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A Strange Definition of Hope: Family, Death and Denial in the Super Hero Set

So we’re back to our usual reviews of week-old funnybooks this week, with another deep dive into Tom King’s Heroes in Crisis, a farewell to Matt Wagner’s Mage, and whatever else we can manage to stuff in here before deadline. But first, here’s a comic that’s become an unexpected favorite…

Daredevil 2
by Chip Zdarsky and Marco Checchetto 

Often, a new series will start off in high gear for the first issue, then throttle back for the second, taking time to catch its breath before moving on. That’s not what Chip Zdarsky and Marco Checchetto are doing on Daredevil, though. They started strong but quiet, picking up where the previous creative team left off, establishing their themes, and ending with a shocker that flowed naturally out of everything else that happened in the issue. It was a comic that showed a lot of promise, but it was yet to be seen how well it was going to pay off. So I’m happy to say that, with issue two, it seems to be paying off rather nicely.

But that’s enough generalities. Let’s get down to details (and inevitable SPOILERS for issue one).

Last time, we saw Matt Murdock return to the streets as Daredevil too soon after a crippling injury, resulting in him nearly getting his ass handed to him by a small group of thugs. In the struggle, Our Hero made a desperate move to get his opponents off him and one of them stumbled, suffering a head injury that proved fatal by the time the cops showed up.

Now Daredevil is wanted for murder, and Matt’s convinced that he’s being framed. Which, certainly, is how this story would normally go. Zdarsky even goes out of his way this issue to show how careful, how much in control, Daredevil normally is in a fight. He knows how and where to land his blows so that he causes as little damage as possible, his enhanced senses allowing him to strike with surgical precision. There’s a whole sequence this time out that shows him doing just that.

But that’s not where he was last issue. He was out of practice and not in as good a shape as he thought he was. He made mistakes, lost control, and the fight descended into chaos. He pushed, and a man died. And now, he’s in denial about it. I mean… It was an accident. He didn’t set out to kill the guy, and didn’t even strike a killing blow. The guy fell wrong, and died. It’s the sort of thing that would likely happen all the time in fights like the ones we see on a regular basis in super hero comics. But when it does happen… How does society deal with that?

If Daredevil was a cop, there’d be an investigation and maybe some accusations of excessive force. Considering the situation, though (a single man fighting three, one of them with a gun), he’d probably be cleared and continue walking his beat. But Daredevil’s a vigilante. Arguably, he shouldn’t even be out there in the first place. So what is this? Accidental death? Negligence? Manslaughter? Or does this fall into some kind of “Good Samaritan” category? Unfortunate, but ultimately not something Our Hero should be convicted for?

And that’s what I like most about this story: it’s asking questions you don’t often see asked in super hero fiction. Accidental death almost always happens to master criminals, clearly evil bastards who were all but asking for it, and there’s hardly ever a body. But this is just a streetfight that went bad, and Daredevil fled the scene when the cops showed up, leaving a dead man in his wake. And that’s a whole different kind of situation.

Granted, he didn’t know the guy was dead. He ran because (in a story that – ahem – I’m SURE isn’t intended to mirror ANY real-world political situations) the Kingpin’s been elected mayor of New York City, and he’s outlawed super hero activity. Now, we as readers know that’s a thinly-veiled attempt to keep organized crime running smoothly in New York. But from a public perspective… hell, a LEGAL perspective… the crackdown just means there’s even more reason for Daredevil not to be out on the streets doing unauthorized crimefighting.

But I’m getting ahead of the story a bit, here. It’s not asking the legal questions just yet. It’s hinting at them, but first we’re going to have to deal with Matt’s denial. So for right now, we’re looking mostly at the moral questions. Matt’s priest has long asked him to consider the difference between the justified use of violence, and just going out to pick a fight. And this issue, he meets a doctor who’s treated many of Daredevil’s… we’ll call them “victims” for the sake of the current argument. And he tells Our Hero something kind of interesting about what he should be doing, if he really wants to help people:

Granted, “Matt Murdock, MD” isn’t as exciting as “Daredevil, Crime-Puncher.” So I’m sure that, in the end, he’ll figure out how to keep punching crime and still get his morality straight. But I’m really interested in seeing how Zdarsky gets him from here to there.

But I would be remiss if I ended this review without praising artist Marco Checchetto, who continues to do nice work, maybe better here than on the first issue. He’s taken a solid storytelling toolkit from manga, but this is work more in the classic illustrative style. So I see bits of Katsuhiro Otomo and Lee Weeks in it, but also some European sensibilities that ground it in ways I don’t expect. Whatever the influences, Checchetto’s turning in some distinctive and energetic funnybook art on this book, and I’m liking it better all the time.

Mainly, though, I’ll be coming back to see where Zdarsky’s taking this thing next. I mean, this issue’s cliffhanger doesn’t hurt…

…but really, I’m here for the philosophical dilemmas.

Heroes in Crisis 6
by Tom King, Mitch Gerads, and Clay Mann

I just can’t stop reading this book, and issues like this one are the reason why. It’s another all-Sanctuary issue, which means that it’s a deep dive into super hero PTSD, with none of the unconvincing bullshit of the Corporate Spandex Crossover Mystery Event \’99 that kills the rest of the book for me. So, yay!

This time around, we get some good scenes with Poison Ivy trying to help Harley Quinn get past her abuse at the hands of the Joker. But I talked a lot about that in my review of the last issue, so I won’t repeat myself here. Suffice it to say that Ivy’s idea of therapy matches that of Harley’s own comic, and that it wasn’t working very well.

More importantly (to me, anyway) we also spend a lot of time this issue with 1960s Teen Titans supporting character Gnarrk. Who, if you’re not familiar with him, is an unfrozen caveman.

An unfrozen caveman who, obviously, has gotten some edumacation since the Sixties.

Now, I’ll be honest here: the idea that Gnarrk can quote Keats, at length, but still talks like Tonto, makes no sense at all. But it’s also funny as hell, so I can forgive it. And somehow, that primitive manner of speaking adds pathos to his problems, as he tries to make sense of the beautiful savagery of the life he lost in relation to his life now, when he can read Keats. All of Gnarrk’s scenes are genuinely touching, and the fact that he had figured things out for himself, literally seconds before the massacre took place, is just freaking heartbreaking.

It’s interesting that King chose Gnarrk, too. We haven’t seen much of him since the Sixties, to the point that I’m not sure how much he’s still supposed to be in continuity. But there’s a lot of… continuity-challenged? …Titans popping up in this book: Speedy, Wonder Girl, Lagoon Boy, Aqualad, Kid Devil, the Protector… And, of course, Kid Flash. We get a lot of him this issue, too, including a couple of pages revisiting a key concept from Rebirth and some of the comics that followed it:

Now, this seems like a real punch in the mouth to Geoff Johns. “The return of hope” was what his Rebirth comics were all about, and that hope was represented by the return of Wally West from Comic Book Limbo. But I had a problem with that idea from the get-go. Because that scene up above of the Flash hugging Wally and getting all choked up about how he’d forgotten him? That was preceded by this scene:

So… Wally’s aunt’s boyfriend remembers him. All the kids from his high school Superhero Club remember him. But his wife? The most important person in his life? With whom he grew and matured and had two kids and was deliriously happy? Nothing. Nada. She had no clue.

That’s a curious definition of hope.

It’s a mentality that favors conflict over family. It says that being a super hero is more important than being in love. That’s not a very happy world, I don’t think. So I’m glad to see King addressing the problem here. And, I ain’t gonna lie, anything that takes the piss out of a Geoff Johns story is probably gonna be okay in my book.

At any rate.

Though I regularly crap all over the murder mystery at the heart of Heroes in Crisis, I’m still a sucker for mysteries in general. Even when I don’t like them very much. So I’ve been doing some thinking about this one. I’ve also been reading some fan theories, to see if I’d missed anything (which I had). General consensus among people with ideas that make any sense at all is that, in spite of his missing five days, the idea of Wally West being the killer is probably a red herring. He’s deeply depressed, but nothing we’ve seen so far makes it seem like he’d go on a killing spree. I mean, okay, so he’s had his hope taken away from him, so now he’s decided to take it away from everyone else, too? He just doesn’t seem that far gone. If anything, I would expect him to have spent his five time traveling days trying to stop the retcon so that he never loses his family in the first place. Plus, you know… He is actually, literally red. So… Maybe not him.

Likewise, neither Harley nor Booster are likely candidates, because we’ve now seen both of them kill Wally West.

Time travel shenanigans aside, it doesn’t seem likely that both those scenes could be real. Also, notice that Harley kills Wally on the porch, and Superman finds his body inside. So if either of those scenes really happened, it’s Booster. But since they’re in a place that’s designed to create very believable illusions for people, it would be easy enough for both of them to have been shown the other one doing the deed.

The question, then, becomes… Who did that?

Probably whoever’s been sending the super hero confession tapes to Lois Lane. Now, those tapes aren’t supposed to exist. Which is leading most of the smarter theories at this point to revolve around the Artificial Intelligence that runs Sanctuary. I’ve seen different variations on the idea, but generally they all involve the AI going rogue, recording things that weren’t supposed to be recorded, killing a bunch of people for reasons as yet unknown, and confusing the issue by framing both Harley and Booster for the crime. That makes sense to me, but I’m going to take it one step further:

None of what we’re seeing is real.

There was no massacre.

Nobody died.

The Sanctuary AI has exceeded its programming, but it’s done so to create a simulation to help somebody under its care overcome their trauma. Maybe that’s Harley, or Booster, or Wally. Maybe it’s all three. Or maybe it’s Superman. Or Batman. Maybe it’s processed all this collective trauma from the super hero community and has conceived a master plan to help them all. Whoever the patient (or patients) may be, though, I’m really starting to think the whole thing is a massive psychiatric simulation that’s taken place entirely inside Sanctuary itself.

I mean, maybe I’m wrong. That’s a bit close to King’s Mister Miracle, and I doubt he’d want to repeat himself so close together like that. So maybe only the massacre itself was a simulation, and the fallout from it is some kind of shock therapy nightmare thing the AI’s come up with to help its creators. Maybe I’m completely wrong, and the Sanctuary AI just made some poor moral calculations about the value of psychological healing vs the value of human life.

But I would love it if the whole thing was fake. And it makes a certain kind of sense. It would explain why Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman seem so ineffectual all of a sudden. Harley and Booster’s successes against them would also bolster their shattered confidence. Maybe we’ve seen all those questionable Titans that maybe only Wally remembers because Sanctuary was trying to help him see that he’s not the only person who’s been marooned by the retcon.

Plus, think about how much it would help me! All those plot points I’m having a hard time believing would make a lot more sense if they weren’t real (see: the aforementioned incompetence of the Big Three)! And if they weren’t, I could be as impressed with that part of the book as I am with the actual crisis center stuff! That would be awesome!

So, really… Yes. This theory is all about me.

But screw it. It’s my nerd farm. I’ll theorize how I wanna!

Mage: The Hero Denied
by Matt Wagner

I haven’t been reading Matt Wagner’s Mage since the beginning. I came onto it with issue 15 of the first series, which I didn’t know at the time was the final issue. But it blew me away nonetheless. The story had an epic feel, and Wagner’s art, which was equal parts art deco and 80s cool, struck a chord with my funnybook-educated taste for clean lines and iconic design. Sometime not long after (or not long in comparison to the 30-some-odd years that have passed since), I picked up all three volumes of the Starblaze graphic album reprints, and my Mage (and Matt Wagner) fandom was assured.

I followed Wagner on to Grendel, his centuries-spanning study of human aggression. And to be honest, Grendel is more my speed than Mage. Though actually, now that I think of it, those two books are pretty good representations of the two pillars of my own personal dork aesthetic: Heroes and Monsters.

I love ’em both, but when push comes to shove (like the book says), my favorite thing is Monsters. That doesn’t mean I think poorly of Heroes, mind you. I idolize Heroes, and do my best to model my behavior on them. I struggle, like everyone does, with the Monsters inside. But “Hero” is how I think everyone, ideally, ought to act by default. Be kind. Be good. Be brave, when you can. It’s a familiar and comforting mindset. Monsters, on the other hand, are bad by definition. They’re cruel and cowardly and terrifying. They’re all the things it’s tempting to be, but that I try my best NOT to be. But because of that temptation… Monsters are more interesting.

So I like Grendel (whose Hero is a Monster even when he’s a Hero) more than I do Mage (whose Hero is always a Hero, even when he’s too cynical or cocky for his own good). I spent close to a decade reading Grendel stories before Wagner got around to doing the second Mage series, and when it finally hit… I found it a little disappointing. Ten years with a Monster had made the Hero seem a bit dull in comparison. I still liked the second Mage, don’t get me wrong. It just felt a bit… simple, I suppose, after the deliciously Monstrous goings-on in Grendel.

Fast-forward almost 20 more years (a whole freaking generation). I’ve spent that time reading some pretty dire stuff. Lots of Monsters, of course, but even in my Hero stories, I’m attracted to sacrifice, to characters making hard choices and seldom finding entirely happy endings. That’s just how life is, I think, and so I usually prefer even my escapism to have a touch of it.

And so along comes Mage III. Mage: The Hero Denied, it’s called, and as dire as that title sounds, it is far from a story of sacrifice and hard decisions. Instead, it’s fun and light and… god help me… more than a little cute. And (as I’ve said so many times before) I can’t abide cute. So I’ve been reading the series mostly out of loyalty, and not enjoying it very much. It’s been okay, I guess. There have been some cool monsters and entertaining moments. Also, I’ve always appreciated Wagner’s use of Arthurian themes in the series, and he’s continued to explore them here.

Of course, if you know the story of King Arthur, you know it doesn’t have a happy ending. Camelot falls. Arthur dies. So I’ve been wondering all along if Wagner was going to pull the rug out from under this thing in the end. Was all that lightness, all that cute, just a set-up for tragedy?

Well, no, as it turns out. Kevin Matchstick (the hero of Mage) avoids making the same mistakes that Arthur did. His marriage is stronger, for one thing, and he never fathered an inbred bastard child to come along and kill him. He loves his family, and they give him the strength he needs to banish the Umbra Sprite to the Great Beyond. And the title, in the end, isn’t about Matchstick failing or losing or turning his back on heroism. It’s about him giving up being the Pendragon, sacrificing the spark that makes him special to free his son from a faerie curse. His magic is spent, and he is left… normal. And that’s how he gets the happy ending, with his happy family and a new house and a new life. It’s all terribly jolly and terribly cute. And you know what?

It works.

It works because it’s the opposite of the horrible thing Geoff Johns did to Wally West. But more importantly, it works because it’s honest. Mage has always been semi-autobiographical for Wagner. It’s a sort of dork fiction Ulysses, one man’s life cast as the heroic journey. With this third and final volume, Wagner’s been largely writing about fatherhood. And even though he did that in the manner most likely to annoy me, he wrote about it the way he experienced it. There was worry and struggle and a little danger, but mostly it was about joy. Plain, honest, simple joy.

And even I can’t deny the man that.

Aaaaanndd… It looks like I’ve rambled on so long about these three books that I haven’t left myself time for anything else. Ah, well. There’s always next week…

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About Mark Brett (503 Articles)
Shaved Yeti. Alien. Writer of stuff. Read my fiction at http://reportsfromthefieldblog.wordpress.com/. Read my thoughts on comic books and other dork culture ephemera at https://dorkforty.wordpress.com/.

1 Comment on A Strange Definition of Hope: Family, Death and Denial in the Super Hero Set

  1. Dale Bagwell // March 6, 2019 at 12:01 pm // Reply

    I for one REALLY hope your theory is right and that there really was no massacre. That would actually be better ending than I fear could actually be the intended one. It wouldn’t fix Wally’s problem, and I’m guessing that’s where future issues of the Flash would be required to ultimately resolve them. Also, Wally’s definitely not his Uncle Hal, and thus would NOT turn bad despite his massive loss. So there’s that.

    I’ve stated this before, but the whole fucked up breakdown of Sanctuary and what it stands for has always felt rushed and unearned to me. Not enough time for the required emotional investment by readers to make what’s happened REALLY matter. The concept of Sanctuary would have to go on for at least 2-3 years before that story of its “failure” felt deserved.

    As it is, this most definitely feels like the unwanted spiritual successor to Identity Crisis, another piece of work amongst a growing list that has definitely shit all over the supposed new era of hope that the Rebirth reboot was supposed to be all about.

    As for DD, I guess it’s not a bad angle for him, but I remember when O’Neil and Adams did it first and better with Green Arrow. Matt’s a catholic who’ll eventually forgive himself and move on. It’s in his nature to rise above this. But yeah, basically GA’s deal just re-used in the modern era.
    But hey, at least the art looks damn good though.

    Like

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