Comic fans have grown cynical about “event comics,” mini-series brought out regularly to generate interest and sales. The iconic nature of DC’s principal characters also garners such comics notice in the mainstream press, as well.

The current “event” in progress is Identity Crisis. Last year, Superman/Batman #1-7 solidified the trend towards the Silver Agesque (see my article on the matter here, complete with image of Lex in full retro-battle armour). This year, they’re getting gritty again, with the rape and murder of an established character, and the dark secrets of DC’s finest.

General Information

Title: Identity Crisis #1-4
Writer: Brad Meltzer
Artists: Rags Morales, Mike Blair.

Premise:

Sue Dibny, wife of the Elongated Man, dies horribly under baffling circumstances. As DC’s superheroes react, secrets long-kept by beloved characters come to the surface. Meanwhile, the killer remains at large, with sights on those closest to the super-heroes.

High Points

Over the course of the story, Meltzer retcons certain events from DC continuity– “retcon” in the sense of additional and reinterpreted history, rather than retroactively altered history. Dr. Light had once been a seriously dangerous villain, before sloppy writing turned him into target practice for every hero who came along. Many Justice League storylines, meanwhile, should have ended with villains knowing superhero’s identities.

Identity Crisis accounts for these changes in a manner which not only makes sense, but is downright chilling. We have to turn a blind eye to the fact that the big three icons– Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman– don’t know what they should have figured out, but the explanation works well as a plot element, and nicely questions the high tone of most DC heroes, without utterly undermining them. This isn’t, and cannot, be Watchmen or Brat Pack, but Meltzer has found a reasonable compromise between “edgy” and what can be permitted with DC’s principal characters.

I also appreciate the subtle way the story and art comments on DC’s history. This is less about Easter Eggs and cramming in every version of the Justice League, and more about using the established history as part of the plot.

Low Point

Yeah, I know. Super-hero comic books can always be expected to provide histrionic dialogue, bad physics, worse wardrobe– and suburban myths. However, DC not only repeats the popular nonsense about people only using ten per cent of our brains, they make it a critical character and plot point in issue #3. One of the reasons Deathstroke can take on a small crowd of heroes is that he uses nearly 90% of his brain. Uh, sorry, but that’d be 10% less than most of us.*

In any case, Deathstroke wins his fight just a little too easily. While it’s true the heroes demonstrate less teamwork than usual, likely because of the stress of Sue’s death, they fall into “Movie Ninja” mode, attacking one at a time. In the scene’s defense, he does use specific techniques which could work against the individual heroes.

*Why care when you’re reading about characters who violate our sense of reality at least once a page? For one thing, nobody (sane or older than five) believes that, say, Superman could exist in the real world. Plenty of people believe we only use 10% of our brain, or that scholars warned Columbus he was going to sail off the flat earth, or that f-ck is an an acronym (don’t argue; look any of these things up in a reliable scholarly source)— or that Iraq was behind September 11. Widely-accepted “falsisms” can have consequences.

The Scores

Originality: 4/6 We’ve spent the last two decades or so looking at superheroes’ dark sides, but this series does so in a fairly fresh manner, and within DC continuity.

Artwork: 4/6

Story: 5/6 I like the “mystery” approach, especially as Elongated Man is central to this tale. The story breaks (relatively) new ground, especially in its handling of retcons, and the dialogue includes a number of witty lines admidst the gloom.

FIREHAWK: When I met Green Arrow, he told me your nose doesn’t really twitch when there’s a mystery. You just made that up to get more press.

Pause

ELONGATED MAN: Green Arrow has a bald spot. That’s why he wears the hat.

Characterization: 4/6

Emotional response: 4/6 .

Flow 4/6 Overly-ponderous narration attempts to make amends for the story’s frequent, abrupt shifts.

Overall: 5/6

In total, Identity Crisis #1-4 receive a score of 30/42.

Additional Comments

How far will a superhero go to avenge the death of a loved one? The Green Arrrow contacts the dead: specifically, the late Hal Jordan. It’s not enough that three living versions of the Green Lantern appear in this comic; we have to see Jordan, who briefly drops his current guise as the Spectre, agent of God’s vengeance. He appears not just to show us the heroes’ desparation, but also to rule out the possibility of his involvement. Of course he knows the solution to the mystery and of course, the complex rules which he must follow prevent him from becoming involved, or even dropping a hint.

Unfortunately, his appearance undermines the dramatic impact of the story. The Arrow asks his former partner when he’s coming back, “really coming back,” and the late Lantern says that he’s “working on it.” We’re reminded, a little too emphatically, that death rarely takes in comic books. Marvel’s Aunt May has had died twice now, to great dramatic impact, only to have later writers bring her back. DC regularly kills established characters to garner media attention and sales, but we know how that turns out. The Flash died, but Kid Flash took on his identity and costume: same hero, more interesting personality. Supergirl died, only to have a new versions of the character appear as frequently as the original changed her costume. Robin died, but that was the second Robin, whom no one really liked. The original fights on as Nightwing, and a third has taken up the sidekick role. Most famously, Superman died, but that was a gimmick from the get-go. For that matter, Captain Atom puts in a brief appearance here, mere months after his death in the early issues of Superman/Batman. And Green Arrow…. You get the idea. Fans can be forgiven for our lack of sorrow regarding the death of principal characters.

Sue Dibny formed a regular part of the DC universe, but neither she nor her stretchable husband have ever been major players. They don’t carry a title, and might not even have existed (according to Don Markstein) if Julius Schwartz had realized in 1960 that DC owned the rights to Plastic Man. Sue’s death, then, may well be permanent.

It is, however, with great skepticism that I read the end of #4, where Lois Lane receives an anonymous letter. Our unknown villian has learned that she is Superman’s wife, and informs her that she’s next.

And speaking of Robin, Tim Drake makes a few appearances here, and we’re clearly being prepared for his father to face danger. The Robin bits read like Brat Pack Lite (okay, Extremely Lite), with questions raised about the inherent brutality of a youthful superhero sidekick’s life.

Extensive annotations to Identity Crisis may be found at excellent Elongated Man fansite