By now you’ve heard that Castalia House completed yet another hugely successful crowdfunding campaign. It’s just the latest feather in the cap for the publishing house that’s going to need a bigger hat before long. On the surface it looks like just another title – a modern day adventurer taking on a vast and shadowy criminal conspiracy. Look a little deeper though, and you’ll see that this project represents something far more profound. I think – and this may just be wishful thinking – but I believe Alt*Hero: Q represents the first of a new kind of espionage tale, and that it will spawn a host of similar titles.
Infogalactic reports that spy fiction:
emerged in the early twentieth century, inspired by rivalries and intrigues between the major powers, and the establishment of modern intelligence agencies.
That’s a pretty narrow definition. For the sake of this analysis, we’re going to consider espionage tales to include any story that revolves around small and dedicated heroes investigating large and powerful organizations that operate in the shadows. There’s a natural progression of this broader definition that allows the genre to evolve and change as the geo-political and economic conditions change. And it’s that malleable factor that has made the genre so robust over the years. Let’s look at how it has changed since the end of World War Two, and you’ll quickly see where the genre is headed and why Alt*Hero: Q represents the next phase in the genre’s evolution.
The espionage genre really took off during the Cold War, which allowed for the white hat/black hat stories in which the various western powers faced off against the evil forces of the Warsaw Pact. When the Berlin Wall came crashing down under the weight of the inevitable failures of communism, the genre trundled along with a new set of villains. The most popular of the villains was large mega-corporations led by megalomaniacal CEOs, but mileage was also wrung out of stories with large drug cartels, with no clear cut bad guys, or stories in which the good guys were painted as bad because Reagan amirite?
And then came the X-Files.
A little heralded monster of the week show that featured aliens and Men In Black, The X-Files found that the monolithic evil of communist governments could be easily replaced by the monolithic evil of small, shadowy conspiracies within the American government. The fall of the Soviets left a vacancy for distrust that the US Federal Government seemed all to eager to fill. Rumors of the US Federal Government hiding aliens in military warehouses, or experimenting on citizens with mind-altering drugs without their knowledge, or trapping and studying urban myths like bigfoot or the Chupacabra had long circulated through the underbelly of the American culture. Controversial government attacks on citizens such as the bombing of the Philadelphia MOVE commune, the shootings at Ruby Ridge, and the Waco massacre added more grist to the mill, as did the increasing number of airline tragedies whose coverage was plagued by inconsistencies. Everything discussed in hushed tones on late night AM radio became fodder. Add to that the ongoing military actions in the Middle-East with no clear end and no clear objectives, and it is no wonder the mood of the country and the interests of media consumers had shifted.
Instead of good Us versus evil Them, film viewers and TV watchers flocked to stories about good men struggling to push back against the shadows inherent in their own governments. Jack Bauer in 24, Michel Westin in Burn Notice, even Law and Order couldn’t resist cashing in on the craze with several episodes touching on or diving head first into conspiracy territory – every show in the series has brought in resident conspiracy expert Detective John Munch. They sold, so they got made.
And then came 9/11.
With this titanic shift in the public mood and the groundswell of public patriotism that followed, blaming the government fell out of fashion for a time. Those who asked awkward questions about the events of that fateful day were mocked, regardless of whether they delved too deep into the men who conducted or caused the attacks Twin Towers or those who merely capitalized on it. Coupled with a vicious backlash against any hint that the culture that funded and inspired the 9/11 attacks might have anything to do with them, the espionage genre turned into a schizophrenic mess that lingers even to this very day. Amazon’s Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan takes the huge risk of showing no-fooling evil middle-eastern terrorists, but bends over backwards to assure the viewers that Muslims are good Americans and even the worst terrorist is really a victim of white cisheteropatriarchy.
For a time the joke became that literal Nazis were the only allowable villains in cinema any more. A few abortive attempts were made to anoint large corporations or international financiers as the appropriate dark and powerful menace, but those rang a little too close to the truth for the large corporations and international financiers who fund big budget productions to continue very far down that road. Films such as The Kingsmen and FX’s show Archer posited worlds where private intel companies vied with each other while the world continued along its merry way, unaware of the high stakes games played in dark alleys and elegant restaurants all around them. Each film and each show became an island unto itself, forced to rebuild the world in its own image and to laboriously communicate the complexities of the internal logic of the story.
The genre was tired. Without the central focus of the Russkies or Men In Black or Global Corporations, the production of espionage stories tapered off. No doubt you can name a few of the exceptions, but in general the genre was moribund. It had no foundational culture on which to rest. The only thing anyone really knew was that nobody really knew what was really going on in the halls of power. With no clear cut villains and no clear cut heroes, what was the point? You might as well just focus on the car crashes and shoot ’em ups and over the top spectacle, because the cloak and dagger stuff just didn’t mean anything any more.
And then came WikiLeaks.
And Fake News.
And Hilary’s emails.
And President Donald Trump.
Suddenly a lot of thing that were not clear to anyone became very clear to everyone. Yes, elections were rigged. Yes, corporations couldn’t be trusted. Yes, the Deep State existed. Yes, the “objective” news lied to viewers on a regular basis. Yes, a few lone actors could bring down powerful people. Yes, the panopticon that so many feared had arrived, but it turned out the people most vulnerable to the power of universal oversight were those most likely to want to turn it on others.
The espionage genre had its new paradigm. Lone agents, scattered researchers toiling away in anonymity, working to expose the nefarious deeds of bad actors installed at the highest levels of governments both national and supranational. That story will resonate with the public, no matter how you dress it up, but it lacked a creative team with the talent and vision – and yes, the freedom from the tangled web of deceit that binds traditional publishers – to bring a story like that to the public.
If that’s the story the Legend Chuck Dixon brings us with Alt*Hero: Q, and so far nothing we’ve seen suggests otherwise, you can expect a raft of similar stories to follow in its wake.
Disclaimer: The good folks at Castalia have been kind enough to allow me room on their blog to share my own thoughts on sf/f and popular entertainment. I’ve had no direct involvement with the Alt*Hero: Q campaign other than as a fan and financial backer through the IGG campaign.