ELAYNE RIGGS: Part of the solution
As I write this, the nation is still reeling from the deadliest shooting massacre in its history – if you don’t count wartime battles, and they never seem to. Once again, a disturbed young man decided that the best response to his problems lay in premeditated violence against total strangers. Once again, trusted and trained authorities appeared slow to act in protecting human life. Once again, we found ourselves yearning for a hero to make it all go away.
Comic book heroism is a double-edged sword, probably a fitting metaphor, given superhero comics’ fascination with weaponry. On the one hand you have a reflection of whatever the current national mood of the era happens to be. I was watching a history-of-Superman program on the Biography channel earlier this evening, wherein Mark Waid talked about how the character shifted from a rabble-rousing champion of the people at his inception to the "ultimate blue Boy Scout" symbol of authority after World War II. Superman, like other successful icons, was able to change with the times, allowing succeeding generations to project their desires onto him. And for some time, ever-escalating fictional violence as the appropriate (and often only) answer to frustrations has fueled the entertainment desires of Americans.
Comic books are, of course, incidental to this trend, which has encompassed virtually all forms of mass media, even more so as the news divisions — once sacrosanct and considered acceptable loss leaders to responsible corporations which made their money on other programming — morphed into 24/7 cable infotainment, hungry for the next fix of spectacularly gruesome visuals. Their mouths say "tut tut" to the carnage, but their wallets say "More please, sir!" And yet, critics of ultraviolent entertainment (and boy is that a Sisyphusean undertaking!) are always very quick to point fingers at "the comic book mentality" and wave around the latest issue of Punch ‘Em Up Man. Because, you know, it makes a good visual.
On the other hand, comics at their best can inspire and educate and lift us all up to our highest aspirational fantasies. To me, this attitude of being "part of the solution" rather than "part of the problem" has always been the essence of superhero fantasy — not beating up on badguys, but using one’s hidden reserves of power to triumph over adversity and bring hope to others, showing them by your deeds the way they too can become heroes.
Nowhere was this more keenly illustrated than after 11 September 2001, when the comics industry came out with a slew of amazing and poignant comics stories examining and trying to make sense the tragedy, in order to help raise money for victims’ families.
I highly doubt stories about the Virginia Tech shooting would lend themselves to an effective comic book; too many times this sort of violence has been used as a cheap plot device in fiction, devoid of real-life context and consequences, and it’s hard to renounce that mentality and reclaim the courage and imagination to successfully depict evil acts as immoral rather than titillating. But comics can continue to inspire and inform and even criticize the halls of power.
When I heard the Krewe of Muses had been tossing into the crowds a New Orleans-centric, post-Katrina educational and satirical comic from their float in this year’s Mardi Gras parade, I knew I wanted to follow up, and I wasn’t disappointed. In fact, the work has inspired me to shake off the mothballs from my old Usenet review column and do this in proper style:
Pen-Elayne For Your Thoughts: The Adventures of Super-Muse
Writers: The Krewe of Muses
Artist: Damon Bowie
Here’s what I thought…
One of the problems a comic like this faces is didacticism. It’s tricky to straddle the line between getting across needed information and telling a good story. Often the art will make or break such a venture, and that being the case it’s always a smart idea to hedge your bets with plenty of humor, which forgives inexperienced skills. Bowie’s draftsmanship is at what used to be called a fanzine level, there are few backgrounds to speak of and no compositional flow to the pages; but as the point of the comic is to explore what government officials have — or, more accurately, haven’t — done about rebuilding New Orleans after Katrina, he handles caricatures pretty well.
As nobody else out there is likely to have this comic, I’ll recap the plot. It concerns Nola Rizing, whose origin story is dealt with handily in the first four pages, which rightly should be all the space most any origin story needs and which sets the uplifting tone for the rest of the book. We’re made aware that Nola’s new powers including flight "so that she might be a beacon for the victims of FEMA and the SBA," telepathy "to read the true thoughts of politicians," super boots "to leap over challenges" and super strength "to lift tons of debris and push aside mountains of b.s. and red tape that lay ahead."
The following scenes show Supermuse confronting said b.s. and red tape, only to be frustrated at every turn. The Krewe and Bowie depict local and national politicians as costumed heroes and villains alike, mostly for the purpose of parodying those costumes (Magneto, the FF, Wonder Woman — to whose costume Supermuse’s threads also bear a great resemblance, to the point of trademark dilution were this comic not created as an entirely not-for-profit giveaway) and linking the powers they convey to the non-actions of the authorities. For instance, Mayor Ray Nagin becomes Mighty Mouth, Governor Kathleen Reardon becomes Wondering Woman, Condi Rice is the Inquizical Woman of the Fanatic 4 (Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld being the other three) and so forth. One by one they disappoint Supermuse with their self-absorption, buck-passing and dithering. It served as a great impetus for me to look up names of LA politicians and other bigwigs with whom I was previously unfamiliar, like David Vitter and Bobby Jindal (portrayed as bickering obfuscators), Kimberly Williamson-Butler (shown as a selfish plotter) and Jim Letten (depicted as one of the good guys).
After being thus rebuffed by other members of the super community, Nola returns to the 9th Ward to help clean up debris, where she encounters scavengers and other opportunists doing anything but contributing to the situation. She apprehends two oblivious French Quarter partiers, only to see her efforts at justice thwarted again (this scene didn’t really work for me, as the youngsters weren’t actually shown as causing harm to anyone). She meets some more local unhelpful supers (including a reappearance by Mayor Nagin, this time as Two-Face), and stops off to thank Swamp Thing (well, come on, that’s an obligatory crossover there) for his efforts in replenishing the wetlands.
And that’s pretty much it. The last page shows Supermuse flying towards us, continuing her efforts "to rebuild the levees, remove debris, provide funding without confusion, restart the economy, welcome businesses and conventions back to the city, and reunite all the citizens." Why isn’t this shown? Two reasons, I think. First, it’s always been easier to show destruction and confrontation than construction and healing, particularly for artist of limited range. But more importantly, it’s a conscious story choice not to show these things, because the incompetence of current authority has shown that rebuilding NOLA is up to all of us. As the back inside cover says, "You have the power to save New Orleans — use your power to volunteer!" and lists a number of places where you can do that, such as Hands on New Orleans, Habitat for Humanity, New Orleans Outreach, the New Orleans Council on Aging, and KIDsmART.
I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention my favorite page, the bitingly snarky Sea Monkeys mock ad, where the "Real Life New Orleans residents you’ve watched on TV, over and over and over again" do lots of tricks such as "rescue, parade, have festivals, install sheetrock, deal with looting, fight crime" all while "living in one tiny FEMA trailer not much bigger than a fishbowl." Naturally, the money-back guarantee on the coupon is void if submerged in water.
As a story, The Adventures of Supermuse left me wanting a sequel showing a rebuilt and vibrant city. As a slice of reality, the comic left me wanting to help. I know where I can start, with a thank-you check to the Krewe (wish I could afford the $150 for membership!) for their efforts here.
Where you start is up to you.
Elayne Riggs is ComicMix‘s news editor, and has a link to Katrina relief organizations from her blog. Silver Surfer, as done by Alan Davis and Robin Riggs for Heroes, is ™ & © Marvel Comics. Supermuse is probably ™ & © Krewe of Muses.