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Infinite Crisis: Day of Vengeance (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.

It seems like, within the last decade or so, DC has had a great deal of difficulty organising its “magic and mystic” books. DC generally provided a nice home for books like Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing or John Ostrander’s Spectre, but it seemed like there wasn’t really an abundance of successful magic-themed books in the early part of the new millennium. DC would consciously attempt to remedy this with their “dark” line as part of the “new 52″ relaunch, but Day of Vengeance feels like something of an awkward earlier attempt to streamline that corner of the shared universe and to prepare it for some sort of creative relaunch.

One for sorrow, two for joy… What for a few dozen?

My inner cynic would argue that DC was already publishing one of the most consistent “magic and mysticism” books on the market, in Hellblazer, but it wasn’t part of the shared universe. In many ways, Day of Vengeance seems like an excuse to reintroduce a bunch of second-tier magical characters and to clear away quite a bit of clutter. Just like Villains United would serve to launch Secret Six and Rann-Thanagar War tied into the on-going Green Lantern Corps, it seems like DC might have had some ambitious plans for their magic books after Day of Vengeance.

It’s a bit of a shame then, that Day of Vengeance feels just a bit clumsy in execution – feeling like an excuse for a clean slate and a conscious attempt to push certain characters to the fore, rather than an organic or compelling story in its own right. Arguably the biggest thing to come out of Day of Vengeance was the change to the Spectre. In the wake of Infinite Crisis, the Spirit of Vengeance would be anchored to murdered Gotham Central character Crispus Allen. (That said, this plot point would create its own baggage, needing some tidying up in Final Crisis: Revelations.)

Monkeying around…

Still, while Day of Vengeance does feel a bit disjointed and awkward when compared to the other tie-ins, it does have its share of interesting and intriguing concepts. It is always great, for example, to see the character of Detective Chimp, the talking alcoholic monkey. Writer Bill Willingham also does a fairly effective job of capturing the core themes of Infinite Crisis, suggesting that this is a problem arising because heroes aren’t really heroes any more.

Ragman’s introduction is suitably grim and gritty. “Once upon a time I used to be a superhero,” he explains. “Stop laughing. I’m serious. Now I’m just the guy who picks up the trash. I’m still doing the same job, mind you. I’ve just stopped deluding myself that there’s anything inherently grand of heroic about it.” It’s a little bit on the nose, to be fair, but it gets the point across in the first page or so.

It’s quite Chimple, really…

In many ways, Infinite Crisis is really the story of superheroes who stopped being superheroes, and instead became self-appointed arbitrators of their own morality. It suggested that, since the nineties, superheroics had become increasingly grim-and-gritty, to the point where even characters like Superman had been compromised. Infinite Crisis seems to lament the loss of superhero idealism, and it’s stunning how many of the villains make coherent and logical arguments about the systemic failures of these iconic heroes. While their actions are brutal and inherently evil, there is a sense throughout the crossover that the villains have a point.

Throughout the event, it’s the oft-ignored goofy Silver Age heroes who make a stand against evil while the more successful and recognisable characters are increasingly compromised. Blue Beetle does more to foil Max Lord than Batman or Superman. Here, the Spectre goes on a rampage and the Phantom Stranger is useless, so it’s up to a bunch of little-known characters (including a talking monkey) to save the day. To be fair to Bill Willingham, he does an exceptional job introducing each member of his ensemble and giving them a distinctive voice.

Torn to rags…

In Day of Vengeance, as in The O.M.A.C. Project, it’s suggested that an amoral approach towards superheroes is an inherently destructive way of handling the genre. Deconstructions and moral ambiguity became all the rage in the wake of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, and Infinite Crisis seems to be about pushing that concept well past the point of no-return – as if the heroes need to be fully broken in order to be repaired.

Once again, Willingham’s writing is less than subtle, but it gets the point across. When the Enchantress loses control, she doesn’t claim to be evil. Rather, she claims to be above good and evil, existing completely divorced from concepts of morality. “Silly rag doll,” she teases Ragman, “do you honestly believe good and evil have any intrinsic meaning? They’re just words created by superstitious savages to convince themselves their tribe was favoured by higher powers.”

Justice, like lightning…

The Spectre’s magical mystical rampage is powered by an inability to distinguish between good and evil, and instead focusing on magic itself. “I’ll stop when all magic is destroyed,” he vows. “Only then will evil wither on the vine.” Rather than destroying evil magic users, he destroys all magic users. The character is explicitly stated to be losing his grip on morality because he has lost a human soul to anchor him. “This is the first time in ages you’ve been without a human host,” Eclipso suggests. “Someone to anchor you to this reality.”

In many ways, Infinite Crisis is the story about what might happen if these iconic characters were to divorce themselves from humanity. The DC pantheon is composed mainly of characters with god-like powers, and Infinite Crisis seems like a cautionary tale about attempts to transcend either humanity or morality. Throughout the event, there’s the recurring idea that beings with immense power are to be feared. Batman created Brother Eye out of fear of what his colleagues might do. Max Lord usurped Checkmate to prevent the superhumans from ever overwhelming humanity.

The blue devil you know…

While Ragman is surprised by the Spectre’s bloody rampage, the Enchantress is not. “Why would he do that?” Ragman demands. “Sure, Spectre’s plenty scary and all, but he’s one of the good guys.” Enchantress replies, “No one that powerful is one of the good guys.” Arguably, the DC universe has always been more trusting of its superheroes than the world presented in Marvel, and Infinite Crisis seems to explore the justification for this. If we really had to fear these creatures, the world would be a truly horrible place. Day of Vengeance presents a being of untold power rampaging and killing with impunity. It is terrifying.

On the other hand, Day of Vengeance fails to really offer a sense of the scale of carnage. “I watch hundreds die in the first second,” we’re told as the Rock of Eternity appears over Gotham. We visit mass-graves and hear about what can only be described as cullings. However, Bill Willingham’s script never really convinces us that this is anything exceptional or unusual. This could be just a standard origin story for a superhero team, there’s no sense of the massive stakes involved. Greg Rucka’s Gotham Centraltie-in actually did a superb job illustrating the scale of the conflict.

The spectre of the Spectre…

Willingham also seems to struggle a bit in writing the Spectre. The character is supposedly more disconnected from humanity than he has ever been. However, he writes the character in a strangely conversational style. The Spectre seems like a regular supervillain here, rather than the Wraith of God given form. “It’s said that your helmet contains its own universe?” he asks Dr. Fate, as if ramping up for a really bad one-liner. “You’re welcome to it, for as long as it lasts.” The plot also hinges on the rather awkward plot contrivance that the Spectre cannot recognise Eclipso, its primordial opposite number.

I’d be lying if I said I was happy to see Jean Loring transformed into Elipso. I have a major issue with how Identity Crisis effectively transformed the character into the “psycho stalker ex-girlfriend” cliché, a lame plot device no better than the awkward attempt to make Sue Dibny a retroactive victim. Both creative decisions stand out as exampled of destructive and damaging trends in mainstream comics – the reduction of female characters into extensions of male characters. Sue Dibny was already dead by the time her assault was revealed, and so it only provided angst for the predominantly male cast. Jean Loring was motivated by her love of Ray Palmer, and clearly unable to survive without him.

It’s a jungle out there…

It’s quite frustrating that Infinite Crisis, which seems to be built around criticisms of the way that DC character’s evolved in the years leading up to it, doesn’t have any constructive criticism of the treatment of Sue Dibny or Jean Loring. Batman’s “paranoid loner” persona provides fodder for The O.M.A.C. Project, while Superman’s increased violence is the subject of Sacrifice, but Jean Loring is simply used here to provide a body for a villain repeatedly identified throughout the event as male. Her crime was committed because she defined herself by reference to a male character, and here she’s once again reduced to a tool of one.

Still, Day of Vengeance isn’t terrible. It’s just a little weak. Bill Willingham has a wonderful sense of nostalgia for these cheesy “second-raters and also-rans.” However, he also tends to over-write and to over-play his hand. He doesn’t show us the scale of the conflict unfolding, despite his best efforts to tell us. While none of the writers involved in Infinite Crisis could be accused of being subtle about the themes of the massive crossover, Willingham just shoehorns them in rather bluntly.

A big blue… well, he could be a boy scout?

I can see, looking at the other crossovers, why Day of Vengeance arguably had the least influence on the shape of the DC universe that followed, and why it failed to provide a basis for a truly successful relaunch of the magical and mystical corners of the vast DC universe. While there’s some interesting stuff here, it’s not nearly consistent or compelling enough to make the reader want more.

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

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