‘…You save the world once act of kindness at a time.’
Superhero stories are cyclical. It’s an adage we always hear: the more things change, the more things stay the same. Bruce Wayne will always take back the cowl to be Batman, the Joker will break out of Arkham again and again till the end of time and the same duels will be fought without end. But given the nature of comics and these stories, which are ever-lasting and forever retold and spun into fresh blends, it makes sense. Wonder Twins is a book that’s chosen to lean into that aspect of these stories, capitalizing on this intrinsic issue, especially with in the context of the world and its characters, using it to examine things deeper.
Opening with a discussion of Sisyphus and his never-ending struggle, Russell, Byrne and Sharpe immediately frame the struggle of the superhero in a powerful way. At this mythic root, at the source of all his inspiration and show of great perseverance and power, there’s also this cyclical, endless tragedy and suffering. Despite essentially working as a comedy, the book laughs not at silly jokes that are easy to make, but at the terribly sad absurdity of a world where this struggle is the status quo. On one level, it applies to our world too and that’s the point, but as the work plays out, it’s much more specific to the context of the superhero and their world.
The superhero is all about power, going back to the very first: Superman. Coated in biblical allegory and born of mythic underpinnings, he speaks more to the idea of the superhero than any other character. And when the idea of the superhero comes up, one often thinks of them pit against their nemeses or rogues galleries. Wielding awesome power, ‘good’ stands against ‘evil’ to save the day and make things okay. And they seemingly do, as the implication is that it does have meaning, it does matter and help make things better. Obviously, it’s a conceit that only works in the realm of the comic book page, as a colorful costumed do-gooder or two in our world cannot accomplish such things. But do they really, in the long run, make things better? It’s a question that’s been posed numerous times and it’s one that’s also often easy to answer reductively and cynically, with somewhat of a mean-spirit. Wonder Twins doesn’t do that.
If the last issue explored how systems are set up to not aid people and how they permit and help perpetuate the revolving door of cyclical violence and pain for people, where in the only beneficiaries are the rich, the corrupt and privileged, this issue builds on that. It is understood that the superhero isn’t a realistic notion, because a person in a cape and a cowl can’t really affect change in the real the way they can in a fictional narrative, where such crime-fighting is a viable way to do things. But even then, it’s a case of short-term good, where in the bad guys never stop, they always return, worse or more broken and the cycle is endless. So then what good is the superhero, really? Or, and this is the point, what is productive about the superhero? Beyond the cycles of super-violence that they’re embroiled in, what can they offer us that is useful? What can we take, learn and apply practically in our own lives and have the superhero matter?
The answer is to stop looking at the hero beating down another person and to look at things before and after. What’s useful, what’s powerful and what’s productive and meaningful about the superhero is their acts of kindness. The book illustrates this perfectly with the tragic origin story of Gleek in the issue here. Gleek was a circus monkey who was abused and mistreated and his heroes? They’re not people who beat the snot out of Gleek’s master and the circus owner. Because that really isn’t productive, violence didn’t and wasn’t going to save Gleek. Rather than latch onto the smallest part of us, the pettiest part of us, the one that would take the easy route of violence, Russell, Byrne and Sharpe ask us to embrace the biggest part of us, our generosity. And thus Gleek’s heroes are ones who ensure Gleek will go to a better place, rather than jump into a cycle of violence, which doesn’t solve problems. We admire and obsess over our heroes for their power, their super-speed, their super-flight and their super-invulnerability, but the only real, true valuable power which does not get that same awe, which it absolute deserves? Kindness.
As the book shows, it’s one act of kindness, of generosity that saves the world. In all its cosmic problems, in its Superman and Lex Luthors, the only real, meaningful things are the little acts of kindness, of love, that we perform for one another. And that’s what’s powerful about the superhero, that’s what is truly useful. Not the ability to punch down steel towers, but the ability to hug a little girl and encourage her, thus saving her life. And beyond that, to do any of that, the fortitude required to keep going, these characteristics are the real powers, the ones we should pay closer attention to and talk about, rather than who could win in a fight. That’s Wonder Twins‘ message.
While it may seem cynical to some, it’s ultimately inspiring and emerges from a place of hope. It’s deconstructive, sure, but it recognizes these things that are a staple of the genre and faces them, while offering a compassionate solution. It’s not devoid of hope and it doesn’t tear things down because it simply can. It actually has something to say. If the superpowers aren’t so special, if nobody is special, maybe you can be what you want to be. Your life is your own. You don’t need powers to engage in violence to be heroic. If you help out your fellow person and show them generosity and kindness, you’re saving the world just as much as a Superman is. And if that isn’t inspiring, what is?
Russell, in his typical balance of comedic dialogue with heavy social commentary, brings an utterly special flavor to the book as always, whilst Byrne is the heart and soul here. Byrne’s lovely colors give the book a distinct flavor with his art, which mixes cartoonish hilarity and comedy with serious sequences that land with grave impact make the series work. You’re laughing, but you’re also simultaneously heartbroken at all of this. And ultimately, by the end, despite all of that, there’s hope. There’s compassion and it’s not all lost. Sharpe nails each moment here cleverly, bridging Russell and Byrne effectively, making the jokes land, emphasizing key ideas and letting the story flow properly and strike the way it does.
Wonder Twins is an utterly gripping book. It’s got so much to say and a simple narrative with two teenage heroes, a monkey and some dopey superlosers for antagonists is, in these very capable creative hands, one of the most meaningful superhero stories being told at this point in time.