Wednesday, December 15, 2004

"Identity Crisis" Reviewed

Warning: Comic book geek mode on. Everyman Danny will return soon with ramblings about politics, searching for jobs, and the benefits of regular flossing.

Post-Warning Explanation for the Curious and Uninitiated: Identity Crisis is a 7 issue maxi-series from DC Comics. Issue 7 was just released. This series has been getting mainstream press and accollades from all over, from the NY Times to CNN. Why? Because it is written by highly regarded mystery novelist Brad Meltzer, in only his second ever comics work. Because it is an epic murder mystery that involves all of the major characters in the DC Comics Universe: Superman. Batman. Green Arrow. The Flash. Because it contains the death of major, beloved characters and shocking revelations that put thirty years of past stories in a new light.

To sum up: Someone is killing the loved ones of heroes, and presumably, no one, not even Lois Lane, is safe. The first victim, in Issue 1's now-classic opening, was Sue Dibny, wife of The Elongated Man. Yep, the Elongated Man. Sure, his name is pretty lame, but he and Sue are one of comicdom's classic couples, and the excellent writing by Meltzer made people who had never heard of her shed a tear at Sue's horrific murder. The heroes suspected Dr. Light, a B-grade villain, of the crime. Why? Because years ago, a group of heroes had caught Dr. Light in the act of raping a helpless Sue Dibney. Yes, rape in superhero comics - many were offended by this, but it seemed to be written so well that it was deemed a worthy introduction of more realistic dangers to the fantastical world of DC's heroes. Anyways, the heroes, shocked that Light had attempted such a horrific crime, and realizing that in doing so he had discovered their secret identities, took a drastic measure to stop him. The mystical heroinne Zatanna wiped Light's mind of all memory of their I.D.'s. She magically lobotomized him, altering his personality from vicious psycopath to harmless thug. But he was only the first of many. This group of seven heroes formed a pact, to magically mind-alter dangerous villains throughout the years, walking the line between morality and abuse of power, and providing a new explanation for why all those old comic villains were so consistantly incompetant. Then, another twist. It was revealed that during the Dr. Light incident, Batman, ever the stubborn moralist, objected to the mind-wipe and threatened to expose the heroes' actions. The pact saw no choice but to turn on their own and mind-wipe Batman, causing him to forget their objectionable actions!

Throughout the series, Dr. Light is revealed to not have been Sue Dibney's killer, or the killer of the subsequently murdered Jack Drake (father of Tim Drake, the current Robin). Then WHO was it? As Batman asked, "who benefits?" Was it The Calculator, a scheming information broker to super-villains? Or was it Boomerang, who attacked and killed Jack Drake, but seemed to have been manipulated by an outside source? At the end of Issue 6, we are left with a shocking possibility - could the killer have been The Atom - the longtime hero who can shrink to any size? He benefits, because thanks to the murders, he and ex-wife Jean Loring have rekindled their broken relationship ... But why would a hero resort to murder? Issue number seven had to tie the murders, the mindwiping, and all the other loose threads together, and had to have either a damn good explanation of how The Atom could be a murderer, or yet another twist ...


In Issue 7, we get a twist, but one that is both so predictable and boring and just "meh" that most dismissed it as a possibility well beforehand. Turns out that .... (SPOILERS) .....

Jean Loring, the Atom's ex-wife, is the killer. In a bout of insanity, she thought that threatening the heroes' loved ones would bring her closer to her ex, and it did. Until she ... ACCIDENTALLY REVEALS INFORMATION TO THE ATOM THAT ONLY THE REAL KILLER WOULD KNOW, THUS EXPOSING HER AS THE KILLER. Um, okay. Haven't seen that one before, Mr. Meltzer, Mr. Best-selling novelist. ARE YOU FREAKING KIDDING ME?!?! Seven issues and a good chunk of change later, and THIS is the big reveal? Okay, okay, fine - because, surely, it will all be tied together under Meltzer's capable hands. See, up until now I was a huge defender of this series. Others called it hackneyed, even misogynistic for its portrayal of crimes against women. But I defended it, because until now the writing was so damn good. Issue 1 left me with a lump in my stomach, and made me care about Ralph and Sue Dibney more than I ever had before. Yes, there was unprecedented realism and violence for a mainstream superhero book, but there was also unprecedented characterization of previously marginalized characters. Who would have thought that the Elongated Man (not even in the top tier of stretchable heroes) could ever be the sympathetic hero of a tragic, yet wonderfully written murder-mystery? Later issues were filled with tantalizing clues about the killer, and memorable character moments to rival any we've seen in comics in a long time. There was the emergence of and fight with the assassin Deathstroke, which made people sit up and take notice of this often misused but still-great character. There was the desperate and futile drive by Batman and Robin to get home in time to save Tim's father, equally if not more tragic than Sue Dibney's final moments. There was the moving and beautifully illustrated funeral scene for Sue. There was the mysterious cameo by fan-favorite Hal Jordan (aka The Spectre). Up until now, this was a series that you read at light-speed, hungry for each new moment and any new clue about the mysteries at hand. You turned each page, just waiting for all to be revealed. This was the comic book equivalent of The Da Vinci Code, but with names like Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne at the forefront.

And then ... nothing. No conclusion to most of the numerous plot threads that had seemingly been leading up to some huge revelation that would tie everything together. What about Batman's mind-wipe? What about The Calculator? What about Boomerang's long-lost son, who had emerged as the series' stand-out character? Nope, apparently these threads were either tossed aside or left for some other writer to handle (no doubt in future tie-ins that will be promoted as must-read fallout of Identity Crisis). And then there's the central problem of Jean Loring as murderer. If she had no partcular grudge against Sue or Jack Drake, why single them out to be killed? If she didn't mean to kill Sue, and only meant to hurt her, then why did she bring along a virtual arsenal of weapons? And where did she get those? Her plan wasn't very well thought out if she murdered associates of Batman and Ralph Dibney, purportedly two of the World's Greatest Detectives. And how did she know the identity of Tim Drake in the first place? There's lots of other minutae that I won't go into, but suffice to say this was a LAZY finale, with far too many questions and motivations left unexplained for what is supposed to be a SELF-CONTAINED story. Initially, this series seemed poised to take a place next to the giants of comics cannon - Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, etc. - the classics by which all other "earth-shattering" events are always held up. Those series are the holy grail of superhero comics, and after that heart-wrenching first issue Identity Crisis had a shot at achieving a similar if not equal greatness. But now, I don't know. It's too soon to judge how this will be receieved, but I have a feeling many people are disappointed with the wrap up.Judged as a whole this is still an A-level story, an emotional roller coaster - albeit one that never comes together convincingly. As good as this series was, in a mystery the end is everything. And here, the ending was, unfortunately, a flop.

Still, people should check out this series and see what the hype is about and draw their own conclusions. The art by rising star Rags Morales is great, and very unique (though I still preferred his past work on Hourman and Hawkman). But it's very emotional and down to earth, yet still larger than life. I also encourage people who read this and are thinking "whoah, what a convoluted mess" to not be afraid to check out comics in general. While this was an unusual series in that it mixed a murder mystery with the brightly colored world of DC's heroes, there are numerous genres within the medium that can suit any taste. I'll try to cover some of those in future posts. But this being a RANT, I am tempted to just say this: Worst. Ending. Ever. But that would be a big exaggeration and unfair to what was, until now, a groundbreaking, milestone series. But still, this was the kind of ending that makes any red-blooded comic geek want to invoke that Simpons comic book guy and go on the internet and rant. So I did.

The ending scene to this series kind of sums up the whole problem with its premise that is only now fully apparent after reading the last issue. In it, we see Ralph Dibney laying in his bed, following the advice of his friend Oliver Queen, aka Green Arrow. Oliver, who is among the ranks of heroes to have died and later been ressurected (hey, it's comic book tradition), tells Ralph to talk to his dead wife Sue when he feels he misses her, because, as Oliver can attest (having been dead), the dead do hear the words of the living. So we see Ralph talking away to his dead wife, and we instantly wonder if she is in fact somehow alive. This is a superhero comic afterall, where ghosts and magic and resurections are par for the course. Except this is a comic where women are raped and heroes do unheroic things and the killer isn't The Joker but some crazy ex-wife, so we can't be sure what's going on, exactly. Just like we weren't sure whether this was a self-contained story or a crossover epic that would continue into other titles. Just like we weren't sure where all the big fight scenes and costumed villains were at the end. Just like we weren't sure if all those subplots were tied together or just somehow loosely tied into an effort to make the heroes less super. If that was his goal, Meltzer succeeded. But for all the wonderful scenes and lasting, impactful effects of the story, he failed to provide a satisfactory answer to the question that kept people buying the series, the one that made it the most talked about comic event in years: "whodunnit?"

Identity Crisis - Issues 1 to 7
Overall Grade: B+
Writing: B+
Art: A-

Best Issue: Issue 1 (A+)
Worst Issue: Issue 7 (C)

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