01: For Blood or Justice
Superman Is Noir
A short story written in 1933 by Jerry Siegel entitled The Reign of the Superman was the first incarnation of a character who would eventually become the world’s most famous superhero. That story introduced us to a vagrant named Bill Dunn waiting in line for food. Lured into the laboratory of Dr. Smalley, a scientist who promised Dunn decent food and a fine set of clothes to wear, Dunn was forced to take an experimental drug which transformed him into a being with fantastic psychic abilities. Drunk with power, Dunn, the Superman, killed the scientist and exploited his new powers for his own self-gratification. The drug’s effects were, however, temporary, and Dunn returned to normal, back to his life as a vagrant.
The iconic Superman got his start as a noir antihero. Throughout history, antiheroes have eclipsed the popularity of shining paladin characters during times of chaos and confusion.
When Siegel wrote his story, the United States was in the midst of the Great Depression. Germany’s Chancellor was Adolf Hitler. The science fiction novel A Brave New World by Aldous Huxley had been published the year before, illustrating what the future might look like if society were shaped by eugenics—the active pursuit of genetic superiority through breeding programs and euthanasia—the same concept which had inspired the Nazis to attempt to create a race of their own super-men.
The state of America from the mid to late 1930s was murky and uncertain, with no clear enemies to combat. The Depression brought an increase in crime and racial tensions as unemployment hit 25% in many places, worse in urban areas. The late 1930s was the perfect time for a dark knight antihero character like Batman to emerge, which he did in 1939.
Patterns of Dark and Light
In the cycles of history, white knight heroes appear in entertainment when there are overt and undeniable threats to society, when there is no room for moral ambiguity. Captain America rose to fame as a comic book hero at the beginning of World War II when America’s enemy was clearly defined. During this era, the famous paladin-like incarnation of Superman grew in popularity through other media, including comic strips, radio serials, movie serials, and animated shorts, the latter of which cost in adjusted dollars nearly a million per episode—unheard of for the time.
When heroes are needed, we crave them like plants crave sunlight, and the entertainment industry is eager to supply them. But when the threat is no longer obvious or clearly defined, and those brightly shining heroes are no longer needed to help bolster hearts and minds, these characters recede into parody. 1966 gave the world a Broadway musical called It’s a Bird . . . It’s a Plane . . . It’s Superman. The campy television version of Batman premiered that same year.
Antiheroes emerge into the zeitgeist when society recognizes flaws in those real-life people or establishments who they previously considered heroic. The embodiment of irony, the antihero manifests as a retaliation against the naivety and self-righteous idealism of characters like Superman and Captain America. The antihero is the one who is safe to explore moral shades of gray when society cannot easily shine a spotlight on who their enemy may be.
In 1970, the same year U.S. troops officially began operations in Cambodia, the comic book Batman retaliated against his campy television persona and resumed his role as a vengeful obsessive-compulsive antihero.
As I write this introduction, our president, his staff, and family are under investigation for corruption and conspiracy with a foreign power. Neo-Nazis have emerged from the dark fringes of society to the forefront of social debate—they have traded their hoods and robes for polo shirts and khakis, chanting the same Nazi rhetoric we heard 80 years ago. This all sounds like an absurdist alt-history, but this is America, today.
It seems fitting that the alt-history you are about to read deals with the same issues going on in today’s politics and in heated debates on social media. Long before Russia was regularly in the news, I had decided to set my superhero story in an alternate-Earth during the 1980s. It was the decade that gave us our first celebrity president, the Iran-Contra scandal, and a tense nuclear Cold War against Russia. It is also the decade that gave us The Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, Marshal Law, and V for Vendetta.
True to the historical pattern, now that we’re back to chaos and confusion, it is the ideal time for antiheroes like Batman, Logan, and Deadpool to rise in popularity.
Our world needs true heroes now more than ever, but as a culture, we are too jaded to accept them as believable. We have all been exposed so often to dark, avenging antiheroes and brightly polished paladins, both extremes have become tired parodies of themselves. Especially during this glut of superhero films, nothing can be new, so these iconic characters are recycled as wise-cracking adventurers, heavily self-conscious of their original manifestations.
What I attempted to do in this story is to explore what it means to me to be a true hero in a world overpopulated by people who obtained the title of hero. That word means different things to different people, and many true heroes are driven to act by inner directives they cannot explain. It typically isn’t a dogmatic set of rules that drives them. Sometimes, the heroes we hear about on the news are sparked to act by something as simple as a surge of adrenaline—an instinct to do what they have to do in the moment. Sometimes, they might have a sociopath’s nervous system pushing them to take risks that other normal people wouldn’t.
Just what is a hero, anyway? What qualifies someone to be considered a true hero? One moment’s action, or a lifetime’s pursuit of an ideal? But since we’re talking about a world of superheroes, let’s use that as a baseline.
A costumed disguise is, by nature, deception, and deceptiveness is by no stretch a heroic characteristic. But what if deception were necessary to safely perform acts of heroism? And when might heroic intentions become overpowered by self-serving actions—power corrupts and all that? How might a set of rules meant to assure proper behavior be a means to hide self-serving intentions? When does blind vengeance serve justice? If there was a universal system for rating heroic intent, how would you or I measure?
Heroes and antiheroes in fiction will continue to keep pace with current events, but as the pendulum swings into and out of chaos, it is our responsibility as creators to try to provide a new lens through which to view the world, and to create new heroes to model how we should act.
In 2005, I had written and illustrated four issues of a self-published comic book series called Nether: The Age of Maga. It was a post-apocalyptic tale that had nothing to do with superheroes—and absolutely nothing to do with the current administration’s rallying cry of ‘Make America Great Again’—but in this series, I explored in a different genre how heroes might behave in a post-apocalyptic, magic-infused reality. After some good reviews, but what was ultimately a financially disastrous showing in the industry, I had decided to refuse this particular hero’s call to adventure, give up creating comic books, and focus strictly on my writing. And that year, at the last comic book convention I rented a table, I spoke to the comic book creator Mike Oeming.
Mike introduced me to his and Brian Bendis’s work on Powers, and it blew my mind. From my perspective, they had revitalized the superhero noir genre. I regularly reread my dog-eared trade paperbacks of The Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns once a year, so I was already very familiar with the genre, but their world of cops, crime syndicates, and fallen heroes hit my synapses like a bite from a radioactive badger. I began working on my own superhero noir story that night.
A decade later, my brothers at Zelmer Pulp and I were discussing on what topic our next anthology would focus. We had already written stories about zombies, aliens, robots, and weird westerns—superhero noir was next. I offered a timeline of events starting with—what else?—a meteor spreading power-infusing radiation across the planet. Zelmer Pulp dissolved before we were able to produce that anthology, but I kept working. What you are about to read is the result.
I geeked out quite a bit. Check out some other pages on this site.
With a nod to the source material—serialized comic books—this marks the beginning of a novella serial called Stormkind. I hope you enjoy it.
- Chuck Regan (Written August 21, 2017 during an eclipse)