Crisis on Infinite Blogs

Call me a dope, but I like Crisis puns. Also (I never thought I’d say this in a dissertation research weblog, talk about “Crises of Infinite Discourses”), this post contains spoilers.

Tim Burke cites the last Identity Crisis post and adds some cogent analysis of his own, confronting the events I kind of danced around: the rape and murder of Sue Dibny, the wife of the Elongated Man, followed by the apparent killing of the Atom’s ex-wife. The discussion has extended to the Cliopatra group blog, where it takes place within a larger question about realism and the definition of fictional characters and worlds in comics.

Tim responds to a question regarding the portrayal of rape in comics with a spot-on observation about pornography and comics, and he raises a good point about how mainstream superhero comics work. Since they must maintain dynamism and interest without having the luxury of ever ending, they tend to bring in new elements and then reiterate those new elements until they become routinized. And, I hate to say it, but despite the new specifics of the event — this hasn’t happened before to these particular characters, nor in this particular context — these notes of violation, shock, and darkness are very much routinized in mainstream superhero comics.

Rape was portrayed in several “mature readers” comics in the 1980’s: Watchmen, Miracleman, Green Arrow (as Tim notes). Generally it was portrayed with more complexity and subtlety than Identity Crisis has given it so far, though you could definitely find less thoughtful portrayals of rape, child abuse, drug pushing, or any other shocking, “mature” crime of your choice. I remember in particular Vigilante, the story of Adrian Chase, a former district attorney who (I’m going from memory here, so forgive me for inaccuracies) went over the edge and began killing all the deviants and psychotics in the DC Universe after his family was murdered. Vigilante was introduced in the Teen Titans’ comic book but soon moved to his own “mature readers” comic, where gore, degeneracy and nudity could be explored without pause. (Of course, my brother and I had an uninterrupted run of this comic, even though we were 12 and 14 respectively. In fact, I think we had a subscription.)

Anyway, my point is that human atrocities are fairly well represented in the social memory of superhero comics. In fact, like most representations in the genre soup of a comics universe, they have to some extent (to debase the poststructuralists) become decoupled from what they represent. I would argue they deliver much less of the affect than they should, like bullet-riddled bodies in a Schwarzenegger flick. Because the comics universe is persistent and fantastic — because characters always get cloned, have robot duplicates, and come back from the dead, not just because they can but because, in a persistent system, you can’t afford to let them go — human atrocities tend to have less of a punch.

Enter Identity Crisis. Again, the term Crisis has specific meanings in the history of the DC Universe: Crisis on Infinite Earths was a radical revision of the universe as a structure, and I would argue the generic expectation of a Crisis event is that it has global, revisionary consequences for the universe as a system. In other words, when violation, shock and darkness are presented here, they are done so with the implication that, for the next several years at least, we are to understand violation, shock and darkness as parameters under which the universe will operate, even to the detriment of characters who have survived unscathed by violation, shock and darkness in the past, and whose milieux are particularly poorly suited for it. This awkwardness is visible in the very phrase “the rape and murder of the wife of the Elongated Man,” and this awkwardness bears not only upon “Elongated Man” but “rape and murder.”

Sue Dibny and the Elongated Man are kicked from Eden; they’ll never be funny again. But rape and murder don’t get out of the association unscathed. Smart people from Terry Eagleton to Grant Morrison have observed that “realism” is one mode of representation among others, but that, unlike other modes, “realism” tries to hide its cards and pass itself off as reality. When “reality” is placed in relief with obvious unreality in this way, the contingency of “realism” is fairly well highlighted, and we are encouraged to question what these bits of “reality” mean in an unreal environment. And we are encouraged to ask this question systemically: How well does the DC Universe work with rape and murder as a dominant mode? And we are encouraged to ask this question with a sense of historicity: How well does the DC Universe work with rape and murder as a dominant mode, considering that rape and murder have been presented — and interrogated as representations — at points in this universe before? My response is: “not so well.”

I think a visible contingent of fans have recognized this, and have rejected this portrayal; there are many comments (some of which are fairly offensive: take warning) on the Web that mock the events in Identity Crisis. Such responses aren’t unexpected. We parody and satirize all sorts of representations; it’s one of the ways we show that we have a mastery over representations, that we understand how they work. But this troubles me about Identity Crisis: not only that it portrays rape, but that by portraying rape in this context, so awkward and inappropriate, it robs it of the gravity and human consequence it should have. What bothers me is that it’s not shocking, that it lacks the affect I think Meltzer intends it to carry.

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Jason Craft

"Earth X" indicates an unreal, alternate world from our own, in vague but fantastic terms. Im Jason and this is my blog.