Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Barbalien: Red Planet by Lemire, Brombal, Walta & Bellaire

It's oddly characteristic for the Black Hammer universe that the character with the stupidest name is the one whose miniseries actually does something new and distinctive. I mean, "Barbalien?" What does that even mean? Is it supposed to imply "barbarian?" Because I get much more of an echo of "barber."

Series creator Jeff Lemire has already doubled down on the dumb Martian names by this point - the hero code-named Barbalien has the real name Mark Markz, there's been a Barbaliteen, and we've seen that everyone on Mars is named something like Guy Guyz, because that is totally a reasonable cultural thing - so I'm complaining pointlessly here. But I do want it noted: the Martian names are all deeply silly.

<clears throat> Boa Boaz, Barbounty Hunter

I am not joking. That is the actual on-panel name of the main antagonist in a book that wants to be a serious, sensitive look at homophobia, the early AIDS years, coming out, repressive policing, and, oh yeah, a whole lot of superhero punching, too. Even when it's mostly being smart and adult, the Black Hammer stories just can't avoid tripping over their own feet with the silly superhero-universe stuff.

So this is Barbalien: Red Planet. (It's also not about Mars more than glancingly - a title connecting red to blood or referencing rainbow flags or even, given the era, "silence = death," would have been much better.) It was scripted by Tate Brombal from a story by Lemire and Brombal, drawn by Gabriel Hernandez Walta, and colored by Jordie Bellaire.

We have a frame story that turns out to be just from a later part of the main story, so I'll avoid any spoilers. This is a Barbalien solo story; the other Black Hammer-ites do not appear, and are only mentioned once or twice. It's set in 1986, in Spiral City, which I suppose means we're getting more datapoints to tell us exactly when the not-Crisis was, if we care. (This is pre-not-Crisis, for anyone taking notes.)

As we know from earlier Black Hammer stories (here's a link to what I've written about the series), Mark/Barbalien is gay, and was exiled from Mars partially for that. (Also partially because his father was the previous King and his uncle took over in a violent coup when he was a child: superhero stories are overdetermined down to their fingernails.) Mars is super homophobic, even more so than the cop culture in Spiral City, which is already pretty homophobic. But the cops are mostly just doing their jobs when they raid gay clubs and break up protests - we don't see them actively bashing gay men, as some groups of cops actually did in the day - and Mark's partner seems to be OK with his being gay as long as Mark stops making passes at that straight partner and never talks about it ever again. (So, yes: solidly homophobic, definitely. But not as horrible as one might expect from a Message Story set in the '80s.)

I may not have mentioned that Mark is a cop: he's a cop. This is because he's a Martian Manhunter rip-off, and being gay is just about the only new thing the rip-off brought. (Or maybe J'onn is gay? I don't really know if his sexuality has ever been a thing in the comics.) Mark starts out, as in the cliché, as a Good Cop, but learns things about this cop culture, and about wider social homophobia, as the book goes on and he actually meets other gay men.

Anyway, this is the story about how Mark comes out, discovers gay culture, learns that the AIDS crisis is happening, and does something about it. Also how the aforementioned "Barbounty Hunter" flies over from Mars to beat him up and take him back to be punished for being gay, in case the subtext got too subtle for any of you in the back.

Mark finds a gay club, then (sort-of) a boyfriend, meets the superpowered doctor who treats AIDS patients, and is involved in several major protests, sometimes in police uniform, sometimes in flannel as "Luke" (his new identity as a gay man), and sometimes as the red flying shirtless Barbalien. (Luckily, he can shapeshift - because Martian Manhunter can! - so all of those clothes are actually part of his body and he can swap from one to another pretty much instantly.)

He also fights Boa Boaz a few times, has a dramatic turning-in-his-badge moment, and an even more dramatic sad ending. All of the events are believable, within this fictional context, and they make a solid story.

Red Planet means well. It's mostly thoughtful and reasonable, honest about what the world was like and what gay men faced in 1986. There's no super-science cure for AIDS or anything like that; we see sick and dying patients, and know, if we didn't before, that it was a death sentence in those days.

But it's also a superhero book, which means the solution to most of the immediate problems is "Barbalien punches it until it stops." That sits uneasily with the AIDS material, since that cannot be punched. There's a bit of implied politics - Mark learns some things from his new boyfriend and other gay men - but it's mostly abstracted. And the cops are simultaneously not as horrible as they could be, to justify Mark walking away, and not as reformable as they could be, to give him any other choice.

I guess I'm saying that Red Planet is a book about problems that require collective action by the masses, and solves them by having one guy punch things. It's a palmed card - Brombal tries to square the circle of activism and superheroing -  but I noticed it. It means well, and it does pretty well, but some flaws are baked in too deeply to be worked around.

No comments:

Post a Comment