Hardware: The Man in the Machine
(Dwayne McDuffie/Denys Cowan; Milestone/DC; Hardware 1-8 originally published 1993, collected edition published 2010)
Note that as this is a Review in Retrospect of a title originally published 17 years ago, THERE WILL BE SPOILERS A-GO-GO! LOTSA SPOILERS! WHOA NELLIE, THERE WILL BE SO MANY SPOILERS HERE THAT YOU JUST WON'T BE ABLE TO STAND IT! IF YOU HAVEN'T READ HARDWARE AND WANT TO READ IT WHILE REMAINING COMPLETELY UNSPOILED, STOP HERE NOW!
No, really, SPOILERS AHOY.
OK, you wuz warnd.
Hardware has always been one of the cornerstone villains of McDuffie's Milestone Dakotaverse. I've only ever seen him through the eyes of the undoubted heroes, Static and Icon, usually wreaking havoc in combination with the Shadow Cabinet, other undoubted villains. Here, we get an inner view of Hardware -- what he thinks of himself and how he justifies what he does to himself. After all, most villains don't start out planning to be such. Most don't necessarily even think of themselves that way ... well, OK, in superhero comix, most do, because 96% of them are stark staring insane. The ones that aren't
insane -- very few -- don't necessarily think of themselves as the bad guy, even when they're in stark opposition to the unambiguously good guys.
Curtis Metcalf, brilliant scientist extraordinaire, gets pulled up from poverty by Alva, big businessman, when Curtis is a young child. Alva educates Curtis, gives him a role in Alva's business ... and then things go terribly wrong for Curtis. Sort of.
And I will confess, when you find out precisely why Hardware has gone to the extremes he has -- there have been quite an astounding number of corpses left in his wake, albeit mostly fairly specific ones, and a really impressive amount of spectacular and mostly targeted property damage -- then you too will have the same reaction as his sort of almost girlfriend, when she says, "How can you be brilliant enough to build this, and too stupid to know what to do with it?" In all seriousness, it's impossible not to think, THAT'S why he did all this? How stupid can a person that bright BE?
The reason is personally important, to be sure, but it's also amazingly petty compared to the spectacular amount of destruction and death he leaves behind. That said, this story is mostly about Hardware figuring out that this really isn't quite what he wants to be doing, or how he wants to be doing it.
One thing that McDuffie does very well is showing the physical costs of superheroics -- or supervillainy, if you prefer -- for people who aren't bang babies or otherwise metahuman. Curtis is banged up, beaten up, battered all the time. He's always exhausted, always trying to hide his condition from friends and coworkers. Periodically he winds up sleeping through work shifts by accident, and having to call in sick late, because he just can't make it in. It's great to see that aspect of super feats addressed; most comics just ignore what it would be like for an ordinary person to do what they do. (Just think: Bruce Wayne really could not function as the head of Wayne Enterprises, because he would sleep through most of the day when his staff would be working. A reputation as an international playboy would only get you through just so much slacking off. But I digress.)
Within the Hardware story is another, quite astonishing story: the story of Deathwish, another of the Milestone universe's villains that aren't quite what they seem. Deathwish's origin story is both horrific and astounding, both for its time and even for now. Deathwish had been a criminal, a guy named Wilt, but had retired from his criminal activity. Settled down, gotten married, had a child. Then, apparently, one of his old enemies found him and his family. The old enemy tied him up, then forced Wilt to watch as he raped and murdered his wife, then raped and murdered his son. Then -- in frame, more or less -- he rapes Wilt, followed by shooting him and leaving him for dead. Wilt recovers, then becomes Deathwish, who pursues and forces sex offenders to murder themselves through nothing more than the power of his mind -- apparently what happened to him awakened a sort of latent ability.
But consider: we get something never before or since seen in mainstream superhero comix. A man is raped on camera
, so to speak. It's utterly and completely unambiguous. No, of course you don't see the actual penetration, but it's very clear what's going on. Moreover, Wilt specifically tells us what happened to him. It's not about either of them being gay. It's not even a prison rape. It's one of those things that happnes because a bad guy has the power, and because that's how he wants to humiliate Wilt and let him know just how powerless he is to protect either his family or himself. Pretty much every other male who gets raped in comics is either a molested child, or they get drugged and used by women as big warm inseminators -- which would be wildly unlikely. (And, before anyone even thinks about mentioning the name Apollo, read this entry.
He got savagely beat down, yes, but until and unless it is specifically and unambiguously stated, it cannot reasonably be said that he was raped because we just plain don't know. Moving on...)
Deathwish gets, oddly enough, exactly
the sort of origin story that female superheroes frequently get, and which irritates the snot out of people -- being raped drives a woman to, usually, becoming some sort of hero. Here, perhaps because it drives Wilt to becoming a villain, it sort of does work. It may also be that it works because Deathwish is a man, and superhero comix have always been thought of as male wish fulfillment; I'm sure that a lot of men who have been raped would do what Deathwish does to his rapist and other sex offenders, given the opportunity and the ability to get away with it.
That said, Deathwish's origin story only half-works. It turns out that his ordeal also gave Wilt a really spectacular case of dissociative disorder -- multiple personalities that don't know of or acknowledge each other -- and the second personality and its actions, while also villainous, profoundly do not work. I understand, for story purposes, why McDuffie made the choices he did but I think he really needed to pick one direction and stick with it. Either one would have been sufficient, and the revenge-minded one works better for the story. It may well be that suffering through what he has would make a real-life version of Wilt do both of the things that he does -- I can't know and I really don't want to -- but as pure story, it's just too much.
Deathwish does, eventually, get apprehended. And then at some point, Deathwish actually got a miniseries of his own. Frankly, the mind boggles. I mean ... he killed a lot of people. Granted, all of them under the influence of one or the other personalities, but still, you'd think they'd stick him in an insane asylum and leave him there for the rest of his natural days. I hope they do reprint his miniseries, because I'd like to see how that was even possible.
After Deathwish, Curtis continues to struggle with what he means Hardware to be, to become. Oprah even makes an appearance in the story! And ...then the volume ends without anything like resolution. Given the distance between the end of this volume and the second issue of Milestone Forever, I can but hope that there's another archive volume of Hardware waiting to be published. I can't imagine how on earth Curtis could have gotten from here to there. (And one of the things that he does in Milestone Forever is deliberately and surpassingly nasty. He does, to give him credit, eventually figure that out.)
Even with the caveat about Deathwish: Excellent; Highly Recommended.
Really, go out and find this and read it. And then get the other Milestone books, Static and Icon. (I've seen another volume of Icon solicited, thank goodness, so at least we'll probably find out what happened with Raquel and her situation.)