Flying Through a Mirror, Cracked: Adi Shankar’s The Guardians of Justice

A long time ago, I read a story by Grant Morrison in his Lovely Biscuits collection called “I am a Policeman.” The short fiction is prose reading like some postmodern, or hypertext writing where everything is referential and fragmentary, but it’s something of a kaleidoscope as well: a fast-paced merry-go-round in an intensely voyeuristic-participant culture. 

In a lot of ways Morrison’s story, despite being the mess that it is, anticipated the creation of the Internet and memetic culture. It’s this cracked rotating lens that reminds me of the relentless piece that is Adi Shankar’s Netflix series The Guardians of Justice

I will be honest with you: I’d heard about the project coming in passing, though like a few others I felt inundated with many of the superhero revisionist, and reconstructionist, series that have been released these past two years. I mean, between The Boys, Invincible, and Peacemaker alone following, in turns, the realistic and humorous – almost ludicrous – reinventions of caped and otherwise crusaders can get quickly exhausting. And I will also admit that when I watched the first episode of The Guardians, I wasn’t impressed.

It’s true. I love the premise. The Superman analogue in Shankar’s insanely patched together post-WWIII world made after the destruction of a cybernetically reanimated Adolf Hitler – one Marvelous Man – grows tired and depressed in preventing our species’ slide towards self-annihilation, and decides he can’t take it anymore: ending his life. It then becomes the task of the Batman analogue, Knight Hawk, to discover if his public death is really a suicide, or the result of someone else’s convoluted plan to destabilize the world Marvelous Man watched over for forty long years. 

The idea of this other alternate 1980s of heroes and villains, gods, and monsters,  is great on paper, but if you go by the first episode alone, the characters come out flat. They are barely disguised analogues to DC’s Justice League, and the narrative sequences jump all over the place. There are some great parts as well. Some of the characters act over-the-top, especially Knight Hawk with his best gruff, and gravelly Batman voice impression, and President Nukem, as played by Christopher Judge, is amusing as all get out, and I’ve missed him since StarGate. Even so, I just didn’t know where it could go after the first episode, and I was leery of committing to six more episodes. 

Yet I also needed something to get my mind into that place where I could stop being both over-focused on my other writing tasks, and loosen it up again to undertake more creative possibilities. It also helped that many other people were genuinely enjoying the series, and I decided to give it another shot.

So without going into spoilers, let me tell you what The Guardians of Justice is like. Imagine Adi Shankar’s Bootleg Universe, of which this is a part: where he takes concepts and he both makes fun of them, but also sometimes realistically depicts them, and handles them with care. The Punisher: Dirty Laundry, Venom: Truth in Journalism, Power/Rangers, and Castlevania all come to mind, right?

Now imagine the ethos in those creations, the equivalent of creating your own heroic action figures by soldering them together with a magnifying glass and glue-gun under the sun in the daylight that your parents force you to play in after school back in the Eighties and Nineties, and add some Ralph Bakshi rotoscoping segments, some Edgar Wright and Capcom 16-bit battle animation scenes right out of the video game that should be made from this complete with life bars and Mortal Kombat “Finish Thems!,” some Super Sentai Power Rangers and Turbo Kid moments, some 1990s Claymation segues that might as well be American Saturday “After these Messages, We’ll be Right back” cartoons, and sensibilities interjected into DC and Marvel hero and villain analogues and interactions that you can now find in any Steven Kostanski, and Troma film, and what you get is something that could be The Guardians of Justice

It’s kind of inspiring to see how incredibly mixed media this seven episode series is, and there are just so many references, and events going on at once of which it is incredibly easy to lose track. Seriously, watching these episodes are like being in the playground in the Eighties and Nineties, an informative period in many Millennial lives – a generation of which Adi Shankar is definitely a part – except while he definitely has characters that glorify war, homophobia, the war against drugs, and American machismo, their stereotypical depictions also serve to critique these aspects through the utilization of diversity: many people of colour, different nationalities, languages, and LGBTQ+ characters and relationships. 

The mixed media is that cracked kaleidoscope I mentioned earlier, but it just keeps moving around as it makes fun of itself, and yet sometimes stops for moments of painful clarity. This approach to different facets of storytelling or expression a Unified Field Theory barely held together by model glue does skip past many sequences, and it is so easy to get lost, and many tropes do unfold they way you would think. 

I’ve followed Adi Shankar over the years, and his Bootleg Universe. And I have read and listened to some of his interviews, even at one point asking him a question and interacting with him for a time, about his creative and personal struggles. Growing up in the 1980s as an Indian immigrant turned American citizen, and having a unique mind and a host of mental health challenges already gives you a unique perspective on the popular culture and franchises of that time that have been making their renaissance during the aughts and onward, such as they are. It’s like watching all of Adi Shankar’s stories from that time, informed by his production and creative work, and growing up unfolding all at once. And there is something incredibly eerie about the series, of which he’s worked on and off on, coming out during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and America’s own struggles with its identity internally, and on the world stage … and the rest of the chaos on Earth right now.

I feel like there are so many people, scholars and critics alike that could do more justice to The Guardians, so to speak, than I can. I just keep thinking about what it is like: and I imagine, again, something akin to an irreverent Watchmen, maybe even a Pat Mills’ Marshal Law reality on drugs, along with some Kostanski Man-Borg that is a spectacle entertaining to the discerning nerd and geek from those times, and everyone else informed by them. It is definitely not like the contemporary other superhero series I mentioned earlier: two of them live-action versions of comics or heroes, and one of them an animated adaptation. These are a series of mediums Frankensteined together, and I feel … The best way for me to phrase this is that just as one person both wins, and loses, at the end of this series, we as the viewers do the same. Perhaps with more re-watching on our part, and more reflection on this particular character’s, we might glean more over what we missed. And honestly? After that genuinely gut-wrenching twist and ending, I really want to see if there is going to be another season, and where this glorious nostalgic gestalt media chaos goes from there.

I feel like everything I’ve read, and watched – from the superhero genre to even the weird and horror genre – and played has prepared me for this, and it is a natural product of a global culture where all of these tropes and memes have been brought together. Perhaps, as Logan Lockwood – the Lex Luthor analogue as portrayed by Adi Shankar himself – puts it, it is all the result of branding and ideology. Maybe it is a mess for its own sake, and it is supposed to be just more ironic interpretations of the same. Yet like Grant Morrison’s “I am a Policeman” and other writing akin to it, I deeply respect it for the experiment in storytelling that it is. Also, I was entertained, and I feel like if my childhood self had the knowledge that I do now and the Internet and media access that exists in this day, I might have made something like this too, and it definitely bears mentions mentioning in this Mythic Bios: because the creation of The Guardians of Justice, and the love behind it, is utterly inspiring.