Since first donning capes, cowls and tights, superheroes have embarked on adventures that no mortal man or woman has the capacity to participate, except to cheer the do-gooders on as they claim victory against the evil deeds of comparably powered supervillains. Facing impossible odds has become commonplace for just about every character brave enough to soar into the face of danger. Doesn’t it leave to reason that these same heroes, with powers granted by science, magic, and the gods themselves, would be forced to make choices as unimaginably difficult as their adventures?
These choices are what drives the story in “Identity Crisis”, a book that slowly reveals to what extent some members of the superhero community have gone to protect the people they love. And it isn’t pretty. Writer Brad Meltzer and artist Rags Morales set out to explore the complexities of being a superhero, focusing more on the emotional tolls than on the physical.
Make no mistake, it is clear to see why “Identity Crisis” would be a polarizing read. First, the book takes a beloved supporting character, the Elongated Man’s wife, Sue Dibny, and adds a brutal backstory in which she is raped by the villain Dr. Light. The book then explores to what magnitude some heroes would go to prevent such a crime from occurring again. However, in terms of storytelling, a ruthless crime just short of murder was required to put the events of “Identity Crisis” in motion. This doesn’t make the victimization of Sue any easier to read, so you may choose not to pick up the book.
Meltzer does have an affinity for these characters. Whether the writer is reminding readers that the love between Ralph and Sue is as authentic as that of Superman and Lois Lane, or that the Man of Steel was indeed a boy scout, or that Deathstroke is one formidable bad-ass, Meltzer exhibits a solid knowledge of the DC Universe and an affection for its inhabitants. Through small pieces of dialogue or big action set pieces, Meltzer fills “Identity Crisis” with scenes that should ring true to longtime fans of DC Comics.
Morales is a natural fit for what turns out to be a deeply personal story for the much of the large cast of “Identity Crisis”. This is a story rich with dramatic moments and Morales nails the soulful expressions in his characters whenever required to do so. Where so many artists revert to white pupils when they draw a mask on a character’s face, Morales draws his masks with plenty of space around the eyes so that the character’s emotions are unmistakable.
Much of the story is told from the point-of-view of Green Arrow and the Satellite-era Silver Age Justice League of America, but Meltzer uses a large number of characters to narrate the story. “Identity Crisis” never expands to the size of “Crisis on Infinite Earths”, but the writer does a masterful job of juggling an enormous cast of heroes, villains, and supporting characters in this seven-chapter series.
“Identity Crisis” opens with the murder of Sue Dibny at the hands of an unknown assailant. The greatest detectives of the DCU arrive to check every particle of evidence but come up with nothing. Mister Miracle discerns no sign of a break-in, the Atom cannot find a carpet fiber out of place, and Animal Man is unable to catch the scent of an intruder. This is a full-fledged mystery and the heroes quickly conclude that someone is coming after their loved ones.
From the outset it’s clear that Meltzer and Morales are determined to inject heart into the story. Much of the first half of the opening chapter involves Ralph reminiscing about his love affair with Sue. Ralph is smitten with his wife, and he is fully aware that she is attempting to dupe him with a surprise party although his birthday is months away. Morales flawlessly captures the introduction of the lovers. Sue is a doe-eyed girl, instantly taken with the lanky detective and not caring that the Flash is only a few feet away. Ralph looks enamored as he rambles on about the only woman who has captured his heart.
After Sue’s murder the Satellite League (Zatanna, Black Canary, the Atom, Hawkman and Green Arrow), joined by the Flash (Wally West) and Green Lantern (Kyler Rayner), attempt to track down the villain Doctor Light. It is here where Green Arrow shares one of the League’s darkest secrets with their second generation teammates and we see, right, wrong or otherwise, that our heroes might not always make the moral choices. Meltzer smartly doesn’t paint the Big Three into this ethical corner. He uses the second tier characters to ask a very difficult question: what would you do? If the answer comes easily to you, then it is doubtful that the ramifications were seriously considered.
As more murders are attempted, some fail and some succeed, the mystery widens and more of the League’s secrets are revealed. In the end, Green Arrow defends his choices to an embittered Wally West:
“Haven’t you learned anything yet?,” Ollie asks while clutching his domino mask. “Think about your own life, Wally—everything you’ve done to keep your secrets safe. You don’t just wear the mask for yourself. It’s for your wife… your parents… even for—one day—your children. There are animals out there, Wally. And when it comes to family, we can’t always be there to defend them. But the mask will.” This last line features a close up of Green Arrow’s mask and is one that Morales repeats throughout “Identity Crisis”. There are several panels where the focus is on the iconic crests of heroes like Superman, Robin and the Flash, or a close-up of Wonder Woman’s star-spangled shorts and glowing lasso. These iconic images of hope and heroism are a stark contrast with the realities faced by Satellite League.
Another strength of “Identity Crisis” is the inclusion and the characterization of the villains of the DCU. Some of them are evil just for the sake of evil, while others are businessmen simply looking for work. Meltzer’s gift to the DCU is the re-introduction of the Calculator, a true D-List character, as an Oracle for the villain community. However, where Barbara Gordon dispenses information to whomever is in need, the Calculator doles out his data for a price.
Unfortunately the most glaring problem with “Identity Crisis” is the revelation of the murderer. The motivation and the tactics used to do the nasty deeds work just fine, but how it is discovered is just too simple. Without revealing too much, the killer lets slip a fact about one of the murders and is caught in a lie. Batman and Dr. Mid-Nite are able to piece together the mystery at the same time, but the reveal comes by way of another hero, not by way of detective work but by happenstance. It’s too easy and it doesn’t make for a satisfying scene. Again, the “who” in this whodunnit is inspired, and the disclosure of how and why the character went about the crimes is chilling.
One chapter in and Meltzer and Morales will have you agonizing over who the book’s next victim will be, and praying for who should be spared. Meltzer and Morales bring such great warmth to the Dibny relationship that when they spend time with Ma and Pa Kent, Jack Drake, Jean Loring, Lois Lane or Jimmy Olsen, my first reaction was genuine concern for their safety. Honestly, whether you are familiar with the character or not, the horrific murder of Sue Dibny hangs over this book in such a way that you don’t want the same ending to befall any of these other mainstays of the DCU.
By the close of “Identity Crisis” the heroes’ scars are more prevalent, their skeletons have been revealed, and we realize that the people we’ve known for so many years may not always make what we consider the right decisions. So do we believe that they’re doing their best with a difficult situation or do we turn our backs on them? I suppose that’s our choice.
Written by: Brad Meltzer
Art: Rags Morales
Inks: Michael Bair
Colors: Alex Sinclair
Letters: Ken Lopez
Publisher: DC Comics
Original Publication Date: June 2004
Pages: 288 pages