If the comic book medium is to differentiate itself from reality TV or the like it needs to draw the line somewhere.
Identity Crisis #1-4 (of 7)Publisher: DC Comics
Writer: Brad Meltzer
Item Type: Comic
Contributors: Rag Morales (Artist)
Publication Date: 2004-08
This miniseries is a roller coaster of a read from page one. The narrative takes you by the neck and almost drags you from page to page. I couldn't help but be on the edge of my seat as I turned the pages, dying to know what would happen next. The artwork is stunningly realistic and perfectly complements the writing. I found myself cringing many times at certain scenes throughout this series. Rags Morales uses large sweeping scenes with a variety of perspectives to illustrate the growing tension and concern of the heroes.
Now that we've passed the halfway mark of Identity Crisis, let's recap: a mysterious, unidentified villain is attacking the heroes of the DC universe by targeting their Achilles' heels: their loved ones. In issue one, we see the horrid murder of Sue Dibny, the wife of Ralph Dibny a.k.a. the Elongated Man. In issue two, we witness the gruesome rape of the said deceased Sue Dibny, and the controversial dark secret that the heroes have been hiding for so long. At the end of issue three, we see yet again another loved one, this time the divorcee of the Atom (Ray Palmer), dying at the hands of our elusive murderer. Finally, in issue four, we see our heroes begin to panic, as they realize that all the people they know and love may be potential targets for this unknown villain, who by the end of the issue sends a death threat to Lois Lane, aiming straight for the top.
Without a doubt, this series is aimed at putting the heroes of the DC Universe in a tight spot and seeing how they cope. You might even say it's a slight spoof of reality TV. Already in issue four we see the all-mighty Superman showing signs of human weakness, as he realizes that his wife Lois Lane could be in harm's way. Ollie, the Green Arrow, really drives that point home: "And bulletproof skin is useless against grief."
Now, I ask you faithful comic reading fans, what is it that we are reading? While we see Scott Peterson on trial for the murder of his wife and unborn child, Michael Jackson and Kobe Bryant on trial for sexual crimes, and the ambiguous war on terror cutting deep into the lives of all of us, do we really need to see this moral breakdown happen to our superheroes, in comics? You can argue that comics reflect our lives and that current issues need to be dealt with in the comic book medium. But there is a difference between social commentary and "shock value", which sad to say is what this series is boiling down to be. Why, I ask you again, why do we need to see this happen in comic books? How will we view our superheroes now, persons many of us grew up with, looked to for guidance and direction, now that they are just as capable of lies and deceit as the villains they fight? This is a terrible notion. We all need someone to look up to; we need to be reassured that somewhere there is good, and someone willing to fight for that good. It is the common thread that holds us together and keeps us from going off the deep end.
The fact of the matter is, we need idols, we need heroes, we need hope that this world is not as bad as it is, and that we can make a difference. Through the years we have seen many of our heroes "demoralized" or brought down from the status of god; Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns is a good starting point for that. Similar things have happened in the pages of The Punisher, Wolverine, Daredevil, Powers and my personal pet peeve/favorite the Death of Superman. Comics should not return to the clear-cut good versus evil kitsch; that notion no longer exists. But if the comic book medium is to differentiate itself from reality TV or the like it needs to draw the line somewhere. I need to know that after watching news packed with murdering spouses, suicide bombings, lying politicians, and a bleak future, I can for a short time escape and take refuge in my heroes, confident that they will do the right thing and good will prevail. If not, why read them anyway?
I am not saying that this is a bad read, no. I haven't been this riled up over fight scenes since the good old days! There is nothing more fun to watch than people in awkward situations, hence the reality TV phenomenon. Sure it's gruesome to see men and women swallowing live worms or surviving on a remote island or trading families, but it's fun! However, at the end of the day, when you turn off your TV, what are you left with? Nothing. What's more is you become desensitized and you keep wanting more and more, which is the downward spiral of primetime TV we are witness to. Do comics also have to take that same route? Sure there are comic books out there that will make the producers of Surreal Life blush, but why carry that over to Superman and Batman?
Redefining the superhero myth is a wonderful objective, but why in such a violent debased way (the scene in issue one where Ralph Dibny is holding the body of his burned dead wife, with the positive test results of her pregnancy is permanently engraved in my memory)? The New Frontier miniseries by Darwyn Cooke that just wrapped up is an excellent example of redefining the urban myth of superheroes. Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, though just as gruesome, aims at redefining literary figures we have always accepted as doctrine. The on-going series Gotham Central is an excellent example of reconstruction of the superhero genre. Not only do we see the generic superhero, super-villain clash through the eyes of civilians, but we also see real-life heroes, normal everyday types that just happen to deal with paranormals. Now, how more "real" can you get? All of these examples are from the same house of ideas that agreed to print and distribute Identity Crisis.
Having said that, there are still three issues left before this series concludes. Who knows, maybe DC has some paradigm shifting revelation in the works. But for now, I say let's leave shock value to reality TV and horror movies.