Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Infinite Cycle Crisis

Update: Thanks to my anonymous friend for pointing out my insistence on referring to Infinite Crisis as Final Crisis. DC's lack of imagination is no excuse for sloppy naming.  I've made the necessary alterations.

This week I read DC's Infinite Crisis, so as to cover it in issue #10 of Panel Talk.  Obviously, I'll go into more detail then, but I thought it was worth a post ahead of recording.

It's not a particularly good book.  It's certainly much better than the original, but then the original Crisis has a good excuse; it reads like the kind of hyperactive unthinking comic you'd find in the '80s because the '80s was when it was written.

On the other hand, Infinite Crisis is only five or six years old, and yet there's something very '90s about the whole enterprise.  The pointless deaths; the pages of bloodshed; the "all the evil people ever make friends and are extra evil" idea behind the Society (which are handled about, ooh, 2% as well as the Hood's bunch over in Marvel).  It thinks it's visceral, but somehow comes across as quaint, even a bit silly, even before we get to Batman having apparently built a giant satellite which has gone wrong and started making armies of cyborg killers (seriously: what?).

It all feels quite dated, in short.  That, combined with the sheer amount of stuff that went right over my head (just as with CoIE, I had no idea whether I was supposed to care about half the people who died, or where Bludhaven is, or what all the gnashing of teeth over the Spectre was about) made it less than thrilling to wade through.

It was only about four issues in that I realised what I was actually reading. According to some, the series is about the nature of heroism.  I don't think it is.  Comparing what the heroes were like in the Silver Age with how they are now isn't a discussion about heroism at all, any more than putting two oxen next to a tractor tells you something about farming.

What it tells you about is the nature of change.

Change can be a touchy subject when it comes to comic books.  It never seems possible to change a title or a universe by just enough.  For every fan complaint over the appearance of Wolverine in five different comics in the last month, there's another one about how the X-Men don't have enough recognisable faces any more.  I'm not sure it's all that rare for those two complaints to come from the same person, as well.

What do you change, what do you keep constant, and what do you recycle?  Answering those three questions seems to be at the very heart of the challenge for those working in the Marvel or DC Universes.  That's why, whatever its (significant) failings as an actual piece of fiction, Infinite Crisis is so interesting on a meta-textual level.

Consider what the story revolves around: three characters who sacrifice themselves in the mid-'80s to prevent the destruction of the only Earth that has survived the Anti-Monitor's predations. They did in fiction what Wolfman and Perez [1] did in reality - they created the brave new world for everyone else to play in.

But if Superboy Prime, Kal-L and Alexander Luthor represented the creators of the new DCU at the time of Crisis on Infinite Earths, then who were they as they watched Earth 1 descend into violence and decay?

I would argue that they were us.  I think Crisis reads so much like a '90s comic because the disgust Superboy Prime et al feel when they watch Earth 1 mirrors the reaction many of us had to the increasingly callous and bloodthirsty attitudes of '90s comic heroes.

It's about more than just that, of course.  Many would call the '90s a creative nadir, but they were also the last decade in which comics could be considered a particularly robust industry.  When comics were, in at least some sense, important.  The series might be centered on the idea that the heroes have lost their way in the dark, but it seems to hanker for the period when those same heroes really mattered, which means the book is yearning for exactly the same period of time it's decrying. It's all a bit confusing. 

Or is it? It's surely no coincidence that the three superheroes who bring down Luthor's tower are explicitly younger versions of DC's Big Three.  The message is clear: we won't ignore our legacy, but we understand the need for change.  Whether this is a milquetoast compromise, or the only sensible solution, is a matter of opinion.

In any event, the explicit message here is that Superboy Prime is attempting to bring back a period of time that never existed.  He blames the heroes for making him a killer in exactly the same way that people blame terrorists for civil rights violations.

We do bad things because the capacity is in us to do them, not because the times have changed.  Like so many people who confuse nostalgia for wisdom, Superboy is willing to destroy in order to create, and doesn't understand the contradiction (having him not know what a "hypocrite" is was a ridiculous way to underline the point, but underline it it does).  Kal-L learns that returning Lois to his "purer" Earth doesn't make a blind bit of difference to her condition, and he immediately blames "our" Superman for following him.  As though everything would be perfect if only things were how they were before. As though Dick Cheney and Michelle Malkin would stop being vicious, mean-spirited cancerous fucks if only all the Muslims pissed off back to Arabland.

CoIE again.  Our three dimensional refuges are those fans - or those writers - who are convinced that one can separate the progression of comics from the progression of time, and that if only the former were reversed, the latter could be ignored.

Indeed, as Luthor swaps, combines and splits apart Earths, what has he become but a reality-altering fanboy?  He's convinced that if he reassembles the DCU just so, he'll be able to keep all the aspects he likes and ignore the rest (this is so much like many comic aficionados - including myself - as to be almost frightening).  Indeed, he's worse than a fanboy; he's a fanboy writer.  No wonder he gets himself killed by the Joker; he tried to write him out of the universe, and writing the Joker out is a one-way ticket to oblivion.

I have no idea how much of this was Johns' intent, how much was subconscious, and how much is me reading too much into things (as usual), but I think it's an interesting way to view the situation.  As L. P. Hartley said "The past is a foreign country".  Sometimes, though, that foreign country is no more real that Narnia or Middle Earth, and it would do us all some good to remember that.

[1] Best crime-fighting duo name ever.


Anonymous said...

"I have no idea how much of this was Johns' intent, how much was subconscious, and how much is me reading too much into things (as usual), but I think it's an interesting way to view the situation."

The paradox created by Prime attacking himself returns him to Earth Prime. To his dismay, his girlfriend and family have read Infinite Crisis, Sinestro Corps War, Countdown to Final Crisis, and Legion of 3 Worlds, and are now terrified of him. Prime lives in his parents' basement, who support him out of fear for what he might do to them. He spends his days collecting comic books and trolling the DC Comics message boards, remarking that the DCU will never be rid of him and that he "always survives." Despite the physical depletion of his powers, he claims to have a new-found power as his eyes begin glowing red again.(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Superboy-Prime#Legion_of_3_Worlds)
I think it's safe to say that it was intentional.
Also, you keep calling it Final Crisis.

SpaceSquid said...

Crap: you're right! I shall fix it forthwith!