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Wednesday, November 08, 2006 

Should mindwiping be defended for storytelling?

One of the points that Identity Crisis was supposedly making was that tampering with people's minds is wrong. But if you ask me, I think it all depends on how it's done, and to whom. And because IC did it so blatantly, so incredibly one-sided, that's why I think I'm going to have to end up defending the whole gimmick.

Now I'm not familiar with every story done from say, the Golden Age up to the mid-80s, and there's scores of stuff I'll probably never have the chance to read in all my lifetime, but I do know, or am aware, of some of the ideas that were tried out at the time. I know that Green Lantern and Doctor Strange were probably the most standout examples of superheroes who used the gimmick of deleting memories, such as to protect their own secret IDs or those of other crimefighters.

Perhaps the question is - should superheroes with the talent for erasing memories, be doing it to innocents? Well, it's a good question. Superman once used hypnotic tricks on Lois Lane to erase any memories she might have of his ID as Clark Kent, or to keep her safe from trouble. Green Lantern did it years ago, and it was certainly implied, that he'd erased the memories of even honest folks who'd learned his true ID (with the exception of Tom "Pieface" Kalmaku, his co-worker at Ferris Aircrafts Ltd, who'd aided him in some of his crimefighting cases), and not only that, but even Green Arrow and Black Canary had nothing against it either. Most notable examples were when at one point during the mid 60s, he'd erased Carol Ferris and Iris West's knowledge of his and Barry Allen's secret IDs and Gl and Flash when they found out, even though Barry subsequently let Iris in on the secret in full (in 1967).

Now in the case of Superman, which must've been during the 1940s, that, I'll have to be honest, does sound stilted, and probably was as silly as can be. In the case of Green Lantern, depending on how you look upon it, maybe it wasn't right of him to erase Carol and Iris' memories of his ID, but, I can understand why: to protect them, should any criminals ever even remotely figure out that they know who GL and Flash really are, and try to menace them to get that info.

Even Marvel heroes had their own share of erasing memories, Prof. Xavier of the X-Men being one, and Doctor Strange being another (and don't worry, I haven't forgotten how Reed Richards hypnotized those Skrulls into thinking they were just a group of grazing cattle way back in Fantastic Four #2!). In fact, here's a scan or two from a couple of old copies I own:
This one's from Doctor Strange #42, Vol. 1 (the Master of the Mystic Arts first began his career in the pages of the Strange Tales anthology series in 1965, and it was in the mid-70s that he first got his own series, first bi-monthly in 1974, and later on in 1988, a monthly second volume), and on page two, we see both him and an old flame of his, Madeline de St. Germaine, landing from a magical platform he'd generated for her to ride on as they travelled to the Miami airport following a case she'd helped him to deal with as she prepared to travel back to France. Not only was he good at providing special changes of clothes for her to wear while she was in the US, as well as for himself, he was also good at creating blanket effects that could make all those bystanders at the airport think they'd just been seeing things. So, there you have one of Stephen Strange's really awesome feats of magic.

And in this smaller picture to the right, from Doctor Strange #49 Vol. 1, after his battle with Baron Mordo in that issue, Doc decided to wipe away book writer Morgana Blessing's memory of the terrifying ordeal she'd experienced as well.

Now Stephen Strange never really kept a secret ID, and some people were well aware of his wizardly status, certainly some of the ladies he led affairs with (at that time, it was an alien woman named Clea, who was also a disciple of his in magic), and his nighttime career was open knowledge within the superhero community, yet at the same time, he still kept a low profile on his status as a wizard. And the question in fairness is, was he doing the right thing to wipe anyone's mind if they weren't criminals? Well, knowing how dangerous the Miami region is today, I'd have to figure it was probably for the best, given how many thugs could've been there and spotted him until he did his magic performance and made them think they were seeing things. In the case of Ms. Blessing, to some, that may not have been right, but, it's understandable why. He didn't want her to have to develop nightmares of what she'd been witness to, which could happen.

(Unbeknownst to Strange, Baron Mordo had disguised himself as another little resident of the house, and though I don't have the 50th issue available, I'm sure that was a lead-in to what was to come next. Mordo also must've tried to counteract Strange's memory loss spell in hopes of turning Blessing against him, which is why the spell only partially took effect, but Doc didn't realize it at that time.)

But to go back to Identity Crisis now, the problem is that the law-abiding folk are not the ones that writer Brad Meltzer's overrated miniseries was concerned about, if at all. No, he wrote it all according to what he considered important: the mindwiping of the villains. And you know what? When it comes to the villains, that's where I'm willing to fully defend mindwiping - because are any of the superheroes really supposed to allow those jerks, even if they wouldn't harm their loved ones themselves, to get the chance to go screaming about who they really were to the whole wide world? The costumed criminals might not have targeted the wives, girlfriends and other people close to the superhero community, but, there are other criminals, includings ones who aren't in costume, who could. And should the superhero community in the DCU and the MCU who know this and want to protect their loved ones from the real threats, just stand by and risk it happening without opposition?

In my opinion, no. What's more, the villains' were pretty much asking for whatever they got - they started it all, by menacing the heroes and giving them a hard time, and if the crooks have a gripe about being mindwiped, they'd better bear in mind that it's their fault.

Another absurd thing about IC was that, for something so concerned about mindwiping performed by the heroes, it seemed more intent on blaming a lovely young lady, that being none other than Zatanna, blowing her acts up to such mammoth proportions, while in contrast, Green Lantern otherwise got off clean. Fatal flaw: if you really must take the heroes to task, then ALL of them, both male and female, must count. But also just as flawed is the fact that Meltzer ignored how it was Green Lantern who did the majority of the mindwiping years ago, and while Zee does have her share, compared to GL, it was little more than a handful, and was probably just limited to the villains too. (Curiously enough, all these story holes are what defenders of the overbaked miniseries seemed to excuse and dismiss.) And above all else, what really sinks IC is that it comes very close to sporting the mentality known as Stockholm Syndrome. It's not quite the same thing, mind you, but it does have paralells, and there's probably a word that can describe it somewhere.

Of course, what's certainly telling about IC is the political allegories it bears, one of which Peter Sanderson pointed out two years ago:
So far, at least, Identity Crisis seems simply to be undercutting the moral stature of many Silver Age superheroes, and by extension, the Silver Age itself. The "magic lobotomy" of Doctor Light is the JLA's Abu Ghraib scandal.
Which, in itself, was basically an attempt by the mainstream press to show solidarity with terrorists in Iraq. And there you have it, that's what's wrong with IC as well. A writer's attempt to show solidarity with supervillains in the fictional world.

This is exactly why I felt that, if that's how it's going to be with the inmates running the asylum in comic books today, I'm going to have to defend mindwipes at least based on how they're done and to whom. But that aside, it's a good question: is mindwiping the worst thing that could be done, depending on just what memory it is that's being erased? It's not like the heroes were causing a physical headache to anyone, given how painless the process was, sci-fi and fantasy based, with Green Lantern's power ring and Doctor Strange's own metaphysical spells. And if they're painless, then contrary to what some might've said on the internet, it's hard to describe those kind of mindwipes as "rape". Also, it's not like the heroes ever brainwashed anyone into running around naked in public or any other horrible things that I'd rather not think of. They just erased specific memories that were crucial to theirs and their circle of friends and relatives safety, nothing more.

And consider: in real life, it's possible that there are some dangerous felons who've undergone similar processes too. In 1980, there was a TV film produced called Rage, about a convicted rapist who underwent intense psychiatric therapy. I suspect that it's cases like these that Meltzer is attacking. Considering that criminals like the one in focus in this TV film are viciously insane and committed a serious offense, I'd think that's exactly why it'd be better to bear in mind that they did what to deserve it, and it'd be a bad idea to start comparing the doctors who performed the therapy to nazis.

Which brings me to note that that's what Marvel did too with their Truth miniseries. They were trying to compare the US Army to nazis by accusing the military of literally doing the same thing as their enemies, in this case, by accusing them of torture and murder. And, as the Colorado Springs Gazette revealed last year, their sugarcoating notwithstanding, yes, IC was a politically motivated miniseries, and it's likely that the whole purpose was to attack the war in Iraq, in a most ludicrious way.

And so you see, this is all the more reason why I'm not impressed with whatever IC was trying to do. Because, as far as I can tell, one of IC's leading goals seems to be to imply that we, the democracies, are trying to take away freedom from the "innocent" jihadists and the now deposed tyrant of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, using the mindwiping as a metaphor for curing them of the rancid mindsets they're trained on, I'm guessing. If that's the case, then all I can say in response to that is - send those rancid terrorist convicts to the psychiatrist's office please, and let him do his best to counsel them into coming to terms with their crimes. Because it's the terrorists who're guilty, and there is no crime in doing what's needed to bring dangerous criminals to their senses, if it's possible.

And the DC and Marvel heroes aren't doing anything wrong by erasing the villains' memories of their secret IDs either. Maybe the minds of honest, law-abiding folk, but as far as the villains are concerned, I will not complain one bit, no matter how honorable they are.

And if mindwiping in comics must be critiqued, then it's better to do it in a newspaper editorial, not in the middle of a comic book itself, where all it does is to make the stories of yore look even more ridiculous than they might be, and also takes away much of the flavor of stories past. And that's something that, if comics are to survive, they need to avoid.

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About me

  • I'm Avi Green
  • From Jerusalem, Israel
  • I was born in Pennsylvania in 1974, and moved to Israel in 1983. I also enjoyed reading a lot of comics when I was young, the first being Fantastic Four. I maintain a strong belief in the public's right to knowledge and accuracy in facts. I like to think of myself as a conservative-style version of Clark Kent. I don't expect to be perfect at the job, but I do my best.
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