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Infinite Crisis: Justice League – Crisis of Conscience (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.

Crisis of Conscience exists of something of a bridge between Identity Crisis and Infinite Crisis. Of course, other tie-ins (like Villains United) have already explored that fertile ground, but Crisis of Conscience is very much about exploring the implications of that earlier crisis crossover. After all, how can the heroes trust one another, or themselves, when they’ve been tampering and playing with memory and personality. Ultimately, Crisis of Conscience doesn’t necessarily resolve anything. It really just lines up all the final pieces before we jump into Infinite Crisis proper. However, it’s an interesting exploration of just how far these characters have come since the innocence of the Silver Age.

Holding out for a hero…

To be fair, a lot of Crisis of Conscience is taken up with a conflict between the League and Despero, which feels very much like a paint-by-numbers super hero fight. Evoking countless other stories, Despero decides to distract the League by fermenting personal problems so that he is free to engage the Martian Manhunter without interruption. It’s almost a standard supervillain gambit, in an event that has really avoided too many standard supervillain conventions. Infinite Crisis has really been more about the failure and corruption of heroes, so it feels strange for Despero to arrive in this late in the game with a play straight from Supervillainy 101.

Max Lord’s plan in The O.M.A.C. Project was, at least, relatively subtle and long-term. In Day of Vengeance, the Spectre served as the antagonist, recruited and corrupted (rather than directly controlled) by Eclipso. In contrast, Despero arrives here as a fairly typical supervillain bad guy. It feels almost a shame that the house of cards erected in Identity Crisis is brought down by so generic a threat. Maybe that’s the point, of course, that the equilibrium created by Zatanna’s spell was just that fragile – but it feels a little anti-climactic.

Star of the show…

At the same time, the resolution to the situation seems a little… shallow. Zatanna opts to pretty much do the thing that she did before, only with more skill. This doesn’t, of course, side-step the ethical implications of her actions, but it does seem to imply that the problem with what she did to Arthur Light wasn’t that she lobotimised him. The problem, based on the end of the story, is that she didn’t lobotomise him properly. Don’t get me wrong, there are still consequences of the League’s actions, but Crisis of Conscience ends with the suggestion that the important remaining questions are internal – the consequence not of mindwiping villains, but of mindwiping allies.

However, this avoids the problem. Batman is justifiably upset because his allies wiped his memories. However, they wiped his memories because he would never go along with them mindwiping supervillains. So it seems a bit cheeky to resolve the fundamental issue created by mindwiping the villians by… mindwiping them better. Of course, this is arguably a problem with a thorough deconstruction of mainstream superheroes. Due to the fact that it’s serial fiction, you can’t push them too far and you have to push towards the status quo.

Hawkman! Smash!

So the notion Brad Meltzer introduced in Identity Crisis – that the Justice League wiped bad guys’ memories to stop them hurting the heroes’ family – can’t be allowed to break the status quo. You can’t resolve the situation by allowing the villains to retain knowledge of the heroes’ secret identities, because that makes the identities redundant and destroys the status quo. At the same time, you can’t kill the villains, because that would remove several useful characters from DC’s continuity.

You need to, at the story, return the characters to the situation they were in before the story began. In this case, back to where they were before Identity Crisis. That means the deconstruction cannot hold, and that there’s a little chance of any meaningful development of that plot thread, or satisfying revolution to the dilemma created. It’s a problem with mainstream superhero comics, and it’s one reason that I suspect that massive deconstructions like this never work as well as they probably should.

Gone in a Flash…

On the other hand, Johns does better with the thematic fallout rather than the plot points raised by a rampaging Secret Society. The implications of this sort of abuse of power are, despite the cop-out at the end, earth-shattering. The Silver Age innocence of the Justice League of America has been completely destroyed. It has been destroyed so thoroughly that the implications are retroactive. “No,” Hawkman states. “We’re not friends. We never were.” (Green Arrow responds, “We used to be. Before we started keeping secrets.”)

Cleverly, Johns focuses the story around the Martian Manhunter, perhaps the embodiment of the Silver Age. Along with Barry Allen, J’onn J’onz was the character who kicked off the Silver Age at the publisher. Grant Morrison killed the character in the opening issue of Final Crisis to illustrate how far comics had come from the Silver Age. It’s telling that the Martian Manhunter is the last Justice League member to abandon the Watchtower, clinging most rigidly to his Silver Age principles. It’s also interesting that Aquaman, a character frequently derided for his Silver Age “goofy”charm, is the first League member to come to J’onn’s assistance.

She’s magic!

The story opens with the Martian Manhunter reflecting on the change to his situation. “I keep coming back here — year after year — searching for some trace of some remnant of my past,” he explains. “But Mars doesn’t feel like home anymore.” In a way, perhaps, he’s speaking for many old comic book fans who lived through a decade of DC deconstructing and picking apart its iconic heroes, introducing a pervading sense of moral ambiguity into their comic books. Like J’onn, it’s frequent to see many on-line fans looking to the past, yearning to return to a simpler and happier time for mainstream comic books.

In many ways, Infinite Crisis seems to acknowledge that maybe the company pushed things a little too far and tainted its heroes a little bit too much. Batman had become a paranoid loner who didn’t trust even his closest friends. Superman had become increasingly violent. Even Hal Jordan had gone insane killing countless former allies. Infinite Crisis does dare to suggest that there are consequences for so much moral ambiguity, and there’s a point where comic book heroes need to act like comic book heroes, rather than just Nietzschean supermen.

Mars attacked…

At the same time, however, Infinite Crisis also firmly rejects the idea that time can be rewound, or that the company should aspire to recreate the past. That is, after all, the goal of Superboy-Prime, the event’s villain. Prime yearns to “reset” the universe back to its earlier and more simplistic form. He would erase all the problems, but he’d also erase all the benefits that came from the character development and evolution. Johns suggests, in Infinite Crisis, that comics should respect the past, but they shouldn’t be trapped by it. The only way is forward. While mistakes have been made, you find a way to repair the damage by pushing forward, rather than than retreating backwards.

Hal Jordan, the poster boy for the Geoff Johns reimagining of the DC Universe, insists, “We need to get this out in the open and move on.” Johns resurrected Jordan, but he used him to tell fresh and exciting stories with the character, rather than simply reverting to the Silver Age status quo. Hawkman, perhaps the character who has suffered most from DC’s continuity reshuffles, replies, “It’s too late for that now.” Hal responds, in perhaps the story’s most optimistic moment, “It’s never too late.”

League in Shadows…

It’s interesting that Johns makes Wally West perhaps the most heroic character of the major League characters here. While all the other heroes are at home, looking after their own, West uses his speed to routinely check in on each member, even while Linda is at risk from the same villains. It’s nice to see the character painted in such a heroic light, painting him as a worthy successor to Barry Allen. Identity Crisis was built around a moment of moral weakness in Barry, when he supported the mindwipe. So it seems fitting that Crisis of Conscience affirms the heroism of his successor.

Speaking of successors, Rann-Thanagar War featured Kyle Rayner in a heroic central role, the most high-profile completely heroic character during the tie-ins. West is a similar character, introduced to replace a Silver Age legacy character. Indeed, it seems to fit with the idea of progression. After all, if DC “reset” its universe like Superboy-Prime would want, you’d lose characters like Wally West and Kyle Rayner, who are arguably the most heroic characters over the course of Infinite Crisis.

Shark attack!

That said, it’s not too difficult to be a hero of this particular adventure. The standards aren’t set especially high. Even Catwoman, the perennial anti-hero, is more heroic than Batman. During an attack on the Daily Planet, it’s Selina who calls out Bruce on his lack of action. “What are you waiting for?” she demands. “Aren’t you going to contact the League?” (In fact, Selina also proves fairly effective during the opening confrontation, despite the fact that it’s not her fight.) Throughout this story arc, Selina seems far more of a hero than Bruce Wayne.

That said, I do like that Johns constructs the story so as to explicitly reference the Batman and Catwoman set up in Hush. I am fonder of Loeb’s massive gauntlet blockbuster than most, and I actually like the narrative’s final twist the idea that Batman is completely incapable of trust, and thus of intimacy. It’s exactly the sort of revelation that Infinite Crisis exists to counter, and Johns cleverly retroactively casts his paranoid characterisation as a result of the mindwipe inserted into his history with the Justice League.

The winds of change…

Here, Bruce seems to articulate his reason for breaking off his affair with Selina. “And if I can’t trust my own thoughts,” he muses. Johns also does an excellent job of illustrating how much in-universe ambiguity the memory wipes must create, and perhaps suggesting that there’s a genuine question of consent over any Batman and Catwoman romance. After all, if her behaviour change is the result of a mindwipe, it’s hardly legitimate. “I thought she’d changed,” Bruce tells J’onn, “but… maybe it wasn’t her choice.”

Of course, the implications are never truly dealt with. Johns broaches all these ideas that arise as a result of the retroactive continuity created in Identity Crisis, but he seems to suggest that the best way to deal with them is to simply “get over it.” Much like mindwiping the villains here, it feels like a bit of a cop-out. What’s the point in introducing this retroactive continuity if it isn’t going to be dealt with in a meaningful way? It provides retroactive justification for the progressive darkening of the shared universe, and it sets up Infinite Crisis, but it raises all manner of ethical questions about the rights and obligations of people with this sort of authority, only to ignore them.

J’onn gets pretty Despero…

There isn’t even a “try better next time” moral, as Zatanna uses the same technique to deal with the villains this time around. She says her magic is stronger, but it was never her skill that made the act so morally divisive in the first place. It’s like arguing the firing squads are okay if they have better aim – it assures a cleaner execution, but doesn’t address any of the underlying moral concerns a person may have with that type of punishment.

Still, Crisis of Conscience does a good enough job of lining up the pieces for Infinite Crisis. I love that final page where J’onn is attacked in the Watchtower by what appears to be Superman. It’s a fitting thematic conclusion to a series of lead-ins that have been built around the idea that heroes are becoming increasingly compromised.

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

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