Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Comics: Cosmic Reset Button

And when I’m thinking Deep Thoughts, I’m often thinking about comic book universes.

DC’s big universe-changing maxi-series, Infinity Crisis, has finally reached it conclusion with another cosmic reset button being mashed, but to talk about it, I need to back up a couple maxi-series, to the other Crises we seen.

Oh, right – Spoilers are all over the place here, and it’s a long one. And my geek flag will be flying throughout.

Let me start in with the nature of the various DC Crises in the first place. DC continuity from when I was growing up in the Silver Age was considered to occur on Earth-1. Earth-2, right next door, was where we had the golden age heroes and events (Superman fought Hitler, Batman carried a gun). At one point they had a Crisis on Earth-2 where the heroes from Earth-1 teamed up with those of Earth-2. Justice League meets Justice Society. Cool stuff. And they added over time Earth-3 (bad guys in charge), Earth-X (Hitler won WWII) and Earth-S (Captain Marvel Family). But eventually, the multiple earths got to be a bit much (and the fact Earth-1 was getting a bit long in the tooth – Superman met Kennedy?) and there was the original Crisis on Infinite Earths, which supposedly simplified the universes by merging them down to one.

Everything came down to one timeline. The only characters that remained unfolded into this "One Earth" were the Original 1938 Superman of Earth-2. the Lois Lane of Earth-2, the SON of the good Lex Luthor from Earth-3, and Superboy, who was not Earth-1 Superman as a boy OR Earth-2 Superman as a boy, but the only superhero from Earth-Prime, supposedly our non-super world. They got to go through an energy portal to a supposed paradise. Exit stage left.

So there was a big event and a restart. And there were a couple other restarts since then, like Zero Hour and Hypertime, over the years. Every so often, like a troublesome appliance, the DC Universe needs a good whack on the side. And there were lesser restarts that were ways of launching new lines and freshening up old characters.

So a few years back they did this with Identity Crisis, which I mentioned elsewhere in this blog. And while I didn’t care much for the ultimate story – The wife of a JLAer is brutally killed, and after some huggamugga the villain is revealed to be the suddenly-insane wife of ANOTHER JLAer, it did have an interesting tweak. When the initial victim is discovered, some of the JLA decide that the culprit had to be Doctor Light, who years before had attacked the victim. And they knew this because after the attack, these member of the JLA had mentally crippled Light, turning him from maniac into more of a joke villain. And while they were doing warping Doctor Light’s Brain, Batman came in, and they had to erase HIS memory as well.

Which brought up an interesting question that I don’t think was ever really dealt with in that series as it played out – where do you draw the line? In the old Silver Age stories, memory erasure was common (I think Supes once took out Lois Lane’s memory by using one eye with X-ray vision and the other with heat vision, a trick which ONLY COULD BE USED ONCE, which really amused me). So that wasn’t the problem, really. I mean, over in Flash’s comic, they worked a Doctor-Strange level spell that made everyone FORGET that Wally West was the Flash so he could have a fresh start. The memories of natives of the DC universe must look like swiss cheese at this point.

Mentally handicapping Doctor Light was a tougher call, but still could be argued as in the necessary category. Again, in recent times, the JLA had an entire race of baddies (The White Martians) who they hypnotized into believing they were humans and turning them loose on the world, supposedly cured of antisocial tendencies (No, it didn’t work).

But putting a mental hoodoo on Batman? That was apparently over the line, and laid some of the groundwork of what was to come, though I never really saw it laid out as such. That question of “What is necessary” sort of spilled over books as OTHER villains suddenly started getting their memories back, Bats got more secretive, and there was the question of the culpability of Superman, who could supposedly HEAR EVERYTHING. All this was left open.

So its not the crime – it’s the cover-up, and I was wondering how they could resolve it. In the process Wonder Woman killed a villain on who took over both Superman’s mind and the orbital Sentinels that Batman built out of his paranoia, the big three broke up, the JLA crashed, and a new threat appeared.

That threat was shown in the recently-finished Infinity Crisis. Remember Supes-2, Young Luthor, Superboy-Prime, and Lois? Well, they came back. Lois got ill, Luthor put out the idea in that it was the fact that the wrong earth was saved, and Superboy and Superman punched their was back into the DC continuity to clean things up.

And again, this series has an interesting initial question – how did the post-crisis universe stand up to the previous incarnations? It was a tougher, darker universe – how much of that was the fault of the heroes? How do we demonstrate that they have done well?

And the result was a mess, with very little of the tight focus that we had in the earlier Identity Crisis. The main book was made up of a lot of action shots which would then lead into supporting books. The whole Amazon supporting cast for Wonder Woman was dumped, the Speed Force that powered the Flash (a post-Crisis evolution) was shelved, along with Wally West flash. No real clue about what happened to Atom and Aquaman, though they have “new” editions of them coming along. Hawkman is missing (don’t know why).

Young Luthor, a hero in the first Crisis, was a bad guy because Luthors are always bad guys. Superboy-Prime turned out to be a true ass, and tore through a huge swath of minor characters, including the current Superboy (who still isn’t Superman as a boy, but rather a clone made up of Superman AND Luthor’s DNA). Original Lois dies anyway. The Infinite Earths reappear, briefly. Superman-1 and Superman-2 defeat Superboy-Prime, though Superman-1 gets depowered (for the moment) and Superman-2 dies (which is kinda sad – I liked the idea of the concept of Original Supes being out there “somewhere”).

And the world is remade with a bunch of little tweaks to the history (Wonder Woman now helped found the JLA, Bats has some resolution to his origin story, the Smallville TV show is part of the Superman history), and things go on.

And Superboy-Prime is locked up in a double-talk prison surrounded by Green Lanterns, so he can pop out whenever they need another murderous Superbeing.

And here’s the thing – the whole question of a hero’s right to deal with the villain was a big subtext of Identity Crisis, but remains pretty much unanswered. The Insane Evil Superboy Prime is a great candidate for capital punishment, or at least a mind-wipe, which was the big question in Identity Crisis. You mindwipe him, toss him in the Phantom Zone, and 1000 years later, he’s Mon-El from the Legion of Superheroes.

The OTHER big bad (Young Luthor) gets a more traditional comic book exit – Batman gets the chance to shoot him, decides not to do it (thereby redeeming Batman as less-bloodthirsty), a falling building allows Luthor to get away, and Luthor gets shot by Joker instead. (Thank goodness we have villains to do the karmic clean up after the good guys).

Yet Infinite Crisis, despite the sturm und drang, does not answer the initial questions raised by either the Infinite Crisis OR the Identity Crisis. At what point is ultimate action justified (Identity)? Have the heroes of the Post-Crisis of Infinite Earths been good stewards of the universe that they were left (Infinite)?

But I guess those questions have to either be ultimately ignored, or will wait for the NEXT Crisis.

More later,