Friday, September 25, 2009

Recommended Reads: The Life and Times of Savior 28

The Life and Times of Savior 28. Written by J.M. DeMatteis, Art by Mike Cavallaro. IDW Publishing.

'As much as I love superheroes, as much as I appreciate and understand the metaphoric power of the concept, I've always been uncomfortable with the violent content in superhero comics. Beneath all the big sci-fi ideas and character interplay and philosophical layering, these stories often--if not always--come down to two guys in costumes beating the living crap out of each other. I talk about this in terms of comics, but really it's what pop-culture storytelling is about: hero fights villain. Villain blows up. Audience cheers.' -J.M. DeMatteis

I love superheroes. As much as I may wander far afield in the realm of comicbooks, film, literature and all the other avenues and byways of popular culture, my feet will invariably lead me back to the spinner racks and shelves of my friendly neighborhood comicbook store for at least one or two books starring a heroic figure in bright colors punching a bad guy (preferably a brain in a jar attached to a robot/gorilla/gorilla-robot) in or around the face. My love of the superhero genre and it's conventions runs deep and I wouldn't have it any other way.

But for all that, I recognize that at it's core my entertainment medium of choice has a distinguishing characteristic, indeed much of my entertainment in general beyond the 22 pages of my favorite comics: violence. Superhero comics are pretty violent, usually involving the protagonist and antagonist (or most often in days of yore the book's protagonist and a heroic guest-star mistaking each other for a villain and wailing on each other unmerciful until the inevitable realization they must work together against a greater evil yadayadayada. . .) attacking each other with fists or assorted melee and ranged weapons. From the inception of the genre, superheroes have stepped outside the law and used violence and the threat of violence to impose their will upon the world. We're given a brightly colored world where Good is stalwart and true and Evil must be opposed, most often by beating it into the ground like a tent peg. It's the way things are in contemporary storytelling and the way it's always been. We like it neat and simple. But does it have to be that way? What if a superhero suddenly took a hard look at his world and the battles he'd been fighting and decided maybe--just maybe--a better way could be found?

The Life and Times of Savior 28 begins with James Smith, the eponymous hero of the book, engaged in a vicious battle with his evil doppelganger, Savior 13. The two are battling as superhumans are wont to do, but in this epic battle our hero accidentally hits his foe too hard at the wrong angle, slaying him. A feud that has lasted for decades is ended in a moment of brutality. Smith, a hero whose aging has been slowed thanks to his powers, also has to endure the loss of his longtime sweetheart to the ravages of time and old age. A bit less the moral paragon than his reputation (and personal mythology) would have others believe, James sinks into a drunken funk that only lifts. . .on September 12th, 2001. The loss of thousands in the wake of 9/11 leaves James bereft of purpose and crushed, but a revelation convinces him that perhaps all the world truly needs is a loving heart. Savior 28 returns to the world of costumes, ray guns, and epic battles as an advocate of peace. A peace activist at the height of George Bush presidency, a time when the nation was at it's most jingoistic. Needless to say, it doesn't go very well. In fact the story begins at its ending, with the world reeling in the wake of Savior 28's assassination at a peace rally. Our tale is told in flashback by Dennis McNulty, once the Daring Disciple, Savior's trusty sidekick. Now an older and bitter man, he recounts the rise and fall of his hero with a mixture of admiration and bile, compassion and candor.

The Life and Times of Savior 28 is a story that at once exults in the ideal of the superhero while at the same time condemning their methods. It's a grim tale at times, but ultimately it's final message is one of hope, of the notion that it's not the public acts of courage and daring that matter most but the quieter, less telegenic acts of generosity and compassion that ultimately win out. DeMatteis is a writer whose work on Captain America is a clear influence on his work with a character of his own creation (Savior's attempt to walk away from the violence of the superhero lifestyle and advocating of peace was originally planned for Cap), but Savior 28 represents the quintessential superhero as much as Steve Rogers. Perhaps moreso, for while James Smith is a heroic figure he's not without flaws; an embellisher of his own mythology, a liar, a bit of a cad with the ladies and more than a little hypocritical in his behavior, Savior 28 is a man of good intentions whose ego keeps tripping him up, hopeful that the grand gesture will be the one to make people naturally see things the right way. Namely his. Of course, people being who they are and in a world where simple truths can be spun in any direction, the story goes to some dark places. Places ably illustrated by the pen of Mike Cavallar, who provides the book with a feel that's at once timeless and timely, a book that has a slightly cartoony look that lowers our defences and provides just that more of a punch when the story goes for the gut.

'As sophisticated as our society can be, a part of us seems to crave this black and white vision of the world, where 'bad guys' get their comeuppance from 'good guys' and of course this isn't a new phenomenon, this goes all the way back to the ancient epics. Time and again violence is presented as a viable solution. In comics we've been doing it month after month, year after year, for seventy years. And as comicbook culture spreads out into the broader culture, we're now selling that mindset on a mass scale, in movies and television.' - J.M. DeMatteis.

The Life and Times of Savior 28 is a work that challenges a lot of preconceived notions about the superhero genre, about our entertainment in general, and the violence it entails which we take in without oftentimes fully realizing it. It's entertaining but also enlightening. Highly Recommended.


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