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Identity Crisis: Where it went wrong for me

Reading Identity Crisis when it first came out (2004-5), I couldn’t quite pin down why I didn’t like it (other than Sue’s death, which left a very sour taste in my mouth). Rereading relatively quickly, I think I get it: the plot about rewiring Dr. Light’s mind doesn’t fit the story.

The opening frames the seven-issue arc as a straight murder mystery. Someone killed Sue Dibney; who was it and how will they catch them? A straight-up story of revenge and justice.

The mind-alteration plot isn’t really part of that. It doesn’t affect Light’s supposed motivations for killing Sue. It doesn’t affect Jean Loring’s motives for killing her. That wouldn’t be a deal-breaker — it’s not like a mystery can’t include other elements — but the idea doesn’t work for me at all.

When Meltzer took over the main JLA book a while later, he mentioned that he liked the idea of deconstructing Silver Age idealism and naiveté, raising ethical questions about what the heroes did. This is an approach that rarely works for me. Yes, the Silver Age was naive. Heroes were good. Villains were bad. You can trust the good guys. You can trust the system. Victories are clear and usually unambiguous triumphs for justice.

That ain’t real life. It’s often unattainable in the messy business of real life. But that’s the nature of ideals. Sure, in real life Superman might succumb to power corrupts, or be forced to kill someone at some point to save hundreds. I don’t think that invalidates the appeal or the worth of stories where that doesn’t happen, that hold up an ideal of might for right, justice for all. To paraphrase Terry Pratchett, if you believe in enough impossible things, sometimes you can make them true.

What comics offers as supposed gritty realism — to get the job done requires moral compromises, takes dirty deeds done dirt cheap — is often just as naive. It sounds very tough — we can’t play by the rules, it’s a dirty job but someone has to do it — but it usually hand-waves any serious discussion of whether the price is too high, or whether there’s another more ethical alternative. It never asks whether working in the shadows is really more effective; as the book Legacy of Ashes points out, the CIA did a lot of unethical, illegal stuff over the years without making the United States one bit more secure. Supposedly hard-edged characters often resemble Jack Nicholson’s Col. Jessep in A Few Good Men, screaming that “You need me on that wall!” Trouble is, Jessep’s a delusional thug, not a role model to emulate; the point of the story is that we didn’t need him on that wall.

(I wonder if this is one reason Slade Wilson gets to kick the JLA’s butt, as discussed in the previous post. Obviously a total badass who doesn’t play by anyone’s rules but his own can show up superheroes who fight fair and follow the Marquis of Queensbury rules. Don’t they know the world’s not fair?).

A look at the morality of all those memory erasures during the Silver Age? That could be interesting. Having the League brainwash Dr. Light and then erase Batman’s memory? That’s a bridge too far for me, and I don’t buy it. Meltzer also cops out a little by not tarring Superman and Batman with the same brush: they’ve figured it out but they refuse to admit what they know to themselves. That doesn’t seem at all like Batman (or Superman for that matter).

My reread revealed another problem that didn’t register when I read the series at a one-a-month pace. The mystery doesn’t work. Meltzer uses the classic approach where all the facts point in one direction but it’s completely wrong (e.g., “We thought it was one of the people Stevens sued—but the killer is the one person he didn’t sue!”). Instead of Dr. Light getting revenge it’s Jean getting her husband back. For this to work the first direction has to look logical and the revelation of the real killer has to make sense. Identity Crisis fails on both counts.

Meltzer emphasizes, repeatedly, how awesome Batman is. Yet somehow the world’s greatest detective misses that Sue hasn’t been flash-fried by a laser, she’s been burned by some sort of flame-thrower. No way do I believe the two effects are the same. No way do I believe Bats would miss that. That invalidates Dr. Light as the prime suspect.

The switch to Jean doesn’t work either. There’s absolutely nothing before the ending reveal to indicate that Jean is barking-dog insane. Sure, she’s had mental problems in the past, but they were cured long ago. Referring to them (“Given everything she went through before the wedding, are you sure she never had any lingering trauma?”) could have set up the finish but Meltzer doesn’t mention them. “The killer was just nuts!” almost never works for me (surprisingly, Only Murders in the Building pulled it off) and this is a good example of why.

The other big problem, Meltzer fridging Sue Dibney, will be the subject of tomorrow’s post.

#SFWApro. Cover by Rags Morales.

12 Comments

  1. Peter

    I will defend the set-up of this comic a little bit – I think the first two issues or so establish a pretty compelling mystery and get the voices of the characters mostly right, enough so that you want to read more. But I definitely agree that things went downhill pretty fast afterwards. The mystery ends up not being logical at all and the comic doesn’t seem to care (there are many good stories where the inciting mystery turns out not to be a fairplay affair, but the randomness of life somehow becomes a theme of the story or the mystery is ultimately a catalyst for change/growth in the peripheral characters – neither happens here). All the silver age revisionism also is a) not to my taste in general and b) just isn’t well-written. An unfortunate, unsatisfying “event” in the end.

  2. Edo Bosnar

    Hm. I’ve haven’t read Identity Crisis, and have little desire to do so. However, as with the preceding post, something you mention almost in passing sparked my attention. In this case, it’s “A Few Good Men.” You noted that “the point of the story is that we didn’t need him on that wall.” That’s certainly the message (or one of them, anyway) that I gleaned from that movie. However, when I re-watched it recentlyish (a few years ago), I remember wondering if that was actually the point that the movie’s creators wanted to convey. Mainly because of that little speech Demi Moore’s character makes about why she’s so vehement about defending the two poor slobs who actually carried out the Code Red order.

    1. Perhaps. It’s been a while since I read it.
      There’s also a line in one translation of Anouih’s “Antigone” where Creon declares “It was a dirty job but someone had to do it.” The Chorus just looks at him and asks “Did they?”

  3. Le Messor

    What comics offers as supposed gritty realism — to get the job done requires moral compromises, takes dirty deeds done dirt cheap — is often just as naive.

    To me, there’s a few things going on here.
    I think we once had aspirational heroes (or protagonists of any kind) to look up to and urge us to do better; these days, we’ve been dragging down our main characters to make us feel better about ourselves as we are. Which is how we get a slob like, say, Homer, as opposed to an idealised cool guy like, say, Gomez.

    It’s also had the effect of replacing one set of clichés and predictability with another: as I pointed out while watching Vox Machina: as soon as a child appeared on screen, my reaction was ‘that kid’s gonna be dead by the end of the episode’; when that kid died by episode’s end, I was all, like, ‘oh. wow. he died. who could’ve seen that coming.’ They think they’re being ‘different’ and ‘unpredictable’, but they aren’t, and they’re being less fun when they do it.
    (Not that I predicted the murderer in Identity Crisis or anything; but I didn’t even know who Jean Loring was when I read it.)

    They equate ‘realistic’ (and as you indicate, it’s not necessarily realistic) with ‘good’; when I’m not reading comics about superheroes because I’m in love with real life in the first place.

    1. Slobs like Homer go back to the 1950s (earlier if you count radio) and never really left, just as there have been sophisticated, cool types like Gomez Adams.
      Agreement about the swapping out of cliches though. One otherwise good book I read a while back includes one character making a passing reference to The Terrible Thing My Father Did. I correctly guessed he raped her.

  4. Jeff Nettleton

    It fell apart, for me, the moment I saw Sue as just a nuclear housewife, sitting around, waiting for Ralph to come home, like Laura Petrie. Sue was a pastiche of someone else: Nora Charles. She and Ralph were partners in adventures. She wouldn’t be sitting around, alone, to be raped and murdered.

    If that wasn’t bad enough, no ground is laid for Jean Loring that might tip you off, just a sudden revelation that is so far out of left field it is in the stands, buying a hot dog!

    The actions of the JLA don’t hold water, either. The mindwiping is pretty hard to buy, even with the examples provided, in the story. There is a big difference between removing a memory of someone’s identity and completely altering their personality. Like Dr Light needed to have been a murderous psychopath who rapes women. He was already a murderous nutjob, even in the New Teen Titans stories. You could easily rationalize his constant failure against the Titans as the group dynamics of the Fearsome 5, rather than him being a “loser.”

    I also laughed hysterically at the fight between Deathstroke and the JLA. He isn’t a speedster, yet his reflexes are faster than the Flash and faster than Zatanna can speak. Unh-huh. That’s not the ridiculous part. It’s when he bags and handcuffs Black Canary and incapacitates her. How does a bag being pulled over her head stop her Canary Cry? Her throat isn’t restricted, so she can still emit sound. There would be air trapped inside that she could breath in to emit the scream. It doesn’t work. He would have had to have blocked her throat to stop her from making a scream or injured her vocal cords. He has seen too many pictures of terror suspects being marched, handcuffed and hooded, without understanding that the hood doesn’t stifle speech, but disorients the person, making them more controllable. At best, it would lightly muffle Canary’s sonic scream, but the sound waves could probably tear it up, with repeated bursts. Again, just a device to remove a female. Notice that the females are more useless than the men? A shot to the solar plexus, a bag over the head and they are out. The solar plexus would only briefly make it hard for Zatanna to breathe. What’s to stop her from inhaling and then spitting out a quick spell?

    Green Arrow sticks an arrow in Deathstroke’s right eye. Um, it was shot out, according to his origin. Far as I understood, it’s an empty socket, not a blind eye. I might have missed some later story that claimed the bullet just destroyed vision in the eye; but, during the Judas Contract, he says his wife shot out the eye. Realistically, that arrow should be impacting brain matter, even if the eye is there, based on how far in GA rams it.. Of course, that is only after showing that his willpower can overrule Kyle’s, in using the power ring. It’s been established that the rings only respond to their host, after they bond (swiped from the Lensman Saga, by the way); so, why would it respond to Slade, who has no telepathic powers?

    Just too many bad character pieces to make a bad story link together.

    1. Le Messor

      Your description of the Deathstroke / JLA fight reminds me of that terrible Batman / JLA fight in a Batman comic (Batman: Chronicles, maybe?) that was meant to show his early years.
      He took out the Flash by throwing something at him, something an average baseball player could’ve stopped.
      He took out Green Lantern by wrapping a batrope around his wrist. That’s all. He just wrapped it around his wrist, and suddenly GL was helpless and unable to use his ring.

      1. Jeff Nettleton

        Fight choreography has been horrible for a couple of generations, now. You have a lot of people working in the field who have no clue about a real fight, either one on one or a melee. The Golden Age and Silver Age generations had been in real fights, served in the military, and/or were boxing fans and understood about staging a fight. Some more than others. Kirby was a street fighter in his youth and a combat soldier in WW2. His fights had a flow to them. Look at his early revived Captain America stories and see how Cap would use misdirection to lure opponents off balance, how he would be planning how one attack would lead to the next on the man beyond. Even when powers were involved, he knew how to use them in interesting and relatively believable ways. Guys like Paul Gulacy studied Bruce Lee, who knew how to stage dramatic, but believable (mostly) fights.

        I like Rags Morales’ work; but, he is working with Meltzer’s script.

        1. An acquaintance of mine who does know combat posted an excellent analysis of combat on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, pointing out that fighting styles for the first three seasons are consistent and reasonable for the characters. Buffy’s small so she moves in and hits fast, then gets out of reach; Angel fights like a street brawler imitating martial arts movies. It was most interesting.

      2. Sigh. In fairness, it’s a strain to figure out how anyone can match Flash’s speed, but that’s still dreadful Batgod writing.
        I was equally annoyed when Scott Snyder reveals Batman has a special suit equipped to take out the entire JLA but doesn’t use it any other time.

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