Warren Ellis and Tom Raney’s Changers
by Travis Hedge Coke
Action icons as think tank. Superheroes as genuine agents of change. The politics inherent in our pop thrillers, superhero comics, crime novels, and spy movies brought to cold and warm vibrant and crystal still light. Change of Die hit in 1997 like lightning. A whirlwind, dizzying story, it felt like a tornado but was, in fact, not random and unpredictable winds, but the engineered turning blades of a blender stirring it all up.
In the short term, Change of Die closed out the first volume of Stormwatch, a series published by the WildStorm imprint of DC Comics (once they purchased it), and launched Stormwatch’s second volume, by the same writer, Warren Ellis, who closed out that first. A slightly longer game, Change of Die is the conception point of Ellis’ Planetary and The Authority, as well as a clear touchstone for the exploration of American metaphor and British pop culture dominators, The Monarchy and The Establishment, all of these published by WildStorm. At the time, it was a hard kick to a stale industry, the machine of mass-production superheroics. It is, in its way, the mass-production that wins, in the story, but Change of Die is a story, not a history. History, when the wrong side wins or things culminate in tragedy, it is all we are left with, bad people in power, unwanted death. When a story kills the people we don’t want it to, it is possible that the tragedy produces more good, more change, more strength than a pleasant ending.
What makes Change or Die worth reading now, what made it worth anything then, is that it is unconcerned with persuading us who is right. Everyone and their positions have costs, everyone and their positions have some allure. Referred to as “the Changers,” outside the comic, and for the sake of trademarks and superhero comics’ tendency to teams, the loose cabal, the think tank, is self-defined as a group of friends or merely acquaintances with some common interests.
As the High, a 1930s midwestern socialist who spent the last few decades sitting by himself having some thoughts puts it, before the United Nations, “The world is growing used to costumed crimefighters, special men and women who seem to hold your world in their hands. What we’re doing is handing that world back to you. Fighting crime is no good unless you look past crime, to its root. Saving the world is no good if we leave it the way we found it.”
That sounds real good, except that the High is speaking mostly for his own goals, without fully understanding his allies’, or his allies understanding of “crime,” “root,” “special.”
While we hope that our fantasies, our aspirations are purely positive, that they are ethical and considered, that our superheroes and action heroes and suave fantastics are good people, by non-genre standards, presented three dimensional in real and functioning life, they are not. And, that goes double or triple for the serial ones, those whose roots are in eras older than our own, but also our new faces who may seem more woke, more carefully steered, but will, with the benefit for retrospect, show their flaws, too, as we grow.
Change of Die helps itself by disentangling itself from using any one figure as aspiration, and allowing their flaws to show as usefully as the good qualities. The underlying racism and eugenics of pulp vigilantism, the superhero has political and psychological figure, the Ditko/Miller hero as conviction, woman as manipulator, woman as death, and the inherent misogyny and sexualization of those, even the periodic flush of the eidolon, which prior to Ellis, went inexplicably unacknowledged in comics, despite the Spirit, Swamp Thing, and the ever-present fondness in fandom to claim Batman, “died the day his parents were murdered.”
And, by making the making these, largely sympathetic, antagonists into specific types, into anthropomorphic tropes, the regular cast of the comic are also sharply (re)cast as types, themselves, ideas instead of ideals, systems that grow and change but only along engineered and anticipated lines.
One of my favorite effects of Change of Die is how clear it is made that the characters do not understand one another, no one has the highest perspective, and as audience, there are both characters and plenty of real world people we will never properly grasp. I am more of an apologist for Steve Ditko than any other objectivist, for certain, but I do not particularly love his Amazing Spider-Man – I think some of it is among his weakest work, strong as it is – and while I can think of him with his nephews in their baseball uniforms, as a friendly man with a small personal office, an advancer of the field, Mr A stories, which I do love, scare the pee out of me.
The High, named once, John Cumberland, is the adopted son of Kansas socialists. Unlike the others of his group, John both represents a type and will forever fail to sustain representing the type. All Supermans fall short.
John is the Superman owned by DC Comics, he is the Superman of Nietzsche, the Superman of this story. He is a man who is transcendent and embedded in man. Man, specifically. Distaff variations are, regardless of who came first, distaff.
The High left the world to think, and returned to change the Earth and its peoples, hoping we can all be our best, that we are our best. And, in part, he will always hope this because he, at heart, knows he is not his own best. If he was his best, he would not have had to leave.
If the High is an angel, the Blind is Jacob, who will wrestle an angel. Selfish human initiative treating success as heroism. What is the Batman/Superman fight in The Dark Knight Returns, if not Jacob wrestling an angel? Batman, Daredevil, Iron Man, Wolverine as John Galt. Thomas Edison killing an an elephant.
The Blind sees only in shades of gray, with his upper face masked but his mouth exposed. The Blind swings down from the sky and beats people up. He engages in “advanced interrogation techniques,” in his pursuit of quick justice, which is, in more plain speak, torture.
The Blind is Mr A, the Question, even Spider-Man when he is a teenager yelling at college protestors to get a job and slipping on a mask to punch out middle aged accident victims with brain injuries and mouth off at them while he does it. The Blind is an indulgence that is uncomfortable to admit to. Peter Parker puts on his Spidey suit to call adults with bad haircuts fat and stupid to their faces and still be a bright nice boy. Batman must be Batman because to illegally aid the police as an on-call enforcer who respects no citizen’s rights, he cannot be a prominent business owner who could face jail or boycotts.
The Engineer, predecessor of the woman of the same title, who will appear in Ellis’ The Authority, is the quintessence of builder, of designer. “The maker.”
In, Change or Die, the Engineer develops gardens that grow whatever we want, whatever we need. The gardens are the end to scarcity, and one of the foremost reasons our main cast, as United Nations strong arms, must stop them and squelch this revolution.
The Engineer is unconcerned with guiding societies, and is simply providing tools.
In terms of serial stories, especially serial superhero comics, the Engineer-type is most often a one off appearance or sublimated into the Blind-type or other types because if advanced technology is provided to the people, it must automatically change their world. Serial superhero comics and serial superhero shared worlds must be fraught with excuses why good people would not share scarcity-ending technology. The Justice League must keep their teleportation technology. Mr Fantastic can invent wonderful machines but even his newfangled dishwasher can never ever be mass-produced.
The untrustworthy woman, the woman who does vile things but is super hot so male gaze logic dictates lenience/women can’t be responsible for their actions because we are massively sexist. Wish is the game-player, the allure of being being manipulated (and being so manly as to overtake that manipulation with dominance).
Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, pro-suffrage, anti-antisemitism author of Venus in Furs and great-great-uncle of Marianne Faithfull, who gave his name to masochism (coined by Dr Kraft-Ebbing), was abusive to his wife, pushing and threatening her into sexual behavior she did not desire because his fantasy of woman, which is the fantasy of many a Bond Girl, of Marvel Comics’ Black Widow, DC Comics’ Talia al Ghul, Poison Ivy, Harley Quinn is, while surface strong, and potentially taken down new roads, are designed to be overpowered, overruled, and redirected by male potency. Pussy Galore learning to stop lesbianing for James Bond.
In Change or Die, the High’s lack of a will for dominance, and his ability to more fairly take people as they appear, leads to him being entirely unprepared for Wish’s manipulations or even her desire to mess with people.
The Doctor is an outgrowth of the Engineer and Wish, in that, unlike the Engineer, the Doctor does not present technology and leave, but applies the technology to the people. As with Wish, how it is applied foremost serves the needs of the individual applying. “First do no harm,” has never been an actual livable code for medics. Bones have to be reset, teeth need pulling, some antibiotics will make the patient nauseous.
For all many Europeans look down on medicine as a term for, “magic,” for medicinal prayer or medicinal ritual, the easiest way to note a person is a magician, a sorcerer, in comics, was and is to put “Doctor” in front of their name.
In Change of Die, on of the Doctor’s first actions to change the world is to dose entire populations with hallucinogens. He chemically balances entire populations, but in doing so, also causes potentially damaging side effects, because the long term is preferable, in his eyes, to the short term side effects.
Hopefully, at this point, we can see why these characters are not going to last more than this three-issue story. These are not people, the characters representing people may share some of these qualities or temporarily embody these tropes, as we, as real people may also, but these are statuses, not even personalities. The Doctor that replaces this Doctor has multiple dimensions and personality. So, too, the next Engineer and the main cast of Stormwatch.
Rite is about two things: ritual and Wonder Woman. Rite, in Change or Die, is seen murdering men who are drowning baby girls because they want only boys. Rite does this, as far as we know, not out of ethics or decision of the moment, but because it is counter to her culture, to her ritualism. Rite is, in this story, a black woman, but in many stories, what Rite represents, is the white man as knight errant in a Crusade, the sweating, praying priest of The Exorcist.
Unlike Superman or Spider-Man, DC Comics’s Wonder Woman gains her role and title and even her signature look by competing in ritual games. Her being Wonder Woman, her wearing those vestments, that is a ritual thing. It, and she, are the reiterating and respecting of a culture.
Smoke is the Shadow, and kind of Batman, and a little Doc Savage, and Rick from Casablanca, Deckard in Blade Runner (but not Deckard of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?). Smoke is the wounded man, the man who has seen the evil of men, who sees within himself that evil, and feels a need to cut it down and burn the roots.
Warren Ellis wisely transfigures the Shadow’s famous, “The weed of crime bears bitter fruit,” into a statement of eugenic and inheritable evil. If Wish is what is wrong with the myth of Eve and the Garden of Eden, Smoke is Adam and Adam’s later son, Seth and his descendant, Noah, both of whom believe in the genetic evil of the Cain family line and are shamed by and weary from it.
Have I mentioned we are incredibly sexist? Because the woman is death.
Woman is death.
Rose Tattoo does not talk, except, the in-love-with-death fashy virulence named Henry Bendix (who runs Stormwatch) says, she always talks to him. Because she does not talk and he is insane. Bendix is too heavily engaged in the Freudian death drives, referred to now as thanatos, and by Freud, “Todestriebe.” Thanatos is the drive which inspired Marvel Comics’ Thanos, though of course, Rose is not the thanatos drive but the death and destroying that it is a drive towards.
Which is another reason that Rose Tattoo and what she represents is sexist. Woman as Death is one of those things which can be romanticized, and is sometimes played as empowering, but no story is her story, no story is about her. They are, inevitably, about the men who are hot for her. Even Rutger Hauer’s manifestation of Jim Halsey (C Thomas Howell)’s thanatos in The Hitcher, is given more self-actuation than La Belle Dame sans Merci. A female/female dynamic still rests the power, for example, with Coraline, not the Other Mother.
At time of publication, the Eidolon was treated as something of a flub. Could zombies really be that important? Was this about vampires? And, yes and yes, but.
Comics and pop fiction have always been fascinated by the type, the person returned from the dead, often with a new sense or new knowledge. To keep us biblical, this is a big proof that Jesus is not like you and me. It is a favorite of Westerns, in particular the horror-westerns of Clint Eastwood, High Plains Drifter and Pale Rider. In terms of comics, this type had seen a huge growth in the 1990s, with the success of Todd McFarlane’s Spawn and James O’Barr’s The Crow, but this is also DC’s Swamp Thing, Will Eisner’s The Spirit, even, in a very real sense, any use, 1060s forward, of Marvel’s Captain America, who will forever now be associated with a long long sleep in ice, that may as well have been death. In recent years, Batman has become increasingly reiterated as an eidolon, from Frank Miller to Grant Morrison and Brian Michael Bendis-scripted versions.
Every major and half the b-list of superheroes in American comics have been dead and come out alright again. In X-Men parlance, they “got better.” Death and resurrection may, at once point, have been more limited to the Spectre, the Spirit, the Shadow, but now, Superman, Spider-Man, Wonder Woman, Iron Man.
The Junior Partner
The most slept on, of the types, and of the participants in the Changers cabal, is Malcolm King, the younger brother of Stormwatch ranking officer and future head, Jackson King, and slotted, here, into the uncomfortable role of the kid presence, the junior partner. Malcolm, embraced and used by the characters who recognize one another as equals, as adults, is a grown man, but treated as less than. His movements are restricted by those who consider themselves more powerful and more mature than him, he is tortured when it is deemed necessary, he is slighted without malice. He is equal and participatory only nominally, in the fashion of Rick Jones, the boy who helped Marvel’s Incredible Hulk and brought the Avengers together, Snapper Carr of DC’s Justice League of America, the Wonder Twins of the Super Friends, those two kids who ran around with the Dinosaucers.
The junior partner may not be always an actual child. Tesla Strong, of the DC/America’s Best Comics’ title, Tom Strong, is the daughter of the title hero, and something like eighty years old, but she is treated as a child, having to sneak boyfriends into her room, being talked about as if a child. The cohorts of Doc Savage, Monk and such, were not children, but compared to Savage, narratively and by Savage, so they are. The women allies of traditional male heroes, too often, from Lois and Margo Lane to female second in commands on whatever police procedural is developing new episodes for this season.
The junior partner frequently tags along, or they take off on their own despite curfew and the hero must come rescue, the adults must go look for them. The junior partner is us. The junior partner is the audience proxy, our window into their world, but it is also an inducement to us, to live within bounds that, ultimately, were only created by fictional supermen and death-women, and by storytellers.
Warren Ellis and Tom Raney’s Change or Die
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