Is American Foreign Policy an Infinite Crisis?

George Bush as superhero, the rest of us as sketchy background characters


He was the undisputed ruler of one world, convinced that the larger world outside his own immediate control was corrupt, lacking inspiring heroes and proper values. He acted boldly on the belief that through his own genius, combined with force, manipulation, and powerful weapons he had no hand in creating, he could make a difference—a positive difference, one he'd eventually be lauded for, petty carpers be damned.

To actuate his initially well-intentioned scheme, he launched an enormous, convoluted and confusing set of manipulations, tried to rid the world of magic, generated an interplanetary war, and built a giant cosmic tower capable of creating an endless array of alternate earths from scratch, powered by the energy forces of kidnapped Martians, Kryptonians, and random superbeings.

I am speaking, as the astute reader will have guessed, of President George W. Bush.

OK, only at the start there, kind of. Actually, I am speaking of Alexander Luthor of the former Earth-3 (as with many details in this article, honestly, if you have to ask, you don't really wanna know), whose master plan came to a failed end this week in the DC Comic book Infinite Crisis #7. A 20th-anniversary sequel to the 1985 Crisis On Infinite Earths, the Infinite Crisis series was one of the comic book industry's mega-crossover events designed to force fanboys to buy every single title issued all year long, in addition to multiple new one-shots and mini-series—that depth of reading being necessary just to pretend to have some slim hope of understanding what's going on. And for the most part, they succeeded with me, capturing the attention of this reader who had entirely abandoned superhero comics for the past two decades.

The political angles of Infinite Crisis have not gone unexamined in this era when even the pulpiest microcultures are thoroughly inspected for larger meaning. "On the surface, this appears to be a straightforward Superman story," says Booklist in its review, "but the underlying treatment of such issues as misplaced deification, human rights, and terrorism give the story depth." But all that herniated analysis sheds some light on how the culture war produces Bizarro bedfellows.

As storytelling, Infinite Crisis could be a confusing and headachy mess even if you knew most of the characters and their backstories, and didn't find phrases like "trapped in the Speed force" or "summon the Green Lantern Corps" or "drag him through the Red Sun" merely confusing, meaningless, or off-putting. Infinite Crisis and all its spinoffs are dense with interesting themes, but not necessarily with interesting and complete developments of those themes. Like superhero comics at their best and worst, it was all about universe-spanning gosh-wow spectacle and constant references to events in past comics (which were usually left unexplained for neophytes and added ballast to the gradual sinking ship of comic book sales).

But it is of enduring interest to anyone sniffing around for signals about politics that two of the biggest fan-geek epics of the 21st century, this and the second Star Wars trilogy, can be read, or even demand to be read, as sly, dark takedowns on George Bush and his imperial and world-saving visions. The zeitgeist of the fantastic is by no means behind our president's essentially superheroic vision of the U.S. government's role. It might be all right to lose the United Nations, international opinion, the opposition party, and more than half of the population—but when the naysayers are joined in their uneasiness by everyone from the Jedi Council to the Justice League, you are in political trouble.

Still, Bush stays the course. Does this make him more a Winston Churchill, as he imagines, or a Sith Lord or Darkseid?

The echoes of influence and connection between serious, grim military adventures and fershlugginer pop artifacts are everywhere. Post-9/11 American military operations in Afghanistan were originally called "Infinite Justice," then abruptly changed to "Enduring Freedom." By mixing in this DC comics' tribute/attack on Bush foreign policy, we can create the most accurate name yet for this century's American military operations: How about "Operation Enduring Crisis"?

The whole Infinite Crisis brouhaha began with another political metaphor, a moral dilemma touching on vital differences between libertarian and modern liberal viewpoints on the nature of the self and the proper way to treat anti-social actions. Batman grows to mistrust and hate his fellow superheroes when he learns they have magically mindwarped some villains into forgetting the heroes' secret identities—and then mindwiped him to make him forget they had done it, violating Batman's C.S. Lewis/Anthony Burgess sense of traditional morality. It's OK to beat the shit out of villains and punish them, because this involves respecting them as autonomous moral beings; but it is always wrong to "rehabilitate" them through force, because this does violence to their very being and identity, by removing the most important choice of all—to be good or evil.

Series author Geoff Johns ends escaping this complicated and promising beginning with a very modern comic meta-gesture, in which the complaint motivating the villains of the piece—that the world of DC Comics has become unremittingly dark, vicious, and unheroic—makes them world-destroying stand-ins for a significant cadre of DC's own shrinking fan base. It's every author's dream—telling a story in which his own critics are the hideous supervillains—and it made for a fun undercurrent for the cognoscenti, but it ended up blunting the seriousness of some of the other moral issues. Batman never has to decide if what his friends did really was unforgivable, and his own reaction to their violation of the villain's moral autonomy gets so out of control that he merely has to clean up his own mess rather than decide who was right or wrong in the first place. Similarly, the Iraqi people's own responsibility for rescuing themselves from tyranny and developing their own institutions is elided by our superheroic efforts, ongoing if failing, to take care of all that for them.

Stories of men in tights, flying through the universe, shooting undifferenatiated force beams willy-nilly and occasionally tearing each others' arms off, are perhaps crude vehicles for sophisticated political and moral analysis. Still, the mental world of politics inevitably colonizes our reactions to everything in our lives. In the end of Infinite Crisis—SPOILER WARNING, folks—Luthor's plan to create a perfect world out of the chaotic, living jumble of the existing universe (and the many more he creates) comes a-cropper, He is brutally and shockingly murdered by the Joker, representation of the DC universe's pure villainy, an unhinged id for whom political and ethical logic of any sort is meaningless.

Such will not be George W. Bush's fate. There is no way to map political meaning from worlds in which creating and destroying multiverses are the par to our world (where heroes must be content with merely creating and destroying nations). As the madness of Bush's plan becomes more apparent to more people, none of us have the power or guts or assumed authority to swing at him on a rope and kick him off his pedestal, as per Nightwing in Infinite Crisis. If we have a long post-Bush future, he'll live in it, and no matter how hated he is by how many in 2009, past experience with ex-presidents shows he'll be warmly embraced and meet an eventual demise followed by heaps of honors, some sincere, some not.

But the comic book analogy does hold up in another way. To Bush, we are all just those sort of barely delineated characters, small, in foreground or background, evading (barely) projecting force beams and falling chunks of masonry from destroyed buildings. Some of us are dead in the end, sure, even some third-banana superheroes get shredded by deadly eye-beams. But most of the victims of the superpower struggles are unnamed, or with names that will not be long remembered.

In that sense, Infinite Crisis does remind us of the ways in which the U.S. and the people in charge of its might are superhero manqués. As well-meaning as they might be—even the ones not as clearly bullgoose loony as Earth-3 Luthor and his partner Earth-Prime Superboy (again: don't ask)—their exertions of force in the name of goodness cause plenty of collatoral damage and often seem driven by a sense that their choices and actions are above the considerations of mortal men and their petty problems.

The disasters might be forgotten by the next issue—or the next election (though Bush and the GOP shouldn't count on it). But there will always be some fanboy to keep alive the memory of what things used to be like. Let's hope it's not too late for some fan of America after 2008 to retcon the Bush era and make the era of constant Middle East war a distant memory for only the geekiest old fans of foreign policy to argue over.