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Monday, July 19, 2004
Defending the Unloved
[Spoiler warnings are for the weak...]
So, a lot of people have been talking about Identity Crisis. And I gather from their tone that many people think that there is something "wrong" with this comic. Not that it's a "bad" comic, because that would be a matter of taste. No, from the tone some people are taking, you would have to be a sick, perverted degenerate to find anything of merit in this trashy little exercise in exploitation and mysogyny.
Guess I'm a sick, perverted degenerate then.
Let's start with the obious. This is one of the most beautifully illustrated mainstream comics to be published in years. Rags Morales, with Mike Bair on inks, creates quite lovely fluid movements across the page, with intricate linework and more expressive characterizations than I've seen in quite some time.
Secondly, Brad Meltzer's characterizations are second-to-none. He's captured the voices of the characters, and is able to fully sketch their personalities through casual dialogue and subtle nuances. Pairing him with Morales on a character-heavy book was a brilliant decision. The dialogue and the narration are very eleoquently paired with those lovely, expressive pencils.
Now, for my reservations. This was sold to me as a mystery. As written by a best-selling mystery writer. Maybe it's just me, but I tend to think that for a mystery to work it needs to play fair with the audience. That means, don't front-load the story with a bunch of obvious red herrings, false leads, and misunderstood clues. Three stand out to me right away. First, why is Doctor Light the League's first suspect? Because of the attempted rape. But presumably they made him forget about that incident during his magical lobotomy. What evidence do they have that Light's brain-damage has been undone? None. Yet they go in, guns blazing, before fully assessing the situation. Sorry, don't buy it. Secondly, how did Light know the League was gunning for him? It's implied that Calculator has informed him and sent him to the Injustice Gang in search of a body-guard. So how does Calculator know? Villain scuttlebut would indicate that the heroes, in the mistaken belief that Sue Dibny was killed by a villain using heat or fire based gimmicks, are hunting down heat and fire based villains. Not light based villains. This is the sort of thing that needs to be explained, and I'll forgive it if later issues address the point. Lastly, Doctor Midnight determines that Sue wasn't killed by fire, and was in fact dead before she was burnt. He therefore concludes that Dr. Light couldn't possibly have been the villain. Well, the readers should have figured out by now that Dr. Light was just a red herring, but Midnight's conclusion is just a sloppy way to telegraph that information to the slower readers. What he's doing here is conjecturing ahead of the evidence. All he's really determined is that Sue was beaten to death, not burnt. That doesn't exclude Light as a suspect in and of itself. And why, exactly, was Midnight not surprised to hear that the League was attacking Light? Again, it's sloppy.
Another thing that has sort of frustrated me about this series so far: did we really need an explanation for why the silver age DC villains were so goofy? It's never exactly been a great worry of mine, and to be frank, the kinds of people who do want an in-continuity explanation for why the silver age villains were so "simple" are too busy hyperventilating because "OHMYGODOHMYGODOHMYGODTHEYKILLEDANDRAPEDSUETHEYKILLEDANDRAPEDSUEOHMYGODOHMYGODOHMYGOD!!!"
Which brings me to what most bothers me about the reactions I've seen to IC so far. The complete and total lack of perspective that people are approaching it with. The first bad assumption is that this story isn't appropriate to tell, because it features characters created as entertainment for children. Well, that might be a fair point, but the characters this most directly impacts are the Elongated Man and Sue Dibny. Who were both created forty years ago as children's characters. And then not used much until Giffen, DeMatteis and Maguire used them in a knowing satire of super-hero comics intended for an adult audience. Like it or not, the audience for super-hero comics has aged, and children don't read super-hero comics much anymore. And when they do, they certainly don't read comics about the Elongated Man.
So, what's to be done to keep the characters viable? Well, if you're DC comics, and you've got a talented writer who wants to write a murder mystery involving your super-hero characters, and he wants to kill off a minor, under-used character which you have no plans for anyway, you let Brad Meltzer kill Sue Dibny. I mean, if all of these super-hero fans are so fond of the character, Elongated Man would have his own book, right?
That's a rather vital point, I think. I can't remember a time when so many people suddenly cared about the Elongated Man. They're actually upset about what happened to a character who was never popular enough to justify more than a back-up in another hero's title.
But to return to the topic of children and IC, there are a couple of things I'd like to point out on that score as well. Will children read Identity Crisis. Nope. Not a one. Because it doesn't look, to a kid, like something they'd be interested in. There's no movie or television tie-in, and let me tell you, as someone on the front lines of selling comics to kids, unless there is some sort of outside media attention, most kids just aren't going to look at super-hero comics (the perennial exception being Spider-Man, whose popularity with children seems to be independant of media hype). And yes, I know there's a Justice League cartoon on, but that title of the book isn't "JLA: Identity Crisis". If it were, all of the people complaining about the book damaging children's characters would have a point. But it's not, so they don't. I wonder, do these people complaining about the besmirching of a "children's" character complain about Fables, because although fairy tales weren't neccessarily originially intended as children's entertainment, in the American psyche they're as firmly considered as being suitable only for children now as comic books are. Will these people refuse to buy Alan Moore's and Melinda Gebbie's Lost Girls because it takes characters from children's literature and recasts them in erotic roles? Did they boycott stores that carried American Magee's Alice or Todd McFarlane's Twisted Land of Oz action figures, because they corrupted beloved childhood icons? Somehow, I doubt it.
Which brings me to this thought: is it ever appropriate to tell a story for adults using super-hero characters. My first impulse is, yes, because just because the characters and their fans are childish, that doesn't neccessarily mean the same thing as "for children." Let's take two examples. Watchmen is a super-hero stories for adults. It features a thoughtful approach to mature themese that, frankly, aren't going to be of interest to children. But adults can still find value in the story because the super-hero characters are used towards either symbolic ends or to contrast the perceived simplicity and innocene of their world with the harsher realities of the adult world. And then there's Supreme Power. Which is, for all intents and purposes, a straight-forward super-hero story, with needless swearing, gratuitously graphic violence, and female nudity designed only to encourage one-handed reading. It's almost the antithesis of a book like Watchmen, showing all of us in graphic detail how the idea of super-heros for adults can go disastrously wrong.
And by a rather circuitous logic, that brings me to the issue of IC and it's treatment of women. My rule of thumb has always been: white people don't get to decide what is and is not racist, straight people don't get to decide what is and is not homophobic, and men don't get to decide what is and is not mysogynistic. Usually I use it in the context of, you, Mr. Straight Person, don't get to tell me, the Gay Man, that, oh, let's say Will & Grace, isn't homophobic in it's presentation of gay men. Because I think it perpetuates harmful cliches and stereotypes and just because you happen to think it's funny doesn't neccessarily make me wrong. But it cuts the other way too. I'm not as current on my gender studies as other people, so all I can offer is: I don't think the fact that a man is writing about a woman being raped and murdered is a sign that the writer is gynophobic. He's a thriller writer, writing a thriller. The plot is dependant on something bad happening to someone. It's what is being used as motivation for the main character, in this case the Elongated Man. Is it a cliche to motivate the hero by killing off his spouse? Yes, absolutely. And if by the time all seven issues of IC are published that's all that's happened, I will more than readily concede that the series was founded upon a trite cliche. But at this point, I'm still willing to give Meltzer the benefit of the doubt. Because I don't think this crime was about the Elongated Man, or the Justice League, or even about super-heroes. My suspicion at this point was that the crime had to do with Sue. I suspect that her assault at the hands of Dr. Light is only the tip of the iceberg.
In the first issue we're treated to Ralph waxing poetic about his wife. A big point hammered home in that speech is that Sue is a lot deeper a personality than most people suspect. She could have chosen the good-looking guy full of flashy moves, but she went for the interesting intellectual. And far from it being implausible that Sue could be assaulted and never show any signs of it, I think the point Meltzer is going for here is how strong Sue was, that she could go through that and not be made a victim by it, forever dwelling on it to the exclusion of all else. That would be bad storytelling, defining her solely by that one event, and I think that would be the reductive, woman-fearing characterization. No, I think when all is said and done in this series, we're going to find out that it was Sue's "secret identity" that was the focus.
And now, my final thought: I can't believe that grown adults, including myself, are spending so much time debating the morality of what an author had happen to a fictional character.