Monday, May 27, 2013

Superb Heroes: Butcher Baker, the Righteous Maker

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

There is a subgenre in the world of superhero fiction that focuses on pointing out the flaws of superheroes, the dangers and hypocrisies they represent. And some really excellent stuff has come from this, because there's no shortage of material. Superheroes, even the best and most classic characters, get a lot wrong and often cause as much or more harm as they do good. And there is something fundamentally flawed with the very notion that the best use of superhuman powers is to fight crime using a codename and costume. It's really very short-term, shallow, unambitious thinking.
     But I fucking love superheroes, despite seeing the cracks in the wall and sometimes even because of it. They may not be the most level-headed bunch, but they are thoroughly entertaining, and they stand for the best and worst parts of human potential in equal turn. Butcher Baker, the Righteous Maker takes all of the worst accusations leveled at superheroes, within their worlds and from ours, and finds a way to condemn and applaud them at once. Its protagonist is a narcissistic superhero sadist with an engine for a heart, but self-aware and experienced enough to know exactly what his sins are. A warped lens through which to view the genre, but a powerful one, pointed at all the right places.
     As a character, Butcher Baker is a non-stop force of manic egotism and machismo. He loves the violence inherent in his job, and gets grim but very deep satisfaction in putting his enemies down. There is no concern for collateral damage, nor any indication that Baker is at all motivated by some desire to protect the public. What drives him forward is the mere promise of more action, more bloodshed, more opportunities to prove to himself and the world what an indestructible badass he is. It makes him hubristically reckless as a hero, throwing himself blindly into situations and then improvising his way through them. This overgrown sense of self-worth and the carelessness it causes in Baker's career are the foundations of the series' simultaneous celebration and denouncement of common superhero shortcomings.
     Take, for example, his failed attempt at destroying the Bertrand Institute, the prison that houses all the supervillains of this world. Baker is hired to kill everyone inside, but because he is so over-confident, he merely blows the building up with excessive explosives and then leaves, assuming the job is done. These are freaking supervillains, so of course some of them can survive a single explosion, no matter the size, and ultimately Baker frees a handful of his enemies rather than slaying them. This is a more direct, literal version of something superheroes are blamed for all the time: the existence of their villains. If there were no superheroes, goes the classic argument, there'd be no supervillains to fight them. They need each other, and they necessitate one another, an unbreakable cycle of evil rising up to match the good in the world and vice versa. Maybe you agree with that argument and maybe you don't, but within the pages of Butcher Baker, it's fairly clear that the good guy is responsible for what the bad guys are up to this time. Because not only is he the one who sets them loose anew, but the destructive actions they take afterward are all targeted at him directly, revenge for his attempt on their lives.
     But Baker is still a superhero, and that means two things: 1. He openly admits, to the reader, anyway, that he botched the job and is responsible for the consequences, and 2. Even in the aftermath of his flub, he's still the only guy who can get the job done. When three of the baddies, Angerhead, The Abominable Snowman, and El Sushi, start a brawl with Baker in Times Square, the military is sent in to contain all four of them. Predictably, the evil superhumans tear through the hapless soldiers like tissue paper, and only Baker has the quick thinking and sheer might to stop their rampage. He may have blown it on his first try, but he was still the right choice to take out this collection of maniacs, and by the time the series reaches its conclusion, Baker has made certain there are no leftover Bertrand survivors.
     This is what I mean when I say the book both holds up and looks down on the darker side of superheroes. Writer Joe Casey places Baker squarely in the role of hero-responsible-for-his-villains, but then reminds us why the first word of that hyphenated string is "hero." Because when enormous, superpowered evil turns up, it takes someone of equal power to defeat it. And someone with the courage and wits to see it through. Yet even as day-saver, Baker is brutal, fatal, and irresponsible, raising the question of whether super-people should be operating at all. I can't claim to know for certain that any of this was Casey's intention, but there's no shortage of examples to pull from.
     For a long time, Baker's relationship with policeman Arnie B. Willard is exemplary of the typical complaint that superheroes place themselves above the law and/or threaten to replace the current law enforcement system. The two make fast enemies, with Baker always very condescending toward Willard's red-faced demands for respect. This lasts until the story's conclusion, when the two men find themselves suddenly on the same side of a fight. They connect, reach a bizarre understanding of one another, and save each other's lives. And once that conflict ends, Baker is able to find a tiny bit of redemption in the way he resolves his issues with Willard.
     Superhero comics get a bad rap for being aggressively violent, and Butcher Baker is unarguably, unabashedly that. Baker himself finds his few faint pleasures in excessive punching (and sex), and for the bulk of the eight issues, the series seems to agree with his viewpoint. Again, though, things change in the closing. The final battles in Baker's journey end up being won mostly through mental maneuvers. There's still some bloodshed, but it is his brain that ultimately saves him.
     The list goes on. The book is dramatically hypersexualized, another common anti-superhero argument, yet there is an emptiness to Baker's sex life, apparent in the degree of its hedonism and flash. Baker is about as ridiculously macho as a person can be, right down to his big rig being his weapon, but it's played as much for comedy as anything, a good laugh at the typical level of testosterone in a cape comic. Et cetera, you know? Casey packs it to the gills with the funniest, most enjoyable versions of the worst that superheroes have to offer. Not so much a defense of the genre as it is an argument along the lines of, "Yes, superheroes can be depraved, bloodthirsty, insane, and destructive, but that doesn't mean they can't still be amazing and admirable characters."
     And then there's Mike Huddleston's artwork, which says something else entirely. I like that the art chooses to go off in its own direction, not worried about borrowing elements from classic superhero series like the narrative does. Instead, its focus is on relaying the tonal and emotional thrust of the story.
     Huddleston brings an almost schizophrenic style to this series. The visual texture often changes between panels, sometimes through a shift in medium, sometimes coloring, and occasionally because Huddleston just brings a new technique to the page. It doesn't look like any typical superhero book, nor does it resemble other work I've seen from Huddleston. But it captures the spirit of this story and, above all, its protagonist perfectly. Kinetic and laid out somewhat claustrophobically, the art carries the story at a rapid-fire pace.
     Huddleston also has a real knack for character design, striking a careful balance between goofy and serious elements. Or even whole characters. El Sushi is just a visual gag. Jihad Jones is not, though he's still a verbal one. The Absolutely is neither. It helps both the zanier and the more intense moments of Casey's scripts land, and makes the cast—most of whom need to be introduced quickly before they die—that much easier to connect with and differentiate.
     I mean, most of them are egotistical lunatics, Baker included, but they all have their own spin on it, which Huddleston helps establish or at least underline. And maybe that's the real point of this series, that good or bad, superpowered or not, people are fucking crazy. Maybe it's not about what I am claiming at all. Whatever its aims, though, this book functions as an extensive and highly entertaining look at the arguments against superheroes and, even while admitting their validity, turns them into arguments for superheroes. It's a cool trick to pull off during such a wild ride, and it's what I find most fascinating about this twisted, trippy series.

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