Black Summer: Warren Ellis on the Motives Behind the Masks

BLACK SUMMER is a superhero novel. Mostly.

William Christensen is a betting man, and a while back he made me three bets. He bet me I couldn’t get a new spin out of the zombie story. He bet me I couldn’t write a fantasy story. And he bet me I couldn’t get a new angle on the superhero story.

Since I returned to Marvel Comics a couple of years ago, I’ve been tasked with thinking about superhero fiction kind of a lot, with a mandate as a sort of walking one-man R&D department. So, with BLACKGAS and WOLFSKIN already under my belt, I sat down to think about this. And now I own several of William Christensen’s internal organs. Which is just as well, as many of mine are failing fast after having written this.

I’ve always had a political take on superhero fiction, from the days of STORMWATCH and THE AUTHORITY. Comes of being a cranky Englishman who enjoys such Communist enterprises as national health care and more than two political parties. And, as almost no-one has failed to notice over the last year, posing political questions in superhero fiction has come back into vogue. So, in thinking about this, I had that on my side.

But, obviously, I was going to be generating a world from scratch, and didn’t have access to the populist appeal of well-known characters beating each other up in pursuit of political argument. The advantage, however, was that I wasn’t bound to expressing the argument in terms of those long-running characters and their relationships. And the more I thought about this, the more one question loomed:

If we invite or condone masked adventurers to fight crime outside the law, do we get to draw a line where they stop? Condoning their activity is much the same as giving them carte blanche to fight crime wherever they perceive it to be. This leads to a much bigger question than, say, asking if superhuman combatants in America should be registered with a Federal agency. In fact, it leads to this:

If a self-identified crimefighter lives in a country where a President can be said to have prosecuted an illegal war and therefore can be said to have killed a great many people in the enactment of his criminal enterprise… What does that masked man do?

If he’s a man using the name John Horus, with the same destructive power as a fleet of Apache helicopters, then the answer is obvious.

And so BLACK SUMMER opens with John Horus killing the President of the United States.

That’s the question. What happens when a superhero’s pursuit of justice leads him to the inexorable conclusion that he must kill his President to save his country?

There used to be seven of them. The Seven Guns, politically-aware young scientist-adventurers who created strange new technological abilities for themselves and who put on masks and helmets and took to the streets to fight a corrupt police force and criminal private security firms in their West Coast city. The latter situation not being a million miles away from reality in some places. One died. The man who co-designed their enhancements was killed by bad cops. One was crippled and withdrew. The others drifted apart. Once they were heroes, with the fire of youth. But now they’re pushing thirty and falling apart.

The Seven Guns — and their co-designer and mentor, Frank Blacksmith — were at the cutting edge of physics and technology. They turned exotic science into what they called gun-enhancements — special abilities that also wired into unique handweapons. Because everyone they were going to fight was already armed, and they already had shoot-to-kill orders. In terms of superhero fiction, this reaches back to its roots: the Shadow had twin .45s and Doc Savage always packed a machine-pistol.

John Horus didn’t have a gun. He walks surrounded by a network of floating “eyes” that render him both unkillable and incredibly dangerous. He was always the most powerful of the Guns, and also always the Good Man, the one who could be trusted, the one who believed most passionately in justice for all. What interests me the most about John Horus is that, although he Is genuinely frightening, the possibility exists that he’s actually entirely right. That a good man cannot stand idly by and do nothing.

Not that that is a comfort to poor Tom Noir, missing a leg after the carbomb explosion that killed his fellow Gun and lover Laura Torch. He hasn’t switched his enhancements on in over a year. They may not even work anymore. Of the surviving Guns, Tom the grieving alcoholic cripple is going to be the first target for anyone intending to suppress further attempts by the gun-enhanced to strike at the fabric of American society.

Because, as we all know, when America responds to an attack on its government, it doesn’t do so quietly or politely.

This is the freedom of doing a piece of superhero fiction outside the auspices of company ownership or the weight of continuity: the big questions can be asked in a very direct and brutal manner. In this world, masked adventurers on the run are not going to be pursued, tricked and trapped by their estranged colleagues. Every last one of them is going to be hunted by the combined forces of the US military structure. It is, to my mind, what would always happen — the streets of America would be secured by soldiers and gun emplacements and helicopters against the threat of the flying superhuman.

And for those who think I’m being anti-American, consider this: in Britain, we’d just have the SAS kill them in their beds. You people are young, and have not let learned how to do business.

So that’s the set-up: John Horus, most beloved of the original Seven Guns team of superhuman streetfighters, has killed the President of the United States for arranging an illegal war. He has a plan, and that plan is even more frightening. He has set himself up as the protector of America. And the authorities cannot take the chance that the other Guns are not involved. The country is now at war with its own heroes.

In a situation like that, there are no sides. Not any more. It’s about who survives and who doesn’t. It’s about whether the idea of America lives or dies.

It’s about where you draw the line.

–Warren Ellis

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