Breaking down "Event" comics, Part One: <i>Identity Crisis</i> #1-7; or, why you should always stop one issue short of your goal!

Now that Infinite Crisis is in the books and we're into the Great Unknown at DC, I thought it would be fun to check out the past two years in the "big event" comics world and see what worked, what didn't, and ask why DC hates comic book fans so much. Oh, I'm kidding about that last bit! Or am I?

Anyway, it's been two - wow, two already? - years since Identity Crisis #1 came out and kicked the whole thing off. I read that series, almost gouged out my eyes when I read the last issue, and swore off the whole "Crisis" thing that was brewing in the DC Universe. Why, I thought to myself, should I buy comics that I am 99.9% sure would suck? I mean, seriously. I have better things to do with my money. Now, based on my reviews sometimes, you might think that I often buy stuff that I hate - but that just ain't true. I buy stuff with the anticipation that it will be good, and usually I like what I buy. If it continues to suck, then I drop it. Believe me, if Squadron Supreme continues to piss me off, I'll just stop buying it. But right now, I like it. However, after Identity Crisis #7, I was almost completely positive that I would hate Infinite Crisis, so I skipped it. And I'm glad I did.

However, it has been the big event in the DCU for the past couple of years, so I thought, "Maybe I can read it without paying for it!" Yes, that's what libraries are for, but that's also what excellent comic book shoppe workers are for, and the guy who works at mine let me borrow all the IC stuff that came out after Identity Crisis, beginning with Countdown to Infinite Crisis right through the four mini-series and concluding with Infinite Crisis #7. So now I get to read them, evaluate them, eviscerate them (probably, although I'll keep an open mind), and give them back at no cost to me!

I'm perfectly aware that smarter people than I have already reviewed this stuff. I hope I can offer some perspective, however. I'll do this is a series of posts, beginning with the murder mystery that kicked the whole thing off - Brad Meltzer and Rags Morales' work of staggering genius, Identity Crisis!

I want to examine this from a few different perspectives. First, the story itself, without any judgments based on who the characters are or what they mean to us as fans. Second, I want to delve into Sue Dibny's rape, even though it's been examined to death. Finally, I want to look at what the series means in the context of DC and its history. How does that sound? If it sounds boring, you might want to stop reading now! But for the rest of you (I'm sure there might be one or two of you that I haven't driven off yet), let's go!

The story.

Essentially, this is a locked room mystery. Sue Dibny lives in a house in Opal City, where she and Ralph moved at the end of James Robinson's Starman series. The house is protected by Thanagarian, Martian, Kryptonian, and mother box technology, and we learn later that it has Apokalyptian tech (is that different than the mother box?) and some "scary stuff" that Batman added. In other words, it's impregnable. Except for, of course, a crazed ex-wife who wants her husband back! The first issue sets up the whole thing, and we get a vague reference to Sue's rape when Lorraine (Firehawk) asks Ralph if there are any villains hiding behind his shower curtain and he says, "Just once, but that was a long time -" before he gets cut off when the action with Bolt and the Luthor armor starts. The first issue is structured in a pretty standard way, with the timeline slowly leading up to Sue's death while we get scenes of the various heroes being called to action in the here and now. One of the things that annoyed people about the first issue, and the series as a whole, is the inclusion of red herrings, such as Bolt and the whole Luthor armor thing, but that's fine, because in a murder mystery, you need red herrings to throw people off. Finally, we get the juxtaposition of Bolt getting shot and Sue getting attacked. Meltzer throws in the pregnancy test to add extra poignancy, even though it's somewhat of a cheap trick.

The various heroes do their thing, but nothing seems disturbed. Originally, we're told that Sue was killed by "third-degree burns over 42% of her body," but that's not true, as we'll soon learn. All the heroes go after villains who burn things and villains who teleport, but at the end of the issue, Oliver, Carter, Dinah, Zatanna, and Ray go to Ralph, who tells them to find Dr. Light. Oh, the drama!

So far, so good. The first issue is a well written piece of work - gripping and tragic and full of action and interesting character interaction. The heroes don't have much to do, but Meltzer has a nice grasp on the large cast. We don't have any clues yet, but that's fine - he has six issues to go, after all.

There are three major plot points of Identity Crisis, and they're all connected. Sue's murder, obviously, and the attacks on the heroes' families that occur later in the series - Jean Loring is hanged in her home, Captain Boomerang kills Tim Drake's father, and Lois Lane gets a threatening note. Sue's murder, Ralph believes, was committed by Dr. Light, and we find out why in issue #2, the infamous "rape" issue. Dr. Light got aboard the JLA satellite years earlier and raped Sue, which leads to the third, and perhaps most important plot point: the "mindwipe" of Dr. Light, who knows far too much about the JLA and must be made to forget. Zatanna performs a partial lobotomy on him, messes around a bit too much, and turns him into the moron we all know and love. These three plots are the core of the book, while the ancillary stuff - Digger comes to know his son, briefly, Firestorm dies, Calculator gets a cool new job as the anti-Oracle - is used to ground us deeper in the DCU.

The story hums along - Dr. Mid-Nite determines that Dr. Light didn't kill Sue even as the subset of the League that is in on the "mindwipe" tries to capture him and gets humiliated by Deathstroke; Tim Drake and Owen Mercer bond with their respective fathers, Jack Drake and Digger Harkness, and each will experience tragedy through the loss of their fathers; and the "mindwipe" technique becomes even more sinister when Ollie reveals to Wally that they used it more than once. Ironically, by going after Dr. Light, the League helps him remember what they did to him, and he freaks out. Somehow - it's never sufficiently explained - when he goes nuclear in issue #3, he implants his memories in Wally's head, and Wally realizes that Batman was also there, and the League "mindwiped" him, a far more egregious abuse of power than simply doing so to villains. The mystery of the murderer grinds slowly, however, and it is here that the story falls apart, especially in issue #7. The heroes keep eliminating suspects, which is fine, but they still find no clues as to who the killer is. One thing that annoys me about murder mysteries - and I've said this before, so forgive my repitition - is that the identity of the killer comes out of nowhere, and when we go back and re-read the story, we can't find any clues pointing the way. I read this trying to find any clues that point to Jean as the killer, and there really aren't. The footprints on the brain are the only clue, and that's just something that Dr. Mid-Nite finds during the course of the longest autopsy in history, as he's still carving Sue up a week after her death. Batman grasps the method of entry intuitively, but that's just a flash of revelation. On page 3 of issue #7, Batman says, "Ray? It's not Ray ..." but how he comes to that conclusion is never explained. Ray himself only finds out through one of the most hackneyed devices in murder mysteries - the murderer says something stupid and reveals the truth - in this case, Jean asking about the note that was sent to Jack Drake, which no one else knows about. There is, quite literally, no evidence that Jean committed the crimes, save for the footprints on Sue's brain, which, let's be honest, could have been left by anyone who got their hands on Atom's outfits. Jean's confession would certainly not be admissable in court.

These events occur at the end of issue #6 and all of issue #7, where Identity Crisis goes off the rails. I actually thought the series should have ended with issue #6 and Ray turning off the light as he gets into bed with Jean, because the drama would have been heightened for the subsequent series. But that's okay - technically this was a self-contained story, despite setting up two years of stories, and they needed a resolution. But Meltzer's resolution is pretty awful and almost negates the interesting first six issues. First, Jean's reason for terrorizing the families of the heroes is so she could get back together with Ray. As Ray makes clear early in the series, she dumped him, so it wasn't like he stopped loving her. If she wanted him back, couldn't she just ask? A scientist geek who spends most of his time at molecule size can't be meeting a lot of women, so he'd probably jump at the chance to get back together with Jean. Okay, she's crazy, but she planned the whole thing like a master criminal, with very few flaws, which doesn't seem like a crazy thing. The aftermath of her confession is awful, too, as Ray puts her in Arkham Asylum without a trial. Yes, Arkham - the most horrible place in the DC Universe. This stretches credulity even more, as Ray would have to know about the evil in Arkham and make sure she was in a sanitarium thousands of miles away from Arkham. And according to the atlas of the DC Universe, Ivy Town is in Connecticut, while Gotham is in New Jersey, so why would Jean go to Arkham anyway? (Of course, the atlas puts Opal City in Maryland when it's in the Midwest somewhere, so we'll take it with a grain of salt.) Later, of course, we find out via the newspapers that Jean is being tortured by the inmates - nice going, Ray! The ending is supposed to be somewhat downbeat but still hopeful - yes, two innocent people died, but it brought everyone else closer, and Ralph still gets to talk to Sue as if she's there. Unfortunately, it's a bad ending to what had a great deal of potential.

The rape and its implications.

I'll get to Sue's murder in good time, but I want to write a few things about Dr. Light's rape of Sue in the old days of the JLA. I have known a few women who have been raped, and one who was raped while I knew her. We have read the responses to not only Sue's rape, but other rapes in comics and how the writers concentrate a lot on the way men react to it. The natural response of men is to go out and beat the shit out of the rapist, so I don't have that big a problem with writers portraying men like that - and, let's be honest, most comic book writers are men writing about men, so the women will get short shrift. However, this is a particularly egregious example. Felicia Hardy had a rape retconned into her backstory, which made me angry, but Smith did show that it spurred her into action to become the Black Cat. It's an awful motivation, but it's something. Sue, meanwhile, gets to have a rape that is only revealed after she is dead. Because it is a retcon, we never know how she and Ralph dealt with it, and it is something that needs to be dealt with. What annoys me the most about it is that it is simply a plot device to get to the "mindwipe" of Dr. Light, which is what Meltzer really wants to examine. Identity Crisis is ultimately about trying to define what makes a hero and how heroes can survive in a morally murky world, something I'll get to in time. It's not about Sue's rape, and therefore Sue's rape is diminished and cheapened somewhat. Dr. Light is certainly punished, but Sue never comes to term with the rape. Of course, there are two rapes in the comic - Jean Loring almost certainly gets raped in Arkham, and this is treated even more lightly - by Meltzer at least - than Sue's trauma. When this series first came out, I thought that DC claimed it was a self-contained mini-series (I'm sure Brian has the press release committed to memory, but I don't), but it becomes obvious at the end that Meltzer is setting up the subsequent history of the DCU, so he doesn't feel the need to deal with Jean's rape, which, unfortunately, cheapens it as much as Sue's. The upsetting thing about Sue's rape and the one that Jean (presumably) experiences is that the women become mere symbols of man's impotence. Sue is raped and we find out far more about how it affects the Justice League than Sue, or even Ralph. Jean is raped and we follow Ray Palmer around as he gets all depressed. At no time is Meltzer concerned with how the women feel. Rape is far too important an issue to trivialize it in this way.

What Identity Crisis tells us about DC.

Identity Crisis, taken on its own, is a perfectly fine story. It's not really a good murder mystery, but murder mysteries are very difficult to pull off, so I can forgive Meltzer. This is a story about a horrific act that causes several people to commit a similar act to cover it up. They debate the morality of their actions and ultimately decide that they must violate someone for the greater good. It is the stuff of good, if not great fiction, and Identity Crisis tries to examine these themes, as well as other, secondary themes, such as what brings us together with friends and family, what drives people to betrayal, and how secrets twist relationships and poison lives.

However, it's not simply a story about random people. It's a story that is set in a very specific "universe," with very recognizable characters. The characters are superheroes, and therefore this becomes a different kind of story, and this is when what Meltzer and DC are doing becomes something that needs to be considered.

Meltzer has stated that Identity Crisis is a reaction to the "goofiness" of superhero comics of the days when he was but a wee lad. It is an attempt, it seems, to retcon twenty- or thirty-year-old comic books so that the villains aren't so stupid. Dr. Light, especially, has always been a joke, and Meltzer just couldn't handle that the comics he loved - as a child, mind you, not as an adult - were childish. Therefore, he had to explain why Dr. Light was such a moron - a word he uses in Identity Crisis to describe him. DC went along with it, perhaps because the people running DC feel the same about the comics of the 1960s and '70s - they were far too goofy and people today would scorn them.

But why do they feel this way? They read these comics when they were children, so they fact that they're goofy doesn't really matter, does it? Some children's literature is deadly serious, sure, but a lot is quite goofy. Does anyone feel the need to go back and explain using deadly serious scientific terms how those stupid insects inside the Giant Peach not only grew but were able to speak English? I think someone needs to write a book showing that they would attack and sexually abuse and finally eat James, because let's face it - Dahl's original book just isn't very "realistic." Maybe Meltzer has an inferiority complex because he read comics back in the day that weren't very "adult," but is that a reason to allow this? It seems like a silly reason to write a story.

By raping Sue and then killing her and by raping Jean, DC has done more damage than it knows. I mentioned that this kind of story could easily work with anonymous characters. But DC, whether Dan DiDio and Brad Meltzer want to admit it, has a long history with characters who have long been established. There is wiggle room with regard to the characters, of course, but what Identity Crisis does is subvert the entire notion of heroes. These people are not heroes, and if they weren't wearing fancy tights and named stuff like "Hawkman," we wouldn't consider them heroes. That doesn't mean the story isn't compelling, but we can't really condone their actions, and we will always look down on them somewhat. We can understand their actions, but we are repulsed by them. DC wants us to see Identity Crisis as something that "humanizes" their superheroes, but the problem is - you can't "humanize" someone from another planet, or someone who inexplicably runs faster than anyone, or someone who can scream at an inhuman level. There is always going to be a disconnect between the audience and, say, Superman. There has to be. That's not to say we can't enjoy the stories and even love them and relate to the ideals the heroes fight for, but there is always going to be separation from the characters. And that's okay. Superheroes are, on a very tangible level, adolescent fantasies, and for the most part, they're male adolescent fantasies. That's perfectly fine - I love superhero stories, and accept them for what they are. They can, and have, been used for almost any other kind of story - Alan Moore famously turned a superhero into God, and writers can use superheroes as a metaphor for almost anything. However, it is difficult to do, and DC's mainstream superheroes in a mainstream superhero comic - and remember that Identity Crisis was not labeled "for mature readers," meaning a seven-year-old could have read about Sue's rape - appeal to about as broad a base as anything in comics. Therefore, DC has a responsibility to use these characters much more wisely than they did in this book. People will argue that Meltzer has the right to tell any story he wants as long as it works, if DC allows him, and that's a point, but I disagree. DC owns these characters, sure, but they have also spent decades sketching out their basic personalities. When you use these kinds of characters, you have a responsibility to appreciate how they have been portrayed in the past. If you don't like that, fine. But don't write this kind of story.

Ultimately, DC and Meltzer wanted to try to find out what makes someone a hero in a world where black and white morality is compromised. Again, the problem with that is that none of the principals in Identity Crisis acts like a hero, or even tries to. In a world where Zatanna exists, mindwiping Dr. Light is actually the easy way out, and heroes don't take the easy way out. Mindwiping Batman is an even more egregious example of simply wrong behavior. Ray's treatment of his obviously insane ex-wife is disgusting. DC has taken characters who are icons and should set a standard for behavior and turned them into mean little people. As I mentioned, it may make for good fiction in a noir setting, but it jars with the brightly-colored world of the DC Universe. By attempting to make their universe "realistic," what DC has done is said that even heroes don't have to have standards - whatever they feel like doing is fine. Ollie may try to justify the League's actions to Wally, but his arguments are weak. The failure of Identity Crisis is not that the story exists, but that the story does not take into account who these characters are. And that's DC's fault.

I understand that this series is simply the first step in a massive crossover that presumably addresses these issues. I get it. However, I am trying to judge these series on their own merits, because even though they are part of a larger tapestry, there's no excuse for not telling a complete story in one title. Identity Crisis is an interesting book, and that makes its wrong-headedness even more vexing. It will be interesting to see how DC addresses these problems in the subsequent mini-series (which I haven't read, so please don't spoil them for me any more than they've already been spoiled!), or if they choose to ignore them. Unfortunately, once you enter "adult swim," you have to explain things a lot more. You can't just get away with saying, "It's all for children!" anymore. And the more you explain something, the less it dazzles you. Has DC shot itself in the foot with this whole Crisis thing? Only time will tell.

Lots of people have written about Identity Crisis, obviously. Here's a sampling: go here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and this fun post by our own Lord and Master, back when he was angrier.

Next time: Countdown to Infinite Crisis! Won't that be fun!

Avatar: The Last Airbender -- Imbalance
Avatar: The Last Airbender - Imbalance Reveals the Origin of [SPOILER]

More in Comics