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Review 138: JLA/Avengers

JLA/Avengers by Kurt Busiek and George Pérez

Everybody loves a good team-up. No matter who your favorite hero is, whether in the realm of sports, music, science, writing, art – you get a secret thrill from the idea of what they could achieve if they worked together. Sometimes it’s brilliant, like when Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett teamed up to do Good Omens. Sometimes it’s inspiring, like the pop music wonder that was “We Are the World.” Sometimes it’s overwhelming, like the 1992 Olympic basketball Dream Team. Sometimes it’s Damn Yankees, and the less said about that, the better.

Regardless, we all love to play that game of “What if,” pairing together not only the greatest talents we know, but sometimes the greatest talents in history. What if Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton could have studied the universe together? What if we could get Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy together to work on the problems facing the nation? What if Kurt Kobain and Jimi Hendrix were able to cut an album together? The team-ups are endless, and most of the time they’re impossible.

Some team-ups, however, are best left unimagined.

Fortunately, that’s where fiction steps in. The Justice League was created by Gardner Fox and Mike Sekowsky over at DC Comics back in 1960. The idea was to take the greatest heroes the company had in their library and team them up to fight battles that no one hero could face alone – Starro the Conquerer being the first among them, and thereafter many more. Aliens, mad scientists, evil kings, vengeful gods, all those who attempted to conquer, destroy, or devour the Earth were stopped by the League. Though the membership roster has changed many times over the years, as has the style of the books, the League has been a fixture in the DC Comics universe for more than forty years.

As Stan Lee tells the story, the publisher of DC Comics, Jack Liebowitz, bragged over a round of golf to the owner of Marvel, Martin Goodman, about how well his new Justice League title was selling. After the game, Goodman called Lee and told him to create a hero team to compete. Stan’s imagination provided him with the Fantastic Four, and a comic book arms race had begun. Lee produced hero after hero for Marvel, conveniently housing most of them in New York City. From there, it made sense to have them get together to fight even greater menaces. With the pencils of comic book legend Jack Kirby, Lee created The Avengers, the mightiest hero team of the Marvel universe. They too have undergone a lot of changes in the last four decades, but they remain the elite team of heroes to which every costumed adventurer aspires.

Damn, they're cool.

Superman, Batman, Aquaman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Flash, Martian Manhunter….

Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, Ant-Man, Hulk [1], the Wasp, Hawkeye….

These are names that every comic book fan should know, and deep down inside we all wonder: what would it be like if they could get together? What’s more, what kind of foe would require the combined might of two of the greatest hero teams in comic book history? It could only be something on a monumental scale, something that endangers the existences of both universes. Something like… Krona.

If you’re a long-time reader, you might remember that name. Krona was the reason for the Crisis on Infinite Earths – his obsession with seeing the beginning of the universe led to the fissioning of that universe into a nigh-infinite number of parallel ones. It was only after a titanic series of battles that the singular universe was put right, and Krona was transformed into pure energy and banished for his crimes. Or so we thought.

Obsessive to the core, Krona figured out how to escape his universe and started again on his quest to understand the beginning of all things, even if it meant destroying every single universe that defied him. Eventually he came to meet the Grandmaster, an immortal on the Marvel side whose limitless existence drove him to play cosmic games of chance with whatever other great powers he encountered. He knew someone who could possibly answer Krona’s questions – the planet-devourer Galactus – and challenged him to a contest: the greatest heroes of each universe would compete to gather items of power. If the DC team won, Krona would leave and search elsewhere. If Marvel’s team won, it would bring ultimate destruction to both cosmoses.

I dunno. I was hoping for something... well, cosmic.

And so the teams met, and like all good superhero team-ups, it started with a fight. Something about the two worlds put the visitors on edge, and both Superman and Captain America were willing to pound their opposite numbers into the dirt if need be. Fortunately, as in all good hero team-ups, their differences were put aside in favor of battling Krona and saving both of their universes from utter annihilation.

It’s a vast story, both in time and space, and manages to bring together pretty much everyone who has ever been part of the two teams, both in terms of the heroes that made them up and the villains they fought. Yet it feels fairly intimate – these aren’t two whole universes that are battling for survival, but two teams, who manage to mesh together surprisingly well. A lot of the credit for this, of course, has to go to the writer, Kurt Busiek, who had the unenviable task of penning a story that made the best – and fairest – use of both teams. After all, never underestimate the partisan fans, the ones who would be utterly incensed by Superman beating Thor, or the idea that Captain America could possibly be Batman’s equal in hand-to-hand combat. I’m sure there were people on both sides of the publishing divide who were keeping very careful account of which team came off “better” in this fight, but that’s not the way this book was meant to be read. Busiek’s mission was to create a threat that could only be contained by both teams together, which means that neither team by itself was enough to win, which means that you should shut up already about whether or not Superman should have been able to use Thor’s hammer, dammit.

Only - ONLY - George Perez could pull this off....

Even for all the care that went into writing this story, it never would have worked without an artist capable of handling that many characters and making sure they all looked their best. When you have a universe-spanning epic with a cast of far-too-many, there’s only one person you can call: George Pérez. Not only can he handle a chaotic battle scene, making every hero look… well… heroic, hes just as good at the casualness of a Christmas party, or the masks-off teamwork that is involved in trying to build a reality-piercing spaceship. Whether facing off against great cosmic powers or chatting next to the coffee urn, Pérez knows how to make these people look damn good. There’s just no one else like him. With outstanding colors by Tom Smith, I could just read this book for the artwork alone.

What I also found interesting was a look at how the two worlds are fundamentally different in not only their stories but their very makeup. The Flash can’t run in the Marvel Universe because the Speed Force doesn’t exist, while the Scarlet Witch’s powers are multiplied to dangerous levels in the DC Universe thanks to the strength of the Lords of Chaos. The differences in the geography and the sizes of the Earths, the type of energy they receive from their suns, the fundamental forces that hold their universes together are a huge obstacle to getting the teams to work together, and as far as I know it is the first attempt to “scientifically” delineate how they are different.

This is the part where you lose. Hard.

There is also a bit of sociological analysis, too. Each team first notices how differently heroes are treated in their opposite worlds. The heroes of the Marvel Universe are tolerated, but not entirely trusted. The non-powered citizenry tend to be more afraid of superheroes, especially the mutants, and so the ability of groups like the Avengers to effect positive change on their world is limited. To Superman, this looks like Marvel’s heroes aren’t bothering to make their world better, but only remaining satisfied to hold the status quo.

On the DC side, heroes are beloved. Superman is a planet-wide hero, Wonder Woman is an ambassador of peace, and the people of Central City have built an entire museum to honor the Flash. These people revere their heroes as both celebrities and saviors, something that Captain America views as a step towards fascism – costumed gods with their pet people ready to do what they say.

Neither viewpoint is entirely right, but they do reflect a fundamental difference in the way each company approaches its storytelling. To put that editorial decision in front of the characters was an interesting choice, and allowing them to come to their own judgments was fun – if a little unnerving – to read.

All in all, JLA/Avengers is a truly great team-up story, one that should make the fans on both sides happy for a while.

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“Neural chaff. Hypnotic lights. Pre-programmed skills. Try fighting the Wehrmacht, mister – it teaches you focus!”
Captain America to Prometheus, JLA/Avengers

[1] Hulk gets almost no screen time in the story, which is very disappointing. I’m sure there are reasons for this….

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Filed under apocalypse, Avengers, comic books, DC Comics, disaster, George Perez, JLA, Kurt Busiek, Marvel Comics, quest, super-heroes, supervillains, world-crossing

Lost in the Stacks 8: Guilty Pleasures

Everybody has a guilty pleasure book. It might be one author or a specific series or even a whole genre – that book you don’t want to be seen reading. The book you know your high school English teacher would scold you for wasting your time with. The book you feel stupid talking about at parties because you know they’re going to say, “Really? That’s an interesting choice. I enjoy reading James Joyce in my free time and have first editions of the collected works of Gabriel Garcia-Marquez in every room of my home,” after which they all laugh at you until you run out of the party in shame and swear never to read another word of anything fun as long as you live. For example.

You didn't know about Twain's little-known short story, "A Connecticut Yankee in a 30th Century Court?" It's fascinating, really....

But should it really be that way? Why do we let the bestseller lists and “Best Books of ALL TIME” lists or some knucklehead with a podcast tell us what we should read and what we should like? In this edition of Lost in the Stacks, we explore the idea of Guilty Pleasure Reading and whether or not the concept should even exist. Share your guilty pleasures with us and stand up for your tastes in reading!

Obama’s Book Club
NPR’s Top 100 Science Fiction and Fantasy
The Guardian’s Best Books
Time Magazine’s Top 100 Novels
The Telegraph: Top 100 Books
New York Times Bestseller List
The Comics Code Authority on Wikipedia

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Filed under classics, comic books, criticism, culture, fantasy, fiction, Lost in the Stacks, reading, reviewing, science fiction, society

Lost in the Stacks 6: You Keep Jesus, I’ll Take Hal Jordan

You know who else sacrificed himself saving the world? And then rose again?

Everyone needs role models growing up, and in a time of crisis everyone needs to turn to someone who is better than themselves. Some folks turn to religion, others turn to fiction. [1] As much as we use the real people in our lives – our parents, teachers, community leaders, I’ve found that fictional characters have imparted great lessons to me which have shaped the kind of person I’ve become.

How do fictional characters shape us, and why? What makes them so different from real people in terms of being a role model? Listen along with me and find out!

And of course, I’d be interested to hear from you – what fictional characters have made you who you are? What lessons did you learn from books, from TV or movies that have helped you become the person you want to be? Leave your story in the comments and join the conversation.

[1] Assuming, of course, that there’s a difference.

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Filed under comic books, DC Comics, Green Lantern, identity, Lost in the Stacks, personality, role models

Review 125: Logicomix

Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos Papadimitriou

I have a question for you. It’s a simple-sounding question, but hard to answer, so I really want you to put a good amount of thought into it before you do. Okay? Yes, I’m still in Teacher-mode, but that’s not important right now. My question is this:

What is truth?

Good luck with that whole "free will" thing.

It’s one of those unanswerable questions that has bugged us ever since we started being able to ask unanswerable questions. Along with “Why is there evil in the world?” and “Do we have free will or are our lives pre-determined from the beginning?” or “What’s the deal with that Justin Bieber kid? I mean really?” this question is one that people either ignore or obsess over.

Didn’t think I could do a pop-culture reference like that, did you? Shows how much you know….

This graphic novel is about one man’s pursuit of this question, and the ways in which it nearly destroyed his life. The man was Bertrand Russell, and we follow his life from his childhood to late adulthood as he searches for an unshakable foundation to mathematics and logic, and thus an absolute truth that he could rely on.

Bertrand Russell does not find the truth. He teaches it to come when it is called.

As a child, Russell lived with the question of why things are the way they are, and got no good answers from his domineering grandmother. It wasn’t until his introduction to geometry and the wonder of mathematical proofs that he could finally say there was something about which he could be absolutely sure in the universe. Mathematics, he thought, would be the answer to everything. Pure, unsullied and utterly, utterly reliable.

But there was a flaw in math – the Axioms. Mathematics in the 19th century was a direct descendant of Euclid’s work, and rested on a series of axioms in order to function. An axiom, then, is something that is assumed to be true so that you can go on to prove other things. For example, if you have a line, and a point not on that line, there can be only one line drawn through that point that is parallel to the first. Why is this true? Well… it just is. If you have to prove that, then you have to prove a thousand other things first, and you never end up being able to prove the thing you were trying to prove in the first place. It was like, he thought, the cosmological model of the world on the back of a turtle. Which stood on another turtle. Which stood on another, and another – turtles, all the way down.

The bottom turtle's name is "Jeff." (art courtesy of Kenneth Rougeau)

That didn’t satisfy young Russell, and he went off in search of the floor upon which the last turtle stood, as it were – new mathematics that would be able to define the foundations of math, and thereby give a concrete understanding of the universe. Along the way, his desire to apply the certainty of math to human thought and interaction led him to the discipline of logic, a strange chimera of mathematics and philosophy. By becoming a logician, he thought he might finally be able to pin down some absolute truths about not only abstract math but human nature itself.

Of course, he failed. Spectacularly. Broken marriages, broken friendships, ill health – his obsession with an absolute truth to the universe nearly destroyed everything he had. Fortunately for him, Russell pulled back from the abyss before it could swallow him whole, and became one of the early 20th century’s greatest philosophers in the process. His failure to find an ultimate foundation for logic and math was not entirely without fruit – thanks to work by Russell and others, these disciplines were pushed forward in ways that made our modern lives possible. New ways of understanding the universe, from the unfathomable depths of infinity to the simplicity of 1+1=2, everything was open to examination in those days. Because of men like Bertrand Russell, humanity advanced in great leaps and bounds.

1+1=2. Seriously. No more arguments.

In the end, it’s a compelling book. I read and re-read it, convinced each time that there was something else I had missed. I was very often right. Doxiadis and Papadimitriou have put together a compelling tale of a man often overlooked by the general public, and they did so in a medium that’s close to my heart – the graphic novel. The art, done by Alecos Papadatos and Annie Di Donna, is wonderful. It has a simplicity that belies the complexity of its topic, and shows an excellent sense of storytelling. Hats off to the two of them, without a doubt.

This book, it should be noted, is not a primer on logic. If you’re looking to know how logic works, or you want to know a bit more about higher mathematics and how to do them, then you’d best look for another book. As the authors tell us right in the beginning, this book is a story, a great tragedy that owes its inspiration to the ancient productions of the Greeks. It’s the story of a man who pitted himself against the universe and lost, but who did so in such a way that he – and the world – came out better for it. The book ends with a scene from The Oresteia, a classic Greek drama about another man who found himself in a no-win situation with no absolutes to rest upon.

"Stop asking me to prove beauty, dammit!"

Much like Orestes, when faced with two choices that could lead to his destruction, the only way forward for Russell was to compromise and to move forward. By doing so, he not only became a happier man, but became involved with humanity again, as a philosopher, a teacher, and an anti-war activist.

In the end, this book is about the compromises we all have to make as human beings. The world may be a logical place, but we are not. There is a limit to our logical understanding of ourselves, and sooner or later we have to accept that and deal with people as people, rather than as problems to be solved and equations to be balanced. Bertrand Russell’s quest, as interpreted by this novel, is an example of how far we can push the need to know exactly what’s at the bottom of it all. The fact that the foundations of our world appear to be unprovable and unknowable is, ultimately, unimportant. What is important is that we are here, now, and we need to make sense of our own lives.

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“The demand for certainty is one which is natural to man, but is nevertheless an intellectual vice. So long as men are not trained to withhold judgment in the absence of evidence, they will be led astray by cocksure prophets, and it is likely that their leaders will be either ignorant fanatics or dishonest charlatans. To endure uncertainty is difficult, but so are most of the other virtues.”
– Bertrand Russell, Unpopular Essays – Philosophy for Laymen
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Logicomix on Wikipedia
Apostolos Doxiadis on Wikipedia
Christos Papadimitriou on Wikipedia
Bertrand Russell on Wikipedia
Logicomix on Amazon.com

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Filed under Apostolos Doxiadis, Bertrand Russell, biography, Christos Papadimitriou, graphic novel, logic, mathematics, nonfiction, quest

Review 110: Johnny the Homicidal Manic & SQUEE!

Johnny the Homicidal Maniac and SQUEE’S Big Giant Book of Unspeakable Horrors by Jhonen Vasquez

I’m putting these two together, because they really do form one larger piece – the craft of an artistic mastermind. Although perhaps “mastermind” isn’t the best word to use here. What do you call the person that they lock up when they’re about fifteen because they keep saying things to their teachers like, “The human body has ten thousand miles of blood vessels in it and I can feel my hate for you coursing through every one?” Or the guy who buys a dog, takes care of it, feeds it, loves it, and then one day realizes that the dog has been spying on him for the CIA for years and buries it in his backyard? Or the angry hobo who lurches up to your car as you wait at the stop light, a bucket of dirty, grey water in one hand and a rotten squeegee in the other and proceeds to molest himself with it, afterwards demanding that you gave him change, quote, “For the show.”

You thought I was kidding about the dog....

That kind of guy. What would you call him?

Whatever it is, welcome to the world of Jhonen Vasquez. Strap yourself in.

Johnny the Homicidal Maniac is the story of Johnny C., known to his very few friends simply as Nny. Nny is rail-thin, yet something of a fashion plate, and lives in a broken-down house with two evil Styrofoam doughboys, a dead bunny nailed to a wall, and a gateway to a creature of infinite evil somewhere in one of the many basements of the house.

In his free time, Johnny kills people in horrible and graphically interesting ways.

Not because he’s a bad person, necessarily. He does have the wall to feed, after all – a wall that has to be continually painted with fresh blood, lest the Evil come out of it. But he is, by his own admission, “quite horrendously insane.” He murders for many reasons, the Evil Wall aside. He murders the people who feel superior to others (while at the same time feeling that he is superior to them). The kills the smug and the self-possessed, the materialistic and the bored, the lowbrows and the posers and the jerks who seem to infest every corner of his world. And while he does kill with great glee and abandon, he occasionally takes the time to wonder if what he’s doing is worth it. If murder is all that his life has become. If maybe it would be better off to just end it all and kill himself.

Fortunately – or not – he has The Doughboys to keep him company. Two Styrofoam figures, painted by Nny, which talk to him constantly. One urges him to live and kill to his heart’s content. The other presses him to commit suicide and leave this world behind. Whichever wins will be freed from his plastic prison and reunited with his evil master. As a balance to them is Nailbunny, which is pretty much just what it sounds like – a bunny rabbit that Johnny bought from the pet store and then one day nailed to the wall. Nailbunny (or at least its floating head) is the voice of reason in Johnny’s life, urging him to be suspicious of the Doughboys and all they want. Despite his nihilistic view of the world, Johnny discovers that he does indeed have a purpose in life. Just not a very good one.

Yes, Nny, show us "wacky"

Johnny is, naturally, hard to sympathize with. Part of that comes from his almost cavalier attitude towards killing, but more than that, he’s rather adolescent in his view of the world and how it works. Like so many teenagers, he has yet to grow a buffer between himself and the world, and cannot differentiate malicious acts from merely thoughtless ones. He feels every barb and every sting like hooks in his flesh, and the only way he is able to deal with it is through murderous rage. Reading it as an adult who remembers his teen years, I can certainly see where Johnny is coming from, but at the same time I wish he’d just grow up and learn to live in the world like the rest of us.

Which is a statement for which Johnny would no doubt gleefully murder me.

One of the major themes of these comics is conformity and humanity’s need to follow each other into the abyss. Hypocritical characters dressed in all the latest fashions snub people who are slaves to public opinion. One of the worst offenders, a recurring character named Anne Gwish, embodies the modern Goth poser who shuns everyone while despairing that no one talks to her. Johnny’s world is filled with these people and they all need killing. Even people who don’t deserve death might end up falling to Johnny. In one of my favorite stories, “Goblins,” a man who was chosen at random is strapped to a truly terrible machine, and faces his impending death with enviable conviction.

Johnny the Homicidal Maniac reads like an extended teenage revenge fantasy, if a highly philosophical and entertaining one. Eventually you figure out that, as Vasquez himself says, “He’s not a loser, he’s simply lost.”

No. Don't do it. Life is too... oh, go ahead.

Themes of identity and social connection continue in the book SQUEE’S Big Giant Book of Unspeakable Horrors. Young Squee (whose real name is Todd) is Johnny’s neighbor and is featured in the very first JtHM story. Squee is a pitiful child, with parents who resent his very existence and a school that is constantly trying to crush the spirit out of him. Squee lives a life of unending terror as he’s beset by nightmares, aliens, his cannibalistic grandfather, openly hateful parents, and a world that never seems to make sense. It is his young burden to have to live in a world created by Jhonen Vasquez.

Somehow, though, little Squee manages. Manages to get himself locked into an insane asylum, yes, but manages nonetheless.

The second half of the book features Vasquez’s filler strips – one or two-page stories of pain, heartbreak and horror. Poor Wobbly-Headed Bob tries to convince the rest of the world to accept that he’s smarter than they are, and can’t understand why they want to kill him. True Tales of Human Drama are just that – dramatic, probably human and god I hope they’re not true. Happy Noodle Boy is a free-form anarchistic story, allegedly drawn by Johnny himself, and I can never manage to finish one. My favorite filler strips are the Meanwhile…. strips, one of which features two elementary-school crossing guard children enacting the final battle between two entities of pure evil. Another depicts a first date gone horribly, horribly awry as a case of gastrointestinal distress engenders one of the best attempts to save face I’ve ever seen. A horrible, lying vampire, the revenge of the pinatas, and a case of childhood attachment issues gone horribly wrong, these are some of my favorite works in the whole series.

Good old Ludwig van B. Perfect for any occasion - even mass murder.

The work of Jhonen Vasquez certainly isn’t for everyone. Even his famous animated program, Invader Zim, is a little weirder than most people are willing to accept for a children’s show. It rewards patient reading and careful attention to the artwork. Which, I might add, is distinctive and disturbing and wonderful. Vasquez has created a style that’s cartoonish and yet horrible, in which childlike glee can be rendered next to heart-stopping horror, and we can perfectly believe that they exist in the same world.

It’s strange, horrible and funny all at the same time. If you’re interested in something out of the ordinary, I can definitely recommend this.

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“I suggest you seek some alternate source of sympathy, Nny. You tried to kill that girl. She liked you, and you tried to kill her. That was impolite.”
– Nailbunny, Johnny the Homicidal Maniac

Johnny the Homicidal Maniac on Wikipedia
Squee! on Wikipedia
Jhonen Vasquez on Wikipedia
Jhonen Vasquez’s website
Johnny the Homicidal Maniac on Amazon.com
SQUEE’S Big Giant Book of Unspeakable Horrors on Amazon.com

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Filed under afterlife, childhood, comic books, death, demons, existentialism, good and evil, graphic novel, horror, humor, Jhonen Vasquez, madness, morality, murder, philosophy, sins

Review 77: Identity Crisis


Identity Crisis by Brad Meltzer and Rags Morales

There are, traditionally, two modes of thought when it comes to comic book super-heroes. The first is that just as these people are stronger, faster and more powerful than we, so must they also be better than we.

This is the philosophy behind the immortal words penned by Stan Lee in the first Spider-Man story – “With great power comes great responsibility.” It’s not enough to be able to see through walls, teleport, manipulate eldrich energies or talk to gods if you do not live up to the incredible burden that comes with such powers. Even if you’re a self-made hero, with nothing more than your wits, a jaunty cap and a quiver full of trick arrows, there is still the expectation that you will always do the right thing. Or at least try to.

There is a nobility to this kind of super-hero. He is not motivated by fear – he surpasses it. She does not fall prey to baser human nature – she provides a model for us all to be better. These heroes don’t do what is easy – they do what is right. They don’t ever do the wrong thing, even if it is for the right reasons. They are, in a word, heroic.

This story is not about those kinds of heroes. This story is about the other kind – the heroes who are, when you strip away the Batarangs and magic rings and masks and tights, just as human as we are. Just as fallible, just as vulnerable to anger, fear and weakness as we. Much like the traditional hero, they are us writ large – in every way, unfortunately.

Being a super-hero – either kind – has never been easy. Balancing your hero life and your private life is something that even the best heroes have trouble with, and the decision to involve someone else in your life is one that carries great danger with it. If you marry someone, if you have a father or mother or lover, they all become potential targets for those who would want to hurt you. At some point, you have to decide which one is more important to you, and the special people in your life need to be included in that.

For Ralph Dibney – The Elongated Man – the choice was simple. He loved his wife, Sue, and his heroism, so he decided to have them both and became one of the very few heroes to make his identity public. Together, they were a true celebrity couple, touring the world, solving mysteries and showing everyone what a truly happy marriage looked like. And they were so very happy. Sue became an honorary member of the Justice League (an honor that not even Lois Lane has been granted) and their love inspired everyone who knew them. The heroes’ love for Sue Dibney led them to one of their greatest mistakes – albeit one that would not come back to haunt them until the worst had already happened. Not until Sue Dibney was murdered.

The heroes of the DC Universe went into overdrive, searching every corner of the world for Sue’s killer. Whoever it was had bested the technology of four worlds and eluded the greatest detectives in history. And what’s more, this new villain was targeting others that heroes loved. It was only a matter of time before someone else died, and if they could not find the killer then the very fabric of the hero community would be torn apart.

While this is, with a few caveats, a good story, it’s not a pretty one by any means. It shows the darker side of the heroes we love. They act in morally questionable ways – something that the traditional super-hero would never do – in order to serve the greater good. By using their powers to adjust the personality of Dr. Light, turning him from a menacing villain to a laughable punching bag, they set in motion a chain of events that would have universe-wide repercussions.

All told, I liked this story. For one thing, the writing was really solid, with great care paid to pacing and visual impact. The story is not really about the heroes, at least not by themselves. It’s about the relationships they have with other people, and how those relationships affect their decisions. That’s why characters are constantly introduced in terms of their relationships to each other. You can see it on the very first page – “Lorraine Reilly and Ralph Dibney. Co-workers.” The fact that they’re both super-heroes is self-evident. The fact that they’re people, with a relationship to each other, is often taken for granted in comics.

Ray Palmer and Jean Loring go from “Divorcees” to “Lovers” in the span of two pages, while Firestorm goes from hero to atomic bomb. “Father and son,” “Husband and Wife,” “Partners” – characters are constantly being introduced by their relationships, and usually by their given names, rather than their superhero sobriquets. In fact, Green Arrow, who is one of the driving forces in this story, rarely refers to anyone by their code name. When he does, it’s an immediate signal that this is a person he doesn’t know well. To Ollie, and thus to us, these are people under those masks, and it’s important to remember that.

My favorite example of the heroes’ humanity is the scene in the issue “Father’s Day,” wherein Robin and Batman are racing to save the life of Robin’s father. Set up by the mysterious killer who murdered Sue Dibney, Jack Drake tries desperately to tell his son not to blame himself while Tim tries just as desperately to save him. In the end, even the incredible Batman is unable to save this one life, and the reader is forced to feel every moment of it. It’s a painful, beautiful sequence, both in terms of the writing and the artwork.

I would be amiss if I didn’t mention the villains as well. All too often they have been portrayed as madmen and megalomaniacs, driven by nothing more than nefarious purposes and misanthropy. The villains in this book are also humanized. They tell stories, have trouble making ends meet, even have hobbies outside of villainy. And, like the heroes, they have relationships with each other. They are fathers and sons, friends, employers and employees, and the tragedy being visited upon the heroes spills into their world as well. While we may not root for the bad guys, we can at least sympathize with them a little more.

There certainly are flaws to the story, though. For one, it’s been described as “tragedy porn,” and I can’t disagree. Much as regular pornography takes the sexual act and distorts it into a pleasurable fantasy, so does tragedy porn take an unfortunate event, such as rape or murder, and make it into something even more horrible than it normally would be. Whether this is entirely a bad thing, I can’t really say. Writers have always used pain and death for our entertainment – hell, look at Titus Andronicus. Not only was Lavinia raped, she was mutilated on top of it. Was Shakespeare just trying to get a rise out of the masses? Maybe. Is Meltzer doing the same here? Probably. Does it work? Hell, yes.

There have been a lot of objections raised to the use of rape as a plot device in this book – whether it was appropriate for a super-hero comic book, for one, and whether it was nothing more than a gut-punch. A story choice that’s effective, but ultimately unimaginative. All this may be true, but my take on it is this: That’s not what the story is about.

The story isn’t about rape or murder. It’s not about mind-wipes and magic. It’s about the relationships between these people, heroes and villains all. It’s about their identities, as the title implies – how they see themselves and how others see them. It’s about people, with all the flaws and defects that make them human. It’s a book of revelations, illumination and truth, none of which are ever easy to confront.

While this wasn’t the first comic book story to feature its characters as humans rather than heroes, it could be the most influential. At least in recent years. The events of this book started a chain reaction that has followed through to every universe-wide event that DC has published in the last six years, from Infinite Crisis all the way to Blackest Night. Meltzer built a story that provided a solid foundation for a new DC Universe. It’s a universe that gives us heroes more realistic than before, more human and fallible. While it may not be the kind of story that you like, you cannot deny the impact that it’s had.

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“Think about your own life, Wally – everything you’ve done to keep your secrets safe. You don’t just wear the mask for yourself. It’s for your wife, your parents, even for – one day – your children. There are animals out there, Wally. And when it comes to family, we can’t always be there to defend them. But the mask will.”
– Oliver Queen (Green Arrow) to Wally West (Flash), Identity Crisis
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Identity Crisis on Wikipedia
Brad Meltzer on Wikipedia
Rags Morales on Wikipedia
Brad Meltzer’s homepage
Rags Morales’ blog (last entry2006)
Identity Crisis at Amazon.com

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Filed under Batman, Brad Meltzer, comic books, DC Comics, death, detective fiction, ethics, identity, morality, murder, Rags Morales, rape, super-heroes, Superman

Review 53: Crisis on Infinite Earths – DOUBLE FEATURE


Crisis on Infinite Earths: Absolute Edition by Marv Wolfman and George Perez

This, ladies and gentlemen, is one of the works that has affected me deeply. More importantly, it is something that has caused considerable harm to my wallet and bank account, as I have been collecting comic books for almost twenty-five years now, and it’s all because of Crisis. I can still remember going to the drugstore after church one Sunday and seeing the cover to Crisis #9 – a classic George Perez group shot of some of the most terrible villains ever seen in the DC Universe. You name the baddie, I guarantee he or she was in there somewhere. I was hooked. Of course, coming into a 12-part series in issue 9 meant that I was really lost as to what was going on, but some effort and visits to comics shops eventually got me up to speed. Unfortunately, once I understood Crisis, I realized that there was much more that I didn’t understand.

You can’t really understand this story without understanding something of the DC Comics Universe. In the late 1950s, they published a story called “Flash of Two Worlds” (Flash #123), in which the Flash, Barry Allen, managed to, using his prodigious super-speed, vibrate through some dimensional barrier or other, and meet the Flash, Jay Garrick, that he had read about as a child in – you guessed it – comic books.

The explanation for this was simple – the guy who wrote Flash comics in Barry Allen’s childhood had, somehow, “tuned in” to this Alternate Earth, watching Jay Garrick’s adventures and, thinking they were fiction, wrote them up as comic books which, in turn, inspired Barry Allen as a child. So when Barry was struck by lightning and chemicals, gaining super speed, he called himself The Flash, in homage to his childhood hero.

Anyway, in “Flash of Two Worlds,” Barry Allen finds out that the Flash he had read about actually existed, only on another Earth in another universe that vibrated at a different frequency from ours. Personally, I think this is a really cool idea, and my personal goal in life is to drink enough coffee in one sitting to accomplish the same thing myself.

Confused yet? Well, it did help if you were an avid comics reader for 25 years before Crisis came out. But to condense the whole thing, here you go:

In the Beginning, there was One. A Universe that grew and shaped and changed. Life was created, rose from the dust, and began to think. On the planet of Oa, located in the center of the universe, life grew with great swiftness, advancing at incredible speed. The beings of Oa embraced science and research. One Oan, a man by the name of Krona, sought to know the origin of the Universe they inhabited. Despite the warnings of his colleagues, he created a device that would allow him to do so. The result was a complete rupture of time and space, for the beginning of things must never be witnessed.

So…. In the Beginning, there were Many. Universe upon universe, each moving at its own speed and vibration, separated by a shadow’s thickness, but each unknown to the other.

That was the idea, anyway. The whole “multiple universe” thing, after Gardner Fox wrote his “Flash of Two Worlds” story, became one of the best plot devices the comics writers at DC ever had. Finally they could have silver age and golden age heroes meet and work together. At first, there was only Earth-1 (silver age) and Earth-2 (golden age), which was odd, because the golden age heroes of Earth-2 were older. But I guess since Barry Allen (the silver age Flash, remember) was the one who broke the barrier, he gets precedence.

Anyway, like I said – at first there were two Earths. That number grew swiftly, both for plot and copyright reasons. For example: At a certain point, DC was working on the rights to own characters from Charlton Comics (The Blue Beetle, Captain Atom, etc), and they inhabited Earth-4. Then they went to obtain characters from Fawcett (the whole Shazam line), who went onto Earth-S. As if the Hungry Beast That Was DC wasn’t finished, they put characters from Quality Comics (Uncle Sam, Phantom Lady, The Ray, etc), onto Earth-X.

Hang in there, I’ll get to the story eventually….

There was also Earth-3, where the doppelgangers of our favorite heroes were villains, and the only hero on the planet was Luthor. Then came Earth-D, Earth-Prime, Earth-Omega and, eventually, Earth-Sigma.

Suffice to say, by 1985, there was a huge mess…. Older readers had no problem following the continuity, but newcomers were baffled, and writers were no doubt also befuddling themselves. The decision was made to clean the whole thing up, make one Earth, one timeline, and one continuity. No more parallel Earths, no more vibrating through dimensional barriers.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Well, it took twelve issues and the appearance of almost every hero and villain ever seen in DC Comics’ fifty year history to pull it off. The research took over three years, with one guy tasked with studying every comic DC had printed since 1935 (my thought when I heard that: “What an awesome job!”). It also required the cooperation of dozens of writers and artists across all of DC’s titles, and a company-wide effort to make the Crisis a truly universal event.

Our story opens with the end of the world. Or the end of a world, more to the point. A vast white cloud encroaches upon the earth, vaporizing everything in its path, without pause or remorse. Panicking, people try to flee, but to no avail. Into this horror appears a man with dark eyes and a tortured face, who watches the world die, helpless and weeping, and vanishes again as the universe becomes nothing more than a mist of free-floating electrons.

Not a bad way to start a book, eh?

The man is Pariah, and he is condemned to appear wherever great tragedy strikes, unable to help, unable to die, only able to watch. He is there when the Crime Syndicate of Earth-3 put aside their evil to try and stop the wave of energy that devours their planet. Again, Pariah appears, and again the world is destroyed, but not before the planet’s only super-hero, Luthor, rockets his son through the dimensions, in the hope of freeing him from his world’s destruction.

Sound familiar? I thought so….

If you think you’re going to know what’s going on this quickly, you’re wrong. A mysterious figure sends his associate, a woman named Harbinger, who can split herself among many forms, to gather heroes from Earths that have not been destroyed and bring them to a satellite that hovers in orbit. While she searches them out, one of her is corrupted by a shadowy evil that tracks her through the ice of Atlantis. She gathers them, heroes, villains and otherwise, to the satellite, where we first meet a character that had been hovering around various DC titles for a few months, always in the shadows – The Monitor.

The Monitor informs them that there is great evil abroad, that universes are perishing at an astonishing rate, and are doing so at the hand of his adversary. Waves of anti-matter are consuming the universes, and with each one gone, the Monitor’s power decreases. He has a task for these heroes, spread out over millennia of Earth’s history. This is the first attempt to save the worlds….

The basic rundown of the story is that there is an anti-matter universe out there, created when Krona performed his experiment, controlled by the mirror version of The Monitor. This “Anti-Monitor” wants nothing more than to see his brother dead, and to see the positive Universes brought under his control. He’s a good, old-fashioned Evil Overlord, I must say…. So as each universe is destroyed by the great sweeping cloud of death, he grows ever stronger.

It has been pointed out to me that some people out there get all anal over this concept, thereby calling the whole damn plot into question. So, a bit of elementary physics. The above scenario cannot happen. When matter and antimatter collide, there is a huge burst of energy as the two forms of matter vaporize each other. Nothing is left – in “reality physics,” both the Monitor and the Anti-Monitor would be playing at a zero-sum game. Given that these people are willing to accept, however, the existence of thousands of metahumans who can perform feats that also fly in the face of real physics, I think their arguments about the properties of antimatter are so much hot air. As a very wise man once said, “Blow.”

Anyway, the Anti-Monitor’s release is tied with Pariah’s fate as well. Determined to do as Krona did, Pariah set up a chamber, of matter and anti-matter, so that he may see the beginning of all things. The result was the beginning of the end, and his world was the first consumed by the anti-matter wave. The Monitor, observing this, imbued him with his curse, using him as a “tracker” to see which universe might be the next to die.

So we have an unstoppable force tearing through the Multiverse, and it is up to The Monitor and Our Heroes to stop him. But the Monitor dies, and the worlds keep dying….

Of course you know that, in the end, the good guys win. But as with any good story, it is the telling of the tale, not the tale’s end, that is important. Wolfman and Perez did some very daring things with this story, not only in rearranging the whole order of the DC Universe, but also in killing off some pretty heavy hitters. The best cover in the series, so good that they came out with a statue based on it, was the cover of issue number seven: The Death of Supergirl.

The other major character to be killed off was Barry Allen, The Flash, who inadvertently started this whole mess a long time ago. But he died well, and, as Marv Woflman says in the forward to the collected edition of Crisis, there was a way left to bring him back if they needed to. Indeed, Barry Allen’s presence has not yet vanished. The current Flash, Wally West, has long held Barry to be the high ideal which he must match, but at the same time leave behind. In one version of the Legion of Super-Heroes books, the character of Xs, another super-speedster, is Barry Allen’s granddaughter, and the character of Impulse/Kid Flash, is Barry Allen’s nephew. So the Flash lives on, in his way. In fact, he’s recently been resurrected in DC continuity – though how long that will last is anyone’s guess.

On the other hand, no one remembers Supergirl. By the end of the Crisis, she had been wiped from existence, and was seen only once more, in a Christmas issue several years later, reminding the character of Deadman about what it means to work without reward. While several new Supergirls have appeared since then, unlike Barry Allen the pre-Crisis Supergirl is lost to history.

As you can probably guess, I really like this story. It has an immense cast of characters, without becoming unwieldy or dispersed. The storytelling, with its multi-universal scope, nevertheless allows you to feel for individuals, with their triumphs and tragedies. Ultimately we see that even the mightiest of mortals is, at heart, human. There is foreshadowing galore, mysteries abound, the plot twists and turns, and you get glimpses of what is yet to come – the hand in the swirling pool of stars, the image of the Flash appearing before Batman and vanishing with words of doom, the Green Lantern’s ring sputtering and failing…. It all intertwines together so very nicely and really satisfies my inner comics geek.

The Absolute Edition was aimed at people exactly like me. Someone who would say, “I’ve read this story a dozen times, I could probably recite it… but I need it to be bigger. Like, big enough to club a man to death with.” So yeah, they had me from the word go on this one, and as soon as the opportunity arose to buy it, I did so without hesitation. It really is very pretty – it’s been recolored and everything, AND it comes with a companion book about how the series came to be. Fascinating reading.

The big question, of course is this – after nearly twenty-five years and at least two other universe-wide reboots (Zero Hour and Infinite Crisis) that have changed the changes made by Crisis, why is this story still worth reading? Well, for one thing, the writing is solid – you can follow the story without having to buy a couple dozen other titles, and there are dramatic moments that have hung in my memory for years. In addition, there’s the art. George Perez has been one of my favorite artists for years. His attention to detail and his ability to draw dozens of characters to a page while keeping each of them dynamic, interesting and individual is, in my opinion, nothing short of superhuman. If I could choose to draw like anyone, it would be George Perez, and I will never get tired of looking at his artwork.

More importantly, however, this book is about the heroic ideal. On many scales, from the small-scale of characters like Hawk and Dove or the Losers, all the way up to the big guns of Superman, the Flash and Supergirl, the idea of what it means to be a good person is presented over and over again: you do good not because it’s easy, not because it will benefit yourself. You do good because it is what you must do, even when you know it could lead to tragic consequences for yourself. My model of heroism was formed in these books, and the model set by these characters has guided my moral choices ever since. Where other people take their moral guidance from Jesus or Marcus Aurelius or Oprah, I take mine from Barry Allen and Kara Zor-el and from so many others who put their lives and their interests aside for the greater good.

Can’t ask for much more than that.

Crisis on Infinite Earths: the Novelization by Marv Wolfman

Why yes, I own both the comic and the novelization. Is there something wrong with that?

Actually, here’s a Little Known Fact about me: when I was in, maybe, junior high school I tried to novelize Crisis. I sat down with the comics and went through them, panel-by-panel, trying to put them into a narrative form. I tried to fill in things like expressions, reactions, to bridge the gap between the kind of story you can tell in a comic and the kind you tell in a novel. To my memory, it was pretty good, though it’s no doubt lost to the ages by now. If I ever run across it, I’ll either marvel at my innocent youth or cringe at my fumbling attempt to do the unnecessary.

I am not the only one who gave that some thought, it seems. To his credit, though, since Marv Wolfman was the guy who wrote the comics, I think he has far more right to put it into novel form than I ever did. But whereas mine was a straight page-by-page translation of the comic to text, Wolfman decided to tell the story from a very different angle. He decided to let us see the Crisis on Infinite Earths through the eyes of Barry Allen, The Flash.

As I said in my review of the comic series, Barry Allen was (more or less) the beginning of the Multiverse in DC Comics, so it was fitting that he be the one to narrate the end in this book. After all, he didn’t get all that much page time in the comics – a few ghostly visitations, some taunting and then he was dead. Yes, his death saved billions of people, but still – for someone as important as he was, you would have thought he’d have gotten a few more pages.

The thing about The Flash, though, is that he’s hard to pin down. Literally. Even on an ordinary day, we’re talking about a man who can race laser beams – and win. He can alter his subjective view of time to the point where a hummingbird in flight becomes a still life. He can run fast enough to travel through time, and vibrate the very molecules of his body to a point where he can not only ghost through solid matter but pass between the dimensional barriers that separate the multiple Earths.

How any villain ever got the best of this man is beyond me. If the writers had ever taken his powers seriously, The Flash never would have had a challenge.

So who better to narrate our alternate view of the Crisis than he? The fact that he’s dead by the time the book begins doesn’t really make much of a difference. There’s too much for The Flash to do, and suddenly the fastest man alive doesn’t have enough time.

I don’t really need to re-iterate what the Crisis was about, why it happened and who the main players were. None of that has changed in this version of the story – we just have a different point of view. And from this point of view, we learn many interesting things that the comic held back from us. The relationship between The Monitor and his young ward, Lyla, for example – he knew even before he found her that she would kill him. In fact that she would have to kill him, if any of the Earths were to survive the coming apocalypse. We get a much better look at the Psycho-Pirate, the mad puppet of the Anti-Monitor whose ability to manipulate emotions becomes key to the control of worlds. And we get first-person views from so many other heroes and villains that took part in the Crisis – getting a much deeper look at the work.

Most of all, of course, we get to see Barry Allen. What drives him, even in this semi-dead state, to continue to play an active part in this Crisis? Incorporeal and largely unable to interact with – let alone avert – the catastrophe, The Flash remains a witness until the time comes that he is able to (with a little time-travel cheating) free himself from his bonds and go to a death that he knows he cannot avoid, and which he also knows is not the end. Honestly, how he survives beyond death the way he does isn’t very clear in this book. It has something to do with the Speed Force, a kind of semi-sentient energy field that grants speedsters their powers and provides them with a heaven when they die. His jaunts through time and space seem to be at the control of a higher power, but exactly who and what that power is we are never quite sure of.

As with any transition from one medium to another, there are changes. The villainous takeover of three Earths is gone, for example, as is the involvement of Superboy-Prime, and much of what occurs after the Anti-Monitor’s ultimate defeat is completely different (and is therefore, if you’ve been keeping up with the DC Universe over the past three years or so, decidedly non-canon). But Supergirl’s death is expanded upon, and we get to see the decisions that bring her to her doom. We know that, like Barry Allen, she did what needed to be done, knowing that it would be her end. Getting a quick look inside her head before she took on the Anti-Monitor makes her death just that much more poignant.

But also as with any transition from one medium to another, it is very hard to compare the new rendition to the original. While this novelized version of Crisis is a quick and enjoyable read, it doesn’t have nearly the scope and depth and visual punch that the comic did. Because comics are such a visual medium – a story told in mixed media – you’re going to lose something when you take one of those media away. While I enjoy reading this (and it’s a lot easier to carry around than the Rosetta-stone-sized Absolute Edition of the comic), it’s never going to take the place of the original. Wolfman is an excellent writer of comics, but he’s not a novelist.

If you are a fan of Crisis and you just want another look at the old story, pick this up. If you’ve never read Crisis before, get your hands on the comics and let this one come to you later.

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“Worlds lived, worlds died. Nothing will ever be the same….”
– Psycho Pirate, Crisis on Infinite Earths #12
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“Barry, I know people die. From the moment I understood what they meant, I was very aware of all the memorials around me. But my mother, God bless her, Barry, she said and kept saying until I believed her, that although we have to remember the dead, we can’t ever let ourselves act like we’re one of them.”
Supergirl (Kara Zor-El), Crisis on Infinite Earths: the Novelization by Marv Wolfman
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Crisis on Infinite Earths on Wikipedia
Marv Wolfman on Wikipedia
George Perez on Wikipedia

Crisis on Infinite Earths: Absolute Edition on Amazon.com
Crisis on Infinite Earths: The Novelization on Amazon.com
The Annotated Crisis on Infinite Earths
Crisis on Infinite Earths on the DC Wiki

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Filed under apocalypse, comic books, DC Comics, death, George Perez, Marv Wolfman, super-heroes, Superman, supervillains, time travel, world-crossing