Identity Crisis

Dante A. Ciampaglia

The first thing Metzler, an acclaimed novelist in his own right, and artist Rags Morales do is ground their tale in very human concerns.

Identity Crisis

Publisher: DC Comics
Contributors: Rags Morales (Artist)
Price: $24.99
Writer: Brad Meltzer
Item Type: Comic
Length: 288
Publication Date: 2005-09
"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.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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