(Before beginning the article, be aware there are significant and comprehensive spoilers for the phenomenal and largely unheralded books discussed here. If you would consider reading them before beginning this, for your own sake, it’s highly recommended you do so.)
As a rule, there aren’t many in the way of great superhero novels. There’s a small and welcome handful of exceptions – Robert Mayer’s hugely influential Superfolks, Elliot S! Maggin’s quietly revolutionary pair of Superman novels Last Son of Krypton and Miracle Monday – but the vast majority seem to be a largely soulless collection of genre clichés wrapped around a central deconstructive element (often that the superhero is in fact less than noble) that just isn’t enough to carry an entire story more than once or twice in isolation. One often gets the sense that the authors’ conception of the genre emerged from an amalgamation of barely remembered Saturday morning cartoons, the first Superman movies, and maybe Watchmen as a quick dip into deeper waters for research. It’s the genre equivalent of trying to write the detective noir to end all detective noirs with a half-formed cultural impression and a quick viewing of the Maltese Falcon: chances are, unless you’re truly phenomenal, you’re going to be retreading ideas that dedicated and talented writers have already covered and moved on from years if not decades ago.
Al Ewing is a different matter altogether. Besides being very much ‘truly phenomenal’ by nearly any measure as a craftsman and storyteller, he also knows the workings of the superhero inside and out. It’s because of these qualities that he’s sitting pretty at Marvel Comics now: after concluding fan-favorite runs on Loki: Agent of Asgard and Mighty Avengers, he’s poised to relaunch New Avengers and Ultimates, as well as pen the tie-in title to Marvel’s popular mobile game Contest of Champions. What many are likely unaware of, however, is that his first and quite possibly best superhero work predates his American mainstream work altogether: the pulp-hero trilogy of El Sombra, Gods of Manhattan and Pax Omega, set in the larger steampunk universe of Pax Britannia (largely written by Jonathan Greene, who covers the adventures of gentlemen’s gentleman adventurer and agent of the Empire Ulysses Quicksilver) where not electricity but steam technology was used to power the world, both Queen Victoria and Adolf Hitler live on in monstrous mechanical forms, and the British Empire remains the dominant force on the planet.
The charms of his work here are overwhelming, from his elaborate worldbuilding of the small town of Pasito and the radically changed New York City of the United Socialist States of America, to Ewing’s clear joy for every one of the most exciting possibilities the adventure story offers him (the best example probably being the massive heist in Pax Omega by Hank Scorpio’s Yodeling Bastards, including pastiches for Zorro, Blackbeard, and Batroc ze Lepair among others, which essentially leads to a pacifistic Mr. T punching a tank to death). But perhaps the most interesting unifying component of his trilogy, more than any single character arc or extravagant setpiece, is the moral bedrock on which every single aspect of the larger story ultimately rests. It’s a passionately, aggressively humanist work built from his view of steampunk’s social appeal being rooted in “the imperialism of the time, in the massive class differences, in the struggles of the disempowered to empower themselves in the face of inherent societal prejudice, in emerging technology on the edge of science…It’s an incredibly rich seam”. It’s a seam, in fact, that reaches through the trilogy from the death of any single soldier to the existential fate of every being in the Multiverse.
Psychologically shattered by the conquest of his home of Pasito by Nazi stormtroopers, the death of his brother and his shame in fleeing for his life, Djego the weak-willed poet wandered in the desert for nine long years after ingesting unknown hallucinogens before emerging transformed as El Sombra, the Saint of Ghosts, to seek bloody retribution. It’s the most straightforward of the 3 books, to be sure – it’s 290 all but uninterrupted pages of him satisfyingly killing as many of the Nazis that ruined his life and enslaved his people as he can – but the story makes no bones that El Sombra is profoundly broken, having willingly subsumed every aspect of his personality that can’t aid in the slaughter of his enemies.
It’s worth noting how much El Sombra’s personality matches with, and at the time of publication in 2007 in many ways prefigures, Grant Morrison’s wildly popular take on Batman (which Ewing is himself an avowed fan of): the shattering and rebuilding of his entire being to repair himself from trauma, the creation of a more brutal ‘backup personality’ to handle things where he cannot (El Sombra for Djego, the Batman of Zur-En-Arrh for Bruce Wayne), the growing understanding that he is a far more effective combatant as a symbol to the people than a lone warrior, the gradual reclamation of humanity over the course of his mission, and perhaps most conspicuously, his repeated experiences in tripping out on some serious mind-altering substances in the fight against crime, particularly against Nazi master-fiends.
“So this is what a hero is. This is everything my father, the bastard, the liar, is not. This is the woodcutter of the fairytales, the masked caballero, the knight, the man who can fight off an army with a smile, the one who will always be there for me if I ask but once. This is the hero. And he is mad. And he is in so much pain.”—Carina Contreras
It’s the latter trait that forms the basis for one of the most memorable scenes in the book, a duel of wits between a caged El Sombra and the drug-addled, demented torturer Master Minus in the latter’s Palace of Beautiful Thoughts, where the Nazi questions “Was it simulating to carve helpless flesh as though it were meat in a butcher’s shop window? Did the experience make you feel in control? Dominant? Like a true man?…[El Sombra] was always fond of tearing his enemies apart with that sharp sword of his, wasn’t he?” There’s more going on than it seems here, but Minus’ point stands: the reader is meant to recoil at his previous lecture on torture as a morally neutral, and potentially even tragically virtuous tool depending on the user (however disturbingly and intentionally familiar a point of view that may sound in this day and age, with Minus even noting the state-sponsored torturer being a tool of justice as a more ‘realistic’ interpretation of events than placing him in the role of villain), but throughout the story the narration has thrilled to El Sombra’s own astonishingly brutal dispatch of every man in his way.
Each and every soldier, in a redeployment and significant expansion of the concept of Grant Morrison’s “Best Man Fall” chapter of The Invisibles, is given a fully fleshed-out backstory delivered at the moment of their death: some are sadists, proud bigots and monsters beyond compare, others foolish, naïve or frightened men doing what they see as their patriotic, or at least unavoidable duty, and all face a dirty and humiliating end at the hands of the hero of the book. Even as El Sombra fights his way through nigh-unstoppable robotic abominations and duels a squadron of uniformed Nazi officers in jetpacks at the climax of the story, there is no ambiguity that El Sombra’s actions are a necessary evil at best. Just as the Nazi Party has dehumanized the once-proud citizens of Pasito, seen as cattle to be herded and tormented for their amusement, branding them and brainwashing them into living “clockwork men”, El Sombra likewise sees his adversaries to a man as chaff for the culling at best, even as the reader is forced to see otherwise. For any high ground he may stand on, the same dark urge to dismember the adversary and achieve efficiency at any personal cost, and in the process achieve a sense of masculinity and control he felt bereft of in the past, burns as brightly in Djego as any of his opponents. What true moral victories there are in El Sombra are divorced from violence: El Sombra’s willingness to either sacrifice himself or live with the guilt of inevitable failure to save as many of the children in a burning schoolhouse as possible; a father throwing off years of cowardice and subservience to protect his only daughter, and her own defiance of the men who ruled her entire life; the village, inspired by El Sombra, rising up to reclaim what is theirs, even as the masked man forsakes any chance of peace in the end to chase his vendetta across the world.
Next time, we’ll have a look at the second part of the trilogy, Gods of Manhattan.