Warren Ellis' Black Summer dismembers the status quo

Black Summer is a graphic novel about a superhero killing the President of the United States. This isn’t some spoiler. In fact, it’s quite evident by the book’s cover - John Horus, a man in white, stands in the middle of the Oval Office, hands covered in the blood of the president and his advisors.

Originally released as eight single issue comics back in 2007, Black Summer, penned by Warren Ellis and penciled by Juan Jose RYP, is a superhero story in the same tar-filled vein as Alan Moore’s Watchmen, in that it's a stand alone story that challenges the modern notion of a superhero. However, this alone really isn’t too revolutionary – most modern comics flirt with the deconstruction of superheroes. What really serves as the book’s hook is that it manages to retain a sick sense of fun - rare among most “dark” hero books - thanks to the story’s world and the ideas at play.

Accordingly, the world of Black Summer is just like that of Watchmen on steroids: it’s a world much like our own, aside from a lone collective of heroes ready to defend the innocent. This time, however, they have superpowers produced through drugs and surgical implants (no, seriously). Just like Watchmen, Black Summer’s story is self-contained, and credit has to be given to Ellis’ writing for the use of flashbacks and strategically placed conversations for making the backstory artfully accessible. However, it’s not as immersive as Watchmen, whose onslaught of fictional documents and newspaper passages was a five-foot thick layer of immersive whale blubber, with some elements of the story falling by the wayside to make way for the sexy violence.

In the mist of pulverized bone a story is developed around a superhuman vigilantly group, The Seven Guns: a group of once idealistic individuals who constructed their own superpowers through various methods and applications of bio-mechanical implants and nanotechnology. Despite their superhuman abilities, mechanical modifications, and flashy suits, the core of the ethical weight of the story is supported by the fact that these superhumans are too human.

As the world’s only superhuman team, and originally comprised of young politically-minded inventors, The Seven Guns started off as a vigilantly force against police and government corruption. Years of pissing off the CIA and other groups of greater governmental authority have taken their toll on the current group, and they are nothing short of strained. After losing the public’s favour by failing to stop the 9/11 attacks and a CIA planned car bomb that both injured their leader, Tom Noir, and killed member Laura Torch (Tom’s love interest), we are introduced to The Seven Guns when they are at their physically and emotionally weakest. It’s at this point where Horus decides to damn himself in the eyes of the American people. 

What follows John’s actions is a nation in hysterics, even his (now ex) teammates wax chaotic about what to do to him, because he's changed things. Reunited out of fear of the government’s retaliation, The Seven Guns plan their course of action, whether that be to support John Horus or hunt him down and kill him. Characters’ emotional struggles are further exacerbated by the introduction of a new Government-run supergroup sent in to destroy the broken remains of The Seven Guns. Sadly enough, it’s at this point where the more radical aspects of the story’s point are streamlined for the sexy action. Having said that, the action scenes themselves are rendered in such cartoonish detail by Jose RYP that this could almost be forgiven. Pure actions scenes are also a rarely accredited skill of Warren Ellis’, whose writing ability in the set-up and execution of such grand scale violence is truly impressive. Yet, as impressive as most of the action and fight scenes are, they tend to distract from the story’s main theme and message in an attempt to merely push the plot along.

As weak as the plot can be at times, the strength shines through as it becomes more clear that this is a story focused on humans under superhuman conditions changing their worldview. It is specifically mentioned that these people were, at least when they started The Seven Guns, liberals. This is due in part to Ellis’ own political leanings, but the fact that this is mentioned so many times cements Black Summer even further into the core of the book’s purpose: the superhero political debate. Comics, specifically superhero comics, have traditionally been fundamentally conservative because superheroes represent one grand message - respect the status quo. Since the Golden Age, superhero comics have flirted with propaganda much like any other form of artistic medium. Unsurprisingly enough, any form of subtlety found in those other mediums gets kicked in the face with a star-spangled leather boot and force-fed a fist. Ever since Captain America beat up Richard Nixon (thinly veiled as a fictional character), mainstream comics have served as soapboxes to their creators, but the subtext of superheroes have always been the same. Their protection of the status quo is what makes them so popular. They fight to help keep everything as it is, as the firm hand of authority that has the power to state which shades of gray are black or white.

Despite what trends in some modern and indie comics display in the way of political message (the average working comic writer and/or artist tends to swing to the left), the actual message and symbol of authority’s rule is still the norm for modern superheroes.

Some characters have even been created to both satirize and expand the concept to levels of extreme fascism as a common trait in superheroes. Judge Dredd comes to mind – his word is Law and his fist/gun/boot heel is your judgement, and so forth. Even within this Watchmen-influenced deconstructionist-dark age of comics, few superheroes directly challenge the status quo. At least, not in the way that Ellis like to.

Black Summer water boards the status quo in blood for several hours before it even asks the first question. Within the opening prologue we are introduced to a blood drenched John Horus, active leader of The Seven Guns, as he explains to the White House press room why he just killed the President of the United States. “We’re supposed to fight evil,” Horus calmly states, displaying either utter conviction in his actions or the symptoms of a crazy person. Things start to hit close to home as he furthers his reason by stating his belief that the Iraq war “is illegal and predicated on lies”, based on corporate gain, and accuses them of torturing civilians and stealing elections. It is made abundantly clear that John is character who feels forced into his position. Although tyrannical and violent in his methods, John ultimately is a human who cares too much about saving the day.

//Sam Macdonald
opinions editor

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