Just Another Word for Nothing Left to Lose
Lately I’ve been thinking about the revivalists.
That is, the wave of writers – whose God is Roy Thomas and whose Jesus is Grant Morrison (Neil Gaiman, I guess, would be the Holy Ghost) – who specialize in rescuing old characters from Marvel & DC’s equivalent of limbo and then tinkering with them, rejigging them, recontextualizing them, retrofitting them and retconning them into something that suits their purposes.
Frankly, although the results can range from objectionable to outstanding, I’ve never really liked this in theory. It’s a big multiverse, and its continuity is complicated enough without the need for this kind of thing. If you like the concept of an old character, you can just create a new one with the same gimmick; people have been doing it since the dawn of Superman, and it helps in a tiny little way by moving the doomed-from-the-start (but still ludicrously championed by lonely losers like me) Campaign for Real-Time forward. DC’s continuity is all so much spaghetti by this point (it’ll only get worse after the next Multiple Crisis on Infinite Justices, or whatever they’re going to call their next shakeup), and Marvel doesn’t even seem to bother anymore, so why should we? Gotta do something, I guess.
That said, am I immune to the revivalist impulse? Hell, no. It’s a mighty powerful temptation, to which I would succumb a lot more often if I was more involved in the contemporary comics scene. I’d love to get my hands on the Justice League, just as I’d love to make a movie version of The Crying of Lot 49 or get handed the rights to Yoknapatawpha County to tinker with. If my pathetically persistent dream of writing gig at Marvel ever came true, the very first thing I’d pitch would be a revisionist Dr. Doom miniseries; I still think it could be one of the best and most successful ideas I’ve ever had.
Still, whence to wedge my revivalist tendencies? It’s not like I’m ever going to actually get a gig with the Big Three (or Wig Tree, as Terry Southern’s Boris Adrian has it). So I find myself here in Cloud Cuckoo Land, pretending that I eat up all my data minutes trying to get Cameron Stewart to draw me more explosions. What property, theoretically, could I exploit? The Suicide Squad is a tempting possibility, as is the Doom Patrol; but these fatalistic ne’er-shall-I-smiles have likewise been reclaimed hither and thither, and one is about to be ruined by a film adaptation. They also miss, in their justice-at-any-cost nihilism, a certain element of hope I’m looking for in this frivolous project of mine. So who does that leave?
The Freedom Fighters.
For those what don’t remember, the FFs were a gaggle of WWII heroes who, in the depressing doldrums of the late ‘40s, happened to discover Earth-X. Earth-X was a parallel world in which the Nazis won the war and took over the free world. The bored, despondent Freedom Fighters jumped at the chance to go there and relive their glory days of fighting the most horrific global conflict in the history of humanity. On the one hand, it’s a terribly depressing story; who in their right minds, after all, would willingly keep fighting the Second World War, especially in a place where it had the worst possible outcome? On the other hand, it’s undeniably heroic, for that very same reason: here’s a group of people who so despise the possibility of the Nazis coming to power that they’re willing to fight forever, a literal reality away from home, to ensure that it doesn’t happen anywhere, at any time, ever.
I decided to fuck around with the idea, however, and come up with a way of adapting it to remain both outside and adjacent to what currently passes for current DC continuity. I reframed the context: instead of a group traveling to another world where the Nazis won the war, it’s two groups in the here and now – one good and one evil – both with the same putative goal: stopping a global conflict. The central figures in each group have the same ability (they can see the future) and the same goal (preventing war), but very different means, methods and allies. They are forever at odds, and for various reasons which will be made explicit, incapable of coming to agreement even though their ideals are both identical and incomprehensibly important. (Note that I’ll largely be referring to the original conception of these characters. I know many of them have been retconned to the point of unrecognizability, and I don’t really care to catch up on what’s happened to them.)
The ‘good’ Freedom Fighters:
ATOMIC KNIGHT. I’ve always been fascinated with this character. He’s essentially the victim of military experiments that equate to torture: he was an average Army grunt who got doped up, stuffed in a tank, and force-fed hallucinations of a devastating atomic war in order to see how a planned special forces unit would adapt to such conditions. His whole life was a lie, and after he finally broke free, he couldn’t quite shake himself of the false reality. He stole a suit of hi-tech armor (the shield has a mushroom cloud on it: a nearly intolerable offense, a constant insult, and an omnipresent reminder to him of why he fights – he cannot bear the thought of his nightmares again becoming real) and discovered he could see the future; now he is haunted by visions of war, death and terror, and is constantly on the march to stop them from coming true. He has recruited a handful of allies, but his biggest hindrance is that as a rule, no one believes his doomstruck stories (not even, at times, his teammates), because they see him – and not without foundation – as, essentially, a shellshocked, traumatized veteran with one foot outside of reality. The common theme amongst the group is that they all feel they have something to pay for; just as the original Freedom Fighters condemn themselves to a lifetime of battle for the sin of living in a world that allowed Nazism to be born, the Atomic Knight punishes himself to a career of tilting at windmills to prevent the recurrence of a nuclear war that never really happened.
BLACK LIGHTNING. BL’s an appealing character, an inner city resident who made it out (through a gold medal win at the Olympics and an education that nabbed him a teaching career), but headed straight back. He didn’t want to be one of those guys who made it big and then walked away, abandoning the place he came from with an I-got-mine. He also fits my overall theme (the guilt that feeds his fight is for having caused, through one of his endless battles against crime and predation in the ghetto the death of the woman he loved) and a sub-theme I wanted to develop, the idea of a working-class team, a team truly of the people, without the resources or social status of a JLA. Just as ‘freedom fighter’ can describe a scrappy, ragtag group of mountain rebels or Minutemen who are chandlers and stable boys by day and revolutionaries by night, these Freedom Fighters, from Black Lightning’s paycheck-to-paycheck job as an urban public school English teacher to Atomic Knight’s armor, stolen by the government, are flying not unencumbered like Superman, but by the seats of their pants.
CAPTAIN COMPASS. Admittedly, I had to stretch to get this guy into the theme, but damn it, I just always liked the character and wanted to use him. He’s the token amoral slob of the group: completely down on his luck (after a career-ending revelation that, for reasons of profit and excitement, he faked at least half the crimes he solved as the Penny Cruise Line’s chief on-board detective) and working as a cheap fixer on the docks when he comes across Atomic Knight’s group investigating the smuggling of nuclear materials in the hold of a foreign cargo ship. Something about their entire raison d’etre intrigues him: they’re completely selfless, but not suckers; and they’re barely scraping by not because they were ruined by their own hubris, but because they have no other options. He sees in them a chance, perhaps, for redemption; but with him, it’s not all nobility and self-sacrifice. He’s still something of a sham artist, an aging lothario and a bit of a confidence man. He’s a pill-peddling advantage-taker, coasting on his past glories and still grabbing on to well-off young stuff. Beyond that, he knows they need him: he’s the smartest guy in the bunch, a brilliant detective still and, often, the only one who really thinks things through. (As a result, though, he’s risk-averse and the least likely to lend credence to AK’s visions.)
FIREHAWK. Another character of whom I’ve long been fond, and a definite forgotten heroine: once the Ronnie Raymond Firestorm fell out of favor, there was pretty much no reason for her to exist, and so she didn’t. Aside from providing a group sorely lacking it some heavy-duty firepower, her lost-girl essence appeals to me; cast aside by Firestorm, she drifted for a while, terribly embittered that the man who was responsible for her transformation left her for another. The only member of the group who’s well-off, she met with Captain Compass on a luxury cruise before his downfall and began a romantic relationship with him. (No one else in the group is comfortable with this May-December stuff, and they hold CC in some contempt for sponging off her money, but they need them both, and are a bit too willing to let things come to a head.) She’s also sympathetic to AK’s desire to forestall nuclear terror: she is, after all, the result of atomic mutation, as is her old flame Firestorm. Her loss is that of innocence, of humanity: she’s a drifter and badly needs to put down roots to regain her sense of self.
THE HUMAN TARGET. Like Daredevil, a man without fear: also like Daredevil, a dangerous obsessive who, despite a brilliant mind, takes so many risks that he doesn’t stop to think things through. After seeing his father murdered as a child, he has sworn his entire life to a sort of endless martyrdom, forever throwing himself in harm’s way in a Quixotic quest to ensure that no innocent person ever dies again. Of course, there’s not much money in martyrdom, so he’s a professional acquaintance of Captain Compass in the second-rate shamus trade. He’s more than sympathetic with Atomic Knight’s mission: war and terrorism, particularly involving weapons of mass destruction, are about the most efficient way there is to kill innocents, and he can’t bear the thought of any of it happening. Probably the most loyal to AK’s cause, but likewise, with his hair-trigger personality and his psychological turmoil, the least stable of the group.
ONYX. An urban castoff who found peace in the most unlikely place – a monastery outside a major metropolitan area, where she learned both inner calm and outer violence through their training in the martial arts. However, she too has something to make up for: in a quest to return Green Arrow (who was trained at the same monastery) to the fold, she inadvertently set off a power struggle and subsequent rift that shattered the temple and led to its dissolution. She’s the fightin’ liberal of the group, a militant leftist — even more than GA; I’d love to make her a flagrantly Marxist black heroine, a latter-day Angela Davis — who fights war and terror and nuclear destruction as manifestations of the same destructive capitalist urges. She’s also a bit prone to taking on the troubles of everyone as if they were her own; she’s so together that she almost has a taste for other peoples’ failures.
RAGMAN. One of the forgotten members of the “New DC” era of the ‘70s, he’s actually gotten a ton of retcons, but I always wanted to use him. His guilt gimmick: the death of his father and their friends in a criminal scheme to save him from poverty. His working-class gimmick: he’s a ghetto resident, the poorest of the poor, the protector and defender of the people no one else wants to defend. I also see for him another interesting angle: he’s white, and almost every ghetto everywhere is largely black. I see him as a bit older, old enough to remember when there was little white flight and when it wasn’t just black faces in the inner cities; there’s a strange dynamic at work between him, Onyx and Black Lightning, as well as the people he protects. He is somewhat resentful that the time of “his” people has gone, and that he’s stuck protecting people who aren’t “his”; while the blacks in the inner city are likewise somewhat resentful that a white man is the one who takes it on himself to act as their Lord Protector. Some fun angles to be worked there, I think, between his sincerity as a defender of the poor and his confusion at being on the losing end of shifting demographics.) His angle in being with the group: similar to Black Lightning’s – he knows that in any war, it’s the poor civilians who suffer the most.
I won’t go into a huge discursive about the villains here, but in brief, they’re the opposite numbers of the Freedom Fighters. Their leader, however, doesn’t know the kind of dogs he’s laying down with. The main figure here is COLONEL FUTURE. Almost literally the opposite number of Atomic Knight, he’s a military man in a suit of high-tech armor who sees a future of global devastation and is desperate to prevent it: but unlike AK, his visions are (unbeknownst to him) completely and utterly wrong, and the actions he takes to prevent the terrible (but bogus) future he sees are more than likely to have disastrous consequences. Because, like AK, no one will believe him, he’s allied himself with questionable companions, and almost all of them are lying through their teeth, using him, deliberately reinforcing and misinterpreting his flawed visions to steer him in their direction, to get access to his power and resources. The main henchman is ATOMIC SKULL, who claims to have reformed and pointed his S.K.U.L.L. minions in the direction of good, fighting a quasi-legal, underground struggle for disarmament and peace to prevent the sort of nuclear mishap that made him into a monster. In reality, he is completely mad, and wants nothing more than to start a massive war, to end the world that made him; he sees in the Colonel a chance to do just that. With him are the grotesque chemical monstrosity CHEMO, reclaimed by S.K.U.L.L. as a devastating weapon; the brilliant and totally amoral DR. MOON, who would like nothing better than a small, manageable war to provide him plenty of chances to experiment on new and exciting victims; and METALLO, another creation of S.K.U.L.L. – sincere in that he genuinely wants little more than a cure for the condition that keeps him alive only with a kryptonite heart, but terribly embittered at all he’s been through and his inhuman appearance. Rounding out the group are the deranged, misogynistic DR. PSYCHO, affiliated with the group for reasons of his own, and his greatest creation (and greatest victim/hate object), THE SILVER SWAN.
I think it’s a decent hook, a suitable theme, and a workable premise at least for a maxi-series, with tons of opportunities, given the background of the characters, for guest appearances by everyone from Green Arrow to Superman. Dan DiDio: forget all those nasty things I said about you and call me.