Why Destroy a Universe? Part One

DC's overblown, overhyped “Identity Crisis” wallows in bigotry, insults the intellect, and signals they may be moving in Marvel’s direction from 2003, of trying to make sales through controversy.

Originally published February 11, 2005

By Avi Green

The so-called “event” of the year 2004 has come to a close by now, and, not surprisingly, has left little delighted discussion behind it, nor is it likely to have much impact upon the DCU as a whole, and any that it does will be hard to take seriously within the context as presented inside the miniseries.

Whatever there is to be however, one thing’s for sure: crossovers, if that’s what this is, have gone too far by now, and are getting worse and worse, especially if all they’re intended for is to force an overwrought vision upon the universe – and to foist it upon the audience.

Most troubling of all, however, is that it could very easily signal not only that DC is slowly returning to some of what damaged it back in the late 1980’s, when they tried to darken their universe, supposedly because that is what could “Marvelize” it, but also that they may be moving towards the same tactics used by the Jemas regime in promoting their publicity stunts of yore. And if so, how are we as fans to deal with it?

For now however, let’s take a look at what this monstrosity is all about, and what it was intended for.

The miniseries features a plot that would’ve been rejected by the producers of Murder, She Wrote. It depicts Sue Dibny, wife of the Elongated Man, who together are a couple who were not impeding in any ways whatsoever upon the DC Universe, being murdered in an utterly stereotypical manner, by, as it turns out, another woman, that being Jean Loring, the former wife of the Atom/Ray Palmer, and it turns out that she did it because, surprise-surprise – she was insane – without even making any mention of the fact that she’d been driven to insanity years before by a sub-atomic race called the Jimberin, for little more than the purpose of trying to win back her husband Ray. What it does do, however, is to distort what really happened back in the mid-80’s, when Jean left Ray to marry the lawyer Paul Hoben, who worked at the same law firm as she did, and with whom she’d been leading an extramarital affair, after becoming disillusioned with her superhero husband. Ray agreed to the divorce but still cared for her, and their relationship post-marriage was on good terms, remaining good friends, if anything.

The Degradation of Sue Dibny

In the second issue, after we’re told in the first how Sue was pregnant at the time of her death, pure hack trick it was, that revelation is rendered even more shock-value tactic when we’re shown that Sue was actually raped – by a villain who’d never been characterized or written as such a criminal before, that being Dr. Arthur Light. And she was unable to defend herself from his dragging her into a corner of the JLA sattelite where he could continue the contrived deed depicted here.

But that’s not what the main problem is here. What is was that, after the Leaguers come in and put a stop to Light, with the exception of one, brief scene wherein she’s shown as miserable and angry about her being violated (and then, perhaps even not that much), she was largely removed from the action and not given any opportunity to react for a further understanding of what was going on.

That’s exactly the problem with much of the miniseries, in fact – that the viewpoint here is largely – and resolutely – male, and the female characters for the most part have virtually no voice or viewpoint of their own. Just what good is a series wherein a serious subject gets no balanced viewpoint that allows the women to tell what they think of such a situation?

Black Canary, when in voting on whether or not the JLA should give Dr. Light a mindwipe – and, more notably, try to change his personality, does not act like the smart girl she usually is, and Zatanna acts more like a robot doing the bidding of angry men. I remember someone once arguing on Comic Book Resources that he didn’t think that the book was misogynistic because the author “shows how important Sue is to the heroes of the DCU.” Unfortunately, it is otherwise only to the male superheroes for the most part that she is, with the women not being portrayed clearly on the subject, and towards the end, Wonder Woman is certainly portrayed, most insultingly, as strolling away, caring little about what’s been going on. And what really does in the story here is that Sue is only important to the heroes as a catalyst for their getting angry over something, anything.

So not only are the women here poorly defined in focus, but the men come pretty badly too, since it would seem as if they’re in dire need of something to get mad about. Why must we be angry over something or anything? Nobody needs that, and that this should depict the characters as only caring about getting emotional when it’s not needed is ridiculous.

The Destruction of a once effective villain

I once had an argument with someone on Hero Realm, once a great website but no longer, who tried to say something that sounded absurd: that Dr. Light, when he first began, was merely a villain with an aversion to kiddie superheroes. What struck me as weird about that was that it seemed to suggest to my rather stubbon opponent in an argument that he disliked the idea of marketing superheroes for children. But what really turned me off was that said opponent seemed to think that “glam art” as he called it, was completely okay for the book’s cover, and neccasary for making sales with! More on which anon.

Dr. Light was the creation of Gardner Fox, and was notably one of the more formidable foes of the Justice League of America when he first debuted in 1962. And one of the most notable things besides his being a formidable foe was that he was also an honorable one too. And he did not go around hurting innocent and defenseless women and children. In fact, the only time when he ever killed anyone was when, in World’s Finest Comics, he slew three villains who wouldn’t give up a weapon he was searching for!

That’s right. Simply put, Dr. Light, while he may have been willing to strike at the guilty, did not beat up on innocent women and children. And frankly, he wasn’t just a character with a penchant for disliking superheroes as my opponent was trying to claim. He specialized in bank robberies and world conquest fantasies, having formed the Fearsome Five in the New Teen Titans as part of that latter desire, and this shoddy miniseries goes along and claims that he was even a molester of innocent women, which he wasn’t.

Supposedly, what DC and Meltzer were trying to do here was to “explain” why Light became a goofy villain post-1982, when Marv Wolfman started to depict him in a more jokey manner within the pages of New Teen Titans. But here’s where they fouled up themselves: when Green Arrow discusses Dr. Light with Wally, the Flash argues that he “always thought he [Dr. Light] was a moron.” Except that in his first 3-4 appearances in NTT, Dr. Light was still as effective as he’d been before then, as even Starfire could’ve confirmed, since she battled him up front and heard his dialect too, so it simply doesn’t make any sense to write Wally as saying that he’d always thought that this once-enjoyable villain as a “moron”, in the case of this book meaning that he was supposedly always a clown. In fact, it totally obfuscates the fact that his very own uncle, who was once menaced by Light within the pages of the Flash itself, would surely have told him all about their battles together, ditto much of the rest of the JLA and DC superheroes, and why would they have lied to him? Not to mention that Wally did tend to watch the TV news broadcasts and read some newspaper reports, including his own aunt’s, and would’ve known more than a thing or two about what Light was like that way too. And most importantly of all, the Titans, like virtually every other team group, have files stored on just about every super-villain in the DCU, and would therefore have a considerable amount of knowledge available about these many adversaries.

One of the biggest problems with the part involving the rape, besides the fact that Sue is not allowed a genuine voice of her own in all this matter, is that it doesn’t even describe it specifically as an act of rape. And that’s one more reason as to why anyone could find it offensive: because it's so superficial in its approach to the subject, and so otherwise unclear, that as a result, it trivializes Sue's victimization, and renders the whole part more plot device than anything else. And it pretty much explains one of main reasons why I was turned off by it.

Not only that, but it also pretty much trashes a once good villain in comics rather than to fix him: now, while he may rate as a cool villain to some, others could turned off of any book featuring Dr. Light out of revulsion. It wouldn't matter even if he were possessed, it's the character with the funny looking goatee whom people would see as having committed the deed against Sue Dibny, and new readers would probably be the most leery of reading about the character. It also makes no sense when you take into consideration that Dr. Light never did things like rape before, and so to just shoehorn this into past history without any genuine evidence that he was ever a pervert before is in 3 words - out-of character. And what next, will Marvel's Taskmaster and the Vulture be the next ones to undergo such a tarnishing? Or even DC's Felix Faust and Professor Ivo? The Turtle in The Flash #213 has already fallen victim to something almost similar.

Worse, by using what is more or less a cartoon character wearing a costume as the rapist in IC, Meltzer has actually taken away much of the seriousness of the subject. Imagine one of the villains from Warner's Looney Tunes in such a role: would anyone else be able to take it seriously if Yousemite Sam did that?

When Denny O'Neil wrote Green Lantern/Green Arrow back in the 70's, the advantage was that he used realistic villains without any costumes in many of the stories, and that's what made them work so well.

Simply put, when dealing with what happens to be a serious subject like rape, you can't just go along and use a costumed character as the culprit in such a case, most certainly not one who's never been written as such a thing before, because it destroys the credibility of the story. I don't know if Denny could write it better, but if he used the same skills in a case like this, I'm sure it'd come off much more convincingly.

When it comes down to what IC features, such topics as rape only work well if there's genuine educational value to be found in the story, and if it affects the victim's personality and character development. And if it's done as a contemporary story development, that's what makes it really work out well.

Sad to say, with the way that Identity Crisis is done (or rather, isn't), that's exactly why it doesn't work. And even if repairs are made, the problem is that it sticks in embarrassment. In fact, if any toy action figures are being built now of Dr. Light, who knows if any sensible parent who's aware of the goings-on in this miniseries are going to want to buy their children a toy action figure of a character who's been made out to look like a rapist?

Does Identity Crisis finger the victims as the ones to blame?

Another leading problem I have with it is that it seems to imply that Sue's death is all the fault of the heroes for the actions they took against Dr. Light, and maybe even other villains as well, whose record is far less by comparison: in other words, they "took his mind" and then got repaid for their actions by having a beloved lady suffer for their actions. And when I look at some of the questions being raised by the readers, about what Sue herself was doing aboard the sattelite station, whether or not it turns out to be the case, it seems to be implied that Sue "did something to deserve it". Which is what's called "blaming the victim", and it makes me shudder whenever I see that dirty tactic being used.

In any case, they've done it already with the rest of the superheroes who took part in the mind-wiping on Dr. Light. Quite the opposite of a good lesson featured in the Avengers two years ago, when Capt. America assured Carol Danvers that Kang's and the Master of the World's evil deeds were their crimes, not hers.

Being familiar with Amazing Spider-Man's 9-11 issue from 3 years ago, I remember that there was a suggestion similar to what seems to be featured in Identity Crisis over there too, that it was all the fault of the victims, and here too, it seems to be featured, only more metaphorically.

And, scarily enough, the possibilities that this is a metaphorical act of Chomskyism and anti-Americanism – not to mention an attack on Israel as well – may not be too far off. In other words, it would seem as if Sue Dibny is meant to take the place of the World Trade Center towers, and the superheroes are stand-ins for the US security representatives, or the government itself. And not only that it would seem as if, presumably, what the author is trying to tell us is that Sue was attacked because of past actions of the US against dictatorial countries like Iran and Iraq (the latter which is hopefully coming out from under that curse now since 2003), by imposing sanctions upon them and supposedly not listening to their voices. And what this bigoted little book is apparently trying to tell us is that it was not, and never was, the terrorists of the al-Qaeda who were to blame for the act of evil inflicted upon America, but rather, the past actions of America against other supposedly innocent nations by trying to suppress them for supposedly no good reason. This is pretty much alluded to when Dr. Light shouts at the heroes, “You. Took. My. Mind.” This is no doubt meant to resemble a terrorist falsely accusing the goodies of “taking his and his fellow terrorists’ freedom”. And of course, it totally ignores whatever crimes the culprits themselves committed that led to these actions, which more or less is legitimizing them.

Even more scary however, is how the rape's being swept under the rug is shockingly similar to how the world media largely ignored the brutal murders of the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl and even another American citizen named Nick Berg, a native of Philadelphia, by terrorists in Iraq and Afganistan. Both men were brutally murdered by beheadings, yet their murders were largely trivialized and ignored by an uncaring media, which preferred to sweep their tragedies under the rug and pay full attention to what happened in Abu Graib, instead.

As mentioned before, there is reason to assume that this book is also an attack on Israel, and it was after finding this article from the Forward weekly that I began to realize that it could be even worse than I thought.

And specifically, it was this part here that alerted me to the possibilities:

“As a Jewish writer, Meltzer says that his own cultural heritage comes into play, not only in "Identity Crisis" but in all his works, as well.”

No kidding. I guess that could explain why, in a television series he co-created in 2004 called “Jack and Bobby”, a Jewish character refers to his mother not as Jewish, but as “nothing”, and only his father, who’s Catholic, is described as something: As he asks of a rabbi in a synogogue, if his mother is nothing and his father is Catholic, who and what is he?

I don’t even want to think about what the rabbi the Jewish character was consulting with said in response to that.

Peter Sanderson, a comics historian who writes for IGN, rightfully panned Identity Crisis as misogynistic. While as for me, I pan Jack and Bobby as an act of Jewish self-loathing, and, come to think of it, IC as well: it doesn’t take a genius to figure out here, especially given that a most respectable Jewish editor, Julius Schwartz, was behind their creation, that the women of DC are meant to be stand-ins for Jewish – and even Italian – protagonists. As Bob Rozakis once pointed out, in fact, Jean Loring’s first name is also that of Schwartz’s own wife.

What does this mean, in other words? That aside from the fact that women here are largely – and strangely – silent and have no voice/opinion of their own in the whole affair, are being used as a metaphorical attack on Jewish and even Italian women?

Somehow, that’s what I was thinking might be possible when I saw how Zatanna was assaulted by Deathstroke, who was in the story for nothing more than to serve as a plot device, and nothing else. As was established by Gerry Conway in Blue Ribbon Digest in 1980, in a special backup story that told the origin of Zatanna’s father, Zatara, their family was from an Italian background. But because she (and even her father) could just as easily pass for a Jewess, that’s why I couldn’t help but wonder if the part where Slade Wilson punches her in her cute little tummy, causing her to belch (!), was in any ways meant as a stereotypical attack on Jewish women. It’s because I had once seen a movie called Keeping the Faith (which didn’t, to say the least), and that film contained an insulting joke in which rabbi Ben Stiller’s date invited him to bomp her in the tummy so she can show him how sturdy and fit she is. He knocked her over on the floor.

In a way, the gruesome scene in this miniseries reminded me chillingly enough of that same movie scene those couple of years ago, and made me fear that it could be imitating the very same stereotypical insult previously featured. But it’s also insulting, and in fact, offensive, to Italian women as well. And totally disrespectful of classic characters who were given as a gift to the public by people who cared many decades ago too.

Sales through inappropriate style of art?

As mentioned earlier, I once had an argument with a very weird person online who said, much to my bewilderment, that “glam art”, as he put it, was perfectly okay for the cover, and that the company needs to do what they can sell the book.

The cover artist, to say the least, was Michael Turner, a notable good girl artist, and that he should be the one chosen to draw the covers was a bit odd, and while I’m sure that Turner is a decent man himself, and I do like his artwork for Supergirl (whose return to the DCU got considerably less attention press-wise than IC did), I cannot say that it’s very appropriate for even the cover of a book containing a serious subject, and therefore counts as a publicity stunt, just like the book itself.

Yet that mattered not to my silly, totally devoid of any moral or common sense opponent in an argument, who then tried to ignore my pointing out to him that what he said was potentially offensive, and instead insisted that the cover was not pornographic, as if I ever said it was. Ignorance is strength, eh?

Why Zatanna but not Green Lantern?

The miniseries’ would-be purpose was to criticize what I assume the writer personally, not generally, feels was an inappropriate action by the heroes against the villains, which was to erase their memories of finding out their secret identities.

While it’s true that it wasn’t altogether an appropriate action that the heroes took in the Silver Age, the problem here lies in the political undertones this was apparently being done for the sake of: to say the least, the use of mindwiping here appears to have been done as an analogy to abu-Ghraib in Iraq, or, as mentioned earlier, America’s supposed oppression of countries like Iran as well as Iraq, ditto Israel’s supposed oppression of the “poor palestinians”, while ignoring/absolving their acts of cowardly terrorism against defenseless Jews via suicide bombings, and suppressing that info from the public at large, as the biased media does.

But aside from that, what I don’t get here is why Zatanna is depicted as being the one who’s dealing with the mind-wiping, and at the behest of the men (not that it matters to the writer, she’s still a culprit in his viewpoint for that): she conducts the process, as much a failure as it is, and is pegged as the one in charge of other erasures as well, certainly in a case involving the Secret Society of Super-Villains, which isn’t even in continuity anymore, to say the least (but which matters not to Mr. Meltzer, since the story MUST be told at any cost). What about Green Lantern Hal Jordan, who certainly was responsible for more than a few mind-wipes of his own, much more, in fact, than Zatanna is claimed to be in here. During the Silver Age, he committed quite a few erasures of both guilty and innocent people, and was certainly implied as doing so in several other cases as well. But here, almost nothing seems to be made of it. Is it because Hal’s returned from the dead, and DC cannot afford to dampen the enthusiasm (they did anyway), or, is it because the writer wants to further his own bias against women?

To say the least, while Zatanna did do a few mind-wipes of her own in the past, it was very few times, and certainly less than Hal Jordan ever did. So to say that she did it the way things were handled here is to exaggerate her own actions and deeds, and to defame one of the most delightful characters in DC history.

Hawkman – defamed and cheapened

But lest anyone think that just the women here come off badly, even Hawkman does too, by showing him taking part in the mind-wiping of Dr. Light. To say the least, this has the effect of cheapening even the work of Geoff Johns and James Robinson on the fourth volume of Hawkman, and makes him look like a cad.

There’s more about all the characters involved, but it’ll be left for another column.

The killer was of the same sex!

The final nail in the coffin for this miniseries, however, was in the most anti-climactic ending, when Jean Loring, the former wife of the Atom, pretty much gives away that she was the killer, simply by blurting out a line that implicates her in doing so. And not only that, it appears that her reasons for doing so were because of – insanity. Surprise, surprise.

The most interesting thing here is how, while Jean did suffer 2 times from madness years before, caused by villains who’d captured her at that (see The Atom and Hawkman #45 from 1969, and Super-Team Family #13, from 1977, for two examples), there is no mention whatsoever of those past incidents of yore, and the resulting effect is that the reader has no clear understanding of if or how Jean went insane before. If anything, the way it was done here makes it look almost as if Jean had just gone insane only a few years ago, without having anything to do with her past experiences, and as if it hadn’t even happened before, or, as if it were something new that just happened.

If you think that the above sounds confusing, it is, and if anything, it’s as if the writer were trying to just use the fact that Jean had been depicted as having gone insane before as a justification for actions, without having anything at all whatsoever to do with her past experiences.

Like I said before, it’s as baffling as it sounds.

The most ridiculous thing about the revelation of Jean Loring as a killer was how she was depicted as using a flamethrower – I kid you not – to try and destroy the evidence of her having killed Sue Dibny via a brain bleeding infarction. It was so cartoonish, in fact, that if I didn’t know better, I would’ve fallen off the couch laughing.

But I won’t. It’s not funny, and in fact, it’s obscene.

Not to mention that this is where the miniseries commits what seems to be a common trick among many disinterested writers these days: destroy all credibility and throw it out the window. For example:

Just how did Jean even know that Sue’s memory had been erased? To say the least, aside from the fact that there is no evidence in past DC history to even so much as remotely suggest that the heroes were ever hiding any kind of a secret about a rape that supposedly took place, it’s pretty apparent that Atom never even told her, or that any other people close to the superheroes in the DCU ever knew either. Not only that, but, how exactly does she know each and every secret identity in the DCU? Just one of more than few plot holes left unexplained in this travesty, and it was so stupid, it was virtually stupefying to boot.

Speaking of which, the most troubling part in all of this was – how exactly did Jean know who Tim Drake was? There is no evidence of her ever having actually known his own family name, or who he was, and given that his ID as Robin was a well-guarded secret, and Batman for the most part forbids him to tell his real name (instead, he usually goes by the pseudonym of Alvin Sharp), most certainly not in public. Not to mention that the heroes addressing themselves by their first names, if anything, during the funeral seemed very contrived, and it’s unlikely that the heroes would ever divulge their secrets in any ways, certainly not if there’s a maniac on the loose looking to get at them.

And if there’s any most glaring hole in the way the story is depicted here when it comes to both Atom and Jean, it’s that it implies that Ray left her, when in past history, it was JEAN who left the Mighty Mite, and NOT the other way around. It was in the acclaimed miniseries, Sword of the Atom, in 1983, written by Jan Strnad and penciled/inked by Gil Kane and Dick Giordano, that the developments took place, when Ray found out that Jean was cheating on him with Paul Hoben, a lawyer who worked at the same law firm that she did, and while he tried to forgive her for her extramarital affair and reconcile, it didn’t work out (mostly because he in turn had fallen in love with the princess Laethewan of the tribe of little humanoids called Katarthans he’d encountered in South America), and they ended up getting divorced, and Jean married Paul – complete with Ray’s blessing too. (For more, check out this article from the old Fanzing website.)

And while unsuccessful then in reconciling with her, Ray begged her to take him back, and always left the door open for her to return if she wished. And it just goes to show how big a hole in the story is created in Identity Crisis, by having Jean trying to do something to make Ray come back to her, by sending everyone on a wild goose chase, when here, all she had to do was to ask Ray if he wanted to get back together, and remarry. Simple as that. To switch things around as is done in IC renders it all in the most horrifying of stereotypical characterizations, of a jealous woman who despises someone else's having a good marriage and even a forthcoming child, and then goes and undoes that happiness, here in the sickest of ways.

And that’s why the whole story is rendered silly and pointless, with the rape, and various other red-herrings being made completely irrelevant.

There’ll be more to come, in another column that’ll be coming up soon.

Copyright 2005 Avi Green. All rights reserved.

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