I finally picked up the collected trade paperback of Warren Ellis’ Black Summer, only to discover that my American Prospect cover story from last year, which discussed Black Summer as part of the trend of post-9/11 politicized comics, is quoted on the back cover. As a longtime and, let’s just say highly committed fan of Ellis’ ouvre, I regard this as pretty awesome.
Since this is also the first time I’ve actually gotten around to reading the final couple issues of the series—which was still ongoing at the time my Prospect piece appeared—this also seems like a good opportunity to note that Ellis deftly avoided, as I had hoped he might, the problem of embedded ideology that so often plagues the authors of poltiically-inflected superhero stories. I won’t spoil the denoument for those who might yet read it, but I’ll say that Ellis actually ends up targeting precisely the sort of reductionism, the valorization of violence and “great men” imbued with “moral clarity,” and the vaguely fascist undertones that are part and parcel of the genre. So let me retroactively say that my broad-brush claim that most of the politicized stories I discuss “fail” should not be applied to Black Summer.
More generally, and this is something I should have stressed in that article, the problem of embedded ideology I discussed there is in large part a function of what Doug Wolk aptly described as the obligation to “not break the toys.” You can only do so much detourning when you’re working, in continuity, with a stable of established characters who have to mostly survive in familiar form and be viable for the next writer to take over a book. I think this is why when we reflect on the really legendary superhero stories, they tend to either use original characters who are alegorically recognizable as more familiar icons, but who can be dispensed with after a limited run (Watchmen, Squadron Supreme, Miracleman) or use the established characters out of normal continuity (The Dark Knight Returns, Kingdom Come). That opens up all sorts of possibilities that are foreclosed when, at the end of the day, you’ve got to finish your story arc with the status quo ante either preserved or easily retrievable.