Posted by Devan MacPherson on September 22nd, 2008
From the editor: In my comics reviews, I often write about the importance of accessibility, especially when it comes to super-hero comics. I often suggest that there are some stories that those unfamiliar with the characters and past stories wouldn’t be able to follow.
Here, one of those uninitiated, non-comics readers examines one such continuity-dependent super-hero stories. I didn’t have to look far for that perspective; I found one in my own gene pool. And now, I yield the floor to my brother, Devan MacPherson.
Writer: Brad Meltzer
Pencils: Rags Morales
Inks: Michael Bair
Colors: Alex Sinclair
Letters: Ken Lopez
Cover artists: Michael Turner/Rags Morales & Michael Bair
Editor: Mike Carlin
Publisher: DC Comics
Price: $24.99 US (hardcover)/$14.99 US (softcover)
The formula for super-heroes, from an outsider perspective, is simple. You cheer on the heroes as they use their powers and their wits to take on similarly endowed villains bent on world domination. Identity Crisis has the premise that the heroes are responsible for themselves, choosing to put themselves in harm’s way but that those that lose out are their loved ones -– those who are also in the crosshairs and have to share their heroes with the mistress of crime-fighting. The loved ones pay for the heroes’ choices. But Identity Crisis delves far deeper in to the humanity behind the heroes than a good versus evil storyline would ever tell. We see heroes filled with blood-thirsty rage, consumed by anger and fueled by revenge. We see them emotionally distraught, brought to the breaking point. We see them weighed down by the burden of secrecy, torn apart by past indiscretions, and driven to a morally corrupt brink.
I will admit that I am not a comic book insider. If anything, I am one-time wanderer, dropping in on the comic book universe when something pulls me to a graphic novel. For Identity Crisis, it was Brad Meltzer’s name that lured me in because I have been enamored with Meltzer’s novels and wanted to see what he did with the graphic novel medium.
Therefore, I claim ignorance to many of the backstories that Identity Crisis references. But Identity Crisis is sufficient as a standalone novel that I don’t feel confused by the storyline, and that the salient points are explicitly laid out so that the naive, casual fan can enjoy it. To me, the new Flash, Green Lantern and Robin all have their creative space in the novel but their origins are not central to the idea of the novel but the grieving of their predecessors -– and their motivation to keep loved ones safe — is. While true fans of the genre will relate even more to the backstories, I only need to know that the pains of lost loves drove the original Flash and Green Lantern to turn to a necessary evil of being a hero.
At the heart of the novel is question: does the end justify the means? Sue Dibny’s death sends the heroes on a crusade through which heroes are shown to be angry, vindictive and vengeful. In short, the line between hero and villain is blurred. Does solving the murder justify the heroes’ tyrannical, almost Gestapo-like strongarm approach after Sue Dibny’s funeral?
The death of Sue Dibny is a tragic precursor to an even greater betrayal, the revelation that both Dr. Light and Batman along with many others had their minds magically altered by Zatanna. The backstory of Dr. Light’s mind alteration after Sue Dibny’s rape shows us the vigilante justice in its darkest and most disturbing form. It is also where the artwork of the novel comes to forefront. Due to graphic nature of the subject matter, the visual nature of the book builds to the emotional quotient of the scene in a way that a pure novel would never be able to approach. The graphics capture Ralph Dibny’s rage after the funeral and the weight of the mind-wipe decision on the heroes. It ratchets up the moment in which the Flash realizes the depth of the conspiracy into which he has entered. Does the rape and protection of loved ones justify the Dr. Light mind-wipe? If the mind-wipe was the right decision, does keeping it secret justify Batman’s mind-wipe? Can justice cloaked in secrecy be justice at all?
Both the Dibny murder and the mind-wipes show us that it is those who know us best can hurt us the most. They know our pressure points and can strike at our heart easier than anyone else. The trigger point for the novel lies in an accident and a betrayal so devious and cunning that it shocks our core, much like the ending of that Harrison Ford mystery movie, Presumed Innocent. Does the separation of Jean Loring and Ray Palmer justify the accidental death of Sue Dibny? Does the ripple effect of the heroes spending more time with their loved ones justify her death?
There is difficulty for the heroes in the understanding of who benefits from her death. It is the motivation behind the murder that leads Batman to look towards the inner circle rather than the villainous underworld.
The humanity of the heroes is also revealed at the end of the novel as we start to comprehend that while others can betray us, we are the masters of deluding ourselves. We see Superman and Batman who are doing their level best to ignore the facts in front of them, believing only what they choose. We see the inherent division between the A-listers and the cleanup crew, and how evil is in constant battle with good, even within the hearts of heroes.
In short, the humanity of heroism is the thread that binds all the Identity Crisis storylines together. It is the heroes’ humanity that reveals itself in grief, in rage, in secrecy, in betrayal, and in self-delusion. It is the depth of these things that ties us to the heroes, because even if they are beyond us in capability, their fall from grace is something to which that we can infinitely relate. It is the connection that allows us to cheer for the heroes in their darkest hour, in the middle of their Identity Crisis.
Devan MacPherson is a quality-control engineer living in Lethbridge, Alberta. Click here to e-mail him.