What it’s like for real people
Rereading New Statesmen Epilogue and Prologue by John Smith, Sean Phillips and Jim Baikie.
There was a time, about 10 or 12 years ago, when the DC universe was dominated by a new generation of its marquee heroes. Grant Morrison’s JLA had Wally West, Kyle Rayner, Connor Hawke, Steel, Zauriel who was intended to be a new Hawkman, all younger replacements for the guys who’d been around since the Silver Age. The comic had real sparkle because of it, exploring the interactions between these Gen-X guys who’d ended up wearing the tights one way or another, for who saving the world alongside Superman was still new. But even before the New 52, the clocks got turned back. All the old guys came back and the new guys got demoted to backups, given new names, made superfluous. Big Two comics, perhaps because they’re a business based on intellectual property that nobody’s creating anymore, aren’t good with change.
Creators in the Dark Age, on the other hand, liked to kill superheroes. It was one of their marked differences from their predecessors. And there were too many New Statesmen anyway, so it’s hardly surprising that John Smith felt he could off a few. But he didn’t do it the accepted way; sure, Burbank got killed in battle. But the next two Statesmen to die, in the epilogue, died unheroic deaths. How else would they die? They don’t have villains to kill them in battle. None of the three British superheroes I’ve written about so far had villains to fight: a Nazi relic, a big green dog, that’s all. Their villains were their heroes. The Marvelman Family and Cloud 9 turned on each other. Two Statesmen are dead and one is a semi-sentient wet spot by the epilogue, and if we hypothesize that Mitchell killed Burlington then all three died at the hands of their fellow Statesmen. And we are close to more endings.
The first half of the epilogue is all about Cleve. The retirement we saw him enjoying is on short time. He’s been told he’s going to die. What nobody knows is how. He escapes an easy death in captivity for the wilds of the United States, his final odyssey taking the classically American form of a roadtrip. But this isn’t an exploration of territory or a journey of discovery. It’s a terrified flight from something unnamable and unknowable, a death which rises from inside and literally taunts the dying.
The sense of despair in these 15 pages is oppressive. Every page is packed with panels and every panel is packed with captions, the image of Cleve missing from Blanchard’s monitors sharpening on our own, going into granular detail as his body falters and fails. The landscape is whited over, details obliterated, reduced to a motel, a truckstop, a gun shop. The page in which he’s thrown off a Greyhound and abandoned, vomiting blood at the roadside, shows none of what we’re told happens. Only a motel sign’s neon is visible through the static of the snow. Cleve treks through the drifts of abandoned cars to meet the Angelus, the dark-socketed shock-haired creature that appears to be the ghost of the Statesmen while they’re still alive, shirtsleeve-clad in the cold. Even then he’s halfway between hallucination and real. His mockery gets no response from Cleve. Has he even seen him? Does he have to pretend he hasn’t to keep going?
After a murder and a failed suicide attempt – still invulnerable enough to be forced to live – the trek moves from desperate to desperately futile. The animal instinct driving Cleve turns out to be nothing but animal. He breaks his arm, he collapses on the ice, he dies lost and unknown. A superhuman becomes a human, becomes mortal, becomes dead. It’s a haunting, high-velocity decline, straightforward and chilling in execution.
After that comes the funeral, and our last chance to see the Halcyons. They’ve not survived the series well; Vegas is in hospital, and the other three are struggling to recover from their toxic and near-fatal love triangle. Meridian, after a skin-crawling dream starring Statesman Mitchell, meets the Angelus. Who is he? What does Karikura mean? Even Google doesn’t know the latter, and perhaps only Smith knows the former. All we know is what we’re told; he is an entity that is part of the Statesmen and who becomes stronger, more complete, as they die. He appears in Cleve’s dream and his death hike and at the wake. But his objective reality is never established. He could be a vision or physical, real. This far post-human, the difference is eradicated. Whatever he is, he’s disturbing. A clown sent as a harbinger of the apocalypse, a cheerful visitor from the sunless lands, a presence for who death and disaster are the baseline state. And he’s getting stronger. Vegas probably dies immediately after the epilogue, suffocated by a League of Light believer. And few of the rest survive the next 16 years.
Sean Phillips handles the art for the epilogue in what at the time was his signature style: painting over pencils, lots of airbrush spatter everywhere. It’s wonderful work. The occasional lack of polish, the inexperience that shows through, is nothing compared to the freshness of it, the neophyte’s commitment to the wetwork of comics. John Smith has a signature way of using splash pages. He doesn’t use them for moments, for punches or big reveals. He uses them as punctuation, as ways of laying the mood of a scene starkly bare. Baikie does this nicely in the prologue, the full page of the survivor’s camp with LeJeune isolated at the bottom, but it doesn’t compare to the two-page scene at Cleve’s graveside where Phillips poses suits of perfect black against a lurid backdrop, the death already almost a joke to anyone that matters.
John Smith employs next to no postmodern trickery in his final three chapters of New Statesmen. The first part of the epilogue is entirely first-person; Phillips interpolates maps and notes but it’s almost all from Cleve’s perspective and every caption is his. The following funeral chapter does almost everything, including an encounter with a being in an indeterminate state of reality, with dialogue. And the prologue begins with third-person first-person captions, inside LeJeune’s head but without the I, though the bulk of it is that old device of illustrated exposition. One character telling another what they both already know.
It might seem perverse to cover the prologue last, after the epilogues, but they’re really all of a piece. The prologue was the last part of the series to be published, six months after the epilogue in Crisis #28, and very probably the last to be written and drawn. It was created for the trade paperback and bear clear editorial fingerprints: explain the world a bit more, John and Jim. Help the readers. Stop them from being turned off by their own perplexity. So LeJeune, the former pin-up Statesman from Florida seen on TV in the first chapter, takes us through the history of her world from terrorism in the EEC to a South Africa that keeps apartheid going for fifty years. Apart from a couple of arresting images, like a baby Statesman attached by umbilical cord to a whale, it doesn’t add much to the whole and certainly doesn’t clarify anything. You can’t mitigate the effects of a narrative founded on disorientation by preceding it with old-fashioned storytelling that only misses LeJeune’s floating head talking us through the years.
Especially when the prologue is itself wrapped in a framing sequence, set the aforementioned 17 years after the main story, that provides the reader with an entirely new scenario and a bunch of indigestible information hinting at yet more key events we’ve never seen. We are post-apocalypse, painted by Baikie in unrelenting browns and blues. The apocalypse was related to the Mark III Optimen, the Statesmen’s successors with even more Soft Option psychic talents, and to the Spur kicking in, which depowered the rebellious Statesmen, used ley-lines to conduct power, blew shit up and welded people to buildings. Like Atlanta and Burlington writ large, which would be helpful if we knew what happened to Burlington in Atlanta. Whatever happened, all but nine of the Statesmen are apparently dead. Some are in Scotland. And Wyatt, the homoerotic Arnold Schwarzenegger fantasist in leather dungarees, is the vessel charged with the power of the Angelus and the hope of the survivors. Everyone – human and superhuman – is fleeing America, camping in ruins, washing in rivers, hiding in shadows.
The Dark Age was, as its name suggests, characterized by comics that took superheroes into a twilight realm of grubby morality and extreme violence. New Statesmen is no different. It is both grim and gritty. But it’s reaching toward something else. The three British superhero comics, in their own way, each consider humanity and super-humanity. Gaiman’s Miracleman run is about the human failure to understand heaven, to accept boundless happiness. Zenith is about how humanly superhumans would behave, about great power fuelling irresponsibility. And New Statesmen was heading towards a consideration of how a human would feel in a world of superhumans; how it feels to be inferior, to not be evolution’s pinnacle, to be replaced.
Was the prologue set after the events of any possible second volume? Would the second volume have gone straight onto the 3G Optimen? Would it have starred the Halcyons? We’ll never know. John Smith takes his time writing, but after 24 years I think we can safely say this is abandoned. (When I spotted an error in the first half of the epilogue – Cleve mentions Bremerton as a dead Statesman rather than Burlington, when according to Crisis #7’s roll-call Bremerton is very much alive and running a school of archaeology and ethnology – I realized that in the last few weeks I have very likely become the world’s foremost expert on the New Statesmen.) If I imagine a second volume, it probably stars Statesmen we met briefly if at all. It’d be set a few years after Phoenix but before the Spur. It might explain Atlanta and the significance of Mitchell. And it wouldn’t be as clever, as tricksy in technique, as the first volume because Smith and Baikie and/or Phillips would be more confident about the story they wanted to tell. They wanted to write about genetics, and cancers, and the news from our genes that we are foredoomed even in the manner of our doom. They wanted to use super-humanity to examine humanity, to teach us about our mortality by showing that even our power-dreams are mortal, and to consider a world where death is not a possible consequence of losing a battle but the inevitable consequence of being alive.
Because we’re all the new batch of Optimen when we first come along, aren’t we? Better than the last generation, more technologically advanced, looking down on them with talent and good looks to burn. We’re all the hot new thing seizing the day which is rightfully ours. And we all, in the end, get replaced.
New Statesmen Epilogue and Prologue by John Smith, Sean Phillips and Jim Baikie appeared in Crisis #13-#14 and #28, in New Statesmen #1 and #5 and in The Complete New Statesmen trade paperback, all of which are out of print.