Let us not become the evil we deplore.
– Rep. Barbara Lee, September 14th, 2001
I couldn’t take it any longer. I grabbed a microphone and said, ‘I’m no fly on the wall. I am the hornet that stings.’ There was an immediate uproar, so not having anything more to say, I shouted out, ‘Happy New Year, losers.’ And that was that.
History is a slippery subject, especially in the arts. Where artistic movements begin and end are rarely, if ever, easily pinned down to fixed points in time. Their antecedents can be traced as far back as you want to expand the scope of inquiry and their vestigial legacy can be dilated just as far into the future. A principle that has special meaning for closing out the decade that the Disney fueled Marvel Cinematic Universe eclipsed the box office in.
The most expedient answer to what shines through the brightest in the comics scaffolding of said movie empire is Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch’s The Ultimates. But then, The Ultimates were the direct consequence of a chain reaction that began in Hitch and Warren Ellis’ The Authority, which, of course, was an outgrowth of Jim Lee’s Wildstorm imprint of Image Comics. And then we plunge further down the rabbit hole until we eventually land on the sacred year of 1986. Which doesn’t really lead us to any meaningful conclusion unless it’s your fervent belief that comics history begins and ends with Watchmen.
There is, on the other hand, a much more fun experiment to run. The Ultimates, as an aesthetic and thematic influence, didn’t truly take hold until Avengers, and for that movie to even get made, Iron Man had to happen. The Iron Man trilogy had precious little to do with The Ultimates, though. It is, instead, almost entirely the product of Warren Ellis and Adi Granov’s Iron Man: Extremis.
Does that make Extremis more important or influential than The Ultimates? By most metrics, probably not. What’s much easier to argue is that The Ultimates’ outsized reputation has left Extremis criminally under-examined given its pivotal role in both comics and film history.
Until the first teaser trailer for Iron Man dropped, Extremis appeared to be a curiosity, an exercise in pushing Tony Stark further down Marvel’s sliding scale view of internal history that incidentally allowed Warren Ellis to remake the hero in his own, deeply idiosyncratic image.
In hindsight, Extremis looks like it was purpose built for assembling a film franchise around, an angle that Marvel embraced and pushed hard when it issued a “Director’s Cut” reprint of Extremis published as part of the publicity push for Iron Man 2, which Granov worked on directly. Whether or not Extremis was commissioned with the intent to immediately develop it for film, it was ruthlessly exploited as a symbol of authenticity to the spirit and letter of contemporary Marvel comics that the film marketing wanted to project.
Extremis was absolutely an ideal comic to use as the story bible for an entire trilogy of Hollywood blockbusters, updating Tony Stark’s origin from Vietnam to a vaguely alluded to Afghanistan as the backdrop for his struggle against an experimental biological weapon fallen into the hands of domestic terrorists. None of Marvel’s comic to film adaptations have benefited from and reflected back a single contemporary source the way that the Iron Man trilogy has, but the ways in which the films and Extremis diverge are just as fascinating as what was retained.
One of the key attributes of Warren Ellis’ success in comics is his Janus-like ability to peer backwards into the past and forwards into the future simultaneously. It’s a particular viewpoint that he honed on titles like Planetary and Transmetropolitan that were chiefly concerned with utopian and dystopian visions of the future produced in the past. When placed beside those millennium straddling works, Extremis appears at first to be a lesser, simplistic example of that bifurcated perspective, but what elevates Extremis is the choice of what threads of history to tug on rather than the novelty of how that perspective was presented in Planetary and Transmetropolitan, or would later be disrupted by Supreme Blue Rose.
When Stan Lee came up with the idea of Iron Man, he claims to have set a challenge for himself to create a character who would be a despised figure difficult to get people to root for: an arms dealer. But when Tales of Suspense #39, scripted by Larry Lieber with a story credit to Lee, emerged, Stark wasn’t a toothsome antihero. He was a brilliant, resourceful cold warrior of the kind that Jack Abramoff could only dream of making movies about. It remained a central part of Iron Man comics straight through the collapse of the USSR, pitting him against Soviet foils like the Crimson Dynamo and Titanium Man.
Updating Stark for a post-Cold War world was necessary to keep him believably younger than his seventies, but it also created a disturbing subtext for the character. Unlike, say Magneto, whose origins in the Holocaust tie him to a fixed point in time, Iron Man’s origin story has almost unlimited portability due to the simple fact that since its founding in 1776, the United States has been at war with someone, somewhere for all but 17 years. There has always been a place to stage Iron Man’s origin story because America has always been at war.
That notion lurks in the gutters of Extremis’ pages without being directly addressed, but it is a framework to view the character through that Ellis was actively nurturing in his work from Planetary through Supreme Blue Rose. Firstly by placing superheroes back in their original historical time and place in Planetary and secondly by conceptualizing the periodic reboots of major superheroes as an infinite playing field of “versioning” that yields fresh insights into those characters. The prismatic age normalized the idea of multiple simultaneous versions of the same superhero, but it took works like Alan Moore and Warren Ellis’ successive explorations of Supreme to create independent meaning out of it.
As such, Extremis gave Ellis the opportunity to make good on Lee’s initial personal challenge to bring to life a version of Tony Stark that emphasized what makes weapons manufacturers so objectionable to a large segment of the readership. Ellis and Granov accomplished the feat by giving readers a vision of Tony Stark who couldn’t look at himself in the mirror from all of the compromises to his values that he made to achieve his status as both Stark Industries CEO and Iron Man.
It’s a challenging take on the character nailed home by an adversarial interview with a documentary filmmaker likely based on Errol Morris, best known for Fog of War, his profile of Vietnam-era Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. It’s a choice that foreshadows Stark’s transition to the same post in the run up to Civil War, but more importantly, the direct text of the exchange is a haunting and indelible examination of just what a real life Tony Stark would necessarily be implicated in. The interviewer refers to Stark as a “ghost of the twentieth century” owing to the unexploded “micromunitions” and landmines throughout the third world that maim and kill children.
The idea of Tony Stark being implicated in the manufacture of landmines is as particularly repugnant as it is plausible, given the United States’ status as a non-signatory nation in the Ottawa Treaty intended to ban their use. In Extremis, it’s an accident involving his supervised unloading of Stark landmines that creates the opportunity for his kidnap by the Taliban, rather than the conspicuously sanitized rocket attack that appears in the film. It’s not hard to see why a Hollywood film would back away from Stark’s involvement with landmines, but the “micromunitions” discussed in Extremis are the killer app of the Stark Industries “Jericho” surface to surface missile that Stark demonstrates in the film, one of the many vestigial elements of the comic that lends a haunting subtext to the movies.
Even referring to Stark as a “ghost of the twentieth century” is loaded with particular meaning for Ellis in a key example of how, despite its streamlined presentation devoid of Ellis’ signature metatextual devices, Extremis is shot through with callbacks and references to the central themes and ideas of his work. “The unexploded bombs of the twentieth century” originated as a line of dialogue in Global Frequency that Ellis has since used as a shorthand for a major thread running through Planetary, Transmetropolitan, RED, and Desolation Jones in significant ways. While Extremis is fundamentally about streamlining and updating Stark, Ellis was loathe to allow him an easy escape from his 20th century roots.
The films treat the idea of Tony Stark as a bridge between the 20th and 21st centuries in a very different way, using the Manhattan Project -the development of the nuclear bomb- as the central axis of his family legacy up until Howard Stark could be written into Dr. Erskine’s work on the super soldier serum that produced Captain America. The allusions to the nuclear bomb begin almost immediately, with Tony declaring that he prefers the weapon “that you only have to use once,” to one that never has to be used in his ill fated Afghani demonstration and his father’s participation in the Manhattan Project is repeatedly invoked as a virtue and an achievement for Tony to live up to straight through Iron Man 2.
By contrast, Extremis frames Tony’s involvement in weapons development as an embarrassment, a distraction, and ultimately a black hole that threatens to consume his real passion for discovering and shaping the future. In Extremis, weapons applications for scientific and technological breakthroughs are treated like an immutable truth of the field, but also as ultimately corrosive forces. Tony argues against his board that because he’s just invented the world’s best smartphone, Stark Industries doesn’t need military contracts anymore, but necessity is irrelevant to late stage capitalism. Passing up a revenue stream of any kind isn’t just opportunity cost, it’s heresy to a market driven by quarterly stock returns. A point that Jim Cramer made in his Iron Man cameo by smashing a Stark Industries coffee cup with a baseball bat.
Tony’s viewpoint on the issue is, in both film and comics, from the top, trying to steer the ship against the headwinds of the market’s desires. Maya Hansen, the architect of the Extremis virus, experiences it from the relative bottom. In both Extremis and Iron Man 3, she’s portrayed as a brilliant mind working in the field of botany forced to weaponize her research in order to gain access to the resources necessary to further her work.
Again, in both iterations, the nature of the system and its incentive structures corrode Hansen’s idealism to the point that she ruthlessly engages in a criminal conspiracy to see her work finished, functioning as both a foil for Tony’s own crisis of faith and the tragic death of the spirit of innovation and optimism that initially drew the two together.
Maya Hansen’s arc in Extremis is a pessimistic tragedy about the ways in which the military industrial complex can crush idealism and warp it into inhuman pragmatism, but it also marked the germinating of a seed that would flower a decade later in his revision of The Authority’s Angela Spica for The Wild Storm. Like Hansen, Spica is introduced in The Wild Storm as an idealistic scientist interested in medical innovation sucked into a war machine in the form of International Operations, one half of the dueling organizations that rule the world from the shadows.
Equally ground down by the experience of being drafted into the polar opposite of the kind of work she dreamed of doing, instead of succumbing to the cynicism of her field like Hansen, Spica begins experimenting on herself with stolen alien technology as an act of desperate rebellion. That act of rebellion coalesces into the inciting incident that drives the rest of the series: Spica deploying the technology to become The Engineer and very publicly intervene in an attempted assassination orchestrated by her bosses. Spica’s intervention is presented as an inversion of The Comedian’s murder at the hands of Adrian Veidt in Watchmen, setting up the radical resistance to a global conspiracy, a stark contrast to the gothic inevitability of the completion of Watchmen’s central conspiracy.
While Extremis is much darker in tone than The Wild Storm would later prove to be and charts Maya Hansen succumbing to the moral entropy of late stage capitalism, Extremis is hardly cynical or pessimistic in the final analysis. Where The Wild Storm is about vindicating an optimistic view of human nature as a radical project under totalitarian control, Extremis is about trying to recuperate purpose and idealism from the brink of the void, of reaffirming its hero’s animating principles and being clear eyed about the gargantuan task of preserving those values in the face of systems designed to dismantle them.
Any sense of moral and ethical clarity in Extremis doesn’t come directly from either Stark or Hansen, but in an impromptu visit to their mutual mentor, an eccentric recluse named Sal Kennedy. Kennedy is a composite of the many rogue intellectuals who have inspired Ellis’ thinking over the years, but on the page he’s a dead ringer for science fiction author and design enthusiast Bruce Sterling, a key influence on Extremis era Ellis.
The description of Kennedy given in the script pages accompanying the director’s cut of Extremis’ second issue paints a completely opposite picture of how he appears on the page: “a beard gone iron grey, a frizzy halo of black and white hair barely under control.” Instead, Kennedy has well groomed chin length grey hair and a neatly trimmed goatee, the facial hair being the only discrepancy between Sterling and Kennedy.
Whether Granov acted on his own or Ellis amended his instructions elsewhere, Sterling shines through Kennedy both in appearance and his signature deadpan humor, accusing Stark of being the “Dean Kamen of technology” and lecturing the pair on the inescapable nature of the government and military’s hand in scientific advancement.
Kennedy also takes the opportunity to lecture Stark on his apparent indolence, asking him what he’s done with the freedom and privilege that he has as both a man and Howard Stark’s son relative to Maya toiling on the Extremis virus in obscurity. Hansen, when prompted by Kennedy, asserts that within four years of achieving status and resources comparable to Stark, she could cure cancer. Stark later affirms this view, on the brink of death and about to inject himself with the virus, saying he always knew that she would surpass him.
But these recognitions of Stark’s privilege, Hansen’s talents, and the structural barriers in her way aren’t in service to a superficial white feminist narrative asserting that simply empowering women into the same roles and power structures that men already dominate will necessarily yield more ethically and morally sound outcomes. Instead, Hansen struggling to compensate for the sexist barriers to her success while seeking recognition within the same structures as Stark pushed her into the cynical state of despair that made the decision to put the Extremis virus in the hands of white supremacist terrorists seem justified. A prescient critique of the outcomes of billionaire Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” brand of pseudo-feminist self empowerment if there ever was one.
It’s another aspect of Hansen’s characterization in Extremis that comes full circle in The Wild Storm through Angela Spica, who ultimately refuses the WildCATs overtures to join their ostensibly “better” paramilitary force and eventually defects to convene a new iteration of The Authority founded on an ideology that leads with healing and compassion over brute force. By contrast, Hansen’s arc in Iron Man 3 is infamously anemic thanks in part to the revelations that concerns over toy sales minimized her screen time.
The basic dynamic of a weapons developer using terrorists as a Scooby Doo like catspaw, however, was not only retained but became the central idea of the entire Iron Man trilogy. As with the other major features of Extremis that survived the journey into Hollywood, the nature of the terrorist threat differs significantly between page and screen. It’s a series of decisions that are particularly disappointing given that the nature of the terrorist threat in Extremis is the most enduring lesson it has to offer, one that is coming back into sharper focus than anyone could have anticipated, let alone wanted.
In Iron Man 3, the Extremis test subjects are wounded veterans exploited by AIM’s promise of having their disabilities reversed, but in Extremis, the virus was handed over to a right wing, white supremacist militia conducting indiscriminate terrorist attacks against the federal government. While the pendulum of politicized violence has seemingly swung back to a position where that feels like a timely choice in 2020, it was radical, almost anachronistic compared to what Ellis and Granov’s peers were doing in the immediate aftermath of the invasion of Iraq.
The post impeachment twilight of the Clinton administration through to George W. Bush’s invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were reflected in superhero comics as being almost uniformly supportive of interventionism as the primary exercise of American power abroad. Skeptical portrayals of superheroes as state actors in overseas conflicts typified by Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns gave way to Suicide Squad’s skirmishes with Iran/Iraq stand-in Quraq until Chuck Dixon’s real politik obssessed Birds of Prey was the accepted norm. Such were the prevailing attitudes about foreign policy and use of force abroad at the time that Dixon’s Birds of Prey, hinging on a falling out between Power Girl and Oracle over whether to save innocent civilians or complete a mission, and Greg Rucka’s hyperrealist spy comic Queen and Country could be easily seen as complementary.
Ellis and Hitch flipped that dynamic on its head in 1999 by hollowing out Wildstorm’s paramilitary superhero outfit Stormwatch and spinning out The Authority, a cynical Justice League analogue bent on delivering humanity out of the jaws of the suffocating neoliberal order into an egalitarian utopia through overwhelming force. The Authority is arguably Ellis’ purest superhero creation, in that he and Hitch took the sense of alienation and disempowerment underwriting classic Marvel heroes like Spider-Man and the X-Men and exploded it into a power fantasy channeling leftist disaffection with electoral politics.
The Authority were, in simple terms, a populist superhero team with the power to bypass global elites and reshape the world in their image, up to and including destroying the entire country of Italy. Or killing an entity assumed to be God in Ellis and Hitch’s final issue on the series. The Authority prompted a near immediate rebuttal in the form of Joe Kelly and Doug Mahnke’s seminal What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, and The American Way, but, for good or ill, the die was cast. In retrospect, What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, and The American Way stands as the superhero equivalent of Eisenhower’s farewell address warning of the rise of the military industrial complex: an alarm that went unheeded, an epitaph to the path not taken.
In January 2001, Superman stood firm against The Elite, Kelly and Mahnke’s Authority stand-in. He reaffirmed his commitment against their spectacular violence and authoritarian ideology but by 2004 Superman — in the hands of Jim Lee and Brian Azzarello — was chasing after the dictators of imaginary third world countries and tearing guns out of the hands of nameless fighters for nameless causes out of frustration at the disappearance of his wife.
There was none of the domestically focused Siegel and Shuster vision left in Azzarello and Lee’s Superman. This was a kinder, gentler, fully clothed version of Doctor Manhattan in Vietnam. The embodiment of American arrogance by telling the rest of the world how to live without addressing the crises at home. It’s a formula applied just as easily to Rucka’s Wonder Woman debut and countless others of the period.
The proliferation of superhero comics enamored with interventionism as a doctrine of first response isn’t entirely, or even necessarily primarily due to the influence of The Authority. The idea was alive and well in Birds of Prey and Suicide Squad beforehand, but The Authority offered up an iteration of it that was so baroque (and specific) in execution that it invited an equally emphatic response in the form of What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, and The American Way, which in turn pushed that discourse to the forefront of the medium.
That writers as politically opposite as Dixon and Rucka were leaning into interventionist fantasies abroad over examinations of domestic terror speaks to the quintessentially American, bipartisan embrace of the doctrine. Interventionism versus isolationism are not policy positions with clear partisan dividing lines, and are instead mostly predicated on the specifics of a given conflict and how they play into individual ideologies.
Hence the ability of the foreign policy establishment that Obama-era deputy national-security advisor Ben Rhodes refers to as “the blob” to monopolize the imaginations of both Democrats and Republicans in how they interact with the world beyond US borders. Or the success of neoconservative thinktank Project For a New American Century, who swayed Bill Clinton into signing The Iraq Liberation Act into law through an open letter in the New York Times, then staffed the George W. Bush administration with signatories to the letter including Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and John Bolton. They represent the same constellation of forces that Sal Kennedy invoked in his advice for Stark and Hansen, warning them that the government, military, and military industrial complex are all the same organism.
Superhero comics are just as permeated by the politics and ideas of the day as any other mass media organ, but it’s worth remembering that American military interventionism plays a central role in the mythology of the medium and its rise to prominence in American life. Captain America #1 was a bold cry for the United States to enter the Second World War on behalf of the victims of the Nazi regime at a time when isolationism was a popular right wing sentiment and Nazi fifth columnists could fill Madison Square Garden. However righteous the cause was at the time, instead of being remembered as a very specific state of exception, it created a powerful mythology around interventionism in superhero comics that rarely receives the scrutiny that it deserves.
It would be less than accurate to approach Extremis as a symbol of contrition for the match that Ellis lit with The Authority, but it does create a stark contrast with both its contemporaries and the films it begat. In Extremis, Stark’s kidnap at the hands of Al Qaeda is a distant, suppressed memory that bubbles up when he finds himself facing a similar crucible in the present. Extremis has no interest whatsoever in the spectre of “Arab terrorism” or “Islamic extremism.” It’s only interest in foreign conflicts is their use of American made weapons. While the Iron Man films are keen to utilize a formula cribbed from Scooby Do to emphasize that the realest, most subversive threat comes from the military industrial complex, they remain equally fixated on preserving the idea of an Islamic extremism monomaniacally focused on the destruction of America.
In the first Iron Man movie, Stark’s kidnapping is given both immediacy and urgency as an act that requires violent revenge. The reasoning provided for Stark’s actions in the film are the evidence presented to him that the same group who kidnapped him were continuing to use Stark Industries weapons on civilians, implying that it was driven by a need to make amends or at least take responsibility for the consequences of his business. That said, the pattern of perceived injury and immediate reprisal characterized by overwhelming force is a direct parallel to contemporary American military strategy. Or, as Josh Brolin’s shadowy CIA operative put it in Sicario, “Our job is to dramatically overreact.”
It’s a pattern that carries on through Iron Man 3 with the appearance of The Mandarin. Playing on the same network of orientalist imagery that Ellis and Hitch accessed in the debut issue of The Authority, The Mandarin plays the precise role that villains of this archetype always have: elicit a display of hypermasculine bravado out of the hero. Although The Mandarin is later revealed to be fugazi, his provocation gets the same rise out of Stark that the people who Jack Bauer ultimately tortures and kills get out of him. Stark declaring The Mandarin to be a dead man walking is the same red meat that David Frum’s infamous “axis of evil” line scripted for George W. Bush or President Trump’s hair raising “fire and fury” invective towards North Korea excites the Republican base to this day.
That The Mandarin is later revealed to be a work of fiction, personified by an out of work actor named Trevor Slattery in turn hired by Aldrige Killian as part of a scheme to drum up business does little to ameliorate the overall dynamics in play. Iron Man 3 is not Pax Americana, Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s blistering Watchmen postscript. It doesn’t declare the bugbear of an “Islamic Extremism” that “hates our freedoms” to be obsolete to its face, then move to spitting on superheroes as another tool that has outlived its utility to power. Instead, a later short, Hail to the King, depicting Slattery in jail following the events of Iron Man 3, was produced in order to assure audiences that there is in fact a real Mandarin out there in the shadows looking to make good on the threats that Slattery delivered via teleprompter.
Instead of engaging with any of this, Ellis and Granov moved backwards in time and closer to home in search of a threat for Hansen to fuel with the Extremis virus. Mallen, the militia member who injects himself with the virus, is implied to be one of the children who survived the infamous 1992 Ruby Ridge siege that resulted in three deaths, and along with the disastrous siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas the following year, precipitated a catastrophic loss of faith in federal law enforcement that didn’t recover until the FBI took to surveilling mosques in the wake of 9/11.
The surreality of processing an oblique reference to Ruby Ridge in a comic from 2005 is a testament to the American news media and pop culture’s lack of object permanence. A childhood survivor of the siege would have been in their early twenties when Extremis was published, a continuity breached by the cultural amnesia symptomatic of that lack of object permanence. The wave of right wing resentment and antipathy towards the federal government that crested in the 1990s with the Oklahoma City Bombing didn’t dissipate when Timothy McVeigh was executed three months before 9/11. It elected the current president.
In that sense, Mallen, who Stark describes as a version of himself who couldn’t see the future, is just as much a ghost of the twentieth century as Stark is, or, put more bluntly, one of its unexploded bombs. Every bit as deadly as the Stark micromunitions that litter the earth. Mallen is also easily understood as a stand-in for McVeigh himself, given that he was reportedly radicalized into violent action by watching the Waco stand-off on television.
Ellis and Granov’s choice to revisit that era of American terror is, among other things, a stinging indictment of the hyperfocus on narratives of muslim radicalization after 9/11 that completely ignored the ways in which movement conservatism was radicalizing its base against its own country. Especially given how quickly and easily it’s been forgotten that Pat Robertson said “If I could just get a nuclear device inside Foggy Bottom, I think that’s the answer,” on live television in 2003.
Ellis wasn’t shy about tying Mallen’s views to white supremacy either, giving him a line characterizing the Klan as “defenders of Christian law” that feels alarmingly current following the infamous “Unite the Right” march in Charlottesville. Mallen is a particularly haunting and effective example of Ellis’ long history of attempts at showing America a monster with its eyes not only due to the specificity of his origins, but how Mallen refracts the Ellis’s earlier attempts. Transmetropolitan’s Disneyland From Hell theme park rendition of America is too cartoonish to sting and the horror of the Nazi regime is too vast for Planetary’s evocation of Operation Paperclip to be fully metabolized, but Mallen is too direct and accurate to see any other way.
That said, Mallen is one of the strongest examples of Warren Ellis as a restless oil painter, constantly refining a set of themes and ideas until he can find the sharpest, most penetrating iteration of it. When Mallen runs into a teenage outcast in rural Texas, it could easily be misinterpreted as the kind of culture clash that is all too expected in 2020, a confrontation between the “far right” and the “far left” with “very fine people on both sides,” but in its original context, the exchange is Ellis revisiting the most controversial comic of his career.
Hellblazer #141 was originally planned to be a story called “Shoot” by Ellis and Phil Jimenez and would have been the September, 1999 issue. Instead, a dispute between Ellis and then DC Publisher Paul Levitz provoked by the Columbine massacre that April lead to the issue being withdrawn and Ellis’ Hellblazer run cut short. After a decade of being disseminated as illicit scans, “Shoot” was published in Vertigo Resurrected #1 alongside other withdrawn and suppressed stories from the venerable imprint.
With or without the Columbine massacre, “Shoot” -which opens with a playground murder-suicide- would have been a difficult comic, but the concurrence with the most devastating shooting of its kind and its massive cultural and political fallout lent a particularly gothic element to Ellis’ reputation as a prognosticator.
Just like the exchange in Extremis, “Shoot” feels somewhat obvious in retrospect: a wave of school shootings happen and there’s banter about Marilyn Manson, video games and the NRA. Topics that were in the air before April 20th, 1999 but carried none of the devastating weight that they did afterwards. But what has always made “Shoot” difficult and likely what sent Levitz into a rage is that the title of the story comes from a high schooler’s last words to his killer. Constantine, an outsider in every sense of the word, rages at a Senate staffer that these children are born without a future, waiting to die. That their prospects were so dire that they welcomed the bullets.
When “Shoot” was officially published in 2010, it received a near universal praise that perhaps came too easily and with too little scrutiny attached. Late 1990s Ellis had a particular talent for cathartic rage, the emotion that powered Transmetropolitan through to its conclusion, but even Ellis’ seductive and persuasive rage could, and did fall prey to the fact that anger easily clouds analysis.
“Shoot” operates in a very particular tradition of Hellblazer comics that feature Constantine’s ability to provide incisive social critique of the United States going back to Hellblazer #5, Jamie Delano and John Ridgeway’s “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.” In that particular issue, a town that lost all but one of its residents who went to Vietnam gets them back as spectral killers who can only see them as enemy soldiers and civilians, allegorically bringing the war home in a way that brutally critiques the glorification of it in film.
Delano and Ridgeway’s uncompromising vision invites a re-examination of the trauma that America professes to have from the war that emphasizes the narcissistic, narrow band through which American culture is willing to view it. Shoot, by contrast, loses a lot in how it targets and expresses Constantine’s rage.
His fury at Penny Carnes’ inability to see the causality right in front of her is well placed, but the broader context of an argument between an Englishman and a Senate staffer in Washington, DC about the prospects for life in the midwest and rural south misses the mark by a wide margin. For all of Constantine’s bluster, Carnes was on the cusp of the epiphany that he forcefully offered right before he appeared. Stuck playing Jim Jones’ final speech to his followers on a loop, Carnes was close to grasping the connection between Jones’ nihilistic outlook on the future, “if you knew what was ahead, you’d be glad to be stepping over tonight,” and the context of the children’s lives.
But the fundamental issue with the story is that there’s no voice, no humanity granted to the communities abstracted into the crime scenes. It’s too simple, too easy, and too politically ruinous to write off segments of the country as unvariegated pits of despair. The coastal liberal propensity for disassociating itself from the south and rural midwest does real harm to the insurgent movements of the left and organizing by marginalized groups whose political speech and enfranchisement are stymied and denied by systems of oppression as old as the Electoral College.
Paul Levitz notwithstanding, “Shoot” could have been published and critically acclaimed in the wake of the Columbine shooting, because it occured before social media, at a time when the national media could maintain a stranglehold on the narrative emerging from shootings like Columbine.
“Shoot” could not have been published in the wake of either the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in 2018, or the Pulse shooting in 2016 for the simple fact that the survivors were able to speak for themselves and those killed could find voices through social media and other platforms that were inaccessible in 1999. No one could suggest that anyone had uttered “shoot” at either Nikolas Cruz or Omar Mateen, not after hearing Emma Gonzalez’s galvanizing anger at the politicians who enabled her school’s shooter to carry an AR-15 or witnessing the pain that shook the entire nation’s LBGTQIA community.
Ellis’ conception of the communities depicted in “Shoot” wasn’t without considerable merit. What he was describing through Constantine was the de-industrialization and subsequent disinvestment in large swathes of the country since Republican operatives began stretching the Laffer Curve into a permission slip to redirect government spending into lavish tax cuts for corporations and the ultra-rich, sowing the seeds of the material conditions that Constantine throws into Carnes’ face.
The ultimate error of “Shoot,” especially in the context of Hellblazer’s long history of razor sharp political satire, is that it didn’t connect any of the problems it was diagnosing back to the systems that create and perpetuate them, leaving it open to the interpretation that the people from those communities had somehow brought their current situation down on themselves directly.
So it could be that ten years in the cellar did the story a certain amount of good, letting it be seen as an artifact of its time rather than proliferate its flaws and oversights into the discourse at a particularly sensitive moment in time. That said, the specificities of Mallen’s characterization in Extremis speak to the restless oil painter in Ellis because they evoke a sharpened perspective that prizes precision and nuance in delicate issues over the dopamine hit of a broad, energetic brushstroke.
When Mallen encounters an outcast teen girl on the outskirts of a Texas town, Ellis and Granov begin drawing careful distinctions about the nature of youthful alienation in America that the national media were loathe to attempt in 1999, and do so under duress in the present moment. Mallen initially thinks he’s speaking to a kindred spirit when he hears that she’s having trouble in her town, but the conversation takes a turn when she displays her t-shirt, an American flag with the stars replaced by Nazi swastikas.
Mallen is taken aback, insulted that she views the United States that way, even as he himself is on a murderous spree against its government. In 1999, alienation in and of itself was considered suspect. No considerations were made about ideology or political beliefs, anyone who was read as disaffected or alienated was pathologized as a potential threat. If you played the wrong video games, listened to the wrong music, or read the wrong books, you were considered to be dangerous. It’s the particular climate of fear that Ellis alludes to in Extremis with the girl telling Mallen she was suspended from school for writing a story about the town being attacked by zombies.
In crafting the girl who rebuts Mallen’s defence of the Klan and asserts the real history of white supremacy behind his platitudes about “regular white folks,” Ellis understood all too well that he was depicting his own readership and drawing the distinctions between them and the bad actors who constituted a real threat that they were unable to assert for themselves in the wake of Columbine. That she’s ultimately killed by Mallen is a poignant recognition of their genuine vulnerability behind the lies that constituted them as dangerous.
It’s in the sharpening of Ellis’ analysis in scenes like this that the truth behind the bombast in stories like “Shoot” come into focus. Ellis’ viewpoint on America brought to bear on “Shoot” was definitely informed by his keen outsider’s view of the country, but it must also have come from a recognition of the patterns emerging in the de-industrialized north of England. Being well aware of the domestic history of the 1984 miners strike and the ensuing poverty left behind by Margaret Thatcher’s policies, Ellis understood the trans-atlantic parallels all too well whether he articulated them or not.
As much as the gulf between the broad cynicism and cathartic anger of “Shoot” and Extremis’ sly allusions point towards the evolution of Ellis as a writer and a palpable change in his authorial voice, the countercultural zeitgeist of 1999 did not include earnesty and nuanced analysis. It was a time when disaffection and alienation were expressed loudly and angrily. It made sense that Ellis’ authorial voice on Transmetropolitan frequently blurred into being synonymous with Jhonen Vasquez’s Johnny The Homicidal Maniac. Especially at the time of the Battle of Seattle, when Rage Against The Machine functioned as the id of the political left, and Marilyn Manson emerged as the voice of reason in Bowling for Columbine.
The late 1990s were a time when anger clouded analysis and fear invited repression of a kind whose effects absolutely lingered in 2005, whether it was acknowledged or not. In the wake of the culture shock of the Columbine shooting, various media and political actors were keen to ascribe a brand new taxonomy of violence to school shootings out of the clear blue sky, in direct and intentional ignorance of their immediate context. The school shooter was a type, a profile promulgated by mass media and educators: someone who likes black clothes and a certain type of music, as the girl in Extremis put it.
In reality, that profile was always an intentionally vague smokescreen used to distract from difficult questions about gun control and the nature of terrorist violence in the United States. It took a decade, well beyond Extremis’ publication to peel back the lies, propaganda, and received wisdom that hardened into the accepted truth of the Columbine shooting and its wider implications. By 2002, the Secret Service and Department of Education had presented findings that school shooters “followed no set profile, but most were depressed and felt persecuted.” Precisely where John Constantine found Penny Carnes in “Shoot.”
That search for a profile, for a neat box that school shooters could be placed in, obscured connections to the broader narrative of right wing terror in the Columbine attack. Particularly, the fact that Eric Harris, the leader of the pair of shooters, was both in the habit of doodling swastikas in his journal and originally intended the attack to be on the scale of McVeigh’s Oklahoma City Bombing. The FBI special agent in charge of the investigation into Columbine mused to USA Today in 2009 that had Harris delayed the attack in order to gain the expertise and resources to make the bombs to match his intent, “he could be a lot more like Tim McVeigh.”
That speculation proved to be prophetic in 2011, when Anders Behring Breivik carried out the single most devastating lone wolf terrorist attack in Norway, killing a combined total of 77 people between a car bombing in Oslo and a mass shooting at a summer camp run by Norway’s Labor party. Breivik, as the FBI special agent speculated about Eric Harris, spent years planning and attempting to fund his attack. Like McVeigh, he detonated a fertilizer bomb. Also like McVeigh, he was motivated by far-right, extremist political views.
Since 2011, Breivik has gone on to become the model for lone wolf white supremacist shooters, providing the template and broad ideological vision that has been referenced by similar killers from convicted Charleston shooter Dylan Roof to alleged Christchurch shooter Brenton Tarrant. While the place of Columbine in the geneaology of white supremacist terrorism will forever remain hazy and incomplete, there’s no arguing against Timothy McVeigh’s place in the evolution of the contemporary mass shooter. Which is ultimately Mallen’s purpose in Extremis, to remind us that his brand of terror wasn’t going to disappear just because there weren’t any TV cameras pointed directly at it.
Mallen’s own terror attack, which deliberately mirrors the Oklahoma City Bombing, also offers a disturbing critique of how the media spectacle of terrorism is fed back into the culture as entertainment. In some ways the Iron Man trilogy itself is a manifestation of this phenomenon, mining the aesthetics, language, and settings of the war on terror to create spectacle. In Extremis, Mallen uses the fire-breathing capabilities of the virus to kill everyone in the lobby of a government building, then shoot fire up an elevator shaft in an attempt to burn the whole building down. It certainly evokes the Oklahoma City Bombing, merging the attacker with his bomb, but Granov’s staging of it also uncannily mirrors the progression of The Matrix’s climactic gunfight.
The connection is tenuous, but Mallen’s progress from passing through the metal detector to the elevator shaft is depicted in angles and composition with clear counterparts in The Matrix. It’s a jarring reminder that fantasies of violence against the government weren’t the sole province of far right agitprop. The Matrix didn’t represent a specific political affiliation, but what it did do was present terrorist violence against the state as a purely aesthetic, pleasing spectacle. It was becoming a shorter and shorter hop between cable news creating a spectacle out of real events, and the transformation of those events and their aesthetics into Hollywood spectacle.
The Matrix was hardly alone in this, either. A year earlier X-Files: Fight the Future shot their own version of the Oklahoma City Bombing as a false flag terrorist attack used to provide cover for a vast government conspiracy. The phenomenon took on a grimly recursive element after 9/11 when the images of the planes hitting the towers recalled all the recent Hollywood films that created spectacle out of the destruction of the New York City skyline, most notably Armageddon and Independence Day.
Or even simultaneously, in the case of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s New X-Men #115 concluding with the destruction of Genosha, released August 1st, 2001. The phenomenon became the impetus for Jean Baudrillard’s infamous questioning of the 9/11 terror attack as a “real” event, asserting that it was instantly reduced into an exchange of politicized symbols between western state power and the terrorists who committed the act. Baudrillard, whose Simulacra and Simulation Neo used to hide contraband in The Matrix.
Extremis operates in the inverse to Fight The Future and The Matrix, using loose allegory to access the history of violence behind Ruby Ridge and the Oklahoma City Bombing rather than co-opt the aesthetics and media imagery that saturated the culture in their aftermath. The fact that Extremis has absolutely nothing to say about either the 9/11 terror attack or the subsequent US-lead invasion of Iraq makes it seem almost belligerent anachronistic given the hyperfocus on those events practically everywhere else in superhero comics at the time.
Extremis captured Ellis at a time in his career where he could leverage his physical and emotional distance from the United States to the kind of devastating effect that eluded him on “Shoot” and perhaps even Transmetropolitan. The fundamental difference between “Shoot” and Extremis is that Ellis remained laser focused on the broader institutional and political factors that created the environment for the events to occur in; the sexism and warped incentives that drove Maya Hansen to compromise herself, the pressures on Tony Stark to militarize Iron Man, the brutal realities of the industry that Stark dedicated himself to prior to becoming Iron Man, and the events that radicalized Mallen.
In that sense, Extremis isn’t a throwback or a prognostication of the future (the way that Transmetropolitan is frequently cited as a political tarot deck), it’s the record of a history of American terror at home and abroad that was being erased at the precise moment that Ellis and Granov were bringing it to life. Picking up Extremis in the present, post Charlottesville moment where violent white backlash politics have returned to the public sphere in a way that hasn’t been seen since the time of Bull Connor, George Wallace, and Barry Goldwater is a jarring experience, but it isn’t because Ellis and Granov had excellent powers of foresight. It’s because they kept their eyes on what almost everyone else was working to forget.
Extremis is first among equals of Ellis comics that live under long shadows: its disturbing, subtly insistent politics were eclipsed by both the emerging Mark Millar juggernaut and the film mega franchise that Extremis provided the scaffolding for, but accusing Warren Ellis of being a victim of his own success is a losing bet. When, as is always the case, those in power tell us that the crimes of the past are mistakes born of naivety or inexperience that cannot be criticized with the benefit of hindsight, there will also always be voices like Ellis and Granov to remind us that they were very intentional and many of us knew better at the time.
Or Barbara Lee, the only elected representative of either the House or Senate to vote against the AUMF that granted the George W. Bush administration a blank cheque to wage the so-called War on Terror that enabled the invasion of Afghanistan and is exploited to this day as the justification for the assassination of Qasem Soleimani.