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Brief reviews of comics

Ex Machina #1

Writer Brian K. Vaughan
Penciller Tony Harris
Inker Tom Feister
Colorist JD Mettler
Letterer Jared K Fletcher

“If only there were a real superhero to save us…” “It’s like an action movie, but there’s no Bruce Willis to save us…” I read a lot of comments like that on Internet message boards, even heard people say things like that on CNN, in the days following 11 September 2001. It was only a matter of time before somebody decided to write a superhero comic that asks, “What if there had been a superhero around on 9/11?” (That idiotically pious and ill-conceived issue of Amazing Spider-Man published a couple months after 9/11 doesn’t count.) There are several ways you might address the question. There’s straightforward wish-fulfillment: a hero appears, stops the plane, saves everybody, and brings peace to the world. Or more vengeance-inspired wish fulfillment, like Chuck Dixon’s aborted American Power series. There’s political allegory, like the “President Luthor invades Qurac” story from DC. There’s good old critique of power, a cautionary tale about the danger of relying on heroes. (I don’t think anybody’s written such a story about 9/11 yet, but there’s certainly no shortage of superhero comics that address the theme.)

Vaughan, luckily, looks like he’s going for nuance in addressing the question. Mitchell Hundred’s limited effect on the 9/11 attacks and his legal inability to join the military in Afghanistan (and later, presumably, in Iraq) suggest that this story isn’t about wish fulfillment. The opening scene which takes place sometime after 2005 hints that Vaughan is setting up a story that deals with the dangerous mixture of hero worship and politics in post-9/11 America, but not in a trite “superheroes = power-mad fascists” way:

People blame me for Bush in his flight suit and Arnold getting elected governor, but truth is… those things would have happened with or without me. Everyone was scared back then, and when folks are scared, they want to be surrounded by heroes. But real heroes are just a fiction we create. They don’t exist outside of comic books.

So far, Mitchell’s status as a decidedly amateur superhero has been as harmful as it has been helpful in the political arena. His superheroic reputation was enough to get him elected mayor, but he’s not so powerful that it’s like Superman being mayor of New York (or Lex Luthor being president of the USA, for that matter). It looks like Vaughan is aiming to address hero worship as a political issue without drifting into a critique of the excessively powerful. It remains to be seen whether Ex Machina will finally agree with Mitchell’s pessimistic stance on heroism.

DC Comics Presents #1: Mystery in Space

First, as for the cover painted by Alex Ross: Too bad for Ross they included the original by Carmine Infantino and Murphy Anderson on the inside front cover. Ross’s cover, bland and stiff as typical for his work, appears especially lame in juxtaposition with Infantino and Anderson’s brighter and livelier piece. Ross’s attempt at a tribute loses the boldly clashing colors and sharp black lines of the original in favor of a tastefully restrained color palette and Ross’s typically fuzzy and indistinct figures. Boring.

“Crisis on 2 Worlds”

Writer Elliot S! Maggin
Artist J.H. Williams III
Color Jose Villarrubia
Letters Todd Klein

Government officials in the small African nation Swazeria confiscate Adam Strange’s amazing Rannian technological artifacts and trade them to a terrorist group in exchange for weapons-grade plutonium. They build a nuclear missile and launch it at a neighboring hostile country, but Adam enlists Sue Dibney’s help to hack into the missile’s routing computer (which is apparently Internet-based) and reroute the missile into the path of a Zeta beam that teleports it to Rann, where its fission explosion fizzles harmlessly due to the “geological signature” of Rann. The idea seems to be to tell the kind of story you might find in a class Golden Age or Silver Age comic: slightly disjointed, bordering on nonsensical, but packed with action and fun ideas. It’s also unabashedly antinuclear, although in a rather apolitical way that avoids stepping on controversial toes.

This is a fun little story, but I think the pace is off—it needs to be about three pages shorter, and the weird unresolved subplot about the kid and his “rare East African harness zebra” ought to have been dropped. The story would probably also have benefitted from slicker art and brighter colors. The art looks like it’s trying to be sober and realistic, which is the opposite of the tone this story needs.

“Two Worlds”

Writer Grant Morrison
Penciller Jerry Ordway
Inker Mark McKenna
Colorist Snocone
Letterer Bob Leigh

The art for this story isn’t exactly brilliant stuff, but it’s what I meant when I said “Crisis on 2 Worlds” needs slicker and brighter art. Ordway doesn’t just swipe the style of the Infantino/Anderson Mystery in Space cover, but he alludes to it convincingly in his own style.

Morrison’s story is even more blatantly political than Maggin’s. A team of stupidly arrogant soldiers captures Adam Strange. Their commander forces him to tell them how to travel to Rann and then leads an invasion party—which is attacked and destroyed by the Rannian monsters Adam tried to warn them about. The obvious real-world reference is Vietnam (although I suppose you could read the story as political commentary on the Iraq war if you wanted), which Morrison mentions in his narration. Adam Strange’s story is accompanied with narrative captions that tell the story of Julius Schwartz’s desire to encourage kids to become scientists and astronauts through his optimistic sf comics:

Adam Strange—lost on a science fiction vision quest to heal the psychoanalyzed traumatized soul of his people—preparing his children not for a glorious space race with Russia but for the alien killing fields of Southeast Asia

I don’t know if the narrative about Schwartz is factual or imagined, but combined with the Adam Strange story, it gets across the optimistic drive toward a world based on rationality and science in the early Cold War pre-Vietnam days, which I suppose was an important theme in Schwartz’s DC work in the 1960s (I’m trusting Morrison on that, since I’ve not read enough of the relevant comics to know if it was really a common theme).

“Two Worlds” ends making the same melancholy point as “Crisis on 2 Worlds”: Rann is an ideal world of peace on which even the planet’s geological and ecological properties work to prevent war—but how will we Earthlings manage to save ourselves from ourselves? Morrison’s answer is not satisfying—but then, what answer would be? In the end, he captures the goofiness and beauty of the comics of Julius Schwartz’s era without indulging in nostalgia for that time. It’s a lovely tribute.

Identity Crisis #1 & 2

Writer Brad Meltzer
Penciller Rags Morales
Inker Michael Baia
Colorist Alex Sinclair
Letterer Kenny Lopez

What I want to know is, why isn’t anybody worried about Zatanna’s boyfriend? Everybody’s worried about the superheroes’ girfriends and wives, but nobody’s expressed anxiety that Dr. Light and Co. might go after the superheroines’ boyfriends and husbands. Do any of the women superheroes even have non-superpowered boy toys? For that matter, why haven’t any of the gay superheroes expressed concern for the safety of their same-sex life partners? I can’t think of any gay superheroes in the DC Universe. Are there any? Isn’t it awfully convenient that all the men have normie wives or girlfriends to put on a pedestal and protect, over whose mutilated and raped bodies they can shed manly tears when the supervillians get hold of them… but none of the women have husbands or boyfriends who might have to suffer embarrassing emasculation if they had to be protected by a girl? Is it a coincidence? Or are (overwhelmingly male) comics creators simply incapable of imagining a man willing to date a woman strong enough to punch a hole through his chest?

Or maybe many of the women superheroes of the DC Universe do have boyfriends and husbands, but Brad Meltzer was too busy pandering insultingly to the patronizing fears of the men in his audience that he forgot to mention them in a story in which the fact that superheroes have families and friends is gravely important.


  1. sean says:

    I think you about nailed IDENTITY CRISIS. Nothing personal against Meltzer–his book’s just a symptom of larger cultural problems with how rape is viewed as a crime primarily against the male parent/lover of the raped woman, rather than against the woman herself.

    — 20 July 2004 at 2:17 am (Permalink)

  2. Dorian says:

    Gay DC Superheroes: Tasmanian Devil, Extrano, HERO (the one from the “Superboy and the Ravers” comic), Pied Piper (though he seems more of a villain again), and potentially Obsidian and Blue Jay.

    On the Villain’s Side: Cannon & Sabre, possibly Joker (depending on who’s writing him).

    — 20 July 2004 at 3:28 am (Permalink)

  3. Steven says:

    I hate to condemn Meltzer after having read only two issues of a seven-part series. (I mean I hate to condemn him for his sexual politics. I have no problem condemning him as a gratuitously bad writer, which I am quite certain he is.) But assuming Meltzer is genuinely writing from the heart, so to speak, he’s not getting off that easy with me. People like him writing stuff like Identity Crisis are part of the reason larger cultural problems keep existing. He ought to be ashamed of himself for being a symptom of a larger cultural problem.

    I’m surprised there are so many gay superheroes and villains. Of course, I haven’t heard of a single one of them in my life (except for the Joker, although I hadn’t known he’s sometimes gay).

    — 20 July 2004 at 3:45 am (Permalink)

  4. Shane says:

    I’m willing to bet Big Barda could punch a hole through Scott Free’s chest. (Thats Mr. Miracle.)

    And I was shocked, but I don’t have as much a problem with Identity Crisis as everyone else in the blogosphere seems to have had. I think people are making it into a bigger issue than it really is. Just my two cents. Agree or disagree. Thats cool to me. I wouldn’t have had a problem if it was Elongated Man who was raped either, but hey, I’m a fan of Oz.

    Real life is something different. This is comics. There is an easy way to get rid of this kind of stuff if you don’t like it (unlike in the real world) don’t buy it if you don’t like it. Vote with your wallet.


    — 20 July 2004 at 4:52 am (Permalink)

  5. Rose says:


    Steven and I have been talking about Identity Crisis a lot (and I hope to have said more publicly by the end of the evening) and I keep coming back to the question of how reality should be represented in Marvel/DC comics. Obviously if these were set in the real world (which Marvel comics sort of are) then we’d have to deal with the statistics about how many superheroes should be queer or women or non-white or survivors of sexual abuse, and all of those would be far, far larger numbers than the current universes include. On the other hand, that would mean trusting writers and editors to treat these characters with some measure of respect and dignity and certainly equality, which seems like it might be a stretch for many of the current crop.

    So while better representation would be good, it’s not clear to me that more representation would be better, as things stand now. And as far as that goes, I guess the reason this is a big issue is that it’s unusual to address sexual assualt in a superhero book, even though it’s something a sizeable minority of our real-world population has been forced to deal with personally.

    This may, too, have something to do with stereotypical comics reader demographics, that a lot of the respondents are young men who haven’t dealt with the issue much in their own lives, and so they’re getting disproportionately upset about it in Identity Crisis because it’s a chance for them to speak out and define their own feelings and beliefs, although often in a self-serving way. The problem (and this is what Steven was getting at) is that some of the respondents are being pretty self-congratulatory about their outrage at Sue’s “misuse” either by the author or Dr. Light, which puts them in the role of the Elongated Man and the rest of his cohort, denying her any self-definition. I realize it’s sort of crazy to say that about a fictional character, but it bothers me that so many of the fan knee-jerk reactions mimic the bad reactions of the fictional superheroes.

    — 20 July 2004 at 8:17 pm (Permalink)

  6. Shane says:

    I do agree that fan reaction has been out there. Thats one reason I haven’t really said anything on my own blog about it. Some people think if you actually enjoyed reading the story you support rape or something and thats just ridiculous. I’m hoping..and you touched on this, that the rest of this series shows how she was able to recover from this and become the strong willed humorous woman that she is portrayed as in past books. I’m a fan of the character from the JLA/E/I run. I’ve always like Elongated Man more than Plas or Mr.Fantastic too. I think I’m going to wait till the entire series is over to comment on it anymore. Hopefully by then I won’t have been proven wrong in my faith in the series.

    — 21 July 2004 at 5:59 am (Permalink)

  7. Rose says:

    I’ve been assuming all along that people who say they like the series so far aren’t saying “Yeah, they should rape MORE characters because it’s fucking cool!” OK, I hope not, anyway. I think what’s happening is that there are fans who want to see their superheroes deal with real-life problems, and they see Identity Crisis as a good opportunity for this, while others who aren’t enjoying it so much think it’s a problem that all the bad things seem to be happening to one woman (well, now and some supervillains) or even, in some cases, think that because these superheroes began their lives in stories kids read, it’s inappropriate to tell stories like Identity Crisis featuring them. And I’d like to hear eventually what you do think, if you ever talk about it more.

    It’s really hard for me to have faith in the story, mostly because I’ve spent so much time dealing with sexual assault both personally and professionally and I’m basically skeptical of standard narrative representations. So far, this one seems a bit patronizing to me in its treatment of Sue, but I’m still hoping that will change and there will be actual repercussions for the JLA members who became vigilantes (ostensibly) on her behalf. And I’m not going to back down from thinking the pregnancy subplot was insultingly trite. But as for the rest of it, we’ll see, which I guess means I’ll have to buy the rest of the series.

    — 21 July 2004 at 11:15 am (Permalink)

  8. Steven says:

    It’ll be great if Identity Crisis does get around to addressing some of the stuff Rose has mentioned here and in her own post on IC. But, yeah, some of the reader responses have been the worst things about the series so far.

    — 21 July 2004 at 11:19 am (Permalink)

  9. Shane says:

    All stories based on any situation fall short of the real thing. I don’t think words can express a lot of what happens good or bad in reality. Once it’s put into words it’s genralized no matter what.

    I plan on commenting on the series itself once the book is completed. Personally I look at comics like I look at movies, books, games, or any other medium, hell you can even look at people the same way. There are many different interpretations of the characters and all of them can “fit”. You can tell a serious grim and gritty story with Disney characters, even Mickey, and still have the kids version as long as they are seperated. It would have been nice to have a ratings system or advisory like Marvel Comics (not that they adhere to it well)do on this series to differentiate it for publishers and parents, but most likely a kid that watches the JLA cartoon isn’t going to come in and go oh there is a character from that cartoon I’m going to pick that up (It could happen, but it’s slim). One take on a character doesn’t cancel out a story. You will always have Silver Age stories and the JLA/I/E run and all the stories published with Sue and Ralph and I really enjoy them, but I also enjoy IC. People get to wrapped up in either/or choices. There are things inbetween, just like everything isn’t black and white. Anyway, I’ll talk more after it’s done, but those are my basic thoughts on the controversy and grim and gritty vs. cute and cuddly stories (or whatever you want to call them :) ).

    — 22 July 2004 at 8:34 pm (Permalink)

  10. Steven says:

    I’ll agree with that—I don’t really care about DC’s responsibility to hypothetical children who may or may not read Identity Crisis. I’ll be looking forward to your thoughts when the series is finished, although I don’t think I’ll continue reading it myself. I’m just not in the mood right now for yet another superheroic revenge story.

    — 22 July 2004 at 8:44 pm (Permalink)

  11. Shane says:

    There’s always the sure to come tpb, if you change your mind. I’d bail now if you aren’t sure too.

    — 22 July 2004 at 9:40 pm (Permalink)