Thursday, June 24, 2004

I've been reading comic books lately.

That requires correction. I've been reading comic books for as long as I can remember. But there are a handful of comics I've been reading recently that I intend to talk about now.

Doing so requires a certain amount of predictable old-fogy complaints about today's comic-book storytelling--including questioning the word "storytelling" as applied to an endless series of exquisitely-reproduced, lushly-colored, overdrawn pin-ups that, somehow, appear to have advanced the plot by some infinitesimally small increment over the course of 20 pages yet, on closer inspection, defy me to find an example within those pages of something, anything, having actually happened.

For purposes of comparison, see Action Comics #252, May 1959, cover-featuring "The Supergirl from Krypton", the first appearance of, well, you figure it out. Eight pages, written by Otto Binder, art by Al Plastino. In the course of those eight pages, we go from "What's that rocket in the sky?" to meeting Kara, verifying her bona-fides, creating a secret identity for her, placing her in a nearby orphanage (well, it wouldn't do for bachelor Clark Kent to live with a teenaged girl, now would it?), and setting up her situation for her ongoing series in the back of Action Comics. Also featuring a lead Superman feature and a Congo Bill story. Cover price ten cents.

Then see Superman-Batman #8-13, May-October 2004, featuring "The Supergirl from Krypton", featuring the revised first appearance in current continuity of, well, you figure it out. 120 pages over six issues. written by Jeph Loeb, art by Michael Turner. Currently three issues into the arc and we still haven't established that Kara is who she says she is. Total cover price $17.70.

While I'm complaining: Superman-Batman #9 ends with an attack and attempted kidnapping of Kara by (as we see in a Stunning Last-Page Reveal(tm)) Wonder Woman. Superman-Batman #10 opens with Kara on Themsicyra (the new name for what old fogeys like me remember as Paradise Island, where the lesbians Amazons live). We learn in opening exposition that what appeared to be an attack was actually cooked up by Wonder Woman and Batman to test Superman's reaction. The conversation in which they explain this to Superman happens between issues, since it apparently didn't involve beating anybody up. (Although had I been Superman, and a teenaged girl dependent on me had been roughed up to test me, I would certainly have considered booting up the old heat vision and "testing" my colleagues with a little second-degree sunburn. How's the Bat-Sunblock, old buddy?)

And this is one of the good books.

Then there's The Amazing Spider-Man #509, Aug 2004, featuring part one of the five-part "Sins Past" story arc, written by J Michael Straczynski (yeah, the Babylon 5 guy), art by Mike Deodato. It looks like JMS has something in mind for Gwen Stacy (an old girlfriend of Peter Parker's, killed way back in #121 [31 years ago!], over whom he has never really quit pining). It's hard to tell. Pete is attacked at Gwen's graveside by two masked figures, and although one of them eventually unmasks (another Stunning Last-Page Reveal(tm)), and we are obviously meant to recognize him, Deodato's inability to draw clearly recognizable faces undercuts the reveal so badly that, even with the face fully exposed, we can't be sure who it is.

I could guess, I suppose. Best guess among the fan community on the message boards is that it's a double of Peter Parker last seen in the hated Clone Saga of several years ago. And thanks to online trade solicitations, we've already seen the cover to #511, on which the masked woman is revealed to be... well, again, it's hard to tell. Although if the setup means anything, it's probably meant to be either Gwen Stacy or her double (she is known to have a double, again from that Clone Saga). Deodato had to give her the same hairband she wore in the early seventies (which she is, improbably, wearing under her mask) to create any resemblance to Gwen at all. Possibly we'll find out that it was the double who died and the real Gwen is still alive. That's just the kind of trauma the now-happily-married Peter Parker needs to return his life to the eternal angst fans seem to expect.

I should tell you that the revelation that turned readers away from Spider-Man by the thousands, from which Marvel backpedaled after the damage had been done and quickly rewrote the story to establish that it wasn't true, was that the Peter we'd been reading about for the past twenty years was the clone. The character we'd known as the clone, who traveled under the name "Ben Reilly" and believed himself to be the clone, was the real Peter. As I said, that particular twist was undone, and the clone was apparently killed, but then this wouldn't be the first time he's returned from apparent death. Apparently JMS, or his editor, feels the time is right to revisit this, this, dare I use the word, quagmire and see if there's anything left after the swamp has been drained.

So, we've now reached the point where everyone who has a costume has to wear it all the time, or else the readers can't tell what's going on.

Which leads us back to DC:

Identity Crisis #1-7, Aug 2004-Feb 2005, written by Brad Meltzer, art by Rags Morales and Michael Bair. The final nail in the coffin of the Silver Age, as a beloved (if now minor) character dies, horribly, heartbreakingly and (probably) irrevocably. (In comics death is not a sure thing even when you've seen the body.)

This is DC's Big Event for the summer. (Well, at the moment DC is in the midst of several Big Events, but this is the one that's getting real-world press, because Meltzer is a real author.) It has just begun, and they're keeping an unusually tight lid on it to preserve the surprises, but it appears to involve a serial killer who preys on superheroes' loved ones and a dark secret that five Justice League members share.

In order to talk about Identity Crisis, I have to at least mention Kingdom Come, an acclaimed limited series of a couple of years back in which the superhero population, having grown less responsible with succeeding generations, is now indulging in its pet battles with little or no regard for those affected, sometimes tragically, by their presence. As a commentary on a trend, it was brilliant. But now mainstream comics resemble the nightmare world of Kingdom Come, and the cautionary series has helped to create the situation it was warning us about.

Leading directly to Identity Crisis #1, in which a non-powered, just plain human loved one of a costumed adventurer is killed by someone who knew (spoiler pronoun) her well enough to call her by her first name. Someone who was able to enter her apartment despite the combination of Kryptonian, Thanagarian, Themiscyrian, Martian, and Apocaliptic technology that protected it.

Being a hero has a price. And it's not always the people who Knew The Job Was Dangerous who pay it.

There is no Stunning Last-Page Reveal(tm) in this story. It proceeds with all the (if you didn't like it) predictability and (if you did) inevitability of Hitchcockian suspense. You know what coming. You just don't know when. And all the while you're hoping you're wrong.

(Spoiler follows.) If you didn't know the history of Ralph (Elongated Man) Dibny and his wife Sue Dearbon Dibny, Meltzer sets the stage as painlessly as possible--although if you get past page two and still don't know who's going to die, you probably shouldn't be reading murder mysteries. Some have said that this death is over the top, and as much as I love the character of (final warning) Sue Dibny, I want to think so too. This is not just another comic book death, and Meltzer had to make that clear.

And he does. We see her broken. We see her killer turn a flamethrower on her. We see Ralph find her blistered body. We see the anniversary present she had prepared for him (an antique magnifying glass). And we see the extra detail that elevates this from "mere" brutality to epic tragedy, the reminder that the future that she represented, the moment when Ralph would have opened that present and seen that detail, the surprise and joy and happily-ever-after that would have followed, have been cruelly stolen from him, and from us all.

It's just a comic book.

No, it's not. It's a damned good one.

Death matters. Even that of a supporting character of a third-tier inactive superhero. Even that of someone who never wore a cape and mask. The double-page spread of the mourners at Sue's funeral is an indication of just how big a difference the death of a Normal Person is going to make before this story is over.

I can't judge the whole series on the basis of one issue, but I'd call it a memorable start.

(More information at Newsarama and at Brad Meltzer's own site. OH, and at PULSE, and Toon Zone Forum.)

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

All in Color for $3.95

I'm trying to remember if four dollars seems like any larger a chunk of my change than ten (or twelve) cents did back in the day. Memory fails: I have no idea.

The second issue of DC Comics' Identity Crisis by Brad Meltzer is out, and apparently being beaten to death and the body burned isn't indignity enough for Sue Dibny. Now we learn (spoilers ahoy) that, some years ago (thirty years ago in real time, but probably no more than five in comic-book years), she was attacked and raped by Doctor Light.

I liked this kind of story when I saw it in Alan Moore's Watchmen, and I may yet like it here, when it's finished. But the characters in Watchmen were created for the purpose of telling that story. Reading Identity Crisis is like watching Laura Petrie get raped.

(There was, in fact, an episode of the Dick van Dyke show in which the subject of wife-beating was addressed. The guilty character was a never-again-seen guest star, the unsavory acts were safely off-screen in the guest's back story, and the episode simply didn't work. Wife-beating doesn't belong in TVLand. The jury is still out as to whether it can belong on Earth-1.)

Dr Light broke into the JLA satellite and was discovered by its only occupant at the time, Sue Dibny. She had plenty of time to sound an alarm, did so, and in fact told him that she had done so. He could have escaped. Did he figure he still had time to do what he came for? Then why didn't he do that? Or WAS attacking Sue what he'd come for?

So, while Light's on the floor on top of Sue, the first of the heroes arrives: The Flash. He takes one look at the scene and throws Light across the room (and who wouldn't?). The rest of the current League follows soon after and, in response to continued hostility from Light, beat the tar out of him.

And this isn't even the part of the story that the author intended as the Big Wham.

After Ralph has taken Sue to the hospital, while Light is huddled on the floor imprisoned in Green Lantern's beam, Light taunts the League, saying he's going to find ALL of their loved ones. He uses his light-based powers to create a holographic replay of what he did to Sue, bragging that his fellow prisoners in whatever jail they send him to will enjoy the "show", "My Date with Sue." (Why did he provoke the heroes so severely? What did he hope to accomplish? What was he thinking?)

After a few minutes of this, the League got so sick of it that Zatanna (the resident magician) put Light to sleep. He could have been maintained so indefinitely. Light could have been held in solitary, and would have been on the League's say-so, to prevent the "show" he was threatening to give to his fellow inmates. The need wasn't immediate. There was no hurry.

But Our Heroes were deeply affected by the crime they'd witnessed. "How many times are we going to go through this with Light?" Lock him up, watch him escape, catch him again, lock him up, watch him escape, where does it end?

All they wanted to do was, as Hawkman put it, "clean him up a little", when they sent Zatanna into his head, magically. And she screwed it up. She scrambled his mind. She changed him into... a joke. A pathetic loser who was just as much a criminal as he ever was, but incompetent. He went from being a Justice League-level threat to a clown that any randomly-chosen Teen Titan could handle without breaking a sweat.

A super-villain on training wheels.

And then, while relating this incident to today's Flash and Green Lantern, Green Arrow drops one more grenade: Light wasn't the only one they "fixed". To be continued. (This is #2 of 7.)

So, what did I think?

Brad Meltzer's story is provocative. It's got my attention, and I'll keep reading. Rags Morales' art is first-rate. I just wish, as with Watchmen, they'd created new characters to kill off.