“All Kingo Sunen can think about is the future.” Uncanny X-Men #500.
Live in the moment. Plan for the future. Keep your own past off your back long enough to clear your head. The heroes in Matt Fraction’s stories are men and women hurtling into the next minute. The people these heroes used to be are always a step behind, threatening to drag them back to a place they fear. A place, a time, in which the character hates and fears his or her own self more than any external villain.
“I’m just trying to do the next right thing. One right thing at a time, lined up in a row. That’s it.” Henry Hellrung, The Order #1.
Fraction’s heroes understand that the enemy most likely to destroy them is their own weakness. This makes for some of the best character-driven storytelling in comics. Because, after all, we and the hero both know how easy it would be to fall from grace.
Three of Fraction’s protagonists are alcoholics who are currently not-drinking. I won’t say recovering or recovered alcoholics — Tony Stark (Invincible Iron Man,) Henry Hellrung (The Order,) and Cole Caudle (Last of the Independents) know perfectly well that they are not recovered. They each know that, left to their own devices, they would drink again.
But it’s difficult to replace the fulfillment brought by past sins with . . . mere abstention. The body and mind, and the soul or heart depending on your world-view, want something filling that void. Something mighty. Something that transcends the small, fragile, flawed person each of us really is. Taking a stand. Being a hero. Saving the world. One right thing, and the next, and the next.
All the leads in The Order are heroes because, well, there’s not much else to be. There’s nothing else that offers them that grand achievement, that high, that razor of self-destruction, coupled with acclaim and community support. If you constantly fear that you will sabotage your life, then surely throwing yourself into high-pressure situations over and over and coming through, heroic, each time — surely that will prove that you are heroic? Not a failure? Not weak?
But you can’t prove a negative. No amount of evidence can prove that the hero won’t fail next time. Not with failure — real or perceived — in the past.
“Go out. Fight hard. Screw up. Save the world a few times. We have your back. Just keep taking the shots, okay?” Clint Barton, Young Avengers Presents #6
Fraction’s work for Marvel comics is deeply rooted in the respective canons of the legacy characters he writes. Even his original Marvel comic, The Order, takes place within the context of both the Avengers’ legacy and a fictional Cold War legacy. (Not to mention the legacy of Los Angeles, a city that pretends to have no past while cradling its Hollywood scandals close. On the first page of issue one, Fraction brings up the Randolph Scott / Cary Grant rumors. The Order’s original headquarters is in one of L.A.’s few historical buildings, the Bradbury.) The Order is part of the post-Civil-War Initiative, a team of superheroes given powers after what appears to be tryouts — powers for a year that are then taken away. Who wants to be a superhero, for real — just not for keeps.
In The Immortal Iron Fist “The Last Iron Fist”, Danny Rand meets the last — meaning, previous — Iron Fist, Orson Randall and learns what it really means to carry a legacy. In “The Seven Capital Cities of Heaven” Danny — with the help of his somewhat estranged Heroes for Hire friends — corrects the harm done to K’un-Lun by Orson and Danny’s father, Wendell. In The Invincible Iron Man “The Five Nightmares,” Tony is confronted with a legacy villain, a threat from the time his armor was stolen and copied, and danger to one of the franchise’s most valuable players, Pepper Potts. In Uncanny X-Men “SFX,” which is not finished at the time of this writing, we see the return of 1) Magneto 2) the High Evolutionary 3) The Hellfire Club (sort of) 4) the original New Mutants, 5) Sentinels, 6) Hellions, and 7) Madeline Pryor.
In all three of these stories, the conclusions the protagonists draw is to work harder towards the future — to confront the past by overcoming it, laying it to rest. Tony most explicitly realizes that to confront a future filled with the ghosts of his past, he must change — possibly into something he fears.
“The Iron Fist wants only honor in death.” Danny Rand, The Immortal Iron Fist #6
Danny Rand has traditionally thought of himself as a champion, a protector. He knows that it is the fate of the Iron Fist to die young, in battle. But that’s not the part he chooses to dwell on. There’s a certain amount of selective self-perception in Fraction’s protagonists. Each one clings to a narrative of self, a description of who they are and what they have done that provides meaning and order to their present, and provides a goal for their future.
“What’s it called when the parent wants to kill the child? Because where I come from you just call it ‘family.’” Casanova Quinn, Casanova #2
Sometimes these narratives are destructive, as in the case of Casanova. In his life his sister Zephyr Quinn is perfect and noble and heroic — everything Casanova is not. But when he is kidnapped to a neighboring reality where Zephyr is murderous and amoral, Casanova must restructure his personal narrative into something else — something where he is active, not reactive. Where he is given a chance to do good.
The comic that most explicitly lays out the power and weight of the past-as-narrative is Young Avengers Presents: Hawkeye.
The past can do more than harm. It can do more than unleash Kang on teenagers, it can do more than drive young men to drug-induced powers. The legacy of the Avengers is a code, an external standard of idealized behavior that can empower and ennoble people who are struggling to make sense of their lives. For Kate Bishop, trying to find a way in a world determined to mark her as powerless, the legacy of the Avengers is not just a code of behavior, it is a personal narrative. Recasting herself as an Avenger makes Kate a stubborn survivor, a struggling hero who never gives up. Not a victim.
But the narratives in Fraction’s work sometimes reflect how small the protagonist’s part is.
The heroes of The Order end up accepting that they may not be the focus of evil plans, but they can still do good. That as long as they live up to the Code they have adopted they are being successful heroes. Similarly, Pixie in the “SFX” story of Uncanny X-Men decides that she can’t live with herself unless she can perform up to the standards of the X-Men. This, despite being told by all the X-Men that she can sit this one out. It is, you see, part of the X-Men code to stay in the fight long past all sense and reason would dictate.
“The Five Fists of Science can bring about world peace.” Mark Twain, The Five Fists of Science
Fraction’s heroes rarely do the sensible thing. In fact, I’m having a hard time coming up with an example of when they do. Their codes and passions rarely lead to compromise, to going along to get along. A Fraction hero has a goal from which he or she will not be dissuaded however impractical the goal may be — or whatever the collateral consequences. In The Five Fists of Science, for instance, Mark Twain and Nikolai Tesla are going to force peace on the world by selling weapons to all nations equally. Twain and Tesla are vaguely concerned about the consequences of this, but Twain knows he is right. His plan will work.
In The Order even Henry Hellrung — Fraction’s most compromise-laden hero — refuses to renege on the fundamental and secret goal of The Order. Namely, that his superhero team will be the world’s most flamboyant therapy group around. That the heroes of The Order will save California and, in the process, save themselves.
“And that’s how I saved the goddamn world again.” Rex Mantooth, Rex Mantooth: Kung-Fu Gorilla in Kick: Splode: Robot
(My apologies, Mr. Fraction. When I saw the phrase “kick – splode – boom” in Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E by Warren Ellis, I thought the phrase was his. But Nextwave was published in 2006, and Mantooth in 2002, so until one of you corrects me, I will now attribute “kick – splode” to you.)
That’s how I saved the goddamn world again, indeed. Saving the world and saving the future. Fraction’s heroes throw themselves into the fight over and over again for the sake of a future they don’t always believe in and sometimes are pretty sure they don’t deserve. Tony Stark fights his alcoholism, his munitions-based legacy, and his own reputation in order to save the world for everyone with less power than he has. He just can’t tell whether he can be enough of a monster to do it, or if there could be another way forward. Scott Summers fights his self-doubt and his poor past decisions to try and save his people. It remains to be seen whether he can accept the cost. The entire lead cast of The Order are vaguely suicidal and self-destructive at the start — barely aware of their motivations and yet convinced that this is their one chance. And by fighting for California they realize there really is a future, and that they each have a place in it. Danny Rand uses the legacy and weight of the Iron Fist — a role that ends only in death — to create an un-thought of future both for K’un-Lun and for our Earth.
“The shattered remnants of Yanqui humanity will be ruled like shit-eating dogs by the appalling mutant progeny of Matt Fraction and his devious Hemingway-wombed hobo-sodomising wife Kelly Sue.”
– Warren Ellis
In the pub
From “The Annotated Mantooth: An Introduction by Warren Ellis”
I follow Matt and Kelly Sue on Twitter. This means I know they have a son. And I can’t help but think, listening to them occasionally mention Henry Leo, that Fraction’s future is a place in which I want my own kids to live. Not with the superheroes, please; that’s a wee bit too exiting for me. But I want my kids to live in a world where we are the sum of who we were and who we strive to be. A world in which you don’t leave your past behind, no. But where your past gives you the wisdom to choose your next path. Fraction’s heroes choose their future. They react to the situation when the past comes around to kick them in the head, and frequently his heroes don’t feel like they are in control. But over and over again in his work his heroes, without particularly noticing that they are doing so, choose to not repeat past mistakes. To be something new in a future unseen and unknown. And they show me I might live that way, and in choosing to do so I may be a hero, too.