I’m pretty sure Warren Ellis doesn’t like superheroes very much, though he’s certainly still managed to write more than a few bang-up superhero comics. But I haven’t read any from him lately.
His superhero work lately – I’m thinking No Hero, Black Summer, and Supergods – are, like most Ellis books I’ve read lately, lazy and poorly developed. Take Orbiter, for instance. It has a truly novel and interesting premise: a space shuttle that had disappeared, crew and all, many years ago lands at Kennedy Space Center. The book hinges around the mystery of where it has been all these years, what happened to its crew, and how a ship designed only to orbit Earth could have traces of dust from Mars on it. But this mystery unfolds in the most boring and linear way possible, leaving one to wish that such a premise hadn’t been wasted on such an execution.
Supergod is the same way, and with it Ellis commits the same sins. The idea is that in a world where Superheroes haven’t naturally occurred, governments have gone out of their way to create them. They were intended, then, to be instruments of their governments’ usually amoral agendas; most of them, even the ones that prove to have superhuman intelligence, were supposed to be dumb tools. But one of the book’s premises is that there is another simultaneous motivation for their creation: in inventing superheroes, we are not really trying to invent heroes, but the gods we feel like ought to exist but don’t. They are making, then, what are on the one hand supposed to be stupid weapons; and, on the other, what are supposed to be their salvation.
So far, this is largely compatible with my own observations about superheroes. I’ve mentioned a few times the paradox that superheroes tend to be more moral than their opponents, but that they are also physically superior. There is almost always a kind of overdetermination to their actions whereby they triumph while being both more right and more strong, and we are induced not to think about what would happen if one or the other were not true. The latter parts of Morrison’s run on Animal Man meditated on this problem.
Ellis plays with this by doing what he usually does with superheroes, that is, through gross over exaggeration. Most of the superheroes the governments create are absurdly, incomprehensibly powerful – some of them have the abilities to play with matter like Play-Doh, to manipulate space, to see through time. The Indian government creates a being called Krishna; he looks the part.
After proving he is far more intelligent and powerful than his creators had intended and breaking out of the lab that birthed him, he recites Vedas that had never been written, deflects back on Packistan a nuclear assault, and then sets to work fixing his country. That turns out to mean destroying 90% of its population and remaking its polluted, degenerate cities. He’s more a god than a man – that’s what humans want for their superbeings here, after all – and, like a god, he is above us and different from us, his motives are ineffable, and his actions are inhumane.
Most of the other supergods are like this too, though their thought processes are somewhat more mysterious. The Iranians were trying to create and angel that will act as a conduit to god. But the god they create – he’s named Malak, of course – for some reason goes on a rampage. His power is only to destroy stuff. The Chinese supergod can, like Krishna, manipulate matter, and he focuses his attention on human flesh. He brutally constructs a Cthulhu out of the flesh of millions of unwilling Chinese.
What is Ellis trying to say about Iran or China? Anything? As I mentioned, there is a certain laziness about the book that makes it difficult for me to take it too seriously. Nearly all the story is narrated as an oral history by a scientist involved in the creation of the British supergod. Mostly it’s text boxes of him giving exposition overlaid on supergods fighting each other or killing their people; I get it: Ellis is trying to make the supergods seem inaccessible, inscrutable, horrible, and mysterious. They’re inhuman, and like gods, they operate according to a different moral system than we do. But this makes it a book that feels dominated by exposition, and there is very little dialog or, you know, interesting interaction among characters. Instead, the story unfolds as a linear, and rather boring, narrative about characters who we never understand or are induced to care about.
Indeed, it’s a book that feels like a series of concept sketches about superheroes instead of a developed story: “This one’s Malak! And he can destroy stuff at will! And he, like, blows a hole in the moon! And-and…”
To Ellis’s credit, there is one actually interesting character, the American supergod, Jerry Craven. Whereas the other supergods were for the most part invented to be the gods their creators wished already existed – gods that proved more inhumane than they ever guessed – Jerry must be more like an avatar of the American people. He’s confused and deceived, but he’s well meaning, and I don’t think we ever see him try to kill someone for no reason. He’s a pastiche of the 6 million dollar man, though in his case the government caused the crash so they could fake his death and operate on him with impunity. When he’s rebuilt, he’s powerful, but he’s also convinced that he must be dead and in hell now, and he keeps pealing his skin off to expose the electronics beneath. To control him, his superiors must set him up in a facsimile of a perfect, midwestern American town, and they tell him that he is indeed dead and in heaven. Only, sometimes jets land in heaven, take him to distant countries, and for America’s sake he fights and kills for causes he doesn’t really understand until they deposit him back in paradise.
So maybe Jerry does say something about America, its people, and their government, but he’s not representative, as I said. The other supergods kill people of their own and other countries, as well as each other, without much explanation. Is it because it is the nature of superheroes to make war? Because the world is not big enough for more than one god? Because it is humanity’s natural conclusion to create everything it has always dreamed of and to use that to destroy itself? These might be, and probably are, all true, but Ellis doesn’t try very hard to prove these points.
The most programmatic speech comes out of the mouth of the British supergod, Morrigan Lugus, a true abomination. The British, trying to create a supergod but not quote sure how to do it, shot three astronauts into space on an unshielded shuttle, and there they were infected by a space fungus that fused them into one being with an alien intelligence.
His keepers, the British scientists involved in the project, come to revere and worship him – even though he rarely speaks and has unclear motivations. The book’s narrator, one of his caretakers, breaks down at one point and asks him “what he’s for.” Morrigan Lugus tells him: the human brain has evolved such that it produces pleasure when one gazes in fear and awe at anthropomorphized objects from the natural world; organized religion is a product of this, as is, indeed, all of human culture. It’s that old chestnut, then: religion as a narcotic, though introducing superheroes into it adds a little novelty.
But here, as usual, this proposition is too simplistically described and explored. So in a world without gods, we have created superheroes to fulfill that compulsion of ours to worship something. What of it? That doesn’t explain why they need to be so dark, ridiculous, and destructive. On the contrary, that we are left to create our own gods could introduce a wonderful element of self-determination in an otherwise indifferent universe. But this book doesn’t do anything with this, and, like any bad superhero book, it degenerates into supergods fighting each other, killing each other, and saying things that sound kind of cool but make no sense.
Ellis is right that our superheroes are our modern mythology, and given the technology, we might try to make these objects of our veneration a reality. And given our imperfect conception of them – overwhelming power plus unexamined righteousness – they could turn out as brutal, inscrutable, and inhuman as these supergods, who are pretty much the same as the old gods, only they’re real. But what Morrison has shown us is that superheroes are indeed kinds of gods, but they are different and better than our old gods. The old gods were mighty but unreasonable and vengeful. But Superman will save the life of even his bitterest enemy. And, what’s more, we can be like them – all Batman is is a guy who transcended his traumas and fights against evil. Anyone can be a Batman. Superheroism is contingent on psychological, not physical, transformation.
We know that what makes our superheroes heroes and not merely gods is that they have in fact not become something other than human, but rather represent what is best about humanity. Superman is great not because he’s inhumanly powerful, but because he is superhumanly humane; and Batman because he is a man who has perfected himself and now walks among gods; and Jesus because he is a god who became a man.