Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Black Summer #0

Black Summer #0, May 2007, Avatar Press
writer: Warren Ellis
artist: Juan Jose Ryp
colorist: Mark Sweeney
letterer: Mark Seifert

I've been keeping an eye on the twenty-four hour news cycle and listening to partisan talk radio for over a decade now. I'm as much a fan of Jon Stewart's steadfast stance on the left as I am Dennis Miller's recent swerve to the right, and I admire Stephanie Miller's secular humanism as much as I'm entertained by Bill O'Reilly's self righteousness. Despite these pundits' grip on my perceptions of the world, and their respective ability to sway me one way or another on any given day, I have yet to embrace one side completely, to claim one political affiliation exclusively as my own. The contemporary political realm is by no means as black and white as the struggle between good and evil in comic books; in fact, a few years ago, DC Comics went so far as to elect its greatest villain the President, blurring fantasy and reality while distinguishing right and wrong with even greater contrast. Now, Warren Ellis intends to shake things up a bit. In his new series by Avatar Press, even superheroes can't tell black from white anymore, lost in a political spectrum of ever increasing gray.

Forget about red states and blue states, man. This is going to be a Black Summer . . .

As I’ve mentioned in A Comic A Day before, I’m a subscriber to Warren Ellis’ “Bad Signal,” a stream of consciousness e-mailer from Ellis that threatens to flood your inbox daily, if he’s in the musing mood. Today, Ellis warned that Black Summer #0 was selling out in comic shops across the country, so I promptly called my closest store (not even the one I frequent!) to secure a copy after work. Reasonably priced at ninety-nine cents, Black Summer is a series begging to be read, not just because of its affordability, but because of its applicability to the current political climate. Though I stand by my political ambiguity, and wholeheartedly condone constructive criticism of a governing body as an inherent democratic right, I believe that satirical sensibilities have flooded the marketplace of ideas and overwhelmed some potentially useful analysis. In other words, while The Colbert Report is hilarious satire, challenging the rigidity of some thought processes in America, Comedy Central’s most recent foray into animation Li’l Bush is transparent spoof, distilling the equivalent of a one gag political cartoon into a half hour mockery of our current political paradigm. I defend the network’s right to produce it, but that doesn’t mean I can’t think it’s useless.

What does this have to do with Black Summer? Well, everything. See, in this first issue (albeit numbered zero), a beloved hero, formerly of the Seven Guns, a disgraced and disbanded team of adventuring scientists, effortlessly and quietly assassinates the President and many in his cabinet, then takes his podium to proclaim his noble intentions to the country. Set in the context of September 11th and the controversial war in Iraq, hero John Horus explains, “It is my belief that this administration stole the last two elections, and that we are living under the governance of criminals . . . This isn’t a terrorist act. This isn’t a coup. This is simply one man ending the freedom of criminals dangerous to our country.” Yes, Black Summer stars Michael Moore as a superhero, basically. While Ellis’ material is essentially, intentionally unfunny satire, twisting real circumstances to present a different perspective, this premise is also deadly serious. How many among us are just a superpower away from taking these matters into their own hands?

As a comic book, Black Summer #0 is a highly engaging read, not just because of the delicate subject matter, but thanks to Ellis’ ever-quirky dialogue and Juan Jose Ryp’s artwork, which actually looks like every other artist I’ve seen illustrate for Ellis under the Avatar banner: a Frank Quitely meets Paul Gulacy attention to detail, yet holding back a certain macabre in the human form, a bestial quality. The supplemental sketchbook and editorial sections are appreciated for the meager dollar cover price, but, to be fair, Ellis’ ideas aren’t as unique as he’d like us to think. Frank Miller’s take on Captain America has always reflecting a “patriot without a country” paradigm, particularly in the Daredevil: Born Again story arc. (What does Cap say when he caresses the flag? “I don’t work for the government, I work for the dream,” something like that? Na├»ve but overwhelming poignant!) Further, a superhero assassinating the President was tackled, in all places, on the Justice League animated series featuring the Justice Lords. In Black Summer, Ellis has simply given us All-Star Justice Lords Superman (oh, I loved typing that) – sans the weight of any continuity other than our own. The challenge is, while Ellis and Ryp wisely garbed our hero in white, is he really the knight we’ve been waiting for?

Speaking of Captain America, interestingly, in the midst of an election year and these politically turbulent times, Marvel has opted to take the Sentinel of Liberty out of the spotlight for a while, via the context of some in-house crossover epic of all things. Short-sightedness or biting commentary on our country’s lack of direction, I’m not sure.

Additionally, a quick thought on an issue #0. Though I don’t know when the #0 phenomenon began, I can only assume it was made more popular by DC’s Zero Hour event years ago, in which creative teams sought to reestablish key characters’ origins with a prequel issue to their ongoing series. For new series like Robinson’s Starman, the effort seemed worthwhile, but the presumption of creating an issue that would precede Superman #1 or Batman #1 is pompous and preposterous, if only the issue didn't supplement a current issue and was appropriately co-numbered (Batman #515-A, for example). In a recent Bad Signal, Ellis encouraged readers to buy Black Summer #0 because it is critical to the ongoing story, not the footnote is numbering implies. So, why not just dub it #1? As first issues go, this one’s definitely a grabber, and its heady material compensates for the chapter’s lack in length; these eight pages (which surprised me when I counted) read like twice that. Warren Ellis offers his two cents for a mere ninety-nine, and, well, I guess those are the only numbers that count, anyway.

So Comedy Central is producing a cartoon called Li’l Bush. Ronald Reagan’s diaries are already in the fourth printing, dominating the bookstands. Republican and Democratic hopefuls are volleying shifting opinions on global warming and illegal immigration just to score the highest office in the free world. And now Warren Ellis threatens to show us what a post 9-11 America with superheroes would really look like. I still don’t know which side to choose, but even if I haven’t had a penchant for the news, I (and all of us, I believe) certainly can’t afford to live in the dark anymore . . . no matter how black the summer.

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