Media Double Standards on Comics Coverage

March 17, 2005

How the mainstream press takes a biased stance regarding comics coverage, and why it’s damaging for the public perception of what comics are like and about

By Avi Green

Best Current Comic Book: Identity Crisis.

This seven-issue miniseries kicked off with the brutal murder of the wife of a Justice League member, a beloved character that’s been around for more than 40 years -- followed by a flashback revealing that she had once been raped by a supervillain. Add to that the revelation that some Justice Leaguers have used brainwashing in the past to alter the memories and personalities of certain villains. How can I possibly be enjoying this?

Well, possibly because it’s a riveting murder mystery by novelist Brad Meltzer, who’s also the creator of Jack & Bobby on The WB. And because it’s a challenging examination of the moral issues confronting those who fancy themselves heroes. And because it’s a crackling tale wherein the horrific events service the story, instead of being offered up as shock value.

Yeah, I’m still pretty appalled by the death of Sue Dibny, wife of The Elongated Man (seen recently on Cartoon Network’s Justice League Unlimited). And I’m distressed by the near-murder of Jean Loring, ex-wife of The Atom. And I’m flummoxed by the news that some of our heroes haven’t always acted altogether heroically.

But there are only three issues to go, and I still have no idea who the murderer is, or what his ultimate plan is. Or what the ramifications of the League’s dirty tricks will be. Or, for that matter, who will survive until the end. I may shocked, but I’m also fascinated.

Worst Current Comic Book: Avengers.

More death and destruction, as Marvel’s famed super-group takes it on the chin in anticipation of a new series. In the story “Avengers: Disassembled,” three superheroes have already died, and there’s still an issue or two to go. And since Marvel has already announced the book’s cancellation, nobody’s safe.

But, unlike Identity Crisis, this story isn’t a carefully planned mystery that challenges the reader to play along. It’s just a mess. Nobody’s acting in character, long-running heroes are dying stupidly, and with the end result already telegraphed -- a new Avengers series next year, with a different lineup that’s been announced -- there’s not much suspense. It ought to be called “Avengers: Disappointing.” – Andrew Smith, Captain Comics column from October 3, 2004, Scripps-Howard News Service

You have no idea how tired I am of seeing this kind of favoratist, selective position being staged by a writer for a major newspaper who deals with comic books.

I’ve been thinking about this in the past year: why don’t comic books get taken seriously by the mainstream public? And the best answer I can think of is: because the mainstream media doesn’t discuss them seriously either. Which brings us to what’ll be the subject of this column for today: biased and favoratist coverage of comics by the mainstream press.

Case in point: as turned out to be last year, some media sources – but also people who favor Marvel's characters over DC's – panned Bendis’ work on Avengers but went the complete opposite direction when it came to Identity Crisis. (Which I have already spoken about in great detail) And Andrew Smith is but one of the most disturbing examples of a media establishment representative who did this very same thing. But not just him, of course. There are various others, sadly, if you know where to look, who did the exact same thing, in which they praised IC and panned Avengers Disassembled simply because it’s easier, and also because “stereotypes are easy.” Scott Tipton of the Kevin Smith-owned Movie Poop Shoot is another, and even The Fourth Rail’s own reviewers are too, and they’ll be dealt with later in this essay as well.

First, let’s focus on the writings of Andrew Smith, who writes the Captain Comics column for the Scripps-Howard news syndicate, and is also a writer for the Comics Buyer’s Guide. I used to read and enjoy his writings years ago. But today, to be quite honest, I’ve slowly come to the realization that I may have been really fooling myself. Because how do comics truly stand a chance of being taken seriously, if journalists like him won’t write about them seriously, by offering up a solid, meat-and-potatoes focus, and showing a willingness and commitment to observing the really in depth details of what elements there are inside the pages of those 4-color publications? And, most importantly of all, to answer the really hard-hitting questions and answers about what goes on in the story?

If we were to refer to Identity Crisis, these hard-hitting questions I speak of could include such ones as, "Is this series misogynistic?" "Are the female characters barred from having a voice on the subject of rape here?" "Could it be a metaphorical political statement?" "Does it imply that the victims are to blame for the bad things that happened to them?" "Is it consistant with character presentation from the years past?" "Did Dr. Light ever really do things like that before?" "Is putting a cartoon character wearing a costume in the role of a rapist a convincing way to deal with the subject?" "Is it bigoted?" Sadly, neither Mr. Smith nor any others of his ilk ever seem to write about these kind of questions, if at all. Why is it that news sources like FOX News, The New Republic, Michael Medved, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, Washington Times, Front Page Magazine, New York Sun and other such quality publications can, but those of Mr. Smith's standing cannot?

What’s more, the main problems, as I’ve since realized, are that Mr. Smith tended to contradict himself on an almost daily basis, and to act as an apologist for the industry, by writing obvious and/or fuzzy defenses for them. He almost never spoke on behalf of what the fans thought or wanted, and always wrote in classic know-it-all fashion, implying at one point that fans were just a bunch of emotional wrecks and fools who made a big fuss over nothing, in both cases that made sense or didn’t.

He used to have a website, alternately called the Comics Cave, on which he ran both his own column, other writings of his (mail correspondence, interviews, history articles, weekly release schedules, etc), and even articles by special site contributors, who could even write special sections on history and independent publications. (While he's still got himself a website, it doesn't really exist as an actual website these days, rather, it's just a mere forum.)

In fairness, some of the writings there were impressive. And some of the contributors were certainly interesting. But aside from that, what ultimately undermined it was that the site in and of itself was simply not as outspoken as it could’ve been, and was otherwise as superficial as could be.

But I digress from that part. Mr. Smith’s selective positions on comics coverage are the main concern here. So anyway, here goes.

As far as being contradictive of what he would say at one point, well, here’s something to start off with: what he said after September 11, in the last mailbag file he published on October 5, 2001: “And to those who say that America "deserves" it for support for Israel, or the Gulf War, or some other action with which they disagree ... I wonder: If their sister was raped, would they excuse the rapist and say their sister "deserved" it for some past action? That's called "blaming the victim," folks, and it's moral and ethical cowardice. No action America has ever taken -- and there have been lots of NICE things America has done, mind you -- deserves this kind of response. Nothing excuses or justifies the outright slaughter of 6,000 people. These ratbags are murdering thugs, and they must be stopped -- because whether we act or not, the killing will go on. They'll just be killing US instead of us killing THEM, while we wring our hands in self-loathing impotence. Me, I know which side I'm on in that debate.”

Now to point to the positive, that’s a very good observation that makes here. And he makes it perfectly clear who and what the al Qaeda are.

Ironically however, less than three months after he said this impressive quote here, he contradicted it on January 6, 2002, by praising, even if it was only in brief and subtle form, the Amazing Spider-Man issue on 9-11 (which I wrote about back in July 2002) when he said that J. Michael Straczynski’s little insult to the intellect was “poignant (and sold out).”

(I assume that the reason why he only gave it brief mention is that it had been discussed to a certain extent on his own would-be forum, and decided that whatever his standing, he would refrain from commenting on the book more than he actually did.)

That’s just one example of how appalling he could be in terms of contradiction. Does he really expect to be taken seriously if he’s going to go along and bend over backwards, all for knee-jerk’s and political correctness’ sake?

Right now, let’s take a closer analytical look at how he handled his own biases above.

“This seven-issue miniseries kicked off with the brutal murder of the wife of a Justice League member, a beloved character that’s been around for more than 40 years -- followed by a flashback revealing that she had once been raped by a supervillain. Add to that the revelation that some Justice Leaguers have used brainwashing in the past to alter the memories and personalities of certain villains. How can I possibly be enjoying this?”

Notice for starters that he doesn’t mention who it was who violated Sue Dibny, that being Dr. Arthur Light, in an out-of-character depiction. And to make matters worse, he writes about the League’s use of brainwashing in a way that could very easily peg them as culprits. Nor does he even bother to point out that the story’s “revelation”, such as it was, was depicted as being much more important than what happened to Sue, whose own violation was largely swept under the rug and never mentioned again, if at all, just like the brutal murders of Daniel Pearl and Nick Berg in Pakistan and Iraq.

So yeah, how can he possibly be enjoying this? In defense of his positions, he argues:

“Well, possibly because it’s a riveting murder mystery by novelist Brad Meltzer, who’s also the creator of Jack & Bobby on The WB. And because it’s a challenging examination of the moral issues confronting those who fancy themselves heroes. And because it’s a crackling tale wherein the horrific events service the story, instead of being offered up as shock value.”

Really!? So in other words, Deathstroke's attack on Zatanna and Black Canary, which resulted in causing the former to vomit, wasn't being offered up as shock value? Not only does he act totally oblivious to the fact that Meltzer, as pointed out in this column from Precocious Curmudgeon, is not a nationally popular writer either, despite what the overhype of the title said, he even LIES about the “events”, claiming that it all services the story and isn’t meant for shock value. My my, how touching.

In other words, he knows that it was meant for shock’s sake. Either way, what he writes above just simply makes my skin crawl. And as for Meltzer's "popularity", well, here's an interesting discussion from one of Paperback Reader's former staff members, Andrew Wickliffe:

"Somebody over at newsarama posted a really silly opinion piece about this topic and I tried responding a few times with a few browsers and it never got through...

Rewriting the same response a couple times, I realized something--possibly why Sue got raped (DC wanted her dead, remember, but Meltzer came up with the circumstances) and why these pre-Crisis players are suddenly secretly going around lobotomizing all their enemies...

The newsarama opinion writer seemed to put a lot of stock in Meltzer's experience as a "thriller" writer, comparing his work to Sue Grafton and Mary Higgins Clark--two "writers" I didn't know anyone would want to be compared with. Regardless, these are writers of the supermarket fiction variety, they write the sort of books soccer moms can read while waiting to pick up their kids. (Good mystery writers like Hammett, Chandler and great ones like Dennis Lehane are never mentioned, neither are suspense novels like "V." or even "Mother Night" but a person's bookshelf always tells you a lot about the depth of their opinion).

On to my realization:
Everyone likes pointing out that Meltzer is a "New York Times Bestselling" writer. So are Grafton and Clark--Thomas Pynchon isn't and neither is Rick Moody, as is the state of American fiction. But these aren't respected writers. Oprah doesn't even recommend these people. They're tripe and it's a shame because there are good things to read in America right now (occasionally, people like Richard Russo get noticed, but it's for their lesser work, not their best).

I think Meltzer has written this series with the little gimmicks that he has--having cartoon characters (Justice League Unlimited) lobotomize their enemies and have pregnant women get murdered and then reveal they were raped--so he can get reviewed in newspapers like the New York Times. The Times is paying attention to comic books again and a review is a possibility. It won't be a good one. Harpers reviewed an essay of Meltzer's this month and made quite a bit of fun of him."

Wow. That is simply amazing to learn about. Bravo, Mr. Wickliffe, and thanks for some very informative thoughts.

Meanwhile, getting back to Mr. Smith, contrary to what he either thinks, or must want anyone who reads his stuff to think, the sad news is that, simply put, it is otherwise unfavorable to the heroes regarding these “moral issues”, as he puts it. He also does not mention how the women here have virtually no voice of their own regarding the rape, and that Zatanna is made out to look like a baddie in all of this, her performance of the mindwipe/brainwash on Dr. Light at the behest of the male characters notwithstanding.

Most importantly though: how am I supposed to determine whether or not the horrific "events" featured in the book are shock value quality if he doesn't even describe what they are in exact? To do that, I'd have to - gasp! - check the book myself, as I unfortunately did, to see what goes on inside, and even for someone who's new to comic superheroes, there's no garuntee that they'll think the same thing Mr. Smith may think. But you see, what I point out here is exactly the problem with Mr. Smith's column: that he's not being fair to the consumer, by keeping readers in the dark about what goes on inside, and, as a result, is doing little more than to lead to unsuspecting customers feeling that they were tricked into buying something they have no use for. Which, needless to say, is simply dishonest journalism, much like what the Daily Bugle's publisher in the Marvel Universe, J. Jonah Jameson, happens to specialize in.

Let's be clear. The public has a right to know what exact elements are featured in the book, regardless of whether or not any risk of giving away crucial plot points would come up, so that whether or not they do go to check what goes on inside, they'll be able to know in advance what to expect in terms of visual detail, and to determine whether or not these "events" do indeed service the story, and most importantly, if they make any sense in terms of storytelling, are plausible, and add to the story. To obscure the details is to do little more than to leave the audience with nothing to challenge the mind, and is cheating on the readers to boot. Which, now that I think of it, is exactly what J. Jonah Jameson does whenever writing about Spider-Man.

“Yeah, I’m still pretty appalled by the death of Sue Dibny, wife of The Elongated Man (seen recently on Cartoon Network’s Justice League Unlimited). And I’m distressed by the near-murder of Jean Loring, ex-wife of The Atom. And I’m flummoxed by the news that some of our heroes haven’t always acted altogether heroically.”

Well then, if so, why does he just go along and praise the miniseries anyway? And why doesn’t he mention how the third issue – believe it or not – gave away Jean as the “culprit” early on, by typing red lettering on the word balloon in the scene where she seemed to be under attack? (And probably was, but this miniseries doesn’t even explain it.) Or how Wonder Woman's lasso on the cover for the fourth issue was in the exact same shape as the noose rope used to hang Jean with?

And while he may be appalled by those particular circumstances that he mentions above, I can only wonder, is he also appalled, distressed, flummoxed or anything else of the sort regarding what Deathstroke, who’s in the 3rd issue for no particular reason other than to dole out senseless violence and overpad the book’s length, did to the heroes, or that Kyle Rayner, who possessed the most powerful weapon of all those confronting Slade Wilson, was made to look totally incompetant, attacking Slade with only his fists?

“But there are only three issues to go, and I still have no idea who the murderer is, or what his ultimate plan is. Or what the ramifications of the League’s dirty tricks will be. Or, for that matter, who will survive until the end. I may shocked, but I’m also fascinated.”

Now that he does know whodunit though, I can only wonder, how does he feel now? In fact, how does he feel about the fact that any ramifications won’t amount to much, if at all? To learn the startling answer to the preceding questions, read the following quotes, which pretty much sum up just how he feels, and reveal yet another bias of his for the sake of arbitrary political correctness. And sad to say, it appears that his facination kept up even after it was revealed, in otherwise implausible, underwhelming detail, who the culprit was, that being Jean Loring, who suddenly started acting nuts and claimed to be the one responsible, bringing even a FLAMETHROWER, I kid you not, as she was written putting it, “just in case”.

BEST SERIES: The most controversial series of 2004 was Identity Crisis, a seven-issue miniseries by mystery novelist Brad Meltzer and artist Rags Morales starring DC’s Justice League of America. In the first issue, the pregnant wife of second-tier superhero was murdered in a brutal way. While the murder mystery (one that was truly a challenge) was the “A” plot, the investigation by the superheroes set off a domino effect, revealing that the victim had been raped by a supervillain years ago -- and in retaliation (and self-defense), a small cabal of Leaguers used their superpowers to, effectively, render the villain mentally incompetent. This also had negative repercussions, which were revealed slowly like the layers of an onion.

The whodunnit was wrapped up with Identity Crisis No. 7, but the many unresolved red herrings and the ramifications of the League’s moral lapse are just beginning to be addressed, and will spread throughout all of DC’s books in 2005. Love it or loathe it, Identity Crisis was truly an event, a slow-motion car wreck that generated more than 100 pages of comments on my message board alone. – Andrew Smith, Captain Comics column from December 26, 2004, Scripps-Howard News Service

So once again, despite the cliched, stereotypical ending for IC, he still went along with his position, and praised the miniseries arbitrarily, while panning AD simply because it wasn’t plotted out as “carefully” as IC was, if at all.

You’ll notice that he used the term “self-defense” when referring – not very clearly – to the part about the mindwipe/screw-up of Dr. Light, who’s not even mentioned in the quotes above, when, despite what he says, the whole action by the heroes was being attacked by the writer, and depicted as more a criminal act than one of defense or even justice for Light’s own crime. And I’m simply HOWLING WITH LAUGHTER already at how he referred to the “mystery” as “truly a challenge”, and the plot was “A”. Wow, what a comedian of ineptitude this "Captain" truly is!

The way that Mr. Smith writes about a story in which a pregnant woman (Sue) was murdered and even raped in flashback is sensationalistic at worst, and that goes without saying. Let’s be clear – murder is NOT something entertaining, and most definitely not if it’s a pregnant woman who’s the victim. What Mr. Smith does here is not just offensive to women, it’s also morally degrading. Reading what he said about the ending only makes my skin crawl even more. This is what comic books are all about?

And that's not even a quarter of it. By siding with something that blames the victims as disrespectfully as Identity Crisis does, all that Mr. Smith has done is to invalidate the argument he wrote on October 5, 2001, in which he argued against such an approach...and throw it out the window.

The final nail in the coffin in this piece of propaganda is when Mr. Smith resorts to the same kind of publicity stunt tactics that Rags Morales did, when he says that, “Love it or loathe it, Identity Crisis was truly an event.” In other words, it does not matter whether it was good or bad, all that matters is that it made sales, and that it was talked about, to a certain extent, in the mainstream media. Nor, in fact, does he care what the reader thinks either. And, in short, he too is in favor of this sales-through-controversy tactic.

Now, let’s go back and take an analytical look at what he says about Disassembled, since that too is even less impressive than it looks.

“More death and destruction, as Marvel’s famed super-group takes it on the chin in anticipation of a new series. In the story “Avengers: Disassembled,” three superheroes have already died, and there’s still an issue or two to go. And since Marvel has already announced the book’s cancellation, nobody’s safe.”

Well, not necessarily, since what’s really happened is that it’s a very rushed, awkward and downright sloppy way of clearing things aside for the sake of a new direction.

“But, unlike Identity Crisis, this story isn’t a carefully planned mystery that challenges the reader to play along. It’s just a mess. Nobody’s acting in character, long-running heroes are dying stupidly, and with the end result already telegraphed -- a new Avengers series next year, with a different lineup that’s been announced -- there’s not much suspense. It ought to be called ‘Avengers: Disappointing.’”

As should this column too, in fact. Did it ever occur to Mr. Smith that even some of the characters in Identity Crisis were also acting out-of-character, believe it or not? Elongated Man is fairly out of it when he says that comedy is for Plastic Man, implies that his funny nose twitch, which he often does whenever he thinks there's a mystery at hand, is fake, and even makes a bummer statement about how Green Arrow wears his green cap because he’s bald underneath! *Ahem.* It is Captain Boomerang, who is also out-of-character in IC (Digger as a killer-for-hire?!? No way, jose!), who’s bald underneath his blue cap. Surely that isn’t just as messy as AD? And let's not forget Dr. Light of course...

And for someone whose very own wife, Linda Park-West, was assaulted by a maniac in the pages of the Flash in 2003, the new Reverse-Flash, causing her to lose her pregnancy, it's surprising that Wally West, the Flash, should be acting as if the mindwipe of Dr. Light is much more serious and important than what happened to Sue Dibny, who was as good a friend of his as her own stretchable spouse is too. Is that how someone who may have also lost the chance to become a dad really acts?

In fact, what about the fact that virtually none of the superheroes in IC does anything heroic, and are almost all made out to look as bad as is possible to be? Or that there’s virtually no inspiring messages to be found in DC’s incredibly overhyped, overrated “event of the year”? And if there’s anything I’m really wondering about, didn’t he find that part where Jean Loring invited Ray Palmer to hit her as horrifying and obscene as it truly was? (Most scary and chilling of all, what if Ray did? What would Mr. Smith have to say about that then?) Didn’t that ever occur to our very lost-at-sea, media-establishment-supporting “Captain”?

Now, here’s his end-of-the-year look at Marvel’s own letdown of the year:

“AVENGERS: DISAPPOINTING”

Deep in the heart of darkness that is the Marvel Comics editorial brain trust, the head honchos decided that the Avengers franchise -- which has existed since 1963, and stars characters like Thor, Iron Man and Captain America -- just wasn’t working any more. So they opted to ditch the whole “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes” concept, and start over with a New Avengers, starring -- surprise! -- their most popular characters, like Spider-Man and Wolverine.

In and of itself, that’s not necessarily a bad plan (although not the one I’d have picked). And Marvel turned to one of their top writers, Brian Michael Bendis, to pull it off. Bendis is one of my favorite writers, too, as I’ve enjoyed his stellar work on top-flight titles like Powers, Daredevil, The Pulse and Ultimate Spider-Man.

Which is why it’s all the more shocking that the five-issue “Avengers: Disassembled” was such a clumsy mess. In Avengers #500-503 and Avengers: Finale, Earth’s Mightiest Heroes were ground through a painfully rushed story that had long-standing characters acting completely out of character, and for the most part had them standing idly on their lawn for several issues while a visiting Dr. Strange explained the plot to them (and to us). A plot that left four of them dead, one insane and the rest -- well, the rest just quit. Threw up their hands. Walked away. The 41-year-old “Avengers” saga ended with a whimper, not a bang.

Some heroes. Some plot! – Andrew Smith, Captain Comics column from January 2, 2005, Scripps-Howard News Service

Not only does he write in very superficial terms, he does not even mention how Scarlet Witch was framed as the culprit in Disassembled either. As horrible as Disassembled was, how can he argue that it was awful if he doesn't even explain why? Whatever, it’s astonishing as to how both Identity Crisis and Avengers Disassembled both ended up featuring insane women as the culprits in their hackneyed plots. And it’s most simply deplorable.

In any case, what’s been focused on above is exactly the problem with newspaper columnists of Mr. Smith’s own standing. They take very exceedingly selective and biased positions regarding what they’ll side with and what not. They routinely bend over backwards when required in order to please those morally bankrupt representatives of the world of entertainment, and only show that they’ve got a spine when the going is easy. And they almost never ask any of the really in depth questions as to whether the story at hand is good or bad, preferring to jump instead to all-too easy conclusions. It often makes me wonder: what if someone who reads superficial writing like what Mr. Smith specializes in and who ends up with the exact opposite opinions that he's got after checking out the books Mr. Smith writes about - might end up thinking that comics are for the wrong audience? Or that they're aimed at people with low standards in morality? And, what if they have no further interest afterwards in reading any more comic books? What then?

And that's exactly why I feel that such a superficial, sugary approach to writing about comics can be damaging to the public perception of what comic books, children and adult alike, are all about.

As much as I may have enjoyed reading Mr. Smith’s columns years ago, I cannot and will not recommend them today. And if I'd known that he was capable of writing something so utterly insensitive, so totally devoid of any common sense, I doubt I would ever have bothered in the first place. Certainly not today.

And what good does it do to say that Avengers Disassembled is bad if Mr. Smith cannot, at the very least, ask if Identity Crisis suffers from any such problems as well? Simply put, if one's bad, then isn't it possible that the other is too? What makes DC's own actions any better than Marvel's, or the former company any better than the latter? Sure, Marvel's had some pretty badly thought out, even rushed, attempts at storytelling recently, but then, if they're capable of tripping up as they have, surely DC isn't capable of the same?

Let's take DC's Bloodlines crossover as an example. That was pretty bad when it was done back in 1993, and crossovers like Millenium, Zero Hour, Joker's Last Laugh and even Batman's War Games were no better. Not to mention that they were almost all editorially mandated, by editors who think they know best, and all for the sake of setting "bold new directions", that simply didn't work. And if they were rushed, then there's every chance that IC was too. But the main fault that Mr. Smith's own columns suffer from is that, even when discussing what he feels is bad about this or that series/event, he takes a very superficial approach, not offering the reader any clear reasons or details to explain why he feels this or that way about the book, or how the characters are depicted. And if he can't or won't offer any meaty details or explanations on why he thinks that Avengers Disassembled is badly done, then how is the audience to determine whether they too find it bad or not?

And that's exactly why even that argument bears no weight or credibility.

As appalling as this form of political correctness is, Mr. Smith isn’t the only one who distresses me. Even Scott Tipton, a comics historian for the Kevin Smith owned Movie Poop Shoot website, seems to have a confusing double-standard all his own. And maybe given that MPS is a Kevin Smith owed website, that’s one more reason why it’ll certainly need some scrutiny.

When Tipton wrote about Identity Crisis last year, he seemed unhappy that Sue should take the bullet. Yet, he praised the miniseries anyway, and became very confusing and even biased when discussing this all with one of the correspondents to the website.

The whole Tipton-penned mishmash began about with the column from August 18, 2004, and in the beginning, he wrote:

DC’s much-talked about miniseries IDENTITY CRISIS by comics writer/novelist Brad Meltzer and artist Rags Morales is a classic “whodunit”

Really. And it looks like I too have something to put in quotation marks, that being the word before what he does. It’s “classic”. Does this also sum how he feels now, when an all too easy conclusion has been reached, that leaves a whole bunch of plotlines unfinished, and requires that other writers deal with them in their own books instead? (Or, you could say, it’s the “bait-and-switch” tactic.)

“Well, Ralph’s back in the spotlight now, and to be honest, I’m not sure how I feel about it.”

And after reading his incredibly superficial column, which, like a lot of the others, is more pictorial history than anything really meaty, I’m not sure either. To say the least, he’s still as ambiguous as ever about it, as you’ll see in the quotings I’ve presented below:

“With so many of these characters currently appearing in JUSTICE LEAGUE on Cartoon Network, there’s nothing to prevent a parent or child from picking this up thinking it’s all-age-appropriate, and getting something of a shock. Don’t misunderstand: I don’t think the story is intrinsically exploitative or salacious. But would I have published it, were I in charge? No.”

Maybe he doesn’t think it’s exploitative or salacious, but I do, for reasons that I’ve either given beforehand, or below. Certainly he’s right that, given that these are, for the most part, franchise characters recognizable even in cartoon series like one on Cartoon Network, but then that’s exactly why it doesn’t pay to do it the way it was done here. And when you take into consideration just how Dr. Light’s been portrayed here, you know that it could be very difficult to sell the character as a toy action figure from Mattel or Hasbro. Did that ever occur to Mr. Tipton?

“The series has gotten slammed by some for being misogynistic, focusing as it does in such detail on the rape and murder of Sue Dibny, which I don’t think is a fair or accurate charge at all. With the story Meltzer’s trying to tell, about the risks involved to the families of superheroes, by definition the characters threatened are going to be female, since the majority of DC’s popular characters are male. And while DC has deservedly gotten a bad rap for this in the past (with the murder of Kyle Rayner’s girlfriend and the crippling of Batgirl just two of the easiest examples to spring to mind), in this case, I’m inclined to see the fact that the victim is a woman as more of a necessary by-product of the kind of story he’s telling.”

Well now, I guess this is where any credibility that could be given to Mr. Tipton ends, and my own disappointment really begins. Tipton, to say the least, either misses the whole point of why anyone could or would find it offensive, or ignores it altogether. If anything, he obscures and suppresses it. It is because Sue is not permitted a voice of her own, and with the exception of one single panel (and then, maybe not even that much) where she’s shown feeling awful and miserable after Dr. Light's assault on her, reduced to a puddle on the floor following that, is then whisked off the screen for much of the time, and we as the readers are not allowed to know how she felt about it all beyond that point. Nor were Black Canary or even Zatanna allowed any voice/opinion in all of this. And to top it all off, the whole subject of the rape was largely ignored soon afterwards. Plus of course, there’s that thing with Deathstroke…

The implication Mr. Tipton makes that because the majority of DC's "popular characters" are male, that the menacing of the female characters is something that comes/goes by definition, is particularly insulting. What's that supposed to mean? That because the leads are male, that threatening the female characters is both realistic and justified? Where exactly does this hack columnist get off by saying that such cliches are totally kosher, which puts his argument against the crippling of Babs Gordon and the murder of Kyle Rayner's girlfriend under a question mark?

If characters close to a male protagonist truly must be killed off to give motivation, then I do wonder, what's so hard about trying to use other male characters, like father figures, best friends, and brothers, as the victims? To imply that it's totally okay for female characters to end up in such a situation is presenting a very limp argument and misses a considerable amount of points.

“As for the story itself, here’s where I find myself conflicted: as much as I disagree with what’s being done, Meltzer is telling an excellent story, and his characterization is spot-on. You get a real sense that Meltzer knows and understands these characters and how they relate. If, like me, you find the actions of the Justice League members in their mindwiping of Dr. Light severely out of character, it’s hard to say that it’s due to strictly bad writing, since the characters sound the way they’re supposed to. And yet, when people in your life do things you don’t approve of, don’t you find their actions out of character as well? In an odd way, I find myself disappointed in them, which, as much as I would like to claim otherwise, is the mark of superior writing. The art by Rags Morales is also excellent, often conveying through facial expression and posture the conflicted moral stances of the characters – not the easiest thing to achieve in panel-to-panel storytelling.”

Reading this, I was almost on the verge of laughing. Just how does Meltzer understand the characters if, as it turns out, he puts them in an otherwise negative light, devoid of any heroic, admirable focus, and, like I said before, sweeps the whole rape topic under the rug?

“Still, even though I disagree with the decision, I have to admit that the story is gripping and well-told, and at least DC isn’t reveling in the murder and torture of its characters the way Marvel is nowadays, with the gleeful stripmining of the proud, four-decade-spanning Avengers heritage (complete with a ghoulish “check-‘em-off-as-they-die” chart at the Marvel Web site – no thanks, Marvel, I don’t need to pay that close attention as you disembowel my childhood), all so they can replace the team with a slapped-together mishmash of top-selling Marvel characters that have little to do with the Avengers concept. Feh.”

I don't know about Marvel torturing the heroes, but either way, just what exactly makes IC, with its senseless violence inflicted against the heroes, any better than AD, deaths or not? Doesn't that also amount to torture? And isn't that also disemboweling a childhood?

And while he's right that the chart screen Marvel posted was in poor taste, just how does that make DC's own approach to marketing their books any better than Marvel's? Does DC really have to resort to an online chart in order to be as bad as Marvel was in 2001-2003, and even now? Of course not. Plus, there's those fancy-looking Michael Turner covers...

In fact, that’s where they’re being clever: by not resorting to exactly the same methods that Bill Jemas resorted to when he was in charge of Marvel, that’s how DC, and senoir vice-chairman Dan DiDio, who’s largely to blame for a lot of this mess, lest we forget, are able to sidestep some, if not all, of the critical fire taken by Jemas and Marvel in the past few years. And who knows, that could make DC just as dangerous as Marvel, if not more so, when it comes to publicity and marketing.

The disappointment with Tipton doesn’t stop there. Even the when the underwhelming conclusion of the miniseries came out, he still went along, just like Andrew Smith, and defended it anyway, and here’s some of the most laughable defenses he cooked up on the mail page at MPS in response to one of the correspondents:

“I thought it worked just fine. It made sense to me. It seemed to be in character for Jean, who was always portrayed as selfish and self-serving, so her going over the edge in this manner I found believable. It also answered the central question about who would know all the heroes' secrets and be able to take advantage of it.”

Pardon me? Selfish and self-serving? Now this is where things really start to end up becoming truly offensive. Including the part about her supposedly knowing the heroes’ own secret identities, even Superman’s in the post-Crisis on Infinite Earths era.

Jean may have been a shrew at times, but she was never selfish and certainly not self-serving in the ways that Tipton so falsely and disgracefully puts it. When she first debuted in the Silver Age, she was a very headstrong young lady who was determined to make it in the world of law, as she began her career as a lawyer in Ivy Town, Connecticut. That was her ambition at the time, before she was ready to consider marriage to Ray Palmer, during a time when some pioneer feminists were trying to forge an independent path for themselves, and while she always remained committed to him then, it was only after a few years, around about the time that Barry Allen and Iris West ascended the alter, that she accepted Ray’s proposal. She always knew what she wanted, and it’s not as if she was desperate to have a husband in the ways of a nervous wreck, which she most certainly was not. Plus, it should be noted that she did have a lot of devotion and caring for her father, a professor himself in New England, and her two young nephews. But, at the same time, it’s not like she just followed after the leading male character like a little lost puppy dog. You could very well say that Jean Loring had a head on her shoulders much more than some of the leading ladies at Marvel at the time who weren’t superheroines themselves, as even this history page here points out. And similar to Mary Jane Watson, whom she preceded by just a few years, she thought for herself.

In fact, that was the interesting thing about the leading ladies at DC at the time – while the characters may not have been as realistically emphasized as those at Marvel, they were still much better defined in some ways than those at Marvel at the time. No offense to Stan Lee, of course, and let me just point out that Pepper Potts, IMO, was by far the best written leading lady at the time, when she began working as an executive secretary for Tony “Iron Man” Stark.

Mr. Tipton’s implication that Jean would know the secret identities of virtually all the superheroes in the DCU is also a big fat lie, and when you think about it some more (and read this letter column more closely), the more you begin to realize that he’s just saying it all out of apparent personal dislike for the character, stemming from his own personal misperceptions of what she was like years ago, or as an excuse to justify the turnout.

Let’s be clear: would Ray Palmer have told even his own wife who Batman is for one, without his fellow crimefighter’s express permission? Absolutely not. In fact, Sue Dibny herself didn’t know that Barry Allen was the Flash until either the early 80s or until after his death. In The Flash #252 in 1977, there was a footnote written down by Julius Schwartz himself that pointed out that, while Ralph knew Barry's secret, Sue on the other hand did not. It was for her own protection that she was not being told, and if you were to put this in the context of how the FBI operates, even their employees are not allowed to share confidential and crucial information with their own relatives and friends. But did it ever matter to her? Not one bit. She and other people of her standing understood the importance of the secret IDs perfectly, and were not the least bothered that they weren't being told who the superheroes really were. The same goes for Jean Loring.

The above is also one of the reasons why the way that the superheroes are shown addressing each other by their real first names falls flat, not just because it defeats the whole point the book was supposedly trying to make about the importance of having a secret identity, but also because, if this were the FBI, the agents would not let their personal information be known in public. Most certainly not if they were going undercover to crack a mafia ring. And if the Atom were to give away Batman’s secret, all that would lead to is the Masked Manhunter’s becoming angry at his fellow superhero, especially if the slip led to his downfall in a most tragic way. That’s also why Tim Drake’s identity as Robin is a most well-guarded secret, to the point of using a pseudonym, Alvin Sharp. And if Batman’s ID isn’t well known to Jean Loring or anyone else, then there’s very little chance that Robin’s ID would be well known either, if at all.

It gets even more hysterical. Keep suspending your disbelief at the next thing he said, when explaining how he thought Jean could’ve gotten in touch with the Calculator:

“She's a top flight attorney, so I'd imagine she'd have contacts in law enforcement, who could've put her on the track.”

No kidding. *Ahem.* The police and the FBI, among other law enforcement agencies, do NOT just simply give out contact information without knowing in exact why anyone would want to speak with a known criminal. If they did, they’d want to why. And if she were to tell them that she wanted to give him a subpoena to testify at a trial, well, there’d have to be a confirmed court case in the works first, otherwise, they’d be suspicious, and it’s possible that they’d arrest her if they thought she was up to no good. And even then, the idea that the Calculator would be that easy to contact is questionable at best, considering that crooks like him usually keep a low profile, given how they usually operate, and their phone numbers - and e-mail addresses - wouldn't exactly be public knowledge, even to the authorities. Are we supposed to assume that Jean just simply looked him up in the yellow pages, or even on Bigfoot? Oh yeah, I'll bet.

Worse, Tipton commits the error of just simply assuming that there’s an explanation available, when in cases like these, in fact, it takes more solid explanations in print, whether in the book or in an encyclopedia, to confirm whether or not this holds any weight to it.

And, in response to the query on how she got past security in Sue and Ralph’s apartment:

“She's got the same system in her house, so she knew how to turn it off and on from the inside.”

Ah, but how did she know that the Dibnys had the same security system as she did, and, how could she get inside so easily to turn it off? In fact, did she even know the Dibnys that well at all? And aren't most alarm security systems usually kept firmly locked behind a box, with even a combination code to turn them on and off? Are we supposed to assume that she just guessed the code by a complete fluke? And let’s not forget of course that, contrary to what was said by Jean about coming in through the phone lines, the attack itself came from the hallway of the apartment building. Talk about jumping to easy conclusions! And then, in reply to the part explaining that it was Jean who left Ray, he says that:

“This is a woman who wouldn't marry Ray until he "proved himself" as a scientist, cheated on him, and later wrote a tell-all book giving away his identity when he was believed missing and/or dead. She's always been portrayed as manipulative and controlling, so trying to manipulate her way back into his heart seems perfectly consistent. And I don't really see that Ray has been pining for her in the last decade of appearances or so. Even in his late '80s series by Roger Stern, he seemed over her.”

Once again, Tipton turns to distortion and filthy lies as his way of justifying the turnout. *AHEM.* First off, let us be perfectly clear that it's realistic for some women to expect of men to prove themselves effective in various careers and have a right to expect something positive from them. Secondly, the fact is that she wouldn’t marry him until she had fully established HER career as a lawyer. She was mad at him later on when they were married because she felt he was neglecting her, spending far too much time super-doing and concentrating on scientific research, and that’s what led to her infidelity with fellow lawyer Paul Hoben. And she was never “manipulative and controlling”, as he apparently wants to see it. Scolding and irritable at times? Yes. But she was never the jerk Tipton, in all his horrifying, self-serving biases, seems to want to make her out to be. And as for writing a tell-all book, well now, let’s take a look at this bit of information from the Unofficial Homepage of the Atom:

Ray decided that he needed to put a closing on this chapter of his life, and began collaborating with Jean and an author named Norman Brawler. They called his autobiography "The Atom's Farewell". This novel revealed his secret identity to the world and followed his career as a superhero and scientist.

That’s right, Ray was involved in, and gave his full blessing, to biographer Norman Brawler for revealing his secret identity to the world as well. Jean never gave away his secret identity without his permission. She may have been disillusioned with him for his neglection of her, but she was still respectable of his secret. And, one more thing: after the adventure in Sword of the Atom Special in 1984…

He told Norman to write a happy ending to his book and wandered off into the jungle with his princess[Laethwen].

‘Tis a pity that Meltzer could not do the same, nor Tipton for that matter.

As for being “over her”, meaning in other words, having moved past her, Ray still cared for her in the ways of a friend, and they led a good enough interaction at times as good friends, or as non-hostile acquaintances, as seen in Power of the Atom #9. Not only that, but Jean, as seen in said issue, also showed that she more or less still cared for him as well. In fact, in the mid-90’s, Jean paid Ray a visit to reconcile with him, and while they may not have been able to try out a romantic relationship due to his having been reduced to 18 years old by Extant in the Zero Hour crossover at the time, they did manage to reconcile more or less.

I am just simply stupefied beyond belief that a so-called historian like Tipton would throw away his credibility out of a childish bias and openly take part in this obscene deception of the public and the fans. And it only makes me feel all the more sorry for Jean Loring to have suffered such a horrible misuse. And, just like with Mr. Smith, what good does it do for Mr. Tipton to argue that Avengers Disassembled is bad if he can't, at the very least, ask if Identity Crisis suffers from any such problems either?

Still, I guess I can’t expect too much from a website owned by Kevin Smith, can I?

The last to be dealt with here is Randy Lander of the Fourth Rail review site, which he co-runs with Don MacPherson. Theirs is a fairly biased website, even though I will have to say that Mr. Lander did write a good review of IC, and that is what I congratulate him for.

"The central premise of this book seems to be about tearing down the heroic ideal and "gritty"-ing up the DC Universe, and that's not what I tune into mainstream superhero comics for."

However, I am both confused and appalled at the same time, due to how he takes a favorable position towards Grant Morrison’s work on New X-Men from 2001, whose first issues left me feeling bitter and with a bad aftertaste. The ugly visuals included the stereotypical Nova, supposed sister of Xavier, but really living energy spawned from his own mind somehow, and the 117th issue was pretty sensationalistic too. And oh yes, there are other steps taken at Marvel that Lander sided with as well, whether they were in good taste or not. (Example: ASM #36.) Let's be clear here, even I don't tune in to mainstream superhero comics for what he says above, but then isn't that more or less what the X-Men book Morrison wrote was? And aren't the X-Men also mainstream, whatever our opinions on what's being written and featured in their books?

For this reason, I find it simultaneously hard to be fully convinced by his argument regarding IC, when he can’t even stand up and say the same for whatever [overrated] steps Marvel took under Bill Jemas, whether it be overbaked violence or even overly politicized storylines. To put it this way, I don't read the JLA for the kind of violence featured in IC, but then neither do I read the X-Men for that purpose either. My assumption, at least to a certain extent, is that Lander is one of those kind of people who misperceives the DCU as a place of pure optimism and the MCU as a place of pure pessimism, and reads these two respective universes specifically for those reasons. (Or, he's used to seeing graphic violence and crude story elements featured in Marvel, but not in DC.) Is it any wonder that, as a result, either universe ends up getting damaged as a result of what the big two seem to think of what readers of either company think of the other’s, and end up trying to imitate the other’s approach, which does little more than to damage their own books and characters in the process? That he would go along and take a position against the war in Iraq, as he did back in 2003, doesn't help matters.

As for MacPherson, his partner in reviewing, the less said about him, the better.

In conclusion

I may have enjoyed reading the works of these three writers, Smith, Tipton, and Lander, years ago. And I guess it’s only fair to say that I don’t regret when I did. But enjoy their writings though I did years ago, I cannot and will not recommend them today. And I can certainly say this much: if this is what comics coverage in the mainstream media and even the special online press for comics itself is going to be like, superficial, sugarcoated, double-stadardized and going by what the establishment wants and expects, well, all I can say is that, as devoted fans, we are in deep, DEEP trouble.

Which is probably why, realizing that something has to be done to keep an eye on this kind of stuff, so that anyone who finds it appalling can think of what to do…that’s why I’m announcing the launching of a special media watchdog weblog I put together, called Comics and Globe Watch. It won’t be exclusively for comics news monitoring, there will be some postings on it about world affairs too, but anyway, the purpose of it is in order to pay attention to media biases and sugarcoated approaches to reporting on the subject of comic books whenever possible.

Whenever I can, I will be posting brief items to it to let it be known when something bad – but also good – is being reported in press about comic books and what they’re like. And I do hope it can make a difference of some sort, and help to figure out what can and should be done about the problem of “undedicated” covering of the comics medium by reporters and reviewers and historians who supposedly understand the medium as a whole.

So for now, let us all hope for the best, and that this can help out in making the world of comic books a better place – media-wise.

Copyright 2005 Avi Green. All rights reserved.

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