by John Velousis
Warning: Pretty much everything in this article is a spoiler.
Part 1 – Captain Swing and many another thing
“Each time society, through unemployment, frustrates the small man in his normal functioning and normal self-respect, it trains him for that last stage in which he will willingly undertake any function, even that of hangman.” – Hannah Arendt
Captain Swing and the Electrical Pirates of Cindery Island ([amazon_link id=”1592911366″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]A 4-issue mini-series out this Wednesday in a collected trade![/amazon_link])
W: Warren Ellis, A: Raulo Caceres, Col: Digikore. I’m not giving this one a rating. I think I don’t like giving grades out.
The Swing Riots of 1830 began with the destruction of threshing machines in the southeast of England, by laborers whose livelihoods were displaced by them. If your job can be done by a machine, well, bosses don’t have to pay machines.
What has this to do with Warren Ellis’s just-concluded series Captain Swing and the Electrical Pirates of Cindery Island? Everything. The series as a whole, for me, was not a very exciting narrative, despite the appearance within of this guy:
BUT, as for its subtextual meaning and present relevance, the series gains in excitement with analysis. Ahhhh, not really. Actually, my analysis reads like I’m repurposing a college paper or something, it sucks THAT MUCH. But what the heck, you’re already here, give it a scan, okay? I’ll try to spice it up somehow.
The conflict at the heart of this story is that of the titular Captain and his collective fighting against an empowered cabal over the use of energy itself. Here, I’ll let Swing’s first mate Hobbes explain it for me:
On Cindery Island, there’s a voluntary collective – a commune, if you will – where the “pirates” work to produce the devices whereby the Captain and his men produce their electrical wonders. Those there, essentially, are each given what they need and each produce according to their abilities. [YAWN, right? It gets better, eventually.] This comic is a piece of agitprop intended to tweak the minds of the workers of the world right now, at this delicate moment when it appears that the cabal of the ultra-wealthy and ultra-powerful have achieved final victory. The “Occupy” movements now growing are all pirates in Captain Swing’s crew; As the pool of persons who feel in control of their destiny dwindles, so does the group of those willing to act outside of the confines of polite society grow.
In my dark moments, I have pessimistic and prophetic fever dreams about the future of the U.S.A. Some of these are inspired by President Barack Obama and his seemingly idiotic insistence on continuing to try to cooperate with the Republicans in Congress. I am especially mortified at his failure to roll back Dubya’s tax cuts for the wealthy, at a time when we continue to become a desperate debtor nation. Obama, for me, has been the tipping point that’s convinced me that institutional change in America will not come about through political means. Rather, I am convinced that the middle class will continue to be squeezed, salaries frozen as the cost of living continues to rise. Layoffs continue too. More and more of us will be desperately clawing at one another’s flesh just to cling to the few scraps left in our hands, until finally and inevitably there is a breaking point and French Revolution II: Guillotine Hootenanny comes to the land. Change will be instituted after billionaires are dragged from their mansions by angry mobs and murdered in the streets, along with their heirs. I sincerely believe that it would take measures that drastic to convince our owners that, hey, we’re all in this together, so they should maybe go back to paying their share. Occupy Wall Street is a seed. That seed may yet grow into a tree watered in the blood of our oppressors. Or maybe not, it’s all just speculation. As a lifelong comic-book reader, I’m convinced that violence is not the answer. Yeah.
Getting back to the boring part, Warren Ellis does a few other things in this series which so far confound my analysis. Why does Captain Swing have the same name – John Reinhardt – as another Ellis creation, Doktor Sleepless? Uh, maybe he’s a Tulpa that the Doktor sent back in time? Works for me! Is the story’s protagonist, our POV character Charlie Gravel, an ancestor of “combat magician” William Gravel, another Ellis hero? Ya got me. Maybe Ellis is trying to build some kind of connected universe that helps move the back-catalogue. Why is the masthead of Swing’s ship an image of a winged snake springing from a woman’s head?
Winged snakes are often meant as symbolic of Quetzalcoatl, the Aztec patron god of learning and knowledge (he also invented the calendar, and taught the Aztecs how to grow corn!), so that’s half the idea parsed, I guess. Quetzalcoatl is also the “white god” whose predicted return was (purportedly) the linchpin upon which Moctezuma took an ass-pounding when Cortez came. I suspect that that further ironic meaning is not intended here, but I hate to let Quetzalcoatl factoids go to waste. My only tattoo is a bust of Quetzalcoatl, is why. Or, hell, maybe it’s supposed to be Glycon, just because everybody likes to needle Alan Moore.
Part 2 – Hickman and me and Huitzlopochtli makes three!
The Red Wing ([amazon_link id=”1607064790″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]A 4-issue mini-series available in, uh, 3 weeks. 2 days AFTER Christmas. What’s the use of THAT?[/amazon_link])
Jonathan Hickman: Writer, Nick Pitarra: Artist, Rachelle Rosenberg: Colors. Nobody lettered it, but yet there are letters within! Spooky!
This series’ plot: Humanity is waging a war fought via time travel against a mysterious, also-time-traveling enemy intent on strip-mining the entire planet. Our two main characters, Valin Redd and Dominic Dorne, both lost their fathers to this very war, and we begin as they enter the same military branch that took their fathers: the titular Red Wing. The weapons here knock out your ship’s time shielding, and the resultant “chronal shear” causes cool-looking deaths like this:
Near the beginning of issue #1 of this series, it says: “TIME IS NOT LINEAR” and then “THERE IS NO PARADOX”. Near the end our protagonist, Dom, flies off into the past and/or the future with his military commander, a man who is Dom’s son, or maybe Dom’s father, or maybe both. That sounds like a paradox, right? The way I figure it, Hickman put that there just to try to keep Harlan Ellison from suing for story credit. (If you get that joke, say so in the comments. This is a contest! Whoever posts the explanation first, I will declare them to be King Shit of Fuck Island! This honor is more coveted than the Pulitzer Prize among people who don’t know what money is.) The two male leads are given ironic names. Valin (like a dyslexic villain?) is brave and heroic, while Dom is meek and uncertain. The female lead is named “Maye,” a name loaded with possibility. The military head of command is named General Dadson Childefather. (Just kidding about that one. He’s actually unnamed in the story.) The color red is associated, as in Morrison’s run of Batman comics, with life – “Red shift or Blue shift, Dom,” says Maye, “… Life or Death.” Valin’s last name IS Redd. Dom’s last name, Dorne, has red in it, but it’s all mixed up. It’s also an anagram for “no red.” HEAVY.
In addition to the wordplay above, the series is positively loaded with circles. The military HQ of our heroes is “The Ring,” a space station in Earth orbit that literally encircles the entire planet, it seems. Planetside, the buildings have circles throughout their architecture. There are silos in the middle of the friggin’ military aircraft hangar of the Red Wing. There might not be a single page of this comic without a circle somewhere on it. Is time a straight line?
Can you spot the hidden circles on this page? (I think the wall hanging is some sort of calendar. Wait, I just felt deja vu. Hm.)
And last but not least, the logo of the series is a snake eating its own tail – what we call an Ouroboros. Just like the bad-guy in Grant Morrison’s Batman run! Looky here:
THIS particular Ouroboros (different cultures have different ones) looks to me to be Mayan or Aztec in style. That adds up, because Dom’s presumed-dead father, Robert Dorne, is actually the guy on the left in the picture above holding his finger up and teaching the native Mesoamerican about irrigation and war. Say, you know who the Mesoamerican Ouroboros is? Quetzalcoatl! Huh, that’s a coincidence. Two separate miniseries by different authors that ran and ended about the same time, each with a Quetzalcoatl connection, each reviewed by a guy with a picture of Quetzalcoatl tattooed on his back. Nutty. Well, I’m sure there’s nothing more to come on that subject… heh heh heh…
So, Robert Dorne is chilling with his buddy Itzamna up there, when suddenly, his beacon beeps! Awesome! So he checks it out…
… And gets captured by the mysterious enemy. The leader of the enemy? Dun dun DUN! His son, Dom! Now, we get to the meat of the series, with exchanges like this one:
Science fiction is an ideal vehicle for allegory, because you can pile on names that are odd and are anagrams for other things and you can plop circles on top of circles and put the bad guys in crazy spiky space suits, and this stuff is all window dressing. It’s sleight-of-hand, where we’re looking in the hand with all of the circles in it but missing the hand with the moral. This story is about us. Humans, you and me, right now, are literally using up every resource in the world with only the most cursory gestures towards future generations. THAT is what this story is about. Hickman isn’t saying that the reader is Dom – the reader is Robert – and he’s giving us a much-deserved sock in the chops!
Now, I shouldn’t dismiss the devices in the story so readily. The Moebius strip construction is of value as entertainment – hey, if you’re planting subtext, it has to be under text, right? Although, actually, the subtext is the Quetzalcoatl stuff – I’d call the central allegory the sub-subtext, but I might just be too concerned with labeling.
Except… except, when Dom zapped his dad into his blue ship from the Mayans, a legend was created around Robert. A legend that the Aztecs appropriated from the Mayans as they assimilated Mayan culture. The legend of the White God whose return was foretold until Hernan Cortez came and was taken to be Quetzalcoatl, and he wiped the hell out of the Aztecs and made himself a mega-excellent symbol of the conquest of the Americas, homeland of the most wasteful, consumerist society in the history of the Earth – CANADA! Just kidding, actually it’s THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA! So, really, Dom did some total self-fulfilling prophecy shit there. Nice going, numb-nuts!
All right, my cuckoo analysis has a few holes in it – Mexico and the USA are NOT, in fact, interchangeable for purposes of allegory. Also, the whole “Cortez is Quetzalcoatl” thing is a bunch of horseshit, originating at least 50 years after the Spaniards’ conquest of Central America. I didn’t know THAT when I got the frickin’ tattoo. Still, as Grant Morrison or Alan Moore might say, all stories are true, right? Jon Hickman, aided wonderfully by Nick Pitarra and Rachelle Rosenberg, has crafted a beautiful humdinger of a story here. Here’s hoping that THIS one grows in esteem as time goes by.