The first four issues of Identity Crisis, DC’s much-hyped shake-up of their comic book universe, begins with the murder of Sue Dibny, an established DC character, wife and crime-fighting partner of Elongated Man. As the superheroes investigate, readers learn some shocking, but entirely plausible1, secrets of some top DC heroes, secrets which actually make sense of issues raised by past stories. With each issue the suspects accumulate and the bodies pile up, but the heroes move no closer to solving the mystery of the assassin’s identity.
Title: Identity Crisis #5-7
Writer: Brad Meltzer
Artists: Rags Morales, Mike Blair.
Be warned: if you read further, expect spoilers.
Issue #5 begins with various DC superheroes digging their way through the underworld, trying to find some clue that will identify their apparently spectral adversary. They learn nothing, but in one brutal confrontation Firestorm, a character who has never been able to maintain a readership for long, dies horribly.
At least, that appears to be the case. The character currently carries the latest, likely short-lived version of his title. We’re reminded, yet again, that death rarely takes in comic books. As in the earlier issues, the reminder rather diminishes the tragic events of Identity Crisis.
The fifth issue focuses on two father-and-son stories; the first involves Tim Drake, the third "Robin". The emphasis on Tim Drake’s father in earlier issues and the history of Batman's sidekicks clearly foreshadow the man’s death. Meltzer nevertheless invests this event with some drama; our unknown stalker sends a hitman against Jack Drake, but first sends him a warning and a weapon. We have a genuine confrontation, with no heroes present, and the outcome in doubt.
Our hired gun, meanwhile, Captain Boomerang, has only recently established contact with his own son. He does not survive long enough to develop that relationship. In the end, both Boomerang and Jack Drake exit the DC Universe.
Issue # 6 follows from these events, and devotes a few pages to heroes grieving their losses and socializing with their families. Green Arrow devotes time with his son that doesn’t involve combat training; the Atom rekindles his relationship with his ex-wife.
The Flash, however, continues to ponder the implications of information he’d learned in the second issue. The Justice League has, on more than one occasion, used Zatanna’s magic to wipe villains’ minds of information that would have exposed League members and their families to danger. After one particularly disturbing confrontation, Dr. Light had more than a recent memory wiped; he experienced a mystic lobotomy, which reduced him to the risible criminal he’s been for most of his career.
The heroes hadn’t intended for the results to be this extreme. Naturally, Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman were not informed of these ethically dubious acts; DC’s most famous characters must maintain their images and, in fairness, these characters would not tolerate such an abuse of power.
But in #6, we learn that Batman, in fact, uncovered what happened.
The League voted to wipe his mind of the knowledge.
The current Flash, who had been a teen sidekick at the time, finds himself shocked to learn that his mentors could act in this manner. In a limited way, Identity Crisis brings the questions posed by Watchmen into mainstream DC continuity. Who polices the Justice League?
Batman, meanwhile, draws a startling conclusion regarding Sue Dibny’s death, just as Dr. Mid-Nite discovers something fascinating in her corpse’s mid-medulla: a pair of microscopic footprints. Sue Dibny died because someone was standing in her brain.
The issue ends with the Atom, snuggling up to his ex-wife.
Issue #7 resolves the mystery, but does not entirely play fair. Despite evidence which pointed in the culprit’s direction, nothing in the character’s past really prepares us for her guilt. A mystery should be difficult, but solvable with the evidence provided. Yes, Jean Loring had the method: inside knowledge of the League, and equipment belonging to her husband. She had a motive; she hoped that, by threatening heroes’ loved ones, she could draw the heroes closer to them, and ultimately, the Atom back to her. No, she did not intend for anyone to actually die. Still, she would have to be as crazy as the Joker to attempt this plot. Nothing this character has done since her introduction in 1961 prepares us for her insanity.2 It also seems odd that someone could mastermind this intricate (though terribly flawed) plan, keep completely calm as it spirals out of control-- and then reveal guilt through one stunningly moronic slip of the tongue. Some readers might also wonder about a landmark series which begins with the assault and murder of one hero’s wife, and concludes with the vilification of another.
Of course, Identity Crisis really isn’t about its central mystery, or its unexpected villain. It’s about showing a side both dark and human of the DC Universe. At that, it proves fairly successful. We learn that the comic company’s metahuman boy scouts and girl scouts can use Machiavellian methods, and that its most pure-hearted characters can remain willfully blind to the fact.
The final pages of #7 show us the human side of various DC characters without revelling in darkness. Perversely, Jean Loring‘s plot has achieved one of her goals; she has brought the shaken heroes and their families closer together. And so as the story closes, metahumans plan social events, and consider the ramifications of telling Superman that "his wife’s a crappy cook." The Teen Titans ask about training with the JLA. The Flash wrestles with his newfound knowledge-- silently.
Tim Drake mourns his father and retreats from his friends. The Atom shrinks entirely from the world.
The story ends, as it began, with Elongated Man-- changed by tragedy, but persevering, like the rest of us.
Identity Crisis leaves much unresolved. The series really will––- or at least, should-- have repercussions for all DC titles and characters.
At least until they reboot continuity again.
1. Plausible in the context of a world where super-powered people fight crime dressed like idiots.
2. I still hold to this, though I've been informed that, in a 1970 story no longer in continuity, the inhabitants of a sub-microscopic universe drove Ms. Loring temporarily insane when they remade her into their goddess-like despot. These sorts of things tend to happen in comic books.
Original Publication Dates (in each case, released a little over a month before the date provided): #5: December 2004 #6: January 2005 #7 :February 2005.
Portions of this review previously appeared in one I wrote for Bureau42.