Axel-In-Charge: Extending "Secret Wars," Excitement for a "Totally Awesome Hulk"
No preamble – let’s jump right in!
Every so often, I like to read a bad comic. I’ve mentioned this before here at the blog, but if Comics Should Be Good, then what makes a comic good? That’s a tough one, but one way we can determine if a comic is good is if it’s not bad. So I like to break down bad comics every once in a while. I believe it was the great comic book writer Leo Tolstoy who said, “Good comics all resemble each other, but bad comics are each bad in their own way.” Or something like that. With that in mind, let’s look at a book that came out on the 21st of April and had such potential. It’s a standalone issue, meaning you don’t need to have read anything else in preparation for it. It’s drawn by a well-respected artist. It stars three female characters, which is rather rare. It isn’t about punching people, it’s about the regular lives of the characters. This has to be good, right? Well, it’s not. It’s terrible. And depressing, because unlike some comics that I read that I know will be terrible (Ultimatum, anyone?), I wanted so much for B & B #33 to be good. But it’s not.
Let’s break it down, scientific-like, as some of you may not be convinced that this is terrible. First, boilerplate: J. Michael Straczynski writes, Cliff Chiang draws, Rob Leigh letters, Trish Mulvihill colors, Chris Conroy assistant edits, Joey Cavalieri edits (believe me, editors will be important for this comic), DC publishes. And, just so you know, massive SPOILERS ahead. I’m basically going through this page-by-page, so nothing will be left uncovered. We begin with a gunshot. Well, a “Blamm” over a starburst design, so we know it’s a gunshot. In bed, Zatanna wakes up from this dream of a gunshot and realizes it’s not just a dream. She tells her fancy magical top hat, “We have places to be.” Spooky! On the next page, there’s a terrorist on board a cruise ship threatening to blow it up (he has explosives strapped to his body) unless he’s taken to Syria. As he’s talking, Wonder Woman flies in as a blur, grabs him, and zips him through the air so quickly she gets all his clothes off before he can detonate the explosives. So, we have the set-up. Nothing really horrifyingly bad yet, except for the fact that the terrorist somehow has so many bombs strapped to his body that he alone will be able to sink the ship even though he’s standing on the top deck. I very much doubt that him blowing up would cause enough damage to sink the boat, even though he’d probably kill a lot of people. But that’s a minor point. We can forgive the hyperbole because JMS is just bringing in Wonder Woman, and terrorist dude isn’t all that important. This lack of attention to detail is troubling, though, as it portends bad things for the future.
While the cops lead the terrorist away, Wonder Woman watches from deck, standing in front of a bank of windows. Zatanna suddenly appears in the mirrored surface and says, “You’ve got some real signature moves there, W.” Wonder Woman says, “I’ve never had much trouble getting someone’s clothes off.” It’s a mildly funny line, but I’ll get back to why it’s a dumb line in this specific comic. Zatanna tells her that she’s putting together a ladies’ night and she wants it to be special … very special. We switch to Gotham City, where Batgirl stops some bad guys on a motorcycle. This is, of course, the first indication that this story is taking place in the past, because most DC readers know that Batgirl – Barbara Gordon – is in a wheelchair. They know how it happened – the Joker shot her in the spine. And, importantly for this story, they know when it happened – 1988. As importantly for this story, they know what Barbara did after she was confined to a wheelchair – she became Oracle, an information-gathering font for superheroes. If you don’t know any of this, the story you’re about to read means very little to you. JMS is counting on your knowledge of DC’s past history. This becomes important, as I’ll explain later.
Wonder Woman flies in, takes Batgirl to a rooftop, where she and Zatanna convince her to come out for a night on the town. She wants to go out on patrol, but Zatanna points out that in order for her to remain sane, she needs to take a break every once in a while. Wonder Woman tells Babs that “Nobody can really relate to what we do but each other, so the three of us going out makes sense.” That’s a fair point. So when we next see the three ladies, they’re getting out of a taxi at a club. Of course, they’re dazzling. Zatanna asks the bouncer if it’s all right for them to go right in without waiting in line, but before he can acquiesce because he’s not stupid (who’s going to turn away such fine honeys?), she uses her backward speaking voice on him to make him do it. She adds, “Eseht era ton eht sdiord er’ouy gnikool rof.” We’ll get back to that, too.
So they dance. Some tool approaches Wonder Woman and she crushes his cell phone – but JMS makes it look like she smushed his ‘nads. Ha! Zatanna sees that Barbara isn’t dancing, and she asks why. Barbara isn’t used to the shoes, but she also says, hilariously, “It’s not like anybody else was asking me to dance.” Yeah, who would want to dance with a foxy redhead in a tight skirt? That’s just crazy! But the point of the exchange is for Barbara to tell Zatanna the story of the shoes, which were a gift from her father. Barbara is a bit sad that she doesn’t get to see her father too often, because he’s busy with his job (in another nod to our knowledge of the DCU, JMS doesn’t actually tell us who Barbara’s father is – all we find out is that he’s a cop) and she’s busy with her day job and her nighttime activities. Zatanna tells Barbara to spend more time with her dad – oh, the irony of that statement! As she walks away to find Wonder Woman, she actually uses her spell-casting to get a guy to ask Barbara to dance. Really, Zatanna?
After some spirited dancing, Barbara tries to find her friends. She sees them in the bathroom, hugging each other sadly. Barbara leaves the room, saying, “There’s something you don’t see every day.” What? You don’t see two women hugging each other every day? Does Barbara know anything about people at all? Anyway, Zatanna and Wonder Woman show up, and Zatanna has been crying, but she puts on a brave face. They move on, hit a bunch of clubs, sing karaoke (“Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” by Beyoncé), and end up at a diner. Then Wonder Woman gets serious and starts talking about oracles, much to Zatanna’s dismay. Barbara says that oracles could only tell the future imperfectly and if they told you your future, you couldn’t change it and if you tried, it would be a thousand times worse. Wonder Woman then says that they were more than that – they provided information and acted as advisers to kings because they heard reports from distant lands. Being an oracle was a burden because you had just enough information to know that something was going to happen but not enough to stop it. After that bummer of a conversation, the ladies decide the night is over. They toss Barbara in a cab, she tells them she’s always remember this fabu night, Wonder Woman and Zatanna exchange sad and meaningful looks, and then they go their separate ways.
The next page shows us the famous scene from The Killing Joke in which Barbara is shot. We don’t know when it’s happening, but it’s not long after Barbara went dancing. Interspersed with Barbara bringing coffee to her dad and talking about various stuff are scenes of Wonder Woman and Zatanna that reveal what they were talking about. In the bathroom, Zatanna tells Wonder Woman that she doesn’t know when it’ll happen or where, and she doesn’t know if she’d make it worse if she tried to stop it. She also says she’d “do anything” to stop it from happening. She says she doesn’t have visions too often, and she just wanted to give Barbara this one night so she could look back on it and remember dancing. Then Barbara gets shot. Then we get a repeat of the first panel, with the “Blamm” and the starburst, and Barbara wakes up and gets into her wheelchair. She gets to her computer, answers the phone, and tells whoever it is that she was having her favorite dream, one in which she was dancing and she was beautiful. The end.
So what’s so wrong with this issue? Well, before I get to that, I should point out that I haven’t seen the one interpretation of this issue that would still be horrible but would at least mitigate some of the awfulness: What if Barbara dreamt the whole thing? Explaining everything away by saying “It was all a dream” should automatically bar a writer from ever working again, but at least it would explain the crap in the issue, because Barbara’s dream shouldn’t be logical! Perhaps Barbara never went dancing but just dreams that she did. I doubt if JMS intended this to be simply a dream – all of this, I believe, actually “happened,” so let’s go with that. I’m just throwing out the “It was all a dream” interpretation to comfort those who hated this issue. That’s the least terrible way to read this.
But let’s get back to the issue. Zatanna dreams that Barbara is going to be shot and crippled, and that depresses the hell out of her. She asks Diana to help her give Barbara one last night of joy. Okay. Why Zatanna and Diana? This is the first problem with the issue. JMS is using DC continuity, and while I’m not the biggest fan of DC continuity, if you use it, use it correctly. Barbara was shot in 1988. This version of Wonder Woman debuted in 1986-87 (she showed up in Legends, but her new series’ first issue was cover dated February 1987, so let’s just say around the turn of the year, shall we?), and the writers (Greg Potter and George Perez) made it perfectly clear that she had no idea how to function very well in “Man’s World.” We can certainly ignore the actual dates for these two events, but the fact remains that in DC continuity, Wonder Woman made her first appearance, didn’t know much about anyone and didn’t adjust for quite some time, and not too long after that, Barbara was shot. So the fact that JMS makes them bosom buddies is inexplicable. It makes no sense. It’s as if JMS wanted to tell the story of Batgirl’s last fun night before she got shot and simply couldn’t figure out if she had any friends to take her dancing. I don’t have too big a problem with writers playing fast and loose with the chronology of DC or Marvel, but again, JMS is playing with a specific event – Barbara’s shooting – so he needs to understand where that fits into the bigger chronology. If you’re going to write a story that takes place before that event, you need to understand what kind of character Wonder Woman was back then. This is not the Wonder Woman of today, in other words. I can’t even imagine today’s Wonder Woman saying something like “I’ve never had much trouble getting someone’s clothes off,” much less the Wonder Woman of this time period. I was listening to Chad Nevett and Tim Callahan discuss this issue, and Tim said he doesn’t mind writers having their own take on the character, even if it’s “out-of-character.” To an extent, I agree with him. But that’s what JMS on Wonder Woman is for. In this issue, he’s playing with characters from a very specific point in their lives and he hasn’t written them in issue after issue, so what we know of the characters must come from other DC comics. And this Wonder Woman doesn’t sound like Wonder Woman. When JMS writes the main title, then he can go nuts with writing Diana any way he wants.
Then there’s the karaoke, which ties into a larger issue. What, you might ask, can I have against the karaoke scene? Well, I’ll tell you. “Single Ladies” debuted in late 2008. This specifically dates the issue as after that. So let’s assume this scene takes place during October, November, or December 2008. As comic book readers, we’re conditioned to accept elisions of time, but we also know the journey Barbara has taken to become Oracle. Are we supposed to believe that in a no more than 18 months, she was involved in everything she’s been involved in since 1988? That all the giant events that have happened in the DCU have occurred in a year and a half? I know I should suspend my disbelief, but this is why writers have to be very careful about referencing current events. JMS should have been safe and used an old disco staple or something like that – it would have been very non-specific in regard to dating. It’s lazy writing, which is one of the biggest problems with this issue. Zatanna making the joke about “These are not the droids you’re looking for” is lazy writing. It’s such a cliché, and it’s in there not because someone like Zatanna would say it – this is a question of characterization again – but because JMS wants to make aging fanboys laugh. All of this lazy writing in the details is bound to be worse when it comes to JMS’ big ideas, and that’s where the people raking this over the coals are having a field day. I’d just like to point out that the big ideas are lazy because the small details are lazy, too. JMS is so desperate to get to the DEEP, DEEP POINT of the book that he forgets that these need to be good characters, not just people spouting philosophy.
And it’s the spouting of philosophy that bothers people, and I’m one of them. Zatanna has a vision that Barbara will be crippled. She and Wonder Woman, instead of doing something, you know, heroic by trying to stop it, take Barbara dancing. What could they have done, you say? Doesn’t JMS address that very point with the rambling bit about oracles? Yes, but that’s bullshit. Barbara is already in a wheelchair in the “real” DCU, so JMS can’t go back and change that. He wanted to tell this story but couldn’t actually change the past. Some people have compared this to Booster Gold, where he goes to certain points in time and finds out he can’t change them. But he’s dealing with the past. Zatanna and Wonder Woman are dealing with the future, which is mutable. I can think of two things they can do very easily. Wonder Woman could take Barbara to Paradise Island, where no men are allowed, I should point out, and then she and Zatanna could find the Joker and, I don’t know, break his arms. And legs. Or, you know, kill him. If JMS wants to play around in DC’s sandbox, he surely knows that at this point in her history, Zatanna had already shown absolutely no compunction about fucking around with the brains of not only villains, but Batman himself. Surely turning the Joker’s brain to tapioca isn’t beneath her, is it? And Wonder Woman, it has been shown, is not bound by the laws that govern people like Batman – she’s a warrior, so killing isn’t beneath her. If Zatanna “knows” she’ll be crippled, what’s the problem? Ah ha, you say! Maybe she doesn’t know WHO will do the shooting! She just knows that Barbara will be shot. That’s a decent point. But she claims she’d do “anything” to stop it from happening. How about letting Barbara know? How about telling her to be careful? Maybe she would have, you know, looked through the peephole before answering the door? I hate to bring in a real-life example, but if one of my friends had said to me seven years ago that he (or she) foresaw my daughter with a traumatic brain injury but not how it happened, it might still have happened, but at least I could have taken a few more precautions. Maybe Barbara decides to quit being a superhero so she’s not around guns so much. Maybe she invests in some Kevlar. For her friends to tell her nothing strikes me as ridiculously cruel of them. Even if they couldn’t do anything, they could have said something. Instead, they go dancing.
Wonder Woman’s speech about oracles is sloppy, too. She has to know that the oracles were, in all probability, drugged by the priests and woozy from underground gas. Maybe in the DCU, they actually were oracles in the truest sense of the word, but that’s not what’s important. The retcon of Wonder Woman giving Barbara the idea to become Oracle is annoying because it ignores the very good work John Ostrander and Kim Yale did making Barbara realize that she had worth as a person in a wheelchair. Wonder Woman basically telling her that, if she happened to find herself shot through the spine in the future, maybe she could do something with her life rings very false, because Barbara had to struggle with her feelings of self-worth before she was able to come up with a purpose. Again, this is lazy writing, and it’s insulting to the work of better writers who have come before. Plus, like a lot of JMS’ writing, it’s so heavy-handed that it has no impact whatsoever. JMS does this far too much (he even does it in his best comic work – Midnight Nation, if you’re wondering), and in this issue, it’s ridiculous. Wonder Woman should have brought flashcards, one with a drawing of Barbara in a wheelchair, looking all sad, then a second one with her surrounded by computers, looking all happy. Nah – that would have been too subtle. Plus, it’s implied that Barbara is a tad off her face – maybe she’s just tired. Would she really remember this little speech? Maybe. Maybe not. Either way, Wonder Woman really beats us over the head with JMS’ theory. He must think we’re not that bright.
A lot has been made about Barbara’s concluding words, as she implies that she’s no longer beautiful because she’s in a wheelchair. Shockingly, as annoying as this little speech is, with more JMS heavy-handedness (three times in the final few pages he reminds us that she was dancing, because we might have forgotten that from less than ten pages earlier), I don’t think that’s what he means by this. Remember, everyone in this comic book is a cliché, so Barbara, before the shooting, is a typical “mousy librarian” and feels that she is unattractive. Now, much like the movies, this means she’s unattractive because she wears glasses and has her hair up in a bun, and if she just lets in down and gets some contact lenses, men will fall all over her, but the point is that she feels unattractive, but for that night, she felt beautiful. It doesn’t mean this is a clichéd view of someone in a wheelchair with self-esteem problems, it’s just a clichéd view of an attractive woman who doesn’t think she’s attractive and needs to wear tight clothing and fuck-me pumps to feel pretty. See? It’s all about which cliché JMS uses!
Finally, there’s the question of whether this issue is insulting to women. What if two male heroes knew a colleague was going to be shot and left in a wheelchair for the rest of his life? Would they be so fatalistic about it? Is Zatanna and Wonder Woman’s attitude healthier, because they know the curse of Cassandra and understand that if they screw with the natural order, Barbara might be killed instead of crippled? But is this fatalism really healthy? JMS, I’m sure, wants to show that women would understand that it would be worse to attempt something and that it’s better to make Barbara happy in the time she has left. Again, they can’t really do anything different because in the real DCU Barbara is, in fact, in a wheelchair, but one wonders how this story would have played out if it were men. The women don’t act even though they could. They simply let things happen. We might scoff at men for trying to change their fate, but the point is that they do it, and damn the torpedoes. The fact that the women don’t seems insulting. I do hope Barbara never found out that Zatanna and Wonder Woman knew what would happen, because how could she forgive them? There’s a difference between accepting that you’re in a wheelchair and making the most out of it and knowing it could have been prevented. I’d be pissed, if I were Babs.
Don’t think I’m letting Cliff Chiang off the hook, either. Actually, I do like Chiang’s work, and it’s quite good here. The way he makes Barbara absolutely uncomfortable when she’s dressed up is very nice, and he does as well with the ladies in their costumes as in street clothes, which many artists can’t do. He has a problem that many artists do – his faces tend to look alike – but otherwise, this is a nicely illustrated comic. My issue with Chiang has nothing to do with his work itself. As Caleb pointed out, the way Chiang draws ought to be the industry standard, instead of something we find exceptional. Chiang doesn’t push comics art forward, he doesn’t experiment with panel design or layouts or even character designs (well, except for one double-page spread at the end of the comic, but that’s not too, too experimental), but when we see his art, we’re amazed by how good it looks. As good as Chiang is, his work should be the bare minimum in a comic. Yet the fact that it looks so great means that a lot of artists are not even close to competent. That’s just sad. Still, Chiang’s art is really the only thing worth remembering about this issue. He deserves better than this.
You may disagree with my conclusions. You’re wrong, but this is America – where it’s your right to be wrong! This comic doesn’t make me angry like some comics in the past. But it’s still terrible. The actual writing is lousy, the plot is badly put together, the editing is lackadaisical, the use of DC continuity is shoddy, and the depiction of the characters ranges from stupid to insulting. The art is nice but unspectacular, but there’s absolutely nothing redeeming about any of the writing. I mean, even the final words of the terrorist are stupid! So if you’re wondering if a comic is good, think about the writing on this one. If the comic does everything the opposite of The Brave and the Bold #33, it’s probably good. See? It’s handy for something! Other than that, it should probably be taken out behind the barn and done in, execution-style!
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