Thursday, November 26, 2020

Pop Culture Prophecy: Empire's Decline from Fantasy to Reality

All panels and art from Tim Truman Scout, Eclipse comics

During the odd grifter's interregnum of the last few weeks a particular image came to mind. The image, reproduced above, depicts the President of a dystopian American turning into a monster and clinging to power. I am not sure how it was jogged from my memory, but it seemed to fit the last few weeks since the election. It is from the comic book Scout written and drawn by Tim Truman and published by Eclipse Comics from 1985-1987. It was one of my favorite comics growing up even though judging by its status today, and conversations with other comics fans, it has been overlooked or forgotten. I haven't been able to forget it, and in many ways it seems to be a better guide to our present than the superheroes from the same era who have only become more central to popular culture. 

I still have the whole run in a box, and decided to reread it over the holiday break. The premise is very much one of an American Empire in decline. Ecological degradation, changing global politics, and internal corruption have left the US a shadow of its former self in the far off year of 1999. The story of the empire in decline is ambivalent, on the one hand, rising Soviet influence has left the US isolated in a version of the "domino effect" that was central to the propaganda of the right, but at the same time the US is depicted as a country caught in the pinchers of corporate power that has decimated the environment, on the one hand, and racist and evangelical myths that have destroyed political life, on the other. This tendency to take from right and left fears of US decline is further complicated in later issues when it turns out that both the US and the USSR are under the control of a global conspiracy. Moreover of the two intertwining narratives of decline, external isolation and internal corruption, the narrative focus is primarily on the later, it is a story in which the principle struggle is against the fascist attempt to found a "New America," an America where the restoration of America's lost glory is thoroughly implicated with the increase of power for evangelicals, corporations, and those who have sold out to the former.  

First page of Scout #1

The story focuses on Emmanuel "Scout" Santana a member of the Apache nation who, as a young man was forcibly conscripted into Army Rangers as his reservation was cleared by the US government when uranium is discovered underneath it. At the beginning of the series Scout emerges from the mountains driven by visions of his "Gahn," his spirit guide, to kill the "four monsters" of Apache lore. To Scout these monsters are the giant owl monster, the buffalo monster, the eagle monster, and the antelope monster. As he hunts them down these monsters turn out to be a pornographer with political connections, the owl monster; the secretary of agriculture whose connections to agribusiness has destroyed farms and the ecology of much of the country, the buffalo monster; an energy secretary whose attachment to fossil fuels has further eroded the environment, the eagle monster; and the media apparatus that distorts and hides the crimes of the first three, the antelope monsters. The first few issues hinges on a kind of ambiguity: it could be the story of a man who under mental illness or drugs thinks he sees monsters or it could be a supernatural story of a country under the control of ancient monsters. What holds these two stories together is the fact that these men might not be monsters in the supernatural sense of the word but are clearly monsters in  every other sense of the world. I think that Scout is ultimately a science fiction and supernatural comic, but it is also a story that makes a case for understanding a world in terms of myths of monsters and violated natural orders makes more sense than understanding the world in terms of fantasies of lost national glory. 

Scout confronts a monster in issue number one

Making an Apache the center of focus does at least two things for the story. First, an Apache ex-ranger is best suited to survive the vast desert that most of America has become due to global warming. Second, there is the more general implication that Scout is not only better able to physically survive in the post-apocalyptic wasteland, but better suited to do so mentally. He maybe subject to visions or delusions but he can see what few others see, not only the actual state of America as it is, but as it has always been. It has often been said that fascism is what happens when the techniques for ruling the colonies come home, Scout tweaks that formulation a bit to say that authoritarianism is what happens when all of America becomes colonized, returning to the original relation between the settlers and the peoples who were found here. People's lives are only as valuable as the labor they provide and often less valuable than the resources in the ground where they reside. What Bertrand Ogilvie called "l'homme jetable," the disposable human being, has become more or less the universal condition. This is driven home in later issues when Scout meets a rancher named Beauregard La Duke, but instead of the story being one of "cowboys versus indians" as La Duke and Scout team up against a government attempt to push La Duke off of his land to get the resources beneath the land. The old antagonisms that defined the myth of the nation collapse in light of its actual antagonisms. 

Scout takes on agribusiness

Scout takes on the Klan

Throughout his quest to kill the monsters, and President Jerry Grail, the slayer of enemies, an ex-pro-wrestler turned politician, Scout meets up with an assortment of outcasts and marginal figures who help him on his way. There is Missy, seen in the panel above, who Scout first rescues from the pornographer, there is Guitar Man and the Disciples of Soul. The former is a kind of Jimi Hendrix crossed with Huey Newton. His band doubles as an armed gang, dedicated to protecting their people and their block that have long since been abandoned by the government. It is also worth noting how much this book written and drawn by Tim Truman carries a mark of Truman's own particular taste in music. Most of the titles of individual issues are drawn from blues songs, quite a few from Howlin' Wolf, "Little Red Rooster," "I Ain't Superstitious," "Killin' Floor," etc. One issue even included a flexi-disc of Truman and his friends playing the soundtrack to a battle of the bands. In some sense a post-apocalyptic comic about an apache warrior with a blues soundtrack shouldn't work. It even sounds like something Steven Seagal would come up with. It worked for me back then. I spent hours trying to copy the particular drawing style and writing my own stories of the post-apocalypse while listening to Howlin' Wolf and Lightnin' Hopkins. Looking at it now, I think that it works on a different level, or rather levels. First, there is the political level, that opposition to fascism, to a New America, in Truman's comic, or "Make America Great Again," in our world, is always going to be an intersection of the excluded and marginalized. Truman's stories bring together an impressive collection of outcasts, former pornstars, blues bands, hillbillies, bikers, who are unified only in their opposition to an imposed order. Second, the emphasis on Truman's own taste brings together author and text, form and content, in a particular utopian way. If there is a utopian dimension to all of the various post-apocalyptic stories it has to do with a particular kind of idiosyncratic individuality that is expressed in mohawks, hockey masks (to take the cinema examples) or various forms of face paint (to take Truman's examples). At some point, as society collapses we will all drop any pretense to dress and act like others and let our particular freak flag fly. This is the upside to the apocalypse and it is also the promise of the explosion of independent comics in the eighties. 

Guitar Man and the New Disciples of Soul 

There is one last character I would like to discuss. When Scout travels to Houston, where he meets Guitar Man, he also meets a young developmentally disable man named Doody. When Scout meets Doody he is cared for by and helps Mr. Deluxe, a former evangelist who is now dedicated to helping the downtrodden.  Scout the comic book consistently undermines the comic book division into absolute good and evil, for every corrupt evangelical leader there is a man of faith working to help the people, and for every Soviet authoritarian there is a communist who believes in the ideals of the revolution. Doody is motivated to help Scout because he believes in monsters too. In his attempt to help Doody is eventual captured by the government, tortured, and experimented upon. He emerges from the ordeal transformed, gifted with psychic powers, and as a new kind of religious leader who quotes from the Lord of the Rings as much as the Bible. This has always been one of my favorite motifs of post-apocalyptic fiction, the way that elements from our existing culture are transformed and repurposed in the aftermath. Pop culture is recycled as myth and religion. Rereading the comics now, and reflecting upon their own particular bit of cultural bricolage, taking elements of blues, biker movies, apache legends, and dystopian fiction it is appears that that kind of salvage is always already taking place. We are all making connections and stories about the bits of culture that survive the tides of manipulation and distortion. 

Doody leading the flock (and a nice bit of visual storytelling)

Rereading Scout now it seems like an odd combination of what comics could have become, but for the most part didn't, and what America could become, and for the most part did. A former Pro-Wrestler turned president who is managed by a former televangelist is not spot on but it is a close enough hit to the world that we are living in. There are still comics with a singular voice and focus like Scout, but they are increasingly few and far between.* Beyond the limit range of comics, Truman's Scout reminds us that in order to survive the coming collapse we will need new skills and new stories, ones that stress our connection with the earth and with others different from us. I for one am glad that I grew up reading Scout, even if what seemed like a nice distraction from suburban life in the 80s reads increasingly like a guide to the new millenium. 

* = Tim Truman is still at it. He recently did a Kickstarter for a sequel to Scout, titled Scout: Marauder that will be written by him and his son and illustrated by him. The kickstarter has ended, but you can still preorder issues from his website. Much of the original run of Scout has been collected into two volumes, but they seem to have gone out of print. 

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