Falling Off the Whiz Wagon: ‘All-Star Section Eight’s’ Journey Through Addiction
This may come as a theory that’s out of left field a little, but I don’t think Garth Ennis takes superheroes very seriously.
From clowning on superheroes in the Marvel Knights version of The Punisher to taking aim at the companies that own and make them in The Boys, Ennis has a long history of poking at the many seams in the genre. But he can be surprisingly affectionate when he wants to be, and nowhere did these tendencies both coexist more than Hitman with John McCrea, one of his many long-form comics opuses, starring a bunch of hired assassins living in the underbelly of the DC universe.
Hitman ended, and ended definitively, for almost all of its characters --- including the collection of heroes called Section 8, who would have to sweat for a lifetime to reach the lofty heights of the Z-list. So I held off on buying All-Star Section 8 --- written by Ennis, drawn by McCrea, with colors by John Kalisz, letters by Pat Brosseau and covers by Amanda Conner and Paul Mounts --- because I didn’t feel the need to revisit it.
But eventually I did, and I was not expecting what I got: affection wrapped in sheer nihilism, a pointed critique from a very unexpected angle on how the Big Two superhero universes work, and nothing less than Ennis and McCrea’s own Flex Mentallo.
ASS8 (that acronym has to be intentional) opens at a gallery showing, with one Sidney Speck in attendance --- Sidney being the recovered alcoholic that was hinted at being a reborn Sixpack in Hitman. Sidney drinks alcohol by mistake, falls off the wagon, and suddenly Sixpack is back in Noonan’s sleazy bar, convinced that he has to reassemble a new Section 8 and fight a terrible threat that he can’t actually articulate.
The first few issues are the expected “oh, dear, oh no” humor and skewering of superheroes you kind of have to expect from Ennis & McCrea, but even from the beginning, everything is a little off. There’s a sequence where Batman haggles over a parking ticket that homages many classic Batman artists…
… and I swear that this panel 100% makes sense in context. There’s a jousting competition between a sweaty pervert and an intestinal parasite living in a sentient digestive system. There’s a sequence where Wonder Woman takes a blow to the head and is suddenly very enthusiastic about being on Sixpack’s team. There’s Green Lantern, the Martian Manhunter, and the mystery of the curse of Dogwelder, the welder who welds dogs to people. (It's a one joke character, but what a joke.)
But all throughout, Sixpack is disoriented --- moreso than usual --- because he keeps hearing voices telling him that he needs to stop. He suddenly feels symptoms of hypothermia --- sickly warm, then freezing cold. He visits Limbo, aided by a beatboxing Phantom Stranger --- and it is very much Limbo in the tradition of Grant Morrison, Chas Truog and Doug Hazlewood’s Animal Man, the place you go where comics has no use for you anymore. And it’s not the only direct callback to that series…
Something is very, very wrong, and Sixpack discovers what it is: a drug-addled man named Sidney, passed out and freezing to death in an alleyway, much like the narrator in Flex Mentallo.
Sixpack realizes the man dying in the alleyway is him, and he relates to Superman --- who Ennis writes as pitch-perfectly as ever --- all of his doubts and fears, both within the DC universe and outside of it. Superman then says that it’s possible that the universe exists because Sixpack has dreamed it into being, and they all owe their lives to him.
The easy read is that for Sixpack, superheroism is an addiction --- and it was usually portrayed as such in Hitman. But here, the critique is deeper, and far more damning: that a superhero universe feeds on addiction.
Addiction --- specifically, behavioral addiction --- is a cyclic behavior that rewards itself and reinforces its own use, to the point where it causes harm in the person’s life. Among comics critics, the comparison’s been made many times between the nature of the weekly comics shop reader and an addict --- or between addiction and the behavior of companies telling the same stories, marketed with the same techniques, to the same customers, and getting the same results. It’s not a one-to-one comparison, and it's slightly offensive if taken as such --- it’s a lot harder to kick a drug habit than it is to just stop buying comics.
But superhero comics absolutely are cyclical, and if they don’t have readers who regularly come back every week, then they cease to actually work. Whether or not those readers are happy seems to be increasingly irrelevant. We’ve all met those fans, those fans that buy a pile of comics every week and are mad about easily half of them, but they have to keep up on their stories, so they stick with it.
Sixpack is one of those fans. If he escapes the cycle, the world ends, because superhero comics need him. And that’s why the final scene with Superman is what it is.
As soon as I saw it, I howled, because it’s a perfect Life-Affirming Moment with Your Pal, Superman, but with that sentimentality wreathed in nihilism as pitch-black as the vacuum of space. Superman did it! He saved the world and taught Sixpack to believe again, because that’s what Superman does! Clap your hands if you believe in superheroes!
But in order to save the world that Superman lives in, and where all of his weekly adventures take place, Sidney has to stay addicted. He can't get back on the wagon. (The Whiz Wagon in this case, and if this comic has any fault, it's this: how the hell did Ennis and McCrea miss that joke?) The story has to go on, even if it ended as definitively as Hitman did --- since even outside of this miniseries revival, not even that is staying buried.
Anything that we enjoy can turn toxic on us, even as we keep enjoying doing it --- or even if we don’t enjoy it but we feel obligated to stick it out because we remember enjoying it once. It could be alcohol or video games, comic books, superheroics, or even the simplest pleasure in life: welding dogs to people.
And when it turns toxic, it can hurt us and those close to us, and make us smile all the way through it.
The last page is Sidney in the alleyway, content, as Superman’s cape is wrapped around him --- and as long as he’s wrapped in the warmth of superheroes, nothing can hurt him. But being wrapped in that cape is the same as being entrapped by it. He doesn’t have to leave that alleyway, he doesn’t want to leave it, and even if he wants to, he can’t. Salvation and joy turns itself into a trap.
What All-Star Section Eight does is use its own premise --- a revival of a series that ended --- and turn it into a dagger aimed at the notion that a story doesn’t have to end. It deconstructs itself and takes the whole universe it’s set in down with it. It asks us if we can really stop, and dares us to honestly answer. It’s the last thing I expected from a jokey revival of Hitman supporting characters --- but considering how profoundly affecting Hitman could be, it couldn’t be more at home.