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Friday, December 16, 2016

Panel Vision - Master Men

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As I write this, it is the midst of December 2016- the dark times, as I presume future us will refer to the latter half of the 2010s.  In the middle of the long dark night of the nation’s soul comes a thoroughly ironic television event- season 2 of Amazon’s Man in the High Castle.  

The series is one of several prestige streaming shows produced in the wake of Netflix’ breakout success with original programming like House of Cards and Orange is the New Black.  High Castle, as it’s often shortened to, is an adaptation of a Philip K. Dick book of the same name from 1963 about an alternate history where the Axis won World War 2. 

These days “what if the Nazis won” is more colloquially known as “the 2016 election” so getting a whole TV show out of Nazi-ified Americana has decidedly lost its luster for the second season.  However, the event gives me a chance to dive into the comics backlog to once again talk about one of my favorite comics characters of all time: Uncle Sam.  Not only that, this is Uncle Sam’s latest adventure, going head-to-head with a Nazi version of the DCU in a tale aptly called…Master Men. 

First, a quick primer for those unfamiliar with Uncle Sam: while the image of Uncle Sam goes back through history, the most common vision comes from a 1917 recruiting poster by J.M. Flagg.  That idea of the character has become a symbol of Americana so, when American became involved in World War 2, and superheroes entered into vogue, some genius decided to give Uncle Sam his own comic. 

The idea, like most Golden Age comics, was pretty simple, Sam was just alive because he was and had super powers because he did, a whole lot of hand waving to get him fighting the Japanese.  However, Sam’s publishers did fairly well for themselves and amassed a small stable of heroes before going bust in the ‘50s when the superhero comic fad died off. 

Later, near the end of the ‘60s, DC Comics purchased Quality Comics and all their characters, including Uncle Sam, as a means of diversifying.  The heroes were then integrated into the DC Universe, with a twist.  Rather than have Uncle Sam be in-continuity with Batman and Superman, the idea was that he and his fellow heroes existed on a parallel Earth, Earth-10 or Earth-X.  

On Earth-X, the allies lost the second world war and Uncle Sam and his fellow heroes, nicknamed the Freedom Fighters, were the last force for good on their world.  This vision of the team was pretty popular and even got them their own comic.  There’s a lot more history I already went over when High Castle premiered but, after a lot of failed versions, Sam and company have ended up back on Earth now facing down a vision of the Axis that include an entire Nazi Justice League. 

The idea of the Nazi JLA Earth-X first popped up in 2007, but it wasn’t until last year it got fleshed out, which is where Master Men comes in.  If you’re unfamiliar with The Multiversity, don’t worry- the individual issues are basically an anthology series and can be read without needing any background knowledge.  Much like in the classic Uncle Sam stories, the hows and whys of our situation are more or less secondary to the fact that it is happening. 

As to our story; in this world, Superman landed in the occupied Sudetenland in 1939 and was discovered by the Nazis.  They used reverse engineered technology from his rocket to help win the war, with Superman himself, or rather Overman as he’s known here, leading the eventual invasion of America.  

The story picks up in 2016, with Overman having long outlived all of the Reich’s founders as Hitler’s immortal standard bearer, leader of a solar empire and a team of heroes known as the New Reichsmen.  But all is not well in Germanica, the Overman has grown wrestles upon the thrown with the death of his cousin Overgirl and a new threat emerges, a ragtag team of super terrorists emerging out of the demons of their past- Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters.

As far as superhero tales go this one is less about action and adventure and much more in the vein of a Shakespearian tragedy, or perhaps more accurately- a Wagnerian one.  Despite being an Uncle Sam comic, he’s not actually in it all that much nor are his Freedom Fighters.  

Overman is our main character, his perspective is the central one through which we see the 1000-year empire, even though the narration is provided well after the fact by Jurgen Olsen, Nazi Jimmy Olsen.  Overman’s guilt at the origins of his world and sickness at the cruelty that still infests so many of his fellow heroes is the core emotion that drives our story and cuts directly to the heart of what ‘Master Men’ is actually about. 

While ‘Master Men’ touches on several subjects beyond its main story such as an inversion of Wagner’s ‘Ring’ cycle, the way in which modern America vacuum seals its own violent past, and the larger story of Multiversity about invading genres, the core of the comic is about good ideas with bad origins.  That’s the central thesis that spreads throughout nearly every element of the book, the way a corrupt and vile origin festers to eventual destroy everything good built on top of it. 

It’s present in the connection to Wagner’s ‘Ring’ cycle, recounting the original myth in which the gold that made the fabled ring brought two friends to murder each other (which is where Tolkien got the idea for the curious.)  What’s more, it impacts the critique of modern America trying to outrun the horrors of slavery, the trail of tears, or even our own eugenics programs by walling them off as the actions of the past.  It’s even right in the text, with Overman’s feelings of guilt and self-loathing over building a sprawling, self-satisfied solar empire on the bones of countless millions.  However, the big reason this idea shows up here in ‘Master Men’ is that it’s not really about racism or Nazism or Wagner- it’s about propaganda. 

When Hitler discovers Kal-L in ‘Master Men’ it’s in the wake of reading a Superman comic, Superman #17- a propaganda story.  Upon discovering Kal-L, Hitler’s first instinct is not as a weapon but to make Kal into his own engine of propaganda, a Superman coated in their own colors, hence Overman.  It’s not Kal’s super strength that win’s the war but the science of the ship, he exists to support the German ideal of the Overman, he’s propaganda.  This is where we get the definition of propaganda within the context of ‘Master Men,’ a good idea twisted by its dark origin, in this case, the idea of Superman bent to fit the Nazi ideology. 

‘Master Men’ doubles down on this idea, of trying to twist and contort a good idea into something it’s not, through the in-universe mechanic of comic books.  See, in the DC universe, comic book superheroes are actually representative of a superhero universe, with the heroes of Earth-0 existing only as comic books on Earth-10.  In this way, Hitler has modeled his champion on a real person, a real Superman.

The fact that Overman ultimately betrays his comrades, feeding information to Uncle Sam’s resistance, is key to this idea and the way that no matter how much you twist an idea it always returns to its natural state.  That some things can only ever be what they are, it doesn’t matter if you put a picture frame on propaganda or a Nazi uniform on Superman- they can only ever be Propaganda, only ever be Superman. 

Of course, what ends up twisted may not be Overman’s identity, as he does still try to do good, but his motivations.  We see the way his broken origin continues to infect everything he touches as even his good ideas fall to violent ends from their amoral beginnings.  He tries to undo his thousand year empire by feeding information to the Freedom Fighters only for them to kill several members of his team and blow up the entire city of Metropolis. 

It was a good idea to try and undo his Nazi empire, the kind of thing Superman would do, but in the end the fact that he sought its fall out of guilt and self-loathing rather than to actually help anyone is what dooms him.  Kal must always be Superman, no matter what symbol clothes him, but that doesn’t make the symbol go away. 

By the same token, this same compromised, cross-universal nature extends to Uncle Sam as well.  Sam is another example of fiction forced to life within his own universe, a living vision of the famous propaganda poster in a manner that’s more explicit than ever before.  Traditionally in the comics, Sam has represented America or freedom or the like, but here he is very much meant to be a counter to Overman, as the name suggest, another being of living propaganda. 

What’s more, Sam, like Overman, is an idea twisted into something it was never meant to be- the role of a Messiah.  When we first see Sam in the present, it’s in his ragtag base on Ellis Island, quoting the inscription on the Statue of Liberty as well as Bible verses in the same breath.  He was apparently conceived of in these sequences as a purposefully Christ-like character, echoing his role in the Vertigo 2-part prestige graphic novel Uncle Sam. 

The thing is, this vision of himself as the holy man amid the end of the world is another good idea built on a bad beginning that Sam can’t escape.  He wants to be the exemplary embodiment of the American cause but at the end of the day Uncle Sam is a call to arms, a call for war, and that’s all he can be.  So despite assembling his Freedom Fighters and brings their holy wrath against the New Reichsmen he can’t be the hero or the savior he wants, he can’t make a difference he can only make war.  So, when the Freedom Fighters do strike it’s to blow up the entire city of Metropolis, killing untold millions whose only crime was being there.  

‘Master Men’ is a big, bold, dark comic that refuses to leave its readers any ounce of comfort or victory within the anger and inhumanity of its pages.  It's a thoroughly layered exploration of a simple concept through the lens of nationalistic pride, artistic endeavors, meta-textual identity, and metaphysical concepts that manages to be a chilling and engaging story all the same.  

What’s more, like all of The Multiversity’s individual issues the ending was left purposefully open for future writers to continue the story of Overman and Uncle Sam.  The hope of the series was to act as a jumping off point for new on-going comics set in the various universes, so maybe there’s redemption yet waiting for the Master Men in some new identity forged out final violent ashes of their corrupted origins. 

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