By Corey Schroeder
“Identity Crisis,” written by Brad Meltzer and illustrated by Rags Morales, tells the shocking tale of a murder within the superhero community of the DC Universe. The book opens with Ralph Dibny, the Elongated Man, out on patrol with a relative neophyte and talking about how much he loves his wife. So of course, he gets word that something terrible and horrible and unexpected has happened: his wife has been murdered and so far there are seemingly no leads and, despite all the security around her, not even a suspect. The method is clear though: Sue Dibny is found with burns across 90% of her body. Grisly stuff, especially for a superhero book. What unfolds is a mystery who’s solution won’t shake the superhero community half as much the revelations uncovered on the road to the culprit will.
Writer Brad Meltzer is amazing at capturing the voices of a massive ensemble cast. This cast pulls in characters from almost every corner of the DCU, from the A-listers of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman to the B and C-listers like Firestorm and Shining Knight, and almost every character who has a substantial amount of dialog has a voice that you could recognize without looking at who’s saying it. He also catapults one of the villains from floundering between B and A-list to a terror who can take one of the League’s first response teams in longtime menace Deathstroke the Terminator and explains the seeming comedic lunacy of another longtime Teen Titans menace Dr. Light. DC has since squandered these gifts on having Deathstroke flounder and turning Dr. Light into a “gritty, edgy” maniac with the depth of a mud puddle, but those unfortunate consequences don’t occlude the skill with which Meltzer redefines these leftovers from the Silver Age.
Rags Morales and Michael Bair handle artistic duties as penciler and inker respectively and respectable is the word to describe what they do. Rags Morales captures emotion better than few artists in the industry and emotion is certainly the name of the game in this entire story. He also has an incredible eye for detail and subtlety, peppering panels with not only clues but indicating which characters are or aren’t lying or are just flat-out insane. So now let’s dive into one of the aspects of the book that threatened to tear the DC fanbase apart.
“Identity Crisis” is one of the most polarizing, and controversial, mainstream books released in the last decade. The book not only brought a level of psychological realism, you’ll notice that phrase come up a lot in my more positive reviews, to the often two dimensional world of capes and tights, but it explained away a lot of the stranger, more absurd parts of the past of the, specifically throughout the cartoonish Silver Age. However it accomplished this, partially, through a skillful retcon that ties into the murder and partially through the rather awkward and painful subject of rape. So let’s get that out of the way before anything else: The rape of Sue Dibny is usually what polarizes fans the most and it’s easy to see why. Comic books, for decades, have trivialized the horrors of it at best, usually by having characters shrug it off or even blame the victim, and used it as an “empowering motivation” for female heroes at worst. I think this caused a lot of knee-jerk reactions of fans immediately hating it without really regarding it. Brad Meltzer, a veteran mystery/thriller novelist, doesn’t use it as a throwaway plot point, or as a device to somehow make a character stronger, he shows some horrible, real consequences. It makes characters behave irrationally and in ways that they, perhaps, shouldn’t (which is markedly different from acting “out of character”), it has a terrible impact on family and friend dynamics, and it can ultimately drive people to do horrible things.
The subjects that Identity Crisis tackles can be extremely uncomfortable, as they probably should be. The story is, of course, not appropriate for all ages but it is an example of truly mature storytelling as opposed to storytelling merely containing adult themes. The story was also used as a jumping-off for several of the DCU’s new characters including the younger Captain Boomerang, a newly revamped Dr. Light, a new form for Firestorm and a much more powerful and methodical Deathstroke. DC editorial has, sadly, not capitalized on these characters in the ways that they should have, but it’s interesting to see them in a story that actually takes advantage of the more complex relationships in comic books. The book is an amazing read if you can let go of your personal discomfort and take the story for what it is: a murder mystery filled with intrigue, superpowers, and an amazing ending.
Find out for yourself at Idenitity Crisis Trade Paperback Graphic Novel