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Wednesday, April 19, 2006

 

Brad Meltzer Comics Make Baby Jesus Cry

Brad Meltzer: writing as Michael Turner: drawing, so I guess continuing to pair them on projects makes sense.

With the announcement of Meltzer's JLA #0 on the July schedule, the Identity Crisis debates are bound to start up again. The new book's promo copy says that "Meltzer broke the JLA down in the top-selling, critically acclaimed Identity Crisis - and now he puts all the pieces back together again!" So I don't expect any--or at least not much--fin-headed satellite super-rape at 23,000 miles above sea level this go-around. But this is still Meltzer, who has shown himself to be a godawful superhero writer whose instincts with these characters, supposedly born of sincere love of the JLA of his 1970's childhood, have been wrong at almost every turn. And whose comics--Identity Crisis and a boring, underdeveloped arc of Green Arrow--fail to rise above the overheated melodrama and contrivances of the worst fan fiction.

Of course, overheated melodrama is what superhero comics are all about, since at least 'This Man, This Monster" in Fantastic Four #51. But Meltzer manages the odd trick of leeching all of the early Claremontian pleasure out of the soap operatics, leaving readers with something merely ugly and unpleasant. A Superman who "only hears what he wants to hear." A suicidal Elongated Man. And every female character dragged through the mud, driven crazy or killed.

Identity Crisis sold a ton of copies, but I think that's more a condemnation of the audience than a validation of the book. I suppose I really don't have a leg to stand on, considering that Dan Didio and DC gave Meltzer the keys to the family car and have looked on lovingly as he tore up the front lawn doing donuts then ran over the dog. This is what they wanted. In retrospect, it all looks like a single tactic in a long-term plan to overturn their line of books, writing their major properties distinctly out of character, placing them in stomach-turning situations as a set-up for the reset button of the current Infinite Crisis. Superhero books are only as good as they are this month, and so far Busiek's Superman seems to carry none of the scars of his terrible mishandling over the past few years. Still, based on his output to date I have no faith in Meltzer as a writer, no matter what his plans for the new JLA. His claim to fame is success as a prose mystery writer, yet the central mystery of his big comic simply didn't work on any level--the mystery twist itself was a cheat and the various characters had to be totally bent out of any recognizable shape to fit the contours of the plot twists.

After Identity Crisis wrapped, Meltzer gave interviews that played like Bush press conferences on days when Helen Thomas is sick. Numerous fans and even some pros had made specific, repeated criticisms of apparent sexism at the core of the book (Sue Dibny raped, killed and set on fire; a literally man-crazy killer Jean Loring) and all we got were Matt Brady "boy, there sure is a lot of controversy" softballs, easily swatted aside by Meltzer with PR 101 answers of the "you can't please everybody" and "controversy means people are interested" variety. I never saw any indication that Meltzer addressed (or even saw) the concerns of people who were seriously troubled by the book's treatment of women.

As Chris Arndt commented over at the Comic Treadmill, "Meltzer read and loved the exact same comics that I did when we were children but when he tries retroactive continuity for that period we get Silver Age characters that are literally raped." One wonders how Meltzer got from point A to point B: "Man, I really loved those Dick Dillin and Gerry Conway stories when I was a kid. Like the one where the JLA gets put in a zoo by the animals! That ruled! If I ever get the chance to write JLA I think I'll have Dr Light break into the satellite, savagely beat Sue Dibny, bend her over and rape her from behind. Then I'll have the Atom's ex-wife kill her and light her corpse up with a flamethrower in a demented attempt to get the Atom to love her again. I'll write all my favorite characters so that they're unrecognizable, nothing like any other portrayal of the past 30 years. That'll show everybody how much I love that old comic." Basically, I imagine a more perverse, pessimistic Bob Haney with no sense of the absurd.

For me, the worst thing about Meltzer is the pretension to seriousness, to real-world dilemmas and ethical concerns. The DC hype for Identity Crisis was all about its unflinching exploration of the "real" consequences of superheroism--how putting on the cape would put your loved ones at serious risk of violence. But again, it was all a con. The only DC characters at any risk are those without valuable Warner Brothers licensing opportunities. Sue Dibny can die, not because of anything her husband the Elongated Man may or may not do, but simply because Sue Dibny will never be a cartoon star, and will never be used to sell peanut butter or bike horns. Lois Lane isn't going anywhere, even if Superman told every villain in the world he loved her and handed out directions to her apartment. Therefore all the talk of "realism", of clear-eyed looks at superheroes like they're cops or firefighters, is really just a baldfaced lie--a lie Meltzer and Didio eagerly told in order to sell comics to a segment of aging fans who like the idea of their superheroes "growing up" but who apparently don't understand the extratextual reasons why they never really can. Years ago, in his blather.net interview, Alan Moore said of his Batman: The Killing Joke, "...I don't think it's a very good book. It's not saying anything very interesting...at the end of the day, Watchmen was something to do with power, V for Vendetta was about fascism and anarchy, The Killing Joke was just about Batman and the Joker - and Batman and the Joker are not really symbols of anything that are real, in the real world, they're just two comic book characters." Meltzer's embarrassingly fannish comics are the antithesis of that insight. That's why, unless he's reinvented himself, I have no faith in the new JLA. That's why baby Jesus weeps.

Besides, how can you trust a guy who doesn't like the Martian Manhunter?

Comments:
I can only nod my head in agreement at your words...and then shake my head in dismay at the morbid kitsch that passes for drama in this sort of comic.

But I must quibble with you and Chris Arndt on one point. It isn't really the case that you and Chris and I and Brad Meltzer all started from the same place -- reading those Silver and Bronze Age comics in a putative state of innocence -- and that he somehow found something in them that inspired him to turn this imagery into the fodder for rape and misogynistic fantasies. Instead, that streak of misogyny is an independent element of his character. Boys with a healthy, loving attitude towards women could read old Elongated Man stories and say "That's so cool how Ralph and Sue have this great relationship and share adventures together!" They might also feel the same way about Katar and Shayera Hol. Boys who have negative or hostile thoughts about women might read the same stories and think "Wow, I bet if his wife was raped and murdered, that would really fuck up this hero! Now that be cool to see!" There's nothing in the comics that brought Meltzer from point A to point B; it's something ugly in himself that he brought to them.

I know nothing about Meltzer's history or personal life, and I'm not casting any aspersions on his behavior in real life. He may act like a prince of a guy. But imagery that the ego knows is "bad" or should be supressed is exactly the sort of thing that bursts out of the id when we try to invent fiction. Look at John Byrne for another example: given the opportunity to write and draw literally anything in the universe he wants...somehow, by purest chance, he keeps coming back to stories that call for images of women being beaten up, humiliated, and killed. Hmm, isn't that odd...
 
Typically, big stories like this are planned entirely cynically. Editors decide they want a big event to hype, they devleop lists of characters that are expendable because high profile deaths are expected, then they hire a writer. Maybe the writer gets to choose which characters get the axe. I believe this was the case with Identity Crisis. Of course, Meltzer took the job and was instrumental in shaping the themes of the book.

At one point, if I remember correctly, Meltzer defended his overall treatment of women in Identity Crisis by pointing out that his wife worked with abused women--which to me sounded like the "but some of my best friends are..." defense.

Steven Grant has a must-read column on portrayal of women in comics, which centers on the Taki Soma sexual harrassment scandal, but speaks to the culture which promotes the caveman mentality in the comics themselves.

http://www.comicbookresources.com/columns/?column=10#section2

As I said, I have no problem with melodrama in comics. Some of my best friends are Byrne/Claremont X-Men issues. But there is a line, and far too often the smug boys running the major superhero publishers indulge themselves and their audiences in violently exploitative histrionics. For me, the truly nausiating aspect isn't the circumstances of the raping and murdering, it's the pretense that it "means" something, that it speaks to our actual world, that readers will somehow be enlightened. That's a load of shit. At best, they'll be entertained--in the same way people are entertained by slasher pictures. There's a powerful thrill many people get from watching icons degraded--which lip service to "tearing down to build back up" doesn't address. Superhero ethics are entirely artificial--just as artificial as they were in the 1950s. Stuffing girlfriends in kitchen appliances or having them orast each other like marshmallows doesn't change that--in fact it underscores it. But as the saying goes, it is difficult to make a person understand something they are paid not to understand. So the publishers and their writers keep on truckin'.

RE: Sue Dibny, I can't remember who said it, but I think it was a comics pro who asked how anyone would want to kill off comics' tribute to Myrna Loy's Nora Charles. At the hands of a mystery writer, no less!
 
By the way, check the way in which the Big Three are haughtily *looking down* at the reader in the JLA #0 cover. Contrast with Morrison/Quitley's All-Star Superman #1. The only possible conclusions are that Turner has 1) no fucking idea what he's doing, or 2) a very strong idea which is utterly wrong.
 
Yeah, I understand the role of high-level editorial planning in these big company events...and yeah, we may not know precisely which elements were brought to Meltzer and which he added himself. And we're sure not gonna find out those facts from any PR material or interviews with the fan press. Which at best only means that my comments about Meltzer bringing some buried misogyny or personal ugliness to the book must also apply to someone else in the editorial chain of command. But as you say, Meltzer still took the job and still gets total credit for the vile on-panel rape scene with Dr. Light. Not that it would be any more palatable had it been done more decorously, but still...that was his choice as a writer, and he should be called on it.

Steven Grant's column is always a must-read. But this specific incident of sexual harassment isn't something that's unique to the comics industry or promulgated by anything inherent in the iconography of comics. As a research biologist in the 1950s, my mom experienced a wide gamut of sexual harassment and blackmail and innuendo and veiled threats, and so did every other woman working in the field. There's no sexual imagery or titillation to be found in cell cultures -- they're incredibly dull to look at. This really is just pathetic behavior which is common whenever and wherever men feel free to behave like jerks towards women; the exact same incident could (and does!) happen just as frequently at scientific conferences and propane dealer's conventions. So, IMHO, the fetishizing of women in mainstream comics is more of a distraction than any pointer to some underlying pathology.

That said...there needs to be a meeting point between the above two paragraphs. If there is an unhealthy aspect to the comics industry, maybe it's that when you have a business dealing in the fantasy world of adolescents, it's attractive to a certain stripe of grown male who has never become an adult man; here's a world where he doesn't have to grow up to succeed. In that sense, and in that sense only, I see a parallel to some of the observations made about the Catholic priesthood in the immediate wake of the child abuse revelations. It isn't that there's anything inherent in Catholicism which makes people into pederasts and child molestors -- it's that an environment where celibate adult males don't have to interact with women and are entrusted with the care of young boys is one that would appeal to a certain stripe of sexual abuser. It doesn't necessarily create them, but serves as a magnet for them.

And so, the modern comics industry: a place where particularly jerky guys can feel reasonably comfortable that they won't be called on bad behavior because their own presence helps keep it a boy's club. Just as a writer and a series of editors can all sign off on a comic full of misogyny because no one's there to tell them no. And the long term solution, as it is everywhere else, for groups like Friends of Lulu to keep turning up the heat and letting those guys know the rules have changed.
 
Rab:

Not too sure I've come across the industry/environment/whatever where a man needs to grow up to succeed. Maybe it's a wider cultural problem - if very little maturity is expected of men, men will meet that standard.

That said, I think superhero comics are particularly appealing to people who are intrigued by fantasies of domination. Admitting that doesn't take away from my enjoyment, but it does give me a critical framework when I'm reading to figure out whether I am comfortable with the subtext (as I perceive it) of a given comic. There's been some pretty gnarly violence in the Seven Soldiers books, some of it directed toward female characters, but I would strongly disagree with anyone who feels the series is intrinsicly misogynist.
 
I think there's something to the idea that women get whomped on so often in super-hero tales because most super-heroes are guys and the love interests are the first targets that a writer and a villain has when it comes to causing drama or giving the heroes pain.

http://apologiesdemanded.blogspot.com/2004/07/best-stored-cold-not-served-cold.html

Perhaps it's tacky to resort to a record on my own blog, but the reason women are endangered in popular adventure fiction is because the quest to protect (our women) is somewhat of a primal urge and the failure to do so also strikes a chord. Meltzer's sin wasn't the negative involvement of the women, it was that the stories were in poor taste and the events within were not justified by the story itself.

Besides, in my criticism I left it open to speculation why and how Meltzer went down the path of dirtying our childhood stories. I just take his confession of love for the old stuff at face value... I never analysed whether the love was a healthy love nor do I care to today.
 
Good lord, looking back to July 2004 some of my stuff is terrible.
 
I don't know, Chris. An explanation is not the same thing as an excuse. Maybe formulas are what they are in many comics because the guys writing and reinforcing them are dicks, and the society they're getting their gender coding from is run by dicks. A better writer wouldn't have let the worst tropes of the genre control him to the extent Meltzer seem to have done. As Dave mentioned above, Grant Morrison knows how to play with exactly the same characters and situations without making me feel depressed and ashamed for the form. IMO, the response to Michael Hutchinson's patriarchical society theory that you excerpt in your post shouldn't be, "Oh, well that explains that, then." It should be, "that's exactly how we're screwed up, and the kind of thinking we ought to resist." The treatment of women in Identity Crisis wasn't any more advanced than what you'd get in a 1960 Mort Weisinger-edited Superman comics, except with a lot more blood and flamethrowers--basically, tapping into the psyches of boys who can't decide whether or not they hate girls, fear them or want to be beaten and eaten by them.

By the way, you are one seriously clean-cut guy. My gums started to bleed just looking at your picture.
 
I think I could really get into a comic where the male hero was beaten and eaten by women in every issue. I guess the hero would have to be one of those dead guys, though, and I'm not that into dead guys.

I've said too much.
 
Does anyone remember Jack and Bobby? It was a series Meltzer co-wrote and created that ran during the 2004-2005 season on the WB.

In the pilot, it's revealed that the boys' mother (Christine Lahti), a liberal pothead college professor, has been lying to the younger son about the identity of their father. She's said that he was a great activist who was killed in South America by rebels or something. The older son reveals that no, that's not the case: their father was an architectural major from Mexico who took off when they were young. The younger kid has an asthma attack and lands in the hospital because of this revelation.

Now here's where it gets interesting. The premise of the show is that the younger brother becomes President. And it's revealed that for years, he kept up the fiction that his father was an acrtivist and a professor, until someone outed him during the election. It almost sank his campaign. He never even told his advisors the truth until it came out.

His campaign manager in the pilot talks about seeing his mother talk with such pride about their "father" and "the lie was too important to her not to keep it up."

So, the implication here is, the mother couldn't handle the truth about the boys' father. The younger son almost lost the presidency because she couldn't handle being humiliated.

Jean Loring can't handle being along. Sue Dibny can't handle being bored, so she wanders onto the Watchtower and gets raped by Dr. Light. Message of comic is don't talk to girls about things, because they can't handle it.

Brad Meltzer can't handle the Ellises and MacDonalds and Dorkins of the world badmouthing his beloved superheroes, so he takes the stupid hackwork of the past and makes it "darker" somehow "fixing" it because those old stupid stories now have darker underpinnings.

This isn't the work of a healthy human being, no matter what he or anyone else says. I wonder if even looks his wife in the eye when they talk.
 
This is exactly what I mean when I call Meltzer's work fan fiction. He seems to be animated in his comic book writing by exactly the same impulse as adult superhero fans who desperately want to justify their hobby, to show people that these comics *are too* worthy of adult interest. See, all the mysogynistic sexual violence and serial killing proves it.
 
One more thing: Meltzer, to my knowledge, has said his only specific editorial edict was to "kill this character"- but has never specified which character DC asked him to kill.

Which means, since it affected the book, he was asked to kill Jack Drake in the course of IC.

Which means the Sue Dibny thing was his idea.

Which means he is horribly fucked up.
 
Got here through When Fangirls Attack.
I still can't believe there are people who liked IC, and I've talked to many who loved it.
And maybe it's a geographical thing, but I don't think I had heard of Meltzer before IC, at least not as a mystery writer.
Because judging by IC, he's very bad at it. I hadn't read anything about the Justice League in *years* and even so I figured out the killer (not the motive, though) in issue 3.
I had just decided to give up for a while on the DCU after Infinity Crisis. Learning that he's going to write JLA makes me feel a lot better about my desition.
 
I only want to argue with you on one point -

Identity Crisis aside, his Green Arrow arc was, I felt, the best of the series so far. It had pathos, humor, a ton of action, and a good mystery. It also had an Ollie that we don't get to see nearly as much, the charming lady-killer who's completely in love with the Canary.

The story had more back-to-basics super-heroics than the previous two Smith arcs, and I can't even stand any of the Winnick stuff that followed.

So rip on I.C. if you like, it's full of problems, but Archers Quest is some damn fine comics.
 
Glad to hear from someone (finally) who likes something by this Meltzer guy. Since about 1989 I have pretty much only read comics Cole told me to read, so obviously I haven't read Identity Crisis. Anyone else have something positive to say about Meltzer? How's his spelling?
 
Dave, I'll send you everything from Identity Crisis through Infinite Crisis when the final issue of the latter comes out, so you can see for yourself.

I would argue with Casey, but his nickname is "Meat Hooks" Malone. I don't want to be devastated. Bascially, all I remember from his Green Arrow arc was an issue where Solomon Grundy comes out of nowhere, with no explanation, to attack GA for an entire issue. The plotting was almost nonexistent, but Casey's right that the characterization was decent. It's been 61 issues of the Green Arrow relaunch so far, and I don't think any of the writers have really known what to do with the book. It's too bad, because Oliver Queen can be a greatly entertaining character.
 
Call me crazy, but I too loved Archer's Quest. So much so that (sissy boy that I am) I cried at the end. But IC was a piece of misogynistic crap. A steaming puddle of elephant dung. A barrel full of howler monkeys flinging feces. You get the picture. And, oh yeah, Jack and Bobby SUCKED! The hook was the documentary style interviews which were supposed to shed light on the president and tie his childhood experiences into presidential moments to show how they affected his development, but guess what, they never did! If the show had merely been documentary style interviews about a fictional future president, it would have been ten times better. But obviously, Meltzer could not succeed in Television, so he's pandering his crap to us in the racks. Sorry, but I'm not buying.

Unless Triumph or Ray join the JLA, but that's just because I loved Priest's work - and talk about someone who does it RIGHT. Priest injected real screwed up families and disfunction into the lives of his superheroes, and he made it make a difference...in fact, he challenged the heroes to rise above the adversity he put them through, and realize their true heroic natures. Triumph got a raw deal, and Ray got shunted into obscurity, but I think that's because the talking heads at DC wouldn't know good comics if said comics hit them in the face. Instead, the only thing that they can understand is this shit they've been trying to get us to buy about death, dismemberment, destruction, and RAPE (and Superboy punching things). None of that needs to be present to have a good Superhero comic. All you need to do is present the hero with a challenge and provide a thoughtful way for them to rise above it. It's really all about the relationships, not the obligatory fight scenes and other comics cliches.

Sorry for ranting.
 
Oh yeah, and Green Arrow has more or less been one of my consistently favorite reads for the past year or so, ever since Mia got in on the action. I always save it for last (it and Daredevil, natch') so that I finish with a pleasant taste in my mouth. That last page of the recent GA with Ollie fighting Slade was excellent! Sure, I have problems with Winick too, but he's done a pretty good, clean job on GA, IMHO.
 
Acespot, you crazy!

Really, all I remember about Archer's Quest is Grundy coming out of nowhere for an issue of pointless noise, and that the Shade was randomly injected into the story, seemingly because Meltzer wanted to write him, or maybe because Green Arrow doesn't have any villains of his own other than Count Vertigo. I'll give the arc another try someday soon.

Frankly, the modern Green Arrow has always struck me as a potentially wonderful character who has almost never been written right. He worked as the crank in the mid-70s JLA, I have fond memories of the early 80s mini-series, mostly because of the Von Eden art. He was handled nicely in the O'Neil/Adams stories, I suppose, but it's hard for me to get past the stilted, overheated "relevant" presentation which has dated very poorly. Maybe that's the problem; the modern GA is supposedly a political radical, but he has almost never been written that way since the initial GL/GA run. Subsequent writers picked up on the womanizing which flaws his character, but they've studiously avoided the character's leftist idealism which (possibly) balances and redeems him, either because they can't write it well, or DC won't let them. The current Mayor Queen storyline also sidesteps Queen's politics, at least so far. Winick has done breezy action fairly well, but GA could be a lot more than that.

I liked Triumph precisely because he had no greater heroic nature to rise to. He did the right thing for all the wrong reasons--somewhat like Booster Gold's portrayal in the current 52.
 
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