By Alex Lu
On its face, The Manhattan Guardian #3 is an exploration of the way in which superheroics take a toll on the lives of those around them. Look deeper though and you find a critique of a particular type of heroism– one that drives men towards risk and danger no matter what the cost is to themselves or their loved ones.
In this issue, couple Jorge and Hanna Control have designed a “Science Park” on Ellis Island next to the Statue of Liberty called Century Hollow. Within this space, they’ve created a microcosm of the world with 100 robots representing the various peoples of the world. They’re organized and stratified like people in the real world– by race, education level, and even access to a computer. Upset by Hanna opening their experiment to the public, Jorge causes the robots to revolt, scattering and murdering the park guests until the Manhattan Guardian arrives on the scene to stop them.
Jake Jordan’s definition of heroism is rooted in a tradition definition of masculinity. It’s a masculinity that reveres authority and defines risk as self-sacrifice, even when risking one’s own life affects those around them as well. We see Jake’s reverence of authority in the way he falls apart when stripped of his identity as a policeman and quickly begins to feel whole again when he’s granted a new uniform, despite keeping the same physically imposing physique throughout his fall and rise.
As The Manhattan Guardian #3 opens, we the reader see Jake in the way he wants to see himself. Cameron Stewart and Moose Baumann render Jake jumping out of a helicopter. His teeth are grit and his eyes are narrowed with focus as he dives towards danger. His employer, Ed Starguard, briefs Jake on the mission while Jake says nothing. We interpret his silence as a stereotypically masculine stoicism that implies confidence and resolve. This is Jake, the soldier.
The first dialogue that escapes Jake’s lips in this issue is a thundering “AARRH!,” which letterer Pat Brosseau grants special color and volume to. Jake methodically and violently dismantles a group of the rogue robots. It’s clear that he’s angry, and where Superman might reassure those he’s rescued that they’re safe, Jake continues to stay silent. He doesn’t correct Hanna when she calls him a “S.W.A.T. t-team.” She sees him as a cop, validating and affirming Jake’s reclamation of his old identity.
It’s at this point, however, at what seems to be the peak of Jake’s efficacy as a hero, that his facade begins to unravel and his masculine rage reveals itself for what it is – a toxic way to cope with the fact that his definition of being a hero has cost him the love of his life. We see the story flashback to Jake with Carla and her mother in the wake of her father Larry’s death at the hands of subway pirates in Manhattan Guardian #1. Jake seems sympathetic in the moment, but then we cut to him at dinner with Carla.
Here, Jake is all gusto, bragging about how rich they’re going to be and how well he will be able to take care of Carla and her mother. He even pulls out a wedding ring, ready to claim what he presumes to be his throne as the new patriarch of their family. His idea of sympathy isn’t rooted in empathy, but rather in the idea that he will be able to provide. And so it blindsides him that, in a moment where Jake truly feels like a hero again, that Carla reveals that she sees him as the villain – the man who cost her her father’s life.
While Jake sees a world where “they’re gonna be making the animated movie of my life,” Carla sees a “world of pirates and drug dealers and death… of degradation and horror.” And it’s a world that Carla believes that Jake doesn’t want to leave. Jake stakes his “pride” on his ability to beat the bad guys and save the day while Carla has already felt the cost of what happens when Jake fails– and he’ll always fail, because no hero can save everybody. We cut between scenes of their breakup, rendered in faded shades of washed out neutrals, and brightly colored moments of Jake taking charge in Century Hollow, beating up robots alongside Hanna and the Newsboy Army. The contrast emphasizes the way in which risking his life to save strangers makes Jake feel confident and strong, whereas he feels vulnerable and acts incompetently when his grieving partner needs him most.
At one point of the story, Jake saves a young child and an old woman from a violent death at the hands of a group of robots. As another crazed robot reaches towards Jake, its arms threateningly outstretched, the woman says “thank God for good men like you.” However, in the panel immediately below that, we see Carla walking away from Jake, his arm outstretched towards her, taking on the role of the attacker rather than the defender. Jake accuses Carla of liking him better when he “was broken down and beaten like a dog,” but there’s a vast gulf he misses between a purposeless life and one where he chooses to endanger himself every day, hiding a selfish impulse behind a stated selfless desire to provide and protect.
Carla sees Jake for who he really is. Hanna sees it too, calling him “a sleazy t-tabloid reporter” who led her to believe he was a policeman. We, the reader, get to see Jake in the way he gets to see who Ed Starguard really is. Ed has always appeared larger than life as the giant floating head of a wizened and astute white businessman. But, like the Guardian uniform Jake wears, Ed’s on-screen avatar is smoke and mirrors, Wizard of Oz style. Behind the curtain sits an overgrown infant in need of a nurse. And behind Jake’s outfit hides a man whose narrow definition of masculinity has cost him the only true community he has.
Seven Soldiers of Victory: Manhattan Guardian #3
Writer: Grant Morrison
Artist: Cameron Stewart
Colorist: Moose Baumann
Letterer: Pat Brosseau