Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Comic Books: Heroes Go Boom

Avengers #500-503; Brian Michael Bendis - writer, David Finch -artist, Marvel Comics Group
Identity Crisis #1-7; Brad Meltzer - writer, Rags Morales - artist, DC Comics

Strap in, folks, there is deep geekdom ahead, along with spoilers. If you're a comic fan, you probably know about this, but here's a fair warning if you still want to be surprised.

I'm a comic book fan - have been since college - so I've been following the continuity of the major comic universes for some time. And like most fans I have a comfort zone with the four-colored heroes, and follow the soap-opera-in-tights that is comic book continuity. This is, by the way, one reason I don't pick on people who are fans of this TV show or that movie series - they've got their guilty pleasures, I've gotten mine.

Now, comic book characters reside in a level of Tarterus all their own. They don't get happy endings because happy endings are boring and don't sell comics. Rather, they are continually on a treadmill of conflict. Friends die, secret HQs blow up, sidekicks perish, universes change. Anyone who thinks of God as a thug and a bully only has to look at comic book writers for proof, as they are charged with making their characters' lives miserable for our entertainment. And against this regular background of continual turmoil, along comes a Crisis that shakes everything up, making major changes across a broad area. "Everything will be different now" is the general mantra.

Cases in point from the previous summer and fall - The "Avengers: Disassembled" story line from Marvel, and the "Identity Crisis" mini-series from DC. Both exist to shake things up in their various universes. One fails and one succeeds, though not as well as it might. And there are similarities in both. Here's the skinny on them:

Over in the Marvel Universe, the Avengers are having a very bad day. An old comrade (Jack of Hearts) returns from the dead and blows up the mansion, along with frying Ant-Man. The android Vision then plows a jet into the mansion and self-destructs as well, spawning a bunch of villainous Ultrons. Then the alien Kree invade, and in the process kill Hawkeye. The She-Hulk loses control and goes primal. In the end, it is revealed that all these attacks and misfortunes are the results of the heroic Scarlet Witch going mad from her own power. Her brain has to be blanked in order to stop her. Body count - Jack of Hearts, Ant-Man, Hawkeye, the Vision, Scarlet Witch, Agatha Harkness (kept preserved like Anthony Perkin's mom in Psycho), and Thor (whose own book is wrapped up for a relaunch and is not as connected to all this - call him collateral damage). Oh, and Avenger's Mansion gets blown up again.

The action is presented in action movie style - bang, bang, bang. Bad things keep happening, until you the reader are just bludgeoned into riding it out. The art falls down here with a muddy, bloody style, and the plot screws up on two vital points. First, all the Avengers are called after the attack, and it becomes clear that the Scarlet Witch is responsible because she's not there. The problem with this is that the art is so dark that you can't tell who is there or not. Second, the insanity plot is revealed by Doctor Strange (not an Avenger), who flies in to tell everyone that the Scarlet Witch, who has been claiming she uses Chaos Magic, is lying because there is no such thing as Chaos Magic. OK, but going Comic Book Guy on the good Doctor, Strange himself was a Chaos Mage for a short time, back when Jurassic Park was hot and Chaos Butterflies were cool. So accepting this means erasing a bit of continuity.

The end result is a four-issue crash that threatens to take down the rest of the universe with it (and there have been tie-ins all over the place). And the worst thing is that, for all the pain, nothing has been done that cannot be undone - the Vision was ripped to shreds but can be rebuilt, no body was found for Hawkeye, and even the mentally fried Scarlet Witch is picked up by her dad (the supervillain Magneto (told yah it was a soap opera) and carried off. And the Avengers get another start with another buncha heroes two months later. Pretty unsatisfying.

Over in the DC Universe (DCU), however, they have a rep for doing Crisis right, and Identity Crisis represents a cooler, more personal approach to torturing the good guys. Here we focus on the heroes, their secret identities and loved ones, and it succeeds in scaring the reader more than continual battle sequences. Indeed, this was a book that creeped me out as I was reading it, because I liked the heroes involved, and followed a lot of their soap-opera lives back in the Silver Age (Like when Barry (Flash) Allen lost his wife and Ray (Atom) Palmer got divorced). The art is well-done by an old friend, Rags Morales (who I worked with on the Forgotten Realms comic years ago - Hey Rags, write in!), and is perfect for catching the subtlety necessary in this story.

Here's the story of the DC crisis: Second-banana hero Elongated Man (Ralph Digby) has his secret identity publicly known. Someone breaks into his house and kills his wife, Sue. The slaying galvanizes the heroes of the DCU to find who is responsible, and brings up concerns about the risks they expose their loved ones to. An attempt is made on the Atom's ex-wife, a threatening note is sent to Lois Lane, someone sends a gun and a warning to Robin's dad, with the result that the dad and the villainous Boomerang kill each other. In the process of the investigation, it is revealed that a number of the low-level members of the Justice League (Green Arrow, Hawkman, and Zatana, more old friends from the Silver Age) have been mucking with the minds of the bad guys in order to keep their secret IDs secret. The villain is revealed as the Atom's ex-wife, who has gone crackers and used one of her husband's size-changing suits to give Sue Digby a brain hemorage, making it seem like there is a threat so the Atom and she would get back together (next time, sweetheart, send flowers). The Atom shuts her up in Arkham Asylum and things get back to (mostly) normal. Body count - Elongated Man's wife, Robin's father, Boomerang, and Firestorm (more collateral damage - he's already being played by another character in another comic book).

However, unlike over in the Avengers, this crisis opens a lot of cans of worms that will need to be resolved. First there is the matter of the lesser JLA mucking with people's minds, even with the best of reasons. The question of whether the major leaguers would stand for this is left up in the air. More importantly, it is revealed that they also mucked with Batman's mind as well to keep their secret, with the result that Bats may be more bats than we thought. Of the major leaguers, the Flash (Wally West now), knows this and is uncomfortable keeping the secret. Not to mention a couple upgrades of bad guys (a new Boomerang, Doctor Light, and Deathstroke) and the fact that the latest Robin has now lost a parent.

There are some plotting flaws in this story as well - the biggie being that Atom doesn't know the new Robin that well, and his ex-wife shouldn't know who the kid is unless she had additional information (Robin kept it from his teammates in the Teen Titans to keep Bat's identity secret). And the resolution feels like there was an executive decision at the end - the entire brain-wipe subplot should have ended up in posing the question of whether it was OK to purge the Atom's exwife's mind to protect the secrets (instead they lock her up in Arkham, where the inmates are all psychotic Batman villains - what are they thinking?). And there are more red herrings being flung around here than in the Pike Place fish market.

Both series have a frustrating "Gals Gone Crazy" resolution, in which long-standing female characters suddenly flip out for no apparent reason. But Identity Crisis hides that with layer upon layer of subplot and character interaction (Supervillains playing Risk? Wonderful and completely unconnected to the main plot. Ditto the theft of a Lex Luthor battle suit). Avengers just hides the facts from us, and expects the fans to be appreciative with what's been done. Avengers: Disassembled was blunt force trauma. Identity Crisis is more insideous, and should have a deeper effect on the DCU going forward. The Avengers book disappoints, and while the Identity Crisis frustrates, it does so by a lack of clear resolution. Identity Crisis writes a check which has yet to be cashed, and I do expect to see a payoff.

OK, Geekdom out of the system for a while. More later,