“I didn’t start out in this business, you know.”
What is justice? Is it simply witnessing people in colorful outfits punch away at other people in colorful outfits, as death and destruction rain down, all concluding in one going home and the other going to a prison cell — which they’ll either get out of or get worse from? Whereas all the others, the ones who don’t dress up in those colorful outfits, walk about broke, homeless, and left with nothing?
If that sounds depressing and deconstructive, you’re right. Superhero fiction often works as heightened metaphors, the literalized duels of consciousness, from hope against despair, love against hate, will against fear amongst others, all draped in glowing primary colors. The superhero is a wonderful ingredient to spice up any genre, coming with broad conventions which can be played into or subverted. But in the end the superhero cannot truly change; only we can do that. The superhero is a myth meant to inspire action in the face of inaction and apathy, but the myth itself cannot do the work for us. It’s why superhero universes, especially The Big Two corporate ones, are so fascinating when examined through the lens of people on the ground. While Superman can punch stars or move planets, that isn’t the real power, not really. The real power is the one we all possess but are often locked away from, as select people monopolize it. Lex Luthor as president is likely to create far more change and holds far more power than Superman’s ability to juggle asteroids.
It’s not a condemnation of the superhero as much as a look at what the superhero is and really means. It’s imagination, it’s inspiration, but it’s still a myth bound to us and where we are as a world, as a people, as a culture. For is not the dream of the superhero a world where there is no need for a superhero? Is that not the eternal pursuit? A world without systemic oppression, prejudice and innumerable forms of hate, dispersed in so many ways on so many levels. And thus, as inspiring as the superhero is, reminding us of our power, our true power, not the flashy ones that defy physics, but the powers of kindness, compassion, love and more, there’s also the supervillain standing in front of them, reminding us also of our eternal weakness. In classic superhero form, the kindness kicks the crap out of the cruelty and sends it away, only for it to repeat the next day, in a Sisyphean struggle, as the series has already established.
Thus, the lesson of the superhero is and always has been stand for yourself, look to your peers and do that which must be done. It’s how one gets Warren Ellis’ Global Frequency, a series about people who get together and solve problems that must be solved, because that’s how the future is made. And Wonder Twins is very much about that. It’s about this moment in time. It’s about the problems that we now face, especially the young people, it’s about where the culture is. And most importantly, if there is a future and can there even be? If so, how? It’s a comedy book on the surface and it is, indeed, impossibly funny. But the humor isn’t coming from shallow jokes, the humor comes from laughing at the absurd world we have created and now inhabit, because it is laughable, but at the same time it’s dreadful, it’s terrifying and it’s rage-inducing. And in this installment of the book, more so than any other, the rage comes through. It boils and bubbles up to the top, because it’s necessary. We can laugh all we want, but after a certain point, only tears, frustration and rage emerge. As Mark Russell, Stephen Byrne and Dave Sharpe showcase Polly Math’s journey here, it’s impossible to not feel all of that, to go through that gamut of emotion and feel helpless, so many so often do now, more so than ever.
The creative team does something fairly clever here: discussing the nature of magic. It’s a common element of superhero fiction, but the book tackles a different kind of magic. Real magical performances put on by magicians. The Scrambler, the loser supervillain discusses his origins, talking about how he never set out to be in this infamous business. He was a magician once, who assumed people loved magic. He wasn’t bad at it, either — actually, he was quite good. The team sets up the three steps of performance, the kind of basic narrative structure of anything, really. Three acts: The Pledge, the first act where you make a promise of change. The Turn, the second act where in you deliver said promise of change. And The Prestige, the third act where in you return things to the status quo. It seems simple and it’s something we all instinctively understand.
But Russell, Byrne and Sharp peel away the veneer of this entire framework to delve into the disturbing depths here. People claim to love magic. They come to see magic, they say they wish to see change. But do they, really? The Turn evokes horror, tension, dread, fear, while The Prestige, the return to the “normal,” evokes mighty joy. As the book puts it, people don’t want change, they don’t want magic, they just want the reassurance of the status quo, they just want validation, they want to be told that not even the impossible can alter their fixed positions and that in the end, all will return to the exact way things were when they started out. New is bad. Magic is bad. Old is good. Nostalgia is sweet. Change is the enemy, while cards proclaim a love of it.
Equating that approach, that human necessity to see everything turn back, that awful fear which must nix any future or forward momentum to the wider political landscape, the book gets more daring. Mark Russell has always had a lot to say and has never been afraid to do so, even as people lob hate against him for books that they’ve never read. And here, alongside Stephen Byrne, who consistently balances the hilarity and heart of every scene with the meaningful seriousness via careful coloring choices, body language and characterization, as well as letterer Dave Sharpe, Russell digs into things you probably never expected to see in a DC superhero title.
Polly Math’s father, Filo Math, a Nobel-prize winning star physicist and a black man of prominence is disintegrated and seemingly killed. And killed live, as it’s streamed and recorded by many present. The weapon of choice? A device quite literally powered by fear. Filo was merely entering his office and was murdered without hesitation by Silvia, a racist white woman who wishes all the people of color would just ‘go away’ and stop changing the place she knew, which was incredibly white and straight. She’s straight out spewing alt-right nonsense, as other League Of Annoyance members, such as Red Flag in the previous issue, have. And so we get to see the fallout of what happens when an alt-right bigot, who is white, kills a black individual live. Instantly, in a Fox News-pastiche, Lex News has her on to spew a narrative of nonsense and a panel of fools is assembled. There’s the irrelevant “judge” who’s never judged a thing in over 30 years to support Silvia the bigot, there’s the blatant and literal Straw Man, who sets up a strawman narrative and argument for the judge to beat away at and then there’s the absurd jury, who’s there to listen to “both sides” by basically saying the judge is right and that people need not be emotional. Then follows the wild, rabid support for the bigot and hate crime perpetrator, who spins herself as the victim who wants “nothing more than to go back and live her life” while repeating trite phrases about how the country’s traditions still matter.
Then the police follow suit, declaring Silvia has a right to do what she did. Throw in some crocodile tears and some White House aid on top and you have a terribly disturbing society. As Polly sits in her room sobbing, the rage is real, it’s palpable and it practically leaps off the page. This is an issue written, drawn and lettered with anger, but not just pointless anger; it’s focused anger at the state of things, it’s anger at the systemic oppression of people of color, at the prejudices, the terrible culture and bigotry that have become so ridiculously commonplace. Sharpe’s letters here, which deliver Russell’s snappy dialogue in tandem with Byrne’s art, is very crucial in this regard as it has to ensure the tone is just right and the reading goes smoothly, conveying exactly what is necessary. And he does.
And so the book asks: how can we move forward from this? From this awful, awful world? It’s depressing and real, to be sure, but unlike most deconstructions, this is not a book mocking the superhero or presenting reductive ideas that go something like “oh the character puts on an animal themed costume to fight crime, so clearly they’re crazy,” it’s a book dealing with a different kind of realism. It’s about real struggles and conflicts, as transposed and at times translated, into the realm of superhero fiction. It’s a way to stitch us and our superheroes together, not to make damning statements without purpose, but it’s a way to examine and soak in culture and the struggles of a society, where the superhero is in that conversation and how much there is that needs addressing.
Ultimately, the book hits on capitalism and the oppressive power of the rich, especially those who are white in the country and can impose their power through privilege and money and asks how anyone can truly rise in a world that’s so terribly corrupt. Corporations hold so much sway and the entire system is rigged, as any system that is made is not made for tomorrow, as tomorrow is uncertain and unreliable, it’s a world where the powerful of today may not hold power. All systems are made to serve the powerful today, to the best of its ability. It’s not about us or the children or what lies ahead, it’s how much wealth and power can be amassed for those already have it.
There’s a sort of powerful irony and audacity to all of this, as a corporate superhero title, in a corporate superhero universe, which is built on the backs of so many broke creators who profited rich white executives in the long run, makes all these points. And it is pleasantly surprising to see DC Comics even publish such a book amongst their superhero output.
In the face of all such problems, ones that plague young women of color like Polly, who can’t have justice, a crazy plan is jumped on. It’s absurd and ridiculous, but in the face of a world that is so much of that, maybe that is the answer? It’s perhaps futile, but Polly cannot give up and so she allies herself with The Scrambler, who does desire true change, true magic, where in The Turn is eternal, where in there is no Prestige, but perhaps a new future, a new world. And thus a threat to the world is made, change or fall.
Wonder Twins #5 is a heartbreaking issue. It’s about the suffering and pain of people of color, in a world of systemic oppression and prejudice, where in lies, fake news and white privilege suppress and destroy people. It even doubles down on its allusions and storytelling weight when it reveals the true fate of those oppressed: Black men and women eternally jailed away, forever lost to their children and families, while white bigots get claps, cheers and praise, painted as the victims. It’s an angry comic, but it’s necessary anger. It’s a book that doesn’t want you to be apathetic, but aware. It’s a book that wants you to dare to dream but also not be naive. It’s a book about shared pain in a world that isolates and it’s a book about what one does in the face of all of that.