Graphic Novel/Comics Review


Identity Crisis

(2005) Brad Meltzer, Rags Morales and Michael Bair, Titan Books, 19.99, hrdbk, 256pp, ISBN 1-845-76126-X

 

This is both an easy and a hard book to review. It is an excellent superhero comic book. The writing is almost unnoticeably brilliant. The art is superb. The book as a book is lovely: it collects Identity Crisis 1-7, has an intro by Joss (Buffy, Firefly) Whedon, a sixteen page text dissection with the creators, variant covers, all on nice paper in a hardback for 20.00, that's a bargain! And, in a sense, I hardly need to review this. Everyone from The Washington Post to Amazing Stories have been singing the praises of this series. In the world of people who buy individual comics on a monthly basis, this DC Crisis is months in the past and they're already in the middle of the (as I write) forthcoming DC Crisis, Infinite Crisis (which, when it is collected will be around June 2006 in the UK). And, of course, it is a DC Crisis, so it will 'shake up the universe' and characters will die. What you feel about the choices will depend on your own prejudices. And, to make things harder still, Identity Crisis can be seen as the kick off point for Infinite Crisis, though it, in turn, is billed as a 'direct sequel' to Crisis on Infinite Earths from 1985! And that's no wonder as the likes of Meltzer and Loeb and Johns and Brubaker and Rucka and Waid have been quietly doing their best to restore the DC universe to the way it used to be. Crises bring resurrections as well as deaths: Supergirl's back, Hal Jordan (the real Green Lantern) is back, Donna Troy (Wonder Girl) is coming back (in Death and Return of Donna Troy collected May next year), multiple realities are de facto back... I don't think they'll resurrect Barry Allan (the real Flash), but if anyone could engineer it, it'd be writers like the bunch above. And, to really get things messy, let's not forget that this, seemingly ongoing, Crisis is, in fact, the longest (in terms of time to bring all volumes out) and largest (in terms of amount of copy generated) that DC have yet had. Even if you ignore background, and so discount the necessity for Crisis on Infinite Earths, Identity Crisis and the awful rip-off Prelude to Infinite Crisis (4.99, ISBN 1-84576-209-6 - basically a reprint of Superman Secret Files 2004, Flash 219 and Wonder Woman 214, with a few odd panels from other comics thrown in to provide background for beginners), not to mention, I would say, relevant books like Green Lantern: Rebirth... even if you ignored all these there's still another 7 mini-series to be collected and released from Jan-May 2006 before you even get to the bloody Infinite Crisis! ((As an aside, if readers want to follow a trail of breadcrumbs set of reviews, or just to get the forthcoming volumes in order, it goes The Omac Project, Day of Vengeance, Rann-Thanagar War, Villains United, Death and Return of Donna Troy, Superman: Sacrifice, JLA: Crisis of Conscience then, finally Infinite Crisis))

This is the real problem, see? Why this is a hard review to write. Let me spell it out.

1985 was half a lifetime ago for people my age (and the age of the writers above). We'd grown up with the Silver Age heroes, and we visited with the Golden Age heroes in the annual JLA/JSA "crisis"; we had Earth-1 and Earth-2 (and 3 and X and S and Prime and...), and we had 'imaginary tales', and we even had tales that existed in their own continuum and nowhere else. All of which made perfect sense to the comics fan: multiple realities, parallel realities, parallel dimensions, alternate histories, alternate futures, time travel... your comics (and hopefully SF) fan could juggle all these before breakfast. No problemo, as they say. 'Til some stupid bugger decided it was all a bit messy, hard to keep the continuity straight and, besides, the business needs streamlining, doncha know, and so we had the Crisis on Infinite Earths maxi-series event (with its own spin-offs and lead-ins), coupled with the revolution that was taking place in comics in the mid-eighties. People like me who had, until that point, largely read superhero comics, suddenly found our lovely universe(s) completely mucked up. What you felt about who got killed was almost beside the point. Earth-2's Wonder Woman dies (with her eagle crest), but Earth-1's survived (with her horrible WW crest). Barry Allan, Earth-1 Flash, dies, but most were generally sympathetic to Wally West (current-supposedly-only Earth's Flash, Kid Flash as was) taking over (which is why I'm sceptical they'll bring Barry back). Supergirl dies, outrage. They invent Power Girl; they get a polymorphic alien to imitate her; but it's all just crap. Thankfully, finally, Loeb brings her back in Superman/Batman last year. But it wasn't that; it was the way that everything superheroic, post-Crisis, went crap. For instance, the JLA, formerly the greatest group of superheroes on the planet, turn completely crap, lose all the founding members, become a joke (finally explained away in The Omac Project this year). Later on founder members replaced, half way decent writers, they're back. They kill Hal Jordan, the greatest Green Lantern of them all, by having him act atypically (even if he got a slightly heroic end); subsequent Green Lanterns all turn out to be crap. Finally explained and set right in Green Lantern: Rebirth, this year. And, of course, us comics' readers had loads of places to go from the mid-eighties onwards: Pacific, First, Eclipse, Paradox, Dark Horse, Calibre, Pirhana Press, Vertigo. Or some new superheroes from Image and what have you, with no past to betray, and artists who drew women with bigger tits. The Brit invasion was just pointing up how crap the Yanks were at writing in their own medium, and the likes of Alan Moore and Grant Morrison and Garth Ennis and Warren Ellis and Neil Gaiman and, and, and... aside from writing brilliant non-superhero comics, also managed to produce the best superhero comics of the last twenty years, classics like The Killing Joke and Arkham Asylum. So the upshot was that people like me largely stopped reading superhero comics, unless there was something special about them, say, it's Superman but written by Moore - obviously there were other exceptions, John Ostrander's Spectre for instance (this problem did not just apply to DC; we were also pissed at Marvel trying to turn everyone in their universe into a mutant to fuel their endless bloody mutant-title cross-overs and spin-offs; as with DC, there were exceptions, Frank Miller's Daredevil would be an obvious one). It seemed like the days where us older readers could still enjoy superhero comics were over; we still read comics, just not about blokes in tights. Then as we got older still, watching crap events like The Death of Superman and Knightfall from the sidelines, and every Crisis messing with the whole universe and killing characters, seemingly just for the sake of it... then we despaired.

Finally there was a glimmer of hope on the horizon. No one was really sure where it began. Maybe it was Kingdom Come. I know that's the first time I ever felt that 'things could be put right'. Whatever, the wheel was turning. The latest 'new' batch of writers, Loeb, Johns, Meltzer, etc. seemed to be people like us/me. They knew it had all gone wrong, and the hints were there in every title they wrote: things were gonna change again. Things were coming back. Which kind of brings us neatly back to the book this review is supposed to be about, Identity Crisis.

Just in case there's a reader out there who doesn't know who the 'villain' of Identity Crisis is, I promise I won't mention it here (no such promises for reviews of subsequent or 'tied-in' volumes, so be careful what you read if you don't like spoilers...). The initial victim of the book is the Elongated Man's, Ralph Dibny's, wife, Sue. Now, one of the minor things that 'went crap' in the DC Universe after Crisis on Infinite Earths was that JLA villain Dr. Light turned into a complete moron. With no explanation. There were other Dr.Lights, some villainous, some heroic, some villain-turned-heroic, but no good ones. When the original was brought back, he was still a moron. Que pasa? Now we know. Dr.Light had, pre-moron, raped Sue Dibny on the JLA's satellite and vowed to do it again. The heroes who caught him tried to wipe his memory and change his nature, and so accidentally lobotomised him! (more or less). This action was witnessed by Batman, who strenuously objected, so strenuously in fact that the heroes wiped ten minutes of his memory too (but without lobotomising him). During the course of the book, Dr. Light gets his memory back, and he's not a happy chappy. Hooray! So Identity Crisis is a book about, and revolves around, the humanity and vulnerability of the heroes due to their 'secret identities' and associated loved ones, and also tries to address how it is that, what with various heroes' secret identities having been found out over the years, that some of these vulnerabilities are not common knowledge. So the real big idea for the title is that superheroes have been memory-wiping villains for years! Needless to say, Dr. Light isn't the only unhappy chappy out there. The relationships of the heroes, both with each other and their loved ones in the light and wake of this revelation, is at the core of this book. Cue all previous reviews that have found the book praiseworthy and ditto here - Meltzer, Morales and Bair have produced one damn fine comic book. By the end of the book Tim Drake's (current Robin's) dad is dead (good riddence), as is the old Captain Boomerang, making way for a convenient long-lost-son to become the new Captain Boomerang. And so the way is paved for the deaths and resurrections to follow. Jason Todd (old dead robin killed by the Joker in phone-poll fiasco, if you recall) is resurrected as the Red Hood in Batman: Under the Hood (collection of Batman 635-641, 7.99, ISBN 1-84576-199-5), after a false alarm in Hush, following the death of the girl Robin, the Spoiler, earlier in that run. Loads more dead to come in The Omac Project...

So, to sum up a bit: this book, dead good, buy it, read it. Upcoming Infinite Crisis, we'll have to wait and see. Books in between, don't know how many will really be relevant to the Crisis - you wouldn't have needed every DC title with a guest appearance by The Monitor in it to understand Crisis on Infinite Earths, but this looks like a much better thought out 'event', by writers who seem to really give a damn about superhero comics, so who knows. All I really hope is that they don't mess it up. There's an opportunity here to restore superhero comics to a state where old buggers like me can be bothered to read 'em. There's gotta be bucks in that (if you'll pardon my scepticism regarding non-creative motivations). Of course, anyone under 25 may well just not know what I'm going on about, in which case apologies, but the fact is that the superhero comics you've been reading are shit, and us old fogey's comics were much better, so there, get over it. Big up the over-40 massive, or whatever youngsters babble these days...

Tony Chester


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