“Boys with a normal viewpoint were taken out of the fields and offices and factories and classrooms and put into the ranks. There they were remolded; they were made over; they were made to “about face”; to regard murder as the order of the day. They were put shoulder to shoulder and, through mass psychology, they were entirely changed. We used them for a couple of years and trained them to think nothing at all of killing or of being killed.”

Major General Smedley Butler, War is a Racket

“It’s been… a long time… since my last confessions… and I’ve done many… questionable… things.”

Michael Cray, Deathblow #1

By Tom Shapira

There’s a concept in Israeli fiction called ‘Yorim Ve Bochim’ (‘shooting and crying’) which refers to a type of military fiction. In these stories the soldier is often presented as a broken figure, brought to the brink by the things they were ordered to do – the atrocities witnessed and committed. While originally meant as a sort of anti-war sentiment, ‘shooting and crying’ had long been folded into the mainstream of Israeli thought, allowing writers to portray the tough and manly soldier while still creating a sense of faux-sensitivity and political sophistication.

It’s the type of fiction that wishes to engage with the problem of masculinity – the emotional and physical costs of being a tough macho man – but can never quite untangle itself from viewing the world through a soldier’s lens. The suffering is bad but also necessary, and is the crucible in which (military) men are forged. After you had a good cry and came to self-realization you can often go back to holding your rifle. In First Blood war is bad, because John Rambo suffered; but war is also what made John Rambo the cool badass protagonist. The citizens of the small town can’t understand him (which justifies his violence), nor do they stand a chance against him. It’s the best of both worlds, for the writer at least, keeping all the excitement of military fiction while allowing the creator to play at making meaningful anti-war statement.

I say ‘play at’ because very often in this type of fiction the true victim of war is not the citizen whose house has been bulldozed, or the country that’s been invaded. The real victim is the poor soldier. Manly killing and manly crying. It works because it is true, to a degree, that a soldier is a victim of forces larger than himself; but while John Rambo has been hurt by the Vietnam War he is not its ultimate victim. No matter how much the movie insists he is.

The first issue of Deathblow (written by co-creators Brandon Choi and Jim Lee and drawn by Lee himself) certainly operates within this familiar territory. Before we proceed to talk about militarization of the superhero we need to ask – is Deathblow even a superhero? Is it not simply straight military fiction? The character has a code name, as shown in the title (though never spoken in the story itself). The language he uses to describe himself is purple and over the top “and the darkness consumes me as I bask in the glory of the bloodlust”, laid over images of over the top violence, beyond the ability of mortal man. Deathblow would get proper superpowers late).

Finally, the story takes place within the context of a superhero universe (the Wildstorm universe), and the headline in the paper glimpsed on the final page talks about a ‘miracle boy’ with powers to bring back the dead, letting us know there are meta-human elements at play. So this isn’t simply a A Soldier’s Story, but something far greater.

The first issue of Deathblow’s ongoing series, half an issue since he shares a co-feature status with something called Cybernary, is very much focused on the ‘crying’ part of ‘shooting and crying’.

The story is called “Confessions” and it’s basically a mood piece with Deathblow venting at the reader about how hard his job and life is: “Acts of violence… and betrayal. I’ve killed men… women… and even… children.” Deathblow is literally confessing to the reader in a booth, which means we are to play the part of a priest; we shall hear his words and offer forgiveness, no matter how vile the deeds (and the images and words do portray an ugly picture).

It’s a very Frank Miller-esque comic-book. There’s the whole catholic confession angle, which Miller milked for pathos in his Daredevil run. There are the caption boxes, filled with more ellipses than words, evoking The Dark Knight Returns. Jim Lee’s art, still recognizably in its big blokes and strong poses phase (with the appropriate over-abundance of lines), is given an obvious Sin City twist. There’s high contrast and blocky character design – Deathblow is Marv, for all intents and purposes. This is very much in-line with the original Image Comics spirit, in which pre-existing characters would be repurposed and tweaked slightly to become new I.P. Only this time what is tweaked is someone’s style rather than someone’s character.

Of course, Miller’s superheroes (at the time) were very moral beings, and their struggle to remain so in a hard world was the whole point. In Year One Batman’s face twists in horror when he thinks his actions might lead to a criminal’s death. In Born Again when Daredevil blows up an attack helicopter (the pilot was shooting at civilians and the page makes sure we notice) and begs God to ‘forgive me”, we are not necessarily encouraged to agree. Even Sin City’s anti-heroes pick their targets carefully: you wouldn’t catch Marv killing children by mistake. To these beings the harshness of the world is a challenge – to Deathblow it is a license.

The important part of the issue is that all we see is Deathblow’s POV of the events. Even as he notes all the bodies left in his wake the sympathy of reader remains with him. These bodies are many and nameless, Deathblow is one and unique, we see his face and we know his name. Intellectually, we might understand that he’s a bad man but emotionally the story works very hard to keep us with him, he is the victim of events rather than their perpetrator. One of the powers of that type of fiction is its ability to fold-in and absorb criticism made against it by making it part of the story: how dare you sling mud at Deathblow for all these dead children? Can’t you see he’s already feeling guilty enough?! Maybe it is you who are the monster for failing to understand the difficulties he’s going through!

That’s the rub. If you are a civilian, you probably don’t know what a soldier is going through. Even if you read lots of military fiction and memorials and interviews there’s always something that can’t be properly translated into words. You, the citizen, don’t get to often engage with the soldier, certainly not while they are fulfilling their duty. Being ‘pro-military’ is often about loving this force you don’t engage with on a daily basis. You love it because it is far and abstract, and thus can be glamorized.

‘Support our troops’ in American lingo is less about the actual support these people need (like psychological care, financial aid, shelters etc) and more about the abdication of moral responsibility. You are not allowed to question the murder of children, you can’t hold them to the same standards you would a regular person. Part of the reason that police is becoming more militarized appears to be the desire to borrow from this mental state – if the streets are a battlefield you can’t judge the actions of police officers.

There is is very little action in Deathblow #1. In fact, there’s very little of anything but talk. What is there is set up – not of plot but of emotional tone. Deathblow #1 militarizes the world of the superhero by tying it to the (lower) moral standards of military fiction: telling us to expect a lot of brutality and killing. Some of it might hit the wrong targets, but we are told that we are not allowed to judge; only to understand. The confession is not about true engagement with the self (and certainly not with larger issues of military policy), it’s just another defense mechanism, the dramatic counterpart of self-deprecating humor. If the writer admits their protagonist is a bad man then you (the reader) cannot charge him with it.

Michael Cray is crying, but it’s not going to stop him from picking up the rifle yet again.

 

Deathblow #1
Writers: Brandon Choi and Jim Lee
Art: Jim Lee
Colors: Joe Choido
Color Assists: Wendy Fouts
Lettering: Mike Heisler

 

Tom Shapira’s writing has been featured on many different websites, ranging from PanelXPanel and The MNT right through to The Comics Journal. The best place to find him online is on Twitter, right here! 

 

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