Tuesday, April 05, 2005


Disturbing Comics, Part 2

With the 20th anniversary of Crisis On Infinite Earths approaching, it’s only natural that DC would revisit the event. And with the entire comics industry in decline, it seems only natural that they would start considering a return to something approximating their fun old, multiversal salad days.

The groundwork was laid in the excellent Superman/Batman, an update of the old World’s Finest. Superman/Batman is actually a very cool series. It’s been a continuation of DC’s return to form, because who doesn’t recall all those great old crossover stories, with Batman dressing up as Superman to fool Lois Lane, or Luthor and the Joker teaming up? Back in the day Big Blue and Ol’ Batty (okay, they never called each other that, but dammit, they should have) were the best of friends. Post-crisis, the differences in their respective crimefighting methods always seemed to lead to tension, if not outright hostility. Superman/Batman gives us the best of both approaches, with two men who respect and trust each other, even when they differ in their methods.

In the first S/B arc (in these days of decompressed storytelling, if you don’t do a six-issue arc that can be collected as a trade paperback, you might as well be making cave paintings, amirite?), President Lex Luthor (long story) attempted to discredit, then kill Superman with the Government’s Kryptonite stockpile, forcing Superman to seek help from Batman. At the end of the arc, Luthor had been disgraced and fled the white house, once more a common criminal. We last saw him donning that kickass green-and-purple battle armor he used to wear in the 80s, and declaring “there will be a reckoning…a crisis…”

Yeah, that word. You say the word “crisis” in, or about, the DCU, it takes on a certain ominous significance. Hence Luthor’s vow. Hence Identity Crisis. And hence…Countdown.

Countdown was announced a couple of months ago, with the Alex Ross cover image quickly circulating across the net. Who, everybody wondered, was the lifeless figure Batman was holding? Nightwing? Martian Manhunter? Christ, did he lose another Robin?

More details began to emerge. Countdown would be a $1, 80-page one-shot, “spinning out of the events of Identity Crisis!” It would lead to five separate miniseries, each one, ahem, “spinning out of the events of Identity Crisis!” It would be written by such DC bigshots as Geoff Johns (the one who’s been doing such great stories with the Flash), Greg Rucka (a crime novelist who’s currently writing Batman) and, I’m sorry to say, Judd Winick.

Winick, you may recall, was the schlubby cartoonist from The Real World San Francisco. Over the last few years, Winick has wormed his way into comics, making his bones with Pedro and Me, a graphic novel about his friendship with HIV-positive Real World castmate Pedro Zamora. Basically the plot was this: Pedro had AIDS, I knew him, therefore I am interesting.

That’s my take, at least. The fact is, Winick is a middling creator, the type who, if he didn’t have the TV credit, would be lucky to work on a copyright-maintaining Speedball miniseries for Marvel. But because he was on TV with a guy with AIDS, he’s somehow tricked the comics industry into thinking he’s actually talented. He’s currently writing Green Arrow, in which Mia Dearden (a character introduced by Kevin Smith during his run) contracts HIV. But at least Winick’s not a one-gimmick writer.

Countdown was released this past Wednesday. And the first surprise was the full title: Countdown…To Infinite Crisis.

Once again, it’s not a bad story, on the surface. Like Identity Crisis, it does a nice job of illustrating the pecking order of the DCU, the way even seasoned veterans can feel like n00bs in the presence of a heavy-hitter like Superman, or how a third-stringer like Booster Gold is considered beneath Batman’s notice. In the story, Blue Beetle (yes, an 80-page special focusing on Blue Beetle. At least it’s only a buck) discovers that someone has been embezzling from his company, Kord Industries. Yadda yadda yadda, the trail leads him to Maxwell Lord, the corporate bigshot and former leader of Beetle and Booster’s Justice League of Bwahaha. Lord, it seems, has been quietly consolidating his power, collecting inside information on the heroes, and setting himself up as a big-time supervillain. Naturally, he can’t let Blue Beetle leave alive.

Naturally, this has been a blow to the remaining fans of the 80s League; the characters had, in fact, recently been making a comeback, in the miniseries Formerly Known As The Justice League, and the sequel, I Can’t Believe It’s Not The Justice League, both by the original creative team of Giffen, DeMatteis, and original artist Kevin Maguire. Just when they get their beloved characters back, Max Lord turns evil, Blue Beetle gets shot in the head, and Booster Gold gets blowed up real good.

And this is the crux of DC’s own identity crisis. On the one hand, they’re recognizing the Crisis as the moment things turned ugly for them, and they’re making a real effort to get back to that era. Bringing back Hal Jordan and Oliver Queen, restoring Kara of Krypton as Supergirl, putting their biggest heroes against their biggest villains in the most epic adventures. They’ve even announced their “All-Stars” line, putting top creators like Grant Morrison and Frank Miller on their top characters, in what they describe as “Continuity-Free” stories, designed to appeal to the casual comics reader who’s not steeped in DC lore. In other words, Dick Grayson is Robin, Lois doesn’t know Clark is Superman, Luthor is a mad scientist. This is good. On the other hand, in the DCU proper, they seem to be going about this return to form in a hamhanded way, putting beloved characters through the wringer for little more than cheap drama and sales stunts.

We still don’t know what this “Infinite Crisis” actually will be; following countdown, we get four miniseries, the only one of which that interests me is The Rann-Thanagar War, pitting Hawkman’s people against Adam Strange’s adopted homeworld (and let me just say now that the recent Adam Strange miniseries was a fine return to sci-fi form for DC—can we hope for an Atari Force revival? Probably not). Besides that, you’ve got Day Of Vengeance, with the Spectre looking for a new human host now that Hal Jordan is back to Green Lanterning, Villains United, with Luthor’s new super-villain coalition, and the OMAC Project, which…I dunno, all DC says is that it “unravels the world of our heroes.”

All this, apparently, will lead into the aforementioned Infinite Crisis. Internet speculation is that all this doom and gloom is a red-herring, and that IC will be a big CTRL-Z for the DCU, returning it more or less to a pre-1986 state. This, of course, would present a whole new set of problems, since they’d still be wiping out twenty years worth of storylines. As a lifelong DC junkie, I’ll be there, just like I’ve always been. But watch out, DC; as Marvel learned during the 90s, short-term sales stunts (companywide crossovers, endless variant editions) combined with bad stories (dear god, that Spider-Man clone saga) will break the patience of even the most ardent loyalist.

And while we’re on the subject, is it too much to ask for a Swamp Thing series that doesn’t suck ass?

Copyright 2004 Rich Bowen

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