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Friday, November 25, 2016

Panel Vision - Fighting Fascism in "Black Terror"

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Edited by Robert Beach 

Well, here we are I suppose: thinking the unthinkable. In case you somehow missed it, Donald Trump is now the President-Elect of the United States. I say President-Elect because I, like most Americans, am still hopeful for some kind of pre-inauguration miracle like a devastating comet or the onset of war, but it’s not a high hope. The real question is shaping up to be “Where do we go from here” now that over half the nation gets to spend at least the next 2 years wondering or not they get to have a country tomorrow. 

Obviously, I’ve never shied away from focusing on politics in these reviews; it’s part of the societal texture through which we ingest media and claiming some “objectivity” to the state of the world is, at best, obstinate denial and, at worse, willfully misleading. What’s more, the whole reason we make art is to impose meaning and narrative onto the randomness that is life, to try and wring some measure of realization out of an all too indifferent universe. Art is how we make the world the way we’d like it to be. With that in mind, let’s talk about Black Terror.

Before diving into Black Terror, you need a little back-story, so get ready for preamble here.  Black Terror was an ongoing comic that sprung up in the unsung glory years of the late 2000s. Even though the early 2000s were dark times, the period from about 2006-2011 was a significant era for comics, which is all too often overlooked. 

Black Terror was originally a spin-off comic, getting its origin from the Dynamite Comics series Project Superpowers. I don't want to delve too deep into Project Superpowers as I’ll probably review it somewhere down the line, but the basic premise was “what if nearly every superhero was Captain America?”

The idea was that in this universe there had been a whole ton of superheroes during World War 2. However, they were betrayed by one of their own, Fighting Yank, who imprisoned the heroes in Pandora’s Box as part of a misguided effort to rid the world of evil. After 70 years without heroes, Yank’s world now acts as a grim reflection of our reality only with super-powered components. 

For instance, Superpowers America is also a militarized police state; only their cops have mech suits, or a family of un-killable robots runs their omnipotent corporate oligarchy. Sickened by the world he helped create and charged to fix it by the American Spirit, Fighting Yank shatters Pandora’s Box and releases the heroes of the 1940s back into a world they no longer recognize. 

Like I said, the whole thing is a set-up for a superhuman community that is going through the “greatest generation critiques the inhumanity of the modern surveillance state/imperialist empire” thing from Captain America: Winter Soldier. It worked, and Black Terror was the comic’s breakout star.  

He, like all of the heroes in the book, was originally a 1940s public domain hero before Dynamite scooped him up to populate this series. Superpowers and Black Terror re-imagine the character as less of a bland and basic hero and like if the Hulk, Captain America, and Superman were one guy. 

His power is a blend of super strength and invulnerability, yet his identity is defined entirely by his anger. Actually, identity ends up a core question of Black Terror’s opening four-issue arc. He’s trying to find some point of stability through the way he was and the person he’s become now.  

What this comes down to most of all is trying to rescue his sidekick Tim, who’s been kidnapped by the corrupt and imperialistic President West. This is why I chose Black Terror to review right now; its opening arc is about a superhero, driven by righteous anger, to declare war on the President and invade the White House. 

That idea of righteous anger is really at the core of Black Terror and why it works as a superhero story. At the heart of all superhero stories, some form of power fantasy exists.  In some cases, that power fantasy is more ethereal, like Captain America acting as the fantasy of moral power; other times, it’s more explicit like Superman or a subversion of power fantasies like the Hulk, but it’s always there. 

In the case of the Black Terror, while anger is a big part of his power, his fantasy is all about agency: having the ability to achieve real impact and the righteous anger to fuel it. His assault on the White House is even punctuated with a reference to the famous speech from Network about being “Mad as hell and not going to take it anymore” to drive the point home. 

Where things get fascinating is when Terror encounters a team of American-themed superheroes who are on the President’s side. It’s a very creepy and almost cynical twist on the entire idea of the series, reframing superheroic patriotism into a quasi-mystical embodiment of the American psyche. There’s a running theme through the comic about Pandora’s Box changing the heroes into more mythic beings. 

In Terror’s case, he’s become a living embodiment of the idea of mutiny whereas the Patriots, President West’s superhero team, now serve as reflections of the new America. That’s the harshest and most unnerving part of the story; the idea that America itself had changed and thus so do the men who wear her symbol. 

A lot of this goes beyond mere subtext to be actual text. The deeper meaning deals more about questions of transformation. That’s the real battle at the center of Black Terror: the fight between sticking to your ideals and aspirations or caving to the will of the times, changing the world or holding firm against it.  This idea of defining your own identity in a time of fascism rolls over into the second story arc about Black Terror’s best friend the American Crusader, another hero who’s been perverted and twisted by this new America. 

With the American Crusader comic, the corruption of the hero is less philosophical and more literal with the government using black science to create an endless succession of American Crusader clones as disposable super cannon fodder.  The Crusaders are incredibly creepy and well-design monsters, a perfect visual metaphor for this bold, new world and a great complement to President West’s patriot. As imperfect and soulless clones, they don’t look human. They stand as rotting corpses wrapped in vinyl plastic painted over in the flag, an unliving humanoid vision of the crawling rot beneath this America’s cheap and empty patriotism. 

Making the metaphor of change more literal is a big part of how this story refocuses onto force over collaboration. The idea is that the American Crusader didn’t agree to anything the government was doing and has spent the past 50 years having his bodily autonomy violated to produce an inexhaustible army of government super-weapons. Now, with the heroes back, Crusader’s only hope for release is for his best friend the Black Terror to kill him because Terror’s the only one strong enough to do it.

It’s a bold arc and easily the equal of the first one, affording Black Terror a much-needed internal monolog rather than the previous omniscient narrator, which helps humanize him and his friendship with American Crusader. Most importantly, it explores the flipside of identity in a time of fascism: institutions we trust to keep us safe become twisted, and people’s identities are forcibly eroded. The conclusion of the arc also touches on the idea that some things and some people just can’t survive the transition between freedom, tyranny, and liberation. The stress is too much and their identity too contingent on ideas that no longer apply. 

Most importantly, it doubles down on the series main thrust about finding identity through our commitment not to ideals or compromise but to each other. That’s ultimately what defines Black Terror in both stories. More than his rage and blind demand for the America he was promised at the end of World War 2, it’s his connection to other people and his desire to keep them safe and free that gives him his purpose. In both stories, the way the tendrils of fascism and tyranny have twisted and enslaved the only people he cares about are what drives his action and ends up as the fuel for his anger. 

After its initial arcs, Black Terror ran for another six issues. While those plots were interesting, they were a lot less focused on the questions of fascism. Much like the second Superpowers arc, everything became bogged down a lot more in mysticism and mythology and lost a lot of the political edge that had made the series such a knockout. Still, Black Terror’s success won him a perpetual place in Dynamite’s collection of various superhero comics alongside fellow pulp heroes like The Shadow and the Spider. 

Lastly, this initial comic run does stand up as one of the best politically charged superhero stories, even as stories like Civil War and Winter Soldier gain more notoriety in that genre. Terror’s rage gives him a more visceral and satisfying approach than Captain America. At the end of the day, they’re both stories about how one man can challenge fascism and change the world with the bigger emphasis being on the people they want to change the world for.    

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