Four Colors to Infinity: “Roswell, Texas”
Nobody has suffered today like I have suffered today, unless they also read the entirety of the shitty Libertarian webcomic Roswell, Texas by L. Neil Smith. Allow me to share with you some of its insouciant crappiness in the form of a list.
1. The comic is set in an alternate reality in which the Texans won at the Alamo and established a Libertarian-style Republic of Texas that lasts until the present day (or, at least, until the time at which the story is set, in 1964). This gives Smith an opportunity to show off his knowledge of history, which is unfortunate, because he hasn’t any. Historical insight is either misapplied or missing.
2. For example, the comic, which takes place in flashback in an alternate 1947, concerns a quartet of Texas Rangers sent to investigate the notorious UFO crash in Roswell. The Rangers consist of two fictional characters and two based on real people. One is Meier Kahane, who (a) is not portrayed as insane and (b) is not portrayed as being 13 years old, which he would have been in 1947. The other is Malcolm X, who does not have a criminal background and shows absolutely no interest in racial issues. (He is passionate about the sales tax, insofar as he believes it should be abolished.) Why write a story with Malcolm X in it and then never mention racism, ever? Why write a story in which Meier Kahane is a Texas Ranger?
3. In fact, the whole book seems confused about dates. T.E. Lawrence is a main character, and he’s portrayed as maybe in his mid-40s. In fact, in 1947, he would have been 60 years old, and also dead. The president of Texas is Charles Lindbergh Jr., who is portrayed as a middle-aged man; but had the Lindbergh baby lived, he would have been only sixteen in 1947. Why not just make it Lindy himself? Especially when you consider that…
4. …the main villains in the book are Nazis. Which isn’t that odd, Nazis being the most convenient of all villains in any kind of historical fiction. What is odd is that one of the main characters is clearly established as being the daughter of Adolf Hitler, who moved to Mexico after WWI and became a successful painter rather than a fascist dictator. This makes it unclear how the Nazis rose to power. But just to make it clear that he hates them, the author establishes that the Nazis are all gay, and dresses them in pink uniforms and/or leather bondage gear. Which brings us to…
5. …like a lot of allegedly ‘gay-friendly’ writers (paging Joss Whedon), Smith thinks lesbians are super cool, and shows anyone who has a problem with them as an ignorant homophobe. (It goes without saying that the lesbian characters are gorgeous, and completely adherent to male heterosexual standards of dress and body image.) However, male homosexuals are portrayed as villainous at worst and disgusting at best.
6. Which is hardly the worst of the book’s political problems. Texas has no income tax, but it has a bunch of extravagant-looking public buildings and a fully functional interstate highway system (in 1947!). It serves Smith’s Libertarian rhetoric to make the absurd claim that Texas’ system of government prevents any kind of spying or the keeping of state secrets, but since that would spoil his plot (which is laden with spies, espionage and international intrigue), he posits the existence of a greeting card company that is actually a front for a privately-funded spy network that keeps President Non-Teenaged Lindbergh Jr. up to snuff on the intelligence front. This is doubly absurd, because (a) it winkingly acknowledges that the highfalutin Libertarian rhetoric about honest government is unfeasible, and (b) it hits at a key weakness of Libertarianism, which is that Smith seems to think that a spy network is fine as long as it’s private and not public. To quote Bob Black, you can’t want what the state wants and not want the state.
7. It’s a real stinker on race and sexual issues, too. The Asian characters all talk in me-so-solly accents (it was written in 2008), President Non-Teenaged Lindbergh Jr. has an Indian manservant who talks like a stereotypical slave, and the French (including DeGaulle) are all effeminate cowards. I’ve mentioned that Malcolm X never once mentions race, and the book has a weird undercurrent of anti-Muslim sentiment. The book’s main Jewish character, Meier Kahane, converts to Mormonism so he can have multiple wives. Feminism is shown to be a quaint and misguided bit of silliness, and the book’s main feminist character (a crusading journalist named Amber Rose Bierce!) marries the first guy who asks her and raises a brood of children. (This is another thing I’ve never understood about Libertarianism — it claims to be all about liberation and freedom, and yet a ton of its adherents have regressive attitudes about minority rights and feminism.)
8. For the author of a book that fetishizes Texas, Smith hasn’t done much homework. He claims that the Hill Country is full of oil rigs (it isn’t), and his four Texas Rangers don’t know what direction San Angelo is from Austin. His politics get in the way, too: because LBJ is despised amongst Libertarians because of his big-government programs and war on poverty, he depicts LBJ as an incompetent, cowardly, low-level mob goon. This likely wouldn’t sit well with a lot of real Texans — plenty of locals hate LBJ’s politics, but he’s still pretty beloved in the state, because, by God, he was the president, and he was a Texan. There are other hilarious moments, as when some characters read in the newspaper that the U.S. is suspending certain civil liberties, and Malcolm X replies that anyone trying that in Texas would get strung up (it’s bad enough to pretend that Texans are really into the whole idea of rights, but to have the observation made by a black character is especially insulting, given that we’re the state that just sort of forgot to tell all the slaves they were free for a couple of months after the Civil War ended).
9. Gene Roddenberry is a big hero of the Texas Air Force in the story, even though he was actually raised in L.A. That’s okay, though, because John Wayne is also in the story, and he ends up defecting to Texas because the California government is run by a bunch of kooky liberal fruitcakes. (The book completely ignores Wayne’s ugly politics and racism, though it does allow him to remain a fervid anti-communist. Walt Disney is also in the book, as is the aforementioned T.E. Lawrence, and the noxious qualities of their politics are also completely elided, except to imply that Lawrence was right to kill all those Arabs.) There are jokes about hippies and tofu, which don’t make much sense in a book that takes place in 1947.
10. Of course, all its bogus politics and history aside, the book sucks. The art is shabby, the story plays out at a crippled snail’s pace, there is never any sense of menace or consequences, and the one conflict that threatens briefly to become interesting is resolved by the deus-ex-machina appearance of time-traveling Martian robots from the future. The whole thing reads like Heinlein if you took the very small degree of talent he possessed and replaced it with Stove Top stuffing.
I know, it sounds kind of awesome, right? But believe me, it isn’t so much nutty as it is just stupid. That’s one of the worst things about it — it takes these insane concepts and manages to render them boring instead of hilarious. If Harry Stephen Keeler had written it, it would have been amazing; with L. Neil Smith, it’s just ridiculous.
The Malcolm X thing is a perfect example: at first glimpse, I thought “Whaaa? He made Malcolm X a Texas Ranger? This could be great in a crazy way.” But Smith doesn’t do anything with the character. He literally has no personality. He’s just a sidekick who tags along and occasionally provides some plot service or exposition. He could have made him a radical black nationalist in real life, which would have provided conflict, or he could have made him the total opposite, a fawning Tom. But he didn’t do anything with him at all; he’s completely generic. So why make it Malcolm X? For no reason I can see other than for Smith to say “I am aware of the existence of famous black people”.
The gay Nazis with their pink uniforms and rainbow-colored dirigibles are pretty funny (though also pretty offensive), but Smith even manages to bog them down into some inexplicable back-story. I read this whole fucking thing (and did I mention it’s 640 pages long? yeah), and I still can’t quite figure out if California under “President Disney” was on the side of Nazi Germany, or against them. Also, at the end, instead of killing the Nazi squad that was after them, the Rangers ship them off to Mexico, where it is claimed they will be killed by the degenerate murderous Emperor in a ritual sacrifice. But then, 20 pages later, we are informed that the people rise up against the Emperor and kill him, thus ending the practice of ritual sacrifice. So what happens to the gay Nazi hit squad? Who knows? Who cares?
That’s the most frustrating thing about it: he has this incredibly, crazily ambitious story, and he can’t even be bothered to pay attention to it. It’s the most lazily written work imaginable. There’s a scene where the evil mobster LBJ is tampering with the Rangers’ motorbikes, and they open fire on him, and he survives by hiding behind a lamppost that we can clearly see was not there in the previous panel. Later, he’s shown as having his back up against a wall, and in the next panel, he’s got a long hallway behind him through which he’s shot by a sniper. If I thought for a second it was intentional, it’d be funny, but it’s just lazy. Smith forgets things, drops plot points, and invents obvious story crutches to cover his own sloppy writing, which more than overwhelms any enjoyment you might get out of the overall absurdity of the thing.
But, speaking of which, here’s some more crazy shit I remembered when I was typing this:
11. On the Texas version of Mount Rushmore (which Smith inexplicably places in a non-mountainous part of the state), one of the figureheads is Mark Twain, described as one of the greatest presidents Texas ever had. Twain was a flaming liberal by his, or even today’s, standards, though, so it’s hard to imagine why a writer who considers Lyndon Baines Johnson the epitome of evil would think his libertarian fantasy-state would ever elect a guy like Sam Clemens.
12. Smith is cagey about slavery. The only other black character we see besides Malcolm X is a Stepin Fetchit-esque train porter, and it’s mentioned that there was never an American Civil War. Lincoln was tried for treason, but acquitted, for reasons that remain nebulous, but it’s noted that he supported Texas independence, and Texas was a slave state, at least in our reality. So is there slavery or isn’t there? Who knows? I guess he thought it wasn’t important enough to mention, unlike his hatred of laws regulating animal care. (He’s against them.)
13. Smith is also a gun fetishist, one of those boring creeps who has his characters almost pornographically describing the weight, capacity, and other technical details of their firearms, but he can’t write a decent shootout to save his life. In another dazzling example of his “Libertarianism means total freedom except when it doesn’t” philosophy, Texas requires its citizens to carry firearms, which, to me, seems like as big a violation of personal freedom as banning people from carrying firearms. But what do I know? I don’t even know how much my guns weigh.
I READ THIS WHOLE THING. What is wrong with me? Even by unemployment standards this was a waste of time.