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
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 Comicon.com PULSE, and Toon Zone Forum.)