Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Book Review: StormWatch: Change or Die

A superhuman flys over New York City, alighting in front of the United Nations building. Tearing the flags of every member nation down, he burns them while television cameras roll.

"Consider this symbolic of our greater intention," he says. "Do please film this."

It's the defining scene in what is one of the best anarchist storylines in mainstream comics history. Yet because the words "anarchy" and "anarchism" are never spoken, it has passed without the notice given to it's more famous counterpart, V for Vendetta. I should warn readers that numerous spoilers will now follow.

The storyline, Change or Die, was written in the late 1990s by Warren Ellis for the conventional superhero comic series, StormWatch. It capped off the first segment of Ellis's run on the series, and was a key precursor to his much more famous series, The Authority.

The story is essentially a tragedy. Two groups of heroes face off against one another, while cynical manipulators from among their own ranks sabotage a chance for peace, and possibly utopia.

StormWatch was a comic created during the mid-1990s, and was one of many Wildstorm company titles which, frankly, were pretty derivative of each other and of Marvel's many mutant X-team books. StormWatch was slightly different, in that its heroes were employees of the United Nations. As superhuman blue helmets, they hailed from many nations and fought superhuman terrorists, alien invasions and so forth. When Warren Ellis, a thoroughly insane British comic scribe took over the title, he revamped it thoroughly. Many of the superfluous team members were axed, and Ellis began creating his own strange characters. The oddest was Jenny Sparks, a London-based superhero with the ability to transform into and control electricity. Born at midnight on January 1, 1900, Sparks is the "Spirit of the 20th Century." There was also Jack Hawksmoor, a man who could communicate with cities, and Rose Tattoo, a beautiful, mute female assassin.

At the storyline's beginning, a masked vigilante tries to assassinate Jenny Sparks. She survives and demands a meeting with StormWatch's leader, Henry Bendix, the "Weatherman." Bendix is busy with his own crisis, however. The High, a former superhero who has been sitting motionless on a mountaintop for a decade, has vanished. Bendix believes The High plans some kind of attack.

The High has in fact joined a group of like-minded superheros for a major project. They want to end poverty and government at a stroke. Tired of fighting the same problems over and over, they want to strike at the root of what is wrong with society.
His message is simple, and not only needs to be heard, but needs to be incised into the Earth -

"Think for yourself and question authority."

And if you can think for yourself, what do you need authority for?

Comic book enthusiasts might not have recognized the underlying ideology of the story, but they recognized The High and his compatriots immediately. The High has all the powers, and a similar origin to Superman. His allies include the vigilante Blind (Batman), Rite, a female warrior (Wonder Woman), The Engineer, a nano-tech specialist who can make anything (Green Lantern) The Doctor, a shaman (Dr. Fate) and others. All are recognizeable comics archetypes, and together, they mimic the Justice League of America.

Ellis uses the comparison to both satirize the JLA (whose members have never questioned the authority of the world's governments) and to contrast the outsized idealism of Golden Age superheroes with the realpolitik of the StormWatch team.

The High and his league announce they will give away their power and knowledge - handing over the ability to make anything with nanotech, teaching magic and sharing new ways of living. Bendix, an idealist long since turned authoritarian, sends his team after The High's on a killing mission. Things go badly despite the efforts of some of the StormWatch team to defy their orders and ally themselves with The High. Rogue members of both teams have committed atrocities to reach their goals. In a violent confrontation, heroes are killed and the knowledge and promise The High offered is lost.

There are a few plot holes and artistic gaffes that mark the book. Ellis seemed to lose track of what some of the characters thought about Blind, in particular, and whether or not The High expected him to use torture. It's still worth reading. StormWatch: Change or Die is collected in the trade paperback collection of the same name.

I have no idea whether Ellis considers himself an anarchist or not, but he definitely has an anti-authoritarian streak that resurfaces again and again. Check out his Transmetropolitan stories too, they're the best thing he's ever written.

Update A quote attributed to Ellis, about Transmetropolitan (from Wikiquote): I have attempted to reflect this in TRANSMET: the understanding that the world can be neither perfect nor doomed. But that it can be better. And the people who get to decide if it's going to be better or not are the people who show up and raise their voices.

1 comment:

Peter said...

If you look at the very, very early Superman comics, and by that I mean not just pre-Comics Code but before WWII, Superman didn't fight alien invasions or even mad scientists. He fought mobsters and lynch mobs and war profiteers. He had a leftist, New Deal-era idealism that the world could be changed for the better.

From a story-telling perspective, if Superman really did try to change the world, you'd end up with something like Superman: Red Son, Marvelman/Miracleman or Watchman. There's no continuing story, and the world would rapidly become unrecognizable.