Crisis Team: Meltzer, Morales look back at "Identity Crisis"

Writer Brad Meltzer and penciller Rags Morales both have favorite creative moments from their collaboration on "Identity Crisis," panels or scenes that made them realize they were making something really special.

And for each member of the award-winning duo, the moments reflect the other's creative energies more than his own. Such was the depth of their partnership on the award-winning DC Comics miniseries, which recently was collected in a hardcover edition.

Meltzer is particularly fond of a heartbreaking scene from the first issue of the seven-part story. The nearly full-page image depicts the Elongated Man cradling the corpse of his murdered wife, Sue Dibny. Sue's death is the trigger for the entire story, and Meltzer knew the moment had to be powerful.

Meltzer wanted an overhead shot resembling Tim Robbins' first taste of freedom in the film "The Shawshank Redemption," but Morales thought another approach-- one that put the camera closer to the ground and at an angle from the action-- would make the hero's elastic body more pronounced. The writer happily admits Morales was right.

"That was the moment where I realized Rags did not need me one bit on this book," Meltzer told CBR News.

The panel is a favorite of Morales', too. But the artist says he knew he was working on an extraordinary project while reading Meltzer's script for the second issue. The flashback showing the villainous Dr. Light rape Sue made Morales shake and sweat.

"At that point I realized we had something incredible," Morales told CBR News. "That's when I knew we had something."

Love it or hate it, you can't deny "Identity Crisis" was one of the past year's biggest comics. It garnered industry awards and tons of mainstream media attention and spawned Internet message board debates that still rage on, months after the series wrapped up.

"Identity Crisis" also was an apparent spawning ground for DC's next big project, the much-hyped "Infinite Crisis," which is set to launch later this month. Elements from "Identity Crisis" also were used in several regular titles-- perhaps most significantly in the recently completed "JLA" story, "Crisis of Conscience"-- as well as the "Countdown to Infinite Crisis" one-shot and the various mini-series that have led to "Infinite Crisis."

Although it looks like "Identity Crisis" was designed to be part of a master plan by The Powers That Be at DC, Meltzer insists his story didn't start out that way.

"When I started 'Identity Crisis,' it was supposed to be a small, emotional story. That's it," Meltzer says. "Those were literally the words they said to me. And the key word (was) small."

It wasn't until Meltzer was done writing the story and shared the scripts with DC Vice President/ Executive Editor Dan DiDio and "Infinite Crisis" writer Geoff Johns that "Identity Crisis" became part of a much larger storyline. Meltzer recalls how excited DiDio was when he read the scripts, and how eager he was to use various elements-- the JLA's decision to erase Batman's memories, the resurgence of certain villains-- in the other titles.

"No one knew what 'Identity Crisis was going to be at that one moment in time," Meltzer says. "I was just making my tiny little sweater. I had no idea Dan DiDio was at the same time turning it into a beautiful quilt. They just pulled the pieces they liked.

"I wish we (Rags and I) were grand planners in that sense," Meltzer continues. "Dan is a grand planner. He just happened to say, 'I like that piece and I want to use that.' That's what continuity is. We didn't invent that."

Of course, there's also some irony in the fact that the miniseries is now wrapped up in a much larger story web.

"In reality, it started and remains the only part of the story that you can read solely by itself," Meltzer says.

Until "Identity Crisis," most of the press Meltzer had received was for his novels, best-selling thrillers including "The Tenth Justice" and "The First Counsel." "Identity Crisis" was only his second gig in comics; the first was a six-issue arc on "Green Arrow" that followed filmmaker Kevin Smith's run on the title. The mainstream media spotlight on "Identity Crisis" was explosive. The series was written up in many newspapers and magazines, including the New York Times, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Entertainment Weekly, Spin magazine, the New York Post and even the in-flight magazine for Southwest Airlines.

"We were riding the tidal wave of all the good Marvel movies that had come out," Meltzer recalls. "Everyone was looking to do a superhero story."

Meltzer was interviewed for many of the pieces and found that many of the reporters were comics fans who had finally been able to convince editors to let them write about the industry.

"It was like all those people who kind of hid the fact that they were reporters who loved comics, they all finally said, 'Enough is enough, I'm going to write my story,' says Meltzer, himself a lifelong funnybook fan. "Comic book readers are in the closet so much around the country. We apologize for the industry; we apologize for our passion. And I just don't ever believe in apologizing for it."

The attention continued last month with the release of the hardcover collection. It was published with two slipcovers: One has a Michael Turner illustration that resembles most traditional graphic novels or collections, while the other is stylized, text-heavy and looks more like a hardcover novel than a comic book.

The marketing ploy was designed to attract mainstream bookstore shoppers and fans of Meltzer's non-illustrated works. Because the cover has Meltzer's name significantly larger than Morales' or inker Michael Bair's monikers, it also prompted the only fight the writer said he had with DC over the project.

"I saw it and my jaw hit the floor," Meltzer says. "What you see in that cover is the cold, calculating reality of DC Comics realizing that they might be able to sell some books to regular readers. My ego is OK. I don't need my name in giant letters. I think Dan's words to me were, 'You're the first author who ever asked for his name to be smaller.' But I was not the one who made this book. This was a group effort on every level."

To his credit, Morales doesn't mind a bit.

"Egos are for chumps. I got over myself years ago," the artist says. "We're talking about a Barnes & Noble crowd. They know Brad. They don't know me."

Meltzer is particularly pleased with the DVD-style commentary at the end of the hardcover collection. He really wanted to give people who bought the original issues and were buying the hardcover, too, something new as a thank-you.

The creators talked about adding three extra pages to the story instead of using black pages to keep the story's page count and layout proper. Meltzer said he had ideas for more vignettes like the ones starring the Kents, Green Arrow and Nightwing at the start of the book, too. Red Tornado and Alan Scott were among the heroes being considered.

But those possible extras never were committed to paper.

"I always wanted more characters," Meltzer says. "I always wanted to be able to show more behind the scenes. I have so many cutting-room-floor scenes that will just (stay) in my head because I didn't have room for them."

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