Global warming means that 2016 in on track to be the hottest year in recorded history. In March, figures released by Oxfam showed that the 62 richest people on Earth own as much as half of the world’s population. Elon Musk has plans to build a ‘direct democracy’ on Mars, when we barely have democracy on Earth. Violent extremists, from ISIS to the European far right, are on the rise while a raging id monster from the swamps of reality television is aimed straight at the White House.
In such dystopian times, science fiction is uniquely positioned to interrogate politics and society. Despite outward appearances, the genre is far more successful at depicting the present than predicting the future. By extrapolating current anxieties and trends, it shows the true face of the contemporary through a distorting funhouse mirror. For instance, H.G. Wells used his alien invasion novel The War of The Worlds (1898) to comment on the violence of the colonial endeavour – the Martians treat Victorian England with the same ruthlessness which the British Empire dealt with subject peoples. In 2014’s Lagoon, Nigerian novelist Nnedi Okorafor uses extra-terrestrials to explore contemporary xenophobia (The novel was initially sparked by her anger at the demeaning portrayal of Nigerians in Neill Blomkamp’s District 9). Science fiction films regularly get away with raw political content that would appear far more shocking in more conventionally realistic Hollywood productions. In the last few years, Elysium, Snowpiercer and The Purge: Anarchy focused on class struggle. In between the vehicular carnage and giant robots punching monsters in the face, Mad Max: Fury Road and Pacific Rim offered pointed critiques of patriarchy and nationalism.
And contemporary sci-fi comics are responding to these same issues. In May, American publisher Image launched Renato Jones: The One Percent with an outstanding tagline – ‘The Super Rich are Super Fucked’. Like a murderous Jacobin Batman, Renato Jones is a vigilante masquerading as a billionaire playboy, delivering brutal justice to plutocrats. But while the series has been marketed as an awesomely deranged satire, the two issues so far have been underwhelming. In the first, Renato takes out a sexually-deviant CEO and monologues about the evils of the banking system. The second issues sees him fight an entire group of equally depraved CEOs while – surprise, surprise – delivering a passionate speech against banking. Instead of a subversive revenge fantasy, the series so far reads like an earnest and somewhat dull polemic. While Renato Jones is too blunt, Snowfall suffers from being too cryptic. Its premise is supremely pertinent. In the wake of catastrophic climate change, the US has been taken over by corporate powers at war with the mysterious title character. Although its images of drowned cities hit hard, its incomprehensible storyline makes it hard to follow.
The critically-acclaimed The Omega Men shifts the politics to space. Written by former CIA agent Tom King, the book focuses on a group of insurgents fighting The Citadel, a religious dictatorship which enslaves poorer planets for their resources. But the guerrillas are themselves ruthless, using violence without restraint or mercy. It’s an intriguing premise, and Barnaby Bagenda’s superb artwork gives it an epic scope, with the plot ranging from gritty Blade Runner-style cities to cosmic vistas. But by making the characters all uniformly awful and damaged the story really suffers. There is never any sense of ethical tension or ideological struggle, and the story predictably ends with the rebels becoming tyrants. In fact, all these titles exhibit an inability to offer political alternatives beyond revenge. Their protagonists are down to fight and bomb authoritarian systems, but have no positive vision of social change for the aftermath.
Their protagonists are down to fight and bomb authoritarian systems, but have no positive vision of social change for the aftermath
A far more satisfying approach comes from Lazarus, which takes inequality to a disturbing conclusion. In the near future, governments have collapsed and the world is ruled by a handful of powerful families. People with valuable skills compete to be made ‘serfs’ while the vast remainder of humanity scratch out a precarious life as ‘waste’. After a slow start, Greg Rucka and Michael Lark’s series has matured into a dense war story about the Machiavellian intrigues of the elite. But the most powerful parts of the series are its bleak vision of life for the majority. Along with everything in the society being privately owned, it is hinted that much of humanity has died through a convergence of climate change, famine and disease, leaving a high-tech feudalism in the ruins. As political commentator Richard Pithouse demonstrates in his essential new book Writing the Decline: On the Struggle for South Africa’s Democracy, in society today people like shack dwellers and migrants are often dismissed as waste to be consigned to the margins. Lazarus shows this ruthless logic extended to the former middle classes. The comic is also an impressive feat of world building, with everything from the weapons technology to the geopolitical context being exhaustively researched. There is even a South African connection, with the appearance of the Nkosi military corporation which rules from Cape Town to Kampala. But despite all this depth, the series has yet to imagine any credible resistance to its disturbingly plausible status quo. Other than an appearance from a motley pack of profoundly incompetent insurgents, this seems to be a world where the powerful have attained a terminal victory.
Refusing to bow down to power is the central theme of Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine DeLandro’s Bitch Planet. The titular space prison is where ‘non-compliant’ women are confined by the regime of ‘The Fathers’, which has made ‘disobedience’ a punishable crime. The series offers razor-sharp commentary on the myriad of ways patriarchy devises to control and subjugate women. The best issue to date is on the character Penny Rolle, who likes to speak with her fists and is locked up for ‘aesthetic offenses’ and ‘wanton obesity’. Her interrogators attempt to find the source of her disobedience, by making her visualise her ideal thin and compliant self. To their horror, Penny reveals that she already is her ideal self – “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. I ain’t broke… And you bastards ain’t never gonna break me”. In the face of oppressive conformity and shaming, self-love becomes a radical act. The book has inspired an ardent fan base, with many showing their love by getting tattoos of the books ‘non-compliant’ tag. Each issue has been turned into a space for ideas, including essays by guest authors on social issues ranging from police brutality to censorship and profiles of feminist art and activists. DeConnick and DeLandro are taking the radicalism of their book beyond the page by linking it with real world struggles.
Along with critiquing the status quo, comics are a medium for espousing the dream of a world free of coercion, exploitation and domination. In 2012, radical publishers PM Press reissued Anarchy Comics, a legendary underground series which emerged from the San Francisco punk scene in the late ‘70s. The anthology combines documentary stories about the Spanish Civil War and the Italian Autonomia movement and illustrated texts by thinkers like Emma Goldman with hilarious mockery of the Christian Right, consumerism and authoritarian leftists. ‘No Exit’ tells the tale of ‘Jean-Paul Sartre Jr’, an Orange County punk whose idea of anarchy consists of shooting guns and injecting wood glue. After encouraging the audience at a show to beat him to death, he is cryogenically frozen and revived thousands of years into the future. In this high-tech, classless utopia, war and alienation have disappeared, but with nothing to rebel against, Jr goes on a rampage. Taking pity on this relic of the ‘barbaric’ 20th century, the future anarchists return him to the past.
The satirical story has a serious political point. Anarchism is often erroneously associated with chaos and violence, license rather than liberty. In contrast, over the last two centuries anarchist activists and thinkers have offered complete critiques of capitalism, patriarchy, racism and the state, urging that individuals and society don’t need politicians, bosses and priests to thrive. Historically overshadowed by both dictatorial Soviet-style socialism and social democracy, anarchism was often declared dead during the 20th century. But since the end of the Cold War, anarchism and other libertarian-socialist ideas have enjoyed a resurgence, seen in everything from the Zapatistas in Mexico to the Kurdish revolutionaries in Syria. Clearly, the idea of an emancipated society which upholds individual freedom while ensuring democratic management of resources still has much to offer (It’s important to note that while the word libertarian originally referred to anti-authoritarian socialists, it has more recently been claimed by right-wing American free-marketers. Adherents of the sociopathic philosopher Ayn Rand, they long for a Lazarus-style world where the rich can rule without restraint. An example from South Africa is the Daily Maverick columnist Ivo Vegter, who has made a successful career from paranoid rantings about climate change being a communist hoax).
The Romantic vision of anarchism has directly inspired two iconic series – Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s V for Vendetta (1988) and Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles, illustrated by various artists and published from 1994 to 2000. Moore and Morrison are perhaps the two most significant comic writers to have come from the UK (They are also sworn enemies with a Byzantine personal feud that includes allegations of plagiarism and a rivalry about who started practising ritual magic first!). Even if you’ve never read V for Vendetta or seen the 2006 film adaptation, you will probably recognise the Guy Fawkes mask depicted in the series, which has been adopted at protests throughout the world.
But Moore demanded that his name be taken off the film, saying that the producers had simplified the source material’s politics. The original is presented as a clash between the poles of anarchy (absolute liberty) and fascism (absolute control). The comic is set in a Britain where the Nazi-inspired Norsefire regime has seized power in the chaotic aftermath of a nuclear war, with David Lloyd’s precise artwork conveying the claustrophobic sense of living under totalitarian rule. It is gradually revealed that the state has set up death camps for black and LGBT people and dissidents, performing Josef Mengele-style experiments on its captives. But one of these, V, whose actual identity is never revealed, escapes and begins a campaign to undermine and destroy the government. Caught up in this is Evey Hammond, who over the course of the book goes from being a frightened teenager to a committed revolutionist. The book ends on an ambivalent note. Norsefire is crippled, but it’s unclear what system will emerge from the chaos.
He felt that Thatcher’s calls for a return to ‘Victorian’ values barely masked a racist and homophobic agenda
Moore was inspired to write the series by the reactionary social climate of Thatcherism. A self-proclaimed sorcerer (he once told The New York Times, “I am what Harry Potter grew up into and it’s not pretty”), he felt that Thatcher’s calls for a return to ‘Victorian’ values barely masked a racist and homophobic agenda. The fascism of Norsefire, built around the slogan ‘England Prevails’, now appears prescient of Nigel Farage, Brexit and Britain First. Like Farage or Hitler, Norsefire’s leader Adam Susan is a monstrous mix of hate, messianic delusion and sexual neurosis. However, Moore’s fascists are not just caricatures, with the book going out of the way to show the appeal of political authoritarianism. While many of the regime’s members are bigoted opportunists, others truly believe that extreme methods are the only means to restore law and order after World War Three. But these shining ideals of nation and community are ultimately just an excuse for sadism and atrocity.
In V for Vendetta, the government is modelled after conservative philosopher Thomas Hobbes’ depiction of the state as a human body – so the surveillance wing is called ‘The Eye’, the brutal police force is called ‘The Finger’ and so on. In an early scene a gloating policeman reveals to Evey the true appeal of fascism for its functionaries: “You’ve got it wrong Miss. You’ll do anything we want and then we’ll kill you. That’s our prerogative”. And this idea of prerogative, of the state’s right to enforce ‘security’ is not unique to fascism. Contemporary liberal democracies use the same principle today, from refugee internment camps to covert CIA torture sites. V for Vendetta has a continued relevance in showing how state power reserves the right to turn individual human beings into things to be manipulated, violated and killed: “Authority when first detecting the chaos at its heels, will entertain the vilest schemes to save its order… but always order without justice, without love or liberty, which cannot long postpone their world’s descent to pandemonium. Authority allows two roles, the torturer and the tortured, twists people into joyless mannequins that fear and hate”.
But while the destruction of Norsefire is dramatically cathartic, the book’s depiction of anarchism is less successful. V’s main ideological pursuit is to achieve what he calls ‘the land of do as you please’. But apart from seizing a television station at one point to send out a message calling for general revolt, this is very much an individual struggle. There is no attempt to organise collective resistance to Norsefire, or to build alternative structures and ethics to achieve a liberated society. The book ends in chaos with the state imploding, but with no guarantee that another group of extremists will not seize power in the vacuum. And V’s tactics are elitist and often deplorable. In a section of the story which still leaves a sore taste, he tricks Evey into thinking she has been captured and tortured by the secret police. Once she has refused to submit even under the pain of death, it is revealed that V was her captor all along. He claims that this simulation was intended to liberate her, by freeing her of all fear. Moore’s aim is to show that no struggles are immune to cruelty and that even the most righteous cause can fall into the trap of authoritarianism. After all, the book makes it clear that V is an anti-hero. He has no intention of living in the post-Norsefire world, often describing himself as a whirlwind of destruction needed to clear the way for a new society, but too monstrous to live in it. Reading it in the era of Bitch Planet and a much greater sensitivity towards gender representation, the perversity of V’s actions are even more glaring.
In contrast to V’s austere sense of sacrifice, the revolutionaries in The Invisibles fight under the flag of hedonism. With an atmosphere best described as Timothy Leary writing The X-Files, the plot focuses on small cells of libertarians fighting a secret war against an elite conspiracy of politicians and capitalists working for the alien Archons of the Outer Church. Morrison uses a time-travelling plot as a platform to advance a library of anti-authoritarian concepts. Over 59 issues, the book takes inspiration from the more radical teachings of Buddhism, Romantic poets like Shelly and Blake, the Situationists and Chaos Magic to name but a few. A central theme of the series is of individuals ridding themselves of the self-limiting beliefs imposed by the state, religion and consumer capitalism, and using imagination to transform the external world. Early on, the character Dane McGowan, a teenage hooligan and future Buddha, is told that: “There’s a palace in your head, boy. Learn to live in it always”.
The grandiose intent of the series was to push society in a more positive direction and was closely linked to events in Morrison’s personal life. During the 1980s, he won acclaim and sales with wildly psychedelic work on books like Animal Man and the Dadaist-inspired Doom Patrol. But as the 1990s dawned he felt he had wasted his life in the monastic pursuit of writing comic books! With the proceeds from the best-selling Batman: Arkham Asylum, he embarked on a magic and hallucinogen fueled world tour. He maintains that in 1994 in Kathmandu he had an earth-shattering visionary experience and was taken to a place outside space and time, observing our reality from an extradimensional perspective. Morrison’s openness about these kinds of mystical experiences has made him a divisive figure in comic books. Critics have dismissed him as pretentious or half mad, while others view him as a visionary who makes these extreme cognitive adventures central to his work.
The Invisibles is often dated by its ‘90s ‘we’re all gonna take lots of MDMA and down smart drinks and be free forever, man’ tone, which from the perspective of 2016 seems naïve. But the more disciplined parts still offer potent dissections of authoritarianism. One issue adapts the Marquis De Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom, the still shocking 18th century novel about the venal cruelty of the powerful. Morrison shows the forces of money, tradition and religion engaged in a constant downward spiral of sadism, and suggests that authority is like a virus which makes people obsessed with trying to control others. Another story looks at the life of a military guard killed by The Invisibles in an earlier issue. Rather than an anonymous henchmen we see a complex human being, a product of the cycle of macho violence. Growing up around physical abuse, he then perpetuates it on his partner. Morrison shows that this abuse makes him a perfect, but disposable, weapon for the state. The casual brutality of everyday life feeds into the legal violence pursued by the powerful.
Like William Burroughs and Philip K. Dick, Morrison combines an outrageous imaginative mythology with a provocative focus on how power and control distort the human spirit. The Invisibles was followed by The Filth, which looks at the depraved enforcers of authority rather than the rebels. He also likes to slip wildly subversive messages into superhero books. In Final Crisis, Batman, Superman and the rest fight Darkseid, a tyrannical god set on conquering the universe with the Anti-Life Equation, a virus which kills independent thought and hope. His followers adopt slogans which serve as a succinct statement of the central values of capitalism – ‘Exploit the Weak… Work! Consume! Die!’
Artists like DeConnick and Morrison are not tacticians or activists, and their works are not intended as blueprints for revolt. Art is there to reflect and to inspire the world, not to substitute for the difficult work of politics. But by advancing radical ideas in a pulp format, comic books are the perfect vehicle for delivering subversive messages of dissent into culture. And because they are often considered a lesser art form than novels or film, they are able to push the boundaries of the possible in wild, inspiring directions.
This is part of an ongoing series of articles on comics that Christopher McMichael is writing for The Con. Read his previous article Bastards and Badlands – A Conversation with Jason Aaron.