Julian Darius, in a response to a comment of mine in his article “On Underworld Unleashed, Precursor to Kingdom Come” explains that Reconstructionism with regards to the superhero comics genre is a term coined by Kurt Busiek in his work Astro City. More specifically within the article itself, Julian Darius defines Reconstructionism as an “unapologetic return to bright super-heroics, into the mainstream” from the darker and more realistic interpretations of these heroes depicted in 1980s Revisionism. At the same time, I have also posited that while Reconstructionism does bring superheroes back to their sometimes gaudily Apollonian or idealistic roots, it also incorporates much of the character development and sense of consequence that Revisionism brought to the genre.
In my two-part article “Yet Those Hands Will Never Hold Anything: Emiya Shirou as the Interactive Superhero of Fate/Stay Night” I look at how the superhero genre translates its issues, if you will pardon the unintentional pun, from comics to the medium of the visual novel. In this current article, I want to look at how Reconstructionism and Revisionism affect another superhero world in the medium of the prose novel or, more specifically, Andrez Bergen’s Who is Killing the Great Capes of Heropa?
After we met in the multiverse of the WordPress Blogosphere, Andrez Bergen himself had been kind enough to send me an advance copy of his novel–one without the excellent illustrations from his artist collaborators–which I’d been reading for a while and for which I’ve been formulating quite a few observations.
The setting of Andrez Bergen’s novel is essentially a Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing Game: a MMORPG virtual reality where you are hooked up into a world that allows you to become a Cape: a super-powered being of either good or evil. You can choose any one power or resource except for invincibility or flight. The world of Heropa–which is essentially a city–is a combination of 1930s and 1960s art and architectural sensibilities. Blandos–Artificial Intelligences or non-player characters–live in the city and die in droves during the destructive fights between Capes: while those that survive continue to lose their memories of previous events and, for the most part, their lives continue obliviously onward.
There are rules to this world: to this game. All Capes must remain in character: meaning that they must keep their masks on in public or, in the case that they don’t have masks, they must never reveal their secret identities to the Blando public. Moreover, Heropa is an extremely moralistic reality centred around what seems to be something along the lines of the Comics Code. Capes cannot drink, or cuss. Heroes and villains cannot fraternize with each other, nor can Capes fraternize with Blandos. And the world constantly resets: in that all destruction to Heropa is automatically reversed after a cycle and neither heroes nor villains can ever die: their injuries and deaths also reversing after a cycle.
As a result, Heropa is a fine line between censorship and chaos: much like others have argued the Comics Code itself to be. At the same time, it is also an escape from a dystopian world where only Australia and the city of Melbourne seem to remain under a stratified and authoritarian government. In this sense, Heropa is supposedly an alternative to this reality to those who can get access to it: a place of fairness and where good and evil are equally and clearly delineated. However, just as Satan through the Serpent wriggled his way into the symmetry of Paradise and skewed its concentric spheres through the ripples of a single transgressive action, so too does another force worm its way into Heropa’s near-perfection.
In this case, it’s Revisionism that becomes Heropa’s squiggly line.
At first, it manifests as the fact that the Capes are being killed off permanently: both heroes and villains. No one knows who’s behind it and both the Equalizers–this world’s league of heroes–and the League of Unmitigated Rotters–the league of villains–seem to blame each other. But eventually, the changes become even more apparent. Capes find that they can both drink and swear without getting banned from the system. The destruction caused by the deaths of the Capes and their continued fighting is not reset by the system’s cycles. And, worse yet, the Blandos’ minds are also not reset. This means that they can remember everything.
In fact, it becomes apparent that the Blandos seem to have always remembered enough through their newspaper media to know that the Capes have always caused them death and destruction. The fact that the Capes of both sides have generally viewed the Blandos–Heropa’s citizenry–as expendable and merely as part of the background does not help their case. In other words, not only is someone killing the Capes of Heropa, but something is degrading the very reality of Heropa as well.
In the midst of Capes dying left and right, and Blandos becoming increasingly resentful, hostile and downright militant towards those that remain, the new hero Southern Cross–also called Jack–comes into the fray in order to figure out just exactly what is going on here. The characters in this story are just as fascinating and are the result of the world that Andrez is trying to recreate. Whereas Jack’s comrade The Brick is definitely a homage to Jack Kirby’s The Thing and his other comrade, Pretty Amazonia, is a unique manga-inspired size-shifting creation reminiscent of Sailor Moon in aesthetics and Wonder Woman in terms of strength, Jack as Southern Cross is something else entirely.
It should be made clear that Heropa itself is mainly a Silver Age world with some Golden Age film noir and 1940s detective genre sensibilities. Andrez Bergen really attempts to dip into the well of comics lore and the media that inspired it. In particular, Heropa is not unlike the Silver Age with regards to the Marvel Comics superhero genre: in that the novel’s heroic main characters are flawed beings that deal with their own human existential despair but still try to do what is fair and what is good. Jack is an excellent example of this.
In Melbourne, Jack is essentially a fifteen-year-old orphan who found Heropa as a way to escape the pain of a reality where his parents were taken away by the government and general starvation. He gains the idea of Southern Cross by finding an old editorial letter sent to Marvel by one Wally Deaps: though in reality this was a letter that Andrez himself sent to Stan Lee.
It is Deaps who wanted a hero that was uniquely Australian: whose name and five-eight pointed stars symbols represented the failed 1854 Eureka Stockade Rebellion that is nevertheless credited in inspiring male suffrage and the development of democracy in Australia. The fact that Jack chose this hero as his Cape identity speaks volumes about how he views his country and offline reality at present and what he wants to do in another world. In fact, unlike the other Capes, he grows to view Blandos as actual people to be protected and sees that Heropa has become a lot more than merely a game or a simulation: which inspires him to act like an actual hero.
This is in contrast to a Cape introduced later on called Major Patriot. Major Patriot is much like a cross between Captain America and Multiple Man: except he embraces all the extremist and corrupted parts of patriotism. In other words, he symbolizes the spirit of nationalism and exploitive capitalism. He is more akin to the Golden Age comics influence on Heropa. Superheroes of the comics Golden Age tended to be more prototypical “strong man” characters that believed “might was right” and that they could do anything to criminals–or those that they perceived as criminals–that they wanted: beyond the law. You can certainly look at the early iterations of Superman and Batman to get an idea of what these early superheroes were like: beings that have rarely questioned themselves or their methods and did what they thought was right regardless of anyone or anything else.
Ironically, the Comics Code Authority of the 1950s that censored out so many varieties of comics is the very force that eliminated most of these earlier darker versions of the superheroes that we recognize now: at least, until the Code was rendered defunct itself. It’s too complex to state that Andrez Bergen, through Heropa, defends the Comics Code. It’s more like he accepts the Silver Age of superhero comics that came about because of–or despite–the existence of the Code. Moreover, it seems that he also acknowledges the fact that the Golden Age–while creating so many violent heroes–was the time when those heroes were still developing from archetypes into actual human characters.
Then again, if you make the argument that superheroes are descendants of the demigod or god-like figures of the ancient Near-Eastern and Western epics of the world, you can look at a being like Major Patriot and those characters in Alan Moore’s Watchmen and see them as flawed beings that have violent tendencies but still try to do what they think is right. After all, just as Heropa is a fine line between limitation and pure anarchy, so too is there a thin distinction between distinguishing what the Gold and Silver Ages are, and how Revisionism and Reconstructionism are different from one another. In addition, it is very useful to keep in mind that all of these terms are just that: arbitrary names as attempts to divide and define constantly shifting ideas.
As a result, Andrez had many choices as to where he could have let his novel go. He could have eliminated the reset option on Heropa permanently and forced the remaining Capes to deal with their actions and an entirely self-aware Blando population: forcing them to see that the divide between the non-powered AI and the super-powered humans was also as fine a line as any other distinction made in this novel. It could have forced the Capes and the Blandos to grow and change: to deal with the corruption of their once perfect world together. However, Andrez did not make this choice and that is entirely his prerogative. He ultimately rejects what can be construed as the totally Revisionist approach–though he mentions he respects in Alan Moore and Frank Miller’s works–and restores the reset in Heropa.
Yet not everything is as it was before. Even before the tampering of the reset some Blandos already retained their self-awareness and continue to do so. Some heroes and villains learn to coexist. Some heroes begin to act like Classical comics heroes and, I would venture to argue, that Andrez Bergen does not so much restore a Comics Code Authority to Heropa as he really accentuates the subtle Reconstructionist spirit that he instilled into it from the story’s very beginning.
I do wish he had done something with Heropa that would change the dystopia of the offline reality of Melbourne and its characters, and I also think that the story seems to end very suddenly, but perhaps it is a good place in which to end: in the wonderful nostalgic serial state of “to be continued.” In the end, Revisionism came to Andrez Bergen’s Heropa and it decided to respond with some good, Classic, restorative almost literal Reconstructionism. Paradise is regained and perhaps instead of being seen as an arrangement of concentric spheres, some of its people now see it as orbiting far greater suns: with more horizons to explore. So please check out Andrez Bergen’s Who is Killing the Great Capes of Heropa? for not only is it a world where heroes never die: it is also a place where they can continue to both explore … and live.