Friday, April 01, 2005

COUNTDOWN TO INFINITE CRISIS

The biggest dilemma when it comes to assessing this is whether or not to take it in context. Yes, it is part of a Grand Scheme, a giant quilt over the DCU knitted by nearsighted grannies hallucinating on their blood pressure medicine writers who have a universe-shifting plan in mind. This is, after all, the Countdown to the Infinite Crisis.

But, frankly, going Big Picture makes this look worse than it is because all we have right now is Identity Crisis and its infinite tie-ins and the vague threat of The OMAC Project, Villains United, and the other miniseries leading in to Infinite Crisis. When those vague threats are realized, Countdown may look far different. But right now, on the threshhold and straddling the two Crises, it's less a harbinger than a tired riff off of a not-awfully-exciting theme.

Countdown is hobbled out of the block by its relationship to Identity Crisis. Forget Rathergate, I want to see the memos that state that all DCU events have to begin with the ultimately purposeless slaughter of one of the Giffen-era JLA members.

A bit of transparancy here: I never liked the Giffen-era JLA. I've been rooting for someone to whack Booster Gold for years. The slapsticky nature of that run never appealed and Batman cold-cocking Guy Gardner did not justify the series for me.

But that doesn't mean I'm enjoying the bullying that has gone on here. It's no fun to pick on the defenseless and that's what it feels like -- that's what it feels like any time writers decide to kickstart momentum by killing off a character who has fallen out of use. And the murder of Ted Kord -- forget about the how and the why for the time being -- falls squarely into that category.

Killing off Blue Beetle has far less impact than raping and murdering Sue Dibny. On the surface because Sue was beloved, but Blue Beetle was the comedy relief. On a deeper level because, gratuitously crude or not, Sue's demise hit upon touchstones. Well-known enough by fans from her association with the JLA (and aided by the Formerly Known As the Justice League mini), Sue was the civilian wife of a costumed hero, the soft underbelly of the impenetrable spandex shell. Everything that happened to her was the reification of every hero's fears -- it's one thing to put yourself in danger, but it's another to get someone you love killed because of your own actions. See Hal Jordan (Coast City) and Batman (Jason Todd; yes, I've read Batman) for examples within the DCU.

There's no gut-punch with the murder of Beetle, either within the DCU or for the fans, and that makes it a wasted kill. Geoff Johns spent the entire story reminding us of how irrelevant Ted is to the DCU, overstating the case well beyond the point of disrespect not only to Beetle, but also to some of the characters who act coldly toward him (J'onn being the foremost example, but there are a handful of cases). What does this achieve beyond emphasizing how little his death matters? The only ones who do care, the fans of the Giffen-era JLA and that time in general, are already punchdrunk from what happened to Sue and that dulls the impact.

Infinite Crisis is supposed to matter to current continuity. You want to kick this thing off with a bang? You kill someone who matters. That should have been Nightwing in Batman's arms, or Catwoman, or someone else who is an active part of a main title. The audience reaction should be "Oh, #$%&!!!" and not "Geez, that's too bad; I always liked him."

Compounding the problem further is that there is shock value in Countdown, just not in the death of a character. Blue Beetle is ultimately reduced to random cannon fodder because the real surprise in the story is that Maxwell Lord is the King of Checkmate and a rampaging evil genius. (Everyone together now: "Riiiiiiiight.")

On the one hand, Max is right -- who would have thought of it? On the other hand... who would have thought of it? Besides Geoff Johns. Turning Maxwell Lord into the ultimate sleeper agent is the mother of all retcons and Johns didn't sell me on it being feasible. Engineering a retcon like this requires a very strong tie-in to past continuity -- reinterpreting specific past events to make them fit into the new reality. And Johns doesn't do that. Instead, he offers vagueries -- hey, here's the real reason the Giffen JLA was inefficient and wacky! -- and that makes it feel slapdash and fake.

Pulling out a particular story arc and showing how Max was toying with the team even then would have gone miles toward giving this any sense of legitimacy. Brad Meltzer did the next best thing with Dr. Light in Identity Crisis -- reinterpreting a well-known villain of the era and creating a flashback of a situation that could have happened off-panel in a contemporary book. Meltzer, for better or for worse, also addressed the important-to-Post-Crisis-continuity question of how you pull one over on Batman. You might not like the idea of a mindwipe, but it's better than Johns saying that the (annoyingly) omnicient Bruce Wayne just didn't figure it out.

[I've gone off on this before: Johns is a bad writer for a legacy-based, multi-generational world because tying anything into past canon is not his thing -- see JSA and Teen Titans for a cornucopia of examples. The man may be a fanboy and a HEAT member, but he's got a chronic allergy to researching and a preference for reinventing the wheel... as an oval. He'd be a perfect Marvel writer, where past history is necessarily constantly reinvented to fit into current continuity.]

All this being said -- and there's more to be said -- the ultimate annoyance of Countdown is that once you take away the incongruous moments, this wasn't half bad. The problem is that you can't take away those incongruous moments because those are the real points of the story.

If he had to go, Ted Kord got a decent -- in funnybook terms -- send-off. We saw the irrelevancy of Blue Beetle overstated, but we got a great, respectful view of Ted Kord. A brilliant man whose occasionally impulsive actions kept him from traditional greatness, Ted was often a Fool, but he was no idiot. He had a profound friendship with Booster, he quietly pined after Barbara Gordon, he had a life formed by his own choices and he understood what he was doing when he gave that life up. This final self-awareness makes the ultimate irrelevancy of his death very frustrating because it would have worked equally well as the start of a story about Beetle and not the end.

A couple of pot-shots:

* As someone who has always loathed -- loathed -- Booster Gold, I thought he was great here. Booster is and always has been motivated solely by what's good for Booster; that's what has shaped his backstory and informed his every action. So it was fantastic to see that played out in a non-goofy way... and even more fantastic to see Booster show up for Beetle at the end. Even though it was never good for the story, there always had to be a kernel of true heroism and goodness behind the self-aggrandizing; Michael Jon Carter risked his life too many times for it to have been only about the money and fame. We got to see it in fine form and I expect Johns and Company to carry it through on to Booster's reaction to Beetle's death. It was fan servicing at its finest (and there are a whole lot of conflicted slashficcers out there right now).

* One of the other tics of Johns's writing that drives me up the wall is his inability to demonstrate social interaction and team chemistry by any other way than through the internal monologing of characters. He tells rather than shows through, say, dialogue and it's why he introduces new team members into books at ridiculous rates -- so they can think aloud and flesh out the already-present characters. Nowhere was this more annoying in Countdown than in the... combat jack... moment with Hal Jordan. If I were interacting with the just-returned-from-being-really-scary-and-very-crazy Hal? I wouldn't be standing taller and basking in his innate heroic nobility. I'd be really frikking nervous.

* The Society of Super Villains, or whatever they're calling themselves, was perhaps the most successful of the sledgehammered presagings of the future story arcs. I will expect a bit more information on Talia, however, considering that the last time we saw her in Batman: Death and the Maidens. I've never considered Talia a "good guy"; the only time she ever objected to murder and destruction was when Bruce was involved. But the major plots of B:D&tM were her transformation into Nyssa's agent and the passing of the Ra's al-Ghul mantle to Nyssa, who was presented as having a greater purpose than random evil and destruction. Talia's presence in the Secret Society, presumably representing her sister, must be justified or else she gets reduced to becoming a stock villainess the way Slade Wilson (Deathstroke the Terminator) has been stripped of his purpose and uniqueness.

* Yes, Dr. Light should be full of righteous indignation, but if he storms into another book screaming about what was done to him... It has become a Monty Python sketch. All Dr. Light needs are the vestments and he could easily be saying "Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!" when he bursts on to the page.

1 Comments:

Anonymous JediSpyder said...

There are a couple of things I wondered about when reading this:
-Just to make sure, you do realize this was written by multiple writers and not just Geoff Johns? Cause I kept seeing his name repeated, and to my knowledge the big stuff was done by Judd Winnick (he stated in an interview that he was the one to write the death scene, IIRC)
-Also, you do realize that Maxwell Lord is really a genius, lol. Read his bio here: http://www.mykey3000.com/cosmicteams/profiles/maxwelllord.html
What fans are thinking is that the Max in Countdown is the real body of Max taken over by Kilg%re, since Max still had mental powers whereas the Max in "Formerly Known As..." and "I Can't Believe..." is a robot.

Wed Apr 06, 10:18:00 PM EDT  

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