COMICS: John Reviews “Black Summer” by Warren Ellis and Juan Jose Ryp

Today is November 5th (Happy Guy Fawkes’ Day!), and America is abuzz with political news and discussion in the wake of the most heated race for the White House in recent memory.  Many of us will be happy to take a break from the constant barrage of political news pumped out by the 24-hour news networks, but since we’ve got the White House on our minds, why not check out Warren Ellis’s Black Summer, a shock-and-awe-inspiring cautionary tale of what happens when superheroes and politicians can’t see eye to eye.  If the cover image doesn’t grab your attention, I’m not sure anything will.

Now THAT's a cover!

And the image on the cover is only where the story begins! Here’s a brief synopsis for you:

In the bad old days, a group of scientifically and ideologically motivated young upstarts created spectacularly powerful new hybrid bio/weapon technology and used it to give themselves incredible super-powers.  They called themselves the Seven Guns, and they became America’s most powerful protectors from  enemies both foreign and domestic.  Now the Seven Guns have disbanded and are burning out or fading away, with one notable exception: John Horus, the most morally unshakable of the Guns, takes his war on corruption and exploitation to its undeniable source – the President of the United States of America.  He murders everyone in the Oval Office (see cover) and declares that America will have free elections (with properly counted paper ballots) to determine a leader worthy of the position.  The Pentagon gives the Guns’ former mentor (now a Black-Ops commander) license to kill Horus and his old comrades (most of whom did not support Horus’s actions, and none of whom were accomplices) but they’re the most powerful beings on the planet, and they’re not going down without a fight.  To quote the trade paperback’s back cover, “Black Summer is about where you draw the line.”

Black Summer is a return to Warren Ellis’s characteristic blend of deeply important social issues and wide-screen spectacular action (see: The Authority), with just the slightest hint of pitch-black humor thrown in for good measure.  His ambitions were lofty, considering the original purpose of the comic was to win a bet with his Publisher at Avatar Press.  He was given a daunting challenge: Write a book that mirrors the grandiose “Event” stories being published by the big-name comic book companies without relying on the crossover of familiar characters to sell books (since Avatar doesn’t have a stable of recognizeable superheroes to draw from.)  Eventually, he hit the mother of all story hooks:  What if a superhero killed the president?  Along with that came the theme of the story, “Where do you draw the line?”  The details of Black Summer followed soon after, from the creation of the characters to the establishment of how their super-powers could be expalined in real world terms.  The theme is explored in great detail throughout the book, ranging at times from tugging subtly at the back of your mind to smacking you full-force in the face, according to the story’s progression.  I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for stories that deal with superheroes’ ability (or lack thereof) to affect major change in the world, and Black Summer scratches that itch wonderfully.  At times you’ll find yourself rooting for the good guys, then the bad guys, then you’ll begin to wonder just who’s really good and/or bad after all.

The art in Black Summer is nothing short of astonishing.  I’ll admit that my only prior exposure to Juan Jose Ryp was in “No Hero” (his latest collaboration with Ellis, currently on issue #2) but I was completely blown away with the level of detail in his drawings.  The cover image above is a great example, but you don’t get the full effect until you see that every page has that much detail and is that expressive.  The action sequences absolutely explode off the page, and I’m kicking myself for not buying the hardcover edition.  Reading the paperback version is like watching Iron Man in Blu-Ray on a Standard-Definition TV: It looks great, but you know you’re not getting the full effect.  Flip through it at your local comic shop and see if you don’t immediately agree.

As far as dialogue is concerned, this is unmistakably an Ellis comic.  His political rants that made Spider Jerusalem such a joy in Transmetropolitan keep sneaking their way into Black Summer, like this one:

“Article One, Section 8: Congress shall have power to provide for calling forth the militia to execute the laws of the union, suppress insurrections and repel invasions.  The Second Amendment:  A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.  When non-governmental organizations like private security firms are being put on the streets  of my otown – where’s Congress? Nowhere to be f!@#ing seen.  Companies like Blackwater routinely put Chileans and Bosnians on the streets, armed, to enforce not laws enumerated by elected representatives, but the terms of no-bid contracts handed them by a government that’s given up on ruling … I want the rule of law back.  I want my constitutional rights.  Give me a gun and i’ll make the bastards execute the laws of the Union.”

That’s just one sample of the heavier political stuff in the book.  For those who find it a bit wordy, don’t fret. It’s counter-balanced by lots of pretty explosions.  Sure, there are times when you could argue that Ellis shamelessly steals the characters’ voices and uses them as mouthpieces for his own political views (in particular, a rather scathing indictment of both Iraq Wars) but it’s framed nicely and it’s interesting to read, and if you’ve read any of Warren Ellis’s other landmark series (Transmetropolitan, Planetary, The Authority, etc.) it won’t seem out of place.

Time to wrap this up:  Black Summer is a big-budget action spectacular with plenty of ultra-violence in beautifully depicted detail, but also with a strong sense of social conscience and self-awareness.  It succeeds in its mission, which is to make the reader question exactly how far heroes should go in order to protect ordinary people from the tyranny of evil men.

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2 Responses

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