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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.


  1. Entertainment is rarely worth fighting for; when you realize that, internet dialogue loses a lot of its power to injure you.

    The two problems with fandom you've noted are rooted in the same thing: familiarity. On the one hand, familiarity breeds nostalgia: "I love to see Elongated Man and Sue Dibny go on wacky private detective adventures with twitching noses and whimsy just like I remember from my childhood!" On the other hand, familiarity breeds contempt: "Elongated Man stories should be mature! His wife should be totally raped and set on fire while pregnant! Then Elongated Man should drink, grow stubble, cry and toy with suicide just like real life!"

    I suppose what I'm suggesting is super hero comics need less familiarity, more formality? Or more unfamiliarity?

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  3. Or that our very strategies regarding the problem of familiarity have themselves become...familiar?

    I wonder if what superhero comics really need is more attention to intersections of form and theme. James Robinson's Starman, in its Tony Harris days, was remarkably varied in tone and approach and had art that worked to draw out the themes and tone of the story by adding visual framing devices to panels, breaking out of both cartooning and cinematic modes of figure drawing and panel layout, and so forth.

    J.H. Williams III is another artist who can achieve this sort of thing as well on the visual side. When he has a writer who's trying to play with multiple tones or styles at once, Williams can make the melange work.

    On the writing side, I've seen some writers achieve this sort of thing. Morrison's All-Star Superman was one of the better "bright" comics of recent years; Waid's Irredeemable has been one of the better "dark" comics in the same period. Even Meltzer actually wrote a fine story in his Green Arrow arc, "The Archer's Quest;" it's the one bit of comics writing he's done that I feel really worked.

    There's also been some good work on perspective shifts as an approach to the genre. Kurt Busiek's Astro City is the big name, but Gotham Central did very well in this way as well. Sometimes the superhero isn't the interesting part of the superhero story. The short-lived John Francis Moore version of Chronos managed to take place in a superhero world without really being either a grimdark or a joycore superhero or even antihero story.

    What all of these stories have in common, I think, is that to greater or lesser degrees they've broken out of the usual superhero modes of maximalist tragedy or (classical) comedy when they needed to. Some of the above are not the best books on the market, nor are they all masterpieces or works of sheer genius. But they point to ways out of the current conundra.

    Maybe what we really need is an end to the desire to comment on the genre using the genre. That's what we get from both the bad dark/gritty comics and the bad light/fluffy ones: genre navel-gazing in both its irritatingly precious nostalgic form and its disgustingly curdled cynical form.