Join me for a spoiler-free look back at the Identity Crisis mini-series—a masterful superhero morality tale, wrapped in a compelling and disturbing whodunit from the mind of award winning author Brad Meltzer and an all-star team.
Identity Crisis (2004-5) #1-7
Writer: Brad Meltzer
Penciller: Rags Morales
Inker: Michael Bair
Colorist: Alex Sinclair
Letterer: Ken Lopez
Covers: Michael Turner
Publisher: DC COMICS
What You Need to Know:
Identity Crisis is so well developed that casual fans and even the completely uninitiated can pick it up and follow along. For the more seasoned fans, however, it may be beneficial to understand the “Satellite Era” of the Justice League (1970-1985) and the frequent focus on close friendships forged during that era (Green Arrow and Green Lantern, Green Lantern and Flash, Flash and Elongated Man, etc.). This knowledge is far from necessary, but it does seem to likely expand on the emotional impact. Consider that a tip and a warning.
What You Will Find Out:
I will be making an effort to keep this review spoiler-free, which is near impossible with a mystery of this magnitude, but I feel it is a series best consumed by the individual and parsed out later. The narrative is so complexly woven that only at the individual level can all of the magnitude be unpacked.
***Trigger Warning*** While obtusely referenced, this series does contain a rape sequence. It is heavily implied but never explicitly named.
The series opens on Ralph Dibny, The Elongated Man, and Firehawk on a relatively routine stakeout. The two make casual conversation, not the least of which revolves around Ralph’s non-superhero wife, Sue. Sue and Ralph Dibny have long been in the public eye and are darlings of the superhero community. As events slowly unfold throughout the issue, numerous heroes are called to the site of an emergency, and the feeling of dread rises in the audience. Finally, the call reaches Ralph, who abandons his stakeout to return home to the corpse of his recently murdered wife.
At the center of Identity Crisis’ narrative structure is the mystery of “Who killed Sue Dibny?” and, had the team wished to stop there, they still would have had a likely-hit on their hands. Instead, however, Sue’s death is the first in a string of heart-rending revelations and losses, including a major reveal surrounding a decision made by seven members of the Satellite Era Justice League (Hawkman, Zatanna, Atom, Green Lantern/Hal Jordan, Flash/Barry Allen, Black Canary, and Green Arrow) that threatens to tear the League apart. Therein lies the actual crisis, a noteworthy buzzword for longtime DC fans.
In the end, the mystery is solved, but the ramifications would be felt for years to come for several characters involved, none more-so than the poor widower, Ralph Dibny.
What Just Happened?
Meltzer, a well-known novelist, and historian had very little experience writing comics prior to Identity Crisis. The former roommate of Real World alum and comics writer, Judd Winick, Meltzer had previously filled in on Green Arrow in between the critically-acclaimed Kevin Smith and Judd Winick runs. In many ways, Meltzer’s relative inexperience in comics narrative is the very thing that allows Identity Crisis to shine from the textual perspective. Meltzer frequently shifts focalizers, narrating in voices ranging from Green Arrow to Merlyn, while still keeping a distant, monstrator speaking over major transitions, both in terms of time and space but also emotional transitions. The pacing strikes closer to novelistic discourse than comics, but not in a negative way.
Sidebar: I distinctly remember reading this series as it was being released. After the first issue, my shop-going friend and I would read the newest issues in the parking lot of the shopping plaza our local comics shop was located. On the one hand, that speaks to the strength of the cliffhangers, but it also speaks to the agony of the wait, extended as long as humanly possible as we devoured each new chapter.
Returning to the narrative features here, I would be remiss to not acknowledge the excellent work of letterer Ken Lopez. The distinctly colored text boxes and subtle shifts in font are highlighted in a narrative that is distinct for its cacophony of voices. In novel writing, such shifts can become unmanageable in the wrong hands, but thanks to Lopez and the strengths of a hybrid textual/visual medium, the shifts were distinct and purposeful.
Speaking of distinct, the renderings of Morales, Bair, and Sinclair are forever burned in my mind as a shining example of an often-ignored era of comics development. In a story-arc fraught with pain and trauma, the artistic team manages to capture every moment of grief in a tangible way. The style is clean, but not too clean, leaving space for the dirt, the nastiness of some of the events to creep into the visual narrative and permeate the mind of the reader. The subtle touches, from Dr. Light’s eyes rolling back in his head to the torn leggings of Sue Dibny tell stories untellable.
Regarding the naming of the series, particularly the inclusion of the word “crisis”, I find it incredibly fitting after much thought. For those unaware, Crisis has long been a marker for major, status-quo shifting events in the DC universe of superhero comics. Starting in the early years of Justice League of America in the 60s, the series of “Crisis on Multiple Earths” events had a way of touching every corner of the DC Multiverse until the eventual 1985 landmark event Crisis on Infinite Earths, which put the Silver Age of DC Comics to rest (at least for a time). In the same way that these events of the Crisis Cycle had far-reaching implications, so too does Identity Crisis, although rather than a multiversal effect, the effects are psychological in nature.
On a final note, a quiet nod to the late, great Michael Turner, who contributed the beautiful covers, and who passed away June 27, 2008 after a battle with bone cancer. Rest in Power, Mr. Turner. Thanks for the art.
Final Thought: I chose to leave out my personal feelings on the controversy surrounding the morality tale embedded in Identity Crisis. The reasoning was two-fold. First, after many, many readings over the span of over a decade, my views have been inconsistent at best. And the second reason, perhaps the most important reason, is that this series comes with my highest recommendation. In other words, you should form your own opinions here, because in a world obsessed with black and white, gray can become the most striking color.
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