07 March 2006

NYCC Post Mortem / "Why Are You Doing This?": Identity Crisis

I was looking forward to the New York Comic Con this weekend for a number of reasons:
  • I have never been to a "big" convention and was pleased by this one's convenient location.
  • A number of friends were coming to town for the occasion.
  • I was not paying to attend, as the organizers saw fit to consider me an "educator".
  • I enjoy spectacles, especially free spectacles.

And overall I had a swell time. I got to catch up with friends, meet some new people, bought the original art to the funnybook page which gives this blog its name, and revelled in the spectacle of enormous Frank Quitely artwork, a lonely Peter Scolari, some guy paying thousands of dollars for a CGC graded copy of Hansi, the Girl who Loved the Swastika, and of course Fat Skeletor -- (the disappointing sole entry in the "fat guy superhero" stakes, though he makes up for it by having his own myspace page.)

But there was also the Saturday Debacle, which has been talked about by pretty much everyone who attended the con already. For my part, other than a ninety minute failed quest for Art School Confidential passes and a brief freeze out, it didn't really affect me terribly. But it was still vexing. I did get a kick out of overhearing harried cops get radio messages about how people were "getting out of control" near the cosplay stage and "requesting backup". I was a little less amused by not being allowed back into the building to get my coat back, or being barred from using upper-level exits, leading me to nearly kill myself while impatiently climbing up a planter-wall in order to meet my friends.

But I'm not really looking to dwell on any of that. One of the results of the Saturday Debacle and the general bustle of the con is that my low-to-moderate interest in all the trappings of the Big Time Con, from big name autographs to exciting, newsworthy panels and Q&As completely evaporated when I realized how time-consuming any of those propositions were. So I mostly skulked around looking for the low-interest obscurities I hoped to buy, talking with friends and stealing a quick conversation with the less-"of the moment" creators I liked.

But while I tried to find Blue Ribbon Digest and Lil Archie funnybooks and fawned over Douglas Rushkoff, the other, Big Time Con occured around me. I learned about it on Internet, the same as everybody else. Nothing face-meltingly exciting got announced - - but the one post-Con piece that really stuck with me was this interview/panel recap with Brad Meltzer.

Now, Brad Meltzer seems like a pretty okay guy; he's written some pretty fun character interaction in a few of his funnybooks that I've read. And he seemed like a good guy from everything I heard and saw at the DC booth. But honestly, Identity Crisis is one of the most embarassingly overrated funnybooks in recent memory.

It's a crude metaphor, but Identity Crisis to me epitomizes a recent trend of "Liefeld writing" in superhero funnybooks; like the art of Liefeld and other Image artists (and their descendents), which are heavily influenced (some would say "swiped") from other creators, this is the sort of high-impact "extreme" art that on cursory glance makes the reader say, "oh snap, that is BADASS!"

But the more you look at it, the less sense it makes. How many joints does that leg have? Why is that girl's hand the size of the stoplight she is standing next to? How can that sword even hurt someone? Can underage nymphettes really be eleven heads tall? But if you only skim through, it looks alluring and dynamic.

Identity Crisis, like a lot of event books, ends up doing this with its plot and characterization. Characters get moved like chess pieces because they need to be in positions parallel to some "classic" event the writer wishes to homage; characters behave irrationally because someone is needed to fill a slot; fights and events happen not because of any organic plot development but because they would be, in fact, badass.

Bad writing is certainly nothing new to funnybooks, and the big iconic characters have certainly endured cumulative decades of it relatively untarnished. But what sets Identity Crisis apart from your standard Infinity Crusade, Last Laugh or Secret Wars II -type crossover is the amount of attention and plaudits it has received. Identity Crisis is getting a deluxe hardcover release to bookstores, write-ups in the New York Times and other mainstream press and comparisons (at least from its publisher) to Watchmen. With that sort of attention and praise, a book like this should be held under closer scrutiny than you might More Excuses For Fightin' 2007.

HEY FELLAS, I'M ABOUT TO SPOIL IDENTITY CRISIS SO STOP READING IN THE EVENT THAT THIS BOTHERS YOU

Stripped to its core, the "murder mystery" side of IC goes something like this:

1. Sue Dibny, wife of JLA member Elongated Man and beloved by all superheroes, is found murdered at home, burnt to a crisp. Whoever killed her was able to evade every form of superhuman detection at the disposal of the JLA, and leaves absolutely no trace, not even on the microscopic scale of the Atom, of ever having been in the room.

2. As the heroes furiously search for Dibny's murderer, a second spouse -- Ray Palmer's (the Atom's) estranged ex-wife Jean Loring -- is nearly strangled to death but is rescued at the last moment by the Atom. Again, the killer appears and disappears without a trace.

3. As frustration and fear mounts amongst the heroes, a third loved one, Robin's father Jack Drake receives a note matching the established handwriting of the murderer appears alongside a gun, suggesting that Drake "protect himself". Meanwhile the murderer anonymously contacts the Calculator, a villainous information dealer so well-hidden not even Batman can track him down, and hires Captain Boomerang for a hit.

4. Captain Boomerang, a washed-up small-time crook who bragged to friends that the Drake murder would "put him on the map", bursts through the door loudly announcing his murderous intensions. Drake shoots Boomerang in the chest right as he throws a razor-tipped boomerang (his trademark) into Drake's own chest. Both are dead as the heroes arrive.

5. The heroes decide that Captain Boomerang must have been Sue Dibny's murderer, and the person who tried to murder Loring. They appear to cease investigations of how Boomerang was able to evade detection, knew the identities of heroes' loved ones, or chose to commit the third criminal act in such a brazenly identifying manner. Things return to normal.

6. In a shocking twist worth of Encylopedia Brown, a reunited Atom and Jean Loring discuss the recent string of murders as they prepare to have sex. Loring asks the Atom if anyone figured out who sent the gun to Jack Drake. And yet... only a few select JLA members knew of this mysterious gun... who else would know about the gun but THE PERSON WHO SENT THE GUN. And if her handwriting matches the murderer's... why... JEAN LORING WAS THE MURDERER ALL ALONG!

This in itself is certainly not high art, but it's not abjectly terrible. (Okay, maybe it is.) But like I said, the closer you look the less sense it makes.

Take for instance, Jean Loring's motive, an important aspect of any murder mystery. The motive, as it turns out, is that she is CRAZY. At some point Jean decided that she wished to reunite with her ex-husband, the Atom. Bear in mind that, as established in their first scenes in IC, Jean dumped the Atom, but he still carries a torch for her. The logical thing to do here would be to ask the Atom out on a date, or otherwise directly initiate a relationship. But Jean is crazy. She has a different plan in mind.

Jean decides that fear is what brings people closer. So logically, if she makes the superhero community afraid that their loved ones will die, then this will bring her and Ray closer together. She decides to manufacture this fear by borrowing one of the Atom's suits and "giving a scare" to someone who is apparently one of her closest friends, Sue Dibny. Jean's plan is to shrink down to microscopic size, ride the phone lines into Sue's ear and then poke around in Sue's brain. This is apparently exceedingly easy to do if you have one of the Atom's suits lying around your house.
Don't misunderstand, Jean does not want to poke at Sue's brain to kill her, just to... cripple her? Give her a stroke? It's never explained. But it wasn't "murder" per se. However, it turns out that untrained tiny people walking around on people's brain is fatal. Sue Dibny dies.

Luckily, Jean was prepared for this eventuality, and brought along a flamethrower "just in case." In case of what isn't really discussed, but regardless she grows to full size and torches Sue's corpse and much of her kitchen, while speaking the words, "Goodbye, Sue." None of this is picked up by the incredibly advanced security, surveilance and energy tracking devices we are told are can detect shapeshifters, teleportation, invisibility, even microscopic intruders.

Of course, we're later told by Mister Miracle, previously established Security Expert, that if things were microscopic, there would be no trace. "It makes perfect sense!" Miracle assures the reader, even though the Atom (whose suit was used) was one of the superhero CSI guys, so things were checked on a microscopic level. There is also the matter that Jean Loring grew to full size, walked around in the kitchen, somehow produced a flamethrower and used it on the kitchen while hysterically apologizing to Sue. None of this happened on a microscopic level, and yet no trace was left. But c'mon guys, it's Mister Miracle. He said it makes sense!

To be fair though, I think all the security stuff was supposed to be a red herring, to really sucker-punch you when you realize the danger was at home all along. Meltzer is apparently a big fan of women shockingly betraying their loved ones. In an essay in Give Our Regards to the Atomsmashers, Meltzer describes how at fourteen, Terra of The New Teen Titans was "the first girl to break [his] heart" when it is revealed that she was betraying the Titans to aid their nemesis Deathstroke.

Meltzer says that Titans creators Marv Wolfman and George Perez did "the one thing neither Marvel nor DC ever had the balls to do-- they kept [the "betraying hero"] as a villain and they slaughtered her... I hope they know how much that decision affected me as a writer."

If Perez or Wolfman read Identity Crisis, they would know how much that decision affected him as a writer. Meltzer even recycles his metaphor of how female betrayal feels -- both young-Meltzer and the Atom feel "their stomach sink down to my testicles" when they learn of their ladylove's treachery. I'm told that a similar lying, betraying WHOR... er, young lady shows up in The First Counsel, one of Meltzer's best-selling novels. No word on the status of Counsel's protagonist's testicles, though.

The "no trace of the killer" red herring is far from the only non-sensical distraction in the book. Ignoring the fact that in addition to being able to evade security systems, suburban lawyer Jean Loring was also able to contact the Calculator, who is so secretive and elusive and "deep" in the supervillain community that not even Batman can track him down. It's also sort of unusual that the estranged ex-wife of a b-list Justice Leaguer would know the identity of the "new" Robin (Tim Drake), who did not take the mantle until well after Loring and Palmer divorced.

The fact that the killer knew Tim Drake's secret identity, which after the death of Jason Todd (the previous Robin), Batman forces Tim to keep so closely guarded that not even some of his Teen Titans teammates were allowed to know, along with their apparent deep connections to the criminal underworld, led people to speculate on who might be the killer. Ha ha, surprise, those clues were meaningless!

Jean Loring also had the tremendous dumb red-herring luck of incinerating Sue Dibny's corpse -- honestly, how many middle aged lawyers do you know that keep flamethrowers lying around? The burning led the JLA to suspect Doctor Light was the murderer, who unbeknownst to Loring or anyone else had brutally raped Sue Dibny some time ago. I suppose it stands to reason that most rapists like to wait a decade or so to come back and set their victims on fire; I am not a criminal psychologist. But anyway, lucky stroke on the part of Jean, really took the heat off her and onto Light, who immediately sought the best protection money could buy from a vengeful Justice League, even though he had not committed the murder and had been brainwashed into forgetting his old-tyme raping ways. No idea why he thought he'd be accused of the murder, but man, what a lucky stroke, and what a red herring!

Even luckier was when Jean chose to fake her own attempted murder by hanging. Loring used a "bowline knot with dutch marine twist", which just so happened to be the exact same knot that supervillain Slipknot used when he would hang people. And by another amazing stroke of luck, both of the supervillains that Loring accidentally framed were former members of the Suicide Squad. She was also lucky that the Atom was able to, by stroke of luck, arrive at her apartment through the phone line mere seconds before she would've died from her self-hanging. This was pretty lucky, but not as lucky as the Atom mysteriously showing up thirty minutes late for a legal meeting with her. The meeting was scheduled for exactly the time of the murder.

In case this doesn't sink in for you, Jean Loring schedules a legal appointment with her ex-husband, a superhero. She then proceeds to use the ex-husband's superpowered costume to shrink down to microscopic size and attempts to "scare" one of her friends, leading to accidental death and incineration of the corpse. She does this at the precise time she has previously agreed to meet her ex-husband. Lucky for her, she returns, cleans up the evidence of her murder and manages to make it back to be waiting impatiently for the Atom when he shows up thirty minutes late, using the same powers and phone line that she used at the same time he was expected to show up to go murder one of their friends. That is some amazing luck!

Anyway, the point is, the more you look at the plot and events of Identity Crisis -- and when a story is a critically acclaimed mystery, people tend to look pretty closely -- the more nonsensical it becomes. I'm not even going to get into some of the other ridiculous red herrings -- characters who show up briefly just to be included as suspects then wander off into other funnybooks, a huge "mindwipe" subplot that served no apparent purpose but to set up three years of angst in other comic books, or the the fact that in this story of momentous import about the shocking deaths of people, Meltzer feels the need to constantly reference the fact that in the DC Universe you're capable of having a murder mystery where it seems like half of the cast have died and come back to the land of the living.

I understand that the cost of doing a story with superheroes in a shared universe is that they all have a lot of baggage, but just because Superman, Green Arrow, Hal Jordan and others die and come back from the dead doesn't mean you need to mention it all the time. Or pick apparently extraneous supervillain characters who have to be resurrected for their throwaway bits in the series. Or have characters quipping about how Donna Troy can't possibly stay dead, or that Hal Jordan is surely "working on something" to come back to life, two predictions that came true within a year of publication. At that point you are asking people to recognize how transient and unmomentous death is in superhero comics.

But I really didn't mean to catalog all of the already known problems with Identity Crisis today, I wanted to talk about this interview from the Comic Con, in which Didio and Meltzer discuss their goals and themes w/r/t IC, which really add a whole new layer of failure to this book.

Here's one quote:

"When you think of firefighters after 9/11, you look at them differently... [it] made people realize that firefighters weren’t just the guys pulling cats out of trees and marching in parades, they were heroes doing an extremely dangerous job where their lives were on the line every day."

Okay, this is a theme you could write a superhero comic about, no doubt. It's just that this superhero comic would not be Identity Crisis. Because to extend the metaphor, what 9/11 taught Brad Meltzer is that sometimes firefighters' wives go crazy and start killing the wives and parents of firefighters, trying to blame it on arsonists or terrorists when it's really just a crazy wife trying to get back together with the firefighter she divorced because he was too dedicated to firefighting. I have to admit, this is an interesting theory. I have yet to see any 9/11 conspiracy theories that implicate the regretful ex-wives of FDNY members.

But this isn't neccesarily Meltzer's fault; current DC Executive Editor Dan Didio apparently dictated to Meltzer that Jean Loring would end up killing Sue Dibny. It was just up to Meltzer, best-selling mystery/thriller writer to figure out the how and why part of the story, since the key plot points hadalready been editorially decreed, apparently a popular trend at DC.

Spake Meltzer: “I’m not scared by a guy who can throw a building at me... that’s never gonna happen. I’m scared by the guy who spends ten days plotting for ten days to put a bullet in the back of my head.” This is again, a nice philosophy, if you ignore the fact that the core tragedy of Identity Crisis doesn't involve any sort of pre-meditated, cold-blooded murder. Plus it involves super powers. So I am wondering if perhaps the reporter at CBR is quoting him out of context, perhaps about one of his other stories.

He also pointed out how he did not kill several of the characters that he was told were editorially expendible, such as the Atom or Martian Manhunter. "It would have been a cheap ploy," he said, presumably because killing off a more obscure character in a Cheap Ploy Perfect Storm -- she was a saint, improbably adored by literally everyone, a victim of rape, an expectant mother and was murdered by someone who accidentally framed her innocent rapist that behaved in a suspicious manner that was completely nonsensical seeing as he was innocent -- the thought of adding any more cheap ploys to a book already brimming with cliche sentimental appeals and completely illogical red herrings might have been too much for the reader to handle.

Regardless, I didn't realize that it was possible to make Identity Crisis an even greater storytelling failure than I already considered it, but apparently it managed to thwart even authorial intent. It's truly a remarkable artifact, but probably not one people should be pushing to the general reading audience if they want people to change their minds about funnybooks being nonsensical juvenile crap.

3 Comments:

Blogger DCUBoy said...

I am a fan of Identity Crisis, but I can see your points. It was soooo nice to finally read a criticism of Identity Crisis that wasn't "OMG they had rape in this comic."

3:19 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

http://tramadol-sqllt.blogspot.com/
Good Luck!

3:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

...please where can I buy a unicorn?

12:04 AM  

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