Superman Comic Books
Identity Crisis: A RetrospectiveBarry Freiman and Neal Bailey
People wrote in and asked me for my opinion on Identity Crisis. I was honestly torn. I referred them to Barry Freiman, mostly because he's got several advantages over me on this story, knowing Brad and knowing more about comics history than me (I'm just a rank amateur who knows the dime bins from the 80s and the Superman comics from 92 on... Barry's got me way licked).
But in response to the response to the "Birthright" retrospective, I promised some words, and so I sat down with Barry to have a talk... to talk of ramifications and impacts.
We didn't talk at all - we communicated by e-mail. The whole thing was very impersonal. I kept thinking, "if only Neal would call me so we could talk". But instead we created this little pseudo-chat.
Here is the result, with Barry in bold, and me (Neal) in regular print.
I started hearing rumblings of Identity Crisis with everyone else... another GREAT BIG EVENT with a GREAT BIG WRITER and a GREAT BIG PREMISE. People would die, the universe would forever change, and the status quo would be no more... and taken at face value, that's usually impossible in a universe where everything is constantly fighting and in flux.
So like most fans, I took it with a grain of salt. The geeks at the store and I jawed about it, and mostly they had the feeling it would just be another one of those death stories so that they could do the return story five or ten years earlier.
See Green Arrow.
See Green Lantern.
My immediate thoughts were that it was the Martian Manhunter's turn to bite it. I mean, really, who would notice, and it would be a way to take a really great character that consistently dwells on the third tier to the forefront. I like Manhunter, and I think he needs to be utilized more. Certainly more than a guy who talks to a fish, you hear that, Arthur?
I agree there about J'onn. It seemed that, even more than the Flash, J'onn was the first Silver Age character. Alive or dead, he'd always be the JLA's heart, so why not kill him to introduce a new era?
Ultimately, I'm glad they didn't axe J'onn, though I can't help wonder if the stories we fans created amongst ourselves while speculating on "Identity Crisis" would have resulted in a more logical story progression and a more reasoned overall mystery.
We all waited on a solid mystery tale like the ones that required you to turn the last story panel upside-down to find out if you guessed the right outcome. Instead, we got the super-hero equivalent of "Scenes from a Marriage." That's fine with me - I always loved TV's "Knots Landing" for doing just that. A good story well told - no problems there.
It isn't the story we readers signed on for. Is that OK? Yes, I think it is because we don't always know what's right. Take a recent poll on page one of the Superman Homepage asking if Superman should be the sole survivor of Krypton or not. I understand why most people voted for that answer: how do you call yourself the "Last Son of Krypton" when you've got your cousin, your dog, his uncle, and their Phantom Zone Bizarro duplicates all coming from Krypton too? Well, re-watch "Superman II" and compare that Zod to the dreadful, revamped Zod who's from Earth but has a horribly confusing back story so he can be from Earth, but still be at Superman's power level.
As far as I'm concerned, there's plenty of room for Supergirl, the dog, and even a half dozen or so Phantom Zone residents provided they don't visit too often. "The Last Superman Story", which did for Earth-1 what some say "Identity Crisis" has done for Earth-DC, shows how even silly concepts like Insect Queen, Superwoman, and Elastic Lad can generate thrills, poignancy, and genuine drama. There are no bad characters, just bad writers - fiction's equivalent of the "There are no bad kids, just bad parents" credo.
Totally agreed. I've long been a proponent that any writer who says they can't make something work is a whiner. THAT is a writer's job. I found it challenging to make Mxy plausible, for instance, when Steve and I colluded and wrote a few scripts around him, but with time, effort, and a little care, I think it turned out really well.
But at any rate, that's the feeling I had for the story before it happened. Ho-Hum. Might be good, might not.
My elders refer to ages in the world of comics. Bronze Age, Silver Age, Golden Age, and then they always say the Modern Age, which started some say with Dark Knight Returns, some say Watchmen, I say Crisis on Infinite Earths.
Elders? That's what Billy Batson called the Gods on the old "Shazam" TV show so they wouldn't have to sell the censors on polytheism.
The basic idea I'm getting at, though, is that comics started to take themselves seriously. With Maus, and Cerebus, and any number of examples, comics became somewhat of a transcendent medium, where one rose ABOVE the funny book, but stayed BELOW the medium of novels, mostly because there were still kids reading.
I've never lived consciously through a shift in medium, so I didn't know what to look for, just like before Iraq I'd never been fully socially conscious through a war. I figured, in my naivete, that war was done, just in the way I figured there's no way to further revolutionize the comic beyond the format I've read in ten thousand books over twenty years.
Then comes Identity Crisis.
Like Dark Knight Returns, and like Watchmen, this is a series that has already attained the benchmark standard in the minds of fans. Polarized, yes, but sure that it means something, people look at the book on a whole as some kind of turning point, where DC becomes something else, and changes.
There aren't many changes, to be honest, on a gut level. I was foolish when I relegated it to the fact that it's just Sue Dibny. It took me seven issues to realize that this wasn't the point at all.
Rather, the point was that I was reading what was essentially a novel. A short novel, yes, 154 pages, but a novel. Meltzer upped the ante.
At first, my visceral reaction was to the rape, the lobotomy, my heroes would never do something so horrid. And in many ways, I stand by this judgment. This storyline, on a whole, is not one that I cared for. I DON'T care about Sue Dibny, I never have, and I didn't like seeing Robin's dad die. Enough of making Bats suffer, already, I say. Pretty soon it'll be only Dick with no arms and legs, and Batman won't even have the Batcave anymore, just brass knuckles and a good luck charm.
And for the most part, the developments here are ones that I don't believe will have many long-term ramifications. Rucka's taking off with them, making them mean something, as are some of the other writers, and it's giving direction to a lot of people, but I don't think the world was changed, the status quo disappeared, or even that there was a GREAT BIG PREMISE.
It's time for comics to grow up. I come from that first post-Wertham generation that believed comics to be benign, even educational, reading material. So, often, I'd have peers ask why a 15-year old, or 20-year old, or 30-year old, on up till and including 40-year old, would read comics. As a kid, I would compare the average comic to the average episode of "Love Boat" or "Happy Days" and proclaim that comics were simply the better written medium.
Today, I expect more from the comic book genre than for it to surpass the average TV show. "Watchmen", "Dark Knight", and "The Last Superman Story" were all two decades ago. We've been waiting for "Identity Crisis" for over 20 years - or at least a story that incorporated the real world, raw emotion, and relatable character motivations as Meltzer has managed to do.
Of the writers who currently write for DC, I think only Geoff Johns and Greg Rucka have the ability to carry that forward on a regular basis. Jeph Loeb gives great "summer blockbuster"-type stories with a lot of flash, fireworks, and superficial emoting. Judd Winick had a good story literally fall into his lap - that of "Real World" housemate Pedro Zamora - but everything he's done so far at DC has fallen short of that emotional mark.
What I do see this as is the end. The turning point. The start of a new age.
The Golden Age is easily over, as is Silver. Bronze ended in 1985 by one way or another, and we entered the modern age. Still for kids, but appropriate for adult.
Starting with Marvel ending its use of the Comics Code Authority, and now with DC succinctly not going to the code without any warning on the books, I realized something that people joked about, but that I could never believe.
Kids are not reading comics any more, period.
I have been going to the comic store every week for about 7 years, and then every other week as a kid, and I realize, because of prices, because of the story levels, and because of the passionate hatred of reading on the part of most children, there are no kids reading these any more, even if you give books to them for free.
In the last ten years, I can remember three instances of seeing kids in a comic books store, other than looking for Pokemon cards.
So it is my contention that with the end of any formal insistence that comics be appropriate for children, and with the end of any kind of tolerance for a sensationalist story, and an insistence on something adult, something on a par with if not a novel, as is asserted in the sheer existence of Identity Crisis as the event book of the year (with reaction bearing it out), we have entered the Post-Modern age of comics. You heard it here first.
Gold, Silver, Bronze, Post-Modern. One of these doesn't fit. For $10,000, the new car, and a lifetime supply of "Turtle Wax", name that era. Ummm, the Platinum Age, Wink? Mr. P. N. Guin, of Parsippany, New Jersey, you ... are ... right.
We are in a new age, a shiny age, an age that's as evocative of creativity as the Golden and Silver Ages were, an age that was contemplated by the end of the first "Crisis" in 1986. Welcome to the Platinum Age of comics. And you heard it here first. So there.
Actually, I think I prefer platinum. A lot of English scholars insist that the post-modern is over anyway. But regardless, a term is a term. The point is, that period from Crisis to the serious may be over. Of course, if I'm wrong and we go back to kiddie fare, I'll feel really stupid. Double platinum stupid.
But what does this mean?
It means that instead of a week to week story that kids and adults can read, we now have RUNS, by POPULAR AUTHORS. Used to be it didn't matter who was on the cover, it was the character that sells. Now it's the name. It's been that way for a long time, but of late, it has become the rule rather than the frequent occasion.
MELTZER. LOEB. RUCKA. MORRISON. Face it. We buy most of our books based on who's writing them now, and the writers have attained a rock star status. Loeb, it doesn't matter what he's writing, how good it is, people will buy it. Same with the listed above. Others, not so much, but the GOAL seems to be that popularity.
This is a hard fact of life for me to face, but Beetle Bailey's right. Outside of perhaps Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, the choices I make on what comics to buy every month have a lot more to do with who's writing than who's fighting. I always used to say that Superman was more important than the people who write and draw his adventures, yet I can't imagine a world without Elliott S! Maggin or Curt Swan. I'd buy "The Inferior Five" if it was written by Geoff Johns because of what I've come to expect from a "Geoff Johns" story. Same with Rucka.
What's imperative, however, is that the writers who do the best job don't think of themselves as more important than the characters. These are the writers and artists to whom creating Superman is an honor. Respecting the characters and putting words in their mouths that respect the fan's intelligence - we should expect that with every published comic. Still, not every TV show is "The Sopranos" or "Curb Your Enthusiasm". Nor should they be.
It also means that there is a coherent narrative coming to the fray, I do believe. Many believe that Byrne and Perez, with the Crisis, in many ways tried to bring what is coming naturally now. Adult stories, a coherent re-imagination.
After Identity comes Crisis 2, which will undoubtedly re-align the universe. All Star is to be factored, as is Birthright. Something is obviously afoot, and they've been planning it for years.
My guess is the stories will get more adult. More viscious. More strong, even. The focus will not be the status quo, but rather a comprehension of the hero journey and what the experience means, as opposed to who Superman is punching, much like Post-Modern literature. The idea being that it's not really who dies, or even the journey, more how deep and misunderstood the heroes and their strengths and weaknesses can be.
The expectation will be the novel, and the fallback will be the kiddie story. Nobody's perfect, the company will have slips, but I see things in the future, bad and good, but all adult.
Seeing things as black and white kid/adult terms is too narrow. This is about comic books no longer being peddled to the slowest, youngest reader, but to the most advanced. "Harry Potter", that bespectacled rip-off of the "Books of Magic" protagonist Tim Hunter, has demonstrated that kids and adults very often have the same taste. Children understand what they can and they file away what they can't understand to be processed at a later time. I've seen that with my own daughter, and, for that reason, I don't believe in the notion of protecting our children from "adult" concepts. A child's own mind and a singularly focused parent are all the censors a child needs.
Only Marvel still clings to the notion that it can hook kids... and it does, but if you'll note, it does it with the Ultimate line. And what is the Ultimate line? A coherent narrative that reads as one long novel at very least in the Spider-Man case, and a very serious, very adult line in the case of the Ultimates. Fantastic Four is much more fanciful, and X-Men is a bit more re-imaginative, BUT, all in all, the general trend is adult stories for more mature children or adults.
As DC embraces real emotion, real dialogue, and compelling characterizations in its main continuity, there then becomes a vacuum that can be filled by the upcoming "All-Star" line. In many ways, the animated universe has paved the way.
Think back ten years. Imagine For Tomorrow's look at heroes, or the raping to shreds that occurred in "Action Comics". Imagine the reaction. Killing Superman alone got national attention. Now rape, lobotomy on the part of squeaky clean heroes, and the loss of the code are standard. Is this good? Is this bad? The news didn't even hardly BLINK.
I'm inclined to believe it's somewhere in the middle. It's good to have stories on my level. It's bad that comics will fade as a medium, because children will no longer be as welcome, it'll be like me as a kid borrowing the adult's novels.
Identity Crisis as a story is so much beyond what it was. Identity was much like Birthright... a GREAT story, a page turner, but if you put too much into the ramifications, you'll be disappointed that it was JUST Sue Dibny, just like with Birthright, you'll get upset if you think too much about continuity. But just sitting back and enjoying it, you realize that the directions comics are headed are more impressionistic, for good, for bad, and for ugly, and Identity Crisis is the first major acknowledgement that such a story has come to the forefront.
Watchmen was a cruel horror at the time, as was Dark Knight, even when I read them five years after they came out. This story seems a cruel horror now, to many characters involved. I believe this is Watchmen set in the DC Universe, and it will culminate.
Though I remain torn, in retrospective, this book will mean a great deal more in the years to come, even though other events, like Our Worlds At War, Officer Down, Knightfall, and the Reign, were more enjoyable at the time on a base level. None were this adult. None were this refined.
We enter a new age.
I hope the food's better here.