“Zadzooks!” Scores a Big Win over “Dear Captain”

Why Joseph “Zadzooks” Szadkowski is cooler than Andrew “Captain Comics” Smith. Plus, Peter "Comics in Context" Sanderson versus Scott "Comics 101" Tipton

June 8, 2005

By Avi Green

“Current state of the comic-book industry: I think a lot people perceive the comic-book industry as a farm team for movies, and I know that Warner Bros. treats DC Comics as almost an idea lab. Comic books themselves are not a big business anymore, and it is very hard to make a profit just with comic books. Comic books largely exist now as a means to springboard into other ancillary forms of income. Create a character and then do merchandise, video games and movies. Because of that element, they will always exist.” – David S. Goyer, in an interview with the Washington Times, by Joseph Szadkowski.

Now there’s something you don’t usually see in mainstream media sources like, say, the New York Times, right? And from personal experience, it’s not something I’ve usually seen in mainstream media sources like the Captain Comics columns from Scripps-Howard News Service, or the Dear Captain columns from the Comics Buyer's Guide either!

But seeing it in the Washington Times, in an interview conducted by Joseph Szadkowski, who writes the“Zadzooks!” column for the newspaper, which usually appears on Saturdays, and sometimes even on other days of the week, this shows that a more clearer perspective of what the film industry – and maybe even the comics industry itself – is or could be like, can be found in a mainstream newspaper after all, and could even help to figure out what to do about it.

After reading comics columns in mainstream newspapers years ago, like what Andrew Smith, whose very biased coverage in two different columns of DC Comics’ overrated monstrosity called Identity Crisis I dissected back in March, columns that rank right down there alongside an awful Washington Post article by Terry Neal, which Hugh Hewitt dissected on his own weblog some time ago, I was probably on the verge of giving up all hope that mainstream press would ever be able to produce something with any real sincerity.

Luckily, that’s pretty much changed, now that I’ve discovered the works of Joseph Szadkowski, who writes not just about comics, but also about computer games, movies, and other assorted and related items, for The Washington Times, one of the best, most thoughtfully written dailies in the US.

One of the best columns I came across from Szadkowski was the interview he gave to Stan "The Man" Lee in mid-2004, when Spider-Man 2 was making its debut on the silver screen. It offered something I’d never seen before in any interviews Mr. Smith gave (which, now that I think of it, never amounted to many either):

"The easiest way to get a supervillain is the accident in the lab," Mr. Lee says from his California office. "I remembered the pictures of scientists working with radioactive material, and to keep them from becoming radioactive, they had the arms that went through the glass shelf that they can manipulate the stuff.

"So I had a guy have the accident, and four arms became grafted to him. Of course, I named him Dr. Otto Octavius, and those arms would make him look like an octopus."

According to comic lore, each of Ock's extremely powerful tentacles moves at incredible speeds and enables him to lift a vehicle off the ground, pulverize bricks, claw through concrete walls and hover above his victims by rising into the air.

His popularity through the years has relied on those technological marvels along with the tale of the sad, once good, man attached to them -- a character profile that has worked well with Mr. Lee's knack of creating popular villains. – Stan Lee, in an interview with The Washington Times, June 30, 2004, by Joseph Szadkowski

Wow. That, I tell you, is much, MUCH better, and gives more to think about, than anything I’ve ever read from Andrew Smith, even when he’s writing in the Comics Buyer’s Guide, to be sure. And I do wonder, did Mr. Smith ever have the pleasure that Mr. Szadkowski did, in interviewing Stan the Man Lee? Frankly, I’m really not sure (not that he’s worthy of the pleasure though, if you ask me).

I’m not sure just how long Mr. Szadkowski’s been working at this, maybe 6-7 years now, but since the Washington Times’ website only began to expand its online services two years ago, I can’t be sure. Even so, now that I’ve discovered his wonderful writings, I can certainly say that it was quite a delight, and a most welcome change from reading Mr. Smith’s sugary articles, that’s for sure.

Now, let’s compare two articles written by the two writers, and see what the differences are between them, and which one comes off better than the other. What we have following are two articles that talk about Elektra, written during the time of the movie’s release in early 2005. First, here’s Andrew Smith’s column:

"In recognition of the Elektra movie, which stars Jennifer Garner and debuted Jan. 14, we have a special guest in the Comics Cave: Daredevil, the Man Without Fear!

Thanks for having me, Captain.

Thanks for coming, DD. Now let’s get to it. As we all know, Elektra got her start in Daredevil No. 168 (Marvel Comics, January 1981), where she played a former college girlfriend of yours who’d taken a different path -- specifically, she’d become a remorseless ninja assassin after her father had been murdered. Given your romantic history, her appearance put you through some changes.

Oh, yes, that caused a few sparks! Fans still talk about it! Those early Elektra appearances, co-starring Kingpin and Bullseye, were the very ones adapted for my movie, Daredevil, which –

Which didn’t make much money. And there’s not likely to be a Daredevil 2, is there?

Eh, no.

So, let’s get back to Elektra.

Um, sure. But like in my movie, Elektra was killed in my comics by Bullseye (in DD No. 181), which caused me great emotional turmoil. In fact, I --

That wasn’t the end of Elektra, though. Like in the movie, she came back.

Um, yeah. A villainous ninja cult called The Hand tried to re-animate her as a soulless killer using mystic ninja hoodoo. But I, combined with my blind mentor Stick and a good-guy ninja cult called The Chaste, foiled their plans. Instead she was briefly resurrected, and my great love for Elektra, combined with the mystic ceremony, purified her soul (Daredevil No. 190). This redemption was symbolized by her outfit turning white, and an oblique finale suggesting that she had been allowed to go to her final reward. Such was my selfless passion that --

But Elektra’s saga didn’t end that way. She was too popular to stay dead, right?

Well, if you say so. It’s not like she’s had her own series running nearly continually since 1964, like some blind superheroes in red tights I could mention. But, yeah, Marvel later pulled her out of the ground." – Andrew Smith, Scripps-Howard News Service, January 15, 2005

Now as you can see above, and in the rest of the column itself, if you read it, all that Andrew Smith is doing is conducting a fictionalized interview with Daredevil, Elektra’s former amour, and not trying to opine on the movie in any genuine way. And even in his column from January 30, 2005, he was far from trying to genuinely opine on any of these unsuccessful comics-to-films either.

Sure, it’s nice to get to know a thing or two about character history. And a fictionalized interview with a fictional character can certainly be inventive and fun to work on. Even I once tried something like that myself, when I wrote one with Ben Grimm three years ago. But that’s still no substitute for a real, authentic opinion on what the movie itself is like, and whether it’s good or bad. So when it comes to actually opining on the movie itself, that’s where Mr. Smith really fumbles the ball.

Now, let’s take a look at Joseph Szadkowski’s column from January 22, 2005:

"The comic book character Elektra Natchios debuted in 1981 during a legendary run of the Daredevil series fueled by the gutsy writing and art style of Frank Miller.

Mr. Miller and other creators from Marvel Comics portrayed the female assassin for hire as a complex entity, in a variety of roles ranging from daughter to girlfriend to martial arts expert to resurrected and conflicted killer.

He turned Matt Murdock's femme fatale into a 24-year legend of the sequential art world through various miniseries, meetings with Daredevil and her own monthly title.
Her recent solo film debut, "Elektra," does nothing to embellish the legend and at most will leave the Elektra fan wondering why it was even attempted.

Sure, comic book fans get something of a retelling of her myth, mainly culled from the books Elektra Saga (which reprints the pivotal Daredevil issues) and the Elektra Assassin miniseries of 1986.

In the film they watch her perish at the hands of Bullseye, get resurrected by a powerful martial arts sect headed by her mentor Stick and remain at war with the evil Japanese organization of warriors, the Hand.

Unfortunately, the 96-minute "Elektra," the movie, gives director Rob Bowman only a chance to muddle through her life, with almost equal time given to flashback as to her current predicaments. It is not a pretty sight -- despite the fact that Jennifer Garner is always a pretty sight.

Here are a few observations on the film relevant to its comic book roots as well as why it will not be ending up in any of my top pop-culture memories any time soon:

When does a filmmaker know his project is not living up to expectations? When commercials for the movie promote the preview of another film. Yep, I just saw a television spot reminding viewers that in addition to seeing "Elektra," they would be privy to the first "Fantastic Four" film promotional clip, if they would visit the theater.

(snip)

Where are the nasty villains and grandiose fight scenes? I do not want some guy hiding among floating white satin sheets (I could watch Billy Squire terminate his career in the music video, "Rock Me Tonight") while he swings swords at Elektra. I also want a Typhoid Mary character as psycho as the one portrayed in the comic books.

Isn't "Elektra" really just a made-for-TV movie? When I spend $8.50 on a flick, I either want "Lord of the Rings" quality or at least De Niro-meets- Pacino-meets-Olivier firepower.

I at least want a film in the 120-minute range. It's not my fault for demanding this. Blame the brilliance of Sam Raimi, Peter Jackson, James Cameron and other directors who have managed to deliver spectacular epics that need to be seen on the big screen.

Where can I find a definitive Elektra multimedia experience? I suggest viewing the "Daredevil: Director's Cut" DVD edition ($19.99) and then curling up with Elektra Lives Again trade paperback ($24.95) to enjoy the life of a woman who once had the hots for Matt Murdock and now has the hots for a pair of Sai." – Joseph Szadkowski, The Washington Times, January 22, 2005

Wow! And here I was thinking only the blogosphere was capable of presenting so fine an argument!

So you see, Szadkowski’s column wins over Smith’s column because by contrast, Szadkowski actually makes an effort, from the viewpoint of a comic book expert, to offer the reader his own opinion about the movie! (Also, if anyone’s interested, here’s a review of the movie from one of the paper’s own movie critics as well.) And, as an added bonus to the above column, he even writes about the passing of one of comicdom's greatest, Will Eisner.

Here’s another example of Mr. Zad’s specialties in reviewing comic books:

"The Flash: Blitz trade paperback (DC Comics, $19.95). Compiling issues 192 through 200 of the monthly series devoted to the fastest man alive, the 224-page book features a story arc by artist Scott Kolins and writer Geoff Johns -- who, at a frenetic pace, manages to squeeze an unbelievable amount of pain and angst from the current man behind the crimson mask, Wally West.

After Flash deals with an escape attempt by Gorilla Grodd from Iron Heights Penitentiary, in which the hairy brainiac releases all of Flash's archenemies, things get even uglier as he confronts the reverse Flash, Zoom, who is out to make Wally a better hero by destroying his personal life. Fans will love seeing multiple Flash incarnations in the pages but may be a bit disappointed by Mr. Johns' sober ending.

What's it worth? If it weren't for guest artist Phil Winslade unleashing his amazing style in issue 196 and showing me how great the entire book could have looked, I easily would have recommended the full price of admission, but instead, the work gives back just 85 percent of my time and emotional investment." – Joseph Szadkowski, The Washington Times, August 28, 2004

While Szadkowski does seem to review trade paperbacks more often than the current pamphlet issues of a book, one thing is clear: he writes actual reviews. And that’s one of the things that makes his columns the masterpieces – and certainly the compelling news sources – they are.

By contrast, Smith reviews trades/pamphlets far too little, preferring instead to focus on bloated, so-called “events”, including one wherein the only “identity crisis” that seemed to exist was one being suffered by a male superhero who ends up wearing a female version of his own costume at the end of the story (don’t ask), ditto the size-and-weight control belt the woman who’d designed the costume was wearing as well when comitting an act of murder against another woman who just so happened to be pregnant (again, don’t ask) and was revealed to have been raped by a supercrook wearing a funny-looking costume and a goofy-looking goatee years before (still, don't ask), a revelation rendered totally irrelevant to the murder by how said woman who used said size-and-weight control belt revealed herself to be the culprit, in ways that didn’t make any damn sense, and even went so far as to invite her ex-hubby to hit her (again still, don’t ask) all because she wanted him back, in complete contradiction of what happened when said couple got divorced back in the mid-1980s. Yeah, right, that’s what the public needs to be told about? All without even giving a fair description of some of the things that go on inside the book or who the characters are? Puh-leez.

By contrast, Szadkowski does his best to do almost all the things Smith doesn’t or won’t do: to inform the public about what the comic books he reviews are like, offer a solid opinion on the books he does, and even to offer something you might not see in a mainstream newspaper like what Mr. Smith writes for, like what David Goyer mentioned at the start of this article. And unlike Smith, Szadkowski doesn’t try to shove sensationalized storylines down the throats of the readers, like Smith did when talking about a certain miniseries that read like a fanfic, and featured a contrived fight scene with a master mercenary, a scene featuring shock tactics that weren’t essential to the story, and yet, Smith claimed that they were, without even describing what was going on in any of the issues and what they were to readers. And if he can’t or won’t explain anything to the readers, how can Mr. Smith’s whole argument on these publicity stunts he writes about be expected to hold up?

While it’s true that a newspaper in print can only allow a certain amount of space, meaning that much may and will have to be edited in the final cut, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to work it all out in a way that can leave the reader with something genuinely deep to think about afterwards. Alas, Mr. Smith, while I’m sure he could if he wanted to, just simply doesn’t do that, and that is exactly why, whenever I think back upon it now, I realize that his columns leave very little to the mind to think about afterwards, other than superficial statements, and were watered down considerably to boot. In fact, about the best thing I can say is – “good gravy, what was I thinking when I read all those Captain Comics columns back then?”

It’s a perfect head-scratcher for me.

That’s why, when I came upon Mr. Szadkowski’s columns in the Washington Times about a year ago, they were the most remarkable breath of fresh air I’d ever tasted since I came to the realization that Mr. Smith’s columns were nothing more than sugarladen superficiality, and gave the reader little to think about, were deliberately biased in favor of a certain book, subject, or company, or just didn’t tell the whole story.

When I look for comics news in the mainstream press, what I’m interested in is something really in depth that tells you something about what the book in question is really like, and thus allows for me, the reader, to decide if this is something I’m interested in reading myself and also buying. But not just that, I want to know in advance just what kind of elements and situations take place inside the book in question, so that then, if I do go to check out the book, I can determine if they’re essential to and service the story, if they make any sense, and also, if they’re in good taste and not shock value tactics.

What Mr. Smith did not mention in his columns, of course, was that the parts he either refers to, or doesn’t, include Zatanna getting punched in her cute little tummy by Deathstroke, which causes her to vomit, the Flash being stabbed in the leg, and even Black Canary getting…

Nope, I can’t do it. What I can say however is that anyone who would just go along without a second thought and say that that isn’t shock value is not a fan of the Black Canary, or of any of the DCU for that matter. And that Mr. Smith should withhold that information from the readership is simply inexcusable, and being dishonest with them to boot.

And what did Mr. Smith have to say about the return of Kara Zor-El, the original Supergirl, the story that really deserved attention last year? Absolutely NOTHING. He wrote virtually nothing about the return of the true Maiden of Might to Superman's world and the DCU in his newspaper column within that time, the collosal sales for the Superman/Batman story heralding her return, which were number one on the sales charts for virtually every issue published, notwithstanding. And I'm left wondering to myself, what exactly makes a book built upon the death of a character in a forced, contrived storyline, mountains more important than the revival of a beloved character of yore? Why should something that "builds" upon a death - and even worse than a death - that in the end, bears virtually no geunine impact, have to take up the bulk of the news coverage in the mainstream press?

That’s exactly why, as I’ve since realized, Mr. Smith is most certainly not the one whose columns I should read in order to find out any of the above whenever reading the mainstream press. He did not describe, even in the simplest of details, any of the “horrifying events” that took place in Identity Crisis, or even the out-of-character depictions in Avengers: Disassembled, and it was also very unclear what he meant, or what he was talking about. Nope, he just said they’re that way “because I said so” and the reader of his columns is apparently supposed to accept whatever he says at face value. Sorry, but, that’s not being fair to the consumer. To be honest and fair with the consumer, you have to give them some kind of description of the elements and situations within the story, so that they can be prepared to know and understand what to expect if they read the books, and, like I said for myself above, to determine if the elements, tactics, situations, whatever, are well done and in good taste. And if there's anything most disappointing of all, it's that, instead of helping to promote the return of a most beloved lady to the DCU, Mr. Smith goes and helps to promote the death of another most beloved lady instead, to say nothing of the demonization of still another lady, to boot.

And that’s why Szadkowski’s columns and other works in the Washington Times deliver for me: because they present me with exactly what I’m looking for: an opinion. And, unlike Smith, whether or not he offers any really in depth details, he doesn’t try to make it sound as if the consumer should just be taking what he says at face value.

Let’s take a look at another of Mr. Zad’s interesting accomplishments. For example, when reviewing Batgirl: Year One’s trade:

"I'm fine with the reimagining thanks to the writers presenting delicious subplots and plenty of superhero appearances -- from Justice Society of America's Wildcat to JLA's Black Canary, and classic villains such as the hilariously inept Killer Moth, the psychotic pyrotechnic Firefly and bunglingly stupid Blockbuster.

Arch villains, however, are not Barbara's primary conflicts. To comfortably take flight as the Batgirl she must convince the Justice Society of her worth, stay out of the range of her father -- the police commissioner of Gotham City, James Gordon -- team up with Black Canary, and battle to gain respect from the "big Bat" in town.

The plot never lags. When Batgirl isn't busy proving she's not too diminutive to act as an accomplished masked detective, she's being dragged to the Batcave for some intense trials by fire or while she keeps up quite a flirtation with the Boy Wonder... and an officer from Gotham's finest.

Overall, I loved the entire tone and flow of the series and especially appreciated the artwork of Marcos Martin and Alvaro Lopez." – Joseph Szadkowski, Washington Times, January 10, 2004

And then, when reviewing two issues of the short-lived Hawkeye series from 2003, same column:

"Writer Fabian Nicieza wastes too much time turning Clint Barton, aka Hawkeye, into a Clint Eastwood loner type detective, helping a scantily clothed damsel in distress while uncovering an obligatory "war buddies" conspiracy and not enough time focusing on the profile of the man who would wear the purple mask and his skill with a bow. The gritty and graphic reinterpretation of the superhero genre has already been done to death and much better thanks to the likes of Brian Michael Bendis and his Alias series."

While I may not agree with some of what he says in there of how Marvel’s “revolution” of yesteryear delivered a wide range of excellent books, what I can certainly say is that it’s impressive to see that Szadkowski actually offers a negative opinion without sounding watered down, or like he’s doing it out of some weird, favoratist bias!

Finally, still from the same column, here’s what he had to say about Hulk: Gray, by Jeph Loeb:

"I have mixed feelings as I read the first half of a reimagining of the Hulk origin. Writer Jeph Loeb sets a tale within a tale as Bruce Banner reflects on his becoming the Hulk by baring his soul to psychologist Leonard Sampson that does nothing to surprise or enlighten. But, the premise gives artist Tim Sale plenty of room to draw some neat "Hulk Smash" panels and pay homage to the Jack Kirby years of the Gray Goliath's mythos. So basically, I dig the pretty pictures but don't care that the first thing Bruce Banner's alter ego."

Of all the opinions I’ve seen wherein the writer argues that the artwork beats out the story quality, this is one of the most honest, and now that I think of it, it’s not often I’ve ever seen Mr. Smith writing about something like that, if at all.

So you see, this is why Mr. Szadkowski is the one to look to when you’re looking for a sufficiently defined opinion of a comic book on the stands, or in the trades. And unlike Mr. Smith, Szadkowski did not waste his time gushing over some incredibly overhyped, fanboyish idiocy like Identity Crisis, while using another incredibly overhyped, fanboyish idiocy like Avengers: Disassembled, as a possible form of “moral eqivalency” wherein the columnist could be trying to say, “see! I don’t like what one company is doing by resorting to publicity stunts! You don’t have to worry. I’m not biased!” Which simply doesn’t ring true.

So if you need a good comics columnist writing a major/mainstream newspaper who can help provide a guide of what’s the best stuff out there, and even what isn’t, that’s why I’d say that Joseph Szadkowski is the most ideal one to turn to. It’s the kind of thing you may not notice at first, but when you do, it just grows on you with plenty of excitement. And with any luck, this could signal the dawn of a really reliable coverage for comic books in the mainstream media.

And with any additional luck, maybe Szadkowski will open a website of his very own in the near future too!

Why IGN’s Comics in Context wins over Movie Poop Shoot’s Comics 101

Even before I came upon the works of Joseph Szadkowski, I came upon those of Peter Sanderson, a comics historian who’s probably been around in the business as early as the late 1970s, and I even own a copy of Action Comics #448 which contains a letter that he wrote to the editors regarding both Superman’s stories and also the Green Arrow backup stories that were published there in rotation with the Atom’s for a few years, until Green Lantern’s own series was revived, and GA and Black Canary resumed their partnership with him again.

As far as I know, Dick Giordano, the famous inker who’d been DC’s EIC for many years, once described him in one of his monthly “Meanwhile…” columns as a “fan critic”, and he certainly may have contributed to some notable comics magazines over the years too. Since 2003, he’s been writing a column called Comics in Context at least twice monthly for IGN, and just like Mr. Szadkowski, he too can have more on the menu than just comics, of course. Even animation can make his resume, and what’s impressive about his columns is that he writes some pretty long, in depth items that can be about 7 pages long, mainly because they’re formatted that way!

But long or short, the point is that they certainly offer much more to think about than anything that Movie Poop Shoot’s own Scott Tipton does, in his own Comics 101 columns, which are little more than a picture-book tour of the surface, and not the deep insides, of comics and their history, both old and new. And, unlike Tipton, Sanderson certainly doesn’t maintain the same kind of biases that Tipton does, such as the time when MPS’s would-be historian apparently made up his mind where he stands on this or that book, which was certainly the case surrounding IC, and when he said “feh” at one point in that now notorious column of his, that’s when I knew he wasn’t serious about his positions, not even on whatever bad things Marvel’s done, including Avengers: Disassembled and also Amazing Spider-Man: Sins Past. “Feh”? That’s just saying, in other words, something akin to “aww, this is nothing.” Or even thumbing his nose at Marvel and saying, “DC’s mega-extravaganza-of-the-year is better than yours, Marvel! And I like it better, so nyeah-nyeah!” (Don’t worry, I’m not forgetting that Tipton is working for the guy who launched the world’s very first “Vulgarthon”, Kevin Smith, and that it’s to be expected that he could probably take up a position that’s not all different from the boss-man!)

By contrast, Sanderson doesn’t take that kind of low, shallow approach to opinionating that Tipton does (or even Andrew Smith, if that matters), and offers instead some very thoughtful commentary on comics and cartoons that could probably be described as “what if the Atlantic Monthly were a comics magazine?” You can probably guess the answer.

What impressed me most about Sanderson’s columns on IC was when he focused on something that a lot of IC's defenders seemed to ignore, as seen in this excerpt from column #57:

"Notice that Sue mostly appears in Identity Crisis either as a corpse (on an autopsy table or concealed within a coffin), or in flashbacks. There are only a few scenes with a living Sue in the "present," and, of course, in one of these she is a victim of a murderer. In the longest of her flashbacks, she is a victim, too, this time of rape. In other flashbacks, she is portrayed through Ralph's point of view: happy, beautiful, and idealized.

But Sue is not allowed to make much of an impression through her own efforts. Either she is viewed by Ralph (and the reader) as the Ideal Woman, or she is the victim of brutal men. (Her unknown murderer is apparently male.)

Identity Crisis is more about the reactions of Ralph and other characters to Sue's death than it is about Sue. She's almost treated as a Hitchcockian MacGuffin in this story: the catalyst that is of no real importance. She is a "minor" character in the tale turning on her own rape and death! Her husband's grief seems to be of more dramatic importance than her life and her suffering. Sue is treated as an extension of a man's grief (and of other men's hatred) more than as a person in her own right."

Excellent point. As I've noticed, very few, if at all, of those who supported this little act of bigotry actually tried to focus upon the one-sided, ultra-masculine focus the miniseries has on women, whether it be Sue or even the other female protagonists. Scott Tipton certainly didn't try to offer any genuine focus, while as for Andrew Smith, he avoided any such questions altogether.

Then, in the next column, Mr. Sanderson asked a question that too few seem to be asking themselves either, as seen in the excerpt below from column #58:

“Meltzer is trying to reconcile the crafty Doctor Light of the Schwartz Silver Age stories with the comedy villain of The New Teen Titans. Of course, what happened in real life was that Titans writer, Marv Wolfman, for unknown reasons, decided to make Doctor Light goofy. (Perhaps because this costume now looks somewhat silly?) Wolfman was writing Doctor Light out of character, but then again, so is Meltzer. What evidence is there in 1960s stories that Doctor Light would stoop to rape? (Or that he was even sexually interested in women or anybody?)”

Absolutely correct. What evidence is there indeed? In fact, what evidence is there that even Marvel’s own supervillains would stoop to rape, should Marvel ever think to stoop so low as to publish a story of similar non-quality themselves?

One of the most unique qualities about many of DC and Marvel’s own villains back in the Golden and Silver Age was that they were honorable, and whether or not they were willing to kill, they didn’t stoop to crimes worse than that. Even Captain Cold, who’d once kidnapped Iris West in a Flash storyline during the mid-60s where he wanted to try and talk her into marrying him, was respectable towards her as a lady, and didn’t try to hurt her any more than she was over his abduction of her. Even the Vulture, winged maniac that he was, would never have done something like that.

And one of the most baffling things about many of those who’re still defending the direction DC’s been pushing for in Identity Crisis (and even in Countdown to Infinite Crisis) is how they almost all dismiss/ignore the questions of characterization, past, present, and even future, for Dr. Light and even other villains who may have been put through the same distortions as well. On Howling Curmudgeons, there was a topic in which one of the respondents pointed out that:

"The rape in Identity Crisis I'd argue served no purposed and was at odds with the characterization of Sue Dibny that 'followed' the event: at no time in any appearance did Sue's behavior change sufficiently for me to believe she'd been raped. (And it wasn't in character with Dr. Light, either: create a trap that divides the Justice League up into segments, sure, but rape their family members? Even when he was a calculating criminal mastermind he didn't show any signs of that level of sadism.) While I'd agree with you that graphic rape scenes should be exceedingly rare and shouldn't exist only to create shock, controversy and thus sales, I'd be very cautious about setting a hard and fast rule for any story element."

Well said. How come none of the defenders of DC's insult to injury to the intellect ever tried to focus on what was discussed above? And if Batman could figure out that his own mind had been tampered with, why couldn't a smart girl like Sue do the same? She is a very witty and intelligent character herself, and that the effects of erasing her memory should work so ultra-perfectly on her, when here, Batman and Dr. Light, end up overcoming their own loss of memory, is insulting. If Batman could tell that there was a period of time missing from his memory, shouldn't Sue be able to figure out that she too is missing something from her own?

In fairness, I will say that, if Arthur Light really, truly had to be turned into a rapist, then that's why it should have been done in the present time, and not in the past. If you’re going to make what some people refer to as change, it has to be consistent with what has come before, something that, oddly enough, I once saw being discussed, and then ignored, on the Captain Comics website about a year ago.

This is one of the leading reasons why retroactively revealing Dr. Light as a rapist, and then even implying that he was that bad years before, by having him threaten to go and rape Sue again and target the other superheroes' family members as well, fails as badly as it does. It’s not consistent with previously established character history, and when he goes and mouths off with threats to go after Sue again and even to attack the families of the other superheroes, it just couldn’t have been more forced, mechanical and contrived.

Yet almost none of the defenders of IC ever seemed to question that part. And even Scott Tipton himself wasn’t exactly trying to do so, which puts his credibility as a comics historian even further under a question mark.

Speaking of which…

It was a little over a year or so ago that Tipton himself wrote the following, but, it’s surprising that Tipton, in a manner of speaking, actually admitted back on February 25, 2004 that Jean was not the stereotype he later implied she was when he was dealing with the mail correspondence:

‘Ray’s failures in the lab are compounded by his frustrated love life, as his girlfriend, Jean Loring, refuses to marry him until she’s proved herself a success as a lawyer, “before I give up my career and settle down.” Ah, the sixties.’

In fact, now that I recall, that was where I got that picture (from Showcase #34, 1961) of Ray and Jean from that I posted on the previous essay I wrote, when I was once looking for some interesting picture scans across the internet from great comics past that I could save to disk on my own computer, because I was looking for some pictures to use for some essays I was trying to write, but couldn’t remember what was said by Tipton there until now. But here’s the part that really comes as interesting:

“Correspondingly, she expected Ray to prove himself as a scientist before she would agree to marry him. No pressure or anything.”

Great guardians! So in other words, Tipton actually admitted back at the time that Jean was in no ways trying to manipulate Ray or force him to prove himself overtime in his own career in order to get her to agree to marrying him. By contradicting himself, as he did when responding to the writer on the mail page back on December 20, 2004, all he did was to enforce the image that I now have of him as childish…and even selfish. Exactly what he accuses Jean Loring of being.

Sad to say though, even back in February, Tipton, as I notice now, still had some kind of unclear bias being maintained, which may or may not be surprising:

“However, the Atom’s status quo took an unexpected twist in 1983, with the publication of SWORD OF THE ATOM, a 4-issue miniseries by writer Jan Strnad and original Atom artist Gil Kane that took the character in a brand-new direction. After his wife’s infidelity led to the end of their marriage (I always knew Jean was bad news), Ray Palmer discovered a miniature alien culture hidden in the jungles of South America, and, having fallen in love with the tribe’s yellow-skinned princess, abandoned his life and his size-changing belt to live permanently with the tribe at a height of six inches. There were several one-shot specials about the new jungle Atom following the miniseries, all by Strnad and Kane.”

Huh? Whaddaya mean that Jean was “bad news”, Tipton? Is this supposed to meant that you’re that naive in thinking that she was as much of a jerk as you seem to? Or, that you really think that a fictional character is at fault for how she was being characterized at the time? Or, worst of all, that you actually want to believe that she’s a bad person?

If there’s any most important point that Mr. Tipton completely misses here, it’s that Jean Loring is a completely fictional character. She can only do what the writers write for her to do. But in any case, I do have to ask: if that’s how Mr. Tipton really feels about, Jean, well then, is it really that much to ask for a repair job, not to mention character development?

By completely overlooking the fact that Jean Loring is an entirely fictional character, and can only do what she’s written to do by the writers, whether it was Gardner Fox or anyone else who wrote the Atom at DC, all that Mr. Tipton has done is to make me lose respect for him even more. And this is compounded even further when he retorts (and even says the word retort) to the correspondent on December 20:

“Tipton retorts: I pay no attention to hype or promotion, and just read the stories, so I'm not carrying the baggage that you seem to be about whether it "lived up" or not.”

Say what?!? Jeepers, who would’ve thought that someone working in that professional a job would’ve actually been willing to say something that rude in response to someone who just wanted to ask him a simple, cordial question? And which only serves to further damage the credibility of his positions. What he says in retort is like telling his correspondent that he's "seeing things that aren't there", or even something like, "you really worry about nothing."

If that's what Tipton is telling his correspondent there, then suffice it to say that he's committed a textbook example of how not to conduct such an argument.

The funniest thing about the column he wrote though, is when, while talking about how he used the engagement ring he offered to Jean as a way to carve a hole in the rock of the cave where they and the nature club were stuck in back in Showcase #34 back in 1961, he wrote in parentheses:

“(Aside: Ray Palmer may be the most whipped superhero in the history of comics. He carries that ring around for rejection after rejection? Man. Get a little self-respect.)”

Well, duh, look who’s talking! This is someone who actually approves of a miniseries that’s trying to make even Ray Palmer himself look un-heroic, thinks it’s perfectly okay for it to insult the guy’s former wife, and even comes up with contrived, exaggerated excuses that Ray actually told Jean all about who Batman and everyone else is without any restrictions! Oh, and I guess even Metamorpho told his own wife, Sapphire Stagg-Mason, who the Batman is when finding out years ago too? Puh-leez.

Needless to say, if Sapphire Stagg-Mason were ever written as a shrew in her time, and then pegged as a culprit in a crapfest like Identity Crisis, he’d be just as quick as can be on the trigger to say that she’d be willing to stoop to murder as well, and based on that alone, that it all supposedly makes sense! Ditto Carol Ferris and even Iris West Allen as well.

If that’s how Tipton is going to go around arguing, by taking incredible leaps and lapses in logic and even acting contemptuous towards his own correspondents, then is it any wonder that Peter Sanderson comes off as the much better historian? Which, now that I bring it up, would be a good idea to get back to now.

One of the most interesting things about Sanderson’s #58 column besides what I first quoted is where he points out the political allusions that are certainly to be found in the book, whether before or after they happened:

“So far, at least, Identity Crisis seems simply to be undercutting the moral stature of many Silver Age superheroes, and by extension, the Silver Age itself. The "magic lobotomy" of Doctor Light is the JLA's Abu Ghraib scandal.”

I was thinking almost the same thing when I pondered this last year. Of course, what I wondered was if this bears any parallels to 9-11, which, sadly…it apparently does.

Then, in the column from January:

“It gets still worse. Jean is incarcerated in Arkham Asylum. Now, this Grand Guignol house of horrors may seem dramatically appropriate for many of Batman's recurring adversaries, who are hardly realistic characters. But Jean Loring is a "real" person in a world of superheroes. If she is mentally disturbed, then she should receive real psychiatric help, and not be locked away in this anachronistic dungeon. Identity Crisis shows us a tabloid headline: "Atom's Wife Tortured by Inmates." Torture should not even happen to cold-blooded killers. Is the headline meant to be true? If so, does anyone – like the Atom or other superheroes – try to stop the torture? It appears not.

Thus, in one fell swoop, Identity Crisis manages to degrade two of Schwartz's heroines. But wait, it actually assaults three of them, because even though a number of Justice Leaguers agreed to brainwash various people – including Batman! – it was Zatanna who actually did the deeds. Not only that, but she did it incompetently, damaging Dr. Light's mind.

Other Schwartz Silver Age heroines are lucky they weren't in this series. Then again, Iris West and Adam Strange's "sweetheart" Alanna have both been killed off and resurrected in times past, the Silver Age Hawkgirl doesn't really exist in the present revised continuity, and Barbara Gordon was permanently crippled. This is not a good track record for DC.”

Absolutely correct. In fact, thinking back on all that they’ve done, ever since Crisis on Infinite Earths, I can only wonder – is DC responsible for leading to all the use of bloodbaths in crossovers that followed since then? Marvel’s Secret Wars, let us remember, was not being sold on the concept of death, whether en masse or even the skewering of minor characters. DC may or may not have done it more often than Marvel has, but in terms of badness, they may certainly boast the majority. What good was Zero Hour, in example? Or even Armaggeddon, which turned Hank Hall, the former Hawk of the Teen Titans, into a time-overlord called Extant? And I’m not forgetting the godawful Bloodlines crossover, what with its reliance on shock value tactics of its very own, which included the bloody executions of civilian victims at the hands of aliens who can disguise themselves as normal-sized humans! By contrast, while not without its own stupid mistakes, most of Marvel’s crossovers of yore have not been sold as often on the deaths of major or minor characters, even though deaths galore have turned up more than often in some of their major storylines, such as the Ultron Unlimited arc from 1999.

And if putting Jean in Arkham is Meltzer’s or DiDio’s or even DC’s own idea of what being realistic is meant to be, I’d say they should all get themselves a new hobby.

“Well, then, do the Justice Leaguers – mostly male – who agreed to the brainwashing face any sort of moral reckoning? No. They get off scott free. And doesn't it seem strange that Oliver Queen, the original Green Arrow, so memorably portrayed by Denny O'Neil as a committed liberal idealist, would become an apologist for the brainwashing? Isn't this out of character?

Considering all the talk about the many resurrections in the DC Universe in previous issues of "Identity Crisis," I wondered if there would be some sort of payoff in the final issue. But no, Sue's still dead. It's mostly guys, like Superman and Green Arrow, who get to come back.

Identity Crisis has been accused of misogyny. In my past reviews of the series, I've been willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. But now it's clear that, intentionally or not, "Identity Crisis" is indeed disturbingly misogynistic.

Is it possible, though, that with Identity Crisis, the Grim and Gritty school of comics has finally hit bottom? Is the pendulum finally swinging in the opposite direction?”

I can only hope so, especially after what was done with Blue Beetle in Countdown to Infinite Crisis, in which three writers, Greg Rucka, Geoff Johns, and Judd Winick, ruin their credibility by going along and contributing to an editorially mandated one-shot “special” whose only purpose seems to be in order to cheapen the enjoyable impact of Keith Giffen’s and J. M. DeMatties’ run on the Justice League in the late-80s-early-90s, and which Sanderson wrote about over here in this column.

And, in column #63, he wrote:

"Maybe "Avengers Disassembled" is also an attempt to do a new variation on "The Dark Phoenix Saga," but leaving out Chris Claremont and John Byrne's focus on Jean Grey's ultimate heroism. "Avengers Disassembled" seems instead to be arguing that women just can't cope with power: it'll drive them insane. So, perhaps this is a companion piece to Identity Crisis's own misogyny. Of course, writers of late like to turn male heroes into mad killers, too: see Hal Jordan at DC."

This is also very interesting, and it's something else I haven't seen Mr. Tipton, Mr. Smith, or anyone else of their ilk discussing either, even as they panned Disassembled. Which, if you ask me, makes their arguments less than genuine, and even less than altruistic.

This is also something where I'm in disagreement with Sanderson on one thing: that Jean Grey ultimately had any heroism in a story like the Phoenix, which I'm glad she wasn't, in the end. Sure, they'll say it was a study in "power corrupts", but the thing is: she did not succumb to corruption on her own free will. Nope, the power apparently took her over like poison eating away someone's health system. Which is why that story, if you ask me, wasn't "power corrupts" at all. In fact, quite the opposite: it reeked of more or less what Disassembled is guilty of too: the "women can't cope with power" stereotype.

With the exception of just that one part I disagree with, all of the above by Sanderson are very perceptive and thought-provoking questions and answers that I haven’t seen Andrew Smith, Scott Tipton, nor many others of their ilk discussing by contrast. Thinking about them now, it’s practically just as hilarious as that part about the flamethrower in IC #7 to see them saying that bad Marvel books like Truth: Red, White and Black, Avengers Disassembled, and Amazing Spider-Man: Sins Past are as bad as they come, while at the same time throwing away any impact that could be had by going along and almost instantly praising, siding with, and legitimizing Identity Crisis without even stopping to think for a moment, or taking any in-depth look at why it could be just as bad, or why anyone would find that to be just as offensive. Nor did they even try to do what perceptive weblogs like Precocious Curmudgeon did, which was to offer some helpful info on what Meltzer’s real track record has been like, or how the defenders of IC ignore many of the more important reasons as to why anyone’s offended by it to begin with. They go by what’s considered “hot” and not by what could really use some time in the spotlight, like some of what Joseph Szadkowski writes about in his own columns. And, most surprisingly enough, at least in Mr. Smith’s case, is that they go by pretty much the positions being held by Wizard magazine, which Smith sometimes panned on his erstwhile website, while still hyping many of the same things that they did, IC being one of them!

This is exactly why, just like with Mr. Szadkowski, I would also strongly recommend Mr. Sanderson over writers like Mr. Smith and Mr. Tipton any day.

In an era when the public at large would very much like to get some really good answers to the hard questions that fill this world of ours, that’s why, when it comes to major newspapers and even online coverage for comic books, Szadkowski and Sanderson are the ones to really turn to.

Copyright 2005 Avi Green. All rights reserved.

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