Review: Identity Crisis trade paperback collection (DC Comics)

Monday, November 07, 2005

The first time I read Identity Crisis, back when it came out, I walked away having enjoyed it, but thinking predominately that what it sorely lacked was a scene of Superman flying. Sure, I understood the wistful hopefulness of Ralph Dibney's ending conversation with Sue, but to really make the book about hope and not despair, Superman would need to fly again.

I came to find, reading the Identity Crisis hardcover nearly a year later, that low and behold, a scene of Superman flying was in the end all along, and I'd somehow just missed it the first time. And such is the stuff that has garnered this time not just my enjoyment of Identity Crisis, but my respect and admiration for it, too. Because, despite slight evidence to the contrary, I do think Identity Crisis is a hopeful book, and I think Brad Meltzer and Rags Morales have used, and deconstructed, the comics art form well to prove it.

Almost immediately, a comic book trope that Meltzer and Morales explore is the common white-space used to cover the characters' eyes through their masks. As early as Nightwing's first appearance, his eyes bore through his mask directly at the reader. In showing the characters eyes through their masks, the authors make it that much more difficult to view these characters one-dimensionally; if eyes are the windows to the soul, then seeing the eyes of these characters that have been created cannot help but make us feel that much more for them, even if fiction can't feel for itself. It is not coincidence that Nightwing is the first character used in this way; as Robin, he was the first character that positioned the DC heroes as families, instead of vigilantes. It is a theme that carries throughout Identity Crisis.

At the same time, the one character in Identity Crisis given whitened eyes is Batman. When he finally appears, half-way through the story, there is a sense -- both from his whitened eyes and the fact that his presence is made as much as character as Batman himself -- that the character is to be considered more than, or less than, human. It makes it hard to pity Batman; moreover, even as Wally West registers shock at the League's mind-wiping of Batman, that act is kept off-screen (as opposed to the brutal mind-wiping of Dr. Light), increasing the difficulty of sharing Wally's dismay. And yet, we finally do see Batman's eyes -- as he takes off his cowl at the grave of his parents -- overlayed with Green Arrow explaining the League's actions to the Flash, and as Green Arrow notes, Batman knows more than anyone "that you should never underestimate what someone will do for the people they love -- either the League's mind-wiping Batman, or Batman's quest to avenge his parents.

Meltzer suggests here that Batman understands, and perhaps even approves, of the League's actions; this is further proved, in my interpretation, on the last few pages, when Batman stares Wally down. There are two panels of Batman staring, almost identical, but the second panel looks to me lighter and softer -- the suggestion that Batman takes pity on Wally. This is an opinion somewhat challenged by The OMAC Project and JLA: Crisis of Conscience, where Batman rebels at the League for their mindwiping, but I maintain that, at least as far as Identity Crisis is concerned, there's the suggestion that Batman understands.

Another trope reimagined through the Identity Crisis lens is the struggle between good guys and bad guys. Ordinarily, we might say, a comic book features the heroes acting heroically against the villains working for evil. Instead, in Identity Crisis, not only are we faced with heroes acting outside the usual realm of moral certainty, but also villains working both for and with each other. Granted, both Deathstroke and the Calculator assist other villains for a fee, but we also see the deep parental love that Captain Boomerang has for his son--a note of commonality between both heroes and villains. Moreover, both heroes and villains die during Identity Crisis -- and the culprit turns out to be neither one nor the other.

In Identity Crisis, we find not the usual heroes verus villains, but instead heroes and villains existing side-by-side, somewhat similar. And I think we should also give special notice to a sequence early in the book, after Bolt is shot by a couple of small-time crooks, where Bolt begs one crook to call an ambulance, and the crook does. It's an unexpected act of villain-to-villain compassion, given to show not only that the line between hero and villain is not so ardent as we might think, but that just as heroes can sometimes be villains, villains sometimes have the potential to be heroes, too.

There's been some charge since Identity Crisis came out that Meltzer and company have played willy-nilly with the DC Universe, leaving careless destruction in their wake. Certainly, I can see where one can think that -- I can understand the use of Dr. Light raping Sue Dibny as a gauntlet thrown down to venture into the uncharted areas of comics, but I'm also not sure it was really a gauntlet that ever needed throwing; I understand Warren Ellis's point, even if I don't agree one-hundred percent, that if DC really meant business, they would have used Lois Lane instead of Sue Dibny (I think Ellis said this).

But Meltzer largely redeems the story, and shows an awareness of what he's done -- the rape, the mindwipes, et al -- in again a conversation between Wally West and Green Arrow. Wally cries, "But don't you understand? You ruined it." Ollie doesn't really answer, but earlier, he tells Wally that "people always believed it was simpler back then. But it wasn't." Here is the inherit argument for and against Identity Crisis: Wally, who believes the stories of the Silver Age ruined, and Ollie, who sees the stories of the Silver Age explained and redeemed. If it were not for these sequences, one could argue that Identity Crisis is a waste, destruction for destruction's sake. But unquestionably there's a motive here, a motive even willing to question itself, and in that it proves itself capable of wisdom.

What we have in Identity Crisis is a deconstruction of the superhero genre that uses this deconstruction at every turn to show how the characters of comics are richer, more human, and more humane. It is a story that, I believe, ends with pity, ends with forgiveness, and ends with understanding, and is even willing to allow for its own faults within the context of the book. When Superman flies in the end, it is the symbolic representation of the same thing we see when Ralph says good-night to the departed Sue -- that, even if wounds don't heal, life goes on. Identity Crisis shows, in my opinion, that Superman can still fly in the end of any story--even a story that challenges how we ready comics themselves--as Ma Kent whispers to Clark, "no matter what."

***

And now I start my Identity Crisis tie-in reading, beginning with The Flash. Join me, won't you?
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8 comments:

  1. Excellent review that really makes me want to re-read the issues, and makes me question my initial impression.

    I don't know as I'd end up agreeing, but you sure make some good points.

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  2. One of the best reviews of Identity Crisis I've read. Great point concerning the visibility of the heroes' eyes, though I can't say I completely agree on whether Batman approved the League's actions, even without taking into account OMAC Project and Crisis of Conscience. Great article though.

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  3. Oops! Accidentally deleted my own comment! As I was saying ...

    Thanks to you both. Much obliged.

    Hey Jeffrey, what's your blog URL again?

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  4. Don't have one at the moment. Not that I have anything to say. :(

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  5. I always feel a bit ridiculous talking with friends of mine that both are and aren't into comics, especially the DCU. Mainly because I feel that at times i'm reading so much into these characters that I've been following for 20+ years. Things like the way a character's opaque white costume lens gets shattered revealing the fragile eyes beneath. The way Elongated Man can "barely hold himself together" and the true expression of emotion in these two dimensional characters.

    This review really made me feel justified, and aside from that, your writing and crafting of words is on par with excellence sir.

    I stumbled across this looking for a timeline to get caught up with Crisis (Identity, Infinite, and Final) and you've just won yourself a dedicated reader.

    Thank You

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  6. wonka -- Thanks for your comment, and welcome to the fold! Hope you find a lot here you like.

    If you're looking for reading order, don't miss our DC Trade Paperback Timeline. Thanks again!

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  7. As someone who is unfamiliar with DC other than having read a few batman, superman and wonder woman books, I was not really impressed with this story. Especially when the culprit was revealed which is was not convincing to me. There are some interesting ideas here but it felt like there were lots of characters jammed into the story that weren't necessary.

    Maybe this story would've been more effective for me if I had followed many of these characters previously but based on this story alone, I felt no connection to any of the characters.

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  8. If you're not familiar with a couple iterations of the JLA, also maybe Flashes Barry Allen vs. Wally West and Green Lanterns Hal Jordan vs. Kyle Rayner, a couple of Green Arrow stories, and possibly the travails of Robin Tim Drake, to start with, very possibly this book won't have the resonance for you that it has for others. This one was insider baseball, most definitely.

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