‘My god. It’s every leader’s worst nightmare.’
The superhero as a vehicle for examining power, it’s something Russell’s consistently been interested in across all his work. Whether it be in excellent one-shots with Green Lantern or with fascinating new ongoings such as Second Coming, Russell dives deep every time to examine the nature of power, the systems built around them and how they affect the people they’re meant to aid. It’s one of the most primal aspects of the superhero and Russell consistently draws upon that well and finds new things to say or new facets to unveil in a way that feels meaningful. Wonder Twins has been a long and hard exercise in examining what power and our systems have yielded to those who are set to come after us, the people of tomorrow. What have we done to and for the youth?
From the very first panel, you’ll notice how the work kicks off at The White House, commenting on the nature of what people with power do. So right out the gate, you know what this is. The creative cast of Mark Russell, Stephen Byrne and Dave Sharpe are not holding back here. They’re out to say something and they’re going to do it fearlessly in spectacular fashion. The last issue and the ones prior really laid the groundwork for this here, as everything culminates in this finale of the first half. The Scrambler’s got his plan, he’s threatened to scramble the entire world lest they obey his wishes. It’s a silly enough premise on paper, it might even seem like a cartoonish Superfriends scheme. But again, that’s the point. This is a book taking those familiar goofy Superfriends trappings, tropes and expectations and slowly peeling them away to unveil something else entirely. It’s the one book where you’ll see El Dorado, the obscure and forgotten Superfriends creation, that’s for sure. But it’s also the one book where in you’ll get a treatise on power set in the DC Universe, as viewed through the eyes of two young people trying to do their best in order to build a better world.
And thus we have the threat of The Great Scramble, arranged by The Scrambler and Polly Math, the young woman of color who saw her beloved father taken out by a bigot on a cell phone. And all for the simple act of entering a building. Yet was she or her father granted justice? No. Polly watched as the white woman went on Lex News and got the support of more bigots, shedding crocodile tears and playing the victim, while a young girl was orphaned and alone and a black man was taken away for good, quite literally, never to be seen again.
And so in this issue, we watch as the world itself scrambles in the face of The-Scramble-To-Come. It’s chaotic, messy and the world is full of fear. But, for once, from that fear, unprecedented changes seem possible, as requested by The Scrambler and Polly. Men in power, rich, white men sit in terror, asking that they all let go of their nuclear arsenals. Weapons are set aside or discarded, as thought, genuine thought, is put into caring for not one or a few, but all. Legislation eliminating global poverty, mass incarcerations and addressing climate change is prepared, with only but a sign being needed to save the world.
But it all goes wrong. How, you ask? Why, the heroes win. They ‘save’ the day. They ‘stop’ the bad guy. The Scrambler and Polly are caught and put away in prison, with venom spewed at them. The plot’s pretty simple and classic. Silly, lunatic supervillain with a kid aiding him threatens the whole world, the world asks for the heroes’ help and the heroes deliver. The bad guy and the kid are caught and put away, thus saving the day and making things better! But alas, that isn’t how it works out, not really. Russell, Byrne and Sharpe twist that familiar narrative and deconstruct it here to such a degree that when the heroes find the antagonists, you don’t feel relief as you may have felt when you were a child watching the Super Friends cartoon. It’s not cathartic, it’s not a release from the tension. It’s the opposite. It’s terror. It’s pure, sheer terror. It’s knowing that if they hadn’t been caught, as wrong as they were, the world could’ve been better. For the second they’re caught, the single sign to save a planet is halted. The rich, white men all celebrate and rejoice, for they no longer have to be so selfless and considerate. And the greater tragedy? The heroes were their puppets in this.
It’s terribly deconstructive and it’s fairly cynical, yes and that might put off some people, but there’s also truth there that strikes hard. It asks ‘What kind of world are these heroes, your heroes, fighting to protect?’, because even now, it’s a pretty white world, it’s a pretty straight world and it’s a world where Lex Luthors continue to prosper despite the existence of Supermen. And while that is the nature of the superhero and a superhero comic, there’s something harrowing and painful about that. There’s something there that is just unsettling, alongside all the wonder of the superhero. It makes one ask, what is the impact then, really? What does it matter if the superhero is only a tool for maintaining a status quo? And how is that status quo helping anyone when it’s aiding rich, straight, white people as so many suffer as pieces in the grand game they play.
How many dreams are crushed and hopes shattered, because people are caged? Maybe not in literal steel bars like The Scrambler, but perhaps even stronger ones, the ones we can’t see or feel with our bodies, but know are present around us, always. The barriers that keep us from becoming who we know we could be, if we were just allowed. The barriers that exist solely to trap us in a cycle of never ending conflict, while others get to escape it. These are questions at the heart of the book and they’re all ones Polly poses. As she so eloquently puts it:
If you’re good doesn’t matter, what does it matter if you’re good?
It’s a hard question and it strikes at the core of Jayna in the issue. What is to be ‘good’ in this world, when good doesn’t solve the problems that eternally rage, as we tell oursleves they’re unsolvable and sink deeper into misery? What is to be ‘just’ when systems care more about inflicting pain and punishment rather than helping people? Why are we so obsessed with pain and punishment, where in rather than try and understand the pain and problems that lead to crime and other issues and resolving them, we simply emphasize pain and punishment? The effects of such a system led to the harrowing conclusion we saw earlier in the book with Count Drunkula, who genuinely wanted to be better, tried to be better and yet the system broke him, despite his efforts. How can we be so obsessed with violence, anger and hate over compassion and kindness, the book asks, holding our hand and laughing in pain, because it shares it. For all its deconstruction and cynicism, it’s a book that isn’t mean-spirited. It’s honest. It’s understanding.
It’s a hard book to read, as every issue gets more and more prescient, heartbreaking and depressing, but it’s also an important book to read. And besides, rather than be full of that heaviness and deliver it straight, the book opts for classic Russell humor, delivered impeccably by Dave Sharpe’s lettering, as Stephen Byrne’s characters ring with resonance and cartoonish quality, giving the book its unique tone. It’s a lot like what Russell did in Flintstones, where in he took the classic cartoon and explored certain ideas with more weight and updated it for the times. Now imagine that with Super Friends and you get a sense of what the team’s going for.
It’ll break your heart, sure. But it’ll do it while making you laugh, which is Russell’s oeuvre in a nutshell. It’s brilliant, thought-provoking and somehow fun amongst all the meditation on how truly screwed we all are.
Ultimately, Wonder Twins’ answer for what true power is isn’t the power the rich hold or the ones cosmic aliens or mystical beings hold, although those are great and they’re also power. True power, in a world full of privilege, super-powered or otherwise, is a rarer ability. One not everyone necessarily has. And it’s one Jayna in this issue has. It’s the ability to calmly listen and try to understand. Not just be angry, hateful, resentful, but listen and try to understand where this pain is coming from, why and how things could be better. And acting on that to try and make it so. It’s being open enough to listen, especially to those who do not get a voice. Maybe if you just listened, for one moment more, if you were willing to hold off on your force and your violence, maybe things could be different. Maybe the world could and would be better. Maybe we just need to imagine it, rather than give up and turn out hands over to those who sit above us.
If you’re looking for a heavy read which has a lot to say, Wonder Twins is absolutely your book. It’s razor sharp swordsmanship that’ll skewer your soul yet make you chuckle. That is its rare magic. It’s a title unlike any other, especially among the Big Two and it’s astonishing to see it published.