Let's use those parts of our imagination that haven't been ruined by video games and MTV, shall we? Let's imagine a guy walking down the street, circa 2005. Just for fun, let's call him Dagobert II and pretend he's a Merovingian monarch. He meets an unscrupulous businessman - let's call him Leo X - who wants to sell him something. Let's listen in!
Leo X: Excuse me, Your Majesty, but I'd like to sell you something. Very cheap!
Dagobert II: Sure, what is it?
Leo X (opens bag): Check it out!
Dagobert II: C'est merde! (Well, he would have said that if he spoke French instead of late classical Latin, which was probably some weird proto-French/German amalgamation. But you get the idea.)
Leo X: Why yes, it is. A steaming pile of dog turds.
Dagobert II: But ... but ... but why would I buy this?
Leo X: It's only one dollar!
Dagobert II: Oh. Well, then, sign me up! I'm sure the nobility in the country won't assassinate me for unwisely spending the funds of the kingdom!
Such was the response, sort of, at my local comic book store when Countdown to Infinite Crisis came out. I refused to buy it after my experience with issue #7 of Identity Crisis. "But ... but ... but ... it's only a dollar!" said the confused people who frequent the shoppe. "Even if it sucks, it's only a dollar!" These are the kind of people who buy a big bag of dog shit if it was only a dollar, I imagine.
Are you that kind of person?
I read Countdown with much trepidation. I knew the particulars of the story - Ted Kord discovers something BIG is going on in the DCU involving every superhero known to man, and when he investigates, he discovers that Maxwell Lord is secretly building an army to control the superheroes. When Ted refuses to join him, Max shoots him in the head. Now that's inspiring storytelling!
I wasn't all that concerned with the death of Blue Beetle. Just like the death of Sue Dibny, I recognized - unlike, apparently, much of the comics blogaxy - that Sue and Ted were fictional characters, and therefore their deaths meant little to me. Similarly, the "villainification" of Maxwell Lord, despite tarnishing the reputation of people who proudly bear the middle name of Maxwell, didn't matter to me - on a story level. I will try to show how both those events are somewhat stupid in context of the DCU, but on a purely storytelling level, they were okay. Because, let's face it - the story is pretty simplistic. Whoever DC put in this situation would probably need to die, because the story sets it up so nicely. And the revelation of the villain would have to be a surprise, which means someone we hadn't seen in forever in the DCU, or someone we would never expect to be a villain. So Maxwell Lord makes as much sense as anyone.
The story, however, is unlike Identity Crisis. At least with Identity Crisis it began somewhat well, and, as I argued, it's a perfectly fine story as long as it doesn't star DC characters. Countdown, however, starts poorly and goes downhill from there. In the first caption of the book (chronologically, at least, although it comes a few pages in), Ted Kord thinks, after meeting up with Barbara Gordon, "Oracle is one of the few that still gives me the time of day." This self-pity in Ted's narration is evident from page 1, but this gave me pause. Granted, it's been a while since Blue Beetle was front and center in the DCU, but why on earth would everyone else ignore Ted? Did I miss something? I suppose I could have, but this struck me as odd. When I read the rest, I realized why the writers - Johns, Rucka, and Winick, henceforth referred to as the single entity JoRucknick - did this. I'll get to it.
Ted's business is in trouble and he thinks something sinister is behind it. Other companies are also losing money, and then a Kord warehouse with 100 pounds of Kryptonite in it is broken into and the Kryptonite stolen. People try to kill him, he gets the brush-off from several heroes, and he finally discovers that Max and Checkmate are behind it all. Max gives him a chance to join them, and instead of doing something smart like saying okay and then working from within to stop Max, he says no, whereupon Max shoots him in the head. Then it's on, bitches!
That's a pretty thin story, but that's okay, because Countdown to Infinite Crisis isn't a story. It's an advertisement. That's right, people - everyone who bought this paid 1 dollar (and yes, it's not a lot, I get it) to purchase advertising. That is what offends me the most about this "event." It's no different from DC releasing press releases to Newsarama telling everyone about the four spin-off mini-series. And those are free! Consider: Ted goes to Batman, who is more concerned with these weird OMAC things (even though the weird OMAC things are connected to Ted's problem, so Batman shouldn't have been such a dick). Ted is monitored by Lex Luthor, who has gathered a bunch of villains - you might even say he United the Villains. Ted tries to elicit J'onn's help, but he is too engrossed with a War between Rann and Thanagar. And the wizard Shazam can't help him because a Day is coming when the Spectre might seek Vengeance on magicians. Boy, all of those events sound important! I sure hope DC follows up on them - perhaps with mini-series of their own!
This is advertising with a twist - someone gets a bullet in the head at the end! I often feel that way at the end of the Superbowl, but this is a literal bullet to a literal head. And so, for the sake of DC wanting to advertise four series that everyone in the comics world would know about anyway, Ted Kord has to die. Sucks to be him, I guess.
As Countdown is not a story, it allows us to look at it other ways. The thing that makes this even more of a mess than Identity Crisis is, of course, the characters. In Meltzer's story, the characters acted contrary to the way DC has shown them to act, but at least Meltzer attempted to justify why they acted that way. Whether or not he succeeded ultimately colors the way you feel about the book. Countdown, however, doesn't have that luxury, and JoRucknick doesn't even try to tell us why the characters are acting this way. Again, this comes back to a shared and old universe - writers are allowed a little wiggle room with their interpretations of the characters, certainly, but when they act completely opposite to how they have always been portrayed, there needs to be an explanation. Meltzer tried this and failed. JoRucknick doesn't even try. And therein lies this book's failure and its contempt for the very people it is trying to sell this book to. And believe me, despite Dan DiDio's short text piece in the book (I'll get to that), this book is full of contempt.
First, Ted Kord. Okay, granted, I don't know much about the character. My exposure to him is almost completely through the Giffen/DeMatteis Justice League. JoRucknick at least acknowledges that period, when Ted narrates that Sue "represented a better time for us. A time when we were allowed to laugh. Of course, sometimes I think Booster and I were the only ones laughing." On the next page, we get a brief overview of that time in the League's history. However, in their attempts to make Beetle pathetic, JoRucknick forgets that Beetle and Booster were not the only ones laughing. Ralph and Sue were always making jokes. Max, Oberon, and L-Ron were always making jokes - when they weren't yelling at each other. Scott Free was always making jokes. Even though it devolved into slapstick and became weaker because of it, the fact that the characters could yell at each other and also make jokes with each humanized them greatly, and so although Beetle and Booster came up with the ridiculous schemes, they weren't the "only ones laughing." It's a minor point but a crucial one, because JoRucknick has to make Beetle pathetic before he can make him heroic, but they miss the whole point of the Giffen/DeMatteis run, which is unfortunate.
The fact that JoRucknick has to make Ted pathetic means that they have to twist the way heroes interact in the DCU. Heroes fight each other all the time in comic books - it's to be expected. However, very rarely do heroes treat other heroes with contempt (yes, that word again - this book is dripping with it). There's always a certain amount of respect, however grudging it may be. Even in the humorous Justice League, the others knew that Guy could be counted on, and although they mocked him incessantly, they relied on him. So while JoRucknick is making Ted Kord pathetic, they're making the other heroes in the DCU total dicks. Beetle might not be a topnotch hero, but despite Giffen and DeMatteis' attempts to turn him into a loser, he was never completely one. His get-rich-quick schemes with Booster notwithstanding, there's no reason for the heroes of the DCU to treat him this way - except for the fact that it's the way Dan DiDio and JoRucknick want him to be treated. Characterization, in this book, is thrown out the window simply for the service of two things: the advertising, and the bullet in the head. Therefore, Batman is even more of a dick than usual. Now, I know that in recent years Batman has become all "dark and disturbing," but his scene in Countdown is simply ridiculous. Ted makes a joke, of course, but then he mentions Waynetech, OMAC, and Dr. Light, and Batman boots him out of the cave. The worst thing about this is that Batman knows what the League did to him when they erased Dr. Light's memories, and he also knows what OMAC is. So we can be reasonably certain that he's investigating the same case Ted, and that he knows it. Instead of sharing with Ted, though, he brushes him off. This is a Batman who absolutely loathes Helena Bertinelli, but if he thinks he can use the Huntress on a case, he reluctantly does so. He's known Ted a lot longer, and even if he remembers their days together with the League and thinks Ted is a goofball, one look at him now should be enough to convince him otherwise. This Batman is not only a dick, but JoRucknick commits maybe a worse sin - this Batman is stupid. There is no way Batman would let Ted leave without finding out everything he knows and possibly putting him to work on some aspect of it. Ted might be goofy, but one thing he's never been, and Batman knows this, is dumb. By turning Batman into a dick, JoRucknick also turned him into an idiot. And that shit ain't right.
When Ted's warehouse is cleaned out, he calls in a bunch of heroes. They don't find anything, and as they're leaving, Dinah apologizes to Dr. Fate for wasting his time. Well, sure, I guess so - like they have anything better to do. However, someone obviously broke in to the warehouse - Dinah is crouching over an unconscious guard - and Ted tells Superman that the Kryptonite was stored there. I would think Superman would think that's important, so where do second-rate heroes like Black Canary and Dr. Fate get off being so stand-offish? It's just another example of JoRucknick making Ted more pathetic and making everyone else tools. Let's not forget how immaturely Dinah behaved in those early issues of JLI, either. Superman, of course, is not a dick, and he listens to Ted. He doesn't think it necessary to help him, but he listens to him. I wondered why Hal Jordan, who's always seemed like kind of a dick to me, even back before he died, wasn't acting like one - and then I remembered that one component of JoRucknick has a man-crush on Hal Jordan, and it all made sense. That's just a small element of what's wrong with this - creators allowing their personal favorites to escape dickness. There's no reason for Hal to be nice and Dinah to be a dick unless Johns is in love with Hal. Which he is.
Ted, of course, makes a good point about Booster (and, obliquely, about himself). Both of them went toe-to-toe with Doomsday, even though Ted didn't have any powers. Where was dickhead Batman when that shit went down? Then his house blows up. Then the Bug blows up. I assume all the heroes still think he's nuts. The only one who cares - Diana! Why? Could it be that a different component of JoRucknick has a crush on her? Possibly. Diana, like Clark, doesn't feel it's actually necessary to help Ted - all these heroes have no respect for Beetle, but they obviously feel like he can handle whoever is blowing things up around him and stealing 100 pounds of Kryptonite. And then J'onn shows up in the book.
Of all the heroes in this book, J'onn might come off the worst, and it's his portrayal that pisses me off the most and is also the most egregious. J'onn, we have been told countless times since the early 1980s, is the soul of the Justice League. He is a man who has lost everything he's ever loved and can never regain it. He is a mythic tragic figure, and is therefore empathetic to an almost painful degree. He cared about losers like Vibe and Steel when they were in the League. He has a father-daughter relationship with another loser, Gypsy. He devised ways to make sure the Justice League embassies were always well-stocked with Oreos. And yet - he's the biggest dick of all! Ted says he's feeling better, so J'onn says, "Then you will be leaving" - not a question, as Ted points out. Ted tells him people are trying to kill him, to which J'onn replies, "People try to kill us all the time, Ted. It comes with the job." Uh, yeah? So they shouldn't try to find out who's doing it? Then the communique from Adam Strange comes in, and J'onn ignores Beetle to learn that Thanagar is attacking Rann. He sends out a distress call to the active members of the Justice League, which does not include Ted. It would have been much cooler if Ted had said, "People try to kill Adam Strange all the time, J'onn. It comes with the job. So just tell him to fuck off." But then this would be a Vertigo book! J'onn's attitude makes no sense whatsoever. Even more than the portrayal of Batman, it goes against everything DC has ever - ever - told us about the character. JoRucknick could argue that maybe Batman was having a bad day. But for J'onn to be such a dick is unforgivable. Maybe if Vibe had come to him with the news, he would have listened. Yes, I know Scipio loves Vibe. But let's face it - he's a loser (well, and dead, but that wouldn't stop DC!).
The revelation about Maxwell Lord is fine, if a bit misguided. Luthor has always been the one to want to control the superpeople, but if JoRucknick want to make Max that way, okay. I disagree with his statement about the League - "Why do you think I kept [it] ineffectual for years?" - they did save the world from Despero, after all - but that's that, I guess. It doesn't really make sense, even though JoRucknick tries to shoehorn it into the rest of Max's character, but whatever. Max is just getting set up to have his neck snapped anyway.
Finally, we have DiDio's text piece, which again shows his contempt for the audience. He talks about how he and JoRucknick were in a room talking about everything they loved about comics. Here's what he loves: "high-octane action, bigger-than-life adventure, inconceivable [ed. - ???] villains, and the greatest heroes overcoming impossible odds." Ex-squeeze me? Baking soda? Okay, this book has some high-octane action, I guess, and some adventure. I'm not sure what he means by inconceivable - not unlike Wallace Shawn in The Princess Bride, I'm not sure that word means what he thinks it means. Is it inconceivable that Maxwell Lord is a bad guy? Well, no - JoRucknick conceived it. I suppose he means "surprising," but that's not high-falutin' enough. And correct me if I'm wrong, but even in the dark days of Batman, when the Joker was taking a crowbar to poor little Jason Todd's face, we never actually saw brain matter. And although we know that once the sales on the new Blue Beetle book start to drop Ted will be magically resurrected, back in the day comic books didn't exist solely to kill someone off. Did they? Maybe they did. Anyway, DiDio then goes on to pimp the very books that have been advertised in this comic. And then he announces Infinite Crisis, "the sequel to Crisis on Infinite Earths, one the greatest [sic] comics stories ever told. Its changes will be far-reaching and its effects, everlasting. Promise." Does anyone outside of Dan DiDio, even Marv Wolfman and George Perez, think Crisis was one of the greatest comics stories ever told? Just wondering. Anyway, DiDio goes on to say, "We at DC are committed to telling great stories, and if you like what you've seen so far, you'll be happy to know it's just the tip of the iceberg. Comics are a medium to be enjoyed by all. Remember, buy what you read [ed. - ???], and read what you love." Well, if "by all" he means everbody over the age of 12, I suppose, but I certainly wouldn't give my children Identity Crisis or this. "Daddy, why did the nice man's head explode?" "Uh, because JoRucknick are pointing out that in the real world men dressed in costumes die horribly, dear. It's educational!"
Sigh. I tried to be rational about this, but I let my emotions get away with me. Sorry. This is a perfect example of everything that's wrong with comics. It's rare you get it all in one book, but nice because comics scholars of the future, when comics are taught in universities and everyone realizes what a great art form they are, can simply assign this as an example of everything not to do in comics. By then, of course, it will be in the quarter bins, so you don't even have to pay a dollar for a pile of dog shit. After Identity Crisis ended so poorly, I swore off the rest of DC's big event. After reading this, I'm surprised anyone bought any of the other mini-series. I love superhero comics when they're done well, but this is shockingly horrible on every level. It's depressing to read and maddening to think about. Shit. Just ... shit.
Abhay's review is here, by the way. Very funny. A lot of the same points I make, but I swear I didn't read it before I wrote this. Ian has links to a bunch of other reviews, so I won't link to them individually. If you're interested, head over there.
Next time: The Spectre declares war on magic in the DC Universe. Could the metaphor be more obvious?