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Friday, February 17, 2017

Panel Vision - Great Ten

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As the 21st century prepares to exit its adolescence and enter its quarter-life crisis period, the idea that this will be the Chinese century seems more and more assured.  Chinese tastes and interests have grown into a major box office force for American blockbusters, Chinese industrialism drives a lot of the global economy, they’re the only people with the billions to dictate commands to the likes of Apple or Google, and recently they’ve established themselves at the forefront of the Green Energy push. 

This means that everybody has to adjust, hence why we see a larger Chinese presence in US blockbusters like Transformers 4 or Iron Man 3.  Comics are usually slow to adapt to these kinds of trends save for one exception at DC comics, who got on board the China train as early as 2006- 2 years before their coming out party to the world stage that was the Beijing Olympics.  They did it with a new prestige team of superheroes meant to embody various aspects of Chinese culture known as the Great Ten.

The Great Ten entered the world in 2006 as part of a universally beloved weekly series called 52.  The comic was meant to be a self-contained year of real time in the DC universe, written by Grant Morrison, Geoff Johns, Greg Rucka, Mark Waid, and Keith Giffen- 5 absolute titans of the medium.  The book had a lot of mandates going on, both regarding good storytelling and universe management.  

It was partially intended to tell unique stories with low-level heroes during a year without Batman, Superman, or Wonder Woman but it was also aimed at reshaping the face of the DCU going into the late 2000s.  A big part of this was to compete with Marvel’s re-emerging popularity through a number of blockbuster events, most prominently Civil War.  One of the big demands DC editor Paul Levitz had for 52 was to introduce more international, non-American superheroes to the DCU.

Superhero books have always been real skittish about dealing with the international hero scene.  DC has, traditionally, been a lot better about it than Marvel, with most of Marvel’s international heroes being consigned to the ranks of the X-Men.  This has the curious effect of rendering them still American even if just by location, like Colossus might be from Russia and Storm might be from Kenya but they still fight crime in New York like everyone else. 

DC has been far more willing to dig into foreign heroes through groups like the Global Guardians, the Batmen of All Nations, or Justice League International but those teams tended to really ignore China.  Often, international heroes are limited to just Europe and South/Central America, occasionally dipping into Japan or Australia for variety.  For comparison- there are about 15 superheroes from England across DC and Marvel and only 1 from India. 

52 was the latest attempt to revise that, introducing a slew of new or revamped international heroes.  They even got shockingly meta with the idea, setting up this thing called the ‘Freedom of Power’ treaty which formed an international coalition designed to curb “imperialist superhuman adventurism from America.”  That’s where the Great Ten first popped up, as one of the major nations backing the treaty, specifically to deny jurisdiction to American superheroes hoping to just stomp into China and start taking names. 

As for the team themselves, they’re based around various aspects of Chinese culture, mythology, and a more standard “government making superheroes” type arc.  The team’s leader is August General in Iron, a former Chinese soldier who was exposed to an alien disease.  The treatment caused him to develop a bio-metal exoskeleton, granting him enhanced strength and flight.  He’s the military force behind the team and has a real love of quoting The Art of War.  That’s one of the downsides to the team honestly, while the characters are often cool and engaging some of the “cultural” stuff involved smacks of a foreign take on China. 

For instance, the more altruistic, bleeding heart of the team is Accomplished Perfect Physician, who can use vocal sounds to heal or destroy or create other super effects.  He’s basically got the power of “eastern medicine,” though it’s interestingly structured that he was a Chinese soldier sent to suppress locals in Tibet who deserted.  

There’s a lot of that kind of approach flittering around the more mystical members of the team, like Seven Deadly Brothers, a guy who mastered a martial arts technique to split into 7 versions of himself, or Ghost Fox Killer, a soul stealer woman who comes from a hidden city of similar women all of which are tasked to kill and harvest the souls of evil men. The ones who are more straightforward in their mysticism like Celestial Archer, the living avatar of an ancient Chinese archery God, or Thundermind, who’s powered by a kind of Buddhist magic, work better as there’s less classical Orientalism to their powers. 

The remaining members are mostly classical superhero fair.  Socialist Red Guardsman is a living nuclear reactor in a mecha-containment suit, Shaolin Robot is a sentient robot created in China’s ancient past, and Immortal Man in Darkness has a kind of shapeshifting prosthesis that turns into an alien fighter jet thing.  The bizarre standout of the bunch is Mother of Champions, a work who fell into a particle accelerator beam.  

As a result, when she gets pregnant she gives birth to a litter of children who grow at super speed into adulthood, dies very quickly, and have vague basic super powers.  I really don’t know what the thought process was with her, I just hope it wasn’t some kind of play on Chinese restrictions on childbirth because that’d be in really poor taste. 

Speaking of taste, you might notice that a lot of these characters fit neatly into nationally flavored stereotypes, that’s actually fairly common with this kind of character creation.  Stereotypes in the real world are a bad thing, certainly, but in storytelling, we honestly tend to gravitate towards them way more than anyone is comfortable realizing.  The best example of this comes from the stereotype kings- the X-Men, Overwatch, and Team Fortress 2. 

All three of those have a major Russian character that’s so stereotypical they’re about 1 step removed from Boris Badenov, but we forgive that because the stereotype is just a handy way to place Zarya, and Colossus, and the Heavy.  That’s the same reason Overwatch’s American characters are a cowboy and a soldier or why all the Native American X-Men was named Thunderbird.  We crave these stereotypes in visual storytelling just to fill in the blanks for us, it’s the same reason in fantasy Elves use bows and Dwarves do mining.

I’m not sure the Great Ten are really still around, they were part of the New 52, but now that aspect of DC’s universe seems to have been swallowed up by the new Chinese Superman.  I’m still a little mixed on that idea, it’s an interesting concept, but something that worked about the Great Ten was that they didn’t feel like just “the Chinese Batman” or “the Chinese Green Lantern.” 

It goes back to that idea about stereotypes, that we prefer a character that wears their nationality on their sleeve.  It’s a damn shame that the Great Ten are gone as they always felt like a book with a lot of untapped potential, especially given how often they end up in the realm of superhero espionage and political thrillers.  Maybe one day they’ll get the solo comic they deserve, maybe with an Asian writer/illustrator team to go with it too. 

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