In Strikeforce: Morituri, the Marvel Comics series created by writer Peter B. Gillis and artist Brent Anderson, which debuted towards the end of 1986, the Earth of the late 21st century is under attack by an extraterrestrial race called the Horde. In my previous installment, I compared this to the real world 9/11 attacks in 2001. Considering how Americans reacted to the destruction of the World Trade Center, how much greater—and how similar—would their reaction be to a full scale invasion?
In reality, the 9/11 attacks triggered a national urge to fight back, leading not only to the hunt for al Qaeda but to years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan; initially, voices objecting to the latter two wars were drowned out by the majority who sought retaliation.
Similarly, in Strikeforce: Morituri we see young people caught up in a fervor for war. This is how the lead character in the first issue introduces himself to the readers: “My name’s Harold C. Everson—and I was getting ready to turn my life into a weapon hurled at the invaders from space.” On first reading, this seems a brave declaration. On a second look, it may inspire doubts. This is a young man who is so passionate about the war that he pictures himself not as a human being but as a weapon, an instrument of destruction. What would you think of a person who likened himself to a gun or a bomb? The phrase “invaders from space” is a literal description of the menace, but it also reads as if Harold were playing a video game rather than fighting in a real war. And doesn’t Harold’s use of metaphor here, turning “my life into a weapon,” suggest that he’s picturing himself as a character in a heroic story. Indeed, we will find out that that is exactly what he is doing.
Following the Horde’s invasion, humanity found a new way of battling this alien foe. Dr. Kimmo Tualema devised the Morituri Process, by which normal human beings can be endowed with superhuman powers. On learning that he qualifies for the program, Everson celebrates with his fellow members in a volunteer group. “To the folks in the squad, being accepted to take the Morituri Process was like winning a lottery. Unbelievable luck. The absolute jackpot.” All of them regard this as a purely positive honor with no downside. Moreover, they regard it like winning a game rather than entering a war.
The war fervor of Everson and other Morituri candidates may remind readers of other naïve young wanna-be heroes in past sagas of wars. Remember how the young Southern aristocrats at the start of Gone with the Wind rush off to join the Confederate army, confident that the war will easily be won in a short time, or the young soldiers in the World War I sagas All Quiet on the Western Front and the film The Big Parade think of war as a great heroic adventure until disillusionment sets in amid the horrors of actual combat.
In real wars, most soldiers can hope that they will indeed survive the war, even as they see their fellow soldiers die around them. But the members of Strikeforce: Morituri have no possibility of survival: the process that endows them with superhuman powers shortens their lives to no more than a year. Yet, Harold and his friends are so caught up in their visions of heroism that they seem to ignore their own mortality. Older and wiser, Harold’s parents do not want him to participate in the Morituri program and die. But Harold cannot be dissuaded.
Instead, Harold recharges his war fervor by isolating himself from these dissenting voices, going to his room, and reading, significantly, a comic book about Morituri members.
Strikeforce: Morituri is what we would now call a work of metafiction; fiction about fiction. It is a comic book that is in large part about comic books. There is literally a comic book within a comic book in this first issue. Gillis and Anderson present excerpts from The Last Stand of the Black Watch, which even has its own (fictional) credits for writer Nicholas Bourbaki, artist Uiruso Burento, and editor Justin Tyme (whose name presumably is a joke about deadlines). What we see of the comic-within-a-comic seems like an uninspired, even hack version of a Marvel-style comic. But it glorifies the Black Watch and their battles against the Horde, and veers away from the true Marvel style by presenting its heroes without any character flaws or complexity.
Gillis is critiquing how popular culture, and comics specifically, can distort the true nature of war, violence, and heroism. Of course, there is a long history of American comics that propagandize in favor of the United States’s side in wars, including Marvel’s own Captain America Comics in the 1940s. But Strikeforce‘s critique can easily be applied not just to wartime comics but also to action-adventure comics in general. Recall that Strikeforce: Morituri derives its title from the story of prisoners who had to fight to the death for the entertainment of the Emperor Claudius and a vast audience in ancient Rome. Since Strikeforce: Morituri is a work of metafiction, its use of the phrase may suggest that adventure comics and similar works of popular culture likewise present violence and death as ways of entertaining the public, and question the morality of doing so.
Referring to the Black Watch comic, Harold tells the readers, “In my room I picked the book up—read it again—waited for the singing in my blood to rise again–!”
Gillis is showing through this how strong the emotional bond of a reader, specifically a comics reader, can be to the stories. “Singing” is the key word. It indicates there is a glory to the heroism depicted in the comics, and a glorious aspect to Everson’s identification with that heroism and desire to match it personally. But “singing” may also suggest that Everson’s emotional connection to his heroic fantasies is over the top.
The story might even be suggesting that the Black Watch comics have an effect on Harold like that of an addictive drug. Alone, Harold rereads the comic, reinforcing his war passion with another dose of fantasy.
On arriving at Morituri Central, the project’s base, we first see a sign that Harold may have subconscious qualms about undergoing the process. “I wished it didn’t have to look so green and peaceful –so much like a cemetery.” Someone unconcerned with death would not look at a peaceful green area and think of a graveyard.
Perhaps to distract himself from these qualms, Harold reads another of the Black Watch comics, in which some of the heroes die bravely in combat. Yet Harold’s doubts continue: “But I ‘m not going to sacrifice my life because of a comicbook. I’ve got no illusions there –or do I?”
That night Harold hears a fellow inductee in the Morituri program, Aline, fall victim to night terrors, calling out “I don’t want to die–!”
In a key scene in the first issue, the Strikeforce’s Commander Beth Luis Nion, in a kind of psychiatric session with Everson, echoes Aline by asking him, “Why do you want to die?” Through the bluntness of this question, Nion seems to be asking if Harold’s ambition to become a hero actually conceals a death wish.
Notice Harold’s initial hesitation in replying. “I think–it ‘s because I don’t want to just live. I want to use my life in the best way it can be used. And that’s in the defense of our planet.” This is an admirable statement on the surface, voicing a noble ambition. Harold is a young man with ambition. Perhaps in a world at war Harold feels frustrated at finding other ways to make his mark in life.
However, Nion dies not accept Harold’s words at face value, and regards them as a shallow means of masking his real motive. She recognizes that he is confusing his fantasies with reality. She tells him, “You ‘re a writer, Everson –and ‘using your life’ is a neat phrase. But this isn’t one of your stories. This is real. If you take this process, you’ll die within a year. Period.”
Harold confesses, “I’ll admit it –I intend to write about all this–maybe that way I’ll become immortal. But, if you’ve read my stuff, you know I don’t shrink from reality.”
And with that, Gillis daringly takes his critique of pop culture to another level. He is not just indicting the fans for thinking that harsh and brutal reality is like romantic adventure fantasy; he is also accusing writers of perpetrating just such confusion of fantasy with reality.
Harold is not just a fan of the sort of adventure stories he reads in the Black Watch comics. He is also a writer, or at least a would-be writer, who wants to create more of these kinds of stories. At this point, Harold is an example of the sort of writer who bases his fiction more on the previous fiction he has read than on his observations and experiences of real life.
Harold’s confession may also suggest that patriotic fervor to combat the enemy may not be his primary reason for joining the Morituri program. His foremost goal may be to write about it, to transform the experience into a work of art. And is his ultimate aspiration to create great art, or is it to win fame by doing so? Harold explicitly says, “maybe that way I’ll become immortal.” But will he become “immortal” as a great author? Or as the hero of his own story, chronicling his adventures?
Although Harold insists that “I don’t shrink from reality,” Nion disagrees, pointing out “this isn’t one of your stories. This is real.” Indeed, as a writer Harold seems to want to transform the reality of the war against the Horde into a self-centered, solipsistic fantasy in which he is the hero, even as he claims to be serving the cause of freedom fighting.
Moreover, although Harold knows that the Morituri Process will inevitably kill him, at this point he does not consciously seem to regard death as more than an abstract concept. He seems satisfied with the idea that becoming “immortal” as a writer will compensate for his own physical demise.
But is Nion right that Harold has a death wish under the surface? Is he so dissatisfied with his life in this war-torn world that he prefers to go to his death in a blaze of glory? Gillis and Anderson show us very little of Harold’s life before he enters the Morituri project. He has his parents and his co-workers, but does not seem torn over leaving any of them behind; he has no girlfriend. The only thing that arouses his passion is his seeming obsession with his heroes in the Black Watch comics and his ambitions to imitate them by becoming one of them and then writing about them. The series seems to be saying that this sort of obsessive devotion to fantasy, to patriotic war fervor, and to self-centered ambition are all self-destructive paths.
Harold thinks that Aline was “cracking up” when she called out in the night. By thinking of Aline as being on the brink of insanity, Harold seems to be asserting he is different from her. But Nion sees through this self-delusion as well, telling him, “That’s not cracking up. You’ll go through that yourself soon enough.”
Soon afterwards, Kimmo shows Harold a video recording of one of the actual Black Watch members dying when his body finally, inevitably rejects the effects of the Morituri treatment. “That’s the price we’re asking you to pay, Everson,” Nion tells him, adding, “think about it.” This is no romantically grand demise in combat, but a ghastly spectacle, and Harold looks on, appalled, his fantasies shattered.
Thereafter, Aline tells Harold her backstory. Harold the would-be author was better able to cast his fantasies in heroic terms than Aline. She tells Harold, “I was the original wallflower. No boy had looked at me, or ever would.” Foreseeing her future as “60 or 70 years ahead as a clerk or something,” Aline instead “decided a year of glory was worth trading for that.” Harold may not have been consciously aware that he had a death wish, but Aline recognizes her own: “The only reason I didn’t commit suicide is that no one would’ve noticed.” Then she went through the Morituri process and “But now I ‘m better than other people! My acne’s gone–even my bustline’s bigger! And I’m going to be a hero! This means something, Harold!” Aline comes across as pathetic and vulnerable, a suicidal young woman who now fantasizes that she is superior to other people because the Morituri process for her is like getting cosmetic surgery. What does Harold think, listening to this? Does he wonder if his own dreams of glory are as shallow as hers?
Then the Morituri acceptees combat Horde raiders, and Harold, though he hasn’t been endowed with super-powers yet, is caught up in the battle. He is about to be killed by a Horde warrior–
“I was engulfed. I was dead!”–when he is saved by sheer chance when the alien is killed by a shell. Harold has confronted both his own mortality and the falsity of his illusions. But he is still a writer, and he expresses his shock through a soliloquy: “And so here you are playing hero–and your adrenalin believes that you’ll live forever. A convenient belief, isn’t it ? How could wars be fought otherwise? After all, Hemingway survived the Spanish Civil War, didn’t he? Heroes don’t die before the proper time, do they? Isn’t that right, Mr. Hero? Mr. Immortal? I’ve driven back the evil Horde from our beloved shores –Too bad I’d forgotten to get out of the way of their thrusters exhaust–!”
Then he gets to the point more bluntly, with short, simple words:
“I was there. I nearly got myself killed–!–and I was there. I saw my death on a video monitor! It was nothing like I had thought. Nothing.”
Harold the writer still likens his life to a story, but now it is bleak and finite. Notice how he has split himself in two: the disillusioned self dispelling the illusions of his naïve previous self, the “kid.” “Death. Death is it, kid. The end of all stories. You want your stories–to shine in the light of glory–or just to be. Life is sweet, isn’t it, when you flirt with death? Excitement–beauty–? But you ‘re not flirting –you ‘re marrying death. Guaranteed. No refunds or exchanges.” In Campbell’s hero’s journey the triumphant hero weds the ‘Queen Goddess of the World.” But Harold’s hero’s journey ends in a “marriage” to death, minus the hope of resurrection.
Again going from metaphor to simple language, the disillusioned Harold tells the “kid”: “And you’re scared. You simply don ‘t want to die –!” Just as Nion predicted, he has reached the same point that Aline had: facing his own terror of death.
Yet, now that he recognizes the grim reality and inevitability of his own mortality, Harold still has an ambition for figurative resurrection. He tells himself, “But you do want to author the ultimate heroic story–to be immortal through your art.” Does Harold mean writing an actual story of his own heroic adventure, does he mean that his “art” will be fighting heroically against the enemy, or does he mean both?
Harold sits with his head in hands as if tormented, caught between his far of death and his longing for heroic immortality. And then he announces his decision: “Commander, I’ve decided to sign on.” He will go into combat with his eyes open, free of illusion, knowing the price he must pay, but hoping to set an example of heroism nonetheless. This is a truer form of heroism than the one he fantasized about in reading the Black Watch comics.
In a lesser comics series, this would resolve the matter. But Gillis recognizes that even though Harold has decided to go ahead with serving in Strikeforce: Morituri despite his fears, those fears are not so easily put aside.
Harold gets his super-powers and a code-name, Vyking, and even becomes leader of the Strikeforce. But in combat his terror of his own mortality overwhelms him. In issue 3 Harold exclaims, “But my leadership–is nothing! The only thing I’m sensing is my own death! I ‘m useless! Useless!”
Recalling this in the following issue, Harold confesses, “In our first major battle I froze up. I was so terrified over my false alarm death seizure, I couldn’t lead…couldn’t even ACT! I couldn’t do anything but think–think about death.”
Nevertheless, Harold takes charge and fights a Horde Commander. Harold thinks, “I could die at any moment, “but then he confidently speaks aloud, “but that doesn’t make a difference!”. After they win, a joyful Harold tells one of his teammates, “We all did it, Robert! You saw as well as I did what had to be done –and we did it! We won!” Again, Harold uses short, simple language to express his feelings directly.
But despite the Strikeforce’s triumphs, Gillis and Anderson do not allow the readers to forget the shadow hovering over their characters. As early as issue 4, another Strikeforce member, Lorna, dies when her body rejects the Morituri process. She accepts her fate with equanimity: her last words are “It’s just my time.” Gillis continues to examine the different reactions of the various team members to living on the brink of death. In issue 5, for example, Jelene, a religious member of the Strikeforce, finds comfort in her steadfast belief in a hereafter, while her colleague, Louis, envies her faith, which he lacks.
Then, in issue 6, Gillis and Anderson kill off Harold himself, their lead character, the narrator of the first issue, through whose eyes the readers viewed the story. Now the series must go on without its central character.
Strikeforce: Morituri was a challenging series, not a comfortable one, and it did not last long. Co-creators Gillis and Anderson left the series with issue 20, and the comic was canceled with issue 31. Gillis and Anderson did not work on a miniseries with the awful name Strikeforce Morituri: Electric Undertow that appeared in 1989-1990.
Over a quarter century later, death in the Marvel and DC Universes has become a fraud and a joke, a temporary time out for leading characters from Superman to Captain America to Spider-Man, jacking up sales from readers who still haven’t caught on that virtually nobody stays dead in a contemporary DC or Marvel super-hero story. By refusing to treat death seriously, these comics are guilty of the same shallowness as the Black Watch comics that fed Harold Everson’s naïve romantic fantasies of heroism without cost. In this present day context Strikeforce: Morituri seems even more startling and revolutionary in its unblinking recognition of the reality of mortality, and even more necessary than it was in 1986 as a counterweight to the trivialization of death and violence in other action-adventure comics.
Strikeforce: Morituri artist/co-creator Brent Anderson is now best known for his artwork on the acclaimed superhero metacomic Kurt Busiek’s Astro City. Strikeforce‘s other co-creator, writer Peter B. Gillis, still hasn’t received enough recognition for his uniquely innovative and imaginative comics work of the 1980s. Strikeforce: Morituri was not his only contribution to the comics of 1986. Another installment of this book about the comics of 1986 will address Gillis’s unjustly forgotten Eternals series, a sequel to Jack Kirby’s last great creation in comics.