Identity Crisis is a DC mini-series that love or hate is a legitimate benchmark on the DC timeline noting the company’s trends as the beginning of a shift in their line’s direction as a whole. While being far removed from my introduction to the DC Universe, as I had been a fan of several characters and runs at one time or another prior to reading it, it is the series that made me a fan of the DC Universe and ultimately is the series I credit for bringing me back to the hobby itself after more than a decade away. I was what most would identify as as Marvel zombie band excluding scattered reads, and I’d offer I didn’t view DC so much as having fell off as much as me simply not ever being alive when it was ever ‘on’.
One day, no longer a comic collector or reader, a chance encounter led a stranger to loan me Identity Crisis in its collected trade paperback form and in a way that watching the first Superman movie introduced me to the concept of heroism, this story felt like my first encounter with characters and institutions I had known for years but hadn’t met yet. When reading the series it is your fan boy subconscious that is stimulated, a layer I didn’t even think I had, as someone who had never read the Brave and the Bold, when Meltzer invokes those words in-story you still intuitively know it is significant, you know it is part of comic book lore and language that still tugs at you when there was never a previous tangible connection. They have meaning.
But that’s why ice cream stores don’t just sell chocolate and vanilla. Every once in awhile, someone walks in and orders butter pecan.
Whodunit Love Story…
The seven issue miniseries written by Brad Meltzer, a bestselling novelist, and Identity Crisis is in its most basic sense, a classic old-fashioned murder mystery; the targets seemingly the spouses and/or loved ones of the heroes themselves. The wife of the Ralph Dibny, the Elongated Man, Sue Dibny, herself a fixture in the DCU is murdered at her home as she sets up a surprise for her husband — the first time she has ever been able to fool her husband for his birthday — with her pregnancy. It is an act that will rock the core of the DC Universe, and expose a rot in the legacy of the heroes that turns into a debate of the definition of a hero and the reality of it. It will tear it down and leave it as a hanging query to be answered every issue of ever title afterwards. Something to prove, something to live up to, a mantle earned daily, never to be taken for granted by those they serve and more importantly amongst themselves.
The murder of Sue is the first crime revealed but not the first committed and with it answers to a question never asked — what readers accepted as a leap of faith — dealing with how Heroes have been able to keep their and the identity of their families and loved ones a secret from villains possessing powers or resources that would make one believe such information would be impossible to keep from. Indeed, powers would not even be needed in the the era of social media and a population of people with very little to do all armed with cameras and instant access platforms. Amidst telepaths, time travelers, geniuses, magicians, demigods, and aliens among others, how are such secrets maintained? They burnt Prometheus. A group within The JLA had been in the practice of having Zatanna mind-wipe certain adversaries to protect themselves. It is one of these former victims who became the chief suspect of the murder, a villain we have come to known as being rather incompetent even with formidable powers, Doctor Light. We learn that Doctor Light previously infiltrated the Watchtower only to find Sue alone and they would remain so until he was caught mid-rape by the JLA. He is subdued and a decision is made that would become semi-policy — it’s always the hardest the first time — he would be brainwashed and made a shadow of his former self (the one we know). It would not be the worst of their deeds…
Batman returned. A mortal, just a man, he charges the rest of the league — Hawkman, Flash, Ralph, Zatanna, Green Arrow, Black Canary, Green Lantern, and the Atom — and what would occur would then start the schism that would create the true Dark Knight and would tear the Justice League apart. This is Meltzer’s assault on our heroes, their home, the DC Universe as a whole but most importantly, reader expectation.
What Meltzer is able to capture is that truly iconic quality possessed by the trio that is known throughout the hobby as the Big Three. No matter what triumphs another company or even DC will have, no matter what the flavor of the month or even decade is, no other characters will assume the position of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman — The Trinity. I think DC has tarnished the term by using it themselves a bit instead of letting it live as understood by fans but they remain the very foundation of the current superhero genre, not the first, not perhaps the best selling in any given Diamond report, but they are the benchmark for everything that occurs afterward either as facsimiles or reaction. Benchmarks get past, and they have, though they remain at the same time classic and the standard, and even though a title like Wonder Woman has struggled to find a consistent audience or benefit from a successful a modern retelling like Batman or Superman until recently, her in-comic presence is one that befits her permanent stature. To construct a story that could be viewed as a viable candidate for being described as the starting point of everything that would come after from DC and to tip toe the line of having the Big 3 in subsidiary roles but still loom large via how they interjected them in the storyline was a large part of what became policy for awhile with 52. What we see is DC acknowledge the position of the three, they don’t refute or run away from it, and they separate by embracing it and having the other characters — pantheons themselves in any other company, like the Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman, Green Arrow, the Atom, Robin, the Elongated Man, Zatanna, members of the mighty Justice League, the classic Justice Society, and Teen Titans acknowledge this without diminishing themselves. It offers a unique vantage of gods from the perspectives of heroes and validates an understood hierarchy as if the rest of the DC all broke the fourth wall for a moment and winked at us — we know. They loom like pillars.
Meltzer hits moments with unbelievable precision, his understanding of not only these characters and where they have to go to be relevant and compelling beyond this series is dead on. I say this as someone who has NO understanding of it yet now feel I do and found what I was missing. You walk away from Identity Crisis with the feeling you just found a new best friend, but you have known each other forever. Meltzer maximises his moments, and makes them part of the permanent tapestry of storied characters. Meltzer brings intangibles that negates some of the negative tangibles of the story itself and is the writer that I credit to introducing me to DC and the characters that all others aspire to. His is a seven issue crash course, that has turned into a love affair, and the series fulfilled the promise that came with it when it was handed to me.
I’m not at all sure there is a finer example of universe start-off point for a new reader while still being a story that has impact to long-time fans. You may not know or love the Elongated Man, but you will love, cry, and smile for and with him — you will feel Ralph Dibny.
Riches to Rags…
When a book goes beyond simply being successful it is because the writer and penciler create this synergy that transcends achievement in either facet and becomes a storytelling accomplishment. Morales delivers his most powerful, meaningful, work to date that dabbles in that company. His pencils make scenes like a meeting with the Spectre — the Green Lantern to a prior generation — and Green Arrow into a heartfelt chat between old friends: Ollie and Hal that goes back to days of O’Neil and Adams. The way Wonder Woman was rendered in her brief appearance shows the proper majesty of an encounter with Diana; the look of horror on Tim Drake as Bruce Wayne embraces him; the pure love emanating from Ralph when speaking about his wife… we saw him, the grief — twitch and all — of a husband. Rags Morales has put his stamp on a work that is unique in that it occurs in continuity and involves and touches on so many. I’m not sure I’d describe Morales — whose work in VALIANTS’s Turok I also admired — as an all-time penciler or one that will come to represent the cream of an era but he has under his belt a project that stands artistically as an achievement.
I read the story as a fictional tragedy. The Dibny family, thus the DC universe, became family and turned Doctor Light into public enemy number one, but we were conflicted. He didn’t respond to violation with violation — indeed it was the opposite. Our heroes did. There have been failures in scattered call backs to the series and some apparent continuity gaffs regarding background appearances and while it speaks on some amount of sloppiness it also speaks on the undertaking itself; no foundation is without its cracks originating from above and below and Identity Crisis is no different, but it succeeds at being an evolution that occurs overnight; it’s arriving at the summit and finding an infinite staircase.
Identity Crisis has one of, and maybe the best, Deathstroke moment of all time. If your problem with DC was that the heroes were too overpowered, Meltzer delivers the most infamous antagonist of a storied series in DC lore, and gives us a maul. It isn’t even how well he did against our heroes, it’s that he presented himself in the first place to take on the fight.
While the Gods often go one-one-one there is a reason there are teams. It’s where they learn to fight.
Identity Crisis would effect the entire DC and the fallout and ramifications are summed up rather aptly by the most unlikely of characters when in the series Villains United — Catman — tells a smug Green Arrow:
You were all great once. You can be that way again…but you’d better hurry. Before the line between you and us gets too damn blurry to see.
What occurs at the top reverberates and is felt by everyone beneath. These are not just our heroes, they are the heroes of heroes, they are what villains or what the anti-hero couldn’t be but still, from somewhere, admire. The destruction of that truth…well… I have always said a good story is one that continues and lives past its pages. The next day me and my new friend — after giving him back his book — talked comics.
The first time I had done so in my adult life.