Red, Green, and Blue are the bestselling Pokémon games of all time, and as the games that first launched the franchise on Game Boy in Japan way back in 1996, they’re old enough that I was convinced I’d seen every form of homage and fan media dedicated to Pokémon’s humble beginnings. I was wrong. I recently discovered War/Crimes, a fan comic that features the Kanto gym leaders Lt. Surge and Team Rocket boss Giovanni, whose relationship in the comic feels too nuanced to be easily summed up as “on-off boyfriends.” Despite the provocative cover and the characters being “sexy violent [and] gay” throughout, it’s the comic’s exploration of Kanto’s military-industrial complex that will stay in the back of my brain forever.
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Lieutenant Surge has always been a strange presence in the Pokémon games. Prior to 2010’s Black and White, the Fame Checker (an item which offers up descriptions of important people) called Surge “The Lightning American.” He likes electric Pokémon, we were told, because they “saved” him during “the war.” He flew an electrical plane as a pilot, which means that he likely fought in World War II. Or whatever the equivalent is in the Pokémon universe.
The developers could have just left Surge in as a quirky reference to a war that ended Japan’s imperial capabilities. But the lore goes deeper. He had a cautious nature in the army, set up his own electric traps, and uses double locks everywhere. It’s not the behavior of a man who left the army with his psyche entirely intact. Comic artist and animation director Kelly Turnbull took this premise and went wild with it.
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As War/Crimes tells it, Surge and Giovanni were comrades-in-arms during the war, and they’ve both got their baggage about how disposable their lives were. Surge is now relatively poor, and he’s struggling to define himself beyond his post-traumatic stress disorder. Giovanni joined the army to fund his Pokémon League challenge,but after watching his Nidoking get ripped apart in front of him, he grew angry towards the war machine. War/Crimes doesn’t spend any time wondering whether or not the war was justified, or whether or not their losses were noble sacrifices. It’s more interested in how economic violence can cause even more suffering in the world.
See, it wasn’t just Giovanni’s ambition that created Team Rocket here. It was the money-hungry Pokémon League, which is more concerned about profit than helping children rise above their station. The comic explains that the Cerulean Gym secured the designation of being water specialists from the League by relying on “underage” girls to sway officials, all while the more deserving Vermillion City, which actually has a coastline, went overlooked. And Surge does not become a gym leader because of his leadership abilities or military strength; it was a new life, loaned to him by the boss of Team Rocket. War/Crimes isn’t just showing us a queer reading of the Game Boy games, but one viewed through an anti-capitalist lens.
Before you ask: Yes, the two veterans are unambiguously gay, good news for those who think subtext is for cowards. They have sexual contact with one another, though they call each other “friends” throughout the comic. I liked that a lot. Their relationship in the comic feels comfortable, intimate, and familiar even when they don’t directly address it or what it is. The army officer and the leader of Team Rocket don’t need to adhere to pageantry. But it could be self-protective masculinity too. These two men have been eviscerated by the war machine, and they think that they have no more blood to give, nothing left to be ashamed of. But the scary thing about the modern world is that it always finds a way.
There’s one line that sticks in my brain several days after reading. “What happened to us?” Surge asks after a nightmare causes him to punch Giovanni in his sleep. But the mob boss doesn’t get angry, doesn’t push him away. “Other people,” he replied. Even if these men have wonderful chemistry with each other, even if they work towards being vulnerable, the world can be a terrible place that makes love and loving hard, even as it remains the only thing that can save them. This is not the same Pokémon world that I know, but it compels me to imagine the implications of Kanto having a military-industrial complex that funnels poor men like Giovanni into institutions that try to kill them.
It’s never too late to start reading comics about old gay men. The comic is worth sampling if you’re interested in alternate interpretations of Pokémon history. Turnbull plans to post one page for free every day. If you can’t wait for the entire thing, you can also purchase it on itch.io for a dollar.