Identity crisis

Identity crisis / by Brad Meltzer ; art by Rags Morales.

It’s been a while since I did reviewed any comics, so here’s a new one.

Identity crisis was one of DC’s pretty much annual summer crossover spectaculars, where Things Will Change Forever. Identity crisis was far more controversial than most of the other comics with “crisis” in the title, and (perhaps unintentionally?) set the mainstream superhero comics industry down a path of darker and darker stories that culminated in another big Summer Event, Infinite crisis.

I may or may not review Infinite crisis at some point in the future. It depends on whether or not I have the willpower to force myself to read it again.

Identity crisis is controversial mostly because of its unusually adult content for a summer crossover. I’ll be dealing with that in a separate section towards the end of the review so that readers who don’t want to read about it, either because they haven’t read the title or aren’t comfortable with it won’t have to.

Brief plot summary

(frustratingly vague to avoid spoiling much at all)

Identity crisis is a combination of domestic drama and mystery novel. The spouse of a member of the Justice League of America is murdered. The JLA bands together to solve the murder. When threatening letters are sent to the spouses of other heroes, the JLA must deal with the possibility that a serial killer might know their secret identities.

So how is it?

I really enjoyed Identity crisis. In fact, I hadn’t read superhero comics for several years when a family member lent me a copy they had borrowed from somebody else.

It’s easy to debate whether or not the events of Identity crisis were well handled or appropriate for a DC publication. These are definitely legitimate criticisms of the work, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

Identity crisis is, at its core, an incredibly emotional work. This is partially because of Meltzer’s plot and characterization, but it wouldn’t be nearly as powerful without Rags Morales’s art. It’s a well-illustrated book, but there are a few standout moments that really are some of the most powerful comic book art I’ve ever seen.

I like Identity crisis because of how narrow its scope is. There’s no extra-dimensional threat to the universe here. The stakes are much lower than they are in a typical big-name comic, but the emotional impact is significantly greater. There’s really only one big superhero fight scene the entire time. Identity crisis isn’t concerned with rippling muscles and big explosions. Which is great, I like my comics talky and I don’t really care for big superhero battles in general.

There’s a scene at the beginning of the series where Superman is sitting at his parents’s kitchen table, drinking a glass of milk. During a friendly disagreement about how Superman keeps his parents informed, one of his parents says, “I bet Batman doesn’t treat his parents this way”. It’s a great scene, and sets up the tone for the book. It examines superheroes and supervillainsfrom a domestic perspective (there’s also a scene involving a group of supervillains playing a board game) and the way tragedies can shake entire communities.

Identity crisis focuses less on the “big name” superheroes than most crossovers. Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman are all present, but if the series has a main character it’s the Green Arrow and the less well-known members of the Justice League. The book hinges around what happens when these heroes are confronted with a difficult moral choice and the impact of that decision.

Identity crisis isn’t just a good superhero comic. It’s a good story, period. It gets blamed a lot for further darkening an already “dark” age of comics, but I don’t know that that was necessarily the intent. It’s dark, but it’s not pointlessly so. Saying that Identity crisis is bad because of how other authors (I’m pointing the finger at you, Geoff Johns) took those ideas and incorporated it into their work is like blaming Watchmen for the dark-and-gritty comics of the late 80s. Yeah, it might have been the inspiration for that turn but it didn’t force other writers to imitate its style.

One criticism I can bring up before I get to dealing with the “adult” issues is that the ending is weak. The book isn’t really about the murder mystery, it’s much more concerned with the idea of groups of superheroes as families, and once it’s time to identify the murderer it’s largely irrelevent to the larger points being made.

Plus, there’s a sexist element to the reveal of the perpetrator and the way they are brought to justice that I’m not going to get into . It does impact my enjoyment of the story somewhat, but doesn’t ruin the book. If the murder mystery element was more important thematically it would be a bigger deal than it is.

Recommendation?

I like Identity crisis. It’s certainly not a “kid-friendly” book which is the cause for some confusion, considering its use of mainstream superheroes. That being said, it’s a great read, even if the ending is not up to the level of the rest of the book.

It’s also a good read for people who don’t generally read superhero comics. Brad Meltzer is best known in the non-comics world for his thriller novels, and it’s very accessible. As I mentioned earlier, I wasn’t a superhero comics reader when I first read Identity crisis but it turned me into one (albeit a fairly selective one who has gotten maligned more than once in comic book shops for reading trades instead of being a “true” fan who buys single issues).

I don’t want to overexaggerate concerns about the content. It’s nowhere close to The boys, and it’s not more explicit than anything you’d find in an episode of Law & order: Special victims unit. The comparison is intentional: if you can’t handle the content of SVU then you probably shouldn’t read Identity crisis.

The ending is irredeemably sexist. Considering that this is a mainstream superhero comic, that’s unsurprising and I’m somewhat surprised that self-professed fans of superheroes think that it’s a good way to criticize the book compared to other DC titles. It’s certainly not any less sexist than, say, the recent portrayal of Starfire as empty-headed sex toy for male characters. That’s not to defend the ending of Identity crisis, just to say that in context it’s not any worse than the vast majority of its fellow titles. Mainstream superhero comics are like video games – heteronormative sexism is so overwhelming that it’s considered the “neutral” position by hardcore fans.

Now I’m on to dealing with the content issues, so avert your eyes if the above paragraph applies to you. Also, I’m going to be spoiling most if not all of the story so if you care about that then skip it as well.

The “adult” issue

It’s probably well known at this point that there’s a rape scene in Identity crisis. I’ve seen it get criticized for being gratuitous, and I can definitely see that. I don’t see it as gratuitous but that probably comes from three issues:

(I) I wasn’t reading superhero comics when I read Identity crisis, so I was used to more “adult” content. I was also over the age of 20. If I was coming to it from the perspective of a lifelong superhero fan or a younger reader, I can see it being inappropriate.

(II) It’s absolutely vital to the work, thematically and plotwise. It doesn’t work without it, and I’ve tried to come up with alternate ways of dealing with it and I can’t.

(III) It’s presented in a way that’s horrifying. I criticized the Sword of truth books in my earlier post for using sexual assault as a way of getting more sex into the series. That’s not what’s happening here. At no point is the incident treated in a “sexy” manner. There’s no victim blaming, and there’s not any nudity shown. It’s a brutal scene, but it’s not gratuitous and treats a serious issue with the gravity it deserves.

I think the series would have had a less negative response if it had gone the Watchmen route and used all-new characters, or if it had been explicitly called an “alternate universe” story then people wouldn’t have had to process “their” characters dealing with issues like “if you had the power to prevent a rapist from raping anyone again, would you?”

My biggest issue with superhero comics is the glorification of violence, how every problem seems to be dealt with by indiscriminate application of force. Identity crisis deals with those problems that can’t really be fixed that way.

I do have a real problem with how Jean Loring is portrayed. It’s a little to close to tropes involving the word “hysteria” and I don’t dig how the whole thing ends up being a response to her divorce.

It’s an uncomfortable read because it’s supposed to be uncomfortable. I’ve heard a lot of discussion about how powerful the scene of Ralph Dibny holding his wife’s body is, but to me the more powerful moment is during her funeral, where Ralph stands up to speak and literally cannot hold himself together.

I think it’s an open question as to whether or not the story was appropriate. It’s not a question I can answer, and while I obviously felt like it was well done I’ve known many who found the whole thing gratuitous and unnecessary. Partially it depends on how the reader views Meltzer’s intentions. I don’t personally think that the series was intended to be sensationalist, but it’s certainly possible to read it that way.

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