doublearticulation

Infinite Crisis: A Review of Criticism

In Uncategorized on May 14, 2006 at 10:50 pm

In a recent article at the always splendid PrettyFakes, Prof. Fury challenged me to unleash some deadly postmodern jujitsu on Infinite Crisis #7 and prove that “this is the greatest thing ever instead of the worst.” Oh God, Professor. The pressure!

Now, don’t get me wrong. I loved Infinite Crisis for the most part. But as I look back over the series with a more critical eye, even I have to admit that by any reasonable aesthetic standards of storytelling, Infinite Crisis is a bit of a mess. Heck it is a mess—so much so that any straightforward defense of the series on aesthetic merits alone is pretty much a nonstarter.

The by-now-familiar critique of the series goes something like this. All together now: Important episodes and clarifying details are missing from the miniseries itself. It was necessary to read (and thus buy) many costly countdowns, prequels, and specials to “get the whole story.” Even when you opened your wallet wide and dug through the couch for loose change to feed your pathetic fanboy habit, the story itself still wasn’t fully told—not by a long shot. A detailed knowledge of the past twenty or more odd years of DC continuity didn’t hurt—though in many ways, it didn’t help either. And to add insult to injury, the story we do get in those seven issues is a disconnected assemblage of money shots, plot-hammers, and non sequiturs, strung together not so much in a narrative as in a kind of postmodern pastiche. In the end, the best metaphor for the storytelling strategy of the series might be that ubiquitous inter-dimensional crystal barrier whose shattering sets the whole Crisis in motion and upon whose fractured surface disconnected images swim in often jarring juxtaposition.

No one has eviscerated the series with more panache or gleeful malice than Evil (Genius) Robby Reed, who makes similar points and many others in a spectacularly baroque (and often hilarious) takedown of DC’s mega-event makeover. But other readers have been pretty handy with the hatchet too. Pól Rua of Comics Should Be Good has a scathing review that depressed me when I first read it, but that I now find myself agreeing with—at least in part. Brian Cronin, also of CSBG, provides one of the most balanced critiques of the series but still concludes with a damning: “Not Recommended.”

As all of these reviewers point out, in one way or another, the problem with IC as a story is that it provides only a simulation of narrative logic rather than the real thing. Its plot presents itself as character-driven when, in fact, characterization plays second fiddle to a ruthlessly story-driven “collection of scenes meant to ‘get something’ done,” as Brian puts it. What is Crisis “for”? To tweak the tone of the “new” DCU by symbolically (and permanently) removing the Golden Age Superman and Lois Lane from the canvas while setting up the premise of 52 and OYL by sending friends-again Bruce, Clark, and Diana on sabbatical. The result, as Pól Rua rather brutally puts it, is “a series of still images [that] flash[ ] across your eyes at high speed, with a couple of crowd pleasing group shots amateurishly scrawled by a series of fill-in artists to keep people from realizing that there’s no story.” Wonder Woman’s almost completely unmotivated killing-is-bad “epiphany” in IC #7, which Brian cites in his review, exemplifies this subordination of characterization and narrative logic to the mercenary presentation of plot-points. Echoing Robby Reed’s broader diagnosis of the underlying malady afflicting the series, Prof. Fury puts it best in his own searing review of IC #7 when he blasts DC for “settl[ing] on a publishing ethic characterizable only as pomo-funhouse capitalism, in which every book is merely an advertisement for a bunch of other books that are themselves advertisements for other books” and charges that “Infinite Crisis, ultimately, takes place in a catalog.”

Yowch! And here I thought that Geoff Johns was the idol of millions…

When I look at IC in the cold clear light of day—that is to say, now that the series has wrapped—I can’t really argue with any of these critiques. At least, not very vehemently. With varying degrees of vitriol (just saw V for Vendetta again—sorry) they are all pointing to genuine weaknesses of what should have been a much better series.

Moreover, like most readers, I’ve accumulated my own list of petty personal gripes and disappointments. The pious group-hug that opens Infinite Crisis #5 was a low point for me, no matter how much principled atheism the truly terrific Mr. Terrific brought to the proceedings. Like Brian Cronin, I was also irked by the way that, after all the initial fanfare, Donna Troy just sort of faded away—most likely because the reception of her Return was so chilly.

The real aesthetic catastrophe of these seven issues, however, was Alexander Luthor’s giant hands—quite possibly the lamest embodiment of cosmic menace ever produced in a comic book event of this magnitude. Yes, I get that they’re referencing Krona’s big blue paw, but I’m sorry: they just don’t work. Evil Robby’s side-splitting (and spot-on) parody of the, er…earth-grabbing scenes pretty much says it all. But the awfulness of the hands was brought home most painfully to me in IC’s version of the clichéd scene that is a fixture of every cosmic crossover ever written. You know the one: all the heroes who can shoot rays out of their bodies pool their energies into a giant power blast to beat back the bad guy.

The preposterous amputation of Luthor’s giant index finger in IC #6 attained a level of unintentional self-parody that is pretty hard for even the staunchest series-supporter to forgive.

And yet…

Apart from those risible golden hands, none of this really affected my enjoyment of the series while it was underway. I see the faults, I really do. But I see them the way a smoker sees the warning label on his package of DuMaurier Kings—which is to say, as a sort of surreal, misplaced, grimly amusing public service announcement that surely doesn’t apply to him!

What does it mean to see the lameness and love it anyway—to really love it, not as camp or cheese, but with sniveling unrepentant sincerity? Why do I feel the urge to defend Infinite Crisis, even now? And more to the point, on what basis could so doubtful a project even be attempted?

Well, for starters, were things really so bad? Most of the apologies I’ve read online are level-headed, if slightly sheepish, defenses by degree. They usually point out that, on balance, the plot holds together more effectively than detractors have claimed and that, on balance, the abundance of good scenes outweigh the few truly cringe-inducing ones. Many bloggers have already made this case admirably, eloquently, and with the kind of touching futility that I aspire to in most of my posts here at Double Articulation. I’m fully of their party, but the truth is that this line of argument isn’t likely to convince anyone who’s not already on side. This very post was originally going to be a gushing tour of my favorite IC moments, but this ground is already so well-trodden that I think I’ll content myself with merely mentioning one. Okay, two: the Chemo attack on Blüdhaven (holy shit—that’s the Brotherhood I remember) and Connor’s perfectly pitched half-page death scene. “Isn’t it cool?” Yes, it truly is.

A second possible defense of the series is not aesthetic but thematic—and this one just might help me make good on Prof. Fury’s pomo-jujitsu challenge because it actually makes a virtue of one of the series’s most serious and peculiar narrative flaws: its shoddy treatment of the Golden Age Superman.

Back when this all began, I made a bunch of rash speculations about multiplicity that haven’t exactly been borne out by the story’s conclusion. Nonetheless, I’m relieved that the series at least makes a show of repudiating a return to the simple 1950s values the Earth-2 Superman represents, even if this repudiation remains partial at best. From where I sit, the series’s ambivalent treatment of the Golden Age Superman—particularly his undignified death—is one of its most fascinating features. I’d even go so far as to speculate that many of the story’s aesthetic failings and incoherencies are merely side-effects of the deep-seated ideological discomfort that its author has with the Golden Age Superman—the iconic but profoundly conservative character from whom, as Alex Luthor coyly puts it, “everything comes.”

The problem with the original Superman for contemporary liberals, leftys, and zany radicals, of course, is that he has become synonymous with a vision of “Truth, Justice, and the American Way” that seems increasingly untenable as we watch its consequences play out around the globe. This puts (liberal?) Geoff Johns in a rather uncomfortable position if he wishes to both pay homage to the founding character of the DCU and subtly repudiate this character’s symbolic political legacy at a fell swoop. The result, as we’ve all just seen, is vexed and—in narrative terms—unsatisfying.

For most of the story, Earth-2 Superman is cast in the unflattering roles of fascist villain and idiot/patsy, after which he is hastily (and unconvincingly) redeemed, only to throw a punch at Doomsday and then be unceremoniously dispatched by snot-nosed brat, Superboy Prime. If Superman’s perfunctory death scene is hollow and hardly touching, it isn’t because they were running out of pages, but because Johns’s heart just isn’t in it. Make no mistake: the real villain of Infinite Crisis—the villain that cannot be explicitly acknowledged as a villain because of his hallowed place in comic book history—is the Golden Age Superman, not Superboy Prime, who is merely a convenient proxy or doppelganger for the elder Supes.

It is, of course, on this note of bizarre irony (Superman as villain) that the series begins, and for some readers, the series’s barely disguised contempt for the original Superman has been an unforgivable insult—a violation of the sacred trust of childhood fantasy. But for Johns, who is a relatively young writer—part of the generation that grew up on Wolfman and Perez’s New Teen Titans, not Siegel and Shuster’s Action Comics or its Silver Age heirs—there is no such sacred trust to recognize: the Golden Age Superman is just a symbol for him (as he is for me), and if the extraordinary abuse that Supes takes in Infinite Crisis is any indication, a fairly pernicious symbol at that.

The speech that “our” Superman delivers in the climactic scene of IC #7 nearly makes this ideological struggle explicit: “It’s not about where you were born. Or what powers you have. Or what you wear on your chest. It’s about what you do… It’s about action.” These remarks—which plainly reject the stagnant and antiquated authority of tradition, power, and symbolism in favor of a kind of situational ethics—are of course addressed to Superboy Prime, not to the Earth-2 Superman. But if you buy my argument that Superboy is really just an authorially-displaced version of the former that allows Johns to tell us what he really thinks of old-school Superman, then it isn’t hard to see their relevance: this is Johns’s last word on how the current Superman differs politically from the Golden Age progenitor—a progenitor, I might add, that it is the story’s job to bury once and for all. The death of the Golden Age Superman at Superboy Prime’s hands in Infinite Crisis #7 is thus not a murder so much as a sort of dramatically externalized “suicide” in which the now darkened image of the original Superman tears apart his and earlier, nobler self-image, thus retracing the historical trajectory of the late twentieth-century’s increasingly troubled reception of the Superman mythos.

Why all this fuss to distinguish the new Superman from the old? Why now? Obviously, it makes a strong statement about the new DC. There’s nothing like (the simulation of) a clean break with the past. But Johns is a topical writer, as his Khandaq stories show, and the fact that the values associated with the “old” Superman have enjoyed a dangerous and disheartening resurgence in recent years surely plays a part in how Johns’s treatment of the Earth-2 Superman unfolds. My own feeling is that the basic conflict of Infinite Crisis (like so many pop productions these days) is very loosely conceived as a satire (or perhaps simply a parody) of contemporary American foreign policy. Overgrown child Alexander Luthor’s absurd quest for “the perfect earth” and his violent smashing together of different worlds in his cosmic “Petri dish” to achieve this Quixotic end by force, all remind me of another overgrown and equally sinister child whose actions on the world stage are no less careless, cynical, or destructive.

Naturally, the series performs various plot contortions to disassociate the Earth-2 Superman from Alexander Luthor. But, like this Superman and Superboy Prime, their valuations of simplicity in the moral/political sphere are not fundamentally different. Of course, such parallels and thinly veiled satiric barbs are not really the “point” of Infinite Crisis, and I would hardly characterize the series as a political allegory; nonetheless, I don’t think the resemblances between Luthor’s apocalyptic machinations, Superboy’s deadly tantrums, Superman’s nostalgia for a supposedly simpler time, the Bush Administration’s rhetoric, and the overseas adventures of the American war machine are entirely coincidental.

Thus, for someone like me who gets a kick out of cheap political shots at people and policies I don’t like, Infinite Crisis works as a diverting, if not particularly deep, satire of current politics—regardless of how clunky a resolution of the plot we’re subjected to in issue #7. Beyond this, and more subtly, Infinite Crisis is also fascinating as an example of how contemporary superhero comics are wrestling with the conservatism of their legacy in relation to the obscenity of the current political scene. From this point of view, what makes Infinite Crisis interesting are its flaws—especially those moments when conventional story-elements like the death of a founding patriarch fall flat, when wished-for pathos degenerates into bathos, banality, or even a kind of pop-sadism. This is precisely what we are witnessing in the story’s inability to genuinely mourn the passing of the Golden Age Superman, the hero from which, for better and for worse, “everything comes.” I find the story’s failure in this regard heartening, but only a little.

The fact that the story can’t really commit to its only political subtext, that it must still make the gesture of paying respect to the figure it secretly despises, that it is still intent on recuperating the promise of moral simplicity he represents, despite the remarkable degree of contempt it manifests for this very morality, attests to the intrinsic limitations of mainstream mega-events like Crisis, whatever their satirical overtones. Contrary to my initial hopes, what Infinite Crisis ends up representing politically is how easily an already vague satirical subtext is dissipated by the series’s logistical and corporate concerns: the need to go on, to perpetuate the brand, to “reinvent” by recycling, to “make the lines between heroes and villains in the DCU clear again,” as Dan Didio is so fond of repeating. Thank goodness for Gail Simone’s deliciously subversive Villains United and her forthcoming Secret Six.

But don’t get me wrong, despite getting a little carried away in that wild and wooly debate with Marc Singer a few months ago, I wasn’t expecting Infinite Crisis to provide a profound political justification for its existence. I would have been perfectly content with fun and pretty, so everything else was gravy. As it turns out, I relished its satiric flourishes, such as they were. I also ended up enjoying it as a conflicted cultural artifact that provides a revealing of X-Ray of current attitudes and tensions. I’m certainly not knocking it for being politically ambivalent or even, ultimately, vacuous.

And this brings me to my third and last defense of the series. As much fun as it might be for me to mull over its satirical and political dimensions once the dust has settled, this type of intellectual pleasure is mainly retrospective—it has very little to do with the nature of my (almost unseemly) enjoyment of reading Infinite Crisis while it was still unfolding. What’s up with that? How can it be both “the worst thing” and “the best thing ever”? What is Infinite Crisis anyway?

Fortunately for me, Brian Cronin has already answered this question with perfect clarity: “Infinite Crisis was never about telling a story.” Matthew has answered it too, in the comments thread for Brian’s article: “So maybe it wasn’t a good comic. Was it a good Big Event? Very possibly. I think it positioned DC very well to make better comics in the future. Of course, they still have to go do it.” And so has The Fortress Keeper: “Infinite Crisis was less about weaving an intricate plot with stunning art and rich characterization than delivering the requisite number of ‘popcorn’ moments and setting the stage for future storylines.”

Infinite Crisis is not a story but an event. That sounds like a bit of a cop out since there’s no reason why these two categories should be mutually exclusive: is a well-written “event” really so inconceivable? But, for me, and I think for these other reviewers, the point isn’t to defend IC on the basis that it is “only an event” and thus (?) the rules of good storytelling need not apply—not exactly. Rather, it is to try to account for why, as readers of comic book “events,” so many of us are prepared to overlook the narrative flimsiness of the actual products.

So, how can such “events” be both “the worst thing” and “the best thing ever”? For me at least, the answer is that I don’t actually “read” them in the conventional sense all—and I don’t really think I’m meant to. Brian is exactly right when he says that “Infinite Crisis was never about telling a story”—in fact, virtually no corporately-driven “Big Event” is—and the corollary of this simple fact is that, as a reader, I bring a different set of expectations and reading practices to this kind of text than I do to my usual monthly comics. Big Events like Crisis are not so much stories as Acts of God: we can marvel at them but when Wonder Woman has a spontaneous change of heart, it’s almost pointless to ask “why?” Formally, they are not narratives but gestalts or force fields—they hold everything together with a kind of self-generating magical causality. One doesn’t read them so much as surf them, looking for familiar faces, promising encounters, surprising juxtapositions, important plot-points, and “popcorn moments.” This is the mode of nonreading that the original Crisis taught me, and frankly, every now and then, I like it. Would it have been nice to have a better story? Of course. This isn’t (just) another Jim Roeg-style apology for bad art. The Fortress Keeper’s point that “Infinite Crisis’s failure…to string much of a plot together robs otherwise emotional scenes of their gravitas” is irrefutable. Nonetheless, there really is something special about Event comics like Crisis, even when they fail to deliver on everything they promise.

The “something special”—and the reason why so many of us enjoyed the series, warts and all—is not just that it contained so many great moments but that, as Matthew says, “it positioned DC very well to make better comics in the future.” It’s impossible not be a little bit cynical about this kind of consolation. Of course DC wants us all to take out second mortgages in order to buy more comics, and in this regard Prof. Fury’s diagnosis of the situation as “pomo-funhouse capitalism” is bullet-proof. But it also tells only part of the story. The embarrassing truth is that—for me at least—the pomo-funhouse capitalism of DC’s latest Big Idea really is fun because it overlaps with the pleasure of narrative incompletion in a uniquely powerful way. What we buy when we shell out $5 for an issue of Infinite Crisis isn’t a story—and many of us are not disappointed because that’s not what we’re looking for anyway. What we’re buying is something like the promise of futurity—a promise that inheres in all serial narratives, but which is particularly acute in Big Event miniseries that are by definition transitional and which exude futurity like an aura. In Joseph Conrad’s classic modernist novella, Heart of Darkness, the unnamed narrator famously remarks that, for the story-telling seaman Marlow, “the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine.” This characteristic bit of Conradian obscurantism is about as close as I can come to naming my sense of the peculiar way that Big Event comics function at the level of readerly affect and why they’re able to satisfy fairly primal narrative cravings, even when their execution is mediocre.

At least, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. When all else fails: modernist-jujitsu.

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