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 garners such comics notice in the mainstream press, as well.
The "event" for 2004 is the seven-issue Identity Crisis. Last year, Superman/Batman #1-7 solidified the trend towards the Silver Agesque, often by overriding changes made since Crisis on Infinite Earths. This year, they're getting gritty again, with the rape and murder of an established character, and the dark secrets of DC's finest.
Title: Identity Crisis #1-4
Writer: Brad Meltzer
Artists: Rags Morales, Mike Blair.
The female associates of heroes frequently double as plot devices, suffering indiginity and death in order to get the story going. In Identity Crisis #1, 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 metahuman population.
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 oddities in a manner which makes sense, and is downright chilling: heroes agreed to let Zatanna wipe the villain's minds. 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 moral tone of most DC heroes, without utterly undermining those characters. 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.
In any case, in one particular, vicious incident revealed in this story, a few members of the League went a little further, and their actions had unforeseen consequences, especially for Dr. Light. Actions cast long shadows and, years later, the secret decision by a small group of heroes has dire consequences.
This is, however, no "Dr. Light's Revenge" story. The real consequence lies in their-- and our-- wondering what other responsibility they may have for the events that unfold after Sue Dibny's death. A killer, capable of escaping detection, has targetted those closest to DC's finest.
How far will a superhero go to avenge-- or prevent-- the death of a loved one? The Green Arrow 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 by in his current guise as the Spectre, agent of God's vengeance. He appears not just to show us the hero's desperation, but also to rule out the possibility of the Spectre's 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 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 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 an appearance in #1, mere months after his death in the sixth issue of Superman/Batman. And Green Arrow himself once.... You get the idea. Fans can be forgiven for our cynicism 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 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.
I'm not experiencing much anxiety over the prospect.
Likewise, a bizarre attempt on the life of the Atom's ex-wife proves unsuccessful.
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 LiteTM (okay, Extremely Lite), with questions raised about the inherent brutality of a youthful superhero sidekick's life.
The first four issues generally keep Superman and Batman in the background, though it's clear they'll become more important in the next three. The reason is obvious: both characters tend to overshadow everyone else when they arrive. Meltzer acknowledges this fact with some brief commentary by Green Arrow. He admires both Superman and Batman but, as the crotchetiest of DC's heroes, he takes some issue with both. His methods are similar to Batman's, and it's made clear he's a bit irked by the Dark Knight's arrogance, and perhaps a little jealous of his success. And, as a self-made hero, he's annoyed by Superman's tendency to reduce everyone to towel-boy status simply by showing up.
As three more issues will appear to conclude this story, we do not yet know who stalks the super-doers' significant others. A group of villains regularly appear in the background, but their objectives remain unknown, and they do not yet seem to be directly involved in the story's main plot. Indeed, at least one of these characters complains in #4 that the death of Sue Dibny only makes their lives that much more difficult.
While significantly better than I expected, the story is not without its flaws. 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 plot and character 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, 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 practically fall into "Movie Ninja" mode, attacking one at a time. In the scene's defense, Deathstroke does use specific techniques which could work against the individual heroes.
The story also features excessive use of overly-ponderous narration, to make amends for the frequent, abrupt shifts typical of comics that involve too many characters.
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.
ELONGATED MAN: Green Arrow has a bald spot. That's why he wears the hat.
Overall, however, the first four issues of Identity Crisis succeed, at least for a fan of mainstream superhero comic books. 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. Fans will 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 story.
Comics have been quite interested in the demythification of superheroes for some decades now. Identity Crisis explores the topic in a relatively fresh manner and, more significantly, within DC continuity.
See Identity Crisis #5-7.
*Original Publication Dates (in each case, released a little over a month before the date provided): #1:August 2004 #2:September 2004 #3:October 2004 #4: November 2004.
Don Markstein, "Plastic Man," Toonopedia. www.toonopedia.com. www.toonopedia.com/plas.htm
**Why care when you're reading about characters who violate our sense of reality at least once a page? For one thing, nobody (sane and 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 the dreaded "f" word is an an acronym-- or that Iraq was behind September 11. Widely-accepted falsisms can have real-world consequences.