“We made a choice, and there’s not a cape out there who wouldn’t do the same. Guys like The Wizard—or Light—or any of the others—they’d love nothing more than to know where our wives are… Where our children sleep… If they knew where your mother lived, they’d slice her throat, then go out for a beer. People make fun of secret identities—wondering how we kept them up for so long—It’s because we worked at it. All those years… it wasn’t a coincidence… We made it happen.” re who wouldn’t do the same. Guys like The Wizard—or Light—or any of the others—they’d love nothing more than to know where our wives are… Where our children sleep… If they knew where your mother lived, they’d slice her throat, then go out for a beer. People make fun of secret identities—wondering how we kept them up for so long—It’s because we worked at it. All those years… it wasn’t a coincidence… We made it happen.”
—Green Arrow, Identity Crisis
There are two questions that instinctively come up when approaching comic books, especially the iconic DC characters Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, and the Flash: How do you read these books from a non-adolescent perspective of easily set aside disbelief, and how can these heroes get away with people, especially those in the heroes’ Rogues Galleries, never picking up on their secret identities?
When you pick up a comic from the ‘70s, ‘80s, or even ‘90s, the periods when the vast majority of today’s audiences grew up on Superman, et. al., you can’t escape feeling that these characters exist out of place. They live in some sort of idyllic world, fighting the good fight against black-and-white evil, struggling with hiding their nature from those closest to them (and those they want to be closer to), all with a smile and smirking glibness that cuts their oafish nemeses to the quick after foiling their plots once again. These villains are so clueless, it seems, that a criminal mastermind like Lex Luthor, who can turn the world upside down with a simple raise of an eyebrow, can’t tell that mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent is Superman, sans glasses. Even in the face of tragic circumstances, like DC’s universe-cleansing Crisis on Infinite Earths storyline in the ‘80s or the Death of Superman arc of the ‘90s, a little death can’t keep a good hero down.
And that’s the problem. If the stakes are never so high as to include death as a viable consequence, or if it’s so ingrained in the reader’s consciousness that a criminal is precluded from discovering a secret identity because they’re too inept, how can an audience be invested in these characters?
The answer for some is simple: bring these outcomes back to the table, which is what Brad Meltzer does in Identity Crisis, the kick-off to DC’s decennial universe clean-up, Infinite Crisis (PopMatters review here) a sequel of sorts to Crisis.
Originally released as a seven-issue mini-series last year, Identity Crisis weaves together a tale of rape, violence, murder, lies, and deceit in with fantastic ideas, such as “mindwipes” and the very concept of the “superhero”, into a taut, engaging, and affective tale that answers two fundamental questions of superheroes specifically and comic books generally.
The first thing Metzler, an acclaimed novelist in his own right, and artist Rags Morales do is ground their tale in very human concerns. When Sue Dibney, the wife of Elongated Man, is murdered, the other superheroes of the DC universe, and the members of the Justice League in particular, rally to his aide. If you mess with one hero, you mess with them all. And after another person close to another hero, this time the ex-wife of the Atom, is attacked and threats are made on the lives of Lois Lane and Robin’s father’s life, the heroes scramble in an almost laughably flatfooted way to discover who is behind these attacks, murders, and threats, leading to the major revelation of Identity Crisis, that the villains we as readers know as jokes—Dr. Light, Captain Boomerang—might not be quite so clueless.
In two events grounded in the more innocent days of outlandish storylines that was DC’s Silver Age, one of which was chronicled in Justice League of America #168 and the other in Identity Crisis itself, the stakes of comic book superherodom were not only raised, they were brought into stark reality by linking the secret identities of the heroes to literally life-and-death situations.
When Dr. Light, an up-to-now inept villain in the DC universe, infiltrates the Justice Leagues above-Earth base, he engages in an act of violence of shocking brutality. As his actions are chronicled in flashback in Identity Crisis, the heretofore splashy, colorful world of DC Comics is shrouded in dark realism. And in the events of Justice League of America #168, the League and a group of super-villains swap minds thanks to some mystical statue. In both cases, there are serious consequences to these heroes losing their private anonymity, and the League takes drastic action to ensure no one else is harmed because of their lives as superheroes.
After both events, the League erased the memories of the bad guys who now know the true identities of the world’s greatest champions. And as it concerned Dr. Light, his personality was altered in the magic-equivalent of a lobotomy to permanently prevent him from perpetrating another, similar vicious attack.
With those two events, Identity Crisis brings an honest-to-God danger back into the ranks of the jokey villains of DC’s Silver Age, while brining to the fore the notion of identity itself, both of the secret variety as well as what the identity is of this league of supposed heroes. But there is also the addition of moral ambiguity being added to these supposed heroes.
How heroic are these people if they are, essentially, raping the minds of the bad guys in an attempt to render them innocuous threats? It’s a question that permeates through the rest of the story, and it’s one that was, we’re told, confronted back on the Justice League’s satellite. Batman, it seems, returned to the satellite and witnessed the mindwipe of Dr. Light. Registering his consternation—vocally, to be sure—the seven Leaguers had only one recourse: mindwipe The Batman, as well.
If Dr. Light nudged the League down the slippery slope of moral ambiguity, Batman thrust them down it headfirst.
Where does toying with someone’s mind end if the decision is made to tamper with a friend’s memories, simply to keep a secret, albeit a big one? Green Arrow and the rest of the members of the League implicated in these acts profess to never want to do it again, but can we, as readers invested in these characters, take that at face value? After all, if these “heroes” have lied about these acts for over 20 years, who’s to say they’re not hiding more? And, further, where’s the line separating them from the villains they’re sworn to defend the world against? Because these heroes have God-like abilities, does that give them the right to play God?
In the 21st century, no “hero” is quite as heroic as their myth, and no “villain” is clearly a villain. The black-and-white world of right and wrong is gone, if it ever existed at all, and that’s conveyed in the book. With muted colors, heavy situations, and motives of glaring ambiguity, reading Identity Crisis is like watching the network news: the good guys rush into battle with who they think are the bad guys, only to find out they might have been wrong, thus compounding the original problem. Stack lies and deceit on top of that and you have a fairly representative allegory for the world we live in today.
By making these heroes and villains feel like they belong to “reality”, the world of DC Comics transcends mere escapism, and it’s no longer a world of colorful good guys stopping dark bad guys from doing outlandish things. Ironically, it took our previously sacrosanct heroes taking a header into the depths of absolute immorality to do it.