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Thesis of the Lawman Part III: The Master Operative

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Thesis of the Lawman Part III: The Master Operative

Things had changed. A new age dawned. And for once, things wouldn’t actually be the same.

Welcome to Thesis of the Lawman, a series at AIPT that will trace the evolution of the modern 21st century superhero comic through the lens of Green Lantern, look at the descent into militarization and the shifts in framing, cop narratives and the baggage they come with and having to wrestle with the fascistic nature of institutions.

Lawman. That’s a curious term. It’s one that comes loaded with implications. Here, in this series, we’ll be taking a good, long look at the very idea of this figure of law and how it ties in with the nature of the modern hero. Where does the lawman stand in the nexus of superhero mythology as we know it?

Moving through various ages, movements, influences, and works, the series will eventually culminate at the current state of The Green Lantern, as molded by Grant Morrison and Liam Sharp, which serves as the focal point for a lot of the ideas that’ll be explored here. We’ll be diving into everything from the Marvel Cinematic Universe and sci-fi television to Grant Morrison and the overall macro-narrative of modern superhero stories, sparing no medium. Even if you have absolutely no interest in a property like Green Lantern, there’s likely gonna be enough of superheroic history here to keep you reading.

Listen to the latest episode of our weekly comics podcast!

It’s gonna be a long ride. But stick around for the whole thing if you’re into Borges, religious ideas, chivalric romance, Don Quixote and wanna know what any of them have to do with a space cop in superhero comics.

Let’s continue.

Thesis of the Lawman Part III: The Master Operative

I am The World’s Policeman. –  Henry Bendix

III- The Ellis Arrival

Thesis of the Lawman Part III: The Master Operative

Warren Ellis wasn’t very big on superheroes. He was a 2000 AD bloke, growing up reading any and all the science-fiction he could get his hands on. American superheroes weren’t quite his thing. He’d rather read a solid Judge Dredd with his old mate Garth Ennis. He’d rather make and tell his own stories, his own unique comics than write costumed IP beating the snot out of one another. But the reality was that superheroes were big, they made money, and more importantly, they made you a name. And so Ellis dove headfirst into the superhero. He had to learn to care for them by examining their history, doing his homework. But no matter what, his interests lay in using the superhero as a vehicle for other things, larger concerns or ideas, relevant issues he was mulling over, as opposed to just telling another story of these capes. And so that’s what he did when he arrived on Stormwatch, a Jim-Lee Image comics joint..

In 1996, the new Stormwatch hit like an explosion, a bomb impossible to contain. Warren Ellis had made his presence known. Instantly, with a superhuman antagonist quoting Frederick Nietzsche’s words on The Superman, Ellis established many of the thematic preoccupations and interests he would be wrestling with over his his entire decades-spanning career.

At the heart of Stormwatch’s narrative was The Weatherman, Henry Bendix, who watched all the happenings of the Earth from Skywatch, a space-base not unlike the Justice League’s Watchtower. Stormwatch was a special team designed to, well, watch all superhuman affairs and deal with them when necessary, with Bendix at the helm. This is where it gets interesting.

If just a decade earlier, Moore asked ‘Who watches the Watchmen?‘, Ellis answered ‘Stormwatch does.’ or even more aptly ‘The Weatherman does.‘. That is what they do, that is what this team is for, to watch. Instantly you had a text that was a response to Watchmen and all came of it, one that was willing to engage and was a very clear product of that Post-Watchmen period. The connection was made even more explicit and clear through a giant homage cover:

Thesis of the Lawman Part III: The Master Operative

And in said issue, Ellis, alongside his astonishing collaborator Tom Raney, charted the very history of comics. They took you from the Buck Rogers-esque pulpy roots of the ’30s, the street superheroics of the ’40s, the noir detective work of the ’50s, the space age marvels of the 60s’, the weird acidic frenzy of the ’70s to the reflective period of Watchmen’s the ’80s. Then they went past that, the messiness of all that, and by the end arrived back to the 90s era where Stormwatch was set. They reminded the reader of the real message, and point of Watchmen– that despite all the messes, the pain, the trickery, conspiracies, and human cynicism, you could still see the stars. There were and always would be good things, good people, the things worth fighting for, protecting and that is the point, that is the humanist heart to latch onto.

But that spirit was contrasted with that of Henry Bendix, who was every bit the successor to Ozymandias as you may expect. The man watching from the screens, ever planning, ever scheming, always controlling the narrative and shape it’s allowed to take.

Thesis of the Lawman Part III: The Master Operative

Ellis’s vision of the superhero then can be considered ‘obvious’ now, but it was fresh in the moment. If Watchmen and TDKR posited that superheroes served government approved agencies and programs and were, in essence, military forces, Ellis’ Stormwatch said ‘Let’s run with that, properly.’ So you get that opening line immediately stating the purpose of Bendix and Stormwatch: These guys are cops. They are the world’s policeman. They are the ones who watch the watchmen.

Even the telling of the stories was informed by this, as Warren Ellis did something massive: He made superhero comics into cop shows. The heroes were all officers with their badges and licenses, they had to deal with lots of red tape and other messes, corruption was rife and there were things like budget restrictions. It was superheroics as a job, it was superhero storytelling as cop stories. There’s a crime scene, these guys show up and they deal with the mess. There was a procedural element to this, with issue standing well on its own, as a larger arc was built. You got to know a lot of these ‘officers’ pretty well. And that makes sense, yes? In a post-X-Files world, in a post-Watchmen world, that tracks completely.

Thus superhero titles were cemented as ‘codenames’, as Ellis, Raney and the team established a world of espionage and horrific superhuman horror, playing the superhero as something closer to an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D./U.N.C.L.E./T.H.U.N.D.E.R. or even MI6, with Bendix as the Nick Fury or M. And in so doing, Ellis laid out the threats for this vision of the superhero, too. It wasn’t just some supervillain, it was large systems and groups that felt unstoppable, but had to be taken on. Thus the first big recurring threat of Stormwatch? Why, the American Government, of course.

And that tracks given ‘the world’s policeman’ is how America has seen itself for a long time. Here you have a British writer, an outsider, able to look at that and examine, with an institution and concept (Stormwatch) that is a distinct product of American ideas and values, led by an American. Further threats of the crew involves Doomsday Cults, Nationalists, The Secret Service and Terrorists, with a massive global scale. You even had Super-Cops as a key threat, to bring the whole cops aspect to the forefront. And through it all, Ellis’ big obsession revealed itself, that which he would wrestle with for ages: Change. What is it to truly save the world? Is it really saving anything if you’re not actually changing it? The only way to actually save the world is to change it and so various forces represented either the opposition of that ideal or the most horrific, nightmarish extreme. You also had numerous parties and factions trying to militarize the superhuman and make their own legions of super-soldiers to go to war.

But at the same time, as Stormwatch hit in 1996, pushing forth Ellis’ vision, something else arrived, too. And it was massive:

Thesis of the Lawman Part III: The Master Operative

Alex Ross and Mark Waid’s seminal reactionary text in the Image Age was a blockbuster that represented a different strain of superhero storytelling. If Ellis wanted to take the Image hero and use him as a vehicle, a device, for change and thus alter said hero to make something new, to present different things, Waid/Ross’ vision was different. It was steeped in the love of old, with the ultimate face of the old, Superman, the ur-daddy of superheroics at the center of it all. It displayed a world where Superman was irrelevant, rejected, cast aside, in favor of a new, different younger generation of heroes, namely The Image Generation. The fiery dudes with guns, swords and other militaristic tools who’d happily kill.

Kingdom Come is a book that is deeply paternalistic towards the new vision of a hero, looking down, judging, with the understanding and knowledge that the old is unquestionably better, no matter what any fool below thinks or assumes. It pins a lot of the blame on The Image Warrior and all that he represents and brought about and desperately wishes for this period to end. But simultaneously, it’s a book where the old has become warped and monstrous as well, even if they don’t realize it, as Batman rules Gotham like a fascist, Wonder Woman is now a ‘warrior’ who murders and will kill happily, urging Superman to go the extra mile and do that thing he’s restraining himself from and Superman himself would build a gulag of sorts to house all the young people he’d caught, as the image of his face beamed in to try to tell them ‘how it should be done’. In the end, it’s this Ragnarok-esque vision of the DC and superhero mythology, as the old and the new, the past and the present clash against one another in a final battle and from its ashes, a new future had to arise.

After all was said and done, the work’s ending saw The Trinity (Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman) sitting about in a restaurant called Planet Krypton, draped in and covered with superhero iconography, memorabilia and references, in plain clothes, discussing their future. Their old costumes weren’t present here, those classic painted on ‘This is their classic look and this is how they would look’ images of hyper-reality were put aside, as they sat about dressed in outfits that were more casual and less ‘uniforms’. This then represented what was to come, eventually, especially in the new century. The end of the old and the shift to the new. But that wouldn’t begin quite there, either, that would take time. Waid’s part was over, it was to be others’ now.

Thesis of the Lawman Part III: The Master Operative

Flex Mentallo by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely was another major book of 1996. It was also, of course, another massive response work of the Post-Watchmen/TDKR period. A story about fiction and reality, how superheroes matter to us and help us, while charting a character journey, which intertwined with various comics eras, through childhood, adolescence and adulthood. It posited that, yes, while we could see armadas of heroes doing heinous things, see those who will always give up on us and flee, it might be more productive to imagine something better than that, something kinder than that, both for them and thus us. And that idea, that mission statement is vital, because the next year saw another different blockbuster strike. This one would change the game big time.

Thesis of the Lawman Part III: The Master Operative

Grant Morrison and Howard Porter kicked off JLA and this was a flagship that re-wrote and re-defined how you did books like these. Playing the Justice League as a modern Knights Of The Round Table, with The Watchtower as their Camelot, Morrison reveled the mythic spirit of the concept and the universe they inhabited. These were divine ideas who were there to imagine a better way, face the darkest fears of our corrupt consciousnesses and ultimately, catch us when we fall. The JL is a fictional idea, they cannot change the world, not the actual world. They can’t have any meaningful impact beyond how they make you feel and think. That’s the only way they’re real and that’s the only value they have. And so instead what they can be is symbolic figures representing real things, true feelings of concepts we all understands, just writ large on a massive canvas. Metaphorical dramas of the consciousness playing out in pop-spirit on the page.

That was the Morrisonian superhero. Not some cop, not some military task force, but divine heroes, a pantheon, who lived on the moon, which is significant, because the moon represents imagination, the realm of Yesod on The Kabbalistic Tree Of Life. That’s where they rest, that’s their home and their place. (Note: We’ll be leaning more towards to the Western Occult tradition’s perspective and understanding here in the series than the Jewish roots.)

Now, while all this was happening, Ellis decided to use that, to play into that and tap into the power of the new iconography that Morrison’s JLA was emphasizing.

Thesis of the Lawman Part III: The Master Operative

In a cataclysmic finale to wrap up his first run on Stormwatch, having slowly built to it, Ellis pit the team against…The Justice League. And not just any JL, but a league draped in the iconography of Morrison/Porter’s, down to that mythic round table and the impossibly elevated nature. Ellis’ Superman-pastiche, The High, was a take on the original socialist Superman concept. The story saw this team of heroes who resembled Morrison’s JLA but were radically different. They weren’t the genuinely aspirational, good people, those who’d transcended the worst parts of themselves. Only The High even came close to that, as the roster’s Batman, The Blind, dressed up like JRJR’s early Daredevil to homage Frank Miller’s work on both and the general archetype, was an absolutely mad supervillain and you had a whole assortment of messed up people. These old archetypal figures were messy, which not even The High, in all his idealism, could not see. The corruption was built into a lot of the superheroes.

The key was, however, they represented a desire for change. The High, this socialist hero, had thought and formulated a plan for decades to change the world, to thus truly save it. Not just punch criminals and keep the terrible system and serve the military industrial complex, but to truly make it something else. With the fitting title of Change Or Die, the tale saw The High and his idealism, his socialist vision for what could’ve been, the real possibility of change, being crushed under the foot of the terrible tragedy that is human messiness. Human nature will accept no change, no matter how great, how wonderful, unless it’s change on THEIR terms and no others’.

Thesis of the Lawman Part III: The Master Operative

In a sense the arc then is Stormwatch’s own Kingdom Come of sorts, only just…better, given it’s Warren Ellis writing and doing it with the freedom of not having to deal with the icons. He could break his toys in ways the icons simply never could be and do more with the archetypal pastiches, to better serve the story being told. In the end, it all served to deliver home a harder point. The superhero was a product of the world and its systems and the only real way they’d ever be saving it is if they tried to change it, rather than passively beat up a supervillain or a group of ’em before calling it a day. But also, they can’t actually change it, because that’s just it, isn’t it? They’re a product meant to serve this world, designed for it, even. In a different, better one, they wouldn’t be as needed, at least not in the same fashion. That would mean the superhero themselves would have to change and drastically, which, again, not in the cards for many and the conventions of superhero fiction at this point.

If Morrison acknowledged plainly that given their nature, superheroes couldn’t actually change anything and their only value in reality was as a useful means of thinking about subject matter, Ellis agreed, but given he wasn’t working with the icons, he used his pastiches to make you feel the pain of that, the tragedy of it all. The superhero’s best instincts couldn’t change the world because that’s just how human nature works, that’s how people are, that’s how these systems are. And how tragic is that? He elicited emotion and horror from the reader, dramatizing the idea to its natural extreme.

And thus you have the heroes for this world, Stormwatch, these militaristic operatives taking on constant terror. Ellis very much used the superhero as a platform to bring his customary hard-sci-fi approach, exploring global surveillance, geopolitical problems, cultural unrest, police brutality and the inevitable problem with institutions of law, like those that Stormwatch confronted but also Stormwatch itself, which are rife with corruption and are fascist institutions. They’ll always fail or end in catastrophe, no matter what the intentions and a lot of people will get hurt and suffer.

IV- The Ellis Change

Thesis of the Lawman Part III: The Master Operative

At this juncture, it is worth laying out some of the things we’ve referenced or discussed thus far on a sort of timeline, to give you a clear sense of how things progressed.

1987: Justice League International
1988: Animal Man, Sandman
1989: Doom Patrol, Legion 5YL
1990: Cable
1991: Deadpool
1992: Image Comics – WildC.A.T.s, Savage Dragon, Death Of Superman
1993: Vertigo, Milestone, Knightfall, Emerald Twilight
1994: Wetworks, Invisibles, Legion Reboot
1995: Astro City
1996: Kingdom Come, Stormwatch, Flex Mentallo
1997: JLA

Having down that, let’s then proceed to paint another picture.

It was 1999. A new century lay just within reach, as the decades of the previous one breathed one final breath. A strange new world lay beyond this frontier, waiting.

Thesis of the Lawman Part III: The Master Operative

There was something happening here. An industry was looking both to the past and the future, pondering its place. From that, you got a whole wave of works that would change the game. They represented something new, something fresh, while mining the great history of the past. You had Alan Moore, coming off Supreme,  building the ABC (America’s Best Comics) line of books and creating Tom Strong with Chris Sprouse, while putting together Top Ten with Gene Ha, Promethea with J.H Williams and more. On even the Ellis end, you had him and John Cassaday envisioning a new perspective on superhero mythology through Planetary. A renewal of sorts, it seemed was taking place. A recharge. A new flavor, namely that of excavating the past to see if new things could be uncovered from it.

Thesis of the Lawman Part III: The Master Operative

Alan Moore’s proposal for ABC, courtesy of Scott Dunbier

If Tom Strong was an alternate ‘What If?’ of stretching the heroes of the 30’s pulp magazines up through to the new century, Planetary was a tour of the 20th Century super-fiction at large, kicking off with the pulps of the 30’s as a starting point. The pulp spirit was back in vogue, as was the wave of reworking the old, the classical for drastically new things, following in the footsteps of Astro City, Supreme, JLA or even Hellboy (another work that pulls hard from the pulps). Both Tom Strong and Planetary starred protagonists who were born at the dawn of the 20th century, in 1900, and had been going since then. They were almost a hundred years old and that breadth, that space of a century, allowed both Moore and Ellis to excavate and find that which was worth preserving, saving, before the new century dawned. It’s also why both Elijah Snow and Tom Strong are also primary explorers, who study the past and build new things from it.

But as all this was taking place, Ellis was also doing something completely different.

Stormwatch, it turns out, was a sales flop. It just was not selling. It was making no money. Wildstorm wasn’t making anything off it. They simply kept publishing it because they liked Ellis’ stories and wanted to see what would happen next. This revelation about the nature of the book changed things. Ellis felt horrible about all this, as though he was riffing off Wildstorm. So he decided he would end Stormwatch and launch a new title instead to take its place, alongside Bryan Hitch who’d just joined him on Stormwatch. Ellis needed a book that would sell, so that meant cutting all the fat of Stormwatch, all the more heady stuff, for all the rest, the pure sky-punching extremity, the bombastic violence and horror, the shocking situations, all drawn with a filmic quality by Hitch, creating the descriptor ‘widescreen’ to describe the cinematic quality that was brought to the page. That’s how The Authority was born.

Thesis of the Lawman Part III: The Master Operative

The Authority was something different. It was a paramilitary superteam, to be sure, much like Stormwatch had been. But what you got here was something else entirely. If Stormwatch was Ellis doing espionage and black-ops military operatives in the shadows, this was them out in the open. If Ellis’ Stormwatch cast The High and his Changers group as antagonists, the ones who fell and had to fall, then The Authority was about such a group as the protagonists. It was Ellis tackling his big antagonists who’d failed and doing it ‘right’, so to speak. The Authority would be what The High and co. weren’t. If Stormwatch had been Ellis’ S.H.I.E.L.D. book, the superhero as the lawman book, The Authority was his JLA.

Thus you had Midnighter (Batman), Apollo (Superman, Jack Hawksmoor (Aquaman), The Engineer (Green Lantern), Swift (Flash), The Doctor (Martian Manhunter) and Jenny Sparks (Wonder Woman). Jenny Sparks was, consistently, the protagonist of Ellis’ great, big Wildstorm saga. She was the heart at the center of it all, being there from the very first issue of his Stormwatch run. And here she ascended to the status of a Justice League-esque team-leading superhero.

But there’s an interesting difference between the JL-heroes and some of The Authority’s members. It’s a difference you’ll also note in the aforementioned Tom Strong and Planetary, if you’ve read those books: The hero has only one name.

Tom Strong is named that, this is actual name. His superhero name isn’t some codename. That is to say, he has no secret identity or persona. That applies to his entire family at large and a number of his heroic peers, too. Similarly, Elijah Snow was just that. His peers, Jakita Wagner and The Drummer were only ever named that. And they were their superheroic titles. The separation that had been built between the heroic and the human, which had begun to crack with the likes of The Image Warrior and their predecessors, such as Cable and Deadpool, was only vanishing quicker.

And all of this is also reflected in their visuals, their very wardrobe and thus ‘costumes’. Tom Strong’s costume is just…a T-Shirt with a triangle on it and some black pants. Elijah’s is a white suit, which you could reasonably see a man wear. He might stand out a bit, but it’s not too wildly out there. Similarly, Jenny Sparks’ outfit was just a Union Jack shirt and white pants, Hawksmoor dressed in a messy suit. All of which is to say, the boundary between the ‘ordinary’ and ‘the extraordinary’ had been utterly shattered at this point. The superheroes no longer dressed like classical figures from an Alex Ross-painting, but like rockstars, musicians or celebrities. In a sense, this is what that ending of Kingdom Come represented symbolically for the genre at large. Clark Kent, Bruce Wayne, Diana Prince all in their identifiably unique looks, which weren’t their superhero ones.

Of The Authority, Apollo had the closest thing to what might be considered a standard superhero suit, but even that looked like it’d been designed to be worn by a fashion model. The Midnighter boasted a look that screamed fetish gear, while a cool black jacket covered him at all times. The Engineer, too, fit the pattern, designed to look like a model just covered in a metal sheen at all times.

But that shift was only the start. The Authority was, after all, part of this new wave of digging up the past to go some place else, some place new and that was evident early on.

Thesis of the Lawman Part III: The Master Operative

With a title that covered the left-hand side of the cover, even graphically off that one look, The Authority felt like a book evoking Watchmen. Ellis had obviously done that before and connected his text to Watchmen, making its nature as a response evident. But this was different, this was bigger and more blatant. If Watchmen concluded on an explosive, horrific cataclysm and disaster, The Authority began on it. If Watchmen‘s key icon, the invisible structure underneath it all was the now renowned 9-Panel Grid, The Authority‘s widescreen approach boasted a wide 3-Panel Grid.

Thesis of the Lawman Part III: The Master Operative

But what is a 3-Panel grid if not a simplified 9-Panel grid? That’s also why it’s used and shows up in and specifically in the last explosive issue of Watchmen. It’s the gutters taken out for a wider shot, an unbroken image, increasing scope, while keeping that simple 3-beat rhythm of Set-Up/Build/Pay-Off.

Thesis of the Lawman Part III: The Master Operative

This all serves to demonstrate and make one simple point: The Authority begins where Watchmen ends, so to speak. It’s explicitly what comes after, from, through, that impossible disaster. You have a new and different team of heroes. One not manipulated by the Ozymandias-esque Henry Bendix, lord no. This was something else. This was a riff on The Justice League, but the JL could never do this, they could never be what The Authority was. Sure, The Authority might wrestle literal Angels and the legions of God, if need be, to save us all, like the JL, but they would kill millions in the process, sink nations, let plenty more die and do it without making a fuss about it. It wasn’t exactly the assembly of the most good or moral people, but some very messy and messed up people fighting even more impossibly screwed up supervillains. If you make a terrible person fight the absolute worst scum on the planet, you get The Authority.

A lot of its members were ex-military forces or black-ops agents and they struck like a military task force, just on the elevated, horrifying scale of a multiverse-hopping Justice League. And so what you have is the difference between the sort of classical icons, the very definition and face of a superhero team, its ultimate archetype, and this new vision get blurred. In effect, The Authority outmoded the Justice League. It showed that these militaristic men and women could be and operate akin to The Justice League, but push further and do that which the JL would never even dream of, much less consider doing.

Thesis of the Lawman Part III: The Master Operative

And that, that was big. That was massive. What Ellis and Hitch did here in their 12-part Authority story (which also served as an explosive maxi-series finale to Ellis’ Wildstorm saga) would change comics for good. This was now the new path to doing superhero books and particularly team books. Big, ‘widescreen’, much more filmic, taking lots from Hollywood. The militaristic heroes akin to Cable had now merged with the likes of the JLA and a whole new approach to the genre was laid out. What Ellis did (albeit with self-awareness and almost a satirical quality) would quickly grow to become standard during the 2000s. The super-team as a paramilitary taskforce, superhero narratives as cop narratives, with it handled, written and treated like a job, as secret identities were annihilated.

It was a massive, massive success and it’s impossible to understate how truly big and game-changing it was and how influential it has remained.

Thesis of the Lawman Part III: The Master Operative

Ellis’ legacy, with Stormwatch and The Authority alone, was secure. He’d left an indelible mark on the superhero, one that is still felt to this day. But it was felt strongly enough even back then, that the very next year, 2000, the beginning of a new age, saw two books with the premise of Superheroes as Cop Show. The first was Top Ten by the legendary Alan Moore, alongside Gene Ha and Zander Cannon, also a 12-part story. The second was Powers, Brian Michael Bendis’ big breakthrough and arrival, alongside Michael Oeming.

Things had changed. A new age dawned. And for once, things wouldn’t actually be the same.

Next: Mark Millar Licks Goats!

Part IV will arrive Thursday!

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