Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The Passion of the Beetle

I admittedly haven't been active on the blog lately. To be fair, I think most of us have been in either in a state of shock/rage/disbelief for the past month or so. It makes the notion of sitting down to write a comics blog feel about on par with the string quartet playing while the Titanic was sinking, but at least there is something therapeutic in routine. Not that I ever think I'm going to feel like the results of the 2016 US presidential election should be normalized, but I finally found a way to channel that into my work. And that involved remembering why I started this blog to begin with.

Much like seemingly everything we know about how the Trump administration is going to run, DC's Continuity is a fucked up brier patch of confusion. If you aren't already drinking the Kool-Aid, jumping into a DC event is like jumping out of an airplane headfirst only to find out that not only was it parked, but you just slammed your head into concrete. All that's left is headaches, frustration, and the fleeting hope that this might turn out to be an object lesson about life choices.

With that in mind, we turn to DC Comics' 2005 event series, Infinite Crisis. Yes, I know. Another major DC event in which those two words are key components. Buckle up, kiddos. DC likes it's Crises and both DC and Marvel are gaga over the word "infinite" and/or "infinity." I guess the rule of cool is in full effect when you need to fabricate a global/cosmic/multiversal narrative that brings everyone no matter how far-flung they are into the narrative. Hell, Infinite Crisis even got its own sequel a couple years back with Infinite Crisis: Fight For the Multiverse. As much as I give Marvel side-eye for being lazy enough to put reuse event titles and *at most* slap a number on the title to differentiate, at least they didn't give them sub-headings that sound like they'd be suitable for a multi-player beat-em-up game. Actually, I think I'd play that game.

Of course, the Big Two's approach to events in the mid-00s was a lot different than it was in the mid-80s. Not only have maxi series like Crisis on Infinite Earths gone from being a novelty to being an anual/semi-annual standard, but there are also now additional accoutrements involved. Of course, you still have the on-going series that have to tie in to the greater narrative, but now events tend to trigger mini series, and one-shot stories to bolster the main narrative. Which brings us to today's subject: Countdown to Infinite Crisis. This is not to be confused with Countdown to Final Crisis, which is 51-issues long, and weekly and I won't be touching that unless I find myself with a lot of free time and possibly a paid gig.

No, instead Countdown to Infinite Crisis is a one-shot, albeit mammoth-size, story that hopes to catch the reader up with anyone who hasn't been reading the ongoings up until now. Of course, it's confusing when the introductory issue for your story is not actually part of the main narrative and isn't even part of the same series. When you are on a website like Comixology or diving through back issue boxes, this issue is a separate listing. Unless you were picking these issues out when they were first hitting the stands or if it is incorporated into the collected edition, the casual reader is still going into the main series blind.

I was originally going to pin it as a cheat, since the actual first issue of the actual story was not actually part of the series (books that start with a "zero" issue also teeter on this precipice), but the more I think about it, this is a series failure.

When beginning a narrative, there are two crucial moments: Point of Attack and Inciting Incident. The Point of Attack is the moment the writer chooses  to start the story. The Inciting Incident is the event or decision that causes the problem of the story. Depending on the writer's preference and the needs of the story, they can be simultaneous. The inciting incident can predate the start of a narrative, by hours, days, even years. The Inciting Incident can even happen after the Point of Attack, which is how you often see it diagrammed in your average high school English class text book. These are all acceptable options in storytelling.

What isn't an acceptable option? Writing a Point of Attack, but not making it part of the same narrative. Imagine seeing a version of Hamlet that started *after* the prince met with the ghost of his father was not only cut from the production, but also staged as an independent production, even though it isn't a complete narrative unto itself. Then again, we do live in a world where film studios thought The Hobbit had enough meat to it to warrant three separate films, so maybe I'm a minority voice in a chorus full of stupid.

And even though I've opted to include this as part of the latest stretch of blogging sessions, I'm going to afterwards try my hardest to act as though I've never laid eyes on this. In fact, considering this is nearly triple the size of an average comic, I'm going to breeze through it as quickly as possible. I might just be pointing out stupid shit more than actual important things because I'm going to play the fool and think "why wouldn't they cover this information again in the actual story?!"

We start off, 20 minutes ago according to the captions, with the Blue Beetle, Ted Kord, is sneaking into a building via the air duct system. His narration tells us that fellow leaguers like Batman and Captain Atomgenerally feel that his heart is in the right place, but his brain is not. Translated: he's probably going to get himself in trouble.

This place he's sneaking around in has one of your traditional supervillain headquarters standards that  I honestly cannot get behind: the giant computer monitor. If this were meant for mass viewing, such as training henchmen in classes (note to self: research henchmen new hire workplace training videos). But no. This looks like it's just the giant-sized monitor for someone's personal desktop. And judging by the desktop wallpaper, this is clearly a shadowy organization of some kind. Based on the icons on the bottom of the screen, it's keeping tabs on all the *other* sketchy organizations floating around the DCU. I guess that includes the Justice League because the first file BB seems to open is Batman's dossier.

Of course, I'm always a bit shaky on how many other Leaguers are privy to whose civilian identities in a given era, so I'm not entirely certain if he's simply shocked that the Knight Chesspiece Society (Knightswatch?) has intel on the secret identities of the Justice League or is he even more shocked to discover that one of the greatest superheroes in the world, JL co-founder, and one of the default JL leaders is actually the renowned womanizing, slacker trustfund baby (or "billionaire playboy," as is the popular idiom). Imagine finding out that one of the Kardashian sisters was a high-ranking Navy Seal. And not Khloe or the mom-- one of the younger ones you pretend to remember the names of. Yeah, you'd be shocked, too.

The next scene suggests that the writer doesn't grasp the concept of a "countdown" because we go from "20 minutes ago" to "four days ago." Ugh. That's not how time works, guys! Whatever.

Kord is meeting up with Barbara Gordon on her jet (I'm assuming Bruce owns any number of parent companies or just fake businesses that fund her or perhaps the Birds of Prey are heroes for hire) because Babs is one of the few people who will hear him out. Plus she's someone he's into despite her lack of interest. Yeah, Teddy boy is a virtuoso of the world's smallest violin and a bit of a creeper "niceguy." How long is this issue again? Ugh.

I don't know if it's relevant yet, but as he enters the plane, Barbara skyping with her fellow Bird of Prey, Black Canary, who suspects that their line is tapped. I'm bookmarking that in case it's important or just establishing Black Canary.

Oracle concludes that somehow Wayne Enterprises has siphoned off nearly all of Ted's company funds and dispersed it across several businesses, meanwhile OMAC is running around using his credit card. So yeah, apparently one of the best scientific minds of the DCU needed to turn to a technopathic hacker to figure out he's an identity theft victim. I'm starting to understand why everyone else crosses the street when they see Kord coming. He's probably that guy who would fall for the "IRS" phone scammers.

It turns out OMAC is just a cover for Kord's BFF, Booster Gold. He's from 500 years in the future and doesn't have an SNN and thus can't get a bank card, so I guess letting BG have a spare debit card was his way of doing him a solid. However, after decades of stories in which characters would relocated from different time periods or different realities, I'm sure the superhero community has a workaround for this sort of problem by now. Hell, even if they don't, Kord has his own company. He could have made a few phone calls and had someone cook the books to set his buddy up with a new identity, then set him up with an entry-level job within the company so he can actually provide for himself. I honestly feel bad for Booster Gold for having such a shitty friend who is either so stupid or so egotistical that he'd rather give his bestie handouts than a job.

After waxing nostalgic to the tune of the world's tiniest violin reprise about how during their JL tenure, they were rookies among giants and felt like they could never measure up (ye gods, do I not care), Blue Beetle meets up with Moocher Booster Gold. Booster. After the two have some totally heterosexual manfeels, Kord admits to his own financial problems, Booster suggests he seeks out the expert on money laundering and corporate takeover, Max Lord.

Max Lord (a version of him is on CW's Supergirl has so little impact in his scene that at first it struck me as baffling that they chose to include it. He gives some phoned in sympathy and brush-off lines like "I'll look into it," but the line that ends up sticking with Ted is "Your best days in tights are behind you. You need to stop looking backwards and start looking forwards."

I find it odd that the word choice was "in tights." Aside from the fact that "tights" is probably a pretty basic cut among the superhero community, there are plenty of bright opportunities, these gentlemen can have in tights. They are both trained combatants with accomplished athletic abilities. They could go on to have successful careers in gymnastics, ballet, or even American Gladiators.

Having arrived at a dead end with Max, Booster says he needs to go take care of his own business. What would that be? An audition for a commercial he needs to interview for. Yeah, that's what he's maxing out Kord's credit card for-- airfare for the audition. You'd imagine he would prioritized helping out a bit more, considering he's effectively a dependent, but no. In this story, Booster Gold is basically that guy who has been crashing on your couch for two months and his idea of helping out around the house is limited to making sure there is a clear path from the sofa to the bathroom, the fridge, and the area immediately around the entertainment system.

By now, you'll notice that the book has a bit of a pattern in its storytelling. That initial scene inside the secret organization's super computer provides the basic framework, with Blue Beetle pulling up their intel and footage of a given character and then transitioning to a flashback in which during various parts of Blue Beetle's investigation, he turns to each of them for assistance or at the very least moral support only to be met with some variation of "sorry, bro, not my problem." The book tends to divide itself into chapters with each character he visits being one of the dossiers on the computer. Chapter 1 is actually a bit of an outlier from this formula because we end with Batman.
Batman: DC's loner who is on every team.
Master of no social skills

Batman's scene does a fairly good job at helping to illustrate what's been going on in the greater DC universe as well as within Batman's solo series without taking the focus off Blue Beetle. The scene starts with a Gotham Gazette headline about what was then a new player in town by the name of the Red Hood. Ted's tendency to yammer on in the course of his one man pity party not only grates on the measured and taciturn Batman, but it also triggers him at the mention of Dr. Light. No, not the awesome MVP from the original Crisis, we're back to the first guy because #THISISWHYWECANTHAVENICETHINGS.

Based only from what I remember from a youtube video from Zeus only knows when, Batman is salty because the JL's Zatana erased Light's memories and when Batman objected, she wiped his memory of the incident, too. Of course, with Batman's default mode being both paranoid and right to be paranoid, he figured out what they did pretty damn quick and so now Batman is on strained terms with the League. Oh and he's actively spying on them now. Sounds about right.

Chapter 2 focuses on Superman, but it also folds Hal Jordan into it. Somehow, despite having a nearly 70-page run, there wasn't room for him to have his own focus. It's odd how the icons on the computer set it up. It includes the Justice League's Big Seven (Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, The Flash, Martian Manhunter, and Aquaman), plus Shazam/Captain Marvel. In-universe these are all characters that are legends even among the superhero community. You'd think each of them was set up for their own focal section.

Low angles: emphasize the package size
in order to show dominance
But no. Green Lantern is folded into Superman's focus and he more or less functions like the messenger in a Greek tragedy would. He bids our protagonist greetings, gives him Guy Gardner's regards (I'm assuming this was thrown in because editorial insisted they use Hal even though Guy actually would have had a connection with Blue Beetle) and when Superman arrives on the scene, he relays some bad news. That is the limit of Green Lantern's appearance in this story. What he actually reports is of interest, though-- 100 lb of  kryptonite has been stolen from Kord's last remaining warehouse (again, that pesky violin). I wonder if it's the same supply that Red Hood stole from Black Mask over in the "Under The Red Hood" arc?

As for Blue Beetle's interaction with Superman, well, it seems that despite being a superhero for ages at this point and having been on presumably a few lineups with him at this point (most notably around the Death of Superman), you'd think he'd be able to keep his shit together around him, treat Superman as he would any other peer. Instead, he fangirls out a bit, somewhere between being star-struck and intimidated. Granted, Superman is a big deal in-universe, but so are just about all the other heroes he interacts with in this book.

It's an interesting character beat, but this sense insecurity around Superman doesn't add to the narrative at all. The thrust of the scene is Blue Beetle being unable to confide in Superman despite himself when Hal's report more effectively pulls Clark's focus and provides him with a reason to fly
Fun Fact: Joker has groupies other than Harley.
off before Kord can say much.

After this latest round of fail, Blue Beetle is set upon by a group of hired goons called the Madmen, who look like they were designed to look like muscular Joker henchmen. He is rescued by Booster Gold, who has inexplicably ditched his all-important audition and donned the uniform he swore he could never wear again.

Subtext: you're all fucking sheep!
Chapter 2 ends with one of the most delightful scenes in the book which doesn't tie into the narrative at all, but I'm hoping it plays a big part in the main series. It involves the Injustice Society, Dr. Light wanting retribution for having his memory erased, and Black Adam basically being the Namor of DC comics.

On a related note, chapter 3 starts with Beetle looking into Captain Marvel's background before flashing back to Kord's house. While he is at his computer trying to suss out who is siphoning off his fortune, he and Booster Gold are wondering if Ted could possibly weaponize the mystic beetle scarab that he had inherited from the original Blue Beetle... and a science hero weaponizing magic is a fun story idea. Booster, being a man from the future who thinks the internet is about on par with legos, tells Kord to step aside and let him have a shot at the computer and KA-BOOM. Yeah, The computer explodes. That happens. And it totals the house in the process. I know this is happening in a world where Kryptonians, Amazons, homo magi are running around, but that there is what threatens the delicate suspension of disbelief of this story.

Kord gets his buddy and his scarab out in the burning wreck and rather than seeing if Booster gets to the hospital safely, considering the universe has it out for them lately, he instead decides to seek out Captain Marvel. Unfortunately, Billy Batson is busy being a first tier character, so in lieu of him, Kord is met with the cryptic advice of an all-wise wizard who thinks that a 12-year-old is emotionally mature enough to handle being the living embodiment of seven divine beings. The Wizard Shazam really doesn't have the patience for Kord's whining, so he casts Teleport, sending him away but leaving his scarab in the cave.
Princess Leia Syndrome: crushing on the
girl who treats you like a little brother

Chapter Three: Wonder Woman/Martian Manhunter. We flash back to a a mission earlier in the day.
And KA-BOOM. Yeah, this time it's Kord airship, Bug, that explodes. I'm starting to think he must have cheated death at some point before this and now we are in a comic book adaptation of Final Destination.

Kord wakes up in the infirmary of the JL's moonbase, the Watchtower. Wonder Woman has been looking after him. Again, there is little meat to her scene. She's more supportive than Batman or Superman were, but that's all that can be said about it. Her scene also commits a heinous sin of storytelling by having Ted Kord recap a lot of what has happened so far. Granted, this sucker is 70 pages long, but come on, give the reader some credit.

And once again, she finds a reason to leave without really helping. Though, this is probably the least motivated exit thus far. Despite him being at an incredible low point and their station having access to an instantaneous teleportation system, she has to go to the embassy now. Okay. I am starting to suspect everyone enters an interaction with Blue Beetle with an exit strategy. We all have that friend we dread getting stuck talking to and for the *entire* DC superhero community, it seems to be Ted Kord. He has to be Lt. Reginald Barclay of DC Comics.

Of course you weren't included in the psychic APB-- you're in the room with him!
Kord makes his way from the infirmary to the main operations room of the base, where Martian Manhunter is on monitor duty. Manhunter is also on the more supportive side, albeit more distantly and objectively. Still, he does listen to Kord's problem, which is more than Bats or Supes did. Kord almost manages to get him to pull in some extra help to investigate when Adam Strange, protector of the planet Rani (which I'm assuming reads as a white savior narrative, but in SPAAAAACE), calls in with a dire request for aid, as Rani is being invaded by Hawkman's people, the Thanagarians. Yeah, remember how I said this book is good at hinting at the breadth and scope of the DCU? Case in point. Well, so much for help from Martian Manhunter. He gets to recruit some a-listers and potential fan favorites to go play Star Wars.

As he wallows alone in self-pity, he takes a closer look at the goggles of his uniform which had been scratched up in his fight with the Madmen only to discover that they had actually bugged him suing a piece of Booster Gold's robot buddy who was thought to have ditched him for a trip back to the 25th Century. He manages to track it back to a remote castle-- which brings us back to the supervillain lair with the giant computer screen.

And the worst thing you can ever do is read someone's private files on you. I can attest, I once read an old audition form from college and whoever was casting definitely scribbled "is terrible" on it. Yeah, it can be a blow to the ego. But enough of my woes. Their file on him says "DECEASED." Yeah, that's quite a few degrees more troubling.
Celebrity death hoaxes are the worst
It's at this moment, when he turns around to discover the mastermind of all his woes, as well as a cadre of armed henchmen, has been in the room with him for a while. Why do these heroes never notice villains and their goons sneaking up on them? To be fair, his costume covers his ears.
The best evil plans have evil chess-themed titles.
Max Lord's plan is to take down all the meta humans on Earth. This is despite the fact that he himself is a meta human, albeit one with a very subtle talent to influence people. Also, based the dialogue, I get the impression that the writer isn't well versed in DC mythology, which lumps all super-powered beings into the category of meta-humans, which are more akin to DC's answer to Marvel's mutants than anything else.

Lord actually wants to recruit Kord, since Kord has no superpowers, only his own natural physical and scientific acumen. You know how NOT to foster the sense of loyalty you'd want in a potential recuit? Ruining his business, by siphoning and dispersing his funds and stealing from his warehouses, blowing up his inventions, blowing up his home, blowing up his best friend... all of these are great ways to show people how bad a boss you'd be.

Max Lord's Plan B, it turns out was if you can't beat 'em, shoot two bullets in his head.

So, yeah. That's how this issue ends.

I don't know what to say about this issue. It had three talented writers on the project, Geoff Johns, Greg Rucka, and Judd Winick. And despite three writers, there is barely enough story here to justify a 30-page story, let alone one over twice that length. The book had two missions and it only sort of accomplished the one that justifies its existence, namely to line up the various story threads from the ongoing series that will coalesce to form the story elements of the event. Instead, they gloss them over a bit, but they seem like distractions from the story the book wants to tell: the Passion of Ted Kord.

Yeah, I know that's the title of the entry, but it's not out of laziness that I'm hearkening back to it, but emphasis. This book is all about putting Blue Beetle through his paces, which is the role of a decent dramatist, but I think they break the character in order to enable the story they want to tell. The Ted Kord from the post-crisis Justice League titles is a lot more buoyant and confident than the one presented to the reader here.

I almost feel like his entire journey in this story is meta-commentary on the comic book industry's tone problem as creators kept trying to work dark, grim, and gritty character traits into characters who were neither created with that intent nor allowed to organically evolve to it. DC honestly suffers this problem more than Marvel because they earnestly try to maintain the classic, iconic, wholesome images of their heroes, but at the same time when the sales numbers dip, they will go boldly in other directions even if it results in severe tonal whiplash. Hence, we are presented with a story in which a character whose MO is so patently Silver Age that in the face of the modern era of storytelling, he reads as pathetic and ineffectual and his only recourse is a suicide mission for the sake of maintaining his values. When read from that lens, this becomes not only a dark story, but also some wicked commentary on the nature of the comics industry in 2005.

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