In absent moments, most of us comics readers have asked ourselves what would happen if the story was told from the villain’s perspective. What does the antagonist of the story think they’re accomplishing? Why? Rafael Chandler has gone the next step and written the book that comes from that question. The Astonishing Antagonists is a great, if occasionally lumpy, read that will leave you unable to read comics the same way again.
Here’s your opening line:
“Motley wanted to break his bones like laws. She guzzled bitter coffee and daydreamed about violence.”
GawdDamn, I’m in. “Break his bones like laws” — that’s a metaphor for the ages. In the now-familiar, each-character-gets-their-own-POV-chapter format, Chandler builds up a team of supervillains that call themselves The Antagonists. They know the history of what they do will always belong to the Protagonist superheroes, but they are not going down easy.
There’s Motley, the Latina cat burglar who keeps a strong wall around her heart. Dr. Agon (yes, they all have supervillain cover names) is the Black evil genius who never finished high school but masterminds complicated plans and counterplans in his sleep. Dr. Agon brings with him Coltan, an Asian American recent college graduate/current intern at a tech company, who touches the wrong thing and is gifted with the ability to control metal. Oh. Yeah. The heavy hitter is Baelphegor, a white man who’s made a deal with the devil for all the right reasons and is now a Satan worshiping hellspawn who battles angels for fun. Lastly, there’s Helen Damnation, a blue telepathic alien with a translation problem and one golden rule: no civilian casualties. It is often said in the book, with appropriate irony, that Helen is the most human of them all.
For political and personal reasons pulled right from the headlines of modern day evil, these Antagonists are locked in a battle with the superheroes, all of whom are corrupt at a level that would make Saddam Hussein say “Wow, well done guys.” The superheroes cluster into cliques: The American Division stars Sacrament and Daisy Cutter, patriotic heroes who focus their attention on defeating the third-world enemies of America and propping up dictators. The Dazzling Diamonds are a family business staffed by Cube Girl, her sister Princess Diamond, Cube Girl’s husband Facet, and Lattice as their technical genius. They specialize in more covert actions, supporting corporations in exploitation and making sure that technical advances don’t trickle down to the masses. All of the heroes are miserable human beings, and that’s where the book has its biggest stumble.
While Chandler goes to great lengths to build his multicultural Axis of Evil and make them engaging and complicated characters, he doesn’t spend the time on the superheroes that would make them interesting as well. Instead, the superheroes are mainstream heroes with the serial numbers filed off and their personalities left behind. I’m sure that the fact that they are all white dudebros engaging in soap opera level infidelities and power games is supposed to be another level of the social critique in the novel, but really, it just made me want to skip over their chapters entirely and get back to this (Motley, on whether she wants to go in to Hell to get Baelphegor):
“Fuck that action. I’d rather fry bacon in the nude. I’d rather lick all the sneeze guards at a two-dollar buffet. I’d rather verify Rule 34 for everything in the world, one image search at a time.”
The superheroes being stereotypical in a boring way drags down the middle of the book, but once all of the plans are in place and start to spin, they spin right out of control and the book gets great again. The Antagonists are out to cripple all of the superhero squads and bring down their secret weapon, a space station called Stronghold. Doing so requires not only going into Hell, but also breaking all of their supervillain friends out the ultra-max-security prison they’re being held in. Reading all the new versions of old super powers as they fly free in the climax of the book was really fun.
The book definitely has a political lean about the systemic oppression of Black and Brown people around the world and the involvement of the U.S. government in that oppression. Chandler cuts that down into bite-sized chunks, giving each Antagonist his own unique “why” — strip mining in the Congo, death squads in Guatemala, illegal incarceration without trial — and making that feed into their ethics, goals, and sometimes, deaths. I appreciate a book that can bring some knowledge and insight to their plots while keeping the characters believable. It is hard to do, and this book does it well. It is never preachy, but you know the Antagonists are going to go all the way for what they believe in.
The book wraps up here:
“It wasn’t the having, it was the taking, like stealing moments of joy when life wasn’t looking: the glitter of a diamond plucked from a rich girl’s finger, the sweetness of someone else’s cake, the sunshine of a world stolen from heroes.”
While the Antagonists may have had some high-minded morals, they are people. They end by admitting that sometimes being bad feels good. And when the whole world is arrayed against you, that good feeling is all you have.
I completely recommend this book. I wish Chandler could get pictures done for each of the Antagonists so we could see them in all of their comic book glory. Comic book fans would get the biggest kick out of The Astonishing Antagonists, as they’ll be most familiar with the tropes that Chandler lampoons. There’s something entertaining in reading the script get flipped on the good guys, leaving the novel a world that is a little more chaotic, but also one where there are more possibilities for greatness, no matter which side of the Protagonist/Antagonist line you fall on.
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