Sunday, September 26, 2010

Remembering Wildstorm: Stormwatch, "Jack Hawksmoor"

"Lightning Strikes" is the second trade paperback collection of Warren Ellis's run on Stormwatch (1996 to 1997, issues 43 to 47). This is when all of the different themes and elements of Ellis's United Nations-sponsored superheroes come together and explode awesome all over the place like a well-calibrated awesomebomb. The political messages ring truer to the ear than the clunky "Force of Nature" story lines. The stories themselves are more ambitious and experimental. And best of all, the characters get drunk together. Nobody can write drunk superheroes like Ellis.

Tom Raney and Randy Elliot are on board again for pencils and colors, respectively, and speaking of drinking, their barroom scenes are a treasure trove of comic homages and meta-commentary. I could do an entire post on the characters boozing it up in the background. But the noteworthy artist in "Lightning Strikes" is Jim Lee, who drops in to illustrate issue 47. It's a nice you-have-my-blessing gesture from Stormwatch's creator, and Lee is so talented that I have to wonder how he ended up in DC's upper management.

Each of five issues in "Lightning Strikes" deserves its own post, so I'm going to kick us off with issue 43, "Jack Hawksmoor."

Before he got his very own issue, every story featuring Jack Hawksmoor provided a cheat sheet explaining his abilities, some variation of, "a creature designed by aliens to live specifically in cities." We find out that Jack "eats" urban pollution, that he can surf the air currents above tall buildings, and that he can communicate with the cities themselves. Take him outside of an urban environment, like up to the Skywatch satellite for a Stormwatch briefing, and he goes into convulsions and vomits up black sludge. And finally, as Ellis is inordinately fond of bringing up, Jack's transformation from regular guy to superhuman urban entity began when he was only five and was basically a years-long series of abuses and torture--by aliens!

In Jack, it seemed like Ellis had created a character so unique and interesting that he didn't know what to do with him. In the "Force of Nature" collection, Jack is basically just a detective who gets his clues directly from the city. His first lengthy character description in issue 38 reads as alien-modified Batman. "The city feeds him, and lets him dance in her hair, and that's all Jack Hawksmoor ever needs. In return, he attempted to clean the parasites from her concrete skin; the criminals and the people who made them. Until yesterday [when] he became an officer of Stormwatch. From today, he will try and bring justice to all cities." While he's also superstrong and never needs to sleep, it's easy to see why Jack never considered himself part of the superhero community before Stormwatch approached him. He doesn't see what good an emotionally scarred detective can be on a superhuman task force. (*cough*Justice League.)

Anyone who claims to know what Warren Ellis is thinking is clearly in need of an exorcist. But while I wait for my mail-order holy water to arrive, I'd like to speculate that Jack's growing awareness of himself as a valuable member of Stormwatch mirrors Ellis's own growing understanding of what this strange and wonderful character can do. So here we are at Stormwatch 43, when Jack finally comes into his own.

On the surface, this issue is a classic crime noir. Jack, our hard-boiled detective, is hot on the heels of a serial hatchet-murderer who likes to leave American flags at the scenes of his crimes. But while most crime noirs have a beautiful woman tearfully imploring the detective to take her case and solve the crime, Jack has the city herself screaming out for justice in a voice only he can hear. The urban setting is as much a character in standard crime noir as any of the humans, so Ellis takes the next logical step and makes the city a living entity with an emotional stake in the outcome of the case. Jack, then, isn't just a detective who can talk to cities; he's an extension of the urban landscape, more of a city himself than a human being. Though the specifics of his powers are fun and interesting--seeing the past reflected in window glass, divining the future in changes in air currents and floor pressure--what makes this issue great is the exploration of Jack's intimacy with something that's both achingly familiar and wholly alien to ordinary human perception.

But this is all going on in the background. The main action isn't between the city-man and his city: it's between Jack and the United States Secret Service, and here, finally, Ellis's political commentary stops being an embarrassment to us all. While it stills feels like he cobbled together a picture of the American psyche from old movies and supermarket tabloids, what he comes up with is so bizarre it barrels right past bad taste into just-crazy-enough-to-work territory. Ellis doesn't name names, but he pretty obviously implies that the hatchet-man is the illegitimate son of President Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe. The (literal) bastard has been killing people since he was seven on account of the incurable congenital syphilis eating away at his brain. And even though it sounds kinda stupid in summary, the fact that Ellis doesn't come right out and say "Kennedy" or "Monroe" makes it all work. Politicians cover up sexual trysts and illegitimate children all the time, and while I don't agree with Ellis's assertion that public knowledge of JFK's serial killer son will "destroy America's innocence," I think that he tapped into some very basic truths about the American political culture. This is exactly the sort of thing the Secret Service would cover up; and yes, America would hate Stormwatch all the more for unmasking the conspiracy. Not because we deify our politicians--just the opposite, actually--but rather, because the idea of a governmental cover-up goes against everything Americans value in our system of government. Scandals are fine, but lies going up to the highest seat in the nation, that shit's for the developing world, for corrupt Middle Eastern and African nations. Americans have a fetish relationship with truth: it's weird and kinky and not always healthy, but we believe it's our collective commitment to the truth that separates us from the other kids in the sandbox.

The crime noir is the perfect vehicle for this message. Things are never as simple as they seem in crime noir, and the truth is always buried deeper than the detective expects. Jack arrives at the scene of a murder and secretly observes the NYPD deciding to sweep the case under the rug. Soon Jack is being chased by shadowy government officials and has to make a series of quick getaways using fun found objects like a microwave and an unopened can of soda, which is all kinds of crazyawesome. Hot on the trail of the killer, he's waylaid by a Secret Service agent who's had plastic surgery to look exactly like Marilyn Monroe because the only face the killer obeys. There's a great moment when the Marilyn Monroe agent tells Jack to strip naked so she can shoot him, and then becomes violently ill when she sees his genitals. It reminds us how far from human Jack really is, and gives him a chance to get the upper hand and force her to reveal the killer's location.

So finally, it's just Jack and the killer, facing off on the scaffolding in the evening news studio. Jack has to make an awful choice: he can bring the man to justice himself as a Stormwatch officer, destroying any goodwill America might still have for the United Nations taskforce; he can let him go, leaving him free to continue killing and getting away with it thanks to the Secret Service; or he can just kill the bastard. He doesn't like to do it--at this point in Jack's character arc, he isn't a killer, and if he was, there would be little to thematically separate himself from the villain of this story; all that moral messiness comes later in Jack's Authority days. But for now, Jack makes his choice, though it tears him up inside. He throws the killer off the scaffolding and hangs him from a noose of electrical cables in front of the television cameras, a public unmasking of the monster live on the evening news. Stormwatch teleports Jack out of the studio before anyone can find him. And the city goes quiet.Some stray thoughts:

Jack kills the villain on live television in a television studio. There's some kind of commentary on the intersection between real life and media in that panel, but this post is long enough already, so I'll let you fill in the blanks.

Raney didn't deign to draw Jack Hawksmoor's penis on panel, and unfortunately, it's hideousness is never mentioned again. Maybe Wildstorm would have stayed in business longer if they'd ever published "Jack Hawksmoor's Alien Penis." You know Ellis would have written the shit out of that comic.

Next time: Jenny Sparks' romp through comic book history.

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