Friday, April 28, 2006

Comics Spotlight: Villians United Infinite Crisis Special

This is less a review, or an in-depth examination of one story point, than it is a series of ruminations about a complexly simple comic. And yes, I will be making comments like that throughout. As you’ll see, the work practically demands them.

According to the classical rules of plot structure, there’s no way the story in this book can work. And yet, it does.

Writer Gail Simone and artist Dale Eaglesham had an unenviable task ahead of them when putting together this comic. Like the other Infinite Crisis Specials, it’s born of utility; the book exists to move certain players from point A (the end of Infinite Crisis 6, where Superboy sacrificed himself to destroy Alexander Luthor’s tower of power) to point B (the beginning of Infinite Crisis 7, where half the heroes are fighting the Society in Metropolis, and the other half are fighting Alex Luthor and Superboy-Prime in space). As you can tell from the title, this is mostly concerned with the Society enacting their plan, and the heroes reacting to it, leading up to the standoff that precipitates the Metropolis fight. And structurally, therein lies the problem: the payoff for everything, the climax, happens in another comic, one that won’t be out for another week.

And yet, it works.

There’s also no protagonist. There are characters who take part enough to wear the hat: Oracle, the Society’s inner circle, the Secret Six (or rather, five; they still haven’t replaced Cheshire), but none of them drive the story enough thematically to be called the protagonist. Indeed, the story isn’t so much a thematic, character story as it is a history of events leading up to a major battle. If they’d had comics in Ancient Greece, Thermopylae: The Last Stand issue #0 might have looked like this. (What sort of cover gimmicks would they have done back then? Bas relief? Lapis lazuli? Variant by That Guy Who Painted That One Vase With Pan Cavorting With Virgins?)

And yet, it works.

There are tiny arcs of character and plot, of a sort; the warden versus Jack. Oracle and Martian Manhunter’s mustering of the heroes, the Six deciding what role they’ll play as events unfold, but those are all contributory to the main arc (or to the Six’s upcoming miniseries), which, as I’ve said, doesn’t so much pay off as send a check saying “You may already be a winner.”

And yet, it works.

It works, in one part, because of the steady build of tension, starting with the warden of one of the prisons attempting to flee with his family before running afoul of Jack and ending with the Society’s army (and by now, it is an army) meeting the line of heroes at Metropolis. The plan (perhaps the plan itself is the protagonist, an odd but interesting notion) is revealed, bit by bit, like woman doing a strange striptease, where each piece of clothing drops off when you expect it to, but not in the way you expect it to, as if the dancer is dancing to a better song in her own head that’s quite different to the tinny electronic noise the crowd hears. (That I haven’t been laid in a while probably contributed to that simile, but I’m going to let it stand.*) It’s not what you expect, but it turns out to be what you want.

Each individual scene certainly works as a scene, and Simone throws in some wonderful moments within each. Oracle’s determination, Dr. Psycho’s perversity, and the “we are all of us the Justice League” moment are some of the highlights, as is the microclimax of the reveal of the Society’s secret weapon. And the pacing is breakneck, shifting between the respective nerve centers and crisis spots around the globe almost with every page. Sports and games metaphors abound, but what it feels like most is the comics equivalent of a late-night summer camp game of Capture the Flag, the kind played by fifty kids, and that sprawls over an entire forest and morphs, before too long, into Calvinball.**

That’s probably the best metaphor, actually: structure is irrelevant to what goes on here. In that sense, this comic is almost critic-proof, at least from most critics, who never go beyond the first impulse of examining it by what they learned in high school AP Lit. Traditional criticism slides off it without affecting it, like hot butter on Teflon. But judging on impulsive standards (or perhaps Impulse-ive standards, as this is the kind of comic Bart Allen would love, save for the fact that he’s not in it), it’s a quite good comic. It satisfied me, and my parenthetical aside earlier notwithstanding, it’s not that easy to do.

Infinite Crisis is a lumbering Godzilla of a story, knocking over or setting on fire anything in its path. Being able to tell any kind of story in the midst of the chaos is a feat unto itself. And, as this comic shows, sometimes it’s better to go with the chaos, let it inform and direct you, than to try to fight against it. This story probably wouldn’t work in any other context, but in this one, it’s pretty darned impressive.

* I’m also thinking of the scene in David Lodge’s Small World where Angelica Pabst delivers her seminal, pun intended, talk at a literary conference. If you don’t know it, give it a look; one of the funnier moments in Twentieth Century literature.

**It’s not really like Capture the Flag as played on online shooters, though. To get an idea of what that’s like, try imagining about fifty kittens, high on angel dust, let loose in a maze the size of a discotheque, and filled with about the same level of loud noises and flashing lights. At the center of the maze is a ball full of catnip, wrapped in a ball of tuna fish. And, just for fun, all of their claws and fangs have been replaced with titanium steel knives, but they don’t know that.

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