Ever since we launched Girls Gone Geek, V. and I have been asked about our favorite stories and what we recommend to people who want to get into comics. Our lists are always evolving and growing, but we’ve long wanted to spotlight the game-changing books that have stoked our fangirl fire over the years. Today, we’re kicking off our “Arcs of Awesome” feature with a book we both hold in very high esteem. — E.
Identity Crisis is one of the most polarizing stories I’ve ever loved. DC fans appear to be sharply divided over this book, but it is so special to me that I didn’t even blink when I saw the price for the Absolute edition, which drops in October.
Passion can be blinding however, and no series is perfect. In the early stages, you’ll gloss over a sizable flaw that, with time and distance (and a re-read) is painfully obvious. But before getting into that, I want to celebrate the abundance of goodness that makes Identity Crisis a modern classic.
Some people dislike the “Superheroes have problems, too” approach, and they don’t want to see mighty men and women wrestling with things in a TV drama kind of way. I am not one of those people, and when characters’ joys and struggles are authentic and written well, I respond much more to the surrounding fireworks. It feels like there’s something realistic at stake, not just the usual Fate of The World. I’ve been up and down with writer Brad Meltzer, but I think he succeeded in making Identity Crisis an emotionally resonant and flat-out exciting page-turner. It’s a whodunit with heart.
Big Spoilers Ahead! Seriously. Read no further if you don’t know how this story plays out.
Meltzer made me care about Ralph and Sue Dibny, DC players I’d never given more than two seconds’ thought. His character sketches — irreverent Green Arrow, tough/tender Superman, lone wolf Batman — were spot on, and the JLA members’ interactions spoke volumes about their relationships and the state of their team. Everyone brought something distinctive to the hunt for Sue’s killer. Not just their individual powers, but their methodology and personal motivation. Meltzer also fleshed out the villains, exploring their pettiness, insecurities, and even their hobbies. That panel of Merlyn painting miniature figurines? Brilliant.
You want to talk heart-wrenching moments? Sue’s funeral, the flashback to her horrific encounter with Dr. Light in the JLA watchtower, Batman driving like a bat (sorry) out of hell to help Robin save his dad, etc., etc. I went through a lot of Kleenex. But even with all of the darkness, Meltzer infused the series with some sharp humor. Before Merlyn could even draw his bow in one scene, Wally West stopped him and then mocked his style: “You actually painted all the tips black?”
As for Dr. Light, well, there’s not much middle ground on his depiction as depravity personified. I thought Meltzer’s characterization worked for the story, but there’s no shortage of criticism about whether he went too far. Minds will not be changed (or wiped) at this point. He served his purpose as a heinous dirtbag and a trigger for the JLA’s implosion over ethics.
I owe ID a great deal of gratitude for introducing me to Rags Morales’ art. Morales crushed it in these stories, matching Meltzer’s script detail for detail, emotion for emotion. I can’t count the number of panels that stopped me dead in my tracks, and they were often non-action scenes: Superman comforting Ralph, slumped with despair on a doorstep. Tim Drake hiding under the covers after his father’s murder, ignoring Dick Grayson’s pleas to answer the phone. A group of B-list villains playing a game of Risk, and a C-list villain all but begging for a job, painfully aware of his irrelevance. I devoured Rags’ back-of-the-trade notes on how he designed the characters’ faces and framed certain scenes, and I’ve re-read them several times. Alex Sinclair’s glowing color work, Michael Bair’s beautifully nuanced inks, and Ken Lopez’s crisp lettering brought it all together in one gorgeous package.
And now for that flaw.
Initially, I bought the idea of Ray Palmer’s ex-wife, Jean Loring, as the person directly responsible for Sue’s death and indirectly to blame for Jack Drake’s demise. The phrase “the banality of evil” comes to mind, and tragedy often springs from the mundane: Jean wanted Ray back, and she accidentally killed Sue in her attempt to scare the superhero community and rekindle their relationship. I doubt anybody saw it coming, so it was a huge WTF? moment that got people talking.
However, I’ve struggled with this resolution ever since. The more I thought about it in the following months, the more this seemed like a cheap ending unworthy of all that preceded it. Jean’s mental illness seemed to appear out of nowhere, and I wondered why this smart woman would take such outrageously drastic measures to reunite with her ex. Violence is often sudden, but this kind of purposeful, psychopathic behavior doesn’t manifest overnight. Plus, the batshit ex-wife/girlfriend who takes desperate measures to reclaim her man is a stereotype I’ve never been comfortable with. I don’t dispute that these people exist, but it’s a trope that makes me queasy.
However, the other 95 percent of Identity Crisis is so well crafted and lovingly illustrated that it survives a potentially deal-breaking finale. I’ve recommended this book time and again to new comics readers, and to more than a few friends and relatives who don’t read comics at all. I have yet to hear a negative review.