by Brad Meltzer and Rags Morales
DC Comics (2004-2005)
Revisit is a series of reviews highlighting past releases that now deserve a second look.
Ask any superhero fan for proof that their genre of choice is to be taken seriously and you will suddenly find yourself holding a copy of Watchmen, which is a bit disingenuous because no other superhero comic is like Watchmen, which was written as a criticism of superhero comics to begin with. So, you'll need to ask for a second example. Assuredly, it will be Identity Crisis, which is a bit more honest because it features recognizable DC Comics characters like Superman and Batman. And, for many fans, it is beloved in the same way as Watchmen: because it is a deadly serious story that ostensibly treats superheroes like real people with feet of clay.
Identity Crisis was a seven-issue miniseries about the Justice League of America searching for a killer who's been targeting their loved ones - wives and parents, but mostly wives because most of the superheroes featured are heterosexual men, while the women are oh-so-marginalized. And it's like Watchmen, but more: more murder victims and fight scenes; deeper, darker secrets and a successful rape instead of the Comedian's namby-pamby attempted rape.
Now, as much as I slag the thing off (and will continue to slag the thing off), the first issue is actually solid. It effectively sets up our point of identification (the archer superhero Green Arrow) and at least one eventual lead for our heroes to track down (the Calculator, an information broker and talent agent to the supervillain community), all drawn convincingly and solidly by the underrated Rags Morales, who nails the wide range of emotions that Meltzer is going for. The funeral scene is especially touching -there's a little moment where Wonder Woman (just stay with me here) touches Sue Dibny's casket and softly says, "Goodbye, sister..." that gets to me every time - which speaks to Meltzer's deft handle on characterization. He has a very obvious love for these characters and, coming from the world of novels, knows how to capture characters' individual voices. Because he's a novelist, he also writes copious amounts of narration, but we'll allow him this because he's doing a noir-ish murder mystery.
Most importantly, Meltzer successfully makes the reader care about the Elongated Man (a.k.a. Ralph Dibny), a fun-but-lower-tier superhero who's really only beloved to fans of certain periods of the Justice League comics and now a widower thanks to the inaugural chapter of Identity Crisis. It's easy to write off superheroes that aren't Superman or Batman as scrubs worthy of ridicule (see: Aquaman), but any character can be valuable in the right story under the right talent. Identity Crisis is Elongated Man's story. That is, until Meltzer completely forgets about him in favor of some other narrative threads including the Justice League's investigation, their own nasty little secret and other subplots like the Atom reconnecting with his ex-wife and Captain Boomerang (seriously) reconnecting with his estranged, illegitimate son.
Which is perhaps for the best because, as a murder mystery, Identity Crisis stinks. While Meltzer understands that the culprit should be the person you least expect, he doesn't work hard enough to earn that shocking twist and thus comes up with an answer that betrays the story's own internal logic and makes the superhero community (which is supposedly comprised of highly capable spacemen, detectives and robots) seem very, very stupid. I'll forgo spoilers for any interested parties, but it involves a character bypassing all sorts of complicated, extraterrestrial security measures yet somehow leaving no physical evidence behind. Moreover, it's an accidental death, one where the character brought along a flamethrower "just in case" and somehow, later in the story, is able to contact the Calculator, a figure so elusive that not even Batman can track him down. And, going by DC Comics logic, nobody is better than Batman.
Shockingly, even the straight superhero parts are poorly written. One of the book's "classic" moments involves an expert assassin named Deathstroke the Terminator (which is up there with "Ego, the Living Planet" in terms of perfect comic book monikers) single-handedly defeating the Justice League. To see someone use his advanced brain and general preparedness to defeat demigods is exciting in theory, but in execution falls apart at the slightest bit of scrutiny. Green Arrow, in his incessant narration, claims that the Justice League teaches heroes how to fight, but they all attack their super-deadly enemy one-by-one, which makes it seem like the other characters are just standing around for their comrades to get quickly dispatched like villains in a Jackie Chan movie. There's something idiotic about a superhero like the Green Lantern (who has the most powerful weapon in the galaxy) just standing around and waiting for a killer with a super-brain to take down Black Canary (whose power is that she screams really loud). Guy could have smashed Deathstroke with a giant green hammer anytime he wanted and that would be the end of the fight. And, don't be mistaken, this isn't about fanboy nitpicking; this is about practical logic being peed on.
However, it's in the second chapter where the whole thing begins to crumble, via the stupidest, most offensive move in modern comics, where we find out through flashback that a minor villain named Dr. Light infiltrated the Justice League satellite headquarters years ago and raped Sue Dibny. But that rape is a mere plot point and an impetus for the Justice League's real deep, dark secret. Fearing that Dr. Light has figured out the superheroes' one collective weakness - it turns out, hey, they don't like when people attack their loved ones - the Justice League used Zatanna's magical abilities to "alter" his mind, effectively lobotomizing him and wiping his memory of the incident. That's not all: Batman walked in on this mystical procedure and got mad at them, so they wiped his memory, too, rather than get a stern taking to from the Dark Knight.
Yes, faced with the horror of rape, the Justice League figured out a comic book solution to the problem when, in a story not featuring the costumed properties of Warner Bros., they would have simply killed the mope and that would have been their secret. But that's not the insane part, nor is the way that the book basically opened the floodgates for a flurry of rape-crazy superhero comics to hit the shelves for the past seven years. No; the really insane part is that the Justice League made Dr. Light forget that he raped the Elongated Man's wife while Sue Dibny herself had to live with the memory of the sexual assault for the rest of her life. What a bunch of assholes.
So, explain me this: why do superhero fans love this book? Identity Crisis was hugely popular and continues to be looked back upon fondly by people seemingly desperate to have their choice in pop culture entertainment taken seriously. despite the fact that it ultimately makes its superheroes seem either incompetent, ineffectual or like outright dicks. Identity Crisis made me hate the Justice League, and that's unforgivable.
by Danny Djeljosevic