Tuesday, 25 June 2013
The Failure Of Truth, Justice & The American Way
Before we begin: This is about the Superman comic What's So Funny About Truth, Justice & The American Way? Better known to some as Superman Vs. The Elite and a major argument as to why Superman is still relevant today. It has nothing to do with American values, the United States Constitution or any politically charged subject matter. It's about people who fly through the sky, pile-drive trains and fight crime.
Everyone got that? Good. Hopefully this will mean i'll only be getting hate mail from DC fans, not misguided patriots.
The comic, written by Joe Kelly, served as a criticism for the rise in popularity of anti-heroes within comics and one specific group known as The Authority, one of Wildstorm's major superhero teams. In it, a superhero group known as the Elite is garnering public support for their vicious executions and "eye for and eye" approach to justice. Embracing extremely heavy handed tactics, a disregard for human life and treating criminals as if they had no rights; they are everything Superman has been taught is unethical. This clash of ideologies eventually results in a battle between the metahumans, concluding with Superman proving their way is ultimately wrong.
The comic supposedly rejected the principles of Warren Ellis and Mark Millar presented within The Authority and any right for such a group to ever exist. Showing them as hypocrites, bullies, and what would happen if someone like Superman ever took up their mentality. Things like killing being required to defeat certain foes, torture, their attitude towards the public and direct intervention in human affairs. Serving as far more of a sledgehammer to willingly interceded in any area of their world they decided to make their business.
The comic is well written, well thought out and while very heavy handed at times it did serve as a good argument against someone like Superman killing others. The story's problems begin to arise when you really look at how the stand ins for The Authority are presented. Just for starters, this isn't The Authority as a whole they're aping, just Mark Millar's version if it. This is something which really needs to be looked at separately but when you compare Ellis' original run with the characters to Millar's years, the differences are considerable. Along with any restraint, the characters lost many subtleties and minor elements when it came to Millar writing them, even their goals in some respects.
When Ellis' created The Authority the group served as a semi-covert strike unit protecting the world against threats it could not deal with personally. Like Superman they largely held back from screwing with human development and forcing their way into delicate matters. Of the three threats they faced, two were military invasions the countries of the world had no hope of stopping and the third was a ancient god of the outer dark. They weren't openly forcing their way into delicate matters or refusing to let humanity make its own choices as many critics claim, they acted more as protectors watching from above and getting involved when necessary. Limiting damage rather than letting it run rampant and trying to ensure humanity would see a better tomorrow by nudging it in the right direction or getting involved when it was needed.
Take for example the events of the first arc of Ellis' run where Kaizen Gamorra (long time WildC.A.T.s villain with a complex history) managed to get cloning tech, advanced shield generators and metahuman genetic enhancements. Using it for a cloned superhuman army deployed en mass to eventually bring down world powers through force and become a dominant ruling power. After he was defeated, rather than with most superhero comics, the Authority made sure that the technology would be found by the right people. United Nations investigators who would see that it was regulated and introduced over time to give various countries access to the advanced tech.
Major superhero battles within cities were shown to be horrendously devastating and with a massive level of collateral damage. Think Man of Steel levels of destruction. Unlike many comics which would skip over this however, the arc showed how people being caught in the fighting and deaths being caused due to the conflict. Rather than just flying off however, members of the team are seen helping with aid workers to recover trapped people and rebuild from some of the damage. They never go so far as to do the aid worker's jobs for them, but find the people they missed and rescue those beyond their reach. Furthemore, the run didn't glorify killing nearly as much as the Elite did. Once the final battle in Los Angeles was over the results of their actions are questioned with exchanges like this:
Swift: How many people you think we killed?
Hawksmoor: How many people would've died if we hadn't been there? It's not a great answer, I know; but it's the best there is. We saved more people than we killed.
While the comic is never all doom and gloom, it doesn't glorify their killing or show the heroes reveling in it. Making jokes to ease tensions, the odd sociopathic remark by Midnighter (as seen right), or the Joss Wheden style battle/post-battle speak you'd see in things like Buffy or Firefly; but not pretending their acts didn't matter. At some level they seemed to understand what they truly were - A necessary evil. A force which needed to exist because there was ultimately nothing else to halt the major threats the world was facing on a global or galactic scale. Ellis himself described them as villains who fought bigger villains more than once, and his writing did seem to constantly reflect this fact.
As you might have guessed, Mark Millar's run didn't. It contained many of the elements which the Elite embraced and suffered from some of the worst aspects "mature" comics are usually criticised for. Along with abandoning their aloof presence in favour of a pop-star style existence of media publicity, the group is seen systematically destroying dictatorships and showing no remorse for slaughtering their foes. While the comic would never quite regain the same themes and style Ellis had once Millar was gone, many aspects were considerably toned down. Less frequent acts of rape, less government destroying actions (barring one particular semi-justified arc) and more defending humanity from threats it could not personally combat.
As such What's So Funny About Truth, Justice & The American Way? is less a criticism of The Authority itself and more one specific run of the comic. Along with the various superhero groups who might share its attitude.
However, where the story really fails as a criticism is the universe it is set in. Grim as the DCU might be sometimes, it has countless superhero groups, generations of people willing to fight for justice and enough metahumans to ensure humanity would see a better tomorrow. As such, the situations which led to the Authority being created would never arise in that universe.
Another aspect people like to forget when looking at What's So Funny About Truth, Justice & The American Way? is that the Authority wasn't founded on some whim. It wasn't created immediately and in fact many of its heroes tried to find less extreme ways of improving things with less bloodshed. Either personally helping those who could or watching as groups who tried to do the same died in the attempt.
Ellis' most famous arc on StormWatch featured a kind of proto-Authority called the Changers who worked in passive ways to try and improve the world. They didn't speed around destroying governments, toppling dictatorships or killing monsters but instead set everything up for a new global society. One where hierarchies, governments and leadership figures were not needed. Where the suffering of many was not needed to benefit a comparative few. Like the Authority, their plan was to fade from the public eye once their job was done and leave humanity to its fate. All of them were killed before they could initiate their plan fully. Murdered, betrayed and undermined by figures who wished to retain control over others and hungered for power. Their unwillingness to resort to violence to truly secure their future was their ultimate undoing.
Next was StormWatch itself. Moving in far more subtle ways than the Authority would, the United Nation's metahuman taskforce worked from inside. Obeying the U.N.'s will but repeatedly clashing with acts deemed unethical, resulting in America pulling its support from the group. It would combat figures from the shadows, decapitating tyrannical leadership where it arose and tried to keep humanity on the right path. Even going so far as to fight against the countries it was supposed to serve covertly when it was clear they were going too far. StormWatch ultimately met its end at the hands of a massive xenomorph invasion (yes, those xenomorphs) showing that it had been unprepared to truly fight a full scale planetary assault. Any chance of it being founded once again was crushed by StormWatch's own actions, and the level of freedom Weatherman Jackson King had displayed in opposing their will.
The members of the Authority consisted of survivors from StormWatch and those who had known members of the Changers personally. Each desired the better future they had been working towards, and founded the Authority in an effort to learn from the mistakes of the past while retaining the same goal.
This long history of events, problems and political intrigue simply didn't exist with the Elite. The environment which would lead to the creation of such a group, the problems and the lack of a major superhero group capable of acting on a global scale; none of these were problems with the DCU. In this respect the Ultramarine Corps were a far better criticism which suggested a team like Ellis' Authority was needed, but only in universes far worse off than the DCU.
Again, What's So Funny About Truth, Justice & The American Way? is a great story. You just have to remember it's a great Superman story. When it comes to actually trying to deconstruct and criticise the existance of the Authority, big flaws in the narrative and aesop begin to appear.