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    Infinite Crisis Critical Analysis

    By Chris Tamarri

    The sixth issue of Infinite Crisis ends with an oddly resonant image. The hero lies dying in the rubble, his costume tattered save for the iconic emblem he wears on his chest. The woman he loves kneels over him. His colleagues frame the scene, unaccustomed to not being able to save the day. The hero dies having defeated the bad guy at the cost of his own life. Here, the hero is Superboy Conner Kent, his antagonist a Superboy from another world, the inconceivable threat he’s prevented the reconstitution of Earth at the hands of an extradimensional — still another other — Lex Luthor. Twelve years ago, the hero was Superman, his antagonist the mindless monster Doomsday, the avoided danger simple and absolute destruction. It’s curious that Infinite Crisis should reference the “Doomsday” storyline in such a way at this point in its narrative arc, totemic as it is of everything that we’re told is wrong with these characters and a generation’s worth of their history. “Doomsday” and its influence was what Infinite Crisis was supposed to repair, not something it revered.

    “The last time you really inspired anyone,” Batman famously tells the long-resurrected Superman, “was when you were dead.” The reason that line was such a lightning rod was two-fold. On the character level, it was a(nother) levee-break in the relationship between the two heroes, something that has inexplicably excited fandom since the mold version in Frank Miller’s Dark Knight. But the subtext was more compelling; less an indictment of Superman by Batman, it was more a comment on years’ worth of editorial direction and the confused consumers that supported it by writer Geoff Johns. The implication was that Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and the other characters who color their world had, under the pen of various poorly and inappropriately motivated scribes, lost their way. Infinite Crisis, therefore, was a map, an exciting premise if an arguably unnecessary one. Now that the story’s over, now that we’ve had some time to digest and let things settle, what are we to make of the fact that it’s led almost exactly back where we were?

    Like Crisis on Infinite Earths and the nearly forgotten interstitial Zero Hour, Infinite Crisis is a patch job. In those two prior series, though, the focus was practical, the primary interest in retroactively reconciling the often contradictory histories of characters like Hawkman, Donna Troy, the Justice Society and the Legion of Super-Heroes. Infinite Crisis concerns itself more with ideology. “This is what the world does to legends,” laments the first issue’s omniscient narrator, later revealed as the Earth-2 Superman. “It corrupts themÉ or it destroys them.” Later, recounting the story of the original Crisis and thereafter for Power Girl (and for less historically minded readers), he says, “This new Earth was anything but better. A darkness seemed to spread. Warping the heroes’ lives. Some died. Others lost their way. We watched for years, hoping everyone would find inspiration again. But as we continued to look onÉ things got worse.” These musings are accompanied by a kaleidoscope of flashpoint images from the DC Universe’s post-Crisis history: Bane breaking Batman’s back, from the “Knightfall” storyline; a power-mad and genocidal Hal Jordan, from “Emerald Twilight”; Sue Dibny’s funeral, from Identity Crisis; Maxwell Lord’s murder of Blue Beetle and Wonder Woman’s murder of Maxwell Lord, from the Countdown special and the subsequent “Sacrifice” storyline, respectively.

    But in this context the first image in this montage, of Batman holding Jason Todd’s dead body from the “Death in the Family” storyline, is probably the most evocative. The association of this scene with the idea of “things getting worse” is as close as Johns gets to a direct condemnation of the reader; remember that the story is well-known both for its conclusion and the fact that it was decided, via hotline, by its readers. As much as anyone, they (we!) were responsible for the death of Jason Todd and the ensuing attitudes the decision promoted. It’s almost as though we’re invited to atone for our sins through our conception of the central choice in Infinite Crisis.

    Assuming for the moment that these characters have gotten away from themselves, that their editorial directions — or, diagetically, their decisions — since Crisis on Infinite Earths have been misguided at best, what’s the best way to make reparations? Is it necessary to begin again with a tabula rasa, as the Earth-2 Superman wants to do with a reinstatement of his world? Or is it enough just to recognize that mistakes were made and endeavor to avoid them in the future, as status quo-minded readers — not to mention the heroes who don’t want life as they know it to end — might be inclined toward? By aligning themselves with one eventuality or another, both of which are at various points in the series presented as valid to the point of inevitability, by championing a return to a more objective sense of right-and-wrong (and its exaction), the reader can make reparations for consumptive indiscretions that allowed such sensibilities to become muddied. What’s unclear throughout, and even to an extent after, is which is the preferable conclusion. Associated with the maniacal solipsism of that Earth-3 Lex Luthor, the plan to reinstitute Earth-2, and thereafter the multiverse of pre-Crisis DC, is connotatively repellent. But one gets the sense that the idea, absent the motives of its fictional executors (or the real-life demands of publishing) is fundamentally preferable.

    For his part, Johns slyly tries to have his cake and eat it, leaving us at the story’s end with the establishment of “New Earth,” one that remembers its history since the original Crisis except, of course, for those insufficiently inspirational bits. In Identity Crisis, the series that instigated the DC Universe’s overarching narrative for the couple years leading up to Infinite Crisis, the central moral question is whether “mind-wiping” — that is, the magic-fueled theft of information from the memory, or a repositioning of particular character traits for prominence — is an acceptable means of ensuring general well-being. Despite hints, Identity writer Brad Meltzer refuses to offer a definite opinion on the issue, leaving the reader to his own conclusions. As it turns out, “mind-wiping” is an apt metaphor for what Johns does to his fictional Earth and its inhabitants by the end of Infinite Crisis, thus suggesting the final word on the morality of the act, as least as a general editorial policy. It’s an odd dichotomy that in order to set up a context where situational ends-justifying-the-means maintenance of justice becomes acquiescent to absolute and instinctive moralism, Johns has to resort to the same underhanded utilitarianism that’s emblematic of these characters’ ethical decline.

    The most disappointing conclusion is that Infinite Crisis, in employing some of the same techniques that it decries, is hypocritical, even opportunistic. The series contains numerous moments of breathtaking brutality of the sort that seem to exemplify the “grim ‘n’ gritty” ’90s during which so many of these problematic stories were published. Of course, decrying superhero comics for their violence comes perilously close to forest-and-trees territory, but it’s not simply that Infinite Crisis is violent, not just that it’s a story driven by good guys talking to bad guys, with fists. It’s the nature of this physical aggression, and more specifically its permanence, that makes it worth consideration. Bruises heal; decapitations don’t.

    As early as the seventh page of the first issue, we’re forced to confront the matter, when a wayward OMAC unit, operating on some “scorched Earth” directive initiated by the death of Maxwell Lord, incinerates the villain known as the Ratcatcher. Everything about the way this moment is presented seems to indicate that it’s nothing worth worrying about. The Ratcatcher is hardly a marquee player, no one that the average reader will miss. He’s not even in 2004’s DC Comics Encyclopedia (as some indication of measure, on the page where he would have appeared are the Golden Age Sandman nemesis Ramulus and Colonel Rajak, a Bialyan dictator from Joe Casey’s run on Adventures of Superman). He first appears on the page in the fourth panel, and dies on the sixth, in the bottom left-hand corner of the right-hand page. (Even the placement of his death is diminishing, intentionally or not.) Turn the page, you see a double-page spread of Nightwing, poised on a BlŸdhaven rooftop, the sky filled with what must be hundreds of OMAC units. Turn the page again, there’s another two-pager, this time depicting the events in lead-in miniseries Rann/Thanagar War. By the time conventional storytelling patterns return on page 45, you’ve completely forgotten about the Ratcatcher, despite his incredibly violent death, despite the fact that the sanctity of life is one of the primary themes of Infinite Crisis.

    This is hardly the sole example of extreme violence in the series, and disarmingly, much of it is committed by our heroes. “[The Earth-3 Lex Luthor has] shown me so many thing the people you work with have done,” Earth-2 Superman tells Power Girl in the second issue. “To their adversaries. And to each other. They alter minds. They kill.” Infinite Crisis bears out his assessment. In the third issue, Aquaman impales Black Manta. In the sixth, Black Adam — a hero in name, if a flawed one in nature, who had recently fought by the side of the JSA — pokes out Psycho Pirate’s eyes, like a Bizarro Three Stooges bit, and keeps pushing till the Pirate’s head turns to jelly. In that same issue, the Spectre, summoned for aid by a cabal of magically inclined heroes, takes issue with the presence of one among them, exploding Star Sapphire for her “hatred of men [which] has resulted in the torturous deaths of hundreds.” Despite the gravity of both Sapphire’s sins, though, and the Spectre’s abrupt judgment thereof, the moment’s played for black humor, as punctuated by a pithy one-liner from Sebastian Faust.

    Then there’s the problem of the Earth-Prime Superboy, certainly the most egregious perpetrator of physical cruelty in the series. He finally snaps in the fourth issue, going on a bender that leaves the Titans literally in pieces. Pantha is decapitated, Baby Wildebeest has a hole punched in him, Red Star is frozen solid, Risk is dismembered and Bushido is halved before Superboy is dragged off-panel by a cavalcade of Flashes (including, in a nostalgia-baiting nod to the original Crisis, Barry Allen). All of this occurs in the span of a few pages, a breathtaking display of callousness on the character’s part, if not his writer’s. When he returns a couple issues later, it’s at the cost of Connor Kent’s life.

    In the series finale, he wanders desensitized through a warzone, casually bypassing more physical atrocity — including Bane snapping Judomaster on his knee, another callback to that preferably forgotten era — and causing more of his own. “I still can’t tell the heroes from the villains,” he laments as he twists the neck of one unidentified character while tossing heat vision over his shoulder to explode another. His final solution is to head for Oa, once and maybe again the center of the universe, to reenact the Big Bang, better to risk chaos from an uncontrolled beginning than to let this be the end. He’s stopped, temporarily, by a host of Green Lanterns, many of whom die off-panel, identified only by numbers, and is ultimately apprehended by the two Supermans — “our” version, the post-Crisis resident of, at this point, New Earth, and the one from Earth-2 — who fight him to the ground on Mogo, the living planet Green Lantern. (It gets sillier the more you have to namedrop, doesn’t it?)

    That final battle of the Supermen is a blur of red and yellow and blue that gradually gets redder as it progresses, to the point where context-maintaining dialogue is the only way to tell which hero — or “hero” — is which. It’s the series’ most chilling moment, its most distressing, and oddly enough, its most ideologically instructive (albeit not intentionally so). Instinctively, comic book readers have been trained to recognize Superman as the ultimate good guy, his motives inarguably pure, his actions almost incorruptible. Earlier in the series, when the post-Crisis Superman finally confronts the Earth-2 Superman for the future of Earth(s), it’s a challenging moment for the readers, inevitably confused about where their loyalties might lie (both men are clearly motivated by selflessness and social responsibility, even if we’re meant to think of the Earth-2’s version as misguided in action). Mercifully, it’s a brief indiscretion, the two quickly moving from adversaries to allies against the traitorous Lex Luthor.

    But this culminating scene, Superman and Superman vs. Superboy, isn’t as forgiving. It’s clear the Superboy has murder on the mind, that unless he’s stopped he’ll have broken the lives of two Supermen. As for the good guys, it seems likely that in order to contain their quarry they’ll have to resort to ultimate sanctions themselves, a supposition supported by the scene’s raw violence. Although the deus ex machina arrival of the Green Lantern Corps prevents that mortal consideration from becoming more than academic, we’re still left with the ideological problem presented throughout the fight. We’re forced to consider a premise that gives rise to some disorienting symbolism: Superman both dead (again) and a murderer (again). This character, irrespective of his variances, is supposed to be the template, the keystone. But his philosophy is shaken almost irreparably, in this scene and in numerous preceding moments, especially puzzling given the mandate of Infinite Crisis to repair and restore.

    Incidentally, there’s the added issue here of what might be called, for lack of a narrower term, metafiction. This version of Superboy, remember, came from Earth-Prime, the same variant universe that contained every reader of DC Comics past and present. Within the conceit of the Multiverse, this version of Superboy could have literally been your neighbor or mine. Thus, it’s possible to make a particularly strong connection between the character’s attitudes and Johns’ perception of our own. Superboy is motivated at a most basic level by the restoration of that which was to him most familiar. He wants the world to be as believes it should be, as he remembers it once was. It’s probably unnecessary to point out that that’s a criticism easily applied to the average reader of superhero comics, a constituency well known for its adherence to history and continuity. What’s especially problematic is the character’s portrayal and selfish, childish, petulant, ignorant of the cost of achieving what he wants and completely disinterested in learning as much. It may be too much to assume that this was an active insult on the part of the writer of his audience, but even discounting the idea of knowing execution from Johns, the sentiment remains. In a different manner, the idea of culpability on the readers’ part for the characters’ misdirection is suggested. Again, Infinite Crisis suggests that we didn’t know what we asked for, nor what would come once we got it.

    Infinite Crisis begins its sentimental through-line with Superman, but it continues more evocatively in the other two members of what’s been called the “trinity,” Batman and Wonder Woman. As the latter is the most philosophically malleable of the three, it’s understandable that hers is the most complete character arc within the miniseries proper. When the first issue begins, the reader sees the fallout of the events of the “Sacrifice” storyline, in which the Amazon snapped the neck of Maxwell Lord in order to prevent Superman, under Lord’s mentally controlled sway, from killing Batman. The central question posed by the story was whether or not the killing was justified; though Wonder Woman was irrefutably responsible for Lord’s death, “Sacrifice” asks whether it was murder, or an understandable, if regrettable, version of preventative justice.

    Unfortunately, that subtle consideration is abandoned between that storyline (written by DCU co-architect Greg Rucka) and Infinite Crisis. The first scene of the series features Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman standing in the ruins of the JLA’s ruined Watchtower headquarters, arguing over the validity of Wonder Woman’s decision. The scene of Wonder Woman’s sanction had been recorded by Lord’s artificially intelligent ally Brother Eye and broadcast across the world, engendered a general sense of distrust for Diana specifically and her colleagues implicitly. “They’re scared of us,” Superman tells Wonder Woman. “They’re scared of us because of you. ÉDon’t you understand? They all watched you. They all watched you murder a man.” Superman’s verbiage seems to leave no doubt as to his assessment of Diana’s actions, and subsequent events imply Johns’ concurrence with the attitude.

    Shortly, the three find themselves under attack by the opportunistic villain Mongul, who, following a perfunctory slugfest, is subdued. “He’s down,” Superman tells an anxious Batman. “Good,” says Wonder Woman, leaping onto panel with her sword raised above her head, aimed at Mongul’s. It seems clear that if not for the quick intercession of Superman, Mongul would have been dead at Wonder Woman’s hand. On a superficial level, this is an extension of Diana’s attitude in “Sacrifice.” Both Maxwell Lord and Mongul were threats to these heroes and the people they protect, and Wonder Woman’s mortal dispatch of each would — or theoretically did — constitute an act of protection, or the warrior’s version thereof. But Maxwell Lord’s threat was portrayed as immediate; if Wonder Woman hadn’t killed the villain, Batman would have died at Superman’s unwitting hands within a matter of seconds. In Infinite Crisis, however, Mongul was no immediate threat; the villain was contained before Wonder Woman moved to strike. And while there’s a strong argument that Mongul would have eventually returned to compromise the safety of his adversaries, there is here no sense that that is immediately imminent. It’s possible that other, more humane, preventions could have been taken.

    There are a couple explanations for Wonder Woman’s behavioral inconsistency, neither of them very encouraging. The simplest explanation is that these two scenes were written by two different writers, each with their own sense of Diana’s character. Although this could be disappointing, especially given the attention to editorial coherence that was paid in the stories leading from Identity Crisis and to Infinite Crisis, this is perhaps understandable, attributable to simple human error. The more puzzling explanation is that Wonder Woman’s portrayal in Infinite Crisis is a considered evolution from Geoff Johns, her response to Mongul borne out of the same mindset as her response to Maxwell Lord. Again, the reader is presented with a sensibility defined by a realistic lack of absolutism, something that Infinite Crisis was meant to extinguish. The touchstone of the post-Infinite Crisis DC Universe, at least as suggested by the series itself, was a clear demarcation of “good” and “evil” — or more specifically, given the constraints of the genre, good guys and bad guys — a renunciation of utilitarian moralism as concessionary, imperfect. But in Infinite Crisis, Wonder Woman is portrayed as a good guy who does bad things for good reason, too close to a moral for the series’ comfort.

    Eventually, Wonder Woman realizes this herself, and in the final issue demonstrates her epiphany in a fittingly dramatic fashion. After having finally unveiled the duplicity of the Earth-3 Lex Luthor, Batman confronts the villain, beating him into submission before aiming a handgun lost by the villain Deathstroke at Luthor’s head (an incredibly evocative moment for Batman that requires, and will have, its own consideration). Before Batman can fire, though, he’s interrupted by Wonder Woman. The heroine unsheathes her sword — the same, presumably, that she’d swung at Mongul’s head seven issues prior — and breaks the blade in two. “It’s not worth it,” she tells Batman, indicating a philosophical break and inviting the reader to share in her revelation. The problem is that the reader is given little by which to track the development of this attitude. Considering that Wonder Woman is one of the symbolic pillars of the series, at that her terminal sentiment is in many ways the story’s moral, the abruptness of her subscription is troubling.

    Infinite Crisis really only features two potentially influential moments for the heroine. Early in the series, Wonder Woman suggests that her family, the Amazon women of Paradise Island, leaves her plane of existence to escape further reprisal for her killing of Maxwell Lord at the hands of his OMAC army. Later in the series, she is confronted by her multiversal counterpart, Diana Prince of Earth-2, who tells her “You’ve been a princess, a goddess, an ambassador and a warrior. But the one thing you haven’t been for a very long time is human.” As to what this might mean for the character, Diana Prince enigmatically states that, “Despite all of the flaws within humanity, there are just as many strengths. Remind them of that.” On one hand, these seem to forgive the sins of these characters for their post-Crisis behavior (and their creators, and the readers for supporting it with their wallets). On the other, though, it reintroduces the idea of moral murkiness, that even a character who is meant to be an icon of right (as versus wrong) can be guilty of being misguided and mistaken, even dangerous and destructive. Still, Wonder Woman leaves the series with a greater sense of her role in the world she inhabits, as the reader is meant to better understand the new nature of that world that he inhabits for 22 pages at a time. The question is whether or not that better understanding is actually present, after all that.

    The counterpoint to Diana’s evolution is Batman, who, as demonstrated in that aforementioned culminating moment, seems to undergo a devolution as the series progresses. It’s understandable that this character is the least redeveloped of the three, since his philosophy is the most easily defined. He is a victim of violent and random crime, and as such, wants to prevent any more innocent people from being likewise victimized. But it’s in the execution that the character starts to become discontinuous, subject to the vagaries of sensibility superimposed by individual writers. At one end of the spectrum is the grizzled, robotic honed-to-perfection of Frank Miller’s Dark Knight, the echo of which can be heard distinctly twenty years later. At the other is the absurdity of the ’60s television show, absent the suspension of disbelief necessary to take the character on his own ridiculous terms (albeit ones no more ridiculous than the genre expects).

    One of the few consistent motifs from one interpretation to another, though, one of the most shockingly violated, is that Batman, as a victim of gun violence, hates guns. So clearly, when the character pulls a gun on Luthor at the series’ climax, it’s meant to be a moment that casts into relief the readers’ assumptions about the character. (It could be argued that the indiscretion of standard is an example of misunderstanding on the writer’s part, that he simply doesn’t get it, whatever “it” is, but that argument’s unnecessarily churlish. Whatever an individual reader’s interpretation of Johns’s goals, or his execution, it seems clear that the writer has a legitimate affection for and grasp of these characters. As a writer, Johns is nothing if not historically minded.)

    Frankly, it’s difficult to say what this moment, and the immediate development of the character that leads up unto, is meant to suggest about the series’ primary themes. Is the reader meant to assume that Batman, in finally giving in, has crossed the line from justice to vengeance? He does, after all, ask Luthor rhetorically, “What do you deserve,” a curious question suggesting more a punitive impulse than Batman’s ostensibly preventatively minded motivation. Or is the fact that Batman, at Wonder Woman’s suggestion, refuses to be the sole judge of Luthor’s crimes a reinforcement of his fundamental ideas? The fact that either is an equally valid possibility leaves the story — or at least Batman’s role therein — with a disorienting lack of finality.

    Taken on its own merits as a seven-issue, self-contained series, a deficit of ideological clarity is Infinite Crisis’s most glaring problem, a noticeable divorce between theory and practice further complicating the issue. Through the Earth-2 Superman, Johns decries the editorial direction of a generation’s worth of stories, issues like sensational violence and moral ambiguity compromising characters that are supposed to be morally exemplary. However, Infinite Crisis applies both of these techniques as narrative and thematic pillars. Is it that Infinite Crisis, as a cap to that sort of editorial inclination, must use these techniques in order to drain them of their iconographic volume, possibly an understandable course of action? Or is it that such tonality identifies confusion on the part of the story’s creators, one somewhere between inattentiveness and hypocrisy? Certainly, such elements aren’t fundamentally necessary to the execution of a superhero story. Or at least they weren’t; Johns, in referencing the history of the genre, demonstrates as much. Perhaps as much as Johns would have it otherwise, this sort of sensationalism more closely mirroring reality is what the readers of superhero comics want right now, and to try and convince them otherwise is a waste of editorial efforts. It’s impossible to say now whether attitudes have shifted, whether the inclinations of the readership, acting as much as possible as an individual entity, intersect with Johns’ own. Until time has passed and a legitimately objective vantage is available, it’ll remain so. For now, Infinite Crisis must remain a benchmark of its time, representing not so much what we thought as the fact that we didn’t really want to think about it.

    Posted by Tim Leong on July 6th, 2006 filed in Story Archive |

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