Byzantine Reality

Searching for Byzantine failures in the world around us

The Road to Hell Is Paved With Good Intentions

I see the jackals waiting to pick at the carcass of my own legacy, which, like Amy’s illusions, I wanted to shape into something pleasant, but has quickly spoiled under the influence of my own darkness. – Magneto, issue #17 (written by Cullen Bunn)

Black Science, a currently ongoing series by Rick Remender, illustrates how the protagonist of a story can set out to go great things but become deeply corrupted along the way. Our hero, Grant McKay, is the head of the “Anarchist League of Scientists”, determined to save his universe and every other (dubbed the Eververse) with a device his team has created, known as the Pillar. It allows him to punch holes through reality and travel from one universe to the other. His goals are ambitious and noble: “to leave every reality better than they found it”. But the years it takes McKay and his team to build the Pillar exacts a heavy toll on McKay’s family. He starts pulling late hours at the office to get more work done, and as he becomes estranged from his family, he comes to resent them. This in turn causes him to spend more time at work and quickly spirals out of control, culminating in him starting an affair with fellow scientist Rebecca and completely isolating himself from his family. He pulls his kids back in once the Pillar is done to show off his hard work, only to find that it’s been sabotaged and now (seemingly) randomly jumps through time and space, bringing the League along as well as Grant’s kids.

We eventually see that the Pillar isn’t jumping randomly and every world they appear on has seen a different universe’s version of the Anarchist League’s presence on it. But common themes arise across many different realities the team visits: Grant ruins his family trying to create the Pillar to save everything, falls in love with Rebecca, gets his kids killed (sometimes the Pillar just explodes instead of teleporting the team), and so on. When we’re introduced to Grant McKay, he’s already been consumed by his self-righteous darkness for years, and only thanks to another scientist he’s mentored, Shawn, and his son, does he realize that he needs to do the right thing. He learns to stop compromising in the name of expediency and finally starts going down a harder path, to fulfill his goal of saving every world in the Eververse. Grant has only just begun down this path as of the latest issue that’s out (issue #15), but at least he’s on the right path right now, and his work is cut out for him.

A very different example of a hero’s darkness corrupting them is the X-Force, by the always amazing Si Spurrier. Like Black Science, our corrupt hero (here, Cable) is surrounded by his more-or-less supportive team, but very much unlike Black Science, X-Force is simply broken. They’re the rare case of in comics of an entire team of “heroes” being corrupted by the darkness inside of them, and continuing to infect one another with it. They have a noble goal: to keep mutantkind safe from the nations of the world. Mutants are a minority, and are endlessly discriminated against and targeted either explicitly or implicitly by nearly every government on the planet. So Cable puts it simply:

Blame gets laid. And our species fades out one sleazy cover-up, one denial of rights, one secret mass grave at a time. Mutant nation needs a dirty tricks crew. We’re it.

Cable has no qualms about the work they do, repeatedly stating that “Sometimes the ends justify the means, no matter the cost to your soul.” But for Psylocke, she’s not here to save the world. She’s broken and she’s in X-Force to try to feed the darkness inside of her in the most productive way possible:

I have no reason to be a part of X-Force and every reason to stay away. I try not to kill. I make vows. I count the days that I manage without spilling blood. I tell myself that if I do it, if I do take lives in the course of doing what’s right, then at least it means other people won’t have to. Like I’m, like I’m saving innocent souls. But that’s a lie. That’s lazy, guilt-dodging bollocks. The truth is this: I rejoined X-Force because I couldn’t bear to stay away.

This cuts to a scene where we see that Psylocke has brutally murdered fifty guards in a mutant rendition center. So at least Psylocke is honest with herself, unlike the rest of X-Force. She’s given in to her darkness and X-Force feeds her addiction better than anything else she’s tried. But she wants to believe the lie that she’s doing good things and making the world a better place. When Cable seeks to spy on everyone, including the innocent, to maybe find someone who’s guilty (with the usual line, “if you got nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear”), Psylocke stands up to him, telling him to “go back to being better than the bad guys”. As you would expect, Cable can’t – he’s just too broken.

Psylocke can at least admit that she’s broken; her teammate Fantomex quite literally cannot. Like Wolverine, Fantomex is a covert government experiment, but in his case, he’s programmed “not to believe in a higher power”. The naive interpretation of this is that he’s an atheist, but the deeper interpretation is that he thinks he is the best at absolutely everything. Spurrier’s run on Fantomex shows us something extremely obvious that nobody else has touched on with the character: obvious Fantomex cannot be the very best at everything, so how does he reconcile this contradiction? Since he’s broken as well, he “squares the circle” by setting out to kill everyone who is better than him at anything, resolving the contradiction.

This unexpected turn makes Fantomex the eventual villain of the series, and our heroes must band together to save the world from him. But it comes down to Cable’s daughter, Hope, to help our broken team and herself. And Psylocke knows that Hope is the only one that can do it:

Little Hope. Not as cold as her father. Not as shattered as Marrow. Not as groundless as Domino. Not as vile as me. She’s the best of us.

Hope has had her rough patches, but she’s not broken in the same way that the others are. She’s just too young to have sustained the same damage that the rest of X-Force has, and asks the team to come together and trust in one another this one time. She’s able to use her power-copying power to grab all their brokenness and make Fantomex feel as broken as they do, which is the one thing he cannot accept. It’s an amazing finish I won’t totally spoil the details of here, and is definitely worth the price of admission.

Wolverine: Old Man Logan, originally by Mark Millar and now part of the Secret Wars crossover by Brian Michael Bendis, pivots this theme in a different direction. Wolverine has historically struggled with his animalistic dark side, that prefers to kill to solve problems. And while Remender’s run with him in Uncanny X-Force taught us that killing may solve your problems in the short-term, and not in the long-term, Millar’s run makes us feel how hard it is to not kill when you’re Wolverine and you’re in his world. Wolverine is consumed by guilt from the deaths of his fellow X-Men by his hands, and feels it every day for over fifty years. The guilt comes to define him as he becomes a pacifist, bent on avoiding violence for his own sake and to be a better father/husband to his family.

Yet he cannot escape conflict in this post-apocalyptic future any more than he could in the past we knew him from, and even as he (mostly) adheres to his pacifistic ways, he returns from his journeys to find his family brutally murdered. At this point he completely gives into his feral rage to find some form of vengeance for the losses he has suffered. By the end of Millar’s run on Old Man Logan and the beginning of Bendis’ run (only the first issue is out as of this writing) that Logan is willing to brutally kill anyone and everyone he needs to in order to make his miserable world even a little bit brighter. And strangely enough, it is only when he accepts the darkness and anger inside of him that he is able to channel it into making the world a better place. He was in conflict with the darkness in himself while trying to accept the world; now, he has accepted himself and is in conflict with the darkness of the world.

It becomes a question of legacy. What d’you want to be remembered for? It’s more important than it sounds, and you can take that from someone who won’t be remembered at all. Super heroes? Oh, sure, call it a dumb dream if you like. Too simple. Too neat. But it’s a dream worth having, Hope. Then again, you spend any time round here and all you’ll see is the dream being torn to shreds. Matter of fact, I’ll go you one better. You ask me? It’s basically impossible to stay decent surrounded by all this #$%&. ‘Ends justify the means.’ ‘Lesser-of-two-evils.’ ‘Nothing to hide, nothing to fear.’ All those sick little excuses. So you self-damage and self-distract until you’re too exhausted to notice the monsters you’ve become. – Forget-Me-Not, in X-Force, issue #13