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.