Monday, August 08, 2005

Terrorism Week: Your young men shall slay Visions

Avengers 113


The unlawful use or threatened use of force or violence against people or property to coerce or intimidate governments or societies, often to achieve political, religious, or ideological objectives -

Acts of murder and destruction deliberately directed against civilians or military in non-military situations - was always a perjorative term, and has largely been used to assert the violence of an enemy as being immoral or wanton, relative to acceptable forms. The word is used exclusively to refer to others. No known group self-identifies as 'terrorist' - Extract from Wikipedia

This week probably isn't going to be a bag of laughs, but terrorism is one of the themes of our times, one which comic books have sporadically covered, and I think that a reviewer should make an attempt to tackle this most difficult subject. And I promise to return next week with a fresh batch of snide comments about my anti-muse, Mary Jane Watson.

Since most comic books are steeped in violence, it is surprising that few comic books have made head-on attempts to analyse the terrorist phenomenon. Many of the books in the X-stable have covered terrorism in one form or another, usually with extremist mutants being checked by the X-Men, though sometimes with extremist humans taking action against mutants. Despite this, I have had difficulty thinking of an X-book which has had the morality and effects of terrorism as its major theme. Mutant terrorists are simply too strong, and usually end up in a knock-down fight with the X-Men, which is, frankly, not how real terrorists like to operate.

Avengers #113 was published in 1973, the year following the Palestinian "Black September" killings at the Munich Olympics, which led to the deaths of eleven Israeli athletes, five kidnappers and one German police officer. This was the first high-profile terrorist attack on civilians in the Western World, and caused reverberations which still continue.

It's difficult not to see this issue in the lights of Black September, and perhaps as being writer Steve Englehart's personal response to them. Englehart, inconsistent but gifted and occasionally brilliant, came up with a startling plot. The Vision (an android) and the Scarlet Witch had recently fallen in love, and were seen kissing in public. This led to the activation of the "Living Bombs", a previously unheard-of society who feared the coming of a society where robots would replace humanity.

The prescient feature of this story is the lengths that the Living Bombs were willing to go to to obtain their objectives. They were suicide bombers. One of them manages to get close to the Vision

Vision: Wait. What are you doing?
Assailant: You'll never know, you plastic scum. I've been lucky enough to find you before my friends, and I'm the one history will praise forever. Now all we've got to do is die.

With this, the assailant blows herself up, almost killing the Vision.

In the second part of the story, her accomplices attempt to finish the job by attacking the Avengers, showing themselves willing to kill themselves just to gain an advantage in the battle. Finally, Thor uses his hammer to sweep the remaining Living Bombers up into the atmosphere.

Narration: However, with the rabies of madness churning ever more rapidly through their veins, corrupted now by raging frustration, the mortals who called themselves the Living Bombs choose to end this sad conflict their own way. "Death before dishonour" is probably their final thought...if they think at all.

With this, the Living Bombs kill themselves and the story ends.

Having set up his villains, Englehart, as can be seen in the narration above, emphatically condemns the Living Bombs. He concludes that their allegiance is one based in delusion and insanity, and the reader is not expected to feel any sadness in their final end. You can't help but feel that Englehart himself didn't truly believe that people could act in the way the Living Bombs did.

The disturbing nature of the Living Bombs is perhaps undermined by the decision to have large buttons on the top of their heads as triggers. It looks odd, bordering on ridiculous.

In childhood, I can't think of any villains who disturbed and dismayed me more than the Living Bombs (far more than the confused time-hopping of Kang, or cardboard villainous Ultron), who in action and rhetoric show a striking similarity to modern terrorists. Englehart was writing in a time which had terrorism, but not suicide bombing. He was looking back to Japanese kamikaze pilots in the Second World War, but you nevertheless can't help but be shocked at his apparent ability to see the future. And Avengers #113 still makes an uncomfortable read.