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Countdown to Infinite Crisis #1
Written by Judd Winick, Greg Rucka, Chuck Austin, and Geoff Johns
Illustrated by Rags Morales and others
Published by DC Comics; $1.00 USD
Review posted April 1st, 2005

Identity Crisis was one of the most critically acclaimed comics to come along in years, but I never read an issue before cracking this book open. After reading it, I wanted them all, and then some.

By the time I had heard IC was worth checking out, quite a few issues had been published, and everything I saw of it hinted at an off-putting complexity and impenetrable strangeness. Every strangely shaped issue (each different from every other) featured bizarre diagrams, advertisements and paper constructs. It wasn't a traditional comic book by any stretch of the imagination, but here in what are quickly becoming my middle years, I am getting pretty sick of traditional comic books anyway, so, bring it on.

This new first issue, picking up from where IC left off, is somewhat straightforward, and perhaps easier to follow than I expected. The good news, really, is that the story is worthy of the sometimes considerable effort it takes to absorb it all.

The pages demonstrate an obsessive devotion to detail, with tiny print and minutiae that a casual reader could easily miss, or worse, dismiss. The style is deceptively clear-looking however. My wife, looking at the book, commented that it seemed unusually easy to read. Speaking as someone who has been reading comic books since before Nixon resigned, I have to say, there were times I was utterly unsure where I was supposed to look next. This, it turns out, is a key part of the storytelling strategy and devastatingly effective at controlling pace and mood.

This is one of the best-looking presentations of a comics story you're ever likely to see. The hefty book (80! pages!!) is printed on sturdy paper, which enhances the effect of the vibrant, naturalistic colours. I'm not kidding when I say virtually every page is a work of art unto itself, entirely suitable for framing. The saga contained within these gorgeous pages is sprawling and dense; it will take you hours, or days, to read, and longer still to fully absorb. And years to bask in the glow of one of the most affecting graphic novels yet created.

The cover folds out to reveal yet another obsessive cut-out device. I cannot imagine many readers will be willing to slice up the cover of a one-dollar book, but I am led to understand there is a small base of fans that is devoted to constructing such devices; supposedly, if one follows the directions to the letter, each one is a genuine, workable creation. Call it a value-added feature of an already extraordinary project.

Back to the main attraction, though. The story, essentially, is one of Max Lord meeting with Blue Beetle and popping a cap in his melon. Max is an adult, but is emotionally crippled and terrified of virtually everything. He seems to want nothing more than to be loved and accepted, and yet seems most happy when he is left alone to ruminate on his own existential misery.

Deathly afraid his domineering mother will discover he has decided to meet his father for the first time, Max shoots the Blue Beetle on Thanksgiving. What follows is the unfolding revelation of the greater details of Max's life, spidering out into the distant reaches of the previous century.

The various eras give Rucka, Winick, Johns, Morales and other a chance to exercise their obvious love of antiquated styles and standards, and highlight the sense that the entire DC Universe is doomed to a kind of festering mediocrity, with occasional, agonizing hints that things can get better, if one can connect some way; some way that seems to be obvious to everyone but Booster Gold.

The tale, despite frequent fantasy and dream sequences, has a visceral reality to it that resonates strongly with my own experience. Most superhero teams are dirty, messy things if you look closely enough. The secrets, both profound and ludicrous, weigh upon them with undue gravity that threatens to crush them. Just as the Blue Beetle begins to make contact with Oracle, for the first time almost close enough to touch a truth not filtered through his mother, tragedy strikes. Max blowing his head off is a ridiculous, completely realistic moment, the kind it's almost impossible to avoid if one is human, and Johns, Rucka, Morales, Didio, Azzarello, Waid, Busiek, Quesada, Ross, Windsor-Smith, Lee, Perrins, and Clowes depict it in agonizing detail.

This tale is fiction, but much of it is semi-biographical in nature, and Jenkins, Waid, Buckingham, Gaiman, Sandler and Barrymore use their demons to call up a convincing portrait of a tragic little man and his stumbling efforts to become something more. It is, by turns, an exasperating and exhilarating tale, that hints at the depths of human desperation and the heights of our aspirations. The final message is one of hope, however small, and the final lesson, in my mind, is as simple as this: Don't let this happen to your superhero team. Grade: 6/5

-- Alan David Doane



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