Hello there, fellow comic book fans! I’m Ghosts of the Stratosphere‘s Robert Stewart, and I’m bringing to you the very first edition of my new series, Stew’s Reviews. In this series, I’ll be looking back on comic stories and arcs throughout history and reviewing them for your benefit. For some of these I’ll be taking you with me as I read these stories for the very first time; for others, I’ll be revisiting stories I have read in the past to see if time and history brings a new perspective. Hopefully, I’ll give you some good recommendations for new reads over the course of this series; at worst, you can always read these to disagree with me and call me names.
I should preface this introductory edition by saying that this series will contain spoilers, but the storylines covered aren’t exactly going to be brand new reads, either, so hopefully it’s too egregious. That said, in the cases of stories that lead to a big reveal, I’ll try to be as vague as possible so as not to ruin it for anyone who wants to check a new arc out for themselves.
So keeping that last bit of information in mind, our first journey into the past will only take us back as far as 2005 for DC’s Identity Crisis!
TITLE: Identity Crisis
Writer and Artist: Brad Meltzer and Rags Morales
Protagonists: The Justice League of America
Antagonists: Dr. Light, Captain Boomerang, Deathstroke the Terminator, others.
A seven issue mini-series, Identity Crisis is a whodunit story with ramifications that lead into the soon-to-follow prominent DC events, Infinite Crisis and 52, all framed around the story of Earth’s heroes trying to find out who murdered Sue Dibny, the wife of Ralph Dibny, The Elongated Man.
The opening of the story is a bit scattershot as Meltzer jumps from scene-to-scene in an attempt to throw the reader off from having any certainty as to who the arc will be about. By the time it settles on revealing that Sue is the victim, Meltzer begins jumping back-and-forth between the attack on her and The Elongated Man breaking up a black market deal. I’m usually a fan of flashing between scenes to show the correlation and analogies, but it ultimately gets a bit sloppy here, as I consistently missed the one panel where Ralph gets word via earpiece from Sue that she is being attacked. I combed through a stretch of just two pages multiple times to find what I was missing.
Meltzer’s storytelling settles down from there, and the follow up to Sue’s death is mostly well-done as a superhero mystery. The various members of the Justice League, the Justice Society, the Teen Titans, and others pool their resources to put together the available clues and find Sue’s killer. A smaller group of heroes separate themselves from the rest in private; Atom, Hawkman, Zatanna, Green Arrow, and Black Canary sequester themselves with Ralph Dibny to go after Dr. Light, the man they are convinced attacked Sue. They are caught in their secret gathering by The Flash and Green Lantern (the Wally West and Kyle Rayner iterations here), and the real meat of the story is divulged.
The ensuing revelation shifts the story’s gears out of being solely a murder mystery and into a study on heroic morality. Flash is eventually able to drag the story out of Green Arrow that these heroes—along with the Barry Allen and Hal Jordan iterations of Flash and Green Lantern—had been working for years to alter the minds of villains they faced, all behind the backs of the other members of the League. Every time a League foe was able to determine the secrets of any members, these heroes would use Zatanna’s power to erase the villain’s memory of what they learned. This went on without incident for years until the night that Dr. Light appeared on the JLA’s satellite base and found Sue Dibny there all alone. Before anyone could arrive to help her, Dr. Light attacked and forced himself on her. Even though he was found and stopped by the League, these rogue heroes decided it was time to up their game and tried to have Zatanna alter Light’s mind to make him more harmless (which is used to explain why Dr. Light was such a horribly ineffectual villain in the heyday of the Teen Titans). This act would lead to a splintering of the group that would torment them from that day on.
The story moves on from there with a killer still on the loose, and other loved ones are attacked, including Atom’s wife, Jean Loring (who survives, thanks to Atom’s timely arrival), and Tim Drake’s father (who is murdered by Captain Boomerang, a low-rent patsy that the real killer has set up as a fall guy). Interspersed with all of this action is a lot of ambitious work for just a seven issue series. Throughout the series we find out Captain Boomerang had a son that he had abandoned at birth, Firestorm is killed in combat while trying to find the killer, and it is revealed that the world’s villains have found their own version of Oracle in The Calculator, a formerly-ridiculous Silver Age villain. If there is one thing Identity Crisis certainly does, it’s pack in a lot of action for your dollar.
Ultimately, the killer is caught, and a lot of heroes are left completely changed by the story’s events. The thing about Identity Crisis is that there is an engaging story with good-to-great art… and it’s overshadowed by two aspects I can never look that far past.
The primary, and more egregious, is the rape of Sue Disney by Dr. Light. It’s bad enough that the “Rape as Drama” trope is in play (it’s a lazy way for an author to show something terrible happening to a female character), but it’s even worse that the story presents the awful act as something along the lines of “Sue Dibny was raped, and the follow-up was really hard for The Justice League”. We’re shown absolutely nothing of Sue’s trauma or recovery after it, and very little of Ralph’s. How do you write a violent sexual assault against a female character and completely blow it off in terms of what it did to her? It detracts from the story and really portrays Sue as just a paper-thin plot point and not a fully-realized character. That was not passable in 2005 when this book was released, and it’s unforgivable here in 2018.
The second, while much less moralistically offensive, is something that the comic nerd aspect of my brain won’t let go. If there is one thing I hate in comics, it’s when something that is so silly and so blatantly poorly plotted makes the page that it takes me completely out of the fiction and makes me say “Was, what? No. Stop that”, It can be extraordinarily bad characterization, or it could be just asinine writing that has characters acting in ways just to fit the story the writer wants to tell.
There is a scene where the gathered heroes (Green Arrow, Hawkman, Zatanna, Black Canary, The Elongated Man, Atom, Flash, and Green Lantern) are pursuing Dr. Light, but when they find him he has hired Deathstroke the Terminator to protect him. What follows is potentially the most ridiculous fight scene in comics history, as Deathstroke walks the dog on all the heroes with no difficulty whatsoever. I can’t even write down all the ways this scene rattled me because they are far too numerous. The Atom is taken out with a laser pointer. Deathstroke is written to have faster reflexes than The Flash. Green Lantern–who could have floated a mile over the city and dropped an elephant on Slade’s head if he wanted–walks up to the Terminator and starts trying to fist fight him without even a forcefield! Comics are all about a suspension of disbelief, and 99 times out of 100, I’m fine with that because it is written smartly and can make my buy it. But this scene came across as very lazy work by Meltzer just to pump Deathstroke’s tires, and it removed me from my engrossment in the story. I’m going to find a way to bring this scene up in the podcast someday just so I can rant on it at length. It’s easily the most absurd fight scene in any comic I’ve ever read.
So yeah, I struggle with rating this one. One morally problematic, uncomfortable plot device, plus one beyond-silly fight scene… versus a story with a compelling mystery, some powerful emotional moments, and a smart premise. I’m going to go with a down-the-middle compromise.