In my last article The Justice Society of America vs the War on Terror, I argued that issues 41 and 42 of JSA, published in late 2002, added up to a rather rueful look at the build-up to the war in Iraq, which would begin in 2003. The message only coalesces once the reader has put together all the little elements of the story. The follow-up storyline, however, in issues 43 (Yesterday's War) and 44 (The Tears of Ra), gave us a tale of war in the Middle East against an evil despot, so the parallels with the world situation in 2003 would seem to be more obvious in these comics. My analysis of issues JSA 41 and 42 largely relied on a ‘Death of the Author’ style reading of whatever was there in the comics, rather than trying to guess what the intentions of the writers might have been.
Using a similar approach this time, I’d have to identify the date on the cover of issue 44 as the key piece of text to start from. As it happens, Mar 03 was the date the war in Iraq started, and these comics would seem to be dealing with that prospect in some way.
So what do they tell us about a grave and pressing situation that was in the thoughts of everyone on the planet in early 2003? Would writers Geoff Johns and David S. Goyer continue with the rather iconoclastic and subversive take on current affairs on display in the previous 2 issues?
Once again, let’s start with the plot:
Mr Terrific and Hawkgirl use Black Barax’s Time-cube to follow Captain Marvel back to 15th Dynasty ancient Egypt. There they discover that DC’s evil immortal, Vandal Savage, is about to conquer the Kingdom with the aid of the Orb of Ra, a very powerful magical artefact. Vandal actually has the features of a cave-man, as he’s been around since those times, and is the personification of historical despotism in the DCU. As such he is an excellent stand-in for Saddam Hussein, an uncivilised tribesman turned military strongman and dictator-for-life.
Vandal’s henchman is Akh’ton – a person granted the same powers and appearance as Metamorpho, a 20th Century superhero able to transform his physical body into any of the elements. Akh’ton doesn’t put his powers to a lot of imaginative use in this story, perhaps because, as a barbarian thug of ancient Egypt, he’s not very well schooled in basic chemistry or the table of the elements.
He does attack Hawkgirl at one point, though, by taking on the form of an acidic vapour. So Akh’ton represents Saddam’s Weapons of Mass Destruction in this little fable, specifically the chemical weapons that the British public were told were 45 minutes away from landing on their heads.
The heroes quickly gather around the royal family of the besieged city and their inner circle. There they find out that the King, Khufu, is an earlier incarnation of JSA member Hawkman. Hawkgirl herself is somewhat perturbed to meet Queen Chay-ara, the earlier incarnation of her own self! The magically-empowered adviser Nabu will eventually provide the mystic ‘soul’ that lives in the helmet of JSA member Dr Fate. The final JSA member represented in the Egyptian court is Black Adam. He is actually a native of this era, so they meet his younger self, who is acting as Khufu’s super-powered champion at this time.
The scenes with Black Adam have the most emotional punch, as he was actually a long-standing villain who was trying to go straight as a member of the JSA in the comics up to this point. Our heroes are surprised and touched to find that he is an idealistic and trusting young warrior at this early stage of his life, although the recent death of his beloved young family at the hands of Akh’ton may be starting to darken his personality.
At first the JSA members try to use Captain Marvel’s ‘Wisdom of Solomon’ and Mr Terrific’s encyclopaedic knowledge of strategy and historical battle tactics to hold off Vandal’s attack. Unfortunately, Vandal’s mastery of the Orb of Ra means he can animate the very sand into a legion of mindless ‘sand homonculi’, who can feel no fear or pain, and are virtually unstoppable.
Finally Nabu comes up with the plan of sending Black Adam and Captain Marvel into the Egyptian ‘Underworld’ to make contact with the great god Ra. Their mission is ultimately successful, and Ra does indeed manifest himself on the material plane in order to revoke the power in the Orb of Ra, neutralising Vandal Savage’s army and chances of conquest at a stroke. Akh’ton is divested of his elemental powers and Vandal himself is turned into a mewling baby. Problem solved.
As the Baron commented on his thread; “So, the battle was wrapped up in the end with a literal deus ex machina. Vaguely disappointing, somehow.”
The parallels with the ‘Second Iraq War’ as it was then shaping up are obvious; the desert conflict, the cruel despot, the chemical threat he wields. However, this story doesn’t have the litany of topical buzzwords and metaphors that the Black Barax issues had. Instead, it would seem that the story's meaning lies in the general gist of the narrative.
To get straight to it, and not beat around the Bush…
Somehow the creative team have given us a superhero fantasy that uncritically dramatised the assumptions that were used to sell the war in Iraq to the world and persuade people that it would be an easy, short war. Here’s how those assumptions manifested themselves in this story:
Obviously, first of all we’re given the idea that all that was needed was for the despot to be defeated. Everything would be sweetness and light after that according to this tale.
In real life, the assumption that the removal of Saddam would solve all problems was revealed in a document called “Third Infantry Division (Mechanised) After Action Report, Operation Iraqi Freedom”, (as reported by the BBC here). That there was no plan for the subsequent occupation of Bagdad was the big problem once Saddam was removed as leader, and could be read as proof that those in charge of prosecuting the war didn’t think that there would be problems after Saddam fell. Even without getting into an involved discussion about what the Administration and the military had or hadn’t planned for the aftermath of Saddam’s fall, the decision to have Bush address the troops in front of a sign saying ‘Mission Accomplished’ just 6 weeks into what would be a 10 year long conflict reveals a lot about their expectations regarding what the war would involve.
Related to that was the assumption that the opposition forces involved in this desert war weren’t an important consideration. In the JSA story, they are lifeless ‘sand-homunculi’, merely adjuncts to the despot’s will, and they sink back into the sand once he is defeated.
Sand homunculi don't have religious beliefs going back over 1500 years, political, tribal and sectarian loyalties, an eye for using a chaotic situation to their own advantage, nor any interest in avenging perceived wrongs against their families, people or nation.
The occupying forces soon discovered that the Iraqi people, and in particular the fighting men, who had indeed mysteriously vanished into the sand once the war began, had a bewildering array of loyalties, and motivations to continue the insurgency, long after the despot himself had been toppled.
The next assumption the story illustrates is that the US' superior knowledge and advanced technology would be deciding factors in a quick victory. Maybe Vandal Savage had been fighting wars of one kind or another for many years and ruling for long periods with armed force, but the American heroes sucked into this war boast that they are able to draw on military tactics and strategies going back 3000 years. The Ba'athist Regime might have had the Iran-Iraq War and various uprisings to school them, but the US had West Point and the grandiose schemes of the Project for the New American Century.
Another related delusion regarding how Middle Eastern people are depicted in the story is the notion that once the fighting was over, the nation would be left in the charge of rulers whose values and principles would be just like ours. The Egyptian court in this story are literally Justice Society of America members under the skin. Further, they have few cultural differences or misunderstandings with the JSA members from the 21st Century, and none at all that cause any friction between them. Back in the real world, the Neocon plan to remake the Middle East in the image of the West was always going to be overly ambitious. Ask any business consultant how simple it is to change the culture of a single company or institution, and then apply the question to a whole region with such a long-standing and fervently held culture.
The final assumption is rather a metaphysical one, but was no less reassuring as America girded itself for war. It concerns the aforementioned Deus Ex Machina. On the comics page, Ra is variously described as "a God", "all-creator", "beneficent ... a protector". Described thus, the God that arrives ex machina to save everyone's bacon at the end of this story seems to be a stand-in for the Christian God that George W Bush and his Right-wing constituency so publicly profess to believe in. A belief that the US had God on its side goes back way further than the 1960s, when Bob Dylan so eloquently sung about it, and it was very much at work as an assumption in the minds of many in the run-up to the Iraq War, particularly amongst many of those who most supported the invasion.
The Bush administration often signaled to their voting base that they were engaged in a holy war of which their God approved, but the complication was that the conduct of the war would depend on the assistance and goodwill of several Muslim nations, so this had to be carefully phrased. Bush dismayed many when he referred to "this crusade, this war on terror" at a White House briefing shortly after 9-11. The term 'crusade' of course, had terrible connotations for Muslims. Then the war against terrorism was called "Operation Infinite Justice" for a while before it came home to them that 'Infinite Justice' was one of the terms Muslims used to describe God.
Say what you like about Sand Homunculi, but at least they weren't overly sensitive regarding theological semantics. (Which was kind of their point here.)
(Incidently, the Allied forces finally settled on the name ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’, a term which doesn’t look at all out of place on a comics discussion board.)
Bush himself certainly believed he had God on his side. Jacques Chirac, the French President when Bush was putting together his 'coalition of the willing', has revealed that Bush told him the following during their phone discussions:
"Gog and Magog are at work in the Middle East. . . . The biblical prophecies are being fulfilled. . . . This confrontation is willed by God, who wants to use this conflict to erase his people's enemies before a New Age begins."
This is very much of a piece with revelations a few years ago that in order to reassure and influence President Bush, Donald Rumsfeld included biblical quotations on the war briefings that he provided to his Commander-in-Chief.
Each of the plot elements used in the JSA two-parter “Yesterday’s War/The Tears of Ra’ do seem to correspond to the main assumptions that were used to present the upcoming Iraq War as a less daunting proposition that it would turn out to be. Even at the time, thoughtful observers remarked that this narrative had taken hold and was being pushed by a compliant media. A Neo-con commentator had even come up with the single-word term for this misleading and poorly founded narrative: to wit, a ‘Cakewalk’. JSA #43-44 do seem to be presenting the ‘Cakewalk’ narrative in an uncritical fashion.
So, in a similar way to their Black Barax / Freedom Fighters story, Goyer and Johns are somehow again channelling popular viewpoints on this key contemporary topic. Whereas that story presented the misgivings and anxieties regarding the war in Iraq, the story examined here uncritically channels the reassuring assumptions that were part of the justification for the war, and the means of selling it to the people.
Obviously, once you unpack what each story is ‘saying’, these aren’t consistent political viewpoints. The comparison would seem to support the case for these messages not quite being conscious or deliberate in either story. (Anyone’s subconscious is of course, quite happy to have any number of contradictory ideas floating around in there.) Ongoing monthly comics are generally produced in a rush, to a deadline, and even their creators often approach them as something that will fill a shelf for a month or two and then be forgotten. So, it’s not surprising that there’s often a carelessness about the messages that slip through.
Issues 41-44 of JSA show that superhero tales have the potential to represent important issues relevant to us all in a dramatic form, where the much-used tropes and characters available can be used as symbols and iconography in a powerful and poetic way, and with a moral purpose. The first step is just to hold what is being created against the situation as it exists out here in the real world and be conscious of what the former is saying about the latter.
The irony here is that the creators of these particular comics aren't interested in deliberately and artistically fashioning stories that avail of that potential. It looks like they are happy to hit the reader with buzzwords and general scenarios that reflect the news headlines, but regarding what they actually want to say about these topics, they are content to just let the meaning fall where it may.
[This is the second of three posts on JSA #41-51. Final post here]