Pulp and Dagger

Graphic Novel Review


for February 18, 2007


Identity Crisis

cover2005 - available in hard cover and soft cover

Written by Brad Meltzer. Pencils by Rags Morales. Inks by Michael Bair.
Colours: Alex Sinclair. Letters: Ken Lopez. Editor: Michael Carlin.

Reprinting the seven issue mini-series (2004-2005)

Additional notes: intro by Joss Whedon; afterward and commentary by Meltzer, Morales, etc.; covers;

264 pages

Mature readers

Cover price: $24.99 (HC)/ $14.99 (SC) - USA

Identity Crisis was one of those mass team ups DC churns out every year, and may well be the most controversial comic book saga in years, and also one of the most significant...at least in its (temporary) impact on continuity.

The story has Sue Dibny, wife of the good natured Elongated Man, being brutally murdered. With Green Arrow at the fore front, the DC heroes scour the underworld for the culprit while other loved ones are threatened, leading them to believe they've got a killer who knows they're secrets. But there's a secondary plot underneath, as Wally West (The Flash) learns of a long ago, dark, secret that some of the Justice League have been keeping -- and it's that secret that has contributed to much of the story's controversy among fandom.

This is part of the "dark n' gritty" movement that is once more sweeping comics after many thought it had become passe. Not really being a fan of that movement myself, or what comic book geek writers think passes for gritty realism, I nonetheless went into Identity Crisis with a deliberately open mind (particularly if taken as an "imaginary story" -- which, as Alan Moore once said, aren't they all?). As such, I actually kind of liked it initially.

First off, the art by Rags Morales is quite beautiful, mixing a robust realism with hints of comedic caricature -- there's some of Michael Golden in his art, a hint of Will Eisner cartooniness, maybe a bit of George Freeman in the line work. And Alex Sinclair's colours are warm and rich. For such a dark story, the art is vibrant and appealing. Likewise, scripter Brad Meltzer throws in some witty lines, and the first chapter, involving cut aways to various DCU players as we build to the murder, and the subsequent funeral, manages to be reasonably intriguing.

It's meant to be gritty and shocking at times, but the desire to shock is so transparent, it's a little like a four year old who's first learned to make a farting sound -- he's so obviously trying to outrage, it's more childish than shocking. When we begin with the deliberately over-the-top grisly murder of harmless old Sue (ending one of the oldest -- and only -- marriages left in comics) and then reveal she had been raped years before and then learn an inner Star Chamber of the JLA sometimes brainwashed super villains...well, you can find your eyes rolling. (This is all stuff revealed in the first two issues, so I'm not giving too much away)

It's a seven issue, 210 page epic...that only has enough material to fill up half those pages. The middle issues are more just place holders as the heroes trackdown clues that are obvious red herrings, beat up villains who clearly know nothing, and have a four page talk with the Spectre who says he knows the killer, but won't tell. I like a mystery/thriller where each chapter adds clues as we go; instead you could practically skip three issues in the middle and get the same basic story!

Because this is DC's annual "universe impacting" epic, other characters are killed off and new ones introduced. A lengthy cutaway to villain Boomerang reuniting with (apparently) a long lost son, where we're wondering how it all relates, turns out is mainly there to introduce a newer -- more deadly (natch) -- Captain Boomerang. Likewise, the Dr. Light stuff partly exists just to recreate Dr. Light as a super evil, serial rapist (and the creepiest idea in the whole series is to think of all those writers at DC, now rushing to their editors, asking if the "new, improved" Dr. Light can come over to "play" with their female characters).

In order for a series like this to work, you have to believe in the narrative...instead, the sticky fingerprints of the creators and editors are way too obvious.

And what's curious is how Meltzer and DC throws in the rape, rather gratuitously (two panels is sensitive...two pages gratuitous), but do so in such a way that it's drawn obliquely and no one actually refers to it by name. And that's -- hypocritically -- because they didn't want to tack a "mature readers" warning on it, and so mitigate sales.

There are some good things about Identity Crisis, particularly towards the end. An effectively tense sequence involving Jack Drake (Robin's dad), even if the inevitability of it (remember: gritty, universe shaking) kind of mutes some suspense. And a whiz doozer of another shoe dropping regarding the brainwashing. Heck, even the revelation of the killer's identity is certainly a surprise.

But they don't overcome the problems. Just taken as a gee whiz adventure, it's thin, hemorraghing plausibility so much that Meltzer band aids lazy explanations about people only knowing what they want to know, or attributing motivation to insanity (for characters who had previously seemed sane), to justify ludicrous plot points. And though there's a thematic connection between the murder and the dark secret, the two plots don't really connect. And with the "secret" clearly just setting things up for later stories, it weakens it as a stand alone read. And though it's awkward to comment on characterization -- for me, too many of the characters didn't really seem "in" character, saying and doing things I couldn't see them saying and doing.

In that context, the story might've worked better as an out-of-continuity "Elseworlds" story -- or with original characters entirely (ala The Watchmen). That wouldn't patch up the plot holes, but it might mitigate some of the motivational problems. I realize it's entirely anecdotal, but looking at some reviews of the series, it seemed that many of the people who liked it the most, claimed not to be that into the existing characters, and those who liked it the least, were those who felt a pre-existing attachment to Sue and the others. As well, a lot of defenders of the series loved the fact that it was setting things up for later stories. But I'm not particularly impressed to read something like this, only to feel that various sub-plots are left half finished.

Meltzer kind of over-analyses things a lot, as if he's trying to wow us with how much he's thought about these characters and their powers. He belongs to the fanboy generation of writers who talk about realism...but it's a myopic realism. This isn't about making super heroes real people with real problems (mortgages, relationships, neurosies) -- that's what the last forty years of comics already did! -- this is about making the fantasy more gritty and ugly. Meltzer himself, in his notes, talks about the "icons" and the characters being "gods". The central issue of the saga is why super heroes need secret identities -- when, in reality, they probably wouldn't. After all, cops, lawyers, judges...none of these people wear masks, and they don't usually worry about revenge seeking killers -- except in comic books, of course! And then Meltzer contradicts his own thesis by having the characters constantly refer to each other by name in public! Yet this doesn't really create a sense of a workplace comaraderie, as the heroes still seem to regard each other as comic book icons rather than people (the Flash talks about "The Batman" as if he's a god, rather than a guy he's presumably stood next to at the JLA urinal).

And that's the problem: Identity Crisis wants to be taken seriously, even as it doesn't hold up to analysis. If he wanted to raise the issue of power/abuse of power and really delve into it, that'd be fine. But he doesn't. He tosses it out there, doesn't really set up compelling arguments for either side, and then tacks "the end" on after he's run out of pages. Given the revelation Wally learns, it would be impossible to continue in the League -- because a team, above all, functions on trust...and there's no way he could trust certain members again.

What's ironic is that Identity Crisis joins the list of DC epics that are meant to redefine the medium (including Kingdom Come and The Watchmen), but really just seem to be rehashing themes and ideas first explored in Marvel's Squadron Supreme maxi-series from over 20 years ago!

The problem with all these comics that come along (ever since The Watchmen) that claim they are showing the reality...is who defines realism? Trying to portray a "realistic" super hero universe is like plugging a hole in a dike -- only to have another crack appear. Just as a minor example, in one scene Meltzer has the authorities confiscate the body of a dead super villain, because dead villains have a tendency to come back to life, and they don't want that to happen. Ah hah, the fans say, how clever...dealing realistically with the concept. But, um, if the villain might come back to life, and the authorities are preventing it...isn't that the same as cops refusing medical treatment to an injured suspect? It's not for the cops to decide who lives, dies, or is resurrected. And Meltzer's continual, cutesy references to all the heroes and villains who have died and come back to life is awkward in a story where we're supposed to be dealing with the tragic death of characters.

With a second reading, of course, a lot of my passion has bled out of me. The flaws are all still there, but the art is striking, and there are some clever lines. And even the lag in the middle of the story seems less bothersome if you read the whole thing quicker, in a day or two (as opposed to deliberately reading it in a serialized way as I had at first). So what do you say about it? The less I actually cared, and the less I tried to let it involve me as a drama, the more I enjoyed it. There's a kind of slick, breezy readability to it.

And then there's the problem that Identity Crisis is so drenched in mysogyny the only wonder is that Alan Moore wasn't listed as a creative consultant. From the (mis)treatment of women, the marginalization of female characters (the lack of roles, or even dialogue), and the revelation of the killer and the killer's motive, you realize Meltzer and company are working out stuff best left on an analyst's couch. Ironically, some pundits claimed Shuster & Siegel created Superman's Lois Lane as a revenge fantasy on the girl's who ignored them in high school (creating a dame who pines for the unattainable man), well Meltzer and company seem to be still getting revenge for all those dateless nights, only now they're raping, murderering, and degrading women.

Identity Crisis was supposed to be showing us how much comics have grown up...when it shows they haven't grown up at all.

Reviewed by D.K. Latta

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