Graphic Novel Of The Month: “Masterson’s Folly” or How Warren Ellis Killed The Superhuman
No Hero TPB (Avatar Press): No Hero immediately picks up from a 1966 Bobby Kennedy speech and propels us into the alternate history, and subsequent future, that stems from that point in time. Warren Ellis and Juan Jose Ryp spin a subversive tale which postulates that space is not the final frontier of man’s evolutionary track, but that super-humanity is the final frontier of exploration. This idea is taken to an extreme, ultimately to its inevitable conclusion. Try to imagine vigilantism with such a direct and unapologetic creed that a “Batman” (yes, notice how the first appearance of The Levellers in The Haight slyly includes what appear to be vague Bat-Symbols on their belt buckles) is seen ruthlessly killing crooked, corrupt, unjust police officers on the street in broad daylight.
It’s interesting that in his first impromptu press conference, team founder and designer of the FX7 drug, Carrick Masterson deliberately and repeatedly uses the term “free” during his statement. It’s the perfect coupling of 1960’s counter-culture, straight from the epicenter of the San Francisco movement, with the prescient tech fascination Ellis infuses most of his works with. Not only is the term used commonly as something given freely, not only does it denote free men pursuing their inalienable rights to life, liberty, and happiness, not only does it conjure up images of the “free love” associated with the time period, but he intimates that the word “free” is being used in the way modern techies would use the term “open source.” His FX7 superhuman enhancile drug, which offers enlightenment through psychedelics, has been given freely to these men. These superhuman heroes are now free for the world to use. In the public eye, Carrick Masterson has fashioned himself as the great selfless benefactor to mankind.
It’s fun to see a logical shift in appearance and the monikers of the team through the decades. We see The Levellers debut in the 1960’s Haight-Ashbury District. We see them premiere as The Front Line in the 1970’s at Bill Graham’s historic Fillmore venue. We see them endure the excess and decay (think Michael J. Fox doing coke in Bright Lights, Big City) of the 1980’s. Finally, in 2011 we see the roster as simply “TFL” because, yes, The Front Line has been predictably reduced to an acronym, with the same type of corporate branding run amok we’ve all come to know and consume. One of the most compelling characters for me is Mandy (aka: The Operator), with her green hair, black leather knee-high boots, and vaguely BDSM black corset top. Ryp depicts her magnificently; I like the way her breasts hang from her body when she’s leaned over, her pouty green lipstick, and wild punk hair begging for attention. She’s truly a child of her purported time, full of tech savvy and hip furtive ennui, desperately craving the attention she denies everyone else. The way she is so matter-of-factly dismissive of Josh is telling. Her saying that their encounter is “like meeting a caveman,” since he’s never flown in a plane before, is all you really need to know about the detachment of her character. In her, Ellis offers a small but authentic bit of insight into the likely youth culture of the future. In all of her violent sexualized media desensitization, she’d just as soon text you about the “warm boy in her bed” as kill you.
Structurally, the book does have one major flaw. There’s a huge exposition dump in the third act that in one fell swoop explains Carrick’s true place in the world, Josh’s true identity, the nature of the killings of The Front Line members, and the mysterious forces that have been tailing the team and seem to know their vulnerabilities. There’s a lot of telling, and not enough showing. Candidly, it’s a flaw I find in a lot of Ellis’ work. The familiar pattern is: set up, set up, set up, INFO DUMP, abrupt end. It’s usually so entertaining along the way that the structural weakness and repetition is not that noticeable, so we don’t mind it so much. For me, I’ve found that in order to enjoy the writing of Warren Ellis, you have to consciously put yourself in a certain mindset before embarking on reading one of his stories. You have to allow yourself to really absorb and enjoy the journey, because if you greedily fly through the pages waiting for the destination to satisfy, you’ll often be disappointed. But, oh that journey! Despite that one macro weakness, the micro moments deliver consistently along the way. There are little touches like (and this really sums up what I love about Warren Ellis in one single line, hell, in one word of dialogue) Masterson’s secret password which grants access into his inner sanctum from which he seeks to control the world: Agartha. Now, any sci-fi writer worth his salt knows that Agartha is another name for the legendary city supposedly located within the Earth’s core. But like Masteron’s belief in his vision, the popular fascination with Agartha was abandoned long ago as not scientifically viable. The symbolism inherent in that one deft word choice is a stellar example of Ellis at his prime, hitting underlying meaning squarely, but also getting some cool style points in the process.
While the writing certainly places No Hero toward the upper end of the quality scale in Ellis’ large body of work, it would be lessened significantly without the stellar pencils of Juan Jose Ryp. I’m surprised that Ryp hasn’t been snatched up into some exclusive deal with a major publisher. I, for one, would certainly buy any title he was on, as he’s one of those artists who’s strong enough to rate an “instant buy” regardless of company, character, or creative collaborator. His style is instantly recognizable as his own intellectual property, but bears the dense excruciating detail of someone like Geoff Darrow, the clean inviting figure work of an artist like George Perez, with the thin quirky effortless lines of a guy like Frank Quitely. Ryp not only tells the story clearly and captures well choreographed kinetic action sequences, but fills the pages with a plethora of Easter eggs hidden in his intricate morass of razor thin lines. Pick a few panels at random for a smattering of examples; there’s the “Ellis Brand” panties on random women lining the streets, flying eyeballs and optic nerves hidden amid massive explosions, faux Superman logos on punk jackets in the crowd, graffiti scrawled on walls with “Black Summer” hidden in the colorful mess, men violently vomiting their bloody guts out – to the point you can playfully make out the actual heart and lungs in the puke pile, down to something relatively simple like the rendering of a man’s chin stubble. An additional treat in this collected edition is the chapter breaks he gives us, which pay selective homage to famous covers by Jack Kirby, Dave Cockrum, Dave Gibbons, Robert Crumb, George Perez, Jim Steranko, and Todd McFarlane.
As would-be protagonist Joshua Carver is taken down the rabbit hole of induction into The Front Line, by way of The Garden of Eden and The Forbidden Fruit, through La Chambre des Cauchemars, through scenes of napalm-like “disgel” designed to eradicate superhumans at the molecular level, we see a subtle thematic inversion of counter-revolution. What does that mean? It means that the clinically insane masked vigilante in this reality knows more about complex social theory and criminal law than the immoral police officers patrolling your future dystopian streets. Like Watchmen before it, or even more subdued works like B. Clay Moore and Jeremy Haun’s Battle Hymn or J. Michael Straczynski and Gary Frank’s Supreme Power, Ellis proves that the superhero paradigm is deeply flawed and ultimately doomed to fail. Superhumans, by their very nature, cannot ultimately be heroes. Their abilities (and often their personalities) necessitate judgmental actions which are not inherently heroic. Acting for the greater good often means crossing moral, ethical, or legal lines that prototypical heroes cannot. Yes, the popular quote used from Shakespeare all the way through to Ralph Fiennes in Quiz Show applies: “to do a great right, one must do a little wrong.” The quintessential artistic imagery associated with the ultimate failure of the paradigm here is the infamous “spinal cock sheath”. I mean, really, after that I think I’ve seen all of the superheroes I ever want to see. The concept of the superhuman is dead. It’s now been repeatedly deconstructed, analyzed, poked, prodded, reconfigured, post-modernized, disemboweled, the bloody entrails finger-painted by inner city crack babies onto an urban mural, and simply pushed as far as it can possibly ever go. Because, you see, no matter how much Carrick Masterson tried to forcibly manipulate the natural order of things and rule his world, the world (Mother Nature, alternate reality, higher power, belief system, quantum physics or Inuit Goddess – insert your holistic paradigm of choice here) pushes back and attempts to reset things. If a philosophical stance can be drawn from the failure of the FX7 enhanciles and “Masterson’s Folly” as I like to call it, it’s that man’s capacity for greatness is not in developing our ability to create superhumans, but in our innate ability and inherent need to survive without them. Grade A.
Note: I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to make JLA a good book, a top seller, the cornerstone of the DCU as it ought to be by my estimation. For me, the answer is simple: Warren Ellis and Juan Jose Ryp. No, they won’t be able to depict Superman violently extracting Lex Luthor’s bloody spine and fashioning himself a Krypto-Cock to wave in the face of Amanda Waller or something. And yeah, Ellis really did play with a pastiche of these archetypes already in the original incarnation of The Authority, but there’s still plenty of room for the cornerstones of the DCU to be put through the wringer. I’d love to see Ellis work his conceptual magic and Ryp depict it in all of his artistic glory. Sometimes you have to thoroughly break something before it can be repaired properly. For me, JLA hasn’t been a destination title since Grant Morrison and Howard Porter’s run, which started in 1997. From there, it slowly began its death pangs with Mark Waid, Geoff Johns, Brad Meltzer, Dwayne McDuffie, and now James Robinson attempting to helm the listing ship. It’s been flailing around in the throes of death for 13 years now, sometimes the writer to blame, sometimes the lackluster artist, sometimes an interfering DC Editorial, but the point is that it isn’t quite dead yet. No disrespect to those writers, but they’re incapable of breaking the title. It needs to be broken before it can heal. No, they won’t do that. They’ve all tried to immediately mend it and abortively return it to its mythical prime. Instead, Warren Ellis and Juan Jose Ryp could deconstruct it in plain view, breaking it down in order to build it back up, so that an entirely new paradigm could emerge for an entirely different era.