Identity Crisis #1 - #3: The Story So Far…A column article, Comics Bulletin Soapbox by: Dave Wallace
Writer: Brad Meltzer
Artists: Rags Morales (p), Mike Bair (i)
Summer’s biggest event comic is upon us, and - after resisting for some time – I finally took the plunge the other day and got hold of all of the first three issues. Being something of a Marvel addict in my younger days, I’m still not as up on my DC as I really should be, so having heard that this title was going to open up their Universe to a more diverse audience than your regular DC reader (even attracting attention in the mainstream media) I started to think about jumping onboard. The rumblings I heard on various comics messageboards confirmed my decision: here was a comic that had people talking, for good or bad, and I wanted to see what it was all about. So I’m going to give you the thoughts of a relative DC newbie on what’s happening in Identity Crisis, and whether I think it’s worth all the hype.
It’s safe to say there’ll be spoilers ahead…
From the very first lines of the first page of Identity Crisis #1, established novelist Brad Meltzer sets up the mystery which is going to become the heart of his miniseries. Making reference to the inevitability of death and the vulnerability of everybody who isn’t a major character, Meltzer’s winks to the audience disguise a more mischievous wish to shake things up a little bit with this title, setting up a very real-feeling threat to the DC Universe. This portentous opening sets the morbid tone for an issue which is all about the dramatic tension which comes from playing off the tender retelling of the history of Sue and Ralph Dibny’s relationship against the shadowy threat of a crisis which is about to hit the entire JLA team. When the trouble finally hits, it manages to be one of the most poignantly affecting pieces of comic literature I’ve seen this year, and that’s saying something considering I’d hardly ever read about the characters involved before opening this issue. It’s testament to comics newcomer Meltzer’s understanding of the medium that he opts to go for an emotional as well as visual punch, and even if he can’t resist over-egging the situation – did Sue’s pregnancy really add anything to the mix except for a cheap extra shot of sentiment? – the majority of the character work is very solid.
The same can be said for Rags Morales’ artwork this issue which, whilst never jaw-droppingly stunning, is solid, reliable and consistent throughout. The sepia-toned flashbacks to Sue and Barry’s first meeting look suitably dated, which helps to wring emotion out of the betrayal that the reader is supposed to feel when Sue is taken away some pages later. The death is part of a surprisingly kinetic sequence, cutting 24-style between the events Ralph is watching in an alleyway to Sue being attacked at home. Morales almost manages to make the hiding of the assailants identity (a cliché, but a must for any good mystery) seem like a natural angle for the artwork to take, and certainly gives little away regarding the villain. In short, it’s a textbook mystery set-up of which the artist can be proud. If there was any criticism it would be that some of the visuals have a certain flatness about them: perhaps this is amplified by the DC Universe’s embracing of myriad colourful costumes at a time when Marvel is going to pains to ground the looks of its characters, or maybe it’s just a result of the colouring techniques employed here. However, Morales does get his chance to shine – most notably towards the end of the issue with his amazingly detailed funeral scenes.
Necessarily for a crossover miniseries like this, the reader is rapidly introduced to an extended cast of characters - and whilst Meltzer’s choice of individual narration for each character (denoted by a colour change in the caption boxes) initially appears clumsy and over-complicated, it’s actually a very useful way of getting the characters’ distinct personalities across. What’s more, this storytelling device is clearly going to be fairly significant for a storyline which soon becomes all about what certain people know and other people don’t: or to put it another way, we find that a lot of the truths we cling to depend greatly on one’s point of view. And on that note, let’s move on to issue #2.
The second issue picks up where the first left off – we were teased by the Elongated man’s hints that Dr. Light was connected with Sue’s murder somehow, but left in the dark (no pun intended) about how that may have been the case. Well, this issue shows us just why Dr. Light’s was the first name that sprang to Ralph Dibny’s mind. In a piece of retconning that has upset many a die-hard Sue Dibny fan, this issue shows the harrowing scene of Dr. Light’s rape – or at least attempted rape - of the character some years ago in DC continuity. However, this isn’t the most significant development that this instalment of Identity Crisis has to offer: it’s retelling of the aftermath of this incident which raises the most eyebrows. As Green Arrow’s recollections inform the reader of the mind-wiping procedure that some of the JLA voted to perform on the villain – which, whether by accident or design, apparently left him in a semi-lobotomised state – the line between what’s right and what’s wrong becomes blurred. It’s a neat deepening of the themes of superheroics adding depth to a DC universe which, Batman aside, could be forgiven for being seen by outsiders as far more clean-cut when dealing with such issues than its Marvel contemporaries. This debate is expanded when other heroes hear of this “secret history”, and this conflict within the team is sure to continue to be an important part of this series.
I felt Morales’ artwork take a step up this issue, as though rising to the challenge of an even more controversial storyline than that of the first issue. His flashbacks to Sue Dibny’s rape alternate between the restrained and the grotesque, making sure never to show us more than necessary but to let our minds fill in the gaps. In encouraging the reader to take a more active role in this visualisation, Morales creates a far more gut-wrenching impact for the scene - the artwork bolstering Meltzer’s writing to evoke a real sense of disgust and revulsion at a juncture which is to be important if the ideas being played with in the series are going to continue to have any credibility. Other character scenes continue to be well-observed and consistent art-wise, and the appearance of anew villain at the issues end gives Morales a chance to show off his knack for action which is destined to become all-important next issue. Whilst a definite improvement on the first issue, I found some of the linework on the characters’ faces to be a little over-detailed in the inking this time around, with shadowing created through some intrusive hatching rather than through a more subtle use of colour. In the main, though, the artwork continues to be solid and reliable.
In addition to the central plot elements of the story, we see the heroes’ concerns for their nearest and dearest continue to show through – and there’s never a more surefire way to tip the reader to the fact that something is going to happen to one of them. But which one? The Atom is shown encouraging his ex-wife to protect herself… and we already know about Robin’s strained relationship with his father… It’s a fun game of cat-and-mouse with the readership, but the exposition that constitutes much of this issue can’t go on forever without fans becoming hungry for something in the way of real action. Luckily, we get the promise of the very same as Dr. Light finally returns at the end of the issue, as he’s brought a formidable opponent with him in the shape of Deathstroke. In addition to this visual cliffhanger which ensures than fans will be coming back next issue for the first big throwdown, we’re given further tantalising clues as to the true nature of this mystery as Dr. Mid-nite reveals that the JLA are going after the wrong man.
But for all its good points, by the time this issue was over I had mixed feelings about the series. On one hand, it’s nice to see Meltzer deepening his mystery by taking a step back and adding some backstory to the characters. It gives newbies like me a better sense of what’s going on in the DC Universe, and lends a lot more depth to the series and what Ralph Dibny has at stake. On the other, there’s still a sense of easy sensationalism here, directed relentlessly at Sue Dibny. Whilst it creates the desired effect, you can’t help but feel that there would be more subtle ways to do so. However, Meltzer is working within the confines of a 7-issue miniseries here, and if he’s to deliver on the promise of all-out crossover action as well as a great mystery, I suppose doing such things the simple way is going to be easiest.
So, as issue #3 begins it’s still all about getting vengeance for Sue. But things are going to change….
We begin with the superhero smackdown promised last issue between Ralph Dibny’s current sub-group of heroes and Deathstroke. As my first introduction to the villain, a lot rested on Meltzer to really show me why this guy seemed to be so feared by the group – and the writer does a great job. Opening with an ultra-cool sequence which shows Deathstroke out-thinking and out-manoeuvring the Flash, the fight continues to show Slade methodically taking out each and every one of the Justice Leaguers. As I’m no expert on the heroes and their powers it was a nice chance for a recap of exactly how each one of them fits into the team, as well as a chance to throw a couple of character tics – Kyle’s relative inexperience, Oliver’s ruthlessness - into the mix too. The writing slows down the pace of the battle to an extreme slow-motion, which allows Green Arrow’s narration to deconstruct every step of Deathstroke’s plan, revealing him as the ultimate battle strategist – a villain equal of Bruce Wayne. If some of the action seems a little too contrived, it’s all to the end of making Slade look like the ultimate threat, and at this the writing and artwork succeed in tandem. Unfortunately, this makes the fight’s denouement seem all the more silly: granted, Green Arrow gets Deathstroke pretty angry, but to see such a master strategist overwhelmed by a bunch of people jumping on him and punching him into submission was at odds with the preceding few pages’ cool, calm collectedness.
We soon realise, however, that an attack so reminiscent of Dr. Light’s overpowering after Sue’s rape has the potential to reopen a lot of Light’s purged memories: In a nice flashback to issue #2 (albeit visually altered, with the addition of Batman in another fanboy-teasing clue – or is it red herring?) we see those memories flood back and Light take off – presumably to return at a later juncture. As the team recover, we see Superman show up as Meltzer again decides to explore the issue of the JLA’s mind games on Dr. Light and other villains via a confrontation between Green Arrow and the Flash. Oliver’s narration again does much to convince us of exactly why taking such bold steps would be necessary in certain circumstances, and we get to see some neat retcons which explore just how often villains have had the capacity to find out the heroes’ identities and why Zantana’s measures are justifiable. The fact that Supes may not be so ignorant of these goings-on is also hinted at: another nice deepening of a relatively two-dimensional character that makes reading this series a little more enjoyable.
It’s likely that this mindwarping-indentity-protection will tie-in with the Identity Crisis of the title, but this is another element of the miniseries which is not yet fully clear. However, we soon get an inkling as to where this is all going as a second hero’s loved one appears to be dispatched at the issue’s end. It’s a knockout way to finish this third instalment and opens up future issues of the series to rabid fan speculation, leaving a lot of unanswered questions: who’s going to be next? Who has a motive to kill these characters? Just how much does everybody know about what went on with Dr. Light? And when is Batman going to show up?
Some people have made a lot of the disadvantages that a prose writer can bring to the comics world: and whilst Meltzer might have a tendency to be somewhat over-wordy, it’s quality writing, and each word adds to the scene rather than detracting from it. It’s surprising that such a relative newcomer can wield years of apparent continuity with such confidence, but from the opinion I’ve heard online there’s been hardly a foot put wrong (the only inconsistency is a lack of continuity with the Robin solo series, apparently – although it certainly didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the book). It’s impossible to cover all the strong set-up which has been put into these first few issues - the Luthercorp suit from issue #1; the role of “The Calculator”; Captain Boomerang’s hitherto separate storyline – and this bodes well for a concerted finale in which Meltzer pulls all these threads together. With Morales’ artwork getting better by the issue – the third issue ironing out a lot of problems I had with the first two – and a plot continuing to thicken as we approach the mystery’s centre, it’s certainly a book which is going to have me hooked until the end.
A half-complete mystery is always going to be tough to review, but that’s my take on the first few issues of Identity Crisis: Uneven it may be (there’s been something of an action deficit so far, Deathstroke being the only full-on superhero fight), and overwhelming for the uninitiated it can certainly feel, but when you compare what’s being done here to the comparatively lacklustre Avengers storyline - which Marvel are clearly hoping will buoy their summer takings - there only looks like being one runaway success. And for once, it isn’t Brian Michael Bendis.
See you in another 3 issues!