Monday, June 14, 2004

Looking To The Stars: Crisis of Dual Identities!

Two books came out this past week, both with the word “Identity” in them. One is a highly anticipated book, declared the thing to watch this year by Wizard Magazine, which promises to have a lasting presence in the books of its universe for the rest of the year, and indeed, for all time. The other has, in general, been discarded as a cynical ploy by the Marvelous competitor of this first universe, to steal their thunder with a storyline that seems to offer little more than an excuse to throw several cool villains together in what looks like your typical heist flick with superpowers.

Is either of these pictures totally accurate? Both? Neither? Read on for one man’s opinion…

Identity Crisis #1

Since the story is the major concern here, I’ll mention the salad that is the artwork quickly so we can move on to the meat of the writing quickly. Suffice to say, I’ve been a fan of Rags Morales ever since his first issue on Hawkman and he does not disappoint here. I hope DC gets him on a regular monthly book soon after this, because as this book shows, he is too great a talent to not used regularly.

I’ve found Brad Meltzer’s writing to be a mixed bag. I think he’s a great idea man and a good writer of dialogue. More, his love and understanding of old DC Comics characters is clear and obvious in his writing. And in this book, he takes some old-school, often forgotten characters… and actually does something with them. Not with a retcon as such, but with an expansion; something that fits the base idea behind the character and makes them more relevant without changing them completely.

The best example of this I can give without spoiling most of the plot may be The Calculator. Once a costumed shlub in a costume that let him do amazing things through the power of computers, he has now changed himself into a villainous version of Oracle; giving other villains the information they need… for a price.

Still, I do have some issues with Meltzer’s work. While he has a great eye for character and an obvious love for comics history and trivia, he sometimes takes liberties with past stories for the sake of his own, picking and choosing what he wants to use. This problem was evident through his Green Arrow run, culminating in the final scenes where we discover that Oliver Queen must be an Oscar-caliber actor for having managed to fake total surprise and indignation at the revelation that Connor Hawke was his son before his death… despite having apparently KNOW about Connor nearly 20 years later, but being unable to settle down and have a family then. Never mind that such stability is all Oliver has EVER wanted in his life…

There are no such glaring characterization glitches in this issue, though there is another example of either sloppy attention to detail or picking-and-choosing. To wit, this book does inform us that Elongated Man and his wife now live in Opal City: home town of the much missed Jack Knight, a.k.a. Starman. Fans of that book will remember that the Dibnys showed up during the final major story arc and announced their intention to settle down in Opal. Rather funny then how later, as they run down a list of suspects for the much ballyhooed murder that the name Dr. Phosphorous comes up and a team is dispatched to fight him. Rather an easy task as the good doctor was killed in that same Starman series by a cancer-ridden Ted Knight, who was determined to stop the super-villain who was indirectly responsible for “killing” him. I’m willing to concede that Dr. Phosphorous is not quite dead, but it seems a waste to bring him back after the amazing sacrifice Ted Knight made.

Still, this is fanboyish nit-picking about a book that has too much else going for it to NOT be a modern masterpiece. And that is what it is. I shall spoil nothing for those who have not yet read it, except to say that the book does live up to everything that it promised. A JLA member DOES die. We do get to see the old school JLA getting together to do something. And yes, we do get a murder mystery. This story is a loving tribute to everything that made DC Comics great and still makes it great. I’ll stick with this one to the end, even if I do wince occasionally as a dead villain shows up alive and well or one of my favorite stories goes ignored. Cause for a good ripping yarn, I can forgive a lot. And in the end, it’s just a story.

Final Score: 9.5 out of 10.

Identity Disc #1

So there’s this crime boss, possibly immortal, who is an urban legend. He’s even more powerful than The Kingpin was at the height of his power. He gets the dirt on six of the nastiest baddies of all time and sends them out to recover another legend: The Identity Disc…which is not really a Disc, but a database containing the secret identity and contact information of every single costumed crime-fighter on the planet Earth. One he has that, he intends to give the information to said villains, who will then do as they do and kill off all the heroes so that said crime boss can scheme his evil schemes without fear of being hauled in by a bunch of well-meaning citizens in their jammies.

Our all-star team of the curdled cream of the crop is…

1. The Vulture- tried reforming last year in the Gawd-Awful “Get Kraven” mini-series. Has apparently turned back to crime. He’s been recruited into this scheme thanks to his long lost daughter being framed for a murder in Texas. And I don’t need to tell you that they don’t treat female murderers well in Texas.

2. The Sandman – reformed for quite a while and became a better character for it. Went evil again on the whims of Howard Mackie, died after getting bit by Venom, merged with the MTV beach house set, and then went crazy before becoming all evil again. Playing into this scheme thanks to his mother’s life being threatened.

3. Sabertooth – perpetual pain in the neck of Wolverine. Is being blackmailed with an unknown secret. 10 to 1 it turns out he has the largest private collection of Hello Kitty merchandise on the Eastern seaboard.

4. Juggernaut – perpetual pain in the neck of Professor X. Actually reformed sometime back in Uncanny X-Men. Framed for murder, he is going along with this scheme to get proof of his innocence.

5. Bullseye – perpetual pain in the neck of Daredevil. Back in his usual costume after a very brief, two-issue stint, in the costume he had in the movies. Probably in this for the money, as no reference was made to him being blackmailed.

6. Deadpool- perpetual pain in the neck of anyone who spends two minues with him. Probably also just in this for the money, as it’s hard to imagine anyone blackmailing someone as shameless as Wade Wilson.

Of course if someone REALLY wanted to learn the identities of every superhero in the Marvel Universe and kill them, this team would be a good one. With the exception of Spider-Man and a few of the Avengers, most of them already have open identities or are known to one of the villains above.

Kill Daredevil? Semi-public identity. Even if he denies it, Matt Murdock is still believed to be Daredevil and Bullseye already pressed the issue once.

Kill The X-Men? You have a guy who LIVES In their fricking mansion right there! Not to mention a mercenary who has crashed the place to hang out with Siryn more than a few times. I think you can find them pretty easy.

Fantasitc Four? Look for the big tower with the 4 on it.

Avengers? Most of them have open identities. The big issue is actually getting someone close enough to Tony Stark without his technology or security team being an issue, not finding him.

Spider-Man’s the trickiest one in the bunch to pin down and if you go “friend of a friend”, Vulture could easily find out his ID from Kraven the 2nd if “Get Kraven” has any place in Spider-Man history. (It doesn’t. I’m just speaking rhetorically…)

That’s the problem with the whole conceit of this story. Thanks to a number of different writers over the past three years, the concept of secret identities is now a non-issue with the vast majority of Marvel superheroes. And various signs make it clear that this story does not take place in the past before Captain American, Daredevil and Iron Man were revealed to the world. Signs like William Blake being a villain or Juggernaut’s new costume and talk of being reformed. The issue is not finding out the identities of these heroes… it’s figuring out a way to attack them and win.

This is not to say that the issue is a total waste. The characterization is pretty much spot on even if the plot is a bit of a mess. Deadpool is inappropriately funny. Sabertooth is sufficiently predatory. Sandman is just as blustery and quick-tempered as ever. And Bullseye? Calm and collected as ever. And the dialogue is nothing if not inspired. I lost it on Deadpool calling Sabertooth “Puss in Boots”.

The artwork is a mixed bag as well, being far too heavily inked in some places with some overly thick lines. Things are too shadowy by half, with the Vulture’s wrinkles making him look not so much like a wrinkled old man as they make him look like an old-time print-shop clerk, smeared in ink. Still, the pencils look good when they can be seen through the shadows.

This could have been a great book… five years ago. It is merely good, and even then only if you ignore the fact that a CD full of superhero secret identities is not the great treasure it once was. It’s not quite the spoiler-book that many make it out to be, but neither is it anything to write home about.

Final Score: 4 out of 10.

Tune in next week. Same Matt time. Same Matt website.

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