August 13, 2004

Crisis on Earth-Fanboy

Jason Craft does a wonderful job of explaining why DC Comics’ new mini-series Identity Crisis is both really interesting and deeply disturbing for me all at once.

I’ve written before about my wish that the purveyors of what Craft calls “proprietary, persistent, large-scale fiction systems” (I really like his terminology) try to align their fictional conception of ordinary humanity and everyday life with their representations of the fantastic and superhuman.

The author of this new mini-series, Brad Meltzer, is trying to do just that, I think. Beware of what you wish for, because you may get it.

He’s got a very fresh approach to a lot of comic-book tropes: his big fight scene in the third issue of the mini-series is a compelling reconfiguration of the same-old same-old of superheroic battle, professionalizing it in rather the same way a writer of police procedurals might with descriptions of police work.

But Meltzer is also going to one of the deepest tropes of superhero fiction—the secret identity—and positing that the only reason the bad guys haven’t figured out what the secret identities of the superheroes are is that the superheroes have been magically erasing those memories systematically every time such a discovery is made.

It’s not as if this kind of thing hasn’t happened from time to time in comics, but it’s usually because of an accident—the supervillain learns the secret and then immediately does something like fall all off a cliff and suffers brain damage, that kind of thing. Occasionally there's the villain who knows the secret but won't tell other bad guys or act on it out of some kind of arrogant anti-hero sense of honor. It’s also not as if clever writers haven’t played with the issue, whether it’s Frank Miller’s devastating run on Daredevil where he showed just how devastating it might be if a bad guy found out who the good guy was, or John Byrne’s somewhat silly if amusing one-shot suggestion that Lex Luthor would arrogantly reject the idea that Superman could want to be an ordinary person and so erase the conclusions of a researcher that Clark Kent and Superman were the same.

Closer to the mark of the current series, James Robinson told a story in Starman that hinted at three heroes murdering a villain who knew their identities and threatened their families. Meltzer is pretty well going balls to the wall with this theme, though. The story posits that villains find out who the good guys really are on a routine basis and then frequently threaten their families, and that the heroes have an organized conspiracy to erase that knowledge on an equally routine basis.

That’s interesting enough. But he goes from there to somewhere that is good, consistent storytelling and yet really squicks me out. So far, the wife and ex-wife of two superheroes have been horribly murdered by an unknown suspect. We’ve also found out that one of the two women was brutally raped by a supervillain in the past, which led the good guys to administer a magical lobotomy to the villain in question.

There’s just something in me that says this is really not a good place to go, that maybe one of the essential fictions of comics is that somehow, for some reason, it’s really hard for most people to guess who a superhero really is. Maybe I’m wrong. I’ve been really interested in how almost all the successful comic-book inspired films of recent years have essentially used the revelation of the hero’s identity to the villain and/or to friends and loved ones as an almost routinely climactic moment. Both of Tim Burton's Batman films had the hero’s secret revealed. Both Spiderman films have done the same. The comics have kept pace with this to some extent. In current issues of Batman it’s getting hard to remember which of his enemies doesn’t know the secret. Lois Lane is married to Superman now. Wally West (aka The Flash) has an identity known to everyone. If you couple the secret identity being less of a storytelling fetish with the rise in supervillains whose villainy is much more consciously if hyperexaggeratedly modeled on “real-world” criminality, you have to ask why the bad guys don’t do what the old-style heroes always feared the villains would do, and that’s target the hero’s loved ones.

The line that Meltzer crossed that might be hard for me to accept is rape. It virtually doesn’t ever happen in the standard comics. The few times that writers have tip-toed in that direction—Mike Grell, in a truly ugly and unnecessary part of his Green Arrow mini-series, or Alan Moore in The Killing Joke—there’s been some attempt to keep it out of frame, implied, contained. With Meltzer it is pretty much front-and-center, though not at all voyeuristically depicted. And because his story attempts to normalize and distribute so many of its proposed revisions of the superhero canon, you’re left asking, “Well, why is this the only time that has happened, given how bad these bad guys are?” And then I find myself thinking I just don’t want to pick up a regular, ordinary, non-pornographic superhero comic from Marvel or DC to find that superheroines are getting raped on a regular basis.

It’s a really well-done comic-book story. It seems to speak to some of the problems I have with superhero comics. And yet I find myself sort of wishing that it hadn’t been done, or it had been safely contained as some kind of “imaginary” or “alternate reality” story.