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Grumpy Old Fan | The Movement is subversive all over

by  in Comic News Comment

In the very first panel of The Movement #1 there’s a blonde in black leather and fishnets. Her strong resemblance to old-school Black Canary seems designed deliberately to remind readers of writer Gail Simone’s previous DC Comics work. However, there’s nothing straightforward — at least not yet — about this new series. Simone’s script is a maze of upended expectations, and Freddie Williams’ art likewise seems made up of unsettled lines. The overall effect is disorienting, which might not be the best way to begin a from-scratch series like this one. But The Movement #1 works well as the first chapter of what will hopefully be a long run.

SPOILERS FOLLOW

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The issue is built around three main sequences: The first has a pair of corrupt patrolmen accosting a pair of teenagers, before being chased off by a Movement group; the second (previewed online) involves another troubled super-powered youth and a well-meaning clergyman; the resulting standoff leads into the third, as the main cast shows up to resolve the situation. The issue ends with a speech reminiscent of Batman’s “none of you are safe” soliloquy from “Batman: Year One,” and a coda showing the range of the Movement’s influence.

In fact, the opening sequence reminded me immediately of Frank Miller’s hypothesis (and here I am paraphrasing) that Batman works best when society’s institutions have broken down. Miller’s original Dark Knight miniseries made corrupt cops a staple of the Bat-mythology, but Miller emphasized further that superheroes were “outlaws” practically by definition. While The Movement doesn’t mythologize or otherwise elevate its superhumans like Miller did, these first few pages still tread some very familiar ground. One cop even hints at raping a 16-year-old, echoing the threat that got the Amethyst relaunch in trouble.

What distinguishes The Movement happens on Page 2, when a blank-masked Movement member* reveals he’s been recording the encounter with a smartphone. Page 3 then pulls back to show several more Movementeers, each with the same featureless silver mask, and identical “i.c.u.” recording screens on their phones and tablets. It’s the kind of shock usually associated with horror-movie cults (or the Court of Owls, for that matter), and it demonstrates efficiently the Movement’s place in its fictionopolis of Coral City. Specifically, the Movementeers appear to be enemies only to those who abuse their power; which, of course, is another Batman-style vigilante trope.

Along those lines, The Movement’s Captain Meers may turn out to be the series’ Commissioner Gordon. His job takes him away from his marriage, and union rules prevent him from suspending the dirty patrolmen. In short, he looks like the Last Honest Cop, but the balance of Issue 1 makes me think there’s more to him.

This brings me to the first issue’s pivotal character. He’s called Burden because that’s what his parents called him. He’s a clean-cut kid who can’t stay on the streets, but who can’t go in a church because “bad things happen.” Naturally, when the bad things do happen, Williams’ art practically boils over, giving Burden’s metamorphosis the majority of a page and shoving the other panels out of alignment to accommodate it. Williams’ art contorts Burden’s face and fingers, elongating his nails and practically unhinging his cheekbones. It’s the first really dynamic moment in an issue which to this point has been doing a slow burn, and it underscores the scary component of superpowers.

See, The Movement doesn’t seem that enamored of superpowers. Burden’s eyes glow with fire, he can turn his head around 180 degrees, and he can hover dramatically, all while talking like he’s possessed. He’s supposed to be menacing, but some of the Movement aren’t much better. The pale, buff Mouse makes his entrance by bursting through the church’s floor, borne on an army of rats. When the Movementeer called Katharsis catches up with one of the bad patrolmen, she throws him around contemptuously, knocking out his teeth and strangling him with her legs in a series of jagged panels which mirror her brutality.

In isolation it might all seem very x-treme, but if there’s a 1990s vibe to the issue, I think it’s closer to Milestone than Image. By making it clear that its super-folk have an obvious, and perhaps overwhelming, advantage over the Coral City authorities, the issue goes out of its way to present a non-traditional superhero setup. As Movement leader Virtue explains to Meers, “if we want it? Your whole world is over.” It’s as if the X-Men watched the V For Vendetta movie a few dozen times too many, and decided to take over Gotham City by making themselves into a secret society. The revelation about Burden’s true nature is handled pretty well (despite the “All Access” preview giving a big hint about his future), but it too plays into the series’ question-everything mentality.

All this means there’s a lot to unpack in The Movement #1, but much of that raises some intriguing questions about the whole “power and responsibility” axiom. In the New 52, the governments of the world see the main Justice League as so far removed from the rest of humanity, they’ve recruited two different teams (first the JLI, now the JLA) as potential counterbalances. Contrast that top-down approach with The Movement, which suggests that otherwise-ordinary people will choose to use their powers to solve more local concerns.** Both Justice League and The Movement acknowledge that your average police force won’t be that effective against a nominally-powerful super-group, but where the Leaguers want to work with the system as much as possible, the members of the Movement just cut to the chase. The area of Coral City called “the Tweens” is theirs, because for all intents and purposes the police have abandoned it. The Movement is set in the New-52 DC universe (Katharsis first appeared in Simone’s Batgirl), and you have to think it won’t be long before some of the big names show up.

The question is, how long does The Movement have? As I mentioned in Monday’s “Cheat Sheet,” it comes with a decent set of expectations. Simone has a dedicated fanbase, but she and Williams are pretty much introducing a new cast with no immediate connection to the rest of the superhero line. A setup which recalls the “Occupy” protests might also turn off conservative readers (although I wonder how many conservative fans Simone has). The Movement has been marketed on the strengths of its creators and its subject matter, not its “importance” to the New-52; and if it does poorly, it could discourage DC from taking similar chances.

I’d like to think that The Movement would run long enough for Simone and Williams to explore these characters more fully, but part of that comes from this issue raising so many questions. That may also be a nice way of saying that the characterizations in this issue aren’t all that deep. Burden gets the most attention in this regard, and his big revelation comes in a line of dialogue that Virtue literally tosses over her shoulder. It’s such a critical part of Virtue’s (and by extension the Movement’s) motivation that it can afford to be treated as a plot point. However, The Movement can’t go very far on plot twists and attitude. I expect Simone to flesh out the cast appreciably in the next couple of issues, because she’s raised a host of complex issues and she can’t explore them adequately with strawmen.

The Movement #1 succeeds by playing with familiar superhero tropes. It doesn’t aim to be polished, and often its super-people are so dominant as to be unsympathetic. The issue is concerned primarily with world-building, perhaps to the characters’ detriment. Nevertheless, Gail Simone’s script is an entertaining standalone story, and Freddie Williams’ art (augmented nicely by Chris Sotomayor’s colors) establishes a suitably gritty mood.

On general principles I would like The Movement to succeed, and thereby establish a viable audience for eclectic superhero storytelling. Indeed, it would have been easy for Simone and Williams to present their characters as heroic underdogs, struggling bravely against the machinations of an almost-cruelly-indifferent ruling class. Instead, despite its flaws, I appreciate Simone and Williams going in a slightly different direction, and making the world of The Movement a little less clear-cut. This issue is certainly intriguing enough to warrant coming back for more. If it can become truly compelling, exploring not just the need to question authority but also the burdens of true authority — and particularly if its focus could expand to the larger DCU — The Movement could be something special. Here’s hoping it gets that chance.

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* [Dialogue refers to the Movement as a “hacker group” called “Channel M,” but for simplicity’s sake I’m sticking with “the Movement.”]

** [Ironically, the cast looking down at the reader on the cover of Issue 1 inverts the old JLI cover-theme of the team looking up.]