Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Book 61: Which number is higher: Phelps' gold medals or the number of civilians killed by the US in Syria?

I was wondering this week if comic books reflect the concerns of the times, the way science fiction is said to and the way literary fiction rarely does.  Lately superhero movies (as well as quasi-superhero movies like Mission: Impossible, which I rewatched over the weekend and concluded that Ethan Hunt is basically Batman) have focused on the thin line between helping and hurting: The Man Of Steel and Batman vs. Superman both explicitly saw their heroes causing destruction and/or killing (although DC backed off in Batman vs Superman, going to silly lengths to emphasize that nobody was getting hurt in most fights).  Captain America: Civil War had the same subplot, both building on The Avengers: Age of Ultron (an "age" that lasted I think 72 hours) which had a a plot superheroes trying to stop a badguy without hurting anyone.

Whether those consciously reflect the current age -- when the "good" president people love who didn't get us into wars (but who didn't get us out of them, either) admits that US drone strikes have killed at least 116 civilians -- or simply echo them is up to the creators to decide. (Whether people get it, or whether the creator actually meant it, is also up to debate; George Lucas has said over and over that he thought of Star Wars as a 'simple morality tale' but later ramped it up by saying it was part of a 'loose thematic trilogy,' beginning with American Graffiti, then to Apocalypse Now, and then to Star Wars, which he thought of as a Vietnam protest. There's no saying it can't be both, but it seems late in the game for Lucas to aspire to thematic brilliance; meanwhile Ronald Reagan, among others, missed that according to Lucas, America was the Empire.)

Anyway, comic books may or may not consciously reflect the issues of the times. I'm not as interested in the overt attempts, like making Thor a woman -- I haven't read any of those, so I can't comment -- but more interested in books that build on or grow out of an issue, like how Broken Harbor distilled the economic collapse by focusing on one family's destruction in a terrible way, but did so without hammering the point home.

Identity Crisis was a series of comics that came out in December 2004. In psychology, an identity crisis occurs when adolescents grow up with no firm idea of who they are or their place in the world (which some might say is adolescence, period). It can be caused by kids being forced into a particular identity or where kids lack a commitment or a desire to explore, either of which can cause kids to hit adulthood without any sense of direction.

In Identity Crisis the comic, the storyline begins with the mysterious killing of Sue Dibny, the wife of Elongated Man. Elongated Man is one of the few superheroes whose identities are publicly known, so everyone knows Sue, too.  When she is killed with no trace of how the killer got by all the security, various heroes set out to locate the villains who could teleport in or kill at long distance, but a small subgroup of heroes goes immediately after Dr. Light, a villain who (they knew) had earlier raped Sue Dibny and threatened to do the same to all the heroes' wives, as he'd learned their secret identities.

These heroes know to suspect Light because after they stopped him, they used magic to wipe his mind out and erase the knowledge of their identities, which caused a split among them, as well.

The storyline is pretty good, with a few twists and turns and some red herrings that probably mean more to someone with a more detailed knowledge of comics than I have. It focuses mostly on Green Arrow with a subpart by The Flash, and some appearances from other heroes. It's an interim story that leads into a later set of comics, Infinite Crisis, which I actually read some time ago.

All in all, if you're a comic fan, it's pretty good and worth reading. I always enjoy these massive crossovers so I can see some other heroes beyond the ones I enjoyed as a kid, and who can't pull off a whole book series by themselves.

Does it reflect the times it was written in, though? (Which is where I began.)  The big moral issue in Identity Crisis is, as you'd guess, whether the heroes were right to use magic to alter the mind of a person to protect their families-- so that they could protect the rest of the world.  At one point, Green Arrow justifies their actions by saying that no matter what "the [Justice] League endures."  Asked whether the two big guys, Superman and Batman, know, Arrow says that Superman "hears what he wants to hear" and Batman "knows what he wants to know."

The year 2004 included the Madrid bombings, the release of 5 British prisoners from Guantanamo Bay (only to have them immediately arrested in Britain), Al Qaeda decapitating an American civilian in Iraq, the conviction (in state court) of Terry Nichols, who helped with the Oklahoma bombing, the theft of The Scream, and of course the 2004 election between John Kerry and George "Worst President Ever" Bush, among major developments.

You could, if you wanted, draw a direct parallel between the Swift Boating of John Kerry -- remember that? -- and the re-election of George W. Bush. You could even wonder if, like Nixon did with South Korea withdrawing from peace talks, Bush engineered or allowed violence to assure his re-election: presidents serving during wars have always been re-elected.  On October 8, 2004, suicide bombers in Egypt killed 34 people. On October 21, the US requested that the "Black Watch" infantry from Scotland be deployed to Iraq and moved out of the British-controlled zone; against heavy opposition the UK did so and for the remainder of October the Black Watch was under attack.  On November 2, Bush won re-election by 35 electoral votes, with a narrow margin of just over 3,000,000 of the popular vote. People voting for Bush cited terrorism and "national values" as their reasons.  Bush had been trailing in the polls until the Swift Boat ads, which ran in August and September, gave him a lead in the polls.

Batman solves the mystery in Identity Crisis by asking who benefits? He posits that to solve a crime you have to track down the person who would gain the most from the crime. There have always been rumors that presidents have allowed attacks to occur to bolster their own programs -- FDR was accused of it -- but history has shown that they do these things. If you consider the misleading of the American electorate a crime, asking who benefits will not lead you to the presidential candidates themselves, any more than Batman was led to Dr. Light to solve this mystery.

Then again, the loved ones of the Justice League had perhaps grown a bit complacent, relying on technology to protect themselves and sure that no villain could ever catch them. Sue Dibny died when she spent the day preparing an elaborate birthday party for her husband. Batman and Superman had no real idea what was going on because they never stayed around for the aftermath, the clean-up.  A big event occurs, the public goes nuts, everyone wraps it up, and then in the shadows afterwards while we are all going about other business, the people left behind get to shape the situation to their own ends.

While Bush was president, "big oil" made $600,000,000,000 (and now get a movie with Marky Mark recasting them as heroes.) The Iraq war saw the US paying $138,000,000,000 to private companies, 52% of which went to just 10 different corporations. Nearly 1/4 of that -- $39,500,000,000 went to Halliburton, which in September 2004 was the subject of a New York Times article noting that the company had risen from 22nd in overall government money to 7th -- and that then-VP Dick Cheney held stock options in the company, meaning that he would be allowed to buy stock at a predetermined price regardless of the then-current market price. Cheney worked at Halliburton when he was selected as Bush's VP nominee in 2000. Cheney's stock options were worth $241,000 in 2004, and $8,000,000 in 2008. 

MBNA was one of Bush's largest campaign donors.  During Bush's presidency, bankruptcy laws were altered to make it more difficult to get rid of credit card debt.  The list goes on and on. While people debated whether John Kerry earned his Vietnam medals and Chechen soldiers shot planes out of the sky, the American public voted for George W. Bush, and got economic collapse and a recession we are still in. Now, we spend our time considering whether Donald Trump actually intended to have Russian hackers break into Hillary Clinton's email, we spend almost no time discussing whether Hillary!'s plans to slightly regulate large banks and risky investments would pass Congress or even be funded and enforceable.

The big story in pop culture has been the movie Suicide Squad, in which a rogue US operative organizes a strike team of psychotic criminals, who she controls via deadly neck implants. The team is deployed to rescue its leader and stop a member of the team who has gone crazy and is destroying a city, and the world.

Most of the debate about that movie is about whether it's any good, and not whether it reflects our times or what is happening in our culture. In fact, we heard more about the green water at the Olympics this week than we did about the presidential policy which allows drone strikes on unspecified targets without direct approval by anybody.

Remember when Obama declared that drone strikes on US citizens were allowable even without a trial, because he was the one who would make the decision? I do. But, then, I've never been a big fan of the Olympics.


Andrew Leon said...

I don't know... I think there's too much to comment on here, most of which would just be agreeing with you, so we can skip all of that.
I'll just comment on the comic, which I'll skip. Parts of it sound intriguing but not any of the parts involving it being DC.

Briane Pagel said...

It wasn't like it was an essential comic or anything. Having read the other two Crises I figured I'd give it a shot.

I find a lot of these because the chair Mr F likes to sit in while Mr Bunches does the computer at the library is right by the graphic novels and comics, so I browse through them to see if there's anything that catches my eye.