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Identity and Theft

 

Identity Crisis

Brad Meltzer, Rags Morales

DC, 2006

Rating: 4.4

 

Posted: September 30, 2006

By The Gentleman (exclusive to Shaking Through)

(Spoiler Alert: This review reveals critical plot information.)

The secret identity isn't just a staple of superhero comics -- in the right hands, it's one of the genre's vital thematic underpinnings. Spider-Man and the X-Men work best when they serve as metaphors for the ironically universal condition of feeling alone in the universe, the defining existential dilemma, from puberty onward, of being different, the outsider: The powers that set you apart from everyone else; the fantastic other life you can never share. One way writers like to play with the secret identity is by yanking it away -- see Daredevil, Iron Man and now Spider-Man.

But what really makes the secret identity intriguing is its effect on others. That's part of the crux of Marvel's current summer "event," Civil War, which we'll have to address at another time, once it's concluded and wrapped up in a neat collection. It's also the issue at the core of DC's status quo-shaking Identity Crisis, collected last year in hardcover and now finally presented in paperback. The secret identity is supposed to keep a hero's loved ones safe from retaliation -- but what happens when it fails? And what would you do to keep it from happening again?

Those are the questions at the core of Identity Crisis, in which the death of just such a loved one -- Sue Dibny, the wife of pliable detective Ralph Dibny, the Elongated Man -- serves as the event that brings to light a horrible secret shared by a handful of superheroes: Years ago, the villain Dr. Light found his way to the satellite headquarters of the Justice League of America, empty except for Sue Dibny, whom he proceeded to rape. When the group of heroes (Green Arrow, Hawkman, Black Canary, Zatanna and the Atom) returned and stumbled upon Light, the magician Zatanna erased his memory of the event (and, it's implied, subtly altering his personality in the process).

Suspicious of their secrecy in deciding to track down Dr. Light after Sue's death, the Flash uncovers the group's secret; worse, he learns that the group has resorted to this tactic on more than one occasion when a loved one's life was threatened as a result of a secret identity being compromised -- and worse still, that the group even performed this act on a fellow hero who didn't agree with their extreme methods.

It's to the credit of thriller novelist Meltzer (The Book of Fate) that he doesn't judge these characters or recast them as villains as a result of their questionable acts (which isn't to say that they get off scot-free). It's also to his credit that the true murderer comes as a complete surprise, and that against a backdrop of veiled threats against superheroes' family members and the gradual revelation of the League within the League's actions, he crafts poignant scenes of familial connection on both sides of the super-powered divide: the uneasy bond between Robin and his father (mirrored by the newly minted relationship between two-bit criminal Captain Boomerang and the son he didn't know he had); the hesitant reconciliation of the Atom and his ex-wife Jean Loring.

But credit is also due to penciler Rags Morales, whose slightly cartoonish style (reminiscent, as I've mentioned before, of Pat Broderick) might at first seem an odd fit with such a serious tale. Morales nails the story's most dramatic scenes perfectly, and expertly renders a rapid fight scene involving Deathstroke the Terminator with vivid clarity. What's more, the DVD extra-style "director's cut" commentary that closes the book offers revelatory insight into the give-and-take relationship the two creators enjoyed during the course of the series, divulging enlightening glimpses of the artist's decision-making process and approach to certain scenes.

Identity Crisis is that rare "event" that actually changes the status quo and reverberates throughout the characters' shared universe: Yes, some characters die, but more importantly, moral lines are crossed and interpersonal relationships are indelibly changed. It isn't immediately accessible to new readers, although to be fair it almost can't be. Nonetheless, Identity Crisis yields real rewards for all its readers, and stands as one of those pivotal events that help to redefine a superero universe. That it so wrenchingly alters the emotional landscape in the process is all the more impressive.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: Breaks new ground
 4.0-4.9: First-rate
 3.0-3.9: Solid
 2.0-2.9: Mediocre
 1.1-1.9: Bad
 0.0-1.0: The worst

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