This is not a book for the weak of mind or stomach. The latest installment of Brian Churilla’s psycho-pharmaceutical-driven espionage tale significantly raises the stakes for its titular hero. Up to this point, Cooper has appeared as the epitome of the hard-boiled hero—irascible, invincible, and possessed of a secret which drives him on his quest.
Cooper is less a hero and more an assassin. As we learn the scope of his past activities, it becomes perfectly clear that this is a man whose hands are more than a little blood-stained. Perhaps this is why Churilla juxtaposes him with Lee, the red teddy bear. A bloody-handed man would leave no stains on such a companion.
This issue begins to break down the barriers within the carefully crafted world that Churilla has chosen for his characters to inhabit. We see the cracking of Cooper’s gruff veneer as the object of his obsession is teasingly dangled before him. From that point in the story, we see him become progressively more manic. This blurring of lines between the tasks and focus of Cooper-in-The-Glut as opposed to Cooper-in-reality is almost certainly related to what becomes of him as the issue nears its cliffhanger ending.
The loss of his in-Glut invincibility is also a huge clue, as its placement within the framework of the narrative suggests a great deal about the changing nature of the relationship between the different aspects of Cooper’s fractured psyche.
Beyond the grotesque visuals of the the Glut, Churilla’s script paints a picture of a darkening world increasingly arrayed against his protagonist.
The more I read through this book, the more it seemed to me that Churilla is playing with some rather fascinating themes that resonate with particular strength in the context of the Cold War.
The very nature of how Cooper operates, killing the Glut-avatars of his targets, brings to mind the major shift in thinking about warfare that resulted from the development and subsequent global deployment of Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) systems, which is “war-at-a-distance.”
Before the advent of total mechanized warfare, generally thought to have begun during World War I and having been perfected during World War II, combat involved close contact with the enemy. The act of killing an enemy soldier involved at least looking at the body as it fell, if not being in direct contact with it on a physical level.
The phrase “don’t shoot until you see the whites of their eyes” no longer applied and the horror of warfare become increasingly separated from those who perpetrated it.
The use of psychic proxies is a different sort of separation but is similar in that Cooper does not witness first-hand the gory results of his operations. Though he is consciously aware of the real-world consequences of his actions, he is protected by the buffer of the monstrous un-reality that is the Glut.
That monstrousness speaks to the other theme being explored here, which is dehumanization of the enemy. While most societies that find themselves in conflict with another have practiced this technique, the age of multimedia propaganda that began with Nazi Germany afforded a reach and strength to its proponents that was unmatched in history.
In “The Secret History of D.B. Cooper”, Churilla has extended this idea with horrific results. In Cooper’s minds-eye, the foes he faces are beyond inhuman, monstrous being the only truly apt description. Though he may know that he is taking human life, he is never faced with a real person and so is protected from the guilt and horror that comes with the act itself.
Churilla should be lauded for this, as so few comics really delve into the consequences of this type of warfare. The conflicts in super-hero books are largely face-to-face. This story, with its focus on a single, only somewhat-extraordinary human being is uniquely suited to address these themes and does so with style, panache, and an unending sense of something being seriously wrong in the world.