these musings contain spoilers for the books mentioned
Since I recently mentioned Black Summer, it might be a good time to mention it in context of another Avatar Press book. 303, by Garth Ennis and Jacen Burrows.
After all, those are the books that got buzz for featuring The American President being assassinated. In Black Summer, it’s a superhero doing the killing. In 303, a old Russian Colonel.
Both make excellent points that stand this decade or so later.
Besides the deconstruction of superheroes seen in Black Summer, Ellis also makes many points about how we deal with crises, what human drives we have (and how that can unify and divide people), and what the landscape we’re creating can produce.
Ennis gives us a taut and very grounded military/ political thriller. His points are about how wars are fought today, how isolation from the people fighting can make their leaders more easily ignore the cost, or decide it worthy, and about war profiteering and politicking.
Of the two, I do find myself liking Black Summer more.
I read these books back to back, 303 and Black Summer.
In the end, both our assassins die.
But in 303, the assassination is the climax. There’s almost a wish fulfillment there, wanting someone to bring the violence they are so isolated from back to those in power, wanting to see yourself (as the Colonel comes to) as a servant, or even force of history. And yes, we see the president’s wife cry, we know a gunship gets the Colonel and gives him an end to his hauntings. And so, that bullet serves as an exclamation point to Ennis’ very pointed musings on duty, and being ground down by life, and people in power thinking they are above being ground.
What struck me after reading 303 and going to Summer was how Ellis placed John Horus calmly announcing he’s killed the president and the man’s Secret Service detail to the press there for a White House press conference at the start. It’s the inciting incident, and Horus makes his motives clear in a few pages. He’s perhaps the most powerful of the Seven Guns of the setting, and he’s got demands.
(He’s also the man in white. There’s a comparison to be made to Beserk and Dark Souls and other media that reverse who wears white and black in the story, but let’s put a pin in that.)
After his act and ultimatum, his fellow “Gun Enhanciles” are faced with the fall out, and all hell breaks loose.
The climax, after lines are drawn and destroyed and redrawn and almost forgotten in the chaos, is three men dying in a graveyard via massive ball of flame.
It comes down to Tom Noir (yes, the one in black, but we’re pinning that for now) cornering his one-time friends John Horus and Frank Blacksmith. John killed the President. Frank went to work for the government and planned the incident that cost John half his left leg and the love of his life in an effort to neutralize the Guns.
And Tom tells them both off. John and Frank, in his mind, are ultimately idiots. And the same kind of idiot at that.
He point blank tells John killing the President didn’t make him “Two Fisted Jesus for the American way.” It makes him Lee Harvey Oswald. It makes him the asshole with a gun who shot someone particularly important.
Frank is no better, blindly joining authority, planning ways to kill his friends, and framing it as some sort of sacrifice to make a better world.
The crux of why I love the end of Black Summer so much is this.
After Tom uses his girlfriend’s gun to cremate himself and John and Frank to death, his last statement broadcasts over the airwaves.
Frank and John’s mistake, Tom says, was deciding they had the right to chose for everybody. Caring so much about saving the day, they forgot the future they were supposedly fighting for.
As vigilantes, he and his friends acted outside the law. John, he asserts, never got that he was a criminal the second he used his enhancements to fight crime. They may have acted outside the law for justice, but they were not beyond it.
Then he broadcasts the proof of war crimes by the Administration, where the bodies are buried, who did what– the evidence that perhaps led John to his choice– to the nation at large. A simple message, offering a choice, that was recorded while he waited for his oldest friend and former mentor to come and be killed.
Tom Noir knew he was a man that became a criminal to serve justice. This fact did not put him and his friends beyond the law.
It didn’t make them the law.