SEPTEMBER 21, 2016
“HOW DO PEOPLE SETTLE for mediocrity? Time for retribution,” Venus tells us, lurking around a watering hole in a post-apocalyptic Hollywood, clad in fingerless gloves, torn black pants, and combat boots. This may as well be Downtown in the 1990s given the comic’s images — swaths of ashy makeup, desolate alleyways, a bar packed with patrons fleeing the open-air insane asylum outside. If people are in the streets out there, they’re hard to see except for red eyes glowing at knee-height, driven to the ground, mad or desperate for one more fix of the drug V-1. (More on that in a moment.) Sure, it’s the end of the world, but Downtown’s egalitarianism still happens at the bar stool, where everyone rises from their knees to tell their story at the slab. Inside is brimming with people. Are they at Al’s? Cole’s? King Eddy? Eating the free chili? I expected to see one of Skid Row’s tumbleweeds roll by on these pages, but Venus’s parched warpath will do. She knocks back men’s drinks, and they admire her feisty spirit, seeing in it a totem of a better world to break when they rape her later. But really, they’d be smart to heed their first impressions. They’d do best to consider that even before the world fell, Venus may have had nothing left to lose.
Welcome to the world’s end Los Angeles of Heroes Haven, a serialized graphic novel by author, director, and producer Mario Simone. Heroes Haven drops us into the end of human civilization, an event wrought by the battle for dominance fought among the men who control nations. The project’s unique spin on the post-apocalyptic genre involves its fictional US government’s plan to attain global supremacy not through military spending or gains on Wall Street, but rather in the laboratory. Specifically, scientists have identified a DNA strand that can, in the comic’s most important word, “awaken” superhuman potential in human beings. The government finances an underground facility where the best biotech scientists work to figure out exactly how to enliven and stabilize this strand. This secret site, called Heroes Haven, develops a drug called V-1 that, when injected into human beings, rouses their dormant superhero DNA.
There follows an epic battle between the good guys and the bad guys over V-1, the former hoping to evolve the human race for peace, the latter wanting to awaken people’s DNA to gain an advantage in the battle for dominance. Of course, becoming a stronger person isn’t easy: V-1 can facilitate the discovery of people’s unique abilities, but a recipient might go crazy in the process or come out on the other side addicted to the chemical. What good is a potential for greatness if some people can’t handle the process of awakening itself? And what use is a superhero who has awakened DNA if he’s traumatized, wasted, or beholden to those who want him to use his gift for destruction rather than salvation? Maybe I should mention a “she,” as Heroes Haven’s story of good guys versus bad guys is accompanied by another — this one about a traumatized woman who uses her awakened DNA to enact personal revenge, with no interest in choosing sides.
Our main character is the awakened Harold — that’s “Harold PhD” according to the nametag he wears in the underground lab. He’s a biotech scientist who was raised in Heroes Haven with his best friend, Hadrian. He’s also one of the elect, having emerged intact from the traumatic experience of being injected with V-1, while others — primarily criminals forced to serve as test subjects — descended into insanity and addiction. The question looms: what makes someone able to survive this world, even thrive in it? We find Harold meditating on rooftops, training a colleague in scenes reminiscent of kung fu movies, and peacefully prodding awakened others to rise to the occasion of saving the world. From the first page of the graphic novel we notice two things about its hero: his ability to maintain a wispy calm amid various maelstroms, and the fact that he’s a dead ringer for Mario Simone, whose headshots and bios feature prominently in the publicity materials for Heroes Haven. The cover of the digital version shows character Harold looking strikingly like author Simone, bleached, sunned tendrils of surfer hair standing out against an olive face, startling amber eyes looking directly at readers while a devoutly serious mouth emerges from a totally mellow traveler’s stubble. Simone’s Amazon page tells us of his own awakening, trekking from “the Himalayas through India and Italy, where he slept in dilapidated Churches and wrote poetry in attics where famous artists like Michelangelo sculpted.” His tour ended grandly, when he “sealed his fate by running with the bulls in Pamplona, vowing that if he can survive this, making movies should be a walk through the park.” Harold is the book’s beautiful hero, drawn as Simone with a sprinkle of Dream from Gaiman’s Sandman, a moody cloak of hair curled up like a Hokusai wave.
While considering the comic’s rendering of Harold as a composite of Simone and Dream, my mind drifted to the portraiture used in historical autobiography to inspire noble pursuits in readers. There is an idealized authenticity and expertise promised in this kind of representation of an author who has survived devastating displacement and trauma. Consider the cover of Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting Narrative, where the author sits with his Bible open to Acts. Readers know Simone intentionally seeks to draw a parallel between his own fantastic travels and the looming death that shadows his characters. Robert Wirsing, in a story about Simone for the Bronx Times, writes, “Wishing not to divulge too much, he hopes [the book] inspires people to ‘awaken their inner hero,’ a mantra expressed in the series.” In the image of Harold as Simone, the character’s scrunched ocher eyes express a determination to impress upon readers that they too can be a part of the grand plan. Of course we might object that it matters whether that plan is about making a worthy life when faced with subjugation, or making a career in the industry when faced with competition. For what it’s worth, female authors don’t get the same shake in idealized portraiture. The various editions of Harriet Jacobs’s narrative feature Phillis Wheatley or unknown women on their covers, while editions of Margery Kempe’s Book of Margery Kempe often feature Julian of Norwich or similarly unknown women.
That brings us to Venus, who adorns the cover of the print version of issues one through six of Heroes Haven. Venus is our other awakened guide, the blistering daughter of end times who’s “feisty,” according to the men in the bar, the possessor of a capital-R Rep for turning her sorrows into action. Venus doesn’t have a real-life person readers can point to as her model (that we know of anyway), but her character’s origin story is important, and detailed meaningfully in the comic. Sure, Venus is gutsy, but no more so than her mother Starletta, the martyr who committed suicide after giving birth to Venus. Starletta killed herself to prevent the bad guys from accessing the superhuman ability awakened in her DNA: prescience. When Starletta dies in her birthing bed, Venus’s father Smith grabs his daughter and the pair runs. As with Harold, something about Venus’s family’s DNA enables them to take the V-1 booster shot without falling into insanity or addiction. The bad guys want to know why, which is the reason they show up to abduct Venus and Starletta in the first place. But the family’s relative immunity to V-1’s ill effects doesn’t mean that they don’t have the same issues that have burdened families since the dawn of time, and which apparently persist after the fall of civilization. Let’s be honest — even the coolest attributes handed down from our parents can feel like a burden, which is one of the reasons why Venus doesn’t care about continuing her parents’ good works. Instead, she is focused on articulating her own testimonial of revenge.
Venus has a lot to requite. While at school one day, years after Starletta’s death and still always under the watchful eyes of goons for the bad side, Venus plays with her favorite classmate. Unfortunately, her superhuman strength isn’t suited for childlike rambunctiousness, and she breaks his body. With the weight of this first kill upon her, she awakens her DNA’s power to heal, returning her playmate to the living. The risen boy identifies Venus as a hero, but no one cares. She’s surrounded by whispers of “witch,” “devil worshipper,” and “evil,” and she runs because, well, what can you do? Even the goons who watch over Venus from behind a tree proclaim, like a Greek chorus, “they will condemn her for it.” They scoop Venus into their arms and take her to Heroes Haven for testing, telling themselves and readers that with a girl like this running around, “it’s for the good of humanity.”
Smith, meanwhile, shows up to collect his daughter, and when he learns that she is missing he is too broken to pursue. This superhero, stronger than any man that’ll try to take him on, falls to his knees and stays there for years. Even knowing that on his feet he could have a better vantage, even knowing that his daughter needs him, Smith fails her. As his name implies, he is the everyman unable to grasp his ability to act. The hardest thing about love, readers see, is that the men who intend a little girl harm have more agency to protect her than the man who loves her the most. This is one of the comic’s most devastating moments.
It’s interesting to speculate about what directions Simone’s ongoing series will take in the future. If given a choice between which narrative the comic will focus on, that of Harold the savior or that of Venus the warrior, I choose Venus. Perhaps Simone is torn as to the direction of the series, too — hence the multiple covers featuring both Harold and Venus. In the collected edition’s image featuring her in an alleyway, Venus is unmistakably our L.A. saint, infusing her Hollywood-that-is-really-Downtown with a sacred, 1990s goth aura. Venus never asked for her powers to kill and revive, and she certainly never gave permission for them to be the one important part of her body. Still, everyone around her believes that her powers derive from and represent more than a good chemical reaction to V-1. Either she’s fated to be the daughter of the apocalypse or the one who will save everyone from the bad guys. All men want her for their own plans, from the rapists in the bar to enlightened masters and warmongers.
But what does Venus want? She seems to want to write the story of her own righteous vengeance, striking down each person who played a part in making her without her permission. She might have to kill everyone in Los Angeles in order to achieve this goal. I’m with Venus. She understands the difference between the correct path and the truest. She has her own testimonial to guide her. For Venus, and for Los Angeles’s women, retribution is a far more stylish pursuit than helping the men who’ve ruined so much.
As for the series’s villains, the fact that they’re so mutely fictive makes their ability to do harm both frightening and a little laughable. It’s too easy to point out Hadrian — the muscular black dude with a devious smile and long cornrows who is always surrounded by benevolent white people or dark, homogeneous goons — as the sort of thuggish stereotype that harpoons Simone’s authority to be our teacher in awakening. While we get a full backstory for all our white heroes, we learn about Hadrian only in relation to blond Harold, the pair having started out as “yin and yang” biotech school buddies who wanted to nudge along human growth with some good ol’ DNA tickling. Hadrian was raised with Harold at the Heroes Haven Institute from childhood and is as good as his buddy until one day jealousy imprisons him in evil. He spies Harold walking with the busty Jezabella — whom I refer to in my mind as Dr. Boobs, to distinguish her from other characters I think of as Kid Boobs, Nurse Boobs, and Oracle Boobs — and becomes consumed by a desire to create a zombie army that (fingers crossed!) will help him eliminate weakness from the human race. This plan is a little short on particulars, especially since given Hadrian’s own story it seems unlikely that he can eliminate weakness without also eliminating, well, boobs. His quest for annihilation, which could be fabulous, falls flat because Hadrian is such a stereotype. And it goes without saying that the comic’s ubiquitous breasts and low-cut tops do a disservice to the women characters of Heroes Haven — not to mention its women readers.
That women readers devour memoir in a culture whose fiction provides them so many tangential representations of their value isn’t mind-boggling. But the twist is that while Heroes Haven is obviously fiction, the comic reads — as I have suggested — like a hopeful autobiography detailing how Simone imagines himself performing in situations demanding action. That is to say, the comic’s magical science and resurrected death row inmates are clearly fictional, but Simone’s sense of how he’s evolved through his travels and what he’s overcome in his pursuit of a career in Hollywood resonates through Heroes Haven. This need not necessarily have been a problem for the comic. No matter what critics repeat about navel-gazing, the undeniable power of good memoir lies in an author surviving the insanity thrust upon him or her and turning that survival into an aesthetic. All authors would do well to respect the power inherent in autobiographical testimonial. Unfortunately, however, Simone’s autobiographical impulses end up limiting his story’s scope rather than expanding it.
It’s thus not in Simone’s intimations of autobiography where we find the strongest moments of Heroes Haven, but rather in the beautifully rendered visual moments that hint at what it would look like for Venus to provide her own autobiographical testimonial. Sure, some of the fun of looking at Heroes Haven lies in the way the comic allows us to reminisce about various cultural touchstones, incorporating shout-outs to Sandman, Froud and Lee’s Faeries, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, even, wait, is that Howard Stern as a street urchin? But the most compelling moments of the book arise when the images take familiar comic tropes and make them illuminate a whole new world. While flipping through the comic over and over, first at the Escondite, then at James’ Beach bar in LAX, I found myself repeatedly drawn to the black lines and colorful splotches rather than the plot: a confused tilt of a goon’s chin after blood and teeth spray out of his mouth; the cat-paw patter of primary colors around the eyes of women who have awakened their DNA; a knife’s jaunty glean in the teeth of a daughter who doesn’t yet know she’s the key to humanity’s destruction, or salvation.
One image in particular of a young Venus and her father presents me with the kind of lucid mirror one hopes for in memoir, and makes me excited about the possibility of Venus telling her story. In washes of revolting, cold blues suggestive of the best one can hope for from a bathroom after a hangover, Venus the daughter lovingly handles her knife by Daddy’s face. Together the three constitute a page-sized tableau of how the most mediocre love — cast by DNA alone — has an unsettling surety that can’t help but arrive at revenge. Love is important, and you know this because you are a savage.
The world is full of Smiths: beautiful, big men whose potential power seems superhuman to the rest of us, yet who remain unable to achieve their goals and eventually slink into self-destruction. Smith’s promise to his daughter never had a chance. I don’t know, maybe it shouldn’t have. In fiction and perhaps in the real world, heroines need men to fail them in order to not fail themselves. Another way to say this is that people with power are failures over and over, even when you need them to not fail you. The more your Smith loves you, the more ruthless his failure becomes. Maybe for women readers there’s a particular sting associated with men loving, then failing us. Perhaps it’s something we carry in our DNA, the world’s insanity thrust upon us with the requirement that we render it aesthetic for our own testimonials. “How do people settle for mediocrity? Time for retribution,” Venus tells us. I hear what she is saying. Heroes Haven will do good work if it becomes her story.
Of course, maybe I just feel this way because I’m a woman who was raised in the L.A. basin by a survivalist father who believed in the imminent end times, and I had many occasions to hold knives by his loving, failing face. Maybe it’s because my father relished my splinters, fishhooks, and motorcycle burns as opportunities to practice being the end-of-the-world’s at-home doctor to his wound of a daughter, hoping she would survive the end or at least go out fighting. Maybe it’s because Smith is an L.A. drunk, like my father, and loves in the way addicts love — intensely, with both debilitating shame and isolated dedication. I love the character Venus as much as I love my worst memories of barreling down Decker Canyon to the PCH on the back of a motorcycle while my drunk father told me to lean into the bike, the canyon, the end down there. So I’m invested in what this broken family does with their awakened DNA. I want to see Smith and Venus reunite. I want him to stand and find her not so I can witness his recovery, but so I can learn what she has to say to him.
Or maybe my investment isn’t that particular, as one of the strengths of Heroes Haven, just as with good memoir, is unobtrusively presenting the horrors of being included in some family, whether that family is genetic or the women of end-times Los Angeles.
Heroes Haven has a future if Venus has a future. Apocalyptic fiction has a future if women characters can rise out of mediocrity. Right now, Los Angeles is in the hands of women I know and don’t know, who have survived after being raised by druggies and cons not unlike the junkies high on V-1, have watched loved ones get locked up and die, have seen their friends disappear or go off the grid, have been told over and over that it’s a man’s word against hers — women brutalized into thinking the world must be ending, because this, this can’t be happening again. The women I know experienced awakening as a response to being victimized and tortured, had to innovate paths back to their gifts. They aren’t special for being orphans, and no one sympathizes with them in particular for being raped. The women I grew up with in Los Angeles surpassed their own erasure and awakened into radically personal ambition. Their ruthless appeal hasn’t even been attempted by Hollywood. This doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t try. The best art, like the best Smiths I ever met, can fail and still have a chance for redemption. Even Simone, who seems to have intended Harold to be our guide in Heroes Haven, chose Venus to adorn the printed copy of his series. Why? He says, “My favorite character is Venus because of her traumatic experience […] She focuses all of her energy on vengeance when her true power comes from forgiveness since she is a healer.” The truth is that even people who want nothing to do with women’s traumatic experiences want their healing powers all the same.
My story is one of simple luck: while my mother is a homeless addict, I live in an apartment downtown because a woman looked out for me. My life changed because a woman chose to believe in me and didn’t want anything in return besides what I was already seeking in destitution: my own voice, my own justice. Los Angeles’s women deserve a character like Venus turning away from the end of the world to take care of her own ambitions, her own L.A. story. Venus isn’t responsible for the way the world ended. At the edge of its failure, why not live her final days doing what she wants, not what the world wants her to do? I can see her now, slinking a shit-covered boot around the corner from Los Angeles Street into King Eddy. Tonight she won’t be anyone’s favorite girl. The time for mediocrity is over. In Los Angeles, it’s the time for savage women.
Sarah Heston has published creative nonfiction in The Iowa Review, Entropy, American Literary Review, and Hotel Amerika, and criticism in Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies. A selection from her memoir manuscript Daughter of Endtimes was runner-up for the Iowa Review 2016 Award for Nonfiction.