Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Realer Than Real

I've got a fondness for the comics produced by DC in the few years immediately following the Crisis. Anyone who reads this blog knows of my rather foolhardy championing of the post-Crisis Superman. But I think the rest of the line was also producing some interesting stuff as well.

But I don't think, for the most part, that "interesting" in this instance necessarily translates to "good". What it means is that for a number of reasons the books produced by DC in the mid-to-late 80s had a peculiar texture and consistency. Not necessarily unique, because I think the consensus is that DC in the 80s was very much influenced by what had been popular at Marvel in the late 70s and early 80s -- lots of Chris Claremont and Frank Miller pastiche. Lots of it not very good. Furthermore, the most popular DC book in the period immediately preceding Crisis was the Marv Wolfman and George Perez Teen Titans revamp -- which, as has been pointed out many times by many, many people -- was essentially a Marvel book with DC characters. There are a few blogs who spend quite a bit of time cataloging the stylistic differences between Marvel and DC, and I'm not really interested in that particular field. What I am interested in is the point at which 80s DC became obsessed with the "real" world.

Superhero comics are fantasies. What's more, there's something eminently fascinating about watching fantasy characters interact with reality, or probably more accurately, a perception of reality influenced by the writer's own preoccupations and prejudices. This was part of the basis and appeal behind the series that defined the 80s for superhero books: Watchmen and Dark Knight, of course, but also Miller's Daredevil, Squadron Supreme, and one of my personal faves, Marshall Law (which was essentially Chinatown with super perverts, a great post-Reagan fairy tale for us powerless bleeding-hearts). We remember these books because, despite their flaws, they were pretty good and worth remembering. But the vast majority of the books that were influenced by these same forces -- and, incidentally, influenced as well by the success of Watchmen and Dark Knight -- were neither memorable or very good, but they're just as interesting. If you are OK with putting "interesting" in scare quotes, that is.

Let's take A Death In The Family. Everyone always talks about this story because it was the death of Jason Todd, who got brained on the head with a crowbar and blown up by the mass indifference of comic fans. Not a great story by any measure, and despite some nice Jim Aparo art, probably not a creative highpoint for anyone involved. But what no one ever mentions is the fact that this was a really weird story for another reason entirely: the villain was the Ayatollah Khomeini. Not, mind you, some stand in or proxy, as is usually typical -- like, Ayatollah Jihadi from Evilstan or something stupid like that. No, the crux of the story was that the Joker was trying to sell WMDs to the Iranians, and after that scheme got busted (which involved Todd meeting his maker) he got picked by Khomeini to be the Islamic Republic of Iran's new UN Ambassador. At which point we learn that the Joker is going to try to kill the entire general assembly of the United Nations under the auspices of Iran. (Superman stops him, of course, with one of the most memorable uses of super-breath on record.)

Now, that struck me as odd when I first read the story and it still strikes me as odd today, but this was hardly an isolated incident of the company injecting "Reality" into their line. One of the Giffen / DeMatteis Justice League's first adventures involved, if memory serves me, a nuclear crisis with the Soviet Union (not exactly "bwa-ha-ha" material). I've got an issue of Blue Beetle somewhere where the Beetle spends half the issue infiltrating Iran for some reason or another. Millennium was a horrible, horrible crossover built on the premise that a large percentage of background and supporting characters in the DC Universe were actually spies -- double agents! -- for the Manhunters. (Commissioner Gordon and Lana Lang were both Manhunter agents, which isn't one of those plot points that gets brought up a lot these days.) The whole structure of the post-Crisis DC line was steeped in late Cold War paranoia. It's all of a piece with the same kind of sublimated jingoism that brought us cinematic classics like Red Dawn and Commando.

Remember, in the 80s street crime was a national epidemic and drugs were going to turn us into a nation of addicts and fiends (The Punisher); the world was being run into the ground by evil plutocrats like Gordon Gekko (fictional) and Michael Milken (actual) (post-Crisis Lex Luthor); and we were at any moment only a hairs' breadth away from total war with the Russians. Well, it goes without saying that by the time Reagan got elected the Soviet Union was hardly the threat generations of Americans had been led to believe (we wouldn't know how badly-off the Russians were until after 1991, of course) -- but man, back in the 80s everyone thought the end of the world was nigh. Superhero comics responded to this attitude just like any other media, and boy were the results wacky.

Looking at post-Crisis DC it seems as if these stories were the result of line-wide decisions to make the books "relevant", influenced by books like Dark Knight as well as the general cultural climate. Well, "Relevancy" -- with a capitol R and scare quotes in full effect -- is a horrible thing for comics to aspire. Everyone remembers the "My Ward Is A Junky!" issue of Green Lantern / Green Arrow, and despite it's questionable "significance", O'Neill and Adams' run is not remembered for it's subtle treatment of political and social issues. (I've always had a soft spot for the story where the old black dude asks Green Lantern why he saves "the blue people and the green people but not the black people" or something similar.) It's all so ham-fisted and well-meaning you can't help but smile, even after you realize that it's essentially little more than middle-class white liberal guilt at work. Similarly with the "political" comics of the 80s -- the country as a whole took a turn to the Right, so the popular media reflected the fears and anxieties of heightened Cold War tension and the perception of lawlessness in America itself. Having the Blue Beetle travel to Iran to kick the shit out of some Islamists is about as effectual as Green Arrow taking a stand against heroin addiction -- i.e., it makes a very powerless person feel like they're doing something important by putting a fictional surrogate up against a straw man. But the hazards of Cold War realpolitik were ultimately too big a target for fictional heroes. You can only see Batman go up against the KGBeast so many times before the readers get depressed at the implication of their own powerlessness in the face of vast international malfeasance. So after a couple years the heroes went back to fighting space warlords and shit like that, and relative normalcy returned.

But man, in the meantime there were some really weird comics.

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