Identity Crisis, Brad Meltzer

DC Comics, 2005, 256 pages, C$19.99 tpb, ISBN 1-4012-0458-9

I’m both the best and the worst kind of reader for this particular super-hero comic book.

Worst because frankly, I’m not much of a superhero comic book fan. I know the archetypes, but I never had a steady weekly habit at the comic book store, never followed the history of the characters and don’t care much about them either. Identity Crisis is many things, but it’s partly a homage to an entire era of comic books, the Sixties’ “Silver Age” in which many of the conventions of the genre were refined in time to reach the baby-boomer generation. So when the story starts messing around with the lives of particular C-list characters, I’m left on the sidelines going “Oookay, whatever.”

But this same detachment also makes me a member of another audience for the book. Identity Crisis, I’m told through its Wikipedia entry, was a major event in DC comics continuity. It upset a number of conventions, changed the lives of several characters and -best of all- messed with the heads of comics fanboys. It made the DC universe a slightly uglier place and brought some consequences and realism to a stunted sub-genre that was doing very well without them.

Written by thriller author Brad Meltzer (whose Zero Game wasn’t bad at all), Identity Crisis is set in motion by the violent murder of a superhero’s wife. In a terrific first chapter, Meltzer establishes the characters right before the crisis and sketches the first few consequences to the crime by hopping back and forth in time around the “now” of the corpse’s discovery: it’s some of the finest comic-book writing I’ve read so far in my admittedly meagre experience.

The victim was carefully chosen (I’m told) among the most innocuous characters in the DC repertory. But the death sets in motion a number of even more shocking developments, including a revision of classic superhero history that will make most readers squirm in their seat. During Identity Crisis, the DC universe’s carefully limited spectrum of good versus evil was nudged toward the “evil” side: murder and rape became possibilities against which the superheroes themselves weren’t immune, and even the least-dark characters became complicit in shared shames. (Ironically, it’s Batman, dark anti-hero par excellence, who becomes a victim of the least-heroic moment of the series.)

And that, frankly, is the reason why I’m so satisfied by Identity Crisis despite its loaded baggage in the field. I don’t need to be told how this miniseries was carefully engineered for monetary purposes. I have read the infamous “the rape pages are in” essay, and I don’t disagree with its conclusions. But the darker turn marked by Identity Crisis represents an identity crisis of sorts for the entire superhero industry, and it’s about time that it starts to confront its own schizoid nature.

Summarily put: Superhero comics are made for retarded teenagers and their commercial viability has meant that for decades, the surest way to keep printing the dollar bills was to make sure that nothing changed. The essence of melodrama is that despite the tears and the screams and the flying plates, nothing ever chances. Think about it: Superman is an archetype. For all of the various plot developments, he hasn’t changed much in decades, so that the commercial potential of the character remains intact across all potential profit-making ventures (in comic books, yes, but also in movies, books, posters and lunch-boxes). Superman is doomed, by marketing fiat, to remain static. This means that he can never be too affected by any story. This means that the stories themselves have to be superficial. The very kernel of story-telling (“characters undergo events that change them forever”) is absent from superhero comic-books.

Now repeat the same reasoning for all characters in the superhero stable. They are archetypes, not evolving creations. Even if marketers agree to mess around with the characters, fans start frothing at the mouth, unable to cope with the end of their comfort reading.

Dramatically satisfying stories are almost impossible in that locked format; all that remains is a stunted type of sideshow where city blocks get destroyed but nobody gets killed, because true consequences are feared by both the marketing geniuses who advertise the product and the fanboys who keep buying them. Perfect deadlock, leading straight down a spiral of ever-loonier denial. If that’s the way the superhero comics industry has to be, I’d rather see it crash and burn. Perhaps, after, things wouldn’t be so bad.

But there’s an alternative, and Identity Crisis is part of it. Raise the stakes. Face the consequences. Get rid of the fans who can’t take it. It doesn’t mean rape and murder on every page: it means a comic book field that grows up and starts responding to a wider segment of the population. Imagine if written novels had to be tailored toward the type of fan who buys comic books…

Timidly, I see that the post-Identity Crisis comic book industry has started to evolve. Not much, and it remains to be seen how much of it is driven by marketing decision … but it’s a step in the right direction. (The recent Civil War story arc was interesting, but not quite handled elegantly enough: part of the problem was that the story arc couldn’t be confined to a tight story and had to sprawl in all nooks of the DC universe. Once again, marketing screws up storytelling.)

These considerations aside (to go back to the subject after the longest tangent on record), Identity Crisis is worth a look because it’s a well-written, well-drawn miniseries. I’m disappointed about the identity of the killer, and it’s obvious that I’m not getting even a quarter of the references in the series, but those inconveniences are more than outweighed by what’s good and impressive about the story. The only superhero battle in the entire book is handled in a very unconventional fashion, the storytelling is fully exploiting the possibilities of the comic form, there are a few terrific moments and images (I’m very fond of the close-up on Batman’s faux-printed photo) and there’s almost a conceptual breakthrough in how Meltzer re-uses a hoary “body-switching” event as a hair-raising imperative for indefensible moral choices. He almost highlights the absurdity inherent to superhero comics, but then turns into something that leaves a bitter taste of reality.

And that, in the end, is why I can’t help but respect Identity Crisis. As stated in the book’s afterword, it’s a story that takes something silly (the whole concept of secret identities) and justifies them. It’s both an intricate homage and a step forward. Of course, it could end up meaning nothing. There’s nothing quite as meaningless as “a comic book death”, especially in a field where continuity is always adjusted retroactively. But for the span of 256 pages, it’s a mean new world for superhero comics, and I’m both the least and most appreciative of readers for that type of thing.

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