Arcs of Awesome: Identity Crisis

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.

Wow.

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.

17 thoughts on “Arcs of Awesome: Identity Crisis

  1. I’m ambivalent toward this book. I think it did a lot of things well, but I didn’t necessarily appreciate the things being done. I liked Sue Dibny, so I’ll allow for murdering her to get my goat. Since I liked her better that Ralph, I’d rather it was his murder being investigated, plus that would be less of a cliche. Whatever. Kill Sue. Fine. It’s when you retroactively rape her as a red herring, then go for the really manipulative blow of throwing a baby in her before roasting them both that just rots. I was cool with the mindwipes, because the right people fell on the correct sides of the argument for their characters. Hell, even having Jean be the killer bears out, because she was the original Betty Draper, plus a total psycho in the late ’60s to ’70s to boot. However, you can’t justify expecting people to have read (then) twenty year old comics about an obscure character and be justified in claiming a complete, accessible story. It’s outright criminal for an actual mystery novelist to cheat like that, and it doesn’t help that the method of execution was so ridiculously contrived. However, it’s a really pretty looking book, and there are a lot of cool character moments, so I refuse to hate on it like many do in a particularly kneejerk fashion.

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    • Brilliant points, Frank.

      When I read it, I did enjoy it. I think that enjoyment was fostered more by my comic continuity naivety at the time. I have not reread it, so I wonder if I would feel the same way, now.

      Like Erika … I, too, found the book emotionally engaging, full of solid character moments, and I loved Rags’ work. I also thought the interaction between the capes in such a personal way was fascinating. I didn’t take as much issue with Jean as I did with what happened to Sue. So, I agree with your take on the book, Frank … particularly in regards to Sue Dibney.

      E. perhaps a borrow is in order for a reread.

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  2. Hi, Frank! Yeah, the going-psycho bit was a cheater move, and as you said, most people have no idea about Jean’s past. I sure didn’t. I appreciate your always-thoughtful criticism, and I’m glad you liked parts of it, too. You’re a tough room, so that’s no small thing.

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  3. I loved this book, unashamedly, and I will continue to defend it for years and years to come. With that said, I will agree that there were aspects of it that I didnt find as believable.

    1) Everyone in the super hero community knew everyone else’s secret identity and at least mentally referred to each other by their birth name. It was a decision made to get a more personal feel to the story, and I understand that, but I am not so sure its really fit well into everyone’s character. It felt forced.

    2) I understand the rape as the catalyst for the decision that causes the rift in the superhero community that underlies this, and I have no problem with it as a plot point. But oddly enough, it was the murder that seemed over the top for me. We get the birthday celebration, the new baby, and a charbroiled corpse all in one blow……..really? Are we expected to be so jaded at this point that the tragedy needs to be heavy handed to make us emote?

    3) Jean brought a flame thrower with her? Really? Sure, she is unhinged, but she was expecting to be in, attack unawares, leave behind an unconscious Sue, and disappear all before anyone notices her. Why bring a flame thrower? It was, again, a heavy handed plot device to push the action towards a certain group of suspects so that we could in turn learn about Dr. Light. Works to move the plot along, but it ultimately doesnt work.

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    • Great observations, Peter. They didn’t spare the suffering where Sue was concerned, did they? And the flame-thrower! As you put it, “Really?” But what a testament to this book that we love it so in spite of those shortcomings! It will always occupy a special place in my heart.

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  4. This was the book that had me hooked onto DC and comic reading. This was the book that started my obsession with the rest of the Crisis arcs. After reading through this, I’m going to have to re-read the book again.

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  5. It’s a great read, lots of touches and characterisation that ring true, and it looks really good. The flaws you mention do bug me, plus I’m not at all sure I want rape and murder of long-established characters in a mainstream book. The Dibny’s go way back, and their relationship and natures were particularly highlighted in the old JLI… Ralph was often annoying, but Sue was a diamond, and they had the happiest, most loving marriage in comics. They were cute and fun together, so to hit them with such horror seemed all wrong… I got quite upset, and Ralph’s collapse had me choking. The idea of revisiting the silver age practice of altering minds and memories (it happened A LOT!) with a more morally & ethically developed eye was a good one, and putting the Whammy on Bats showed what a slippery slope that is. (The Squadron Supreme – Marvel JLA analogues – developed a mind control device to eliminate crime, and their ‘Hawkeye’ character used it to make their ‘Canary’ love him… ooooh, you’d have hated it!).

    Anyway, lotsa good stuff, very interesting, very moving. I’ll get the Absolute edition. But he shouldn’t have done that to Sue… bastard!

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    • Mark, I share some of your feelings on this. It was a kick to the gut to see Ralph suffer so much, especially since he and Sue had a genuinely good marriage. When he talked about how she chose him over the hunkier superheroes, well, that was wonderful stuff. I was a wreck after that extended funeral scene. I’d never even thought about all the mind-altering until Identity Crisis. That is a seriously gray ethical area, and once you’ve opened that door, it’s unlikely to close. What a fine book this is.

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