A civil war in outer space. An android living in the suburbs. A soldier stationed in Baghdad post-9/11.
Let’s be honest. We see a lot of strange things in comics. Most of them slide off our backs as part of a suspension of disbelief — this acceptance of internal logic without having to justify how one thing works in relation to another or, god forbid, the real world.
It’s a rare opportunity that one is invited to do just that. To balance the logic of one world against another — because, maybe, it was meant to be that way.
Over the course of the past year and a half, readers have watched — perhaps without even knowing — a trilogy of comic book series evolve, not sequentially or even from the same universe, but simultaneously and spread across three publishing lines. One creator connects them all. Three 12-issue limited series that, on their face, couldn’t be more different.
But each one serves to broaden and illuminate the scope of the others upon closer inspection. Each one feels like a cracked mirror to the other. And all three were formed from the mind of creator Tom King.
This is the Trilogy of Best Intentions: Omega Men from DC Comics, Vision from Marvel Comics, and Sheriff of Babylon from DC’s Vertigo imprint. Omega Men has already reached its completion and collected in a collection entitled, “The End is Here” (in stores now). The other two books are completing their monthly runs in November and December of this year, respectively.
So, in some ways, to look deeply into these three volumes may be a little premature. But already, complex themes have begun to sprout out of comparison — jumping off points for a world of inquiry we so rarely have handed to us as critical readers. And who can resist taking philosophical leaps over common sense and space and time to be able to pull apart such disparate subject matter in order to draw it back together? Especially when the writer himself has already encouraged us to connect the dots by drawing out the map in the first place?
The Murder Secret
As each story properly begins, we have a murder. And more precisely, a secret murder.
In the case of Sheriff of Babylon, the murder of an Iraqi police trainee under protagonist Chris Henry’s watch is what begins to draw the characters of the story together. To the American military, the body is just something else to clean up, “garbage” as they describe it. And so, Chris’s morality and sense of duty are immediately pitted against an overwhelming system of indifference and deprioritization of human life.
Those responsible are unknown to Chris, although the reader begins to see the threads connect as the series moves on, spreading culpability across even those he pulls himself closest to. The murder isn’t secret in the sense that no one knows about it. The body lays in the street, in broad daylight. But the responsibility, like so much of the responsibility behind the Iraqi invasion itself, remains well-guarded, cloaked by the spectre of the American flag and a commitment to the delicate balance of status quo.
Virginia perpetrates the classic secret murder in Vision, a la Desperate Housewives-style, going so far as to bury the body late at night in her backyard. It’s the first concrete sign we get that the Visions aren’t operating on the same level of morality as those they have come to live among, but it’s not a complete divergence from human convention.
Virginia knows enough about conventional morality to hide the murder not just from the world, but from her husband, the super-hero. It blurs the line of the event from justifiable manslaughter in self-defense to revenge murder, by virtue of keeping it a secret. And while it may be the inciting incident of the Visions’ downfall, it’s hardly the last time we see them take matters into their own hands, figuratively and literally.
Omega Men takes the narrative jumpstart of a secret murder and plays it off in two different ways — first with the presumed murder of White Lantern Kyle Rayner at the hands of the Omega Men themselves, and then with actual wholesale genocide that forms the impetus for the Omega Men’s creation. It’s a fake-out that spins the motivations behind these “terrorists” on its head, and while we’re never quite left with the sense that the Omega Men are the “good guys,” we get to understand the depth of indifference to individual human life the Citadel has fallen to.
The Corruptible Hero
These institutions — the American military, the Citadel, conventional rules of morality — all play a role in corrupting the heroes of these tales, but interestingly enough, not as large a role as basic human nature does. It’s not the Citadel that ultimately moves Kyle Rayner away from his role as a negotiator of peace, but the Omega Men themselves and their perpetuation of the Citadel’s control post-defeat that seems to have broken something in the Omega Lantern.
Yes, the Citadel’s behavior appalls him. But it’s the methodology of freedom fighters who would frequently use the same tactics as their oppressors that eventually corrupts Kyle and cracks his previously unwavering sense of morality. And what could be more tempting than to become that which you defeat? Omega Men isn’t a tale about saving a galaxy of worlds from oppression. It’s about saving oneself from corruption amid a convincing human temptation — and Kyle Rayner ultimately fails.
The Vision falls prey to a similar corruption, although one has to wonder its source. Is it programming that he removed — housing emotions he garnered over years of service as a super-hero — that led to a refutation of standard hero morality? Or does it originate strictly from Virginia’s influence?
Could it be the competing allegiance of protecting his family that overwhelmed his sense of right and wrong? Was it fear of human judgment and punishment? Or was it simply that he believes himself to be above those who live around him in both stature and rights. In truth, this is the reason most grounded in human nature — something we see played out from the streets of Ferguson, MO to the streets of Baghdad, Iraq. Men who believe themselves above those they are forced to live alongside are the most easily corrupted by their own sense of cultural superiority.
In that sense, Chris Henry may have been irredeemably corrupted as a heroic protagonist long before his arrival on the streets of Baghdad. We are told as Americans every day that our form of democracy and cultural dominance is not only the best in the world, but God-willed and should be wielded as a weapon against those who believe otherwise.
That sense of manifest destiny has never quite left the American psyche, and it’s built into soldiers’ emotional DNA from day one of training. It needs to be. It’s how they survive on the battlefield, and in the silence that comes afterward. The experience of Iraq did not wear Chris Henry down to a manageable state of corruption. The military didn’t even corrupt Chris Henry. American culture told him since birth he could be the hero the world needs and wants, whether the world accepts that or not. It tells us all that.
Chris’s dilemma is that he just can’t see it.
The Woman Behind the Man
And there’s some good reason on the ground why “The Sheriff of Babylon” remains so ineffectual. Who’s to say the title even refers to Chris Henry at all? In its most literal sense, Chris has been tasked with building a police force for Bagdad in the aftermath of war, but Sofia Al Aqani may be the one actually fitting that bill. Daughter of a Sunni warlord executed by Saddam Hussein, Sofia was shepherded off to America for protection after her father’s death and now has returned to Baghdad. But her return comes with a significant amount of influence on American policy and military procedure in Iraq, not to mention connections to existing occupants of the country she left behind.
Sofia’s connection to Chris, to his superiors, to former Iraqi policeman Nassir — to virtually everyone with any perceived power — leaves her in the position to work invisible strings on everything that goes on in Sheriff of Babylon. And as we’ll see in issue #10, that encompasses more than we could have expected.
It’s not unlike Kalista’s role in Omega Men. Princess of one of the six worlds of Vega, protected by the King’s rule, Kalista appears to be the victim of a kidnapping (as was Kyle) by the terrorists who want to disrupt her father’s relationship with the Citadel. In reality, it is Kalista, not Primus, who leads the Omega Men from the shadows, manipulating their missions with invisible strings and emotional blackmail that displays like camaraderie or love.
It’s unclear whether Virginia plays a similar role in Vision as Sofia and Kalista, although she unquestionably is the impetus for so much of what develops throughout the course of the series. We don’t see Virginia’s creation, nor their children’s, but King tells us explicitly where her brainwaves come from: a post-Onslaught Avengers Scarlet Witch. And that should worry everyone.
Before she was redeemed in recent years, Wanda went to great pains to hide her mental illness, triggered by the dismissal (the literal evaporation) of her and Vision’s magically-conceived children. That this state of mind, however hidden, likely made its way into Virginia’s code, the results we’ve seen — murder, deception, and a general sense of being unhinged — could just be the beginning of what she’s capable of. The true danger, of course, is the Vision’s emotional connection to her, and the likelihood that early fear or recognition of previous patterns of behavior he may have experienced with Wanda went out with the bathwater in his brain cleanse.
This is Virginia’s true power: the power to convince Vision she is justified in her behavior.
Colonization (with the Best of Intentions)
It’s easy to earmark Sheriff of Babylon‘s plot with the theme of colonization. It is, after all, a look at the lives of those living in Baghdad, Iraq — Americans and Iraqis — in the days after the second Gulf War and the defeat of Saddam Hussein. Chris, Sofia, and Nassir all negotiate and maintain a delicate colonization of this land by American forces that don’t much want to be there. Hence, the development of a police force, sold to the Iraqis and those who would listen in America as helping the Iraqi people get on the road to governing themselves.
Whether you believe the United States entered into the Gulf War conflict with humanitarian concerns, out of self-preservation for our own defense or the defense of our oil pipeline, or because we were lied to in order to obscure a personal vendetta, the reality is, for these men and women, it doesn’t matter. Intentions, like Chris’s own, can be best, but they certainly aren’t mutually agreed upon.
The intentions behind the colonization of the Citadel home worlds, particularly Voorl, are certainly grounded in that sense of the greater good. But at what point is the greater good outweighed by the sheer horror of immoral choices and widespread death? Committing genocide via robot of the entire population of a planet, simply to mine an element that could save other worlds from the fate which befell Krypton, isn’t muddy ethics. It’s black as sin. And yet, the argument remains: what’s one world’s survival against dozens, maybe hundreds of others?
The colonization of Voorl, much like Virginia’s murder of the Grim Reaper, is complicated by its obfuscation. Chosen specifically because it had a shield no one could see behind, the industrial colonization of Voorl happened completely behind a screen, with no other world the wiser for how the Citadel was producing this fairly lucrative element for sale. The continued tragedy, of course, was the Omega Men’s destruction of Voorl, prompting — even egging the Citadel on — to choose a new world to colonize and upon which to commit genocide. A world, she surmised, that would now know enough of the truth to fight back.
The best of intentions. But ultimately, in their hearts, driven by self-interest. The colonization of the Americas by European forces — a factor alluded to briefly in the pages of Vision with the image of a Redskin football mascot given prominence — self-interest masked by the idea of bringing culture and civility to “savages.” The real question with Vision, however, is this: are the Visions (not to mention the “super-hero”) colonizing the American suburb, or has the American suburban mythology colonized the Visions?
I’m drawn to the idea that the latter is what’s really going on. The desire for this perfect American life is a colonizing force, and one the Vision has observed over his decades of service with the Avengers (something he is not shy about sharing when provoked by his children’s principal). But the desire to show off their home to the neighbors, exhibiting pride in this suburban economic accomplishment, speaks to a deep colonization of values and desires. It is a yearning for the very thing that drove Scarlet Witch to go mad, and the absurdity of it applied to a synthezoid’s programming makes it clear how pervasive the desire for a perfect American life is.
Normalcy as Religion
Ultimately, it’s this sense of normalcy attached to traditional, suburban, American life that fuels the characters of Vision, and transforms their quirks and idiosyncrasies into adherence to a new intellectual religion. We even see Viv and her father praying, not out of belief in God, but because that is what normal people do in situations like theirs. Vin’s obsession with being normal — even as Victor Mancha assures him that spending time reciting Shakespeare aloud was as normal as masturbation might be to another teenager — becomes so ingrained in the performance of his daily life that it feels like supplication to a greater power.
Religion is always tied up in military and political action when it involves the Middle East, and the Iraq depicted in Sheriff of Babylon is no exception. Every action on the part of Americans feels like a disrespect to the Muslim culture to those in Iraq that begrudge it. Every action feels not like Christianity wielding its stick, but America as a religion in itself that replaces all others. “Normalcy” will return to Iraq once Chris’s American-inspired police force is in place, and a democracy that America prescribes is underway. From a military perspective, forces leave when conditions reach normal.
We see the religion of Alpha and Omega wielded in a similar way by Citadel forces to enforce peace among the populace, which they define as obedience and non-defiance. Officers assure men they are beating that “We will not hurt you.” just as they strike their blows in the name of Alpha. It’s a tactic for normalizing violence, making it seem inconsequential and routine. Justified, but merciful. The perception of normalcy when extreme behavior occurs is obviously a totalitarian tactic. Combined with religion, as it is in Omega Men, it is nearly flawless in its execution.
But the biggest trick with which the Trilogy of Best Intentions leaves these characters with is a deep longing for that sense of normalcy — no matter how one defines it, whether its something once had and desired again (as with Kyle Rayner in Omega Men) or something that may have existed for others but not for you (as with the Visions) or even something that never existed at all (for the combatants in Sheriff of Babylon).
No one is left untouched by its absence or unharmed by the process of trying to procure it. All are left in the dark, in the black, in the end.