"Temporality is part of the truth" -- Chuck Klosterman

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

How I Learned to Read Comic Books and Love the Superhero

He's Invincible. You can tell.
Note: I originally wrote this as an exercise to show my students about responding to and reviewing a text. I reprint it here with my permission. (Also, check out my other book reviews by hovering over the Shelfari down there.)

When I started reading comic books in earnest a few years ago, I decided that the best ones are about new superheroes or characters with no superpowers at all. Robert Kirkman’s Invincible and The Walking Dead, Brian K. Vaughn’s Y the Last Man and Ex Machina, or Bill Willingham's Fables immediately spring to mind. I tried, but I couldn’t really get into the old characters—Spiderman, Batman, Superman—with their story lines that go back fifty-plus years. Even the contemporary issues of these titles have a stale feeling to them, like everything’s been said that can be said. And the old comics are difficult enough to read if only for the outdated art and coloring. It’s like watching The Love Boat and recognizing that however sleek and sexy it might have once been, it’s that much more awful and even offensive today. (Witness: my similar problem with watching old episodes of Doctor Who.) Then I came across the DC Comics Crisis stories and realized I might be able to read about some of these classic characters without feeling like I’m reading every hero-in-tights story rehashed from the beginning of time.

I can't tell what's going on here.
The Crisis series actually begins back in 1985 (that date almost put me off right there; I mean, when does anyone read pre-Watchmen comics any more?), with a DC anniversary event called Crisis on Infinite Earths, a 12-part series designed to gather all the differing and contradictory threads of DC universe and kind of start all over. The thinking was that the universe they had created over the years was becoming too complicated, with too many versions of too many superheroes, for new readers to dare become interested. (All of which mirrors my thinking pretty closely.) So with Crisis on Infinite Earths, they kill off several characters and destroy every external dimension and universe except one: Earth One remained, and the writers could rebuild from there. 

Knowing this was enough for me to become interested in the new DC anniversary event from 2005 called Infinite Crisis, a sequel of sorts to Crisis on Infinite Earths. Infinite Crisis was, like Crisis on Infinite Earths, supposed to be able to get new readers interested and involved in their world. Here is where I figured I could begin my attempt at understanding the myriad of characters and stories in the DC world. Then (see, you have to do a lot of reading before you do any reading) I found out that before DC published Infinite Crisis, they published several “lead-up” comics to build interest in the “event” of Infinite Crisis. Which meant, unfortunately, that if I really wanted to get involved, I needed to read these “Countdown to Infinite Crisis” stories as well. Reluctantly, I gave it a try.

The first in the “Countdown” series is Identity Crisis. I was hugely surprised. As a hint of the “event” to come, it’s a doozy. Brad Meltzer--whose day job is penning political thriller and intrigue novels, the kind I don’t often read, so I didn’t know who Meltzer was until I read this graphic novel--has written a self-contained mystery that introduces novice comic readers like myself to many of the time-worn DC superheroes in a way that makes them human, believable, and identifiable.

Go, go gadget elongation!
The story begins with the murder of the wife of the Elongated Man, apparently a long-time member of the Justice League. My skepticism kicked in by wondering why there are so many similar superheroes with similar powers: Plastic Man, the guy from the Fantastic Four, not to mention my favorite childhood toy, Stretch Armstrong, all have the same stretchy/morphy abilities as this Elongated Man. So why start with this knock-off character I’ve never heard of? By the end of the first chapter, however, I felt for the guy. Meltzer makes the Elongated Man’s relationship with his wife pure and loving, and Rags Morales, the artist, draws the Elongated Man in his grief and makes it heartbreaking. In one panel, you see his anguish simply by the fact that he can’t keep his jaw hinged onto his face.

The rest of the story is about the Justice League’s attempts to find the killer. Other family members of superheroes are threatened despite all the secret identities, and facts surface about past encounters with certain supervillains. One baddie is called Dr. Light, and we find out he once before discovered the identity of the Elongated Man’s wife, threatened her, and had to be dealt with. Since the superheroes don’t normally kill their enemies if they can help it, they decide in the spur of the moment to wipe his mind with a controversial magical procedure. This, naturally, drives him more crazy than he was already, and the repercussions of this mind-wipe are felt throughout the super community. The revelation of this event causes a schism within the League and the other groups of heroes they encounter.

The Green Stare
Most of the book is narrated by the Green Arrow, a character I’d heard of but about whom I’ve never known much. Meltzer includes Green Arrow’s reflections on the other heroes as a way to ponder his own needs and emotions, as he grieves for the loss of friends and relatives. Also, I found it interesting that Green Arrow always calls the other heroes by their real names, not their superhero names. Batman is Bruce. Superman is Clark. This brings his character to a relatable, human level, where he’s showing how he’s dealing with actual people, not out-of-this-world experiences that we readers can’t connect to.

Meltzer makes us question what we know about these heroes, while clearly showing that the heroes themselves aren’t sure what they know. The new Robin’s father finds out his son has been running around with Batman at night, putting himself in mortal danger, so Robin attempts to finally make a connection with his father. The hero Atom is able to reconcile with his ex-wife and start the relationship anew. And you know from the tone that both of these relationships are doomed. Even Clark Kent—perfect Superman—finds himself becoming estranged from his adopted parents out on their Kansas farm. This story is much more about these familial interactions than it is about fighting bad guys with super powers.

That’s why it’s such a great introduction to this universe, to these heroes. This is a first-class murder-mystery that just happens to involve heroes with super powers. Blame Watchmen, blame the new breed of superhero movies, but superheroes today are flawed and human. And that’s the only way to get a pedestrian cynic like me to appreciate what DC is trying to do with its Crisis series and accept new stories from these fabled characters.


  1. I read a few of the Batman comics when I was little. My Uncle had an extensive collection, but it wasn't really for me. I was just out of options for new reading material.

    I did read the Sailor Moon Manga. Does that almost kind of count? No? Not really?

    Well, I like to WATCH the Walking Dead, which I know is based on the comic series you mentioned up there. I also know that his comic series was really under appreciated in the world of comics until the show premiered on Halloween last year. I love the series almost enough to go out and buy the comics. But there's sixty something of them...so that's a problem.

    I like that you don't like the old superheroes though. They were boring. Too perfect. Also, they all lost their parents or something...same story.

  2. I've tried reading some of the famous, mopey Batmansj from the late 80's and 90's, but they all seem so one-note: Batman's got issues. We get it already.

    The Walking Dead comics are almost heartbreaking. Stark black and white art, minimal dialogue. But the series has been going on a long time and I haven't read the last few yet but they started getting a little repetitious. And yes, the show is pretty dang cool.

    I don't know much about manga, but I always think eighth grade girls should be reading them. And Sailor Moon? Maybe fifth grade? What do I know?

  3. Interesting selection. The problem with most comics is trying to kep them going after a certain amount of time, this is especially true of the older hero books who have done everything, inclusing died and come back. Gets a bit gimmicky after a while (lots of zombie/vampire stories around at the moment).
    Moody Writing

  4. I used to read comics a lot when I was a kid. Hard to believe, right? ;) I read mostly Marvel comics though. I couldn't hardly get into any DC comics at all, for some reason.

  5. @ Mood: I don't mind when characters come back to life as long as it services story and not popular opinion or monetary needs. But some stories need an ending and shouldn't go on forever.

    @ Bryan: Marvel has the some historical problems DC has. Just too many characters and stories to follow. I like the X-Men and Spidey and all, but where's the definitive story?