Identity Crisis

Where do I even begin with this comic? More importantly, is there even anything new I could say about it? Probably not.  Readers seem to be split into two factions: they either laud this story for its brilliance, or tear it apart.  I tend to fall somewhere in the middle.

You know you’re in for a story when your boyfriend gives you a disclaimer before you start reading. His exact words were, “Don’t read this on your lunch break. It’ll ruin your day.”

Never a good sign.

Identity Crisis is darker and more brutal than I ever thought a DC comic would be.  It makes no false claims as to what the comic will contain; within the first issue of the mini-series, we’re faced with a pretty brutal and unexpected death.

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Sue Dibny, wife of Ralph (the Elongated Man) is found murdered on the night she was planning on surprising her husband with news that she is pregnant.

Okay. Collateral damage in the life of a superhero. This has been dealt with before. It may be shocking, it may be sad, but it’s not new territory.  I was upset, but I kept reading. At least it happened early on. Surely the worst was over.

Oh ye of little faith. The bad parts had only just begun.

As numerous superheroes gather to mourn this loss, they all branch off to seek out whoever committed this heinous crime.  Most heroes are sent off on a wild goose chase, after various villains who could potentially be guilty.  A handful of heroes, however, secretly meet to seek out who they believe is really behind the murder: Dr. Light.

At this point the comic takes a surprisingly dark and twisted turn, as it’s revealed that this group, including Black Canary, Green Arrow, Zatanna, Elongated Man, and Flash (Barry Allen), took part in lobotomizing Dr. Light after he attacked Sue Dibny in the JLA headquarters.

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I hesitate to even include this image in this post, but like it or not it’s a pivotal moment of the story.

Enraged by the attack, the JLA members decide to use Zatanna’s powers to wipe Dr. Light’s mind, so that they may protect their identities and their loved ones.

As this news is revealed to a few of the newer members, namely Wally West and Kyle Rayner, these young heroes must try to wrap their minds around what they’re learning.  What’s more, they learn that Dr. Light was not the only person whose mind was wiped, as it’s revealed that even Batman’s memory was erased, when he accidentally walked in during Dr. Light’s mind wipe.

Unsurprising, Flash has difficulty accepting what he has learned, or believing that Batman wouldn’t have done the same.

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At this point the comic has turned the superhero world upside down.  Surely now the worst was over.  I had to force myself to keep reading, only to see how it all ended.  Sadly, there was more heartache to be felt.  This time,  poor Tim Drake was going to be feeling the brunt of that pain.

Tim is on the phone with his father as Captain Boomerang breaks in.  Batman and Robin are racing back to Jack Drake’s home to save him, but it’s clear they won’t make it in time.  Jack gives a moving speech in the final moments of his life, and Robin bursts in minutes later to find his father dead in their home.

Not okay.

Amidst all this pain, we eventually learn that the culprit behind these attacks was Jean Loring, ex-wife of The Atom.  She psychotically believed that hurting the loved one of another hero would cause her husband to come running back to her.  It worked, but when Atom learns what she did, he has her committed at Arkham and disappears off the map.  The remaining superheros must face the aftermath of these tragedies, with many feeling that the world they thought they knew is a lie.

Up until this point I’ve refrained from providing much commentary in this post.  It felt easier to summarize first, then explain after.  It’s a comic that needs to be digested long after it’s finished.

While I was reading I kept getting angrier and angrier.  Sue Dibny’s brutal murder was enough, but did it really need to be mentioned that she was pregnant at the time?  This detail has no significance on the overall plot of the story.  It’s included merely for shock value, and it angered me more than I can say.

Then there’s the entire flashback rape scene.  I thought I was angry before.  This scene was gruesome, and while nothing explicit is shown in the comic, the implications are heavy enough to be more than clear.  What’s more, seeing the closeups on Sue’s hands being held down while she begs Dr. Light to stop felt gratuitous.  I never would have guessed that such a scene would find its way into the pages of a superhero comic, and I felt incredibly uncomfortable at seeing such beloved characters included in this type of story.

This big reveal of what the JLA did to Sue’s attacker was surprising, but also felt a little too realistic.  We all want to believe superheros are infallible, but the truth of the matter is that most of them are merely human, capable of making mistakes.  The JLA felt backed into a corner, and it took such a brutal, shocking act against one of their own to cause them to take action.  Was it extreme? Absolutely, but then, so was the attack on Sue.  The JLA felt they had no other recourse in order to protect the ones they love, and while it’s not a concept often addressed in comics, it’s an all too likely reality, when one stops to consider it.

I could be angry about the multiple deaths in this trade, especially Jack Drake’s.  Unlike Sue’s, his death didn’t propel the plot of the comic much, other than to increase the body count.  That being said, I actually believe that, if it had to happen, Jack’s death was the best case scenario.  The above conversation between Robin and his father was one of the most moving and emotional scenes I’ve ever read in a comic, and its poignancy is undeniable.  Robin has already faced numerous deaths (his mother, his friend Darla, Stephanie Brown), but this was no doubt one of the hardest Robin would ever have to deal with.  The fact that not only did he get to speak to his father right before he died, but that Jack took the time to assure Tim that his death wasn’t his fault, and that his role as Robin was extremely important, was incredibly touching.  Tim would undoubtedly blame himself for his father’s death, and while he still may, at least he can take small comfort in knowing that his father believed in him.  These words can have a major impact on how Tim deals with his father’s death.  This was the best case scenario, if Jack really had to die.  One can only imagine what Bruce’s life would have become if he had had such a conversation with his parents before they died.

I struggled with my feelings for this comic.  While reading, I kept getting upset at the turn of events, not wanting to continue for fear of what would happen next, yet I was also compelled to continue just to see how it was all resolved.  Truth be told, I sort of hated the final reveal of Jean Loring being responsible for everything; I guess I just didn’t expect such heinous crimes to boil down to a woman wanting to win back her husband’s affection.  The severity of the crimes didn’t really fit the motive, but then perhaps that’s the point.  It certainly paints Jean as completely unstable, showing that she’s far from sane.

Sue Dibny’s death, though brutal and heartbreaking, felt like another death in the long line of superhero family casualties.  I never enjoy reading them, but it’s an inevitability, especially when a superhero’s identity is made public. The simple truth is, I wanted to hate this comic.  I wanted to throw up my arms in dismay and disgust, overwhelmed by the sheer brutality of it all.  There are certainly moments in this trade that felt completely gratuitous, and that I could have done without ever reading.  That being said, I still believe this comic serves an important purpose.  We’re reminded within the story that superheros are not perfect, and that there is a darker side to their lives.  Just because we choose to overlook it doesn’t mean it’s not very real.  Do such dark events have a place in superhero comics? It’s really a matter of opinion, I suppose.

I’m reminded of the scene in The Dark Knight, in which Joker points out that people are only upset when the status quo is interrupted.  Killing a superhero every once in a while is expected, as is the occasional death of a family member.  We still live in a comics world where we believe the superheroes will win out in the end, rising above the pain and doing what’s right.  To learn that a group of our beloved heroes took justice into their own hands, even if they felt they had no other choice, makes these stories all too real.  That, coupled with the brutal events of the story, hits just a little too close to home. The comics begin to feel like a news reel, rather than the escapist art form they had been for so long.

Mistah J assures me this is a turning point for DC continuity.  Prior to reading this comic, I wasn’t really sure what that meant.  Now, it’s pretty clear that this story could have a significant impact on how comics are written.  From this point forward I would guess that all bets are off. We can no longer assume that the hero will win out, or that our heroes are above making big mistakes.  The entire concept of whether superheroes need to be policed for their actions (specifically taking the law into their own hands) is surely a topic of discussion in future comics.

There were certainly parts of this comic I actively disliked, but I can see its significance.  For better or worse, DC comics will surely become grittier and darker moving forward.  These stories will likely start to reflect the real world more and more, evolving from the escapist entertainment of past decades into an in-depth commentary on our own lives.

-Jess

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5 thoughts on “Identity Crisis

  1. This seems a bit more depressing in retrospect, and like the sort of thing that’d be right up the alley for the Batman v Superman movie-verse as it looked to be heading.

    I read this as it came out–and even wound up with a friend reading it, too, though she’s not a comics person…she knew it was important to me, so she was curious to read it herself (and when I left for grad school, I think I bought and mailed or just ordered online an extra copy of the remaining couple issues for her to finish the story).

    Definitely a turning point, both thematically as well as from the angle of a definite “push” on the DC Universe. I look at it as part of the cinching back together of the DC Universe continuity, after the general feeling of everything separating out from each other for several years.

    That cover image–of the shattered glass in the photo–has long been a great piece to me, however cliche it might seen. That notion of here’s a photo, here’s everyone in it, right in that particular moment–before whatever comes later. It’s–particularly since this story–been the “type” of image I’ve noticed and used a bit myself.

    Like

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