Ruby Nation

Ruby Nation
Ruby Nation: The Webcomic

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Identity Crisis Isn't Worth Fighting For: Blog Follow-Up

I posted the thing on the Atop the Fourth Wall Identity Crisis reactions on a day when I was in an extremely bad mood. I probably shouldn't have done that, because while I stand by my contempt for a large part of fandom and their fear of change or drama in their comics, I shouldn't have brought it up in response to a discussion on Identity Crisis. As such, it seemed that many of the responses assumed that I enjoyed Meltzer's story.

To be clear: I didn't. At best Identity Crisis is technically competent with some good scenes but a lot of unfortunate implications. Grant Morrison's assessment of the book in his memoir(ish-thing) SuperGods was basically that if Meltzer's goal was to put down the Silver Age brutally and definitively, he succeeded. But that's a really back-handed compliment, and I agree with Morrison. The nice little character touches like the Kents commenting to Superman that "batman doesn't treat his parents this way" are overwhelmed by the outright sadism, the contemptible treatment of women, and the many potholes within the mystery.

My complaints were entirely with fandom, and how they often seem to equate status quo changes of any kind with being a bad story. There are plenty of cases where I could legitimately defend a great work within a superhero universe against the petty, atavistic nature of fandom. Grant Morrison's X-Men, Matt Fraction's Iron Man, Brubaker's Captain America, etc. This isn't one of them.

However, I would like to thank many of the people who responded for their thoughtful critiques and nuanced assessments of the situation. Jay Boaz, Omar Karindu, E. Wilson, and others made very good responses that expressed how the real problem isn't with drama itself, but with the half-assed notion that something like Identity Crisis is drama.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Why Do Superhero Fans Fear Drama?

I've been simmering on this topic for a long time, but a recent video by Linkara (15 Things Wrong With Identity Crisis) took this frustration to a boiling point. The video itself wasn't so bad, as while I disagreed with Linkara on several points, I respect the thought and effort he puts into his critiques. What really bugged me was (with some exceptions) the circle jerk of fan reactions that followed, which tended to coalesce on the same theme; " Dark is bad, make superhero comics fun again", followed by the usual whining and crying about the state of modern comics.

Far be it for me to defend Identity Crisis, as I didn't like the book myself for several reasons covered in Linkara's review (most notably the rape). But the reasons people don't like it seem to revolve around the fact that certain characters were killed off and removed from the status quo, and certain characters were changed. The moaning is often associated with the loss of more light-hearted incarnations of the characters, such as Tim Drake when his dad was alive, or Ralph and Sue Dibny as a couple. This then goes into whining and crying about a lot of post-Identity Crisis comics like Countdown and Cry for Justice, using Brad Meltzer as the scapegoat for these comics (despite the fact that he didn't write them). Occasionally someone will try to say that dark isn't necessarily bad, but they'll follow it with a "but it doesn't make a story good", then point to examples of where a story is good without being dark. And you'll often see citations of the All Ages titles as examples of how to do these characters right, the titles that are meant for very young children and tend not to have much development or moral complexity.

If dark just means gratuitous, then I'm more sympathetic to this perspective. However, the critiques aren't just with the gore (which I agree is off-putting in most modern DC comics), but with the notion that these bad things happen. The cry is for "fun", and by "fun", they mean a specific status quo, a specific story structure (usually single issues with a happy resolution at the end), and a specific interpretation of characters. "Fun" is what they know and what they're comfortable with; the complaints tend not to come from people trying to broaden their horizons and challenge their expectations.

In one sense, I'm trying to show that it cuts both ways, this battle of light vs. dark. If stories can be told without mature content, they can also be told with mature content. If some superhero creators are obsessed with making the characters grow up with them, others perseverate over keeping them at the idealized status quo. But ultimately, the dark stories-- or, more precisely, the stories with substantial drama and risk for the characters-- are the ones that really succeed. The greatest stories for each character, the ones that are part of their canon, are the ones that really pushed them-- Frank Miller's run for Daredevil, Chris Claremont's run on the X-Men, etc. Without struggle the hero cannot show his or her heroism; if it's just a fight of the week, the ending is never in doubt, and there's no reason to care, other than as a brief escape from reality. Of course, these stories were printed before the internet, so their reputations escaped the constant bitching of fans with computers.

Unfortunately, a lot of superhero fandom seems to cling to the escape hatch, to hide from reality within their Silver Agey security bubble. Even creators will end up pandering to them, including creators like Darwyn Cooke and Greg Rucka who have done excellent dark stuff in the genre. But they still get on the "fun" bandwagon, as if disavowing their work in order to capture for themselves this pleasant navel-gazing. The meaning possible for the superhero is thus pissed away, leaving the result as a pleasant but unattainable ideal rather than a figure whose struggles inspire people to attain the ideals in their own lives.

In the end, while I still don't like Identity Crisis, I find it more favorable based on the fact that it prodded at people who need prodding out of their bubble. If people suffer so much from drama and tragedy in superhero comics, either their lives are very good and their only real problems are with their fiction, or they put a disproportionate need upon fiction as a coping mechanism. Fun is part of life; it is not all of life.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Batgirl, The Most Repulsive Comic of 2011

At the end of 2011, the new Batgirl has completed its first arc, and while it's not too bad from a craft standpoint, the implications are so disgusting that it was easily the worst comic I read all year. That includes plenty of comics that WERE bad from a craft standpoint, and even more comics that had a decent level of craft but were based on profoundly stupid concepts. But none of these comics had as revolting a message behind them, and even if they did, their negative implications were immediately seized upon by the audience. The new Batgirl is vile, but a positive commercial and critical reception enable its vileness.

Again, the issue here isn't with the art or writing, at least no more so than any other comic. Adrian Syaf's art is exceptional, and he at least makes the book nice to look at. And Gail Simone's script is decently constructed, if not nearly as good as her work on Birds of Prey or Secret Six. But she's based the book around one of the worst representations of disability I've seen in recent years. This is a comic that deals explicitly with the fact that the character of Barbara Gordon was the rare character who was both a semiotic victory and a memorable, complex entity on her own-- then pisses all over it.

I've already mentioned the bullshit conceit behind this book, that Barbara Gordon can walk again and is using that opportunity to be Batgirl. Now that we're a full four-issue story arc into this comic, we learn how Barbara was cured; she went to a special clinic in South Africa, to receive an experimental surgery. There's the chance that her condition could deteriorate, especially with intense physical strain (the kind that comes part and parcel with crime-fighting), but she's doing it anyway. In Barbara's mind, she's received a miracle, and she has to use her second chance to help people.

It's a strong religious metaphor without the courage to attach itself to a specific religion. But worse, it's a miracle cure that reinforces the notion that Barbara was broken because she couldn't walk. It doesn't matter that it's from the fringes of real-world science instead of DC Universe Phlebotnium, it's still an awful plot device. Barbara can walk again, so she's using this chance to become the exact same person she was before being put in the wheelchair. Her time as Oracle is completely glossed over, with the only bit of past continuity explicitly referenced being when she was shot by the Joker.

Worse yet, the book has the gall to try to treat disability with respect. Barbara scoffs at how Alysia* talks about the loss of mobility as a pitiful fate, and talks about what the chair "lets you do". It's referenced that the word "cure" was a dirty word in the Gordon household, with her father having brought up the clinic with veiled language (so as not to offend Barbara's proud identity). But this means absolutely nothing because Barbara still took the cure, and still enjoys not only her life as an able-bodied person, but as a pinnacle of athletic skill.

Some might argue that it's Barbara's choice to take this cure, and to live the kind of life she wants without accepting limitations. Except Barbara doesn't have much respect for her own life, for the following reasons;

1.) Subjecting herself to an experimental and possible life-threatening surgery in order to walk again, as though the risk of being dead was worth the reward of being able to walk.

2.) Becoming a crimefighter despite being badly out of practice and physically/psychologically unfit for the task. Throwing herself onto the battlefield in situations that could (and, in fact, did) cost civilians their lives due to her incompetence.

3.) Refusing help from her ex-boyfriend and fellow Bat-sidekick Dick Grayson, brushing him off as an over-protective man and going off to fight the villain herself. (This isn't a feminist issue, it's an issue of someone close Barbara not wanting her to get herself killed out of stupid pride).

4.) Being yet another member of the Bat-Family, now in a role that hundreds of crimefighters do better (thanks to Batman, Incorporated). Grant Morrison's notion of Oracle as a cyber-crimefighting digital Batgirl was silly and rooted in very dated conceptions of the internet, but it at least gave Barbara a unique role suited to her skill-set. Here she's just one of the Bat-Grunts, albeit without the ability to handle her emotional baggage.

In short, the message of the new Batgirl is that being disabled limits what you can do, being "normal" is an ideal for which you should readily throw away your life, and disability is just a pit-stop on the able-bodied hero's journey. To this, I use the words of a still-active disabled character, played by an extremely talented actor with a disability (Peter Dinklage);

" [as a cripple] I beg to differ. Death is so terribly final, while life is full of possibilities. "-- Tyrion Lannister, George R. R. Martin's A Game of Thrones

*the Ethnic Best Friend, because DC's books still have to belong to the white characters; so long, Cassandra Cain!