Saturday, 22 December 2012

The Baffling Case of DC's "Identity Crisis"

Quick note: this review is full of spoilers so if you're planning on reading this book, don't read this article. Otherwise, enjoy!

“Identity Crisis” is probably one of the most baffling event books I’ve ever read. By turns it’s unintentionally funny, confusing, and ultimately pointless. At its core, it is a deeply cynical story and seems to be DC’s attempt at Watchmen-ifying the DCU - and utterly failing.

It opens with two unfamiliar characters speaking atop a rooftop: Elongated Man (yes that really is his name!) and Firehawk, a pair who look like the most generic superheroes ever created. They are failing to blend in with the scenery but aren’t spotted despite Firehawk being on fire at night, watching an alley with a box in it, 2 gangsters, and a “super” villain who are somehow all connected. Sue Dibny, Elongated Man’s wife, is preparing a surprise birthday for him so he’s put on his tights and headed out into the night to give her room. But it’s not going to be a happy birthday as she is about to murdered. Sue, it turns out, is the first in a line of family members of superheroes who are being targeted for some reason.

This first chapter… I think I could write an entire dissertation solely on how stupid this chapter is. First off – Elongated Man. Does anyone know who he is, let alone his wife? Does anyone care? His wife’s dead – so what? We’ve just been introduced to these characters. Maybe you’re one of the Silver Age readers who might remember these characters but I’m guessing most people coming to this book aren’t, and I’m definitely one of them. But the response is hilarious. EVERYONE in the DCU mobilises as if their entire world is shook up. Sue Dibny is dead? SUE DIBNY? The correct response would’ve been “who?” but it seems she meant a great deal to everyone in the DCU despite not being a superhero and being the wife of a superhero called, yes, Elongated Man. The worst name ever created for a “superhero”. Was “Distended Man” taken?

This is where DC begin ret-conning like crazy. Elongated Man tells stories of going out on patrol with Batman – I’ve read a lot of Batman comics and not once have I seen one mention of this character. Hell, in all the DC comics I’ve read, I’ve never seen a single mention of this guy. But whoever he is, he’s suddenly important because otherwise this book has no impact on the reader, so DC make up a whole bunch of stuff about this couple you’ve never heard of to build them up as some kind of massively important characters on par with Superman, Wonder Woman, et al. when the truth is Sue Dibny is an easy character to kill off because nobody remembers her. 

The response is so overblown and melodramatic that, once you realise this is all for a character called Sue Dibny, the wife of a superhero you’ve never heard of, it becomes really funny. Green Arrow at one point says “Clark and Bruce may be the bricks - but Ralph and Sue... they were the mortar” which just made me laugh partly because he’s so solemn when he says it and partly because it’s so untrue. And then the funeral takes place. You’ve never seen such an outpouring of superheroes – for Sue Dibny! The superheroes act like this is their 9/11! At this point I wondered if someone had made “Who the fuck is Sue Dibny?” tshirts and that I should buy one – seriously, DC, it’s one thing to insist the reader cares so much about this unknown couple, but to have literally every superhero in the DCU breaking down over her death? It’s so ridiculous. This leads to the hunt for her killer who is judged to be an unknown villain called Dr Light - with no evidence! 

To recap so far: the wife of a superhero, neither of whom anyone has heard of before, is killed by an equally unknown “supervillain” whose power is being able to light up like a lightbulb. Oh dear...

The Dr. Light connection leads to some baffling revelations and the explanation for the title. Dr Light, a seemingly harmless loony, manages to break into the JLA’s moon headquarters (somehow because it’s never explained) while they’re all away. Wandering about – for no reason! You’re never told why he’s even there in the first place! – he meets Sue Dibny. And then rapes her! Here the laughter is replaced by an uneasy feeling that DC are now actively channelling Alan Moore. After half a minute or so, most of the JLA appear and stop him, beat him up, etc. Then, out of the blue, they decide to wipe his memory using Zatanna and then go further, changing his brain so his personality is altered! It should be said that Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman – the Big 3 – are absent but it’s implied that this has happened many times before and, as they were involved, they must have had a part in this. But for the purposes of this book, the ringleader is winner of the curviest goatee ever seen in comics, Green Arrow, who, in this book at least, manages to win over Barry Allen/Flash, Hal Jordan/Green Lantern, and Carter Hall/Hawkman and together, they watch as Zatanna does the deed. 

In a book of really strange goings on, this is perhaps one of the strangest reasonings I’ve ever read in a DC comic. Going waaaaaay back to 1960s Silver Age comics, they single out an issue where a magic box switches the identities of superheroes and villains momentarily. While the villains are in the superheroes’ bodies, they unmask and find out the superheroes’ secret identities. Aghast, the superheroes, once returned to their bodies, fear for their loved ones as they will now become targets for the villains. So they decide to wipe the memories of the villains to ensure their secret identities remain secret.

This highlights one of the biggest problems DC, and Marvel for that matter, have – going back to the past and rewriting it so it’s “darker”. It’s like they’re embarrassed of their history. So those silly Silver Age stories that were aimed at and written for kids? DC have decided to go back and rewrite them to suit where they are – in the 21st century – as a company, creatively. They want things to be “real” and “dark” and “gritty”. First of all, if you’re reading superhero comics and want realism – STOP READING SUPERHERO COMICS. You’re reading about a guy who can move so fast his can vibrate his molecules and pass through solid objects and a billionaire who dresses as a bat, not to mention the alien who can fly – and you want them to seem more “real”? What a nonsensical complaint! The good news is that there are lots of “realistic” comics out there so you can fill your boots, but if you’re picking up a DC or Marvel book then you’re choosing to put aside realism and indulge in pure fantasy.

Second, why can’t DC leave well enough alone? Those Silver Age comics were written for a younger, less sophisticated readership compared to the comics audience of the 21st century which is predominantly adult. Those stories in the 60s were silly but that doesn’t mean you have to address the many bizarre stories that were printed and then find ways of explaining them so that there are “real” reasons behind their existence. They were just innocent stories for kids, designed to be silly – there is absolutely no reason to have to go back and pillage the past to suit the current Dark/Modern age of comics. I’m just getting so sick of this revisionist crap - writers who can’t come up with something original so they go back and “spin” something old. It’s so uncreative. How about a new take on Winnie the Pooh? Hey, you know why Eeyore is so down? He was molested as a young donkey. Yeah, he’s on a ton of antidepressants. And speaking of drugs, Tigger? He’s on crack. All the time, hence his energy. And Piglet, man s/he is such a whore, the things s/he does with Pooh in his trailer... 

So that’s the “identity crisis” of the book – superheroes performing immoral acts on immoral people. I don’t know why DC felt they had to come up with an answer to the question of “how do superheroes maintain their secret identities so long?” especially as if that’s a valid question, how about “how can Flash move so fast? Isn’t that kind of speed impossible for a human?” etc. Once again, if you’re picking up a superhero comic, questions of realism/logic – these shouldn’t be valid as they’re not applicable. 

And then we’re back to the murder mystery story of Sue Dibny, except now there’s another body and once again this victim is someone you don’t know nor care about: Tim Drake’s dad. I don’t even remember his name, that’s how unmemorable he was. He was Robin’s dad, that’s it.

To recap again: two unknown and inconsequential characters have died, and superheroes have been revealed as morally bankrupt. Why is this considered to be a “great” book again?

So finally we get to the end as Dr Mid-Nite figures out, just as Bruce Wayne does, who the killer is. And on the subject of Dr Mid-Nite, he’s been performing the autopsy on Sue Dibny since her death, basically the entire book. The events in this book take place between one and two weeks. Which means Dr Mid-Nite’s been performing an autopsy for over a week! Don’t these things take a day or two? He’s got to be the worst “doctor” of all time to spend this long autopsying a corpse.

And who is the killer of two unknown, inconsequential characters? Only another unknown, inconsequential character! The Atom!....’s wife. Who? Yes, the superhero you kind of know about, or might not at all, the Atom is a guy who can shrink himself down to the size of an atom. In this book, he’s been going through a divorce with his wife – who left him – and, despite the fact that she could get back together with him at the drop of a hat – he repeatedly reminds the reader how much he’s still in love with her – she concocts the most convoluted plan to get him running back to her. Which he already was.

So how does Atom’s wife do it? Well, I have no idea. I’ve read and re-read the sequence and am no clearer. She finds one of his tiny costumes in a box one day and then in the next panel she has acquired his powers and is able to shrink to the size of atoms. Um... Then for some reason she decides to try out her new power by going into Sue Dibny’s brain and playing around in there...Er...Brad Meltzer, I’m not following. Then she loses control, Sue Dibny dies, Atom’s wife tries to hide it by torching Elongated Man’s house, fake a murder attempt, and then kill Tim Drake’s dad. That’s right, this is the most nonsensical resolution to a non-story I’ve ever read. 

Before I finish (and congratulations if you’ve made it through this elongated rant - eh?) I will say that the book contains one of the best fight sequences I’ve read all year. Normally I’m against superhero violence as it’s so inane, two roided-out dudes in tights punching one another – it’s dull, right? But the sequence when Deathstroke takes out the group of Justice Leaguers (minus the Big 3) was genius. It wasn’t plain fighting, it was tactical, it was clever, it was well choreographed, it was a perfect example of how superhero fights should be and so frequently aren’t. That and I just like Deathstroke, this is the one part of the book that is faultless. Rags Morales is the other reason this book gets 2 stars instead of 1. His art is, as always, fantastic and, despite the far-too many scenes of costumes crying, his work only elevated the book.

So that’s “identity Crisis”. A story featuring nobodies important in the DCU killing one another while the superheroes hover around the edges, awkwardly trying their damnedest to pretend it matters. Brad Meltzer manages to craft one of the most poorly constructed “mysteries” I’ve ever read while also smearing crap over DC’s superheroes for no reason whatsoever. This entire book is pointless, partly because the characters who died didn’t matter in the first place. It is a disasterpiece of modern comics, a cautionary tale for future writers to avoid making superheroes “real”. “Identity Crisis” doesn’t make you think differently about superheroes, it just makes you wish for the kind of stories that are reviled in this book. The ones that don’t try so hard to be “dark” and “gritty” and focus instead on creating original stories that have a balance between drama and levity - the kind of comics a kid would want to pick up. 

“Identity Crisis”... it just sucks.

Identity Crisis

1 comment:

  1. The Deathstroke fight was one of the worst moments of Identity Crisis, I mean, seriously? Deathstroke disables the freaking Green Lantern Power Ring with his own will power? Why the hell would the Guardians design their weapons in such a way that an enemy can just shut it down with his own will power? And the way he takes out the Flash is just WTF, the Flash not only has super speed, he also has super reflexes, and somehow, he still gets stabbed in the chest by a guy who's standing still?!