By Alex Lu

Jake Jordan was a cop, but a horrific mistake cost him his badge. Unmoored from his identity and definition of masculinity, his relationships started coming apart. Then, he was given a second chance.

Ed Starguard, the publisher of a Democratic newspaper called The Guardian, gave Jake an outfit and a renewed sense of purpose. With the authority that came with being a superhero and a member of the press, the Guardian took to the streets. His problems seemed to be solved until his single-minded dedication started costing him relationships yet again.

We already know Jake Jordan’s story, but what about Ed Starguard?

In many ways, their stories start the same: from a place of innocence. We see this in the first anecdote that Ed, who has the body of a baby and the brain of a mature genius, tells about his time in the original Newsboy Army as The Manhattan Guardian #4 begins. The logic of this first story is childish; it’s presented in black-and-white terms and in heavily washed out colors. Seven kids, stranded in Africa, need to find an engine for the plane they made out of junk from New York’s Lower East Side. Of course, through the power of positive thinking, they find an engine, escape from the uncomfortably stereotypical cannibalistic African transplants who are chasing them, and make their way to a land of golden top hats.

Like Jake’s first adventure as the Guardian, being in the Newsboy Army gave Ed – who otherwise felt like an outcast – purpose in life. The lines between the heroes and the villains, whether they were black subway pirates or black cannibals, were clearly drawn and never interrogated. They hoped to make the world a better place, and that hope was enough for them to define themselves as good.

However, the execution of things is never as clear and simple as the ideas behind them. In other words, being a “hero” has consequences. For Jake, those consequences begin with saving his partner, Carla, at the cost of her father Larry’s life. For Ed, the consequences start when the Newsboy Army discovers their local adult friend, Mo Colley, killing cops in the town square. They manage to stop him and find out he’s being controlled by a faerie, but before they can explain the situation, Mr. Colley is shot to death in front of them by the police. The deaths of these adults in their lives – one of them a mentor who sent Jake down his path and the other “the sweetest, kindest man” the Newsboy Army knows – strip them of innocence. But to be more precise, these losses strip Jake and the Newsboy Army of moral clarity. Doing good also means doing bad, and there are infinite shades of grey between the two poles.

The Newsboy army starts to waver: real world responsibilities like going to college or helping their parents out at the family business begin to take priority over the promises they made to one another about creating a “United Nation of Kids, dedicated to fairness, justice, and the freedom to have fun!” Similarly, Jake’s own beliefs start to waver as well when his continued actions as the Guardian cause Carla to pull away from him. But here is where, at least initially, it seems that Jake and Ed’s paths begin to diverge. 

When the members of the Newsboy Army hesitate to investigate the source of the faerie that took control of Mo, Ed doubles down on the idea that the Newsboy Army is all he has. He starts to cry until they relent. Conversely, when Carla leaves Jake, he decides to leave his identity as the Guardian behind. At the start of his journey, Jake felt powerless as a man without his identity as a cop, but losing Carla seems to have finally made him realize that he plays roles in life outside the professional sphere. There are other ways for him to be assured in his masculinity.

Confronted by Ed in the flesh, however, something changes once again. Just as Ed made Jake the offer that set him down the path to becoming the Manhattan Guardian, Ed makes Jake a new offer: what if, instead of being just a “neighborhood hero,” you could be one of seven soldiers of prophecy – and destined to save the world?

When the Newsboy Army wades into Slaughter Swamp in search of more of the beings that took control of Mo, they come across a lonely house. Inside, they find a withered old tailor surrounded by legions of fae. The Terrible Time Tailor tells the Newsboy Army to try on the clothes he’s made for them. In his words, they are “suits you’ll wear when you’re older.” We see portraits of the Newsboy Army then overlaid with captions describing what they went on to become as adults, and it’s uniformly horrible. Whether they’re a “faded alcoholic,” a “guilt-ridden undead mass murder,” or a “child molester/murderer,” the message is clear to Ed: adulthood and time are enemies as much as these faeries are. They twist and distort the simplistic narratives of youth. They show how far any of us can fall. Anyone can be a hero. Anyone can be a villain.

At the end of the day, the offer that Ed makes to Jake is a rejection of relativism and shades of grey. Is it fair to spend your money in order to use a black man’s body in order to fight your war? How much autonomy do any of us have when we live in complex systems organized by ideas about race, class, and governance that have existed longer than any of us have been alive? What does it mean to be a man? These are some of the questions that The Manhattan Guardian has asked us to consider throughout its run, but at its conclusion the story rejects them. Rather than offer answers, it offers us a choice: would you rather read a comic about a man struggling to reconcile his ideas about masculinity with his partner’s needs and fears; or would you rather read a story about a powerful man in a gold helmet and blue outfit who straps a baby genius to his back and goes to fight the Sheeda, a race of beings that can look like faeries and have come to harvest Earth’s greatest accomplishments?

Much like Rorschach once says in Watchmen, at the end of The Manhattan Guardian #4 Jake calls Carla and tells her that he has no choice but to keep on being the Guardian. He says that it’s “not about the job or the money, it’s about being the right place at the right time to do the right thing. And knowing you’re gonna do it even if you don’t want to.” And he’s right – it’s not about the job or the money.

But it’s also not a compulsion as he suggests. At the end of this series, Jake has made a choice. Rather than embrace the complexity of the world and work to navigate through the various threads that comprise his personal identity and relationships, Jake has decided to cut through them. If being an adult means all this uncomfortable and unfamiliar territory, then it’s better to remain a child where the roles are clear and the goals are well defined. 

Despite the many differences in their physicalities and backgrounds, where it counts, Jake Jordan and Ed Starguard are one and the same. They fashion themselves as heroes, dedicated to grand concepts such as “fairness” and “justice.” Even when faced with the consequences of such a mindset – whether their actions lead their comrades into dangerous situations or cause psychological harm to the loved ones in their lives — they ultimately choose ideals over people. And to them, it’s not a complicated decision: who could argue with the calculus of saving billions versus saving a relationship? Reasonably, no one.

But in superhero comics, there’s always another crisis. Always another universe-ending threat. At a certain point, one has to wonder whether people like Ed and Jake spend their downtime praying for mortal peril lest they be forced to confront anything more nuanced than the eternal battle between life and death.

One has to wonder whether the Guardian is guarding us, or guarding his own fragile sense of self.

 

Seven Soldiers of Victory: Manhattan Guardian #4
Writer: Grant Morrison
Artist: Cameron Stewart
Colorist: Moose Baumann
Letterer: Pat Brosseau

Alexander Lu is an Editor for The Beat, and the new soul of modern-day New York City. He can be found on twitter here!