You got politics in my superheroes, shock! … and superheroes in my politics, too?! Shock and outrage!
Too bad, sweet pea. That’s just how things are and always have been. I’ll tell you why: because comics are political, either via implication due to their junk-product nature which is forced to be close to life to be consumed at all, or explicitly because you can get away with it when no one vets them (or barely). So it’s not “superheroes” I’m talking about necessarily, but rather, superheroes in comics. Political. Put it up your ass and smoke it.
This is fifth in a series of posts about Intruder by me and Scott LeMien; the previous posts are Intruder alert, “I Am I” (which is the actual comics), Forms and features, and Rough and ready. Check out the full version which includes covers, a frontispiece, and text pieces ($2.17 physical; free PDF).
So this “politics” thing: I can always smile gently, spread my hands, incline my head toward Scott, and say, “But it’s his fault.” There it is in his initial Supervillain You work:
A select few control the world’s wealth and power. You only need to control, and if need be, ruin those select few to shift wealth, power and choice back to the people. Kinda a classist.
Opposed by almost every world leader, billionaire and giant corporation or large aggregate group who is exploiting individuals.
Class struggle awareness goes out, but so does awareness of his powers. The rich make their families corporations, rotating chairmanship of wealth among random advisors who have their powers severely limited. Factional opposition is riled up among warlords who refuse to consider socialist concepts in favor of and fascist, racist, fundamentalist beliefs, largely in small, armed cells, the ‘Talibama’ in the US. They insert small groups of youth, who even within areas that were converted peacefully, rove in masked execution squads and begin targeting even the higher end of the middle class
Not exactly equivocal! Intruder as a character might be “kinda a classist” but whoever wrote that is not kinda a kinda!
The “fault” thing is kidding, of course. I had front-loaded real-world evil as defined by the player into Supervillain You in the first place, and these were Scott’s responses. But what responses! I instantly seized and absorbed these bits from his crucible-of-crazy that specifically call out 80s nostalgia cultural training.
Because I hate that shit. With a deep, abiding hate that arises directly from being right at the age when you decided whether – for example – Sixteen Candles was or was not your anthem film, upon its release.
This isn’t a popular view and for about twenty years now, it’s been simply incomprehensible to anyone, so I don’t bother. Not only does it speak into a microphone that’s already switched-off by “what everybody knows,” but now, too, it runs against the past few years’ reinforcing pop culture message that the Eighties were so much fun and full of such spunky kid hijinks … somehow missing just how dark, depressing, defiant, and even vicious most of the period “comedies” are, and how deliberately absurd their happy-happy endings are, to the point of satire.
Therefore as we proceeded, and possibly to Scott’s consternation, I refused to let these topics subside into subtext. I pressed him on the details and asked him to express whatever he thought or felt worthy of criticism in terms of Ditko-rant infographics. As a little jog, I offered this famous image (which I well remember from its original release) as an example.
Scott then sketched these as top-half alternatives to a biographical sequence:
The second part of that sketch-design page described the character’s young college life, “trying to mainstream it,” with significant content which ties into the caricature above:
You see it, I hope: college libertarianism. I think a lot of us can talk about encountering some tome by Ayn Rand, usually pressed into our hands by a self-described “serious” adherent, “this is the stuff you should be reading.” In the all-about-me aisle, recall that I began my studies at the University of Chicago in 1983, the asymptote moment when American free-market claptrap was fully adopted into policy status.
However, my case was a little different in that I was already past my point of disgust with Rand, which I’d first read during (not “in”) high school. I’d quickly realized that for something so invasive as policy and pervasive as culture, it’s pitifully thin shit: fake-intellectual gloss over the prosperity gospel. So now I could knowledgeably see it seep into my freethinking-seeking friends, or recognize the miasma as it hovered over the already-converted who hung around the tumor on campus known at that time as the Graduate School of Business.
Let’s dial it way back to the 1930s, when Alisa Zinovjevna Rosenbaum, recent Russian immigrant, broke into peripheral movie work, playwriting, short stories, and eventually novels. As “Ayn Rand,” she was one of several Russian and Polish-born writers to be swiftly elevated for anti-communist purposes, and in the early 1950s, she, like Ronald Reagan, was a “friendly witness,” a.k.a. a fink, regarding Hollywood targets of the House Committee on Anti-American Activities, a.k.a. the McCarthy hearings. Her cause, such as it was, Objectivism, received a huge publicity boost via Atlas Shrugged in the late 1950s as “free-thinking rugged individualism,” and that’s clearly how Ditko got it.
All of these names and notions have changed a lot since then. At that time, the ideology had little to do with libertarianism as then constructed, and in fact the two camps were vehemently opposed throughout the 1960s. (Thanks to my pal Ralph for some backgrounding!) They were soon to reconcile, however, when the Libertarian Party as such was founded in 1971. Two names worth knowing in this process were David Nolan and his late-60s Society for Individual Liberty, and John Hospers, a Rand advocate and the new party’s first presidential candidate in 1972.
However, a much bigger, less intellectual and more policy-and-power oriented shift arrived during the 1970s, now glossed up with the concept of the free market, with its origins in austerity policy directed straight from Nixon’s White House. Here’s its architect, Milton Friedman, captured on camera counting as high as he could. As an exercise, please use this lovely interface with human knowledge that you are now touching to investigate the accuracy of the often-repeated accolade, “He won the Nobel Prize!” … because he did no such thing. From the mid-1970s through the mid-80s, these notions transformed from a deliberately destructive attack on an economy into what an economy was somehow supposed to be. Furthermore, they lodged hard not in that little splinter third party (which to this day holds simultaneously turgid and fervent self-examination debates on what the fuck it’s even trying to say) but in the Republican Party. You might recognize the name Koch involved in this historical moment and effect as well. The key point being that any hint of anti-statism and anti-authoritarianism was flatly scrubbed, while maintained in rhetoric.
Let’s turn to Scott’s generation (and hence Jay LeBeau’s), as mid-teens at the turn of the millenium, raised in the euphoria and fog of blatant stupidity concerning the Soviet Union, when “libertarian” as an anointed victory-ideology was presented as the new normal, at least as imbibed by every slightly off-brand young intellectual who was just bright enough to be suspicious of the Budweiser-Miller Lite pairing of the mainstream political parties. And the big selling point to them as of ’00 exactly was how much damn fun those Eighties were, when anyone could see from the movies that America shone (to borrow an older phrase) best and brightest.
My first university faculty position began in 1998; I maintained that career and constant contact with students until 2014. I know this generation and their world-view very well; only a certain percent were hardline little Randians (of this vintage), but they presented an extremely specific demographic and outlook – bright, dissatisfied, argumentative, resentful, just a bit asocial in professional terms, and absolutely addled with pride that they’d “found it,” i.e., some position to state as the right thing against all comers.
All this drove my absorption of Scott’s presentation of Intruder’s backstory, as invoked content for this story. It’s a point I’ve raised before: yes, Jay was physically abused as a kid (not shown in our story), yes, his mother died of bone cancer (ditto), yes, he fought hard to fit in and barely succeeded, but was just beginning to question his choices when he was hit by the same (inherited) cancer … it’s all set up for the typical resentful, lashing-back villain who just wants everyone to suffer too. But that’s not who Jay LeBeau is. His travails and burdens are not his motivation; they’re merely what honed his will into the force he needed to rebel against the ideology in which he’d believed and, indeed, had sacrificed himself to in multiple ways. His motivation isn’t whiny-hot resentment, but icy-cold rage.
Scott kept the pressure on from his end too, in developing Crusader via this sketch page. I interpreted the content to mean that this mighty superhero is deeply well-meaning, the essential believer in the American Way in the most “gently firm” way. That’s why he disapproves of the aircraft carrier (you noted its name, right? that’s real) but wouldn’t directly oppose the policy-makers that sent it there. If anyone’s interested, he presents an interesting comparison with the Public Spirit from Marshal Law.
To review: prompted by me in playing the Supervillain You rules, Scott responded extremely specifically and coherently, then I kept applying pressure and insisted on staying with the uncompromising, inky, info-graphic, ranty Ditko presentation.
But what does this have to do with the actual story in those 14 pages? And especially, that bizarre page 13, after Intruder takes over the Crusader Station and the AI integrates the alien techno-ring, and they go on sort of a shaman-quest information-space cyber-trip. What the fuck is all that?
Well, keep in mind that if 25 years of academia taught me anything, it’s how to find things out when I feel like it. Here’s my visual summary from the Counterpunch entry Revolving door project probes Thiel’s White House connection, by Max Moran, originally published as a Center for Economic and Policy Research article.
I’m pretty sure you see it. First, that several people hold positions both among Thiel’s companies and in the executive branch of the U.S. government, in such a way that “conflict of interest” is inadequate to describe. Second, that development of AI for population surveillance and military operations occurs in an overlap among (1) a think tank for Thiel and his peers, (2) Thiel’s companies contracted with the Pentagon, (3) the Pentagon’s own AI development division, and (4) the White House’s “American AI Initiative.”
Intruder’s origin lies right in the most shadowy and deniable zone of that exact overlap. No one can really tell whether the project was government or private (neither? both?), how it’s funded, who manages and operates it, who gets to use what it creates, or indeed what it has precisely created … but it produced the AI entity, a bunch of corpses, and whatever was left of Jay LeBeau.
Jay was the perfect subject, with a personal history of libertarianism that idealized people like Thiel and with desperate health and family circumstances. He is also now this sector’s worst nightmare, armed with every ability and power they dreamed of achieving, but rebelling against it. He is motivated by exactly the right combination of love, rage, idealism, and determination. Basically, Jay is calling the Koch Bros’ ideological bluff: “You think an ‘individual’ is automatically going to be a robber baron? Then you better hope one of us down here never becomes an individual.”
That’s why Intruder’s first major target was to take out Crusader as the most explicit personification of the normalization of views and power like Thiel’s and distraction from their existence. When your idealized hero will only address band-aids for symptoms (all the pictured events in the panel summarizing him to Ali and Sharon), then he is nothing more than an agent of popular delusion and submission, no matter how sincere his desire for good.
Having accomplished this goal, Intruder is then able to see deeper, past the distraction, into what kind of power and efforts are really operating. This network is what he sees. The AI cannot comprehend this network and its core without him, as one cannot surveil oneself without entering a recursive loop. The AI is experiencing its own unique version of Freudian trauma in that panel.
As all of my sources were public information, I went ahead with plain old namin’ names, or in this case, showing faces. That is Jerome H. Powell, current head of the Federal Reserve in panel 3 of page 2, Michael Kratsios in page 13’s panel 3 (pictured here), Thiel in the blood-and-money pit at the bottom of that page, and that fellow whom Intruder mind-zapped back on page 4? That’s Tom Jawetz, actual chief exec at the Center for American Progress’ Immigration Policy Control office (person and office being extraordinarily vile; look’em up).
As for the design of the page, I’ve always liked how Ditko drew combat or movement through complex space via the traditional nine-panel grid. It’s like watching a master of cinematography capture action and space. And it seemed neat to use this method for the most trippy part of the story, i.e., it was the content that should blow your mind, not the layout. The panels and pages went through a few iterations, as I was very concerned with the trajectories of the characters’ travel in terms of reader-view.
So yeah, that’s politics of Intruder: a lot of’em and a lot of it, “it” being the unapologetic inclusion of any such thing right here in the midst of our superheroes and supervillains doing things. It came from both creators in equal fervor.
Posted on March 6, 2020, in Adept Comics, Politics dammit and tagged Ayn Rand, crucible of crazy, Intruder, Libertarianism, Milton Friedman, Objectivism, Peter Thiel, Ronald Reagan, Scott LeMien, Steve Ditko, University of Chicago. Bookmark the permalink. 15 Comments.
Hey Ron, I hate to clarify this, because I love being mistaken for being more youthful, but I’m closing in on the big five soonish, I think we aged back Jay mainly just to keep him in the usual hero efficiacious age range, though I did do one re-draw with more gray hairs.
I enjoy this book getting so many entries! And this one is juicy, but have to cast myself realistically here, Jay’s take and confidence in dissecting the world is distinctly Ron, which is my most honest response because I may have wrote some of those plans for Intruder’s base concept, I would have had no idea how, or would have required a lot of assistance from fellow players if this was some indie rpg to generate specifics. I’m okay at naming the principles, but that’s about it.
I just finished two volumes of SFP and the sheer amount of angles they tried to cover exhausted me, mainly because while I was loving it, I try to see if this is something I could have possibly arrived at if I made my own solo comic, and that’s a definite ‘no’. There is likely a concise argument (or, perhaps, an enacted arguing) mapped out and addressed by various representative characters but I haven’t tried sorting it out. When I do that, I sometimes am too quick to reduce material that has unaddressed exceptions. But anyway, the reason why I’m mentioning SFP here:
There definitely seems to be some overlap though with Intruder, One plus one, Ophite and SoG, which I was happy for, since they did such a great job, and the art evolved interestingly as well, that it seemed to be like a groove you had already assimilated, deemed cool and moved on from for your books. I’m new to this, though. One element where you differ, and I’m not sure if I’m naming my spices right, since we can say my palette isn’t that refined, but I feel like your ‘super’ storytelling style has a bit of overlap with spy novel/political thriller. In SFP, the characters talk out their thoughts a lot, they spell out their ideological differences. They monologue a bit, literally say ‘my philosophy is this, I want it to be this.’ You don’t have Intruder questioning the AI, those discussions already happened a long time ago, he’s moving forward with his plans.
That last line is sorta paraphrasing, if I remember correctly, some hero from either Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged, which is humorous. Let’s not talk about how many times I read those books, lol.
Regarding “who did what,” it’s very clear to me. Most coarsely, you proposed X, regardless of how intentionally or in what detail, and I ‘disposed’ X, turning it into words & events. A finer-grained view shows the specifics being constructed and implemented far more mutualistically or synergistically.There would have been no content of this kind without you, and it would not have been the same content without me.
I’d prefer not to keep poking at that. The cultural and hobby language for it always presumes a power struggle and an ownership/creator-cred struggle.
My blog thoughts on Strong Female Protagonist are found at We got this and Super bad. These posts make most sense in their larger context of understanding Superman – which took at least a dozen posts, but I finally unleash my thoughts on SFP as a story in the Super Bad comments.
I can write comics in the slower, more expository, and “characters explain themselves way.” To do it, you need an artist buddy who is totally-committed and an equal partner, in it for the long haul for no pay – which is what you see in SFP, a partnership to do this thing. I don’t have that. Or you need to be like Grace Crowley with the high-water mark of long term webcomics or perhaps of head-on this-is-superhero comics period Magellan, which I am not.
I will point out, however, that although the characters in SFP are forthcoming and explanatory about their points of view, very few if any are honest or accurate about those points of view. The story happens through actions, and the action very often shows that the characters’ self-images and their goals aren’t what they think they are. The series emphatically does not obey the Jim Shooter maxim (paraphrased) that every issue is a fractal reduction of the series and every page is a fractal reduction of the issue. To get SFP, you actually have to read the thing and process it aside from merely describing each page.
As far as the relation between my writing and that of spy fiction (not thrillers), I agree with you. However, I think the questions and conflicts are more explicit than you’re implying; for example, the AI is seeking to infect Ali and Sharon and Jay is forbidding it throughout the story. And your depictions, expressions, and body language among Crusader, Amanda, and Raxxus Xxan make their relationship very clear.
I meant this more as: Scott knows he can’t hit a 3 pointer, but Ron is like Reggie Miller raining down over the Knicks, so I throw the ball his way.
I wasn’t trying to splice the character contributions, but I can see I may have inadvertently done that.
I wish …! Thanks for the kind words. I say before the world, though, and this not merely reciprocity, that it was my honor to work with you. You are a superior comics creator and draftsman. I finally figured out the right words to say it: better than the industry.
Doodle, cause I forget that I could post doodles, too.
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I’m glad you think so!
Thanks so much!
I like the parallel “lest ye become a monster” thing happening on pages 13 and 14.
Thiel’s surveillance tech is plainly characterized as a tool for evil–pg 13.8 is some really solid Ditko-bordering-on-Chick level polemicizing. Yet Intruder’s AI is an outgrowth of that same technology.
In a more mundane way, I imagine the 11 months of work done by Ali, Sharon, and Jay relied very heavily on exploiting the Panopticon / Total Information Awareness stuff for their own uses. Just as Intruder’s superhuman aspect comes at a social cost he’s willing to accept, at the end of the story he’s also acquiring a tool that comes at a serious institutional cost.
There’s a “meet the new boss, same as the old boss” thing going on at the supers/personal level, as well as on the political level. It’s well done!
I’m very lucky to have escaped a large amount of the Reaganism brainwashing mentioned in the concept packet, but I do recognize certain parts in myself. The degree to which that stuff is rooted in white male supremacy & privilege can’t be overstated. American politics over the last 5 years or so is pretty plainly the involuntary debunking of Reagan’s version of the American dream, and the mobilization of racial and sexual anxiety as a literal-and-psychological defense mechanism.
Ugggh, there are SO MANY good stories to be told with this guy. Well done, both of you!
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At last count, I have lived through five absolutely explicit American moments in which it seemed to me,and to many people at a deep cultural level, that the latest shenanigans and their consequences were “it.”
Imagine some policy or action which was sold via lies, exposed as lies, benefited a cabal in ways only describable as racketeering, openly harmed or even slaughtered considerable numbers of people, stole or wasted immense funds, demonstrably hampered or crippled other institutions that are acknowledged as needed, wasted and ruined astounding natural resources, corrupted a large number of external relationships or alliances and alienated even more, enabled remarkably horrible actions among allies and supported groups, and grossly, quite obviously failed even at their stated (“sold”) goals. Imagine that all the identified actors are outed as active cynics, outright fools, scheming profiteers, and rather brutal sadists.
No one could possibly support it further, or if they did, they would necessarily be in a minor political capacity because no one else would support them. The social and political groups and alliances associated with it would be so tainted that the whole network of such things would have to undergo revision (which our system is supposed to be capable of). The system of values or standards that permitted it to happen in the first place would undergo reflection and revision to a profound educational and economic degree.
So we said. Five times, in my lifetime, recognized and fully understood as such at a global scale. And I don’t mean just the radicals, although with each successive instance, the circle of this response has shrunk, until now it is just the sad and swiftly dying-off radicals.
It’s rather horrifying that the least Reaganite president since Reagan was his vice-presidential successor, Bush 1 (whom I do not idealize either). Every one of them since, including their electoral “opponents,” has been Reagan again, deeply so, for policies and for culture.
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