“Pirates of Manhattan”
Writer: Grant Morrison
Artists: Cameron Stewart, Moose Bauman (colors)
Publisher: DC Comics
Once upon a time, every comic was like this. It was called the Silver Age. And it was good.
For $3, Morrison gives us subway pirates, the secret map of New York’s secret subways, a man flayed and then burned alive, a crusading newspaper edited by a disembodied brain, an emotionally damaged hero, a golem, the most exciting job interview you could ever have, our hero riding a delivery scooter because his awesome car won’t start, and the art of Cameron Stewart.
Hell, we’re ripping DC off!
I could easily see this idea being pitched at any other point in comics history. A newspaper that sponsors its own superhero, backed by a network of civic-minded reporters; It’s a mix of 1960s idealism and 1940s “can-do” attitude. And the fast-paced action left me breathless! I’d call this an old-fashioned comic book, but most old comics weren’t this good. (Seriously, I’ve been reading Essential Avengers with late-60s stories by Roy Thomas and Sal Buscema. This is better. Significantly better.)
Cameron Stewart’s art is the kind I’d expect to see in a Vertigo comic. It has more realism, more weight, and exudes a higher level of professionalism than I see in most superhero comics. Why can’t all comic art be this good? In fact, why can’t every superhero comic be this good?
There’s a lot of talk about how to attract more kids to comics. I say, “Make more comics like this.” Draw them well. Tell exciting stories about real people with honest emotions. Give readers something so engaging, so different that they’ll be left begging for more!
You know what? Just let Morrison do whatever the hell he wants with whomever he wants and sell it at $3 a pop. It will sell. And it will be good.
After the stunning Seven Soldiers #0, which showed exactly how to do a story about second-tier heroes coming out of retirement, this is something of a disappointment. I must admit that while the Seven Soldiers experiment interests me, it’s only on a casual level, and my unfamiliarity with DC’s roster of characters means that I’m not particularly concerned with revamped versions of the more obscure and forgettable members of that roster. I’m going to be picking up the Klarion miniseries, but that’s more due to Frazer Irving’s art than anything else.
Without any such hooks, Guardian #1 left me a bit cold. There are some wonderful ideas on show here, like the pirates that operate not on the Spanish Main hundreds of years ago, but on the New York underground in the present day, but the whole thing seems to lack that vital spark which normally makes Morrison’s work so rewarding. Even when writing New X-Men, that spark was there, making that series a must-read for me, even as someone who normally can’t stand the X-books. But here, everything seems so conventional that it’s hard to believe that Morrison had much to do with it at all. It’s a good solid comic, much better than most the Big Two put out, and it’s perhaps unfair to ask Morrison to wow us with every comic he puts out, but on the other hand, it’s quite obvious that Seven Soldiers is supposed to be a big, bold event, and although this would make for a strong DC miniseries, as part of such an event, it seems lacking. Perhaps things pick up later in the miniseries, but this just doesn’t grab me.
I liked the art a lot more. Cameron Stewart’s style here seems less like his own work on Seaguy, and more akin to the look Chris Weston and Gary Erskine gave The Filth, but even so, it’s an attractive job. His designs are wonderful, with the subway pirates a particular highlight, and I also liked the way that Guardian’s costume has been updated to look less like a superhero leotard and more like that of a riot officer. Given the urban setting of this story, and the occupation of the previous wearer, it’s a highly appropriate move, even if it does evoke comparisons with Judge Dredd.
I may have given the impression that I didn’t like this comic, which is somewhat misleading. I liked it a great deal; it’s a superb comic, truth be told, but given that it’s part of Grant Morrison’s Big Comics Experiment, I just expected a great deal more. This would get four bullets easily under normal circumstances, but it just seems out of place as part of this event.
Subway Pirates terrorizing Manhattan! A leading metropolitan newspaper besieged by gunmen! A family in crisis! Who can save them? The Manhattan Guardian! Jake Jordan, newly-hired living masthead for a proactive daily paper, is happy to have a job, but the superhero life is turning out to be rather more challenging than he’d hoped. Though he’s proven his mettle in a hands-on combat interview for the Oz-like publisher Mr. Stargard, the day-to-day patrolling is taking its toll. The Guardianmobile breaks down in its trial run (“and the Joker got away-ay”). He’s forced to commandeer a bicycle to answer a call of distress. And then, to cap off the Manhattan Guardian’s first day on the job, his wife is abducted by All-Beard the Damned and his merry band.
Manhattan Guardian #1 should come with a wireless controller. There has never been a comic so structured like a videogame. Intro cutscene: Pirates in the subways. Next, introduce the hero and his circumstances. Pan up to the shield atop the Guardian building. Here Jake Jordan becomes playable, and you’ve got to steer him through several floors of recurring enemies before he reaches the big boss, in this case a Golem. Level cleared. The second half of the issue has much the same structure, and it’s rather amusing to read in the sense that there is actually more action (and yet somehow, also more plot) than in the typical action movie. Cameron Stewart’s art contributes greatly to this effect, here highlighting the Golem in a half-page portrait, here speeding things up with ten panels to a page.
This first issue packs it all in: excellent characterization, all-out action, and continuity hints for those few who remember another Guardian playing a regular extra in the Superman books. Mr. Stargard is a bit cartoonish, but he’s meant to be, and as a foil to the imminently well-grounded Jordan should prove a fascinating contrast. Also, Grant Morrison offers a bit of a different spin on the “cop who made a mistake” trope, portraying Jordan as an officer who killed an innocent more or less in cold blood. This makes Manhattan Guardian a story of redemption, a mode Morrison has proven his skill with in books like The Invisibles and his run on JLA.
The Guardian was created in the nineteen-forties by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon. The hero’s real name was Jim Harper, a sterling example of NYPD beat cops. If you grew up reading comic books in the seventies and early eighties, you may have encountered the original blue and gold protector of the Newsboy Legion--ragamuffin newspaper boys of the type often seen in celluloid crying out “Wuxtry!” or the more grammatical “Extra!”--in the Dollar Spectaculars of Detective, Adventure and/or Superman.
The second Guardian was already established as a hero, though he wasn't ironically a colorful one. Mal Duncan of the Teen Titans whose powers were to--er--act black became a new Guardian when he raided the Titans’ memorabilia drawers to power up in order to rescue the Titans from Dr. Light, the incarnation that was not a rapist. From these drawers, Mal pulled out an exoskeleton, which Robin had once used, and from the drawer of Speedy, the alias of Roy Harper, the original Guardian uniform, snappy shield included. Later the reader learns that Roy Harper was Jim Harper’s nephew. Given that Speedy was Green Arrow’s ward, there seems to be a strong indication that the original Guardian died.
Death does not always keep a super-hero down. In the post-Crisis, a new Guardian surfaces in Metropolis. This character is a clone of the original Guardian, created by the now-mature members of the Newsboy Legion that work for Project Cadmus--a government-sponsored research and development program. The cloned Guardian later became an important and engaging supporting character in the pages of the post-Crisis Superboy. Most of the origin of this Guardian is extrapolated from Kirby’s pre-Crisis introduction of the character in his all-encompassing Fourth World saga found in, of all places, Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen.
Grant Morrison bequeaths DC its third Guardian, and I have to admit, that this is the one part of The Seven Soldiers of Victory project that I felt could be simply ordinary. What, after all, can Grant Morrison do to top a clone of the original at Cadmus? Plenty.
Is there nothing immune to Grant Morrison's uncanny creative energy? In Guardian Morrison reanimates the cracked cop plot common in direct-to-video items that littered the shelves of Blockbuster and the pirate movies popular in the day of Errol Flynn. He also adds urban science fiction popularized by such stalwarts as J.G. Ballard and Christopher Fowler.
Our Guardian for the series is an African-American former policeman who lost it when his partner was killed. Unlike others of his lower cinematic ilk who usually turn into terrorizing vigilantes or lunatic criminals, the alliteratively named Jake Jordan presumably got help. Morrison treats his history realistically. Real cops who shoot innocents “in the line of duty” obtain psychological counseling, and more often than not, they end up sane to lead normal, sometimes fractured, lives. Usually if not cleared for duty, they leave the force and wind up as security guards. Jake Jordan who is lucky enough to be a comic book character finds a quite different destiny.
Morrison incorporates Cadmus and the former cloned Guardian in a very bizarre fashion. He brings the Guardian back to his New York roots but through a new twist on another sub-genre, that of the intrepid newsman. There is no doubt in my mind that the classic movie staple of the wise-talking reporter so memorably embodied by Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday and her lower echelon cousins in poverty row cheapies all evolved from spunky Lois Lane and the mild-mannered Clark Kent. With Guardian Morrison comes full circle. Here, the paper sponsors a mascot-hero, and in so doing, the author finds a perfectly rational reason why Jake Jordan would don a costume and why a super-hero would not turn to firearms. All of these elements nevertheless have that wonderful absurd Grant Morrison flavor that we’ve all grown to love.
Morrison brings more tidbits to the table. He fosters the idea of an honest man with an honest job being hero enough to his young wife. It’s such a typically sublime idea that Morrison does ever so well, and naturally, he doesn’t make this very realistic concept remotely boring. He resuscitates the idea of a Newsboy Legion a la Buckaroo Banzai’s Blue Blazers, and he makes all of these rational ideas even more plausible, even if they are not, through the character of Ed Stargard the head of The Guardian newspaper. Stargard quite possibly ties into the seven men who recreate the Tarantula in The Seven Soldiers. It doesn’t really matter if he is part of that cabal. We have all seen wacky ideas promoted by astronomically rich men actually being carried out. A publisher imbued with apparently Branson wealth sponsoring a super-hero isn’t so hard to accept.
As mentioned, here be pirates, but matey, these are not the pirates to which one has become accustomed. Morrison just updates the whole idea of piracy to create a new culture of criminal. Really, you have to read it to believe it. Certain aspects like treasure maps, identification by hirsuteness stay forever unchanged, just upgraded.
It’s, as usual, very easy to ignore Morrison’s creative partner. Cameron Stewart like many other artists simply drowns in the plethora of ideas that Morrison tattoos to the pages. Stewart though, whose work is best mistaken in Catwoman, brings much to The Guardian.
This may be the first time that readers are lucky enough to actually experience Stewart’s own style. While I enjoyed Stewart on Seaguy, his style was often hidden by Morrison’s visual artifacts of the surreal. In Guardian Stewart gets the opportunity to draw ordinary people, butchering pirates that while ghoulish are very much like people you may have the misfortune to meet on the street and a very real, muscular man who just happens to wear the Guardian costume well.
The science fiction elements in Guardian are more soft sociological than hard starship. Even the car Guardian drives isn’t that much more outlandish than the Prowler. Stewart’s art for this book is very much his own rather than imitative or adaptive, and Guardian shows Stewart to be not just a good artist but a consummate artist capable of drawing anything and any one of any ethnicity.
Morrison and Stewart just completely knock you out of your socks. This is a fine new addition to the myth of the Guardian and another of Law’s Legionnaires worth seeking out.
Synopsis: Jake Jordan has lost his self-respect. A former police officer, the pressures of the job broke him, leading him to take a rash action that haunts him daily. Unemployed and becoming estranged from his lover, he is in need of redemption. It is found in the ad of a local gossip rag, the Manhattan Guardian. They are looking to employ a “big, tough guy.” Could this be him? After an unforgettable job interview, Jake finds his world suffused with opportunity, but there is danger as well.
Beneath the mundane world of the streets, a strange subterranean realm exists. A bizarre world where pirates roam along the subway lines and secret routes lead to hidden treasures. As chaos grows in the world below, the Guardian finds himself leaving the sunny streets of the world above to save his loved ones from the turmoil that threatens their lives.
"What I really want is a living masthead, a breathing embodiment of the Guardian creed."
The story is well balanced between all aspects of narrative. The plot is tightly structured. The characterization is efficient yet effective. Setting is superbly realized. Mood is coherent and engaging. Finally, the thematic qualities are as powerful and deep as one expects from Morrison. Together this is great storytelling.
The plot is structured in a simple five scene structure. The first scene introduces the antagonists and the overall conflict of the story, a chase through the secret tunnels, no doubt, in search of “treasure.” The second scene introduces the protagonist and his current sorry state. The third scene is the crux of this issue; here the protagonist undergoes a trial to display his worthiness for redemption. The next two scenes are reflections of the first two. In scene three, we see Jake transformed by hope and opportunity. In scene five, we return to the pirates, but, this time, their depredations are interrupted by the protagonist; it's a scene that ends in a dramatic cliffhanger.
Morrison’s approach to characterization is a breeze of fresh air. The current comic tradition is to drag out a character’s ascension to superheroism as long as possible. We are offered endless talking heads and tiresome mundane drama long before we get to see the “hero” do anything “super.” Heck, sometimes an introductory issue passes without them taking on the iconic mantle of the costume, or perhaps it’s relegated to a final panel. Morrison doesn’t succumb to this aesthetic laziness. With efficiency he lays out his protagonist's situation, flaws, virtues, and desires. Then he puts this characterization in action! Yes, Jordan can express his emotions while doing things. Moreover, he can still be Jake Jordan even while wearing a mask. There's no "I'm interested in the man, not the mask" type of fustian in this book. A good writer realizes that the "man" retains integrity of Self even while assuming the iconic stature of the "mask."
It's the setting that really has me excited. I love the sub-subgenre of subterranean urban fantasy. Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, Lisa Goldstein's Dark Cities Underground, and China Mieville's King Rat are classics of the genre that I dearly adore. In nonfiction, Benson Bobrick's Labyrinths of Iron is a splendid read that details both the history and mythology of subways. The setting that this issue has established holds promise to be just as exciting and wondrous. As the pirate "D" train from the 205th street Concourse goes speeding out of the 8th street station, I'm filled with anticipation to see what hidden routes are to be found in the mysterious world below.
The mood is one of high adventure and pulpy action, but with a mysterious, mythical quality that underlies it. In terms of the written narrative, the standards of "pirate" adventure are all present, from the secret map to a variant form of keelhauling to a clean guardian of order opposing the dirty scum of chaos. But it's the art that gives it all a visceral feel. Stewart gives rich detail to the setting, powerful facial and stance expressions to the characters, and lays out the page composition with an astute sense of pacing. The adventure is fast and furious, but dramatic pauses give the reader a sense of rising conflict and resolution.
"Jettison your inner demons, Jake. There's a nightmare on the 'N' line."
What makes this issue transcend mere pulpy entertainment is the thematic potency of its premise. An add in a local tabloid has an silhouette of a "heroic" man and poses the question "Could this be you?" No matter how low you are emotionally, the "common man" holds the potential to become great, to transcend limitations and become a "hero." A man of the people may aspire to become a Guardian of the people and, through heroic actions, realize their aspirations.
But there is a symbolic, mystical element to this premise as well. The Guardian is a living masthead of his patrons creed. His patron is an omnipresent, disembodied intellect that has offered redemption to the fallen protagonist. Through the Guardian the patron brings protection to the meek. This sounds a bit Biblical. Here's an interesting quote: "But let us, who are of the day, be sober, putting the breastplate of faith and love; and for a helmet, the hope of salvation" (I Thessalonians 5:18). Here's another: "Above all, taking the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked" (Ephesian 6:16). In the comic, Jordan's moment of redemption comes when the "armor of righteousness" is set before him. It is upon acceptance that he transforms for just another man to a Guardian Angel of the people.
Let's play some word games now. The Guardian is a living masthead. Given the themes introduced by the pirates, we can reinterpret the term masthead from its journalistic significance to a nautical one; he is the masthead of a ship. Well, what's a famous ship from the Bible? Well, there's an Ark that survives a great flood. But Noah's isn't the only ark of significance in Scripture. There's the one that holds the Ten Commandments, the Ark of the Covenant. Therefore, the Guardian is symbolically the embodiment of Divine Order.
Let's merge these thematic concepts together. According to the medieval theologian, Thomas Aquinas, a Guardian Angel is the lowest level of the Angelic Hierarchy, which continually interacts with both the mortal and the divine simultaneously. According to the Kabbalah, the lowest Sefirot, Malchut or Kingship, holds a similar status in the ontological expression of the Divine. The commonality of both systems is in the taking of actions, deeds, and expressions within the mortal realm. That's also where the Hero is actualized, through deeds. With good works, the Hero transcends the mundane. "This is the gate to God, the righteous shall enter through it" (Psalms 118:20).
Throughout human mythology, Heroes have been the intermediary between the mundane and the transcendent. The modern trend of banal protagonists and action-free adventures has robbed the genre of the iconic vitality that constitutes its soul, its core premise. Morrison unabashedly offers a thematic integrity that contains vast wealth, both in the superficial elements of entertainment and in the deeper process of conveying ideas. I highly recommend this issue.
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