In 1994, writer Brad Meltzer attempted a story concept that DC Comics had not tried since Watchmen – the superhero murder mystery. It is true that characters are murdered in mysterious fashion in superhero books, but the books are still primarily about action and fighting. The hero does solve the mystery, but at the pace appropriate for a mystery story. Usually, the last ten minutes of that sort of storyline are relegated to the hero mentioning clues and a number of other items that were kept obfuscated from the reader due to either poor writing (no one can prematurely solve the crime if the clues are kept out of sight) or poorer writing (no one can prematurely solve the crime if the solution was not decided until the last ten pages were written). Fortunately Meltzer avoided that in writing DC’s Identity Crisis, but the reader would need to both completely ignore the well written red herrings presented as well as have a strong familiarity with all of the characters involved in order to jump to the appropriate conclusion.
A Crisis of Identity
The story begins with Sue Dibny’s plan to throw a surprise birthday party, in the form of a mystery, for her husband Ralph, the Elongated Man. The plan fails to go into motion because she is murdered in her home. The Elongated Man is a superhero with a public identity, meaning that everyone knows who he is and who his wife is. How she was murdered becomes a question because the Justice League rigs the houses of family members with a series of protective measures and safeguards against break-in, tampering, and even teleportation. How could anyone get in, let alone so swiftly kill her while on the phone with her husband?
Later, Jean Loring, the ex-wife of Ray Palmer, the incredible shrinking Atom, is attacked in her own home. She is found hanging from a noose in her doorway, but the Atom arrives just in time to save her. At this point it is realized that the families of heroes are being threatened. Worse yet, even those whose identities are not public knowledge.
Lois Lane, wife of Superman, then receives a letter saying that someone knows her husband’s secret. The S in husband is stylized in the manner of the Superman symbol just to hammer in the point. Then Jack Drake – father of the third Robin, Tim Drake – receives a box with a letter attached that simply states his name and says to protect himself. The R in Drake is styled after the R in Robin. The box contains a gun. A hitman, Captain Boomerang, was hired to kill Jack. This results in both men dying and Robin identifying with his mentor a little bit better.
A Crisis of Identity
The first murder setup a potential villain for the series, if the series so happened to have a villain that needed to be defeated. After Sue’s death, it was revealed that she had previously been attacked by a teleporter with light projection abilities known as Doctor Light. Long ago he teleported onto the Justice League’s satellite and discovered Sue by herself. He proceeded to sexually assault her. When caught by members of the Justice League, he exclaimed that he knew their true weakness. Their families were where they were all most vulnerable.
It was decided that Zatanna, a magic user, would basically lobotomize Doctor Light so that he would not remember the experience or his plan. (And turning him into a bumbling villain easily defeated by the Teen Titans for a number of years.) Batman arrived late to this gathering and violently opposed the practice, resulting in his own memory being altered.
Newer members of the Justice League, Wally West (The Flash) and Kyle Rayner (The Green Lantern), were told this story and found it appalling. They were then told it was not the first time. Stories from the Golden Age of comics were shared, such as those when villains and heroes would magically find their minds and bodies switched. Modern readers always asked why the villains never looked under their masks, and it was revealed that the villains did. Certain members of the League were always left for clean-up during these events while other more prominent members – Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman – would go on their merry way. The clean-up crew had to make the hard decisions, and it is strongly implied that their decisions were known by the others. This is said while within earshot of Superman. (To be fair, unless you are whispering in a lead vault, Superman can always hear you. Like they said, Superman hears what he wants to hear.)
The title, Identity Crisis, works marvelously in two ways: it is a crisis that can only be caused by someone who knows the secret identities, and it prompts a question of identity for the Justice League – just what kind of heroes are they?
I purposely avoided the joke about Frank Miller’s work on All-Star Batman and Robin, so let’s move-
Batman is extremely well-written in this story, mainly because he does not even appear until 180 pages into the series. His presence is always felt, though, and that presence is a large part of his character. In the first issue it is revealed that he is among the first to investigate the scene of Sue Dibny’s murder. Green Arrow arrives and finds a note taped to the door saying not to touch anything, followed by the bat symbol. At Sue’s funeral, Batman is not at all present and people comment on it. Why? Because Batman doesn’t break for such things – he’s in the Batcave trying to solve the crime.
Toward the end of the book, someone suggests that Batman knows what he wants to know regarding his mind wipe. This becomes a problem in later Justice League comics because Batman does figure out that he’s been barred from remembering something, and that makes him realize once more that power can corrupt. He creates a series of measures to use in case anyone on the team goes rogue. Unfortunately, he is not the one to implement them.
However, Batman presents the most reasonable question regarding the crime. Who benefits? This is a question to ask of anyone who commits a crime who is not the Joker. Even then, that could be a mostly reasonable question.
When the family of a superhero is threatened, who benefits?
When Sue Dibny was murdered, every hero with a family went home and lingered just a little bit longer. Clark Kent has trouble leaving the farm in Smallville. Tim Drake spent a little bit more time with his father, despite Batman’s imploring him to get out on the streets and find the killer. Ray Palmer even rushed him through the telephone wire (because he can shrink down so small he can ride the electrons) to check on his ex-wife, whom he noted he had trouble leaving – and even noted that he kept some of his superhero stuff/scientific equipment in her basement. When her life was threatened, their romance was rekindled. When Lois received a letter, Clark did not go out.
When the family of a superhero is threatened, the people who benefit are the families of superheroes.
Mind boggling conclusion
An important theme in the book was mind alteration, for villains and for Batman. When people go this far to get into people’s brains, one has to be careful. Batman definitely cried foul of this. And this thread of thought led me to believe that there was no direct culprit. I thought Sue’s death was due to a brain hemorrhage from having the memory of her rape being removed. I could not be farther from the truth.
Jean Loring wanted her ex-husband back. The best way to scare the superhero community into noticing their own families was to threaten the families. She donned one of the Atom’s suits and traveled through telephone wire to see Sue Dibny, not realizing that she was on the phone. She landed on Sue’s brain and left imprints that caused blockage and death. She then proceeded to set the body on fire in hopes that no one would suspect brain trauma. At this point she basically snapped and believed that she could do more good by threatening others, bringing more families together.
The story ends with her being moved into Arkham Asylum and the superhero community’s new perspective on secret identities and each other. The Elongated Man has lost his wife, Robin has lost his father, and Doctor Light’s memory is accidentally restored. Identity Crisis leaves readers with questions about power and responsibility.
Even if you have the power, should it be used for personal gain? Whether it is used to protect or reunite, it is still an abuse.
Did I like it?: Yes. Everything up until the resolution was well done. Hell, the fact that I did not like the resolution probably means that it was well done.