The world goes black in this story of super-powered heroes and villains. The political situation in the USA under George W. Bush has become more than the hero known as John Horus can stand, so he moves to take matters into his own hands. Unfortunately, not all of his former teammates are quite so eager to throw the world into chaos.
Dave Wallace: Black Summer is a self-contained miniseries from writer Warren Ellis and artist Juan Jose Ryp that proved to be one of the most thought-provoking and entertaining superhero comics of the past year. It’s a story that deals with ideas that are pertinent to all superhero stories, but which are rarely explored in any great depth in comics.
That’s probably because the complex moral quandaries that would accompany the real-world presence of super-powered individuals who take the law into their own hands would undermine the simplistic “good vs. evil” message of most superhero stories. However, Ellis takes these complexities and uses them as the backdrop for a sophisticated superhero story that encourages us to question not only the motives of those in positions of authority, but also of those “heroes” who would seek to take the law into their own hands for the protection of society.
The story begins with the assassination of President George W. Bush at the hands of John Horus, the leader of the “Seven Guns” superhero team, who then demands that the country begin preparations to elect a replacement. It’s a remarkably direct and attention-grabbing opening that immediately sets the tone for the book, and provides the catalyst for the entire story that follows.
He claims that he murdered the President because of Bush’s role in an “illegal” war that was “predicated on lies.” Horus then assumes a position of moral superiority as he states, “I will not be held accountable for this act.”
The image of Horus covered in the blood of a US President while standing at the lectern of the White House press room and ordering an effective reset of the political system is an arresting one, and it instantly demands that we consider the issues of moral relativism and absolutism that are at the heart of Ellis’s story.
Jason Sacks: It’s hard for any Bush-hater to not feel an intense sort of exciting wish fulfillment upon reading that scene while, at the same time, feeling an equally intense sort of guilt in the excitement.
For all the hatred that many of us feel towards the Bush Administration, there’s no way to justify the murder of Bush, Cheney, and some of their advisors. For most people, our intelligence and self-control keep our passions in check. We may vent to friends about our hatred of the President, but we could never do what Horus does.
So reading about Horus’s slaughter of Bush and his subsequent justification of the murder put me in an odd emotional place. I felt conflicted between the wish-fulfillment aspect of Bush’s death and the intense sort of abhorrence I felt in actually seeing my vague daydream actually fulfilled.
Ellis does an outstanding job of grabbing the reader’s attention at the beginning of this book. More importantly, as you say, it puts the central ideas of moral relativism and absolutism at the front of the reader’s mind as we read the rest of the story. Not only are we shocked into reading more, we’re also dealing with a complex hypothetical quandary as we launch our reading of the book.
Dave Wallace: Exactly. With this short opening chapter alone, Ellis forces us to consider some pretty difficult questions:
- Is a benign dictatorship preferable to a corrupt democracy?
- Does might always make right?
- Is killing a president for his role in a morally questionable war justified?
It’s actually an absurd question, but in a world of super-powered vigilantes the question actually becomes: Who should be allowed to make that judgment?
Horus might claim that “we’re supposed to fight evil,” but that kind of absolute and simplistic labeling simply isn’t a useful or realistic way of describing this situation–especially for somebody who has just committed cold-blooded murder in the name of the common good.
Ellis throws these ideas into our lap and refuses to provide an easy, pat answer for any of them. In fact, there’s a sense that, once the meat of the story has been introduced in the opening chapter, Ellis allows these ideas to percolate in the background of the story–getting stuck into his characters and plot and only really returning to the themes toward the end of the series, thus allowing readers time to think about them for themselves rather than being spoon fed a certain line of thinking.
Jason Sacks:In an odd way, the murder of Bush is a kind of misdirection play. With such an intense scene starting the book, it’s logical to assume that this book will be all about politics–but the focus isn’t politics. Instead it’s about the arrogance and dislocation that the super-powered protagonists feel from society. This book is all about superhero decadence taken to a higher level.
The super-powered characters are really only heroes in their own minds. As they and the Tactical Stream destroy American cities in the midst of their pointless fight, it becomes clear that there are no real heroes in this world. There is nobody to root for because, in this story, absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Dave Wallace:You’re correct in saying that the opening chapter sets up an expectation that the book will be more overtly politicised than it turns out to be. I wonder if Ellis intended to take the book in a more political direction, but wound up being more interested in the moral issues surrounding the activities of his “heroes.” Either way, Ellis’s characters and plot are strong enough carry the story effectively, without a lot of political soap boxing.
The book’s reasonably large cast is introduced gradually, giving readers the chance to get to know the Seven Guns and their supporting cast one at a time. Each character is developed well enough that they stand as more than just mouthpieces for Ellis’s own political ideas. That said, the writer doesn’t quite succeed in making every one of the Seven Guns memorable as a character. However, he does a good job with most of them, and manages to use them to represent several political and moral viewpoints without their personalities feeling contrived for this purpose.
Most good characters are flawed to an extent, and Ellis gets under the skin of his leads effectively via a series of flashbacks that show the history of the Seven Guns. Each character has his or her own distinctive motivation for becoming a member of the team–some of which seem wholesome and altruistic, and some of which seem rather more concerning.
Tom Noir is a particularly strong character whose presence is keenly felt throughout the story, despite being absent for much of it. His relationship with John Horus is comparable to the relationship between Batman and Superman (the characters even dress in a similar fashion to Ellis’s Batman and Superman analogues from The Authority, Midnighter and Apollo), and, ultimately, it’s their conflict of ideals that comes to define the resolution of the series.
Jason Sacks: Tom Noir is the moral center of the book. Where John Horus believes completely in his personal moral superiority as a hero, Tom sees things from a much more pragmatic viewpoint. Perhaps because he’s deeply scarred as a result of his activity with the Seven Guns, Tom is the realist of t
he group. He sees things as they really are, and still sees himself as a bit of a hero.
It’s a great irony of the story–and one I’m going to take pains to avoid spoiling here–that when Tom attempts to manipulate the military into creating peace, he actually ends up escalating the war. I read that as an interesting commentary on unanticipated consequences of actions, and as an intriguing thought on how sometimes the best impulses of people can backfire in horrific and profound ways.
Dave Wallace:That’s true. I hadn’t considered that. I guess that this book is written from a fairly cynical viewpoint (as you said earlier, the message seems to be that absolute power corrupts absolutely), and so it’s fitting that Ellis would imply that even such an apparently noble act could lead to the situation getting worse, not better.
Ellis’s plot taps into contemporary fears–most notably, those of domestic urban terrorism and the dominance of national security over personal, private freedom. By the midpoint of the story, the Seven Guns are perceived as little more than terrorists, and the USA has become a military-dominated state–culminating in a massive loss of life as the government relentlessly pursues their agenda against a powerful and virtually invincible opponent.
The constant and near-instantaneous relaying and filtering of information through the modern media is also reflected well via frequent montages that show how the battle against the Seven Guns is being represented by the media outlets.
Jason Sacks:While I enjoyed seeing the media’s perceptions of the battle, I ultimately found that to be one of the weaker aspects of this book. It has become such a cliché to have the media commenting on stories as they happen, as a kind of analogue for the reader. Frank Miller is, of course, given credit for that innovation with Dark Knight; after 20 years that meme has become a bit outdated to me.
It also feels a bit of a crutch for weak storytelling, the classic example of a “tell not show” strategy that can sometimes be frustrating in the hands of some writers. I thought the scenes in part two that showed the media’s reaction to the assassination of the President to be rather redundant and unnecessary. Of course the media would be all over such an event–and to that extent it makes sense–but I believe the scene-setting would have been stronger if Ellis had shown events happening rather than having faceless newscasters describe the events. Rather than show people’s panic, he shows the media’s reports on the panic, this serves to distance readers from the events being discussed.
Dave Wallace:That’s a fair criticism, but I do wonder whether some of those weaknesses are part of the point that Ellis is trying to make with his media commentary. The distancing of the reader from the action during the newscasts reinforces the desensitising nature of the onslaught that is the modern media, and the fractured nature of the newscasts reflects the increasingly choppy, reductionist nature of today’s mainstream news outlets.
It’s interesting that you mention Miller’s use of the device in Dark Knight Returns, because he revisited it in his sequel, and seemed to be trying to make similar points to the ones that I think Ellis is trying to make in this book. If the newscasters had been more prominent, I might agree that the writer had overused the device, but I think that it works well enough here.
That said, I don’t think that the book is perfect. However, the overall strength of both the plot and the characters makes up for any occasional weaknesses–such as a plot thread about the Seven Guns being insane (that doesn’t really go anywhere), and a plot twist regarding a certain character’s reappearance after an apparent death (which could have used a little more explanation in order to feel truly plausible within the universe that Ellis has created). It’s not a flawless story, but it’s a very strong one that feels in many ways like the logical next step from Ellis’s ground-breaking work on The Authority.
Juan Jose Ryp’s artwork is just as arresting as Ellis’s story. His characters are consistent and well designed (I particularly like the costume design for the Seven Guns), and there’s a strong sense of visual continuity as the story flits between the past and present versions of the team members. The storytelling is clear, and Ryp’s choreography of action sequences is solid. However, it’s with his amazing attention to detail that the artist really makes his mark.
Even small, simple and innocuous panels, like the one in the opening chapter that shows Tom Noir’s cell phone ringing, is full of painstaking detail. In that panel (which takes up only one-sixth of a page), there’s an overflowing ashtray of individually rendered cigarette butts, a meticulously-drawn random scattering of nuts in the background, and the accurate depiction of the interior mechanical workings of Noir’s translucent cigarette lighter. Later issues are no less impressive–such as an establishing shot of a military compound in which every tent and vehicle is individually brought to life, or the individual and subtly different character designs for each one of the seven military counterparts of the Seven Guns (which remain consistent throughout their appearances in the book).
Ryp’s work certainly bears comparison to such other highly detailed artists as Geoff Darrow and Bryan Hitch. Whilst there’s an occasional tendency for scenes to feel a little sterile or static as a result of the high levels of detail, the benefits far outweigh the disadvantages–with the level of detail bringing Ellis’s scenes of urban terror to life realistically and vividly.
Jason Sacks:I don’t have much to add to your description of Ryp’s art. It’s extremely detailed, but somehow Ryp is always able to keep the reader’s eye focused on the events that are important in each scene. This is especially notable in the scenes of incredible and intense carnage in this book.
Dave Wallace: Yes, he’s a very good artist, so I was happy to see that there is cover gallery at the back of this volume that collects many of the variant covers provided by Ryp for the series. Not every single cover is featured, but I guess that there were so many variants that it would be impractical to collect them all. It seems, though, that the editors of the book have chosen the best of them–including the excellent wraparound cover to issue #0 that depicts John Horus in the blood-spattered Oval Office.
However, the lack of any other extras is a little disappointing–especially given that we’ve already seen “back matter” material in the first issue (as originally published) that isn’t reproduced here. As such, you don’t really gain a lot from buying the hardcover collection rather than the paperback edition–aside from a slightly sturdier cover.
However, that shouldn’t put people off buying one of the most original and compelling superhero series of the past few years, and one that’s as much about political and philosophical ideas as it is about people in costumes beating the snot out of each other.
Jason Sacks:I think I loved this book just a little bit less than you did, Dave. The book starts out incredibly strong, and opens up many questions that I wanted to see Ellis explore. I was curious to see how Ellis would look at the question of how government succession would happen, for instance. Since Cheney was also killed, who would become President, and how would they react to the murders of the former Chief Executives? Would the nation overreact with security measures? Would the assassination day be seen as another 9/11 or a great day for the country?
It almost seems naïve to think that good would come of exposing alleged Bush war crimes. If we are to believe the Seven Guns live more or less in the same world that you and I live in, then wh
y should we believe that the blood of a dead President wouldn’t wash away his sins? Bush, Cheney and their people walked out of the White House as free people, and the Obama administration seems to have no thirst for pursuing criminal prosecutions for any of those people. Why would their bloody deaths cause any different reaction within the next administration?
Imagine that: In a super-hero book that is all about alleged heroes acting without heroism, who would have imagined those characters would actually end up being as naïve and idealistic as any other comic heroes?