Serialized Escalation

So – how good was THE LEGEND OF LUTHER STRODE (this year’s sequel miniseries to 2012′s surprising hit THE STRANGE TALENT OF LUTHER STRODE – both by writer Justin Jordan and by the art team of Tradd Moore and Felipe Sobrieno)? Pretty good – as far as an action comics goes; not very good – as far as something that tries to pass itself as some deep exploration of nerdish power fantasy[1].

The First Mini (STRANGE TALENT henceforth) told the story of (streo)typical nerd Luther who receives a strange instructional manual, The Herculas Method, via mail – the manual contains some unspecific training program the very quickly gives Luther a physique more fitting to the Incredible Hulk than that of the average boy; problem is – it also seems to give the psyche of The Incredible Hulk (Mark Millar Version at least). Luther struggles to keep his new violent urges under control, made complicated by his family’s history. Also – the person who sent him the manual is now out to get him, in more ways than one.

The central “joke” at the heart of this plot is rather obvious to anyone who immersed himself in the history of super-heroes – the method and the transformation it brings is highly reminiscent of the famous Charles Atlas ads which ran in many a old super-hero title. These ads, also in the form of a comics, are simple and effective: a big bodied ‘bully’ harasses a skinny looking man and woman he is with on the beach, the skinny guy tries to stand up for himself only to be pushed around – earning the derision of his girlfriend; furious, the teen rushes home to try the Atlas method which turns him into a hulking he-man who makes a short work of the beach bully the second time around. Cut.

It’s a perfect thing to put as an ad in a super-hero story because it plays on the exactly same themes that many super-hero stories present – there’s a ‘villain’, an audience surrogate ‘hero’, a ‘girlfriend / prize’, an amazing transformation and solution of life’s problems via brute force. The transformation of the kid into the super strong Hero of the Beach is so swift (literally between panels[2]) he might as well have been bitten by a radioactive spider, exposed to a gamma bomb or be give a magical ring by a dying alien – all are equally realistic[3].

In STRANGE TALENT, this fantasy is given the ever popular “deconstruction” treatment – Luther’s new overmuscled persona doesn’t turn him into a hero (even though he tries his hand at crime stopping); rather, he discovers that he is on a slow path to villainy. He can’t help but see any possible altercation (even something as minor as a school bully) as a vision of gory slaughter. When he meets with the man who distributed the method, someone calls the Librarian, he reveals to Luther the founder of the method is none other than the biblical Cain, and that it has been passed around various individuals throughout the centuries – all mark by their proclivity for violence.

You see what he did there? He inverted the common “with great power there must come great responsibility” that has been the motivator of many a super-hero (long before Spider-Man had said it) by bringing back the old “power corrupts” thing into the mix. Guess what nerds? Giving you all super powers won’t turn you into a selfless Superman, it would turn you into Doctor Doom (the original Atlas ad, interesting to note, is completely unashamed on the selfish nature of the subject’s transformation – he defends only his pride and uses his superior power to gain adoration. The hero is the biggest bastard of them all – Mark Millar could have written it[4]).

Now – this is by no means new ground. A person letting power transform them is a plot as old as the bible. STRANGE TALENT main conceptual interest was in the way it framed this idea via the conventions of earlier comic books and the comics culture itself. The ending – with Luther, triumphant against the Librarian, throwing himself in front of police fire because he realized the how far the power had corrupted him – was simple but powerful enough. And it was the inevitable conclusion the series led to. I may not agree with the philosophy the story presented but the story believed in it. Which is what matters in such events (to quote the late Roger Ebert – “it’s what [the story] is about, its how it goes about it”).

Now. The Sequel.

THE LEGEND OF LUTHER STRODE (henceforth THE LEGEND) has a problem – it wants to continue Luther’s story (and there was an in-story justification of Luther and others like him living through seemingly impossible trauma, so his survival is not a problem), but his story arc was over: he gained power, learned his price, and paid it. So in THE LEGEND, Luther has been spending his post-resurrection time in killing gangster after gangster in a gory fashion – and the story seems to be perfectly fine with that; Luther may not be an image of heroism but the story does not see fit to condone his Punisher-esque vocation.

This is fine in itself, violent vigilante action has its place as entertainment, but seems to directly contradict what the first story was, philosophically, going for. Unless I completely misunderstood what STRANGE TALENT was going for and it really was just super-stylish[5] action story – turns out the power only corrupts some people and that Luther (and by extension – the readers) is doing fine. He only kills gangsters, after all, and when he warns his potential girlfriend that he might hurt her (whose insistence to keep close to the action even after the antagonists shrug off anything she has to offer is really bizarre) it is impossible for the reader to buy it; he might as well be Spider-Man warning Mary Jane that “it’s not you, it’s my enemies”.

Instead, THE LEGEND seems to transform the story into something akin to shonen manga (NARUTO, BLEACH, DRAGON BALL) – a series of escalating fight scenes featuring ascending power levels and destruction. Like all these Japanese stories THE LEGEND builds a regulated world in which unique individuals are able to attain super powers[6]; and like these stories the arc is that of simple escalation – Luther fights some common criminals, then better equipped gangsters, than mercenaries, than another (older) user of The Method and finishes of with a boss fight in the form of Jack (the Ripper[7]). I guess in the next series he’s finally reach Cain (the final boss), but only before going through a series of mini-bosses[8].

The problem with that formula is that it doesn’t offer much variation – THE LEGEND is a six issue fight scene (the last two parts against the same bad guy), and if it felt a bit over extended in the trade, it must have a been quite a drag as a monthly series. The art team does tries its best to give the proceedings some variation but the end product feels a lot more ‘generic’ than its predecessor. STRANGE TALENT had something to try and say – maybe not the smartest, or most novel thing , but it was there; THE LEGEND is simply a showcase for violence – and one which seems to invalidates whatever point the first series had.

… But that’s not a problem unique to the Luther Strode series: Whenever there’s a series which attempts to juggle to duel spheres of being both THE THING and a PARODY OF THE THING they to find themselves dragged into one road over the other. The state of artistic dissonance can be held over a short period (think of the films ROBOCOP and STARSHIP TROOPERS) but not over a long one: The long running JUDGE DREDD strip may have began as a parody of American action heroes; with the crowd expected to treat Dredd as, at best, anti-hero and at worst as a villain out of Kafka’s worst nightmares; but as the series progressed it began to treat Dredd more sympathetically, to turn into the action hero he was meant to satirize.

Likewise the TV show THE SIMPSONS, which began as vicious deconstruction of the then-popular family sitcoms (especially the moralizing COSBY SHOW) found itself quickly transformed into a sort family sitcom (better written, sure; more vicious, obviously; but a sitcom non-the-less) by itself – with all the expected heart-warming, syrup-y moments[9] one would expect of such show.

You can’t ask the audience to hold on to the cognitive dissonance for a long period – if I am reading a critique of violence-in-fiction why it the writer insists on feeding me more and more of it? And if this is simply a thoughtless display of action why does the story seems to try and preach morality to me? I am reminded of Mark Millar’s first KICK-ASS series – which seemed to mock to audience for reading it[10].

The Luther Strode series seems to be another victim of our the modern reader’s impossible need to “be entertained” and at the same time to appear (to ourselves at least) to be socially conscious, artistically aware: ‘you see, it is not that I enjoy the violence and gratuitous nudity of [x] – I have a mental appreciation of its critique of society’s ills.’ Who am I cheating here? The listener or myself?

THE LEGEND OF LUTHER STRODE is just another example of this “problem”[11] – it is a sequel to a series that made its name as a deconstruction of some of the more annoying trends in super-hero comics, but once a sequel was decided, it was in a bind – because deconstruction, more often than not, must end resoundly: the point has been made, the lesson has been learned, the target has been mocked. If you choose to continue in the same world you’ll end up conforming to the same tropes you were trying to satirize. Imagine the talked about (but thankfully never made) approved sequel to WATCHMEN – if you insist of returning to these characters, to Dan and Laurie and Doctor Manhattan, to invalidate much of what the first series was trying to do (which was to retire not only the characters but the very thing they represented). Actually – you don’t need to imagine a bad sequel to a classic deconstructionist series – you can always read THE DARK KNIGHT STRIKES BACK[12].

Maybe we should simply let things be as they are.


[1] And before we go farther with the intellectual bashing – I enjoyed the story overall, it’s not as good as the first mini but still delivers the creators’ promised “sweet ultra violence”: Tradd Moore can sure draw the hell out of some body breaking action.

[2] The problems with the cinematic training montage have been discussed in several places – growing on a steady diet of ROCKY sequels and the KARATE KID might convince a person the being a top level athletes is just a matter of short (months, or even weeks) training instead of the years-long sludge one must go through to be even beginner at his chosen field.

[3] In fact, a point could be made that the fantastic powering methods are far less harmful to people – because some people can actually buy into the fantasy the training will make them into a real life equivalent of Batman, or the Hero of the Beach – but nobody thinks they’ll get a magic ring (hopefully).

[4] And there are definitely shades of the ads triumphant bastard-ism in the “fuck you all” ending of Millar’s WANTED (itself probably an influence on LUTHER STRODE)

[5] Again, I cannot stress enough – both series’ are fine (even better than fine) on the formalistic level.

[6] Note that unlike the American version in manga there is, usually, only one identifiable method to attain powers – Ninja training, spiritual magic – which is usually based on training to increase one’s power level.

[7] … And on an unrelated tangent – can we stop it with Jack the Ripper thing? Making a guy who killed some poor defenseless victims and is remembered simply for being unsolved into some semi-mythical badass killer is way (wwwaaayyy) too common. If you want impressive historical killers – open a dam history book instead of keeping to the shallow end on the pop culture pool (end rant).

[8] Though, to be fair, I am reviewing a “middle chapter” here. The next series might very well surprise me.

[9] THE SIMPSONS late-comer competitor FAMILY GUY chose to go the other route – throwing away all pretense at plot, character and regular sitcom structure, for a series of random gags build.

[10] Well – I’ve learned my lesson; I’ve never bothered with the second mini-series.

[11] And I would hesitate to call it a problem – because the problematic aspect is not with work but the way it is perceived by the conscious reader

[12] Or better yet – don’t.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tom Shapira is a carbon-based life from the planet earth. He was formed in the year 1985 AD by two loving parents. He is also an MA student of English Lit. at Tel-Aviv University, Israel, where he feels proud to be the first student to graduate with a BA by writing a paper about the works of Grant Morison. In his native tongue, Tom is a staff writer for Israel's leading comics blog Alilon.net and an occasional participant in the blog's bi-weekly podcast. He spends too much time, money and thought on Comics (especially the works of Grant Morison, Alan Moore, Warren Ellis and Garth Ennis) and his friends and family wish he would stop. He is not going to.

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Curing the Postmodern Blues: Reading Grant Morrison and Chris Weston\'s The Filth in the 21st Century

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