The Good: Wonderful story, Decent character work, Good artwork, Bodycount
The Bad: Some confusing threads which seem tangential.
The Basics: A strong, character-centered graphic novel, Identity Crisis starts with a murder and evolves into story of how a secret strains a community of heroes and empowers the villains they fight.
In immersing myself in graphic novels pertaining to Wonder Woman, my Wonder Woman year took a significant turn when I learned that one of the most significant character developments in the Wonder Woman storyline actually happened in a non-Wonder Woman volume. Instead, Wonder Woman's big character moment, which drastically changed her relationship with Superman and Batman came in Superman: Sacrifice and as part of The OMAC Project. But in reading those volumes, the superhero community was already strained and it was strained because of Identity Crisis.
Great literature can be said to be the result of an execution of a story so well that even when one knows what is going to happen, they find themselves engaged and excited anyway. I knew the essentials of Identity Crisis going into the book, largely because the prelude to The OMAC Project revealed it. But, the process of actually reading this graphic novel was so engaging that I forgot I knew the secret until it was actually revealed. Identity Crisis may not be great literature, but it comes surprisingly close by creating a super hero story which is engaging, sufficiently complex and deeply human. In other words, many of the best aspects of great literature are present in this story and it is so well done that I found myself so captivated that I forgot it was a murder mystery that I already knew the culprit to. Indeed, as the minutia which were glossed over in the summaries played out, I found myself surprised, engaged and thinking.
Elongated Man, one of the heroes who was part of the Justice League Of America, is sitting on a stakeout on his birthday which he suspects is part of his wife's annual attempt to surprise him for his birthday. But as the bust he is on goes terribly wrong, he and Firehawk are recalled by Ralph's wife, Sue, who is being attacked in their home. The pair arrives too late and Sue Dibny is killed, her body incinerated almost beyond recognition with no trace evidence left. After her funeral, the groups of super heroes begin to fan out to try to find every teleporter and flamethrower they know of.
But Ralph, Hawkman, Zatanna, Green Arrow, Black Canary, and the Atom stay behind. They are guardians of a secret, which leads them to hunt down Dr. Light. In the process, the Flash and Green Lantern overhear the secret, which is that the group altered Dr. Light's memories in order to protect Sue in the past after he assaulted her once. This fundamentally altered Dr. Light's personality and when another hero discovered this, the seven League members voted to wipe his mind as well. As the heroes scramble to protect their families, villains and heroes wrestle with the ramifications of the long-buried secret.
It seems like whenever these crossovers happen, there are events which shake fundamental characters. While Elongated Man is seldom considered one of the great DC characters, as Joss Whedon notes in his foreword, the murder of his wife is horrifying and makes him instantly empathetic. While I know so little about the DC characters that I was surprised at the brazen way in which Firestorm is dispatched (was this a permanent thing? It sure looked it!) and the fundamental change to Robin's character came as an equally big shock.
But more than being about insular reversals within the DC universe, Identity Crisis is a volume which asks the fundamental questions "What makes heroes heroes?" and "What lengths may heroes go to before their actions become villainous?" Sue Dibny was raped by Dr. Light and the solution the Justice League came up with fell within their moral code of not killing the villain. But, in the process, they did something which placed them in a morally gray area, at the very least.
Heroes like the Elongated Man rise above their mediocrity to become truly human in these pages. Identity Crisis is arguably the result of trying to reconcile various writers attempting to write the same characters and having different interpretations. Dr. Light is treated as a laughable villain by the Teen Titans in this story and to explain how he went from being a true menace to a dimwit, the mindwipe is used and this is a clever concept that is exceptionally well-executed. And the only thing that is truly missing for readers just picking this volume up "blind" is knowledge about how one of the less obvious superheroes actually works. Readers who do not know the specific superpowers of characters - i.e. those who derive their power from a ring vs. the son or those who operate only on their intelligence and extraordinary budgets - will not be able to figure out who the killer is before it is revealed.
Interwoven with the story of villains like Deathstroke kicking the crap out of recognizable heroes and the reuniting of Boomerang with his illegitimate son, the attacks on heroes and their families continue. Jean Loring, the ex-wife of the Atom, is nearly hanged and Superman becomes exceptionally concerned about Ma and Pa Kent. Tim Drake and his father, who has only recently learned his son is Robin, struggle with the idea that Jack Drake now might be a target of a villain. The realism of these character developments is compelling and makes for a surprisingly good story.
More than a murder mystery, Identity Crisis is a story about how death has a way of unearthing secrets and how those secrets shake those who have lived with them as well as those who have lived in ignorance of them. Detective characters like Elongated Man and Green Arrow rise to their own in this volume and their sense of loss is palpable on each page; this is the type of graphic novel which has surprisingly good writing which pushes a psychological agenda that works to make the characters deeply empathetic. Long before Batman gets around to asking "Who benefits" in relation to the killing of family members to super heroes, the reader is wrestling with that same question.
Identity Crisis is not perfect, though. In the search for which villain is responsible, author Brad Meltzer goes off on some difficult-to-follow tangents about various minor villains. As well, the Boomerang and Boomerang's son storyline seems like an obvious red herring and one which distracts from the tighter, human narrative of what the superheroes are going through.
That said, the artwork is consistently wonderful. Identity Crisis is well-drawn by Rags Morales and expertly colored by Michael Bair. Every page looks good with characters looking recognizable, vibrant colors and a decent sense of movement throughout the book. There is an adult level of graphicness to the book, though. When Deathstroke chops Zatanna in the gut, the panel is painful to look at. Similarly, despite making Sue Dibny's rape implicit by having most of it out of frame for the panels, the artwork is quite clear and it is tough for the reader's stomach to not turn.
In the graphic novel form, the book includes notes by Meltzer and Morales on their favorite moments to write and/or draw, as well as a partial cover gallery for the original comic books. As well, there is a decent foreword by Joss Whedon and most readers will get a kick out of that.
But, ultimately, what those not traditionally drawn to graphic novels or superhero stories will appreciate about Identity Crisis is how the book is not a traditional superhero story. Instead, it is a character study about the risks of standing up against evil and how heroes mortgage their families in order to rise above the common. This may be a difficult concept for some readers, but it is well-executed and clear. Regardless of the themes, the story is compelling and it looks great in this book.
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© 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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