Funnybook Babylon

February 11, 2009

The Banality of Evil: Kobra

Filed under: Articles — Tags: , — Jonathan Bernhardt @ 5:07 pm

Faces of Evil: KobraFaces of Evil: Kobra came out two weeks ago, and if you’ve forgotten about it already, or never knew about it in the first place, that’s forgivable. A book like this would have normally passed us by more or less unnoticed, but we’ll be giving it a more extended look than usual, because it’s somewhat of a perfect storm of poor conception, execution, and quality control, and while we usually try to stick to the realm of discussion-broadening, constructive criticism here at FBB, there’s at least one thing in the issue about which little positive can be said.

This particular misstep has nothing to do with storytelling craft or characterization, but with how writer Ivan Brandon has the newest iteration of annoying snake-worshipping terror-cultists rally to a leader that proclaims that there is “No God but God,” which is a bastardization of half of the First Pillar of Islam: “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is His messenger.” Perhaps this is forgivable by itself, since even though it’s crystal clear from where he got it, that’s a fairly bland statement and represents the beliefs of most adherents of monotheistic faiths. But then Brandon, maybe feeling that his religious extremists lacked a “real world” punch, has his new Kobra — the recently-risen Jason Burr, twin brother of Jeffery Burr, the original Kobra — proclaim “jihad” on the superheroes of the world, and it becomes quite clear what group of people we’re supposed to identify Kobra with: Muslims. This isn’t the first time a Kobra has been linked to real-life religious extremism — in Geoff Johns’s JSA, for instance, a previous incarnation of him employs suicide bombers. But Brandon doesn’t identify his Kobra with the tactics used by Islamic terrorists; he identifies him with central tenets of the faith itself. “Jihad” is a word with specific meaning and cultural resonance; anyone who uses it to refer to just any old holy war either thinks his audience are fools or is one himself.

Even more amazing is that nothing about Kobra’s cult even remotely resembles the belief or practice of Islam. Brandon doesn’t bother to establish much of a theology for the newest version of the religion, beyond what’s convenient for on-panel bloodshed, but the reimagined Cult of Kali Yuga seems to be very much into idolatry and worshipping a human incarnation of their God, both things Islam specifically forbids. In fact, the entire set-up of Kobra’s operation — described in a bit — is more consistent with the World’s Most Crazed Spy Ring instead of any kind religion.

Unfortunately, the offensive and nonsensical parallels to Islam only draw attention away from serious issues with the story’s logic (Superman being fooled by facepaint), premise (the snake baby base silliness) and structure (Gold being kept alive for no reason other than to serve as Kobra’s expository sounding board), but even those are mostly incidental to the real problem here concerning Brandon’s craft, which is with Kobra himself: he never earns a single character moment over the course of the one-shot. The first five pages he appears on in the story are titled “Stage One: Birth,” and involve Jason being returned from the dead with some weird skin condition we’re supposed to identify with snakes. He’s established in these pages as horrified by what he looks like, what he’s seen, and the simple fact that he’s alive. They comprise two scenes: the first, three pages, is Jason narrating over the actual act of his resurrection with stock confusion and terror. There’s then a break of a couple pages for a scene establishing a Checkmate super-secret fortress that Superman is helping guard personally, which is growing snake babies in test tubes for some purpose that is never quite clear, but is probably related to some previous Kobra story. Then there’s the second scene, which lasts two pages, where Jason turns down sex with a Kobra harem girl to stare in a mirror and mope, horrified with what he’s become. When she prostrates herself in front of him and more or less begs for good fucking from her snake god, he tells the girl that he’s not a religious man. She insists that well, since he was raised from the dead, the fact of his resurrection should be all the faith he needs; as she says this, she points in the mirror.

Page turn. New scene. Stage Two: Acceptance. Narration: “And with everything I see, I know she’s right.” Art: Jason Burr dressed in a green jumpsuit with what looks like a big yellow triangular sperm logo on it, hands clasped behind his back, addressing his troops. There’s no indication how much time has passed, if any. He could have walked away from the mirror, thrown on the jumpsuit, walked outside and started talking for all we know as readers. Brandon even bothers to connect the two scenes with that old trick Moore perfected in Watchmen, where he continues a thought or sentence from the end of one panel into the start of the next, with its underlying meaning changed by what the reader sees in the art. So, very clearly, we’re supposed to think that a man who gave his life trying to stop Kobra, and who, when he was resurrected, was horrified by who had done it and what he had become, changed his entire worldview, outlook, and personality because a grovelling naked girl told him that A equals A and that he should look at himself in a mirror. This is a ridiculous, both in premise and execution. He just looks in the mirror, shrugs, and dons a mantle of apocalyptic terror.

And when Jason Burr goes evil, he doesn’t mess around. This new scene, set in the old secret snake base where he was killed the first time, sees him spout some hackneyed crap about how Jason Burr is someone else and he’s Kobra now, talk about how things in the orginization need to change, and then…order his followers to fight each other to the death. Think the scene from The Dark Knight with Joker in the poolhall, writ large. Kobra’s reasoning is that “the army of Kali Yuga needs to be invisible, even to itself,” and therefore it will be composed of sleeper cells of one, all of whom operate in complete secrecy, even to each other. This defeats the point of having a cult entirely. But it also makes it so that anyone, anywhere can be quickly converted into a double secret Kobra spy with no foreshadowing, and establishes that the new Kobra is an evil crazy badass with no respect for human life, which was the real point of the exercise.

He reinforces this nonsensical bloodthirst over the next few pages, as the scene cuts to a Checkmate base shown earlier in the issue and Bell, one of only two officers there mentioned by name, wipes some of that aforementioned facepaint off to reveal he’s Kobra. The page after this introduction cannot reasonably be described, and must be seen:

FoE: Kobra, Page 15

So what do we have here? An entire page of storytelling wasted on gratutitous row after bloody row of the hilariously dead, with entirely unconsidered bulletholes dotting the walls (these guys have slumped to the ground — was someone shooting at their knees?) and, completing the feel, cobras, everywhere, inexplicable and useless and somehow perfectly at place because it doesn’t matter, maybe Kobra literally pulled them out of his ass; that’s just how bad his ass is.

If you can tear yourself away from the visuals long enough, glance at the captions to find a tedious yet bland treason monologue, and then it’s on to the main event, where Jason Burr somehow jacks all the television feeds in the world (do stores in cities even still do that huge TV-display-in-the-window stuff?) and informs the JLA that because they robbed him of the pleasure of killing his brother, he will now be killing all of them. He’s also referring to himself as Jason Burr again, if anyone’s counting. Then he starts killing snake babies and Superman freaks out and you know what? I don’t care anymore. This story started losing my attention when a man looked in the mirror and turned into a mass murderer, and lost my respect when that beautiful, beautiful page above showed up. The stupid shit with the First Pillar and “jihad” was bad too, probably worse than all the other stuff I mentioned, but not in a craft way. And this one-shot is, above all else, bad craft.

The central problem with it, and a lot of portrayals of DC villains out there, is a stunning lack of respect for, or at the very least a profound misunderstanding of, the dramatic power of death. It is a powerful, resonating thing to kill a character, because unlike men of steel or willpower rings or snake babies, death is something that we will all experience, both in others and, in time, personally. So piling up bodies in the hall like this is farcical. Every new villain that pops onto the scene at DC seems to be trying to capture the magic of the Joker all over again, and no one seems to remember that in none of the great Joker stories does he just walk around offing swaths and swaths of special forces ninjas just because it would be stylish and prove a point about how no one fucks with him. The Killing Joke has exactly one death by his hand — the circus caretaker. In Dark Knight Returns, he manages to get a couple of talk show hosts and their audiences. In A Death in the Family, a teenage boy and his mother (to his credit, he also tries, and fails, to take out the United Nations General Assembly straight after). In Grant Morrison’s Batman, he kills a cop pretending to be Batman and some of his own followers — and this is while he’s in the genocidal, world-ending persona Morrison gave him. The Joker is DC’s original insane, pure evil — and none of the great stories featuring him express this by having him slaughter the 101st Airborne.

A character’s life should never be meaningless to his or her writer. It can be meaningless to other characters, sure; if you’ve got a great reason for the new guy on the block to be slaughtering a couple SWAT teams, then go ahead and put it in there. What happened in Kobra was a writer effectively turning what should have been characters into props. Since they were never really people, and Kobra never really took ownership of killing them, or anything in the story, the entire content of the work boils down to a great smirking emptiness through whose plot the main character floats, doing things, perhaps for reasons, perhaps not. If you want a holy war against something, I’m down for one on that.

17 Comments »

  1. “[…M]aybe Kobra literally pulled them out of his ass; that’s just how bad his ass is.”

    Made me laugh… audibly.

    Comment by John Pontoon — February 11, 2009 @ 7:35 pm

  2. DC… ah, DC, DC, DC.

    Comment by Jim — February 11, 2009 @ 7:40 pm

  3. The Kobra babies came from the last 3 issues of Checkmate written by Rucka and his friend. Kind of sad to see that story continued here, because that plot went to great lengths to make you think the babies would be offed by the bad-ass Rooks (Checkmate’s GI Joe team), only to have the story conclude with a decision to try nurture against nature. Superman was heavily involved in that arc.

    To protect the members of my cult, I’m going to order all mirrors smashed.

    Comment by Paul Hicks — February 11, 2009 @ 7:44 pm

  4. To be fair, the Joker also kills an entire Boy Scout troop in the amusement park in DKR, and the audience for the talk show easily has a couple hundred people in it, judging from the art.

    If that doesn’t qualify as mass murder, well, I disagree with your standards for what mass murder is :)

    Comment by Graham — February 12, 2009 @ 2:04 am

  5. What a waste of a decent Checkmate arc, is all I can say.

    Comment by Illvillainy — February 12, 2009 @ 12:01 pm

  6. Agreed.
    But if the Joker isn’t a mass murderer, how come do you identify him with DC’s reference for every villain being a mass murderer?

    Comment by Thiago F. — February 12, 2009 @ 12:24 pm

  7. Read what I said again. Of course the Joker is a mass murderer, but mass murder isn’t what made him great — it was how he did it, to whom, and why. As I pointed out, there’s a big difference between offing a Boy Scout troop in service of tempting Batman into killing you and killing an entire military unit in service of establishing that this character is enough of a badass to kill an entire military unit. For starters, one of the reasons the Joker is the DCU’s modern incarnation of evil is that Boy Scouts don’t fight back.

    Comment by Jonathan Bernhardt — February 12, 2009 @ 12:33 pm

  8. I think that it’s that moral and psychological aspect of temptation that makes the Joker such a good character, especially as he’s matched with Batman, whose self-control is core to his character.

    Comment by Moses — February 12, 2009 @ 1:10 pm

  9. Oh, gross. Great with that Didio quote on the sidebar: “I’d say about 75% of the concepts that are being created are editorially driven.” This Origins and Omens crap, this Faces of Evil crap, and whatever happened to ‘Sightings’? We had like, what, two of those – and they were supposed to be the new lynchpins of DC continuity. DC editorial seems to think that Marvel’s success with crossovers involves slapping a title and, at most, a backup on a book. Marvel’s magic secret is that Dark Reign’s books have to do with Dark Reign.

    Comment by Dane Moniker — February 12, 2009 @ 2:59 pm

  10. Oh, the Joker killing an audiance full of people with Joker Gas, then flying away on a robotic doll, and killing a troop of Boy Scouts with poisoned cotton candy is leagues different from the generic “I killed all these special agents!” thing everyone else does.

    I just wanted an accurate bodycount for nitpicking reasons :)

    Another thought: this kinda thing happens in pro wrestling all the time.

    New guy needs to be built up as strong, so you feed him a bunch of littler guys to showcase how powerful he is, to get him “over” as a credible threat, and, well, the littler guys? Fuck um. And it pisses wrestling fans off all the damn time, espically when the new guy stinks at actually wrestling.

    It works if you do it onces every couple years, but not regularly. And it definetly doesn’t work in comics, where the person will only hurt/kill characters who are either nameless, “unimportant,” or otherwise not mainstream, so you end up ticking off the few fans that minor character has, and getting a “eh” reaction from everyone else.

    Comment by Graham — February 12, 2009 @ 5:33 pm

  11. I know I sound like a sad stalker fanboy about this, but Geoff Johns popularized these tactics and is inadverdently responsible for their perpetuation. Change, I think, would need to start with Johns either abandoning said tactics, denouncing them, or leaving DC. Or at least informing DiDio that the rest of the line doens’t have to read like his work if he had suffered severe head trauma.

    It’s popular to fantasize our favorite creators as puppets of eviel editorial, but sometimes, As Roast Beef would say, there’s nothing to run from. The disease is inside of him.

    Comment by Dan Coyle — February 12, 2009 @ 5:45 pm

  12. “What a waste of a decent Checkmate arc, is all I can say.”

    took the words right out of my mouth. I loved Castling

    Comment by Nathan — February 12, 2009 @ 11:10 pm

  13. We’re gonna get FOUR WHOLE EXCITING ISSUES of this in Final Crisis Aftermath: Escape! Aren’t you motherfuckers hyped?!?

    Comment by David Uzumeri — February 13, 2009 @ 12:05 am

  14. yay?

    Comment by nathan — February 13, 2009 @ 3:35 am

  15. Yes, you got your point. I admit i hadn’t payed total attention in my first reading. It looked then that the Joker-argument was just tossed into the text as something taken for sure, mainly because it had already been stated by Chris Eckert before. But probably it’s something you guys have been talking about, and, like i said, i agree.
    =]

    Comment by Thiago F. — February 13, 2009 @ 8:17 am

  16. Even better- six issues.

    Comment by Dave Snyder — February 13, 2009 @ 12:18 pm

  17. I know it’s not the point of the article, but holy god if that issues really as Islamophobic as it sounds I’m appalled it made it past editorial. The comparison really doesn’t make any sense unless you think all Muslims are terrorists. And I thought the point of those Hydra style nonsensical terrorists was to avoid politicising comics.

    Comment by Verdy — February 27, 2009 @ 5:57 pm

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