Monday, August 4, 2008


The evolution of an idea:

1. Sean Collins reviews The Great Darkness Saga collection, praises elements of the book, then writes:

Now, is this a great comic book? No. It's too rooted in house-style artistic aesthetics, expository dialogue, self-referential continuity, corny jokes, and everything else you'd expect from a basic superhero comic of the early '80s.
2. Partly inspired by reading the Silver Age criticism at Mike Grost's site (which, by the way, is an amazing resource), asked whether there are any comics that are rooted in house-style etc. but that are also great.

3. This question is in the back of my mind during my walks to-and-from work: keep thinking about Geoff Johns' run on The Flash and the Wolfman/Perez Teen Titans comics, which are among favorite "conventional" super-hero comics.

4. Thoughts turn more generally to conventional super hero comics that deal with "real world" issues. Wonder why some I like (Geoff Johns on The Flash), some I really, really don't (Identity Crisis).

5. Out of fairness, re-read Identity Crisis. Maybe I was too harsh the first time around. Maybe I missed something.

6. Decide I didn't miss anything, but start trying to clarify my thoughts on the series.

7. Begin a blog post about Identity Crisis:

In the past, I've often fallen into the trap of trying to frame my dislike of a work of art as a principled objection to something inherent in the work's very conception, rather than as a [ed. note: sentence never finished]. Earlier this year, that's essentially what I was doing when I described my dislike of Identity Crisis to a film critic friend who doesn't follow comic books, but enjoys the occasional super-hero movie. My argument was that you can't deal with rape in a Justice League story: the presence of Silver Age characters like Elongated Man undermines the seriousness of the rape, the rape undermines the integrity of the Silver Age characters. The principled objection: this kind of realistic take on super-heroes is inherently flawed.

Using that objection as the basis for my case that Identity Crisis was a bad comic was a bit of posturing, because I had certainly read and enjoyed a lot of serious super-hero comics. But I had always been a bit, well, dishonest - with myself and with others - by playing that down. I liked the Marv Wolfman/George Perez Teen Titans comics and Geoff Johns's run on The Flash, but I wasn't going to talk about them as anything but a kind of guilty pleasure.

Part of the problem is that I had gotten into the habit of looking at super-hero comics from the point of view of someone who hadn't read them for much of his life: focusing on how they would come across to an "outsider". This would have been a reasonable enough thing to do if I had been talking about expanding the audience for super-hero comic books, but I am more and more convinced that it was almost completely useless for any kind of criticism.

This is all an elaborate way to get to this: I still dislike Identity Crisis. I still think it's bad super-hero comics. Not because it tries to mix Silver Age heroes with serious subject matter, but for much more nuts and bolts reasons.

The first issue opens with Elongated Man and Firehawk on a stakeout. This sequence really sets out Brad Meltzer's M.O.:

(1) A focus on second or third rate heroes who constantly make reference to their second or third rate status. Self-consciousness about status issues among heroes and villains is one of the recurring motifs of the series.

(2) Attempts to reframe whimsical/fanciful Silver Age remnants in the mythos into something not whimsical or fanciful, presented as someone giving the inside dope.

(3) [ed. note: never got to number 3]

What Meltzer is doing is familiar enough from comics continuing in the Neal Adams/Denny O'Neil tradition of placing elements from DC's Silver Age into opposition with elements from the real world. How Meltzer is doing it deserves more scrutiny.

8. Get tired of detailed analysis of a comic I don't like (major flaw as a blogger), but like idea of Adams/O'Neil opposing Mythos with "reality". Idea goes back to my criticism of Watchmen, which unlike most criticism of that book, tries to deal with what Dave Gibbons is doing.

9. More thought on walks to-and-from work leads to following theory about DC Mythos:

Golden Age: Mythos creation is ad hoc. Relationship of Mythos to "reality" not an issue. Power comes from seeming anarchy of the proceedings (see The Great Comic Book Heroes).

Silver Age: Mythos creation is part of the purpose of individual stories. How things fit into Mythos is a genuine concern and subject of stories ("Flash of Two Worlds"). Mythos has its own rules that are not those of "reality": per Mike Grost, the "logic" of the Superman Mythos. Mythos has internal integrity: relationship to "reality" is allegorical. Power comes from the intricacy/beauty of this internal consistency.

Bronze Age: Mythos placed in opposition to "reality". Explicitly so in Adams/O'Neil Green Lantern/Green Arrow (that's even the meaning of the "/") and late Bronze Age works like "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?" Power comes from unresolved tension between Mythos and "reality".

10. Posit that what comes next is a "Modern Age" that attempts to resolve the contradiction, but that this resolution leads to more problems. Crisis on Infinite Earths leads to an anti-Silver Age. Focus is on instability of the Mythos with regard to Bronze Age "infection" of reality.

11. Get idea that Grant Morrison somehow sidesteps all this. Compose previous post.

12. Start poll on Nerd NYC board based on ideas spun out of Morrison post.

13. Go back to thinking about Geoff Johns. Wonder if Infinite Crisis is different in kind from original Crisis or just different in magnitude.

14. Decide it is a little of both. Infinite Crisis makes revising/reinterpreting the Mythos the central point of the Mythos. Marks some kind of change from what Wolfman et al. were up to.

15. End up feeling deep down really should keep up with Final Crisis. Realize DC's fanboy-centric marketing did its trick. Damn American corporate consumerist culture. Where's Seaguy when you need him?


Mark said...

Not wanting to come across as a troll here, but I think you are overthinking the Identity Crisis too much, inasmuch as the rape storyline was a bad editorial decision. If I want that sort of thing I'll tune into CSI, not pick up a DC comic book. It was a bit of a shame, because Meltzer did have that knack for reinventing second/third rate characters (like the Calculator) in interesting ways that didn't clash violently with the creator's original intent. Morrison is a great model for revamping Silver Age characters without violating the spirit that made them great.

Jon Hastings said...

Not sure what would count as "overthinking" here. Also, not sure the rape storyline itself is inherently a bad idea. Likely an inherently hard-to-make-work idea and Meltzer and Morales fail miserably. Morales might be a bigger offender than Meltzer: lots of stock poses and cliched clenched faces.

So, maybe a bad editorial decision in that the creative team was unlikely to pull it off. (Although maybe a good editorial decision in that it helped sell books - not sure how succesful it was).

Started re-reading Flash volume 2: interesting to see Mike Baron using some of the same devices (i.e., Wally West giving the "inside dope" on what having super speed is really like), but he and his collaborators pull it off (IMO, of course).

Also should note that issues raised in Identity Crisis were handled better in Squadron Supreme. The difference, of course: in IC we get the real Justice League, not a stand in. This makes a difference and is important, and I'll be blogging more about how and why in the weeks to come.

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