Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Superb Heroes: The Maximortal

Superb Heroes is a semi-regular column celebrating comics that are exemplary and/or exceptional in their treatment of superoheroism.

Superheroes and comicbooks are obviously, inescapably linked. They helped to popularize each other, and even in this current environment of incessant new movies and TV series, we all know that comicbooks are the true stomping ground of the spandex-clad superhuman. In his seven-issue series The Maximortal, writer/artist Rick Veitch explores the concept of the superhero, the history of the comicbook industry, and the ties that bind them together in a vicious, hilarious, intelligent and original way. Breaking the usual mold, Veitch's superpowered characters are morally ambiguous, their origins and motives more complex than we're used to. Comparatively, the regular humans he focuses on fill the more traditional comicbook hero and villain roles, with their direct, simple belief systems and constant battle for power. The end result is an incredible examination on the effects that superheroes have on people, in their own worlds and in ours. They have power over us beyond their actual "powers," which Veitch simultaneously celebrates, condemns, and perverts in The Maximortal, making it a thorough and thoroughly enjoyable discussion of superheroism's importance and potential.
     The titular "maximortal" is Wesley Winston, a child in mind and appearance, but possessing superhuman strength, flight, shape-changing abilities, heat vision, and physical invulnerability. At first glance, Wesley appears to be no more than a slight twist on Superman. He even crashes to Earth in a mysterious protective vessel and is discovered and adopted by a poor, rural couple. But as the series advances, Veitch pulls Wesley further and further from the Man of Steel, and in the end True-Man (Wesley's superhero moniker) is more a physical manifestation of the concept of superheroism than he is a parody of any particular character. That's a very literal statement, because we come to learn that Wesley's "origin story" is, essentially, that a fictional version of True-Man grew to be so popular, the idea so universal, that it actually became reality. The mass social belief in the character gave him life. Then in a classic time paradox, the now-living True-Man went back in time, slept with a human, gave birth to himself, and then launched himself into space so that he could someday return and be discovered. In other words, the conclusion to the series is the same as the beginning of the series, with True-Man's origin an infinite loop of self-creation. After all, not only did he birth himself, but the whole reason he becomes True-Man is that, as Wesley, he sees a True-Man comicbook and decides to take on the look and persona of the character. So True-Man parents Wesley, who then becomes True-Man.
     No doubt that all seems a bit confusing, but it is to Veitch's credit that he explains it fully and carefully within The Maximortal, taking his time with each piece of the puzzle so that by the final issue we've already more or less figured out the cyclical nature of Wesley's life. Then in that final issue, Veitch spells it out for us plainly, just in case. And even without the never-ending circle that is his creation, Wesley is just as fascinating and unique a superhero, because despite his immense power he is still a child. He has a child's innocence, ignorance, and fluid morality. This leads him to murder his adopted father, and then an entire California town, not out of malice or anger but because he doesn't fully understand what he's doing. While most superheroes are informed by their childhoods, Wesley's childhood is informed by his superpowers, and so in his early years he isn't really a hero or a villain in the classic sense, but more a force of nature in human form. It is only much later, after he has been trapped and used by humanity for years, that he decides to take up the fight for good and righteousness.
     This narrative of a child slowly but steadily being transformed into a hero is the main focus of The Maximortal, the strongest and most consistent through line from issue to issue. And honestly, I imagine it would be more than enough to tell a meaty, awesome story on its own. But Veitch doesn't stop there, as his bizarre tale is also populated by non-powered characters whose beliefs and personalities line up much more succinctly with what he think of as archetypal superheroes and villains. Primarily we see this dichotomy between Jerry Spiegel and Sidney Wallace. Spiegel is the writer who creates the True-Man comicbook, and while the real-world Wesley is amoral and destructive, Spiegel actually embodies all of the virtues he includes in his version of the character. Truth, justice, the rights of the common man---all of these things are near and dear to Spiegel, and he writes his stories not for any selfish dreams of fame or recognition, but because he feels the world needs a hero like True-Man to lead the charge against corruption and evil. Sid Wallace is Spiegel's publisher and, for all intents and purposes, his arch-nemesis. A power-hungry maniac who also happens to be overcompensating for crushed testicles, Wallace rips Spiegel off, stealing credit for the creation of True-Man and getting filthy rich off the royalties. The two butt heads several times, and each time sees Wallace with a little more power than he had before, and Spiegel with a little less. Plus Wallace gets to use as many dirty tricks as he likes knowing full well Spiegel will never stoop to that level, and therefore never be a threat. They represent creativity vs. capitalism, truth vs. lies, the little guy vs. the corporation, good vs. evil, and any number of other well-worn conflicts. Like the characters of countless superhero comicbooks, Spiegel and Wallace are two extremes battling against one another. The only difference is that they don't have superpowers, code names, or costumes. Though Spiegel does ultimately don a True-Man costume to confront and, he hopes, defeat Wallace once and for all.
     The point of all this is that True-Man is an idea so big he can inspire genuine heroism (Spiegel) while simultaneously fueling greed (Wallace). And the point of The Maximortal as a series is, to my mind, that all superheroes, indeed superheroism in general, will naturally and necessarily influence the world in both good and bad ways. The characters themselves, the values and causes they espouse, are theoretically the best aspects of humanity, and therefore could and should promote those aspects within us as readers. But of course, there is an industry behind the telling of these fables, and so they're often used not so much to point mankind toward good, but to further the goals of a few publishing companies (namely, sales). Even if we leave the comicbook industry out of it, the much bigger threat of superpowers, as Veitch takes pains to point out, is that were they to ever truly exist in our world, they'd be far more likely used as tools of war and/or commerce than forces for justice or peace. As concepts, superheroes and the stories around them are easy to fall in love with, in The Maximortal so much so that they bring themselves to life. In practice, though, even True-Man isn't safe from man's corruption and greed. It isn't a overwhelmingly positive message, but its apt, and it argues as much in favor of  superheroes as against them. No easy task, but Veitch is more than up it.
     The Maximortal has so much great stuff I haven't even touched on here, but I think I've said what I wanted. Seriously, though, there's a whole story about Wesley being used as part of the A-Bomb in WWII, and another one about the actor who plays True-Man in the movie version and how the character takes over and eventually ends his life. Then, of course, there is El Guano, an even more mysterious and non-traditional superhuman character who plays a major role in Wesley's life. It's all excellent, and all totally on-message with what I've discussed above, but the overall effect is the same. Veitch holds everything we know about superheroes and the comics they live in under a bright, unblinking light. What he finds isn't always pretty, but it's always worth the look.

The Maximortal was published by King Hell Press in association with Tundra Publishing, Ltd. (#1-6) and Kitchen Sink Press, Inc. (#7) and is dated August 1992-December 1993.

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