I’ve been a Marvel fan over DC since I started reading comics – the first single issues I ever bought were the starts of Kelly Sue DeConnick’s Captain Marvel run and Matt Fraction’s Hawkeye. Marvel continues to put out some amazing, progressive, and inclusive stories from its B-list characters, but at the same time it’s also putting out some of the most tone-deaf unpleasantness I’ve ever seen from a major media company in its flagship titles. What’s most frustrating in this whole complex fiasco is that, in making these terrible writing choices, Marvel is not just being problematic and offensive, but is actually dramatically undermining the entire history of the characters they’re messing with.
We live in tumultuous and uncertain times, and for many of the most vulnerable people in the United States, especially minorities, fear has been ramping up in their everyday lives. Comparisons between the newly elected President Trump and Adolf Hitler abound, and not without reason. Just before Trump’s inauguration, the second season of the Amazon original series The Man in the High Castle premiered. While the alternate history series had been fascinating and compelling ever since its premiere last January, in light of recent events, its poignancy has been downright spooky. It presents a picture of what life in the United States in the sixties might have looked like if the Axis powers had won the Second World War and divided up the U.S. between Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany. The series is based on the novel of the same name by Philip K. Dick, and follows Juliana Crain as she and the people close to her become caught up in resistance activities orchestrated by an unseen, eponymous mastermind. Besides being exceptionally well-written, one point that separates this from other alternate World War II histories (and there are an abundance) is that in The Man in the High Castle, a few characters have ways of glimpsing alternate paths of history and incomplete pictures of possible futures, which they desperately try to piece together to understand how to change the dystopian world they live in.
We’re going a little deeper into the archives of science fiction this week, to pull out the 1964 Stanley Kubrick film, Dr. Strangelove or: How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. The black-and-white visuals and Cold War imagery give the movie a dated effect, but I’m realizing how distressingly relevant the underlying message still is.
At the top level, the movie is a satire of mutually assured destruction and nuclear war. A rogue American general named Jack D. Ripper, consumed with paranoia, orders an unprovoked nuclear strike against the Soviet Union, and a fleet of bombers take to the air.
When news of the strike reaches President Merkin Muffley, he descends to the underground War Room, joined by the maniacal General Buck Turgidson, the Soviet ambassador Alexei de Sadeski, and the title character, a nuclear scientist from Nazi Germany now serving the United States. De Sadeski reveals the existence of a Soviet Doomsday Device, which will automatically destroy all life on Earth with a cloud of radioactive gas if an atomic strike on the USSR is detected. The Americans and the Russians work together to recall the bombers, but one, piloted by Major T.J. “King” Kong, has been damaged and cannot receive the radio signal, and prepares to deliver its payload.
Earth’s last hope is the failure of Kong’s bomb, spray-painted with the name “Hi There!”—which jams in the bay. But the dedicated pilot climbs on top of it, and jumps up and down on it until it deploys. Kong rides the bomb to the end of the world, gleefully whooping and waving a cowboy hat in the film’s most famous scene.
The Americans pause for a moment of silence, before planning to resume the Cold War after the apocalypse when they emerge from their bunkers. The credits roll with a montage of mushroom clouds set to Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again”.
Supervillains are historically inseparable from their superhero counterparts. Batman has the Joker, Superman has Lex Luthor, Joe Biden has Nixon’s Ghost. However, as comic movies keep getting bigger, and as the MCU sucks up the world’s supply of white dudes named Chris, the villains are increasingly left behind. These guys fall into a few tidy categories, and alive or dead, find themselves forgotten when the credits roll.
Somehow, the greater realism applied to superheroes, the less room there is for supervillainy. Instead, we’re left with a handful of tropes, with only a few bad guys able to break out of the box. This dynamic is crucial to the ways our current crop of superhero blockbusters reflects our wider psychology. We ache for something bigger than ourselves to believe in, and assemble the Avengers. We question that ache, and begin the Civil War. But when it comes to evildoers, we haven’t figured out what we want. Sometimes it’s just exaggerated versions of the bad people in the world, sometimes it’s faceless alien hordes, sometimes it’s pure evil, given the nasty explanation of “mental illness.” In contrast to the depth we’ve given our heroes, our villains keep falling short.
I’m not entirely sure what Marvel, a company who has otherwise done very well recently at promoting diversity, is trying to accomplish with the new comic Hank Johnson: Agent of HYDRA. It seemed like I’d just finished discussing anti-Semitism in the MCU and then news about this new comic was released. I was regretfully unable to discuss this issue immediately, because I was dealing with getting married and then getting a new job (yay!). But now I have some time on my hands, so let’s talk about Hank Johnson: Agent of HYDRA.
(Trigger warnings for the Holocaust and sexual violence)
I don’t usually get recruited to join hate groups.
Being a Jewish guy, I’m out of consideration for the most of them. And on the other side, my secularism and interfaith marriage means that the extremist elements within Judaism don’t want anything to do with me.
So I’ve got a special kind of agita from Gamergate today. Because these guys don’t care about my bar mitzvah, but they could have looked at the geeky thirteen-year-old boy reading from the Torah and seen a potential recruit.
On some broad, unsettling level, these are guys like me. They’re men. They’re straight. They’re white. They’re about my age. They’re middle-class, educated, Americans. They like fantasy novels, comics, sci-fi, and Game of Thrones. They claim to speak for me. The hatred, rage, and violence espoused by Gamergate emerged out of my same world. Why is it them and not me?
This is going to sound like hyperbole, but to really answer that question, you have to walk back through the history of the Third Reich. I’ve heard of Godwin’s law—Internet arguments may all turn to Nazis eventually, but it doesn’t mean that it’s never warranted.
I don’t intend the comparison to be literal. You don’t have to tell me that Gamergate has yet to commit any genocides. But there’s a lot more to Nazi Germany than just our shorthand characterization of “the worst people ever”. They were, yes. But they had to get that way—a sophisticated, modern nation collapsed into Hell in just a decade. It happened for thoroughly human reasons, and there has never been a guarantee that it would never happen again. Much of the same psychology that turned Germans into Nazis turned geeks to Gamergate.
Gamergate is now a part of geek culture, and of our cultural legacy. We need to know that it is not unique, that it is working through a playbook that’s been handed down many times before. When we can follow those plays, we can keep ourselves—and our friends—from being sucked in.
The Hellsing franchise is one of those that every anime fan is expected by some unspoken rule to be familiar with. And a very long time ago, I watched the original anime and considered my dues paid. However, when Borders closed last year (God rest its corporate soul), I managed to get all ten Hellsing mangas at one of their going-out-of-business sales. Knowing that they ended somewhat differently than the original anime, (they even made a second anime, a series of OVAs, so that a true-to-book animation existed a la FMA: Brotherhood) I figured I’d sit down this past weekend and find out exactly what happens in this classic of mangadom. First, an intro to the plot: Hellsing, aka the Royal Order of Protestant Knights, is an organization dedicated to the extermination of vampires, but it depends strongly on its trump card: Alucard, a centuries-old and insanely strong vampire who has sworn fealty to the leaders of Hellsing. With his master Integra Hellsing leading the way, he, newly-turned vampire Seras Victoria, and a ragtag group of mercenaries go head to head with vampires, the Catholic Church, had-fifty-years-to-regroup Nazis, and traitors, but mostly one big fat combination of all of the above. (Mostly, though, it’s Nazi vampires.)
Next, why it is exciting: Alucard is a nice break from the prissy romantic vampires of today and even from the seductive and pansexual vampires of Anne Rice’s heyday. He will shoot your arms off and then drink your blood from the stumps. (Yeah, by the way, this series is intensely gory. Limbs and organs and blood just flying everywhere all the time.) Also, at the risk of sounding like a dick, well, Nazis. They fascinate the public mind; otherwise there wouldn’t be so many movies about them. Hell, the Daleks in Doctor Who are basically space-Nazis in trash cans. Nazis always make an interesting villain. And Nazis and vampirism mix well together – Nazis did have a thing for the supernatural and the occult, and it’s relatively easy to believe they’d jump on the immorality train if they could.
Nextnext, a list of awesome chicks, because Hellsing is BRIMMING with them:
- Integra, or to be exact, Sir Integral Fairbrook Wingates Hellsing. She’s the ancestral head of the Hellsing organization, but she certainly deserves the position. She had the clout to garner respect from the baddest vampire in history when she was twelve. She lacks any sort of supernatural powers, but can still kick ass in a fight, whether with swords or guns. She can and must take responsibility for all of Alucard’s actions, and does so with no regrets. She doesn’t let personal matters get in the way of the battlefield or Hellsing’s work.
- Seras Victoria is turned by Alucard early in the first manga. She takes a while to get used to the lifestyle of a vampire, but eventually gets the hang of it like nobody’s business. She’s intensely loyal to Integra and Alucard, and will END you if you threaten them or any of her other friends.
- Rip van Winkle fights for the Nazis, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t badass. She’s a vampire sharpshooter whose bullets can turn in midair, allowing her to take down entire platoons in one shot.
- Zorin Blitz is an illusionist, but can also kick your ass with a scythe. Her powers allow her to burrow into your psyche and dig up your deepest and most unpleasant memories, and then trap you in them while she cuts you in half.
- Yumiko/Yumie, a Catholic nun with a split personality. The former is sweet and gentle; the latter is a cold-blooded assassin.
- Alucard. Yes, I said Alucard – he’s a shapeshifter, after all, and in one of his final fights he transforms into a girl to show his opponent that changing his appearance should be a) simple for a vampire and b) irrelevant to how well he fights. (Apparently the internet calls this Girlycard, as I discovered when I hit up Google Images.) Needless to say, she is still just as kickass.
Reasons to be avoid Hellsing: If you are turned off by gore or heroes with dark grey morals, this is not the series for you. In one fight Seras grinds her enemy’s face against a wall till all that’s left is an ear and a flap of skin. I do not exaggerate about this. Also, Japan often misses the boat when it comes to correct portrayals of Christianity and Catholicism in particular, but Hellsing features what is possibly the grossest misrepresentation of the Catholic Church that I’ve ever seen, and I’ve read a lot of Dan Brown books. Think Section XIII, the Iscariot Division, which jumps into the anarchy created by Nazi vampires attacking London to mount a ninth Crusade and try to take England for the Vatican.
Also, your mileage may vary (I usually found it interesting rather than a hindrance to reading), but all of the characters from non-English countries have their accents written into their lines. (I didn’t even know Pip Vernedead was supposed to be French until last night, having only ever watched the OVAs in Japanese…)
ALSO, TRIGGER WARNING: The other issue that I would be remiss to not mention (especially because I’d have liked someone to warn me beforehand about it) is that there are two brief depictions of rape. One is rape of a corpse and one is rape of a child. They are only one panel apiece, but the images stuck in my mind enough that it would be a dereliction of duty not to warn people who may have even stronger rape triggers than me that they should be on the lookout. Many of the earlier villians also use rape as a threat when they’re killing villagers or hunting Seras or Integra.
And now back to your reglarly scheduled Manga Mondays.
As far as art style goes, it’s an interesting piece of work. Kohta Hirano wrote and illustrated mostly porn/adult manga before writing Hellsing, and, well, his loving attention to boob detail is nothing new for a seasoned reader of shounen manga, but there are moments when you sort of double-take at how sexually a scene is portrayed. At the same time, there’s sort of a grimy despicableness to the character designs. No one’s pretty all the time, and most people are never the stereotypical sort of androgynous-pretty people associate with manga characters. A general air of horror always lingers around the characters.
Finally, and I’m pointing this out explicitly because this is Lady Geek Girl’s most important criterion when she looks for new manga, the series is finished, and has a satisfying ending. So if you’re up for it, go check out Hellsing!