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Infinite Crisis: The OMAC Project (Review)

This month I’m taking a look at DC’s massive “Infinite Crisis” Event. Although it was all published in one massive omnibus, I’ll be breaking down the lead-in to the series to tackle each thread individually, culminating in a review of the event itself. Check back for more.

Infinite Crisis was certainly an ambitious project in scope. With the bulk of the major tie-ins collected in a gigantic 1,500-page omnibus, you really get a sense of just how expansive this gigantic crossover was. It’s remarkable how thematically consistent (and yet tonally distinct) so many of these tie-ins were, but The O.M.A.C. Project makes for a suitably grand opening to this gigantic epic crisis crossover, perfectly encapsulating a lot of the core themes that DC seem to have been striving for, while setting up an interesting central conflict.

What do you call a Corps of One-Man-Army-Corps?

Look back, it seems like mainstream comics had something of a crisis of identity during the last decade, perhaps as a response to the nineties. The nineties had seen comics through the best of times and worst of times. Fuelled by a speculator bubble, “event” comics sold in ridiculous amounts. Learning the wrong lesson from Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, the companies assumed that readers wanted darker, edgier and borderline nihilistic anti-heroes.

Wolverine and the Punisher sold like hotcakes over at Marvel. Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman were all died and replaced – both Superman and Batman were replaced (temporarily) by edgier and dark substitutes, before returning with a vengeance. Even the Silver Age Green Lantern found himself transformed into a mass-murdering psychopath before being killed off. This was grand while the sales held, but then the bubble burst.

OMAC attack!

The nineties ended with the collapse of the speculators bubble. Arguably, this has very little to do with the content of the comics themselves – just the basic realisation that it’s very hard for something to become a rare collector’s item if everybody has a copy. The market imploded, Marvel found themselves on the cusp of bankruptcy and DC weren’t that much better off. I mention all this because I think this is a large part of the industry’s current psychology.

In many ways, Infinite Crisis is a condemnation of all the fads of the nineties comics, pushed to their logical extremes. It condemns heroes who kill, dislikes the darker and self-important portrayal of Batman, and it seems to push cynical superhero deconstruction to the brink of self-parody. It’s telling that a lot of the major players in The O.M.A.C. Project are veterans of Justice League International, perhaps one of the silliest incarnations of that team ever. I’m actually quite fond of the goofiness of that version of the team, but it stands in marked contrast to the darkness of the DC Universe as presented in The O.M.A.C. Project and the other lead-in stories.

He’s bugged their system…

The opening salvo of the event is dedicated primarily to Ted Kord, a hero who is hardly iconic. He’s the Blue Beetle, a member of that iteration of the Justice League. For bonus points, he was also a major influence on the character of Nite Owl in Alan Moore’s Watchmen, so we get a bit of a two-fer here. The inclusion and focus on Kord as the Blue Beetle is designed to bring both projects to mind – creating a rather sharp contrast. Justice League International is a silly yet enjoyable piece of comic book history; while Watchmen forever reshaped the genre (and the medium).

(Of course, Watchmen was supposed to illustrate that you could tell clever, sophisticated and mature stories with these characters. Unfortunately, it seems to have taught publishers that violence and sex are all that’s needed to brand a book as “mature.” A lot of the nuance and charm of Moore’s story was lost in the countless imitators trying desperately to ape that masterpiece within the context of mainstream superhero comics.)

Stuck in a moment he can’t get out of…

Countdown to Infinite Crisis outlines the status quo in the DC Universe (and, arguably, in fandom) with regards to that earlier and more simplistic iteration of the Justice League. The Blue Beetle is treated like a joke, because he’s not serious or edgy enough to merit attention. Even Superman seems to have little time for him. The former members of the team who have moved on to”bigger and better things” look down on the second-stringers like Ted Kord and Booster Gold who… well, haven’t.

Even the Martian Manhunter, probably one of the most agreeable characters in the DC Universe, is rather pointedly cold to the Blue Beetle after he’s been seriously injured. He asks if Ted has recovered, prompting the Blue Beetle to reply, “I’m feeling better, if that’s what you’re asking.” It turns out that it wasn’t quite what J’onn had meant. He states, “Then you will be leaving.” Even after he was almost killed, Ted Kord is still a joke. He’s still far less serious than whatever “gigantic alien threat” or “rampaging space monster”is facing the real heroes.

So much for rose- (or even orange-) tinted glasses…

Batman is, of course, even more of a jerk. The character’s stuck in his “self-righteous paranoid loner” mode, taking everything so damn seriously that he’s even ignoring Alfred, the character’s closest and oldest friend. There’s a sense that this is a Batman who sees absolutely everything as “serious business”, and takes himself far too seriously for his own good. When the Blue Beetle refers to “the Bat-Scooter or whatever”, Batman is quick to correct him. “It’s a handheld glider.” This isn’t a character who would ever prefix a silly device with”bat-” like Adam West because, you know, that would be too ridiculous – even for a guy dressed as a giant bat.

Indeed, throughout The O.M.A.C. Project, Bruce and Ted are contrasted with one another. After all, they both fill the same archetype. They are both successful entrepreneurs who fight crime using nothing but fancy gimmicks. While Ted never took himself too seriously, Bruce does. And there’s absolutely no doubt who the story is more sympathetic towards. Ted works hard to solve the problem, despite the fact that nobody will listen to him. Bruce inadvertently caused the problem by not talking to anybody.

To squash a beetle…

The point is even made at the climax of the tale. Facing down a fleet of O.M.A.C.’s, John Stewart remarks, “We’re putting an awful lot of faith in Batman, here, Hal.” Hal responds, “Not in Batman, John… in the Blue Beetle.” The O.M.A.C. Project is essentially the story of how the lighter archetype (the Blue Beetle) triumphed over the darker and more self-serious archetype (Batman). That’s pretty much the idea at the core of the whole of Infinite Crisis, and it’s neatly encapsulated here. If you push heroes too far in the service of “gritty realism”, you will break them.

The rape and murder of Sue Dibny in Identity Crisis is discussed by Ted as a moment where the lighter and softer characters in the DC Universe were torn apart. Sue herself was treated as an embodiment of those earlier innocent times. “It’s harder to do that, these days, especially with what happened to Sue. She represented a better time for us. A time when we were allowed to laugh.” It seems that even these relatively innocent idols must be deconstructed and torn asunder in the pursuit of “mature deconstruction” of superhero comics.

He’s not quite Bat-ting 1,000 today…

Suddenly, the whole Justice League International era wasn’t just a bunch of goofy people in silly costumes having fun. Instead, The O.M.A.C. Project assigns those adventures their own gritty retroactive continuity. They only seemed light a fun. What they really were was an attempt to subvert the ideal of the superhero, with Max Lord working as an inside man. “Why do you think I kept the League ineffectual for years?” Bruce demands of Ted at one point.

Even Skeets, Booster Gold’s goofy talking robot sidekick, is sacrificed and reconstructed as something sinister and far more deadly, used by Lord to spy on his adversaries. “Skeets wasn’t just a machine, he had a personality, he was my friend!” Booster yells. “You’re telling me that someone out there kidnapped him, murdered him… and then used him for parts?” Wow, talk about darker and edgier taken to its logical conclusion. (And, of course, there’s only one way that Countdown to Infinite Crisis could have ended.)

OMAC, assemble!

Even the title itself – The O.M.A.C. Project – is perversion of an earlier innocent comic book creation. Jack Kirby’s O.M.A.C. is a beloved cult comic book, one bristling with the King’s unique optimism and delightfully weird social commentary. So to bring it back as an instrument of mass destruction is just as perverse as murdering Skeets and using him for parts. It seems like rather pointed commentary on DC’s part, and some pretty deep introspection.

And yet, it’s those goofy heroes who prevail, ahead of the much more edgier and mainstream recognised characters wrestling with their angst. Ted Kord is the first to deduce what Max Lord is up to. Fire figures it out as well, using deductive reasoning. In contrast, the “proper” Justice League only really figure it out after Lord hacks into Superman’s head and uses the hero to try to kill them. It’s the former Justice League International members who come to the rescue of the Martian Manhunter.

Out of the blue…

In fact, this gigantic threat is only resolved through use of a “prototype mass E.M.P. generator.” Guess who invented “the only one in existence”? It wasn’t Batman, it was Ted Kord. Batman created the problem, Kord solved it. Even Batman admits he screwed up pretty significantly in causing this situation. He’s willing to accept responsibility. “This time, responsibility isn’t enough. This time, the mistake is catastrophic.”

In many respects, that’s the point of The O.M.A.C. Project, and Infinite Crisis in general. It seems to exist to push the trends in superhero comics so far that there’s no other option except a course correction. Batman has failed before, but never quite on this scale. Superman and Batman have fought one another, but never with consequences like this. Wonder Woman has had to do things that are unpleasant but necessary, but never this unpleasant.

Eye see you…

It’s an interesting creative direction – to recognise the flaws in the characters and then to push them to such an extreme that a radical change is the only real option. That said, it’s a very tough line to walk. There’s a point where a character is so severely damaged that they need to be fixed, but there’s also a point where you risk breaking them completely. I think The O.M.A.C. Project comes very close to crossing that line with Batman. His errors in judgment here have such radical consequences that it’s hard to imagine the character ever making peace with them. (Being honest, while it’s hard to imagine a situation where Batman would stop being Batman, The O.M.A.C. Project comes pretty close to presenting it.)

There is an air of introspection here, a sense that DC are really reflecting on where they have positioned these characters, and the implications that these modern darker interpretations might have. Trying to rationalise his position, Batman explains, “Do you understand? They broke the promise. And if they couldn’t be trusted, then by extension, none of us could.”While it’s true within the context of the story, it’s also true from a narrative level – if you break that trust between audience and characters, or the suspension of disbelief, it’s hard to regain that trust. There’s a point where you risk deconstructing these characters so severely that they cease to work at all.

Operating off the grid…

There’s a very clear sense of poetic justice at work here, even amid Max Lord’s obviously evil plan. This whole situation could have been avoided if the characters had simply trusted one another, instead of becoming self-righteous and morally-compromised crusaders. As Brother Eye tells Bruce, “I monitored to prevent metahuman abuse of power.” The response to such abuses is only a logical extension of that – these characters must be above petty character flaws or corruption, because the end result of any such corruption is… not good.

“All I want to do is put power in the hands of humans, not people pretending to be human, Ted,” Max states at one point, and it seems like DC is being a bit introspective here as well. The company has come under fire for the fact that its characters aren’t quite as “relatable” as those at Marvel – who are defined as distinctly human with super-powers. In contrast, it has been argued that most of DC’s pantheon, like Superman or Wonder Woman, are very clearly divorced from humanity, and out of touch, and so unrelatable to the reader.

Na-na-na-na-na-na, Bat-jerk!

It happens quite a bit over Infinite Crisis that villains give voice to legitimate concerns about how DC manages its iconic properties. Superboy-Prime is the most obvious example, calling out most modern DC heroes as failures for being unable to live up to the moral standards expected of them. Of course, that doesn’t mean the arguments lack weight or that the criticisms are unfounded. However, the villains are generally incorrect in how they seek to address these problems. Superboy-Prime wants to reset things back to the way they were, and to wipe out everything that has happened – to literally live in the past. That’s not the right response to the problem.

Similarly, Max’s attempts to destroy characters like Wonder Woman or Superman because they aren’t relatable is similarly flawed. In most cases, the solutions that villains suggest to the legitimate problems raised in Infinite Crisis is one predicated on destruction and regression. In contrast, the heroes must endure, but accept that some of the criticism carries weight. Just because some stories bungled an attempt to make superhero comics more sophisticated doesn’t mean you give up on the idea of forward movement. Just because Superman isn’t Spider-Man doesn’t mean you stop trying to make Superman work.

Green energy…

I really like The O.M.A.C Project, both on its own terms and as a lead-in to Infinite Crisis. I think it covers the thematic ground almost perfectly, and connects to the main series in perhaps a more direct way than most of the other tie-ins. It’s a sharp and astute commentary on modern superheroes, and shows that whatever the flaws in execution, Infinite Crisis was certainly approaching the story from the right angles.

You might be interested in our other reviews relating to Infinite Crisis:

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