MISC/HIGH CONCEPT 9: Mini Essay: Mars and the Dark Age of Superheroes

Saxon Brenton saxonbrenton at hotmail.com
Wed May 26 08:33:27 PDT 2010

[MISC/HIGH CONCEPT 9] Mini Essay: Mars and the Dark Age of Superheroes
     So.  How *would* Mars, god of war (or Ares, to use his ancient Greek 
name) cause the Dark Age of superhero comics?
     I'm not sure exactly when I came to the realisation that the Dark 
Age would be a perfect plot for Ares.  Possibly the notion gelled when 
I purchased and read _GURPS Mars_ when it was published back in 2002...  
     Actually, 'plot' isn't quite the correct word in this context.  In 
this scenario Ares would indeed be knowingly and deliberately causing 
superheroes to become nineties style grim'n'gritty antiheroes.  However 
'plot' implies a once-off scheme that would be thwartable, whereas what 
I'm talking about is a longer term - but possibly/hopefully cyclic - 
social movement among the superhumans.
     Anyway, in the aforementioned _GURPS Mars_, in the section on 
'Mystic Mars' in chapter 3, there's a meta-concept about a hypothetical 
'Mars entity' whose attributes would be an average of the various 
polytheistic gods associated with the planet: aggressive masculinity, 
heat, blood and warfare, etc.  It also mentions the possibility of 
travellers to Mars being affected by this being and becoming infected 
with 'Martian souls' and acting in a 'Mars like manner'.  Now, this is a 
story seed that could be used for almost any genre of fantastic fiction, 
but my particular love has always been four-colour superheroes.  How 
would this play out for superheroes?
     That depends.  In a supervillainous plot, then the god would 
obviously coerce, corrupt or possess superheroes in a way that would be 
easily detectable (for those to whom it occurs to look) and reversible.  
As the instigator of the antihero movement it would require more subtly 
- which may or may not be within his wherewithal.  To recap our Greek and 
Roman mythology: traditionally Ares is depicted as a violent, capricious 
and rather cowardly and stupid god who wasn't very popular.  Athena, 
goddess of wisdom, was a better go-to as war god, since her first 
instinct is for peaceful resolutions to disputes and when she is forced 
into battle is usually victorious because of her tactical skills.  As 
the Roman Mars he had a better reputation, since he started out as an 
agriculture god who was called on to guard the fields, and only later 
became identified with Ares and Ares' violent buffoonery.
     However, what I'm thinking of is the depiction of Ares in George 
Perez's post-Crisis reboot of the _Wonder Woman_ series from the late 
1980s.  The first major story arc involved Ares growing in power and 
influence as he manipulated the late Cold War era nations towards war.  
Wonder Woman's greatest triumph over him was not the thwarting of his 
plans to prod the United States and Soviet Union into war, but to make 
him recognise that a MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) conflict would 
kill the population of the Earth, leaving him utterly alone as the sole 
god ruling over a dead world, and thereby prompting him to back down from 
his plans.  Which begs the question: are gods capable of learning, 
changing and growing?
     Again, that depends.  Metatextually, if you find an appropriate 
rationalisation then you can write a character any way you want.  And 
over the years there have been various ways that gods have been written.  
Anywhere ranging from individuals capable of personal growth through to 
being extremes of anthropomorphic personification who literally cannot 
see the world except through the paradigm of their portfolio.  We can 
take our pick.  (In passing I will make the observation that a lot of 
modern literature that tells stories *about* gods, cosmic entities or 
similar personifications (rather than featuring them as supporting 
characters) like to treat them as individuals with strong limits.  I 
suspect that exploring the limits of a cosmic entity appeals because it 
is an exotic variation on the story engine of 'man versus self'.)
     But I'm wandering away from my primary thesis, again.  Let's say 
that one day Ares takes it into his head to foster a culture of super-
human warriors much like the one that mythology tells us existed in the 
days of ancient Greece.  Remember, the 'heroes' at that time were mighty 
warriors who went out and did epic deeds without necessarily being 
champions of justice.
     Ah yes, *now* you can see how it all begins to fit together.
     In any case, the whys and wherefores are mere details after that; 
important for how the story unfolds, but secondary to the high concept.  
Is it the case that in this continuity that Ares' actions parallel those 
of many superhero histories, which has been to instigate localised and 
one-off schemes of violence that have been thwarted by heroes and earned 
him the reputation of supervillain?  Then perhaps the idea - or rather, 
postmodern superhero cliche - that 'the superheroes always win' has 
occurred to him.  It's unlikely that a braggart such as Ares would simply 
revise his actions to pass unnoticed by the superheroes - while he can 
be a coward he wouldn't see himself as such, and in any case it can again 
be argued the subtly needed to hide his actions is more typical of Athena
 than of himself.  It is not within the conventional characterisation of 
Ares' ego  to *hide* his plans from the superheores; he's far more likely 
to try to *use* the superheroes as efficient tools.
    Then again, perhaps in this particular continuity Ares has never been 
in the position of having his designs thwarted as a mere supervillainous 
plot.  If so, then perhaps his worldview is limited by his divinity to the 
extent that he honestly cannot comprehend a heroic culture that does not 
involve adventuring and slaying one's enemies, and he's simply setting the 
world to rights as he sees it.  Remember, mercy and forbearance in pursuit 
of just combat are Athena's attributes.
    Maybe Ares didn't instigate the Dark Age, but has taken advantage of 
it and encouraged it once he became aware of it.  He may have noticed an 
increase in his power once a small but significant number of antiheroes 
had reached a threshold level, and decided to take use it as an additional 
theurgic power source.  He may decide to adopt 'superheroes' as another 
divine concept and then try and mould it into his image - which could be 
a catastrophic mistake on his part if the cyclic nature of superheroic 
culture eventually causes the number of antiheroes to drop and leaves him 
powerless.  Or worse, starting to transform him into a champion of justice 
against his will, which is something that would weaken him even more 
because that's a concept that Athena already has a lock on.  
    Or then again, what if there's an enormous threat approaching, and 
then only way that the heroes will be able to save the Earth is if he 
toughens them up to be ruthless warriors.
    Which brings us to the plot in brief: On an expedition/mission to Mars 
one of the superheroes is transformed and given an aggressive Martian soul.  
He (and it will probably be a he; once again, the subtly of hiding his 
machinations in a woman, who would nominally be under the jurisdiction of 
Aphrodite/Venus, is probably beyond Ares) might be quickly transformed 
when he find himself separated from the others and zapped with a mind-
bending energy blast, or perhaps experiences a more drawn out life-
changing experience when a threat rears its head and he has to choose 
between making the effort of traditional superhero methods on the one 
hand and a quick and easy solution on the other.  Thereafter he acts as 
a catalyst, both by example set by his deeds and by his mere presence, 
for the initiating the antihero trend and starting the Dark Age.  Bad 
things happen.  For more readable examples look to the _Kingdom Come_ 
miniseries from DC or the more recent _Astro City Dark Ages_ mini.
     All of these things have been sloshing around in my head since I 
posted the theme for the 9th High Concept Challenge.  I toyed with 
writing such a story.  Unfortunately, there's a problem.  A rather 
obvious problem.  Can you see it?  Yes, well spotted.  I order to write 
a story about how Ares caused the Dark Age of superheroes, I'd have to 
write a story that involved the Dark Age of superheroes.  And even in 
the short time frame allowed for the High Concept Challenge, I'm not 
particularly motivated to write a story like that.
     For 'fun' story ideas there were a couple of variant notions that 
I brainstormed for the 'maybe's section above - but didn't include for 
reasons of either space or narrative flow of what I was writing.  The 
'Ares transformed' option has a basis in something I've read on the 
In Nomine RPG mailing list, about the original god Mars being killed 
and his replacement being the embodiment of modern ideals of science 
fiction about and space exploration to the red planet.  I still find 
this paragraph by Moe Lane to be lovely: "He is Barsoom.  He is Doorsha.  
He is Northwest Smith.  He is both John Carters.  He is the tragically 
doomed race of the Martian Chronicles.  He is Valentine Michael Smith 
and Poykane.  The face that some have seen in the sands is his face.  
He knows every eddy and every wave of the canals that never graced the 
Red Planet, and has sipped imaginary wine in Helium's nonexistent towers."
     And if something like that 'just happening' strikes you as unlikely, 
then there's always the Athena ruler of Olympus option.  Remember Greg 
Rucka's run on _Wonder Woman_ where Athena claimed the throne of Olympus 
(now reversed, apparently by Editorial decree)?  Remember Athena's 
defacto assumption of the position (despite Hera's objections) in Greg 
Pak's _Hercules_?  So, Athena is now the Parazeus ("beyond Zeus"), the 
next leader of Olympus, and decides to... re-engineer... her brother to 
take up the role of 'heroic endeavour' that she no longer has the time 
to deal with herself.  Leaders, even 'good' leaders, must occasionally 
make ruthless decisions, yes?
Saxon Brenton
saxon.brenton at uts.edu.au     saxonbrenton at hotmail.com
Daleks not only don't have noses, they don't a sense of humour.  So if 
you trap one in a Monthy Python skit they will predictably self-destruct 
in confusion and fear.
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