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Superhero Socialism: A History of Anarky (Part One)


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One of Batman’s secondary, but widely-studied and highly-controversial rogues is back in the pages of Detective Comics. The enigmatic Anarky made a surprise return in the final page of Detective Comics #957 and we’ve seen the character team with Spoiler in the Detective Comics #963 by James Tynion IV and Carmen Carnero. Despite being not nearly as big as Joker, Riddler, or Two-Face and having made way less appearances, there is a reason Anarky’s Wikipedia page just as long and sprawling. Created by Alan Grant and Norm Breyfogle in 1989, Anarky was a concept for a new era of comics and a character that has had (and continues to have) deep social impact far beyond the page. Let’s take a look at the complex history of Anarky.

Anarky Detective Comics 609

In 1989’s “Anarky in Gotham City” (Detective Comics #608-609), Grant and Breyfogle (with inks by Steve Mitchell and colors by Adrienne Roy) brought us a radical anti-hero ripe for the emerging new decade: the one and only Anarky, a politically-charged social justice warrior named Lonnie Machin, who enters the Gotham scene clad in a robe of scarlet, rocking the “circle A” symbol with a gold mask and eerily lanky body. When Batman finally meets the new villain face-to-face, he punches Anarky in the gut and it nearly kills him. Why? Because Anarky is only twelve-years-old! But don’t let his age deceive you. Grant created Anarky to be the voice of a voiceless generation—a child genius that holds radical anarchist philosophy (albeit teetering on the edge of libertarian socialism). Through this character, Grant hoped to address things in mainstream superhero comics not often touched upon—topics including anti-fascism, anti-militarism, anti-racism, systemic police corruption, social inequity, and the disparity of wealth in America. Anarky’s goal, upon the character’s debut, was the creation of a true welfare state (or city) and the total regulation/elimination of capitalist economy. In fact, many Anarky stories often amazingly make reference to anarchist philosophers and theorists—ranging from Proudhon and Bakunin to Max Nomad and James Joll. Lonnie even keeps a copy of V for Vendetta in his room!

Anarky Detective Comics 620

Anarky’s follow-up story was 1990’s “Rite of Passage” (Detective Comics #618-621), again by Grant and Breyfogle. In “Rite of Passage,” Tim Drake (not yet Robin) proudly foils an Anarky scheme that involves the teenage antifa trying his hand at anti-corporate computer fraud (as the hacker “Moneyspider”). The Moneyspider alias will be important down the road, but Anarky’s plot-line here is mostly overshadowed by Tim’s parents being kidnapped by The Obeah Man. Tim’s father is paralyzed while his mother is killed. Despite the Drake Family tragedy looming large, this arc is still notable for firmly setting specificity to the tone of Anarky’s politics as he preaches to his fellow prisoners in juvenile hall. It also cements him as a champion of the poor, something introduced in the previous arc. Through Grant’s words (via Anarky’s monologues), mainstream superhero comics were finally on the verge of having a hero (or anti-hero) that shared the values of the underprivileged, disenfranchised, and marginalized. Richie rich Bruce Wayne might fight for these folks, but he’s never been one of them or truly shared their values. It’s hard to say for certain if there is a direct connection to the rise of Anarky, but similar heroes would emerge in 1990’s DC via Dwayne McDuffie’s superb Afro-futurist Milestone line, which features working class Heroes of Color.

 

Interestingly, in the early 90s, since no one had filled the Boy Wonder void left behind by the death of Jason Todd, Grant and Breyfogle wanted Anarky to be the third Robin, petitioning the idea to DC higher-ups! Of course, that never happened as Marv Wolfman had already been given the duty of ushering in a new Robin and we got Tim Drake instead. Just imagine what could have been, though.

Anarky Robin Annual 1

Anarky returned for the 1992 DC Annual crossover arc “Eclipso: The Darkness Within”—specifically in Robin Annual #1. This issue, by Grant, John Wagner, Tom Lyle, and Scott Hanna, was a precursor for the future of Anarky, as he acts more like a hero than a villain, teaming with a rival closer to his own age: Tim Drake (now officially Robin). In this arc, Anarky escapes juvenile hall, demands that the mayor institute sweeping social change, and then uses mystical Eclipso diamonds on himself to become a super-powered being. When the diamonds turn a young girl into a vicious Eclipso Tyrannosaurus Rex, Robin and Anarky team-up to defeat her.

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Entering the mid 90s, Anarky’s next appearance was in the classic “Knightfall” arc, in which he quite memorably interacts with both Scarecrow and crazy new Batman, Jean-Paul Valley. In 1995’s The Batman Chronicles #1, Grant once again used his character to espouse leftist political ideas as Lonnie gives a scholarly lesson in anarchy to his fellow juvie hall mates. That same year Grant penned “Anarky” (Batman: Shadow of the Bat #40-41), which again further pushed Anarky into the status of possible hero. In this arc, Anarky teams-up with Batman, Robin, and private eye Joe Potato to stop the mad bomber Malochia. He earns the respect of the heroes by selflessly crashing Malochia’s “Dirigible of Doom” into Gotham Harbor, at great risk to his own life. In fact, the heroes and Lonnie’s family think that he has perished and even mourn his passing. The “Anarky” arc brilliantly highlighted the greatness of Anarky and showed what limitless potential the character had in those days. Grant even got to do an Anarky issue for The Batman Adventures series in 1995 as well.

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With popularity spiking, DC gave the green light for a coveted solo mini-series. Grant and Breyfogle once again joined forces to deliver “Metamorphosis” via four issues of Anarky in 1997. Sadly, Anarky’s unique status as a legit leftist social justice vigilante (a superhero socialist, if you will) drastically changed via this series. Lonnie’s belief system altered as Grant’s own personal beliefs changed from leftist radicalism (in the vein of socialism or anarchism) to Ayn Rand-influenced neo-tech (in the vein of objectivist libertarianism). In “Metamorphosis,” Anarky invents a device that will “de-brainwash” every human on Earth of all individual social constraints, hoping to eliminate religious fundamentalism, mass mediated-culture, and right wing hegemony. This may seem like Anarky’s prior modus operandi, but the big difference is now that he wants to uphold the capitalist free-market system in America. Justice is still paramount to his mission, but there is now leeway for individual and corporate greed/oppression. In order to power his machine, Anarky collects the essences of Etrigan’s madness, Darkseid’s evil, and Batman’s purity. However, Batman damages the machine and it affects only Anarky. Thus, Anarky’s metamorphosis (i.e. belief shift from socialist-anarchism to Randian objectivist anarcho-capitalism) is complete.

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In 1999, Grant and Breyfogle delivered the second volume of Anarky, eight issues that see Batman kicking Anarky out of Gotham (following the destruction of the city in “Cataclysm”). Lonnie moves to Washington DC where he builds his own “Anarky Cave” underneath the Washington Monument, becomes an expert in superstring theory, gets a Green Lantern ring, starts blogging, thwarts Ra’s al Ghul, and delivers a strong anti-war message to the zombie-resurrected Founding Fathers of America. However, with sales lagging, DC gave Anarky Vol. 2 the axe. Hoping to go out with a bang, Grant and Breyfogle once again tried to permanently elevate their beloved character to the pinnacle of DC’s mythos, heavily insinuating that Joker was Anarky’s biological father in the final issue (Anarky Vol. 2 #8). But just as Grant and Breyfogle had once unsuccessfully lobbied to make Lonnie the third Robin, their idea to paternally link Joker with Lonnie was never going to fly either. Grant and Breyfogle desperately wanted this to be canon, but higher-ups and classic writers (notably Denny O’Neil) were dead-set against it. Thus, the follow-up confirmation (true or false) never happened, effectively cutting-off the Joker-related momentum at its knees. I guess we’ll never truly know if Joker was Lonnie’s dad in the Modern Age. Grant would leave DC shortly thereafter, placing Anarky in dreaded character limbo for nearly ten years (aside from three relatively unmemorable cameo appearances).

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In 2009, Fabian Nicieza, a fan of the character, decided to bring Anarky out of limbo and into the pages of Robin. Starting with Robin #181-182, Lonnie reappears but is immediately shot and paralyzed by Ulysses Hadrian Armstrong, who winds up becoming the brand new Anarky, a fully-fledged super-villain. The villainous Armstrong version of Anarky makes various appearances in Robin and Red Robin. As does Lonnie, who, in 2011’s Red Robin #17, is hired by Red Robin (Tim Drake) to be his very own version of Oracle using his old “Moneyspider” gimmick! In this sense, Nicieza was able to return Lonnie to his social justice warrior roots, albeit without a heavy political agenda. (The lack of politics attached to Lonnie and the attribution of the Anarky moniker to a super-villain like Armstrong were very much to the chagrin of Grant and some right wing journalists, who wanted the concept of Anarky to forever remain a face of the Randian libertarian politics in comics.) The handicapped Lonnie acts as a hero right up to the final issue of the Red Robin series, which ended due to the New 52 reboot.

Red Robin Moneyspider Lonnie Machin Anarky

The true anarcho-socialist or anarchist superhero is a rarity—then and now. Green Arrow might mention Marxism every once in awhile, but aside from Alan Moore’s V (who was a direct influence on the creation of Anarky), Grant Morrison’s secret society in The Invisibles, Jamie Hewlett’s Tank Girl, and Dwayne McDuffie’s aforementioned Milestone line characters, most comic book characters that ostensibly lean radically left actually don’t. Plus, more often than not, they’ve been portrayed one-dimensionally and are usually super-villains to boot. A slew of Red Scare communist villains from the 50s through the 90s come to mind. As do Marvel’s Flag-Smasher, DC’s Kestrel, and Marvel’s radical feminists like Man-Killer and Superia. Others, like Marvel’s Rafe Michel and Daily Bugle reporter Leila Taylor, qualify as legit leftist radicals that were portrayed with more depth back in the 70s, but, again, they weren’t superheroes. Various characters featured in the works of Mark Millar (specifically Civil War, Jupiter’s Legacy, Jupiter’s Circle, and Huck) and Frank Miller (specifically The Dark Knight Returns and Martha Washington) might appear to be anti-capitalist anti-state heroes at surface-level, but they always turn out to be less than heroic, illegitimate, or failures when it comes to political conviction or social activism. Randian libertarianism is, in fact, imbued in a lot of both Millar and Miller’s oeuvre, including all their works listed here. The same can absolutely be said of Green Arrow, the sorta-skeevy Question, and his extremely vile Watchmen counterpart Rorschach. Overall, nothing mentioned above (besides V for Vendetta, The Invisibles, Tank Girl, or Milestone) hits the hammer on the head or manages to fit the pure leftist bill quite like 90s Anarky. As far as anarchist heroes (or anti-heroes), Anarky is one of the best examples and one of the very few we’ve ever seen in mainstream comics to this day.

 

It will be interesting to see where Tynion takes Anarky, especially since he penned a brilliant social-activist monologue—almost a call to all superheroes (and those writing superheroes)—in 2016’s Detective Comics #946. The dialogue, spoken by Tim Drake, is an uplifting speech about how the Bat-squad should bring new hope to Gotham, making it the safest city in the world. He talks about the very definition of what it means to be a superhero, about how superheroes must earn the public trust through collaboration and rehabilitation, rather than the usual fear-instilling and coercion. This is one of the best monologues I’ve heard in a long time in any comic book—it cuts to the core of what a superhero is supposed to be. And it also has shades of old-school Anarky mentality in it. Batman could take a few pointers, let me tell ya.

 

In our next installment, releasing next Tuesday, we’ll continue with our history of Anarky, picking up with the New 52.

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  • Very well told history. I’m a bit confused at the Question being skeevy, though – where was that? I thought he was a pretty pure hero, at least in O’Neil and Rucka’s hands.

    • Collin Colsher

      Ah, I should have been more clear, Ian. You are 100% correct about the character in O’Neil and Rucka’s fine hands. I was talking about the original Charlton iteration of The Question by Steve Ditko, who was a strict Rand-ian Objectivist. (Rumor has it that Ditko left Marvel due to fighting about politics with Stan Lee.) Ditko expressly wrote the Question to have his political beliefs—even basing him off of his earlier skeevier character Mister A. Only much later did O’Neil alter the Question’s politics and spirit, even going so far as to make the Question a Zen Buddhist.

      • Ian Miller

        Ah! I’ve never read Ditko’s version of the character, though I’ve read a couple of panels in articles about the Question. I am also very excited to see where Tynion takes Tim and Bruce, especially after we’ve seen the evil future Tim brings about in Batwoman… 🙂 Writing philosophy in Batman is always tricky, I think, because for Batman to be a hero, the world around him has to be broken – it has to fundamentally not work at a systematic level, otherwise Batman’s choice to act outside of the law doesn’t make sense in a heroic context. To put it another way, if the system worked, Bruce Wayne would be more effective and heroic than Batman – but Batman is clearly intended to be a hero, and thus I think the system can’t work in stories where that is the case. Anarky is a character who similarly has a distrust of the system, but I’m not sure if he could really sustain a long-running ongoing because of that distrust. I’d be interested to see if someone could write Lonnie consistent with his beliefs but also forming a geniune family or community, always the difficulty with someone so purely ideological.

  • Lonnie

    I think the non-Bat/Grant stories from this period are also interesting. Anarky has had two “first meetings” with Green Arrow, Oliver Queen. The first one took place before Zero Hour and involves Lonnie talking him into helping him blow up a gun plant. The second, actually his first appearance after 9/11, involves Green Arrow helping to clear Anarky’s name when he’s framed for murder. He also showed up in a Young justice event called Sins of Youth, which deflated some of the skills from his solo books, and as a JLA reservist of some sort in the pages of Wonder Woman in 2001.