[Spoilers follow. If you haven't read Meltzer's Identity Crisis, you may as well just do that instead. That said, after the asterisks you'll find a paragraph or two on Theory of Fictional Chracterization (and Deadwood) which might - might!! - be interesting.]
I just reread Identity Crisis, Brad Meltzer's controversial DC comics miniseries from a few years back. Y'know, the one with the ringing endorsement from Joss Whedon(!), who I guess was able to look past the unbearably tawdry solution to the central mystery to see the beauty of the overall design. The structure of Identity Crisis really is a thing of wonder: the sentimental family-of-superheroes material prompts a vastly more interesting examination of the working relationships between the heroes themselves. It's easy to see why it's so highly-regarded.
Easy, too, to see what some folks despise the series.
It's the women, of course. The series's treatment of women and sex is bothersome, but (for better or worse) it's just too tiring, at this point, to care about the childish sexuality of superhero comics. Still, I can't shake the sense that a cold misogynist streak runs through the whole series. The final issue's Big Reveal is an affront to the audience's intelligence and maturity, and Meltzer completely botches the characterization of the key antagonist. (Must Jean be a robotically self-assured lawyer who goes completely to pieces when she gets a shot at sleeping with her ex-husband? Why not make her a castrating dyke and round out the whole Tour de Cliché?) Moreover, the story's hidden turning point is the 'onscreen' rape of Sue Dibny, which contains the most dialogue Sue has in the whole story. For a series ostensibly about the lives of heroes' families, 'those left behind' and all that, it's shocking how shallowly those folks are characterized here.
Yet Meltzer does spend some time on the inner lives of two supporting characters - saccharine depictions of middle-aged fathers yearning for emotional intimacy with their young sons. Bad as the castrating-lawyer-who-craves-cock cliché is, at least Jean gets to show off a little bit of spine; these dads are around to make adolescent male comic book readers mushy about their own freighted paternal relationships. Period.
And of course the real betrayal in the series - the knife in the comics reader's heart - isn't Jean's killing spree. She's just the silly bitch who won't move on, and her fate is 'appropriately' cruel. Nah. The kicker is: in a story that masquerades (ahem) as a cost-of-secret-identities tale and hinges on a rape and the rapist's awful and arguably out-of-measure punishment, the only living rape victim at story's end is Batman himself, whose memories have been tampered with by the other JLA members. Ultimately it's the 'heroes' who go on bearing the cost of all those dead supporting characters (enumerated in a couple of unironic montages, where you can practically hear the violin music in the background). The deep-down limitation of nearly every superhero comic - the escapist fantasy of invincibility, of power and license and (often literal) weightlessness - can't actually be permanently undermined, not even in a much-hyped marquee miniseries.
It seems to me that one difference between complex and complicated characterization is this: complexity is all about AND, complication never goes beyond BUT. Complex characters are fully human even in their seeming contradictions, while simpler characters appear - at certain angles - to be nothing more than symbol-sets, machines for bringing contradictory features into collision. Superman is an alien god BUT he's also a patriotic American man; Night Owl is an impotent nebbish AND he's most truly alive (sexually and otherwise) when he's beating up crooks.
See the difference? If you're interested in the mere idea that contradictory impulses can exist in one human, you're hunting small game, morally/narratively speaking. The real stuff happens when you accept that of course all our impulses come from the same shared set of experiences/predilections/behaviour patterns, and then start testing not the individual traits but the whole organic mixture against circumstances. Superman is a bit of a boring character because his 'multidimensionality' manifests as unexpected shadings of a basic idea (the Man of Steel, a force of pure good from outta the prairie). Batman is more interesting but not substantially more complex - just darker. He's built on one idea (principled vengeance in a bat suit), then his audience is treated to unexpected variations on that idea. (He's sentimental about his orphaned ward! He's in love with a cat burglar!) Superhero comics have a hard time escaping that mode of characterization.
Compare those four-colour icons to, say, Al Swearengen - a character who brings his whole expansive personality to bear on everything he does. It's not that he possesses some number of discrete 'character features,' some of them flaws and some virtues; that's comic book thinking. Rather, Swearengen acts at all times out of a set of impulses that have over time unified into something like a coherent whole. When he leaps to assist Alma, we're not meant to focus on the surprising gesture itself, but rather to understand that Swearengen's hatred of Hearst and his protective (possessive) attitude toward the town all spring from a violent personal model of what family can be. His actions in that episode are touching, but he's clearly ambivalent about his role, and Milch doesn't need to give us any heroic 'resolution' of that ambivalence. The demands of dramatic storytelling (particularly the need for a big punchy ending) are kept from intruding too much on the mere humanity of the man.
He slits Jen's throat, after all, and feels bad - but feeling bad isn't enough to stop it happening. And while his actions reveal a weird possessive love for Trixie, that love isn't the 'solution' to the lingering question of whether Trixie and Sol Star would be allowed to keep on with their own weird (and cynically inaugurated) love affair.
Complex stories don't 'resolve' just to satisfy the audience. They end, because that's what 'stories' do, but they always leave us with a greater, more expansive sense of our world - they raise questions and reveal larger-than-expected structures or deeper-than-imagined relationships. That's what they're for. Identity Crisis leaves the reader with a lingering question: What will Batman do? But it's only a plot question. What remains is ambiguity rather than ambivalence. That's true of the series as a whole. Its central moral conundrum, the bit about the brain-wiping, is compelling without being particularly weighty; Meltzer's choice is to show us tough-minded superheroes who, y'know, Just Carry Around Their Angst Because They're Superheroes. The JLA erased Batman's memories? Well, we should brood about it, because - unlike Al Swearengen - the characters in the JLA aren't expansive enough to incorporate that knowledge into more complex personalities.
That's as much a limitation of mainstream comics as anything else; you can't upset the apple cart and hope to keep sales numbers up. But it's still a shame. And it's a damn shame, too, to see that lamentable situation shackling a writer who can do what Meltzer's capable of. The best moments in Identity Crisis are stunning. They serve a story that ends up a lot like every other comic book superhero story these days: 'gritty,' melodramatic, shocking without being existentially threatening. Oh, and there's some 'post-9/11 morality' in there, whatever that means.
Well then. This is what happens when I wake up at 4:30 or so and spend all morning reading comics and writing nonsense. 'Yay,' I guess?