Tuesday, May 12, 2009

It's A Wrong Idea: Identity Crisis

Deep breath, Matt. Take a deep breath.

The problem I had with Brad Meltzer's Identity Crisis when it first came out was the same problem I'd have later with Marvel's Civil War storyline. Well, one problem I had with both of them, anyway. Each has so many problems, really. It's somewhat like running to the bridge of a listing ship and finding out that not only has it hit an iceberg, but that command of the vessel has been assumed by the world's foremost naval disaster fetishist. He's masturbating furiously at the wheel while the boat sinks into the icy waters of the Atlantic.

In short, the thing's a disaster and instead of knowing that, the person in charge is thrilled with each and every second of it.

The basic plot structure of IC is a murder mystery, which is probably why Meltzer was hired to write it in the first place. Sue Dibny, wife of the Elongated Man (Ralph Dibny, a loveable Plastic Man derivative with an interest in detective work) is murdered and her corpse incinerated. Then suspicion falls on Doctor Light, a 70's era villain who modern audiences know less from his appearances in Justice League and more for getting whupped by the Teen Titans a lot in the company of guys named Psimon and Mammoth.

We soon discover that Sue was in fact assaulted and raped one day while alone on the Justice League satellite by Doctor Light, who was then discovered by about half of the JLA. They then decide to allow Zatanna, the magician member of the team (You know, the one who wears fishnets all the time) to use magic to wipe Dr. Light's knowledge of the rape he's committed from his mind, and also to tinker with his personality to make him less effective at evil.

Batman finds out and so they also wipe his memory of their wiping Dr. Light's memory.

There's more awful to this story, and it's been five years since it came out so I probably don't need to worry about spoilers even if I thought it could be spoiled, but I'm going to take some time to go over why the central conceit of the story strikes me as somewhat ridiculous.

It's clear that Meltzer loves the Satellite Era of the JLA. It came clearly through in his later run on Justice League itself. with the Red Tornado storyline, and it comes through here as well. Meltzer's JLA is the one that forgave Snapper Carr for trying to kill them as the Star Tsar, the one that fought Dr. Light in the first place. I don't doubt that Mr. Meltzer knows that the satellite computer contained an alien being or that the satellite was constructed using Thanagarian, Kryptonian and even Oan technology. As someone who read a lot of those same JLA comics, the idea that the writer of a major event comic was also steeped in them didn't exactly bother me, until I read IC.

I'm sorry, but having Sue Dibny murdered and then having her rape years before be the suspected catalyst for the murder (and worse, having it turn out that the aforementioned rape didn't really have anything to do with her death, so it's pointless and horrifying, albeit a classic red herring) manages to take those late silver/early bronze age JLA comics and spits on their corpse. Not only does it reduce Sue to an object, her only purpose in the story to be raped and murdered so that we get dramatic tension between superheroes and get to see the formerly fun loving Elongated Man reduced to emotional ruins, but it also flies in the face of the same JLA that once forgave a man for trying to kill them.

The satellite era JLA as they appeared in the comics of the 70's and 80's would not tamper with criminal's brains. They weren't Doc Savage and his men in a pulp era story, they were costumed super heroes at the tail end of the period where, at most, they might have their relevance questioned in a story. Furthermore, while Dr. Light was always portrayed as a villain who would attempt to kill the JLA in various light-based deathtraps, it's a pretty far jump from that to cackling, sadistic rapist. The whole thing plays out like a fumbling attempt to inject 'relevance' into comic books that are nearly twenty years old. I have no doubt in my mind that Brad Meltzer knows and loves the JLA, and yet, his first choice when writing the very characters he loved was to make them morally complicit in covering up a rape, to the point where they even violate Batman's mind to do it.

This conceit aside (and it's a bad one to start with - I mean, the story goes so far as to make Sue Dibny be pregnant when she's killed to amp up the pathos) the story that unfolds from it doesn't really do it any favors. We have Deathstroke the Terminator defending Dr. Light (who, as we just pointed out, often held off the whole JLA, including Superman and Green Lantern) from a group of super heroes in ridiculous badass style, we have the current Robin's father getting killed by Captain Boomerang for no real reason that I can determine aside from keeping alive the somewhat ludicrous 'The families of super heroes are in danger from an unknown killer' subplot, and both Captain Boomerang and his target die for it. At least we get a male supporting character's pointless death to serve the purpose of affecting the superheroes in addition to a female supporting character. Since we can't change the superhero, we'll just kill everyone he knows for drama.

And in the end, as I mentioned before, Sue Dibny's death had nothing at all to do with her rape at the hands of Dr. Light. No, like every new episode of Law and Order you've ever seen late at night on A&E while waiting for something else because you didn't think you'd need a Tivo (don't even try and figure out who all those people are, everyone you remember from the show is dead or quit years ago) the ultimate secret is that Jean Loring, one of Sue's friends and a former superhero wife herself, is in fact behind everything. The reason? She decided she wanted her ex-husband Ray "The Atom" Palmer back, and so instead of going to him and saying "Hey, Ray, I'm still in love with you" she thought it would be better if she stole his size-changing belt and went on a walkabout inside her best friend's brain to scare all the superheroes so that her ex would come see if she was in danger.

The worst part about this plan? It actually works. Ray comes back to save Jean from a staged hanging and ends up in bed with her, which just makes the eventual denoument of this whole sordid mess (locks her up in Arkham and vanishes) even more painful. I mean, Jean was a lawyer. A successful one, too. Also, while Ray was struggling with a teaching position at a minor league college and playing superhero on the side, Jean was off having extramarital affairs (and even eventually leaving Ray for the guy she'd been sleeping with) and was hardly pining for Ray. (To be fair, Ray ran off to South America and hooked up with a six inch tall alien princess, so... never mind.) So in the process, one female character manages to get raped, then murdered so that another female character can become a neurotic, obsessed murderer who kills people in order to get her ex back.

Did I mention that she didn't mean to kill Sue? That she accidentally murdered her friend by walking inside of her brain but luckily happened to have a flame thrower with her to incinerate the body? That's some good thinking there. Imagine if she forgot the flame thrower? Likewise, Jack Drake (Robin's father) died because Jean hired Captain Boomerang to kill him, but she sent Jack a gun and a note warning him because she didn't intend for him to die. That's right, she hired a dude who is so skilled with a boomerang that he can face off against a man who can run at the speed of light but she totally figured that gun she sent would even things up. The fact that Boomer managed to get shot at all is the rough equivalent of Bill Buckner's infamous slip up during the 86 World Series, it's a fluke that really shouldn't have happened.

So we have a formerly intelligent, successful woman reduced to deranged idiot who plots out crime sprees, another formerly intelligent, successful woman reduced to a charred husk (and oh no, she was pregnant! Because being burned to death isn't bad enough people) and a loving flashback to the satellite era JLA, with added rape and mindfuckery. This is not even mentioning that in a story with Superman, the Martian Manhunter, Green Lantern, the freaking Batman... nobody puts this thing together? The JLA stands around like idiots for seven issues.

I've barely even mentioned stuff like Deathstroke making chumps of six superheroes because, you know, whatever. The story's already so stupid I can't bring myself to care that it jobs the JLA to make a guy named Deathstroke the Terminator look good. Seriously, pare that name down. I also didn't really heap enough scorn at the idea that we needed a magical brain wipe to explain why Dr. Light was played more for laughs when Wolfman and Perez used him in The New Teen Titans. I mean, I was okay assuming Wolfman wrote him differently because he wanted to use him less as a dire threat and more as a foil, but then again that was because I didn't know about his being a rapist.

If Meltzer thought that making Dr. Light a rapist would in any way restore credibility to him as a villain, he was wrong. Instead, we get a story some years later where Dr. Light is turned into a candle after kidnapping several women, dressing them up as the Teen Titans, and raping them. You know, I'm so glad we as a society have moved away from silly, fumbling Dr. Light and towards hardcore rapist Dr. Light.

In the end, Identity Crisis is a love letter to the satellite era JLA stories, but it's so misguided and deranged that it comes off less like a love letter and more like a smeared page of notebook paper covered in strange stains talking about how it will always, always, alwaus love you and if you leave it will have to kill you. Plus, it kicked off Infinite Crisis, or as I like to call it, Captain Superboy's Head Punching Extravaganza. I'm sure we'll rant more about that later.


  1. "No, like every new episode of Law and Order you've ever seen late at night on A&E while waiting for something else because you didn't think you'd need a Tivo (don't even try and figure out who all those people are, everyone you remember from the show is dead or quit years ago) the ultimate secret is that Jean Loring, one of Sue's friends and a former superhero wife herself, is in fact behind everything."

    Jean Loring is always behind it all on Law & Order? You'd think they'd just start going straight to her after a while.

  2. I only said it was LIKE Law and Order. Replace Jean with "that person you found oily but didn't have any reason to suspect up front" and you're golden. It's always that guy.

  3. Actually, now that I think about it, I would love "Law and Order: DCU" with Jean Loring as a defense attorney in season 1 and then by season 10 she's Eclipso.