January 12th, 2009

there!, Hello

Black Summer

3) Black Summer by Warren Ellis and Juan Jose Ryp (2008, Avatar Press, 192 pages)

Some might opine that super hero graphic novels will continue to live in the shadow of Alan Moore's Watchmen and Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns for the foreseeable future. Short sighted and absolutely pessimistic; however, there is a degree of truth to these arguments. Case in point: Black Summer.

Here we open with a press conference, but instead of the President of the United States taking the podium, a blood covered superhero (John Horus of the tech enhanced group, Seven Guns) takes the stage instead. He confesses to murdering the President, the Vice President, several advisors. He claims they were criminals, and the charges he places at their feet leaves no illusion that these unseen victims are Bush and Chaney. Horus calls for free elections, for people to voice their opinions about a new leader. It was done, he claims, for the good of the country. Unfortunately, this is not the widely held view, and John Horus' actions place himself and his former allies in positions of extreme danger.

What follows is a heart rending mess, wherein the U.S. military discovers just how outmatched it is (by six people), wherein conspiracies (revolving around the Seven Guns project) are laid bare, and mental states disintegrate. Essentially, we have a gedunken here, a provocative thought experiment about preemptive strikes, personal and social morality, and questions of humanity. This is satire delivered through an emotionally honest lens. While the finale is somewhat pat (if not predictable) getting there offers some nicely written (and drawn) characters and ideas (amidst great buckets of gruesome carnage).

The artwork is very busy. Each panel is jam packed with nice touches and details. There is so much going on that sometimes the principal action is overshadowed ("wait, what?" moments requiring some deciphering). Graphic violence has never looked quite so chaotic as it does in Black Summer. Several panels linger in my memory long after the book is closed. One panel (not even a hectic two page spread) sums the experience up for me. This panel features a beleaguered military responding to the Seven Guns. Here, handful of troops are granted emotional individuality. They are not all gung-ho carbon clones, they are not all scared kids. Each of them is slightly different, responding to the violence in delightfully different fashion, expressing everything from machismo to terror to agony as well as subtle mixes of these emotions in nicely rendered form. I love a busy panel, something I need some time (or revisits) to grasp completely; Ryp offers these in ludicrous numbers.

With all these strengths, I nevertheless began to wonder if the book offered anything more than was already found in Watchmen/V for Vendetta/Dark Knight Returns. Not a fair comparison, I know. However, it's a valid one. The answer is: no. At the end of the book, when all the arguments have played out, we see a group of conflicting individual philosophies driving against each other as well as Society, positioned upon a bright colored panorama of the superheroic. The story remains mythologically resonant (certainly updated for the first decade of the 21st century), but it's still terribly familiar. Exciting, certainly. Mentally stimulating, yes. But a thematic retread, nevetheless.

Does this make for an inferior reading experience? Depends on what the reader is looking for. I found it to be an entertaining enough (and thoughtful) distraction. Then again that's all I was really hoping for.