Comic Book Review – Identity Crisis

Identity Crisis
Reprints Identity Crisis #1-7
Written by Brad Meltzer
Art by Rags Morales

The recently concluded Heroes in Crisis mini-series, written by Tom King, has been the focus of massive negative attention online. The series is so fresh that I still am not sure what my take on the overall piece is and it’ll warrant a re-read soon. The intent of Heroes in Crisis was to talk about the PTSD superheroes would experience as part of their line of work. Thirteen years ago, novelist Brad Meltzer was tasked with composing a similar event comic centered around a dark revelation from the Justice League’s past, an opportunity to tell a very adult story in the DC Comics universe. There is an emphasis on the long-term emotional toll that comes with being a superhero, and Identity Crisis seems to have garnered even more considerable enmity in the decade-plus since it was released. This summer we’ll be looking at the series of events books that started with this one and redefined DC Comics for the mid-to-late 2000s.

Identity Crisis begins with a strong sense of tension, following superheroes on patrol and in their day to day lives. A non-linear structure lets us know something very horrible is going to happen minutes from now, but we’re not sure to which of these characters the tragedy will befall. The spotlight falls on Elongated Man and Firehawk, the former a rubbery detective and the latter a flame-winged daughter of a US senator. Elongated Man aka Ralph Dibny tells Firehawk about his long-lasting romance with his wife, Sue. They are an iconic DC couple who worked as members of the Justice League through multiple incarnations. Everything goes south when the villain they are tailing, Bolt, ends up riddled with bullets and sense of chaos, that they have been set up is made clear. When Ralph rushes home, he finds his bride Sue dead in what is probably one of the most emotionally upsetting moments in modern comics. She was going to tell Ralph she was pregnant that night, which drives the blade even deeper into our hearts.

To make matters worse, the following issues reveals that there has been a horrible secret kept by some members of the Justice League. Years earlier, Sue was on the Justice League satellite headquarters by herself when the villain Doctor Light used his spectrum bending powers to sneak aboard. In a series of deeply disturbing panels, it is implied that Light raped Sue and was caught in the act when Ralph and about a half dozen other Justice Leaguers return. Sue is rescued, and Light is subdued, but he has already discovered their secret identities and promises he’ll harm all their loved ones when he breaks out again. The decision is made for resident magician Zatanna not only to erase this knowledge from Light’s memory but alter his personality into that of a buffoon. If you read the New Teen Titans comics in the 1980s, then you know the portrayal of Light as an ineffective fool.

This decision to play god is the crux of Identity Crisis. It’s a great question to ponder: if you had the power to strip a dangerous person of knowledge that will allow them to harm, would you do it? Would rewire that person to become someone easier to handle. I’m personally a big believer that the American criminal justice system should be genuinely reformed based, not the half-assed way most prisons handle inmates. Recidivism, the cycle of going in and out of jail, is pretty clear proof that what we have doesn’t work as people who go to prison just ending becoming higher skilled criminals when they get out. What an incredible boon it would be to just instantaneously press a button and make someone not a criminal any longer. Free will would be erased. Is it reform if there is no choice made by the one being changed? Does a criminal have a right to choose if they want to continue to harm or not? Meltzer brings some heady and essential questions into this world of capes and tights.

The stars of Identity Crisis are not Superman and Batman, rather B-tier characters like Hawkman, The Atom, and Green Arrow. Because these characters are not as associated with stark moral positions, it makes it that little bit harder for the readers to decide where they come down on these big questions. We’re not meant to have an easy time grappling with the content of this story; it’s expected that we will change our minds many times throughout these seven issues. There’s also no doubt that any reader will be caught up in the emotional stakes of the event, you will be on the edge of your seat over whom the killer will strike at next.

The most prominent criticisms of Identity Crisis come from the rape of Sue Dibny and the revelation of the killer in the final act. Sue’s rape and murder are some of the roughest stuff to be depicted in a mainstream DC Comics; we’re meant to feel the resonance of her pain and Ralph’s trauma in the aftermath. The killer’s reveal is pretty shocking, but the motivations feel a tad paper thin. It’s a case of choosing the least disruptive character to be caught so that none of the more critical iconic characters have their status quo’s shaken up too severely. DC committed to following through with this character’s evil turn, as we will see later this summer. There’s also a general complaint about how dark DC took things in this period, losing a little bit of the light-hearted shine. I found Identity Crisis to be one of the better titles I read in preparation for this summer series. It has clear themes it is exploring and tells a focused story. I love the last minute reveal of how those old Justice Leaguers did more than just mindwipe Light and crossed many moral lines in the name of “fighting evil.” Identity Crisis does a great job at setting the table for what is to come next, I don’t think what happens next lives up to the hefty promise this series presents.

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