What Becomes of the Broken Hearted

Now and then, I get asked why I don’t review any actual comics on the site, just graphics. The main reason for this is that I believe it to be unfair on the book, the creators and publishing house to either praise or berate one issue of what could possibly be a successful long-running saga or change of direction that could improve or destroy. It would be like basing any critique of the whole of the Star Wars saga on The Phantom Menace or Barnaby Rudge as an example of the works of Dickens. Comics have a problem here in that they are a serialized medium and reviewers have to have something to write about, so they take the gamble of writing about something and then falling flat on their faces later.

Identity Crisis from DC and Avengers Disassembled from Marvel have been the bane of the comic reviewers life over the last few months, as the forum boards have been alight over the storylines but the reviewers have been torn about whether individual issues where any good and would they look stupid or prophetic if either story turned out to be the greatest thing since sliced bread or the comic equivalent of Howard the Duck. In the end they took a middle of the road approach and decide to talk about nothing but the art – which they all decided in both tales was superb – and wait until it was all over, when they unleashed the hounds of hell. Identity Crisis got off the most lightly, being constantly riveting all the way through until it fell down at the last hurdle (the Atom’s wife has gone insane and is the murderer?!), but the most bile was directed at Avengers Disassembled and to writer Brian Bendis for seemingly betraying what the Avengers meant and killing off beloved characters of long standing.

It looks like Identity Crisis is going to walk off with all the awards (even with its weak ending) and Avengers is going to remain debated for some time to come, but both had the same themes, love, want and mind wiping.

Identity Crisis panel 1
Identity Crisis © D.C Comics

Ever wondered why some of the villains in the DC stories were so goofy and useless? Seems certain members of the JLA made them that way by magically lobotomizing them (courtesy of Zatanna) to make them less dangerous and to protect their families and close relatives. This all came about from one of the more harrowing events in DC history when the then JLA orbiting satellite was infiltrated by a more vicious Dr.Light, who, finding Sue Dibny (wife of the Elongated Man) alone, proceeded to rape her. Caught in the act by returning members of the JLA, Dr.Light taunted them by telling them that no matter how long he would be incarcerated for, he’d escape (as he pointed out, the villains always did) and now that he knew who Sue Dibny was, he’d come back to do the same again. Torn by their principles, that heroes do not kill, the group elected to have Zatanna wipe Light’s mind making him less sadistic and murderous. Unfortunately for them they also had to wipe a returning Bat-Man’s memory of the events when he tried to stop them (setting up storylines to come) and it got worse when the then Flash (Barry Allen) asked for it to be done to the whole of his group of rogues. You can see the moral ethics involved and this was separate from the murder of Sue Dibny and its subsequent investigation.

Here was the moment when regular DC continuity entered Watchmen territory and it must be said that on the whole it does work. Characters that would seemingly not do the acts carried out in Identity do so with just the right amount of soul-searching. Lines are crossed and waters muddied. The instigator of the wipes is the human rights activist Green Arrow, whilst the man trying to stop them is the supposed law-breaker Bat-Man. Of course Alan Moore did the same thing in Watchmen – a cruel, logical but more hideous solution hidden behind a crime of seemingly bigger proportions- and did it better (though as I have written, a shallow piece of work), it must be said that Identity Crisis can hold it’s head high with mature writing and themes from Brad Meltzer and finely detailed art from Rags Morales. The events in Identity Crisis are to be continually felt throughout the DC Universe for some time to come and if nothing else it’ll be interesting to see how other writers handle the same themes.

The Avengers Disassembled though. Ah, now that got a lot of reader’s het up. According to some life long readers of The Avengers, Brian Bendis was destroying everything they stood for. Characters were acting at odds with themselves; very popular ones were killed off. The naysayers missed the point though; Bendis had started making the book edgy, dangerous and unpredictable. Events occurred that were shocking (She-Hulk ripping apart the Vision, the total destruction of the Avengers Mansion) and horrifying (the discovery of Agatha Harkness. Possibly murdered by her adopted daughter), all depicted in a hellish inferno courtesy of David Finch. This was not the standard super-heroics and it was all the better for it. Instead of doing the same old thing again and again, the status quo was changed and this was what probably pissed off the old guard. Bendis made it worse for them by making it obvious that long time readers- like The Avengers- should have seen it coming.

Avengers Disassembled panel 1
Avengers Disassembled © Marvel Comics

Wanda Maximoff was the unstable product of a violent upbringing. A powerful mutant able to alter reality, she had an absent father fixation that she transferred onto her brother and then discovered that they were the son and daughter of Magneto, a man who had mentally bullied them whilst they all in the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. After joining the Avengers, she fell in love with the Vision, an android designed to destroy the Avengers, married him and then wanting children so badly (even though it was an impossibility), created twins with her powers to complete what she thought would be one happy family. Reality came crashing in though and Wanda was forced to admit that her children were merely figments of her imagination whilst her husband was stripped of his humanity (on the orders of the UN) and returned to his original non-feeling android state. All this proved too much for Wanda and she joined her father on his quest for world domination. Her fellow Avengers though, brought her back to her senses and colluded in helping Agatha Harkness to wipe Wanda’s mind of her children. So the seeds of their destruction were sown. A chance remark by the Wasp about her children sent Wanda trying to find answers which led her to another breakdown and revenge upon those who had cause her so much pain.

Bendis relates a tale of blood and tears rarely seen in comicdom. The Avengers, like the JLA, have brought themselves down. As in all great tragedies, their downfall came from within, their arrogance and short-sightedness leading to the destruction of their kingdom. Heroes are not supposed to have this kind of thing happen to them, or supposedly behave the way they have in both tales. But whilst fans lapped up the ambiguities in Identity Crisis, Avenger fans felt that Bendis had strayed too far from the epic qualities that their team warranted and gave it a grim and gritty feel it was unsuited for. The fact that Bendis also tends to use a lot of what could be termed “natural speak”, and accurately reflect how people talk in a crisis (without the swearing. He leaves that to his Powers comic) led to the accusation that the tale was too wordy, leaving the uncomfortable feeling that some comic book fans are still in the world of comic rule #1: Conflict creates character.

Both tales are recommended but The Avengers Disassembled is the better of the two, having more excitement and passion. It’s a pity that a lot of people who should have liked it were so against it simply because it did something unexpected.

Identity Crisis is by Brad Meltzer and Rags Morales, published by DC Comics. Avengers Disassembled is by Brian Bendis and David Finch, published by Marvel Comics. Available from all good comic book stores.

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