some such. I don't think he'd have a normal human brain structure to begin with if this is the case. )
**** ( Due to delays, it took twice that long. I'm pointing it out here before it's inevitably derided by someone else. )
***** ( Which also includes Willow going from curious about sexuality to a stereotypical self-proclaimed Wicca Lesbian, Spike struggling to prove that he can be good without a soul only to get one himself and void the discussion, and pretty much every episode of Dollhouse on a conceptual level. )

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Treasure Buried in Sturgeon's Law: Heroes, Inc.

Since my own webcomicc has been moved to a weekly schedule, I've taken to making a stronger effort to read other peoples' works. Sturgeon's Law may still apply, but I've also seen quite a lot of phenomenally good online strips. I've even seen some superhero webcomics, which are comparatively uncommon online ( as opposed to in Western print comics, but that's neither here nor there ). My favorite one would be Heroes, Inc.

Written and drawn by Scott Austin, Heroes Inc. deals with the Golden Age superheroes who've fallen into the public domain-- at least, the characters who used to be Golden Age heroes. The strip switches between the World War 2 setting and the modern age, and the years haven't been kind to characters like the American Crusader and the Black Terror-- the survivors may be better preserved than normal humans, but have reduced physical capacities and war-time PTSD that never faded. Against a new wave of super-terror, they're no longer effective-- so their blood is being used by scientists to develop new heroes.

It's a disturbingly realistic treatment of superheroes, and while that term is bandied around to every superhero comic with a fin-headed rapist or demonic canine sidekick, here it actually applies. The World War Two scenes are treated as horrific and traumatizing-- even if it's considered an ethical war, the soldiers ( super or not ) actually fighting it don't like what they have to do. There's an elaborate history between then and now regarding the super-soldiers' post-war lives-- one ended up a death row inmate, one as a feral creature living in the woods, and a lucky one as a minister with a clear need to atone. What's more, the development of superHEROES is treated as a novelty-- even with their powers, the Golden Age heroes still dressed in regular military uniforms and fought like anyone else-- and the young people taking on this responsibility might not be up to it.

The story is still relatively new, but shows incredible promise. The art by Austin is equally impressive-- he uses widescreen layouts and realistically renderings, with distinct character designs ( and for most of the cast, obvious signs of aging ). He would fit right in on a book like Ed Brubaker's Captain America, alongside Butch Guice, Luke Ross, Mike Perkins, and even Steve Epting. Sometimes the pages come in black-and-white for apparent time constraints, as opposed to storytelling reasons, but to simply keep up the momentum is very important for a comic series, especially a new one. This is an obvious labor of love, so I can accept the occasional breaks.

The comic can be found here, and comes strongly recommended.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Apologizing for My Gender: Alyson Hannigan and Wired's Sexiest Geeks

( CAVEAT: This isn't so much comic related, as a criticism of geekdom/fandom's ass-backwards sexual politics. ) is currently running a contest for 2009's Sexiest Geek. The candidates are celebrities from various geek-related interests, and include both genders. However, if a male geek is a candidate, the odds are much higher that the attached image will have them with full clothing, looking casual or at least posed for a conventional head-shot and not a Maxim pin-up.

Posted by an anonymous fan, the picture for Alyson Hannigan, the actress who starred as horny band camp girl Michelle in the American Pie movies, was in every episode of geek phenomenon Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and is a regular on the awesome sit-com How I Met Your Mother, is here...

It is worth noting that this picture came from the men's magazine FHM in 2003, when Hannigan was 29. There are plenty of pictures that " Anonymous " could have gotten of her in the present day, six years and one pregnancy later. Certainly she's far from unattractive, but why would they want a picture of a woman in her * gasp * mid-thirties when they could recycle an old issue of a younger Alyson posing in sexy schoolgirl attire?

For comparison, here's a picture of Nathan Fillion, another actor popular for his work in Joss Whedon shows and considered quite the looker...

But if he were given the same treatment that most of the women in the Sexiest Geek contest have received, we'd likely be seeing this charming shot...

And I doubt that the geek community at large, too often stuck in a He-Man Woman-Hater's club mentality, would vote for Fillion on the basis of the good Captain Malcolm " Mal " Reynolds' bared ass.

I'm not opposed to a Sexiest Geek contest, but the image of Alyson Hannigan ( amongst most though not all of the women in the contest, such as Danica McKeller, Kristen Bell, Kari Bryon, Jewel Staite, and others ) is the kind of low-clothing image that a 15-year-old me would have voted for. In the decade since, I've matured enough to realize that women are people with no more or less inherent value than men, and should be treated as having the same complexity-- skin is just one part. I've also realized that being a geek means being outside the norm, with more esoteric and intellectual pursuits-- the kind of mentality that shouldn't be won over by " T&A + connection to favorite TV show ". That thinking is the norm-- the large portion of humanity that for whatever reason you feel apart from.

There are many things that could hypothetically put Hannigan on that list, but instead of an outdated pin-up, how about something that actually captures her true appeal to geekdom, such as this..

From the set of How I Met Your Mother, when Hannigan was pregnant. The baby bump was ( rather poorly ) hidden most of the time, but the writers actually worked it into the show's canon in some scenes of her winning a hot-dog eating contest. Isn't her participation in that kind of quirky humor a better appeal than just another FHM pin-up?

....wait, I already know the answer to that.