July 27th, 2009
“(The) army thronged like locusts or like ants,
and hid dale, plain, and mountain.
As the dust rose from that countless host
the cheeks of our worthies turned pale.
As for me, I raised the mace that kills with a single blow,
and felled that host upon the spot.
I uttered a roar from my saddle, saying, ‘The Earth
has become a millstone upon them.’”
Ferdowsi, The Shahnameh
Isn’t that great? I’ve always wanted to write something starting with a swanky quotation. But don’t let the elitist arty-farty stuff mislead you, because this review is all about standing up for the small guy. Yes, we are gathered here to pay homage to the underclass of the four-colour world, the unsung peons whose devotion to duty allows the implementation of plans for world domination and at whose expense the triumph of good over evil is periodically enacted – the expendable cannon fodder, the small fry, the dregs of villainy. I’ll call them, for brevity’s sakes, the Hordes. You know them: they are the henchmen of Mr. Freeze or the Joker, the minions of HYDRA or the Hand, the rank-and-file of the Skrull empire.
The first thing about these poor slobs that comes to mind is that they are total losers. Superhero comics revel in their being “super”, and stack the odds in favour of the people in tights and against the mooks to a shameless degree. There is some precedent for this. People have been taking on entire armies single-handedly for a long time, as shown by the quotation from the Shahnahme, Persia’s national epic.
Contemporary superhero comics are way suckier than the oldies, though. Almost invariably, when a cape wades through waves of minions the point is to establish the distinction between human and superhuman in the most perfunctory of ways. It’s a low-level form of what goes by the name of momentism, a style of writing that has been defined as the subordination of storytelling to the search for iconic moments that capture and refine the essence of superheroes. When Hordes are getting stomped, the fuss is not about distilling Batman’s quiddity, or Wolverine’s or that of any other specific character, but rather about gratifying the reader with the most childish of the escapist thrills which the genre can offer, that of bestriding the world like the proverbial collosus, shrugging like Atlas and being unconstrained by the actions of lesser men. This is momentism at its crudest, meant to showcase how exalted the brotherhood of cape-bearers really is, designed to spell out what genre we’re dealing with. As a case in point, consider the acclaimed first score or so of issues of “The Immortal Iron Fist”, written by Brubaker and Fraction. The goons of HYDRA are little more than blood-filled punching bags in that, fit for the Immortal Weapons to execute their multi-key supercombo moves on only, and although Aja’s art ranges from “excellent” to “incredible” throughout, the presence of HYDRA’s army on the page is an inconsequential blur. It wears thin, fast.
Compare this with Ferdowsi: with a few lines, he manages to instill a sense of great dread to the approach of the “countless host”, which makes its ruination in the verses that follow all the more portentous. The stylised representation of combat creates a sense of drama, rather than flattening it.
The drama becomes roadkill in the comics because, in their chase after those elusive iconic money shots, they break a very basic rule: if you want to deny all agency to some of the people in your story you’d better have a very good reason to do so. Superheroes are not such a gravity-defying genre that they can ignore the sound logic of finding strength in numbers, and Hordes should be dangerous, primal things, that augment their members in as many ways as they diminish them.
Hordes are scary as fuck, come to think of it. It’s not only the capacity for violence of multitudes that we find unsettling, these days we’re afraid of belonging to them, of not belonging to them, of their effect on the environment, we are appalled or vindicated by their choices in matters of politics or taste. Superhero comics, which by necessity express themselves in the language of violent conflict, cannot afford to be as piss-poor, glib and regressive as is their wont if they are to have the faintest chance of getting any resonance off of this.
A first step towards a better handling of Hordes is the understanding that they come in many shapes and sizes. It is a time-honoured tradition to postulate a simple dualistic model as the starting point of one’s lucubrations, and then move on to the ever-popular shades of grey at a later stage. Let us therefore define two broad kinds of Hordes, which we can call mob-like and vacant-eyed, respectively. The main thing about mobs is that the coming together of lots of people is an emotional affair, even if those emotions are for the most part of the base, volatile sort. A good depiction of this kind of Horde will therefore test the viewer’s willingness to partake in the vicarious thrills associated with these emotions. Hordes of the second kind are usually gatherings of zombies, robots or commuters. In this case the point will be to take advantage of the subjects’ frigidness to create a sense of alienation in the audience. Usually, this will be enhanced by the odd bit of forlorn humanity being discernible amid the Horde’s serried ranks, a technique which is known under the term “mockery of the living”. Another trait of vacant-eyed Hordes is a predilection for being slow but relentless.
The most important thing by far for all this to come across right is the art. It’s not like the presence of Hordes can be easily combined with lots of realistic dialogue at any given time in a story, anyway. Admittedly, drawing large numbers of people is a bit of a chore, and it must be difficult to get the results not to look like a confusing mess. Some of my favourite depictions of Hordes come from the hands of the excellent Adrian Smith. He’s cut his teeth working for gaming companies like Games Workshop and other outfits that make a living by foisting plastic and pewter miniatures on pre-teens with way too much disposable income, and the depiction of large crowds of people armed to the teeth is an essential part of his job description. Check this out:
That’s one busy picture indeed, a trippy welter of snarling visages, leering skulls, shrunken heads and spikes. Quick background note: the action takes place in Game Workshop’s “Warhammer world”, the city must be part of the so-called Empire, which is loosely based on Renaissance Germany (“loosely based” as in “milking Albrecht Dürer for all he’s worth”), and the people doing the storming are followers of “Khorne”, the god of anger and dealing out gruesome death. Khorne is one of the dark Powers of Chaos, which are inspired in equal parts by Moorcock, Lovecraft, the work of Flemish masters like Hyeronimus Bosch, and 80′s metal bands. Whatever. In spite of all the stuff that’s going on, the composition of the picture is highly kinetic. Its central feature is the unstoppable advance of the raiders. This is anchored by things like the skillful use of space (what little is left of it!) around the column of chaos warriors, the towering champion blokes wearing great helms at both ends of the group (they are the same character, essentially), even the fact that most of the helmets’ horns point downstairs. The hopelessness of the defenders’ situation is not only brought home by the attackers’ ostensible badassery, but also by details like the dejected guardian genius of the city to the left, or the rainspout to the far right that looks like a death mask. The very stone is reacting to the madness that blots it from view, not unlike the way we imagine that Ferdowsi’s “dale, plain, and mountain“ groan and heave under the host that hides them.
But that’s far from the whole story. Smith has added a spoonful of the vacant-eyed formula to the picture, to great effect. There’s a shell-shocked, almost bovine quality to the few faces that aren’t caught in mid-scream (heck, even the steed looks smarter than some of them). It’s as if Khorne’s worshippers were being offered the simple choice of joining in the mass frenzy or being unable to keep their wits about them in the impossible sea of spiky bits they find themselves in. This choice is not unlike that offered to the viewer, whose eye can get lost amid all the insane painstaking detail or be swept along by the dynamic tableau.
That’s a great, artful depiction of a furious mob, in short, one that uses the idiom of the Awesome! and Extreme! comics and fantasy art of the last few decades to represent a set of very fucked up states of mind. Adrian Smith can also do vacant-eyed legions with bravura:
These guys, “Therians”, are from a gaming universe called “AT-43″ which I know exactly fuck-all about. They seem to be cyborg-y post-human supremacists of some description. It doesn’t matter, the picture tells us all we need to know. Again, the image is busy as all get out, but it’s unified by the verticality of the composition, that conveys a sense that these people are “ascended” and untouchable and don’t think much of us meat bags. This verticality is reinforced by the fact that Smith has done away with the slow but relentless advance thing, giving the Horde instead an equally frightening 360-degree field of total, multi-eyed awareness. The “mockery of the living” comes with bonus genre meta-commentary, in the form of the freaky ladies with stilettoes for feet, exaggerated thoracic region, incongruous S&M accessories and blank doll masks. The small touches of volcanic orange and the crouching stance of some troopers –a pinch of the mobs, in this case– underline the Horde’s intent. We’re left in no doubt about this being a civilisation that embodies some of our most topical fears about modernity: efficiency has crushed humanity, futurism and scientism have run amok, we’ve got beyond the candyfloss horizons and crapped a spawn of spider eggs there.
Now, astute readers may wonder why exactly I’m arguing that these eminently iconic shots of Hordes are instructive, after railing against the evils of momentism early on. Well, momentism is like every other genre convention, it becomes suspect through overindulgence. As applied to Hordes, it could be novel for a while, because I haven’t seen that many iconic A.I.M. moments yet. More importantly, since the majority of such moments would have to revolve around some sort of extravagant, pervy soul-crushing fascist shit like in the above examples, they could help draw attention to some of the most masturbatory tendencies in the field.
This detournin’ of the momentin’ is not the only innovation that a reappraisal of the Hordes would require. Have you noticed that in the comics they never get their own sound effects? At most they shout something along the lines of “Hail, Naja-Naja!” like unto a single man. But crowds can be noisy in ways that individuals cannot. Let me propose, by way of example only, the following sound effects for Hordes, to be draped across comics pages in big blocky letters: MARCH; RUSH; ROUT; WHISPER.
The last one would be associated with discontent in the ranks, of course. It’s really so one-note, the usual subservience of Hordes to the whims of their masters. The act of keeping on top of a large group of people should be depicted as something that takes a heavy toll on the spirit and –since these are superheroes– the body. In this lasersharking fest of a post, I considered the possibility of a Martian villain that cuts bits off his or her body and animates them to bring forth a Horde. It was an attempt to represent, in a suitably grotesque manner, the strain on the soul of treating the masses as the extension of a single will. Other similar conceits can be brought to bear: telepathically-controlled Hordes in which the controller’s mind is in constant danger of scattering and losing its coherence, supervillains that are mere figureheads for the collective intelligence of the host that stands behind them, you name it.
Furthermore, it should not be unheard of, to get closeup shots of the Hordes, to bypass the charismatic leader and single out the odd individual in their midst. Every dog has his day and all that. The idea is that the public and the private are inseparable, and determining whether individual or collective agency has been at work at any given time is as much a matter of perspective as of anything else. Rest assured that somebody out there regards even you, gentle reader, as part of some heinous Horde or the other. That’s why it’s important to do justice to the dregs of villainy.
P.S.: There is actually a comic out there that is checking at least several of this reviewer’s boxes, and on the whole it’s handling the Hordes deftly. You won’t be surprised to hear that it’s “Batman and Robin”.
[Ed note: Cheers as ever to Brother Satrap, our honorary Mindless and dear chum, for this latest post.]