Sunday, September 20, 2009

Identity Crisis

Originally a 7-issue limited series published in 2004, Identity Crisis was simultaneously "wildly popular and reviled," as described by Publishers Weekly. In this series, DC Comics placed some of their marquee superheroes from the Justice League in the hands of best-selling suspense/mystery author Brad Meltzer. The purpose was to update their characters and bring them into a more post-9/11 sensibility. In the course of doing that, Meltzer focused more on the interpersonal relationship of the heroes, their friendships, their marriages, and their families. Batman and Superman refered to each other as Bruce and Clark. Superheroes acted more like policemen. And the villains decided to hit the heroes where they hurt, at home.

The plot follows from a murder plot against the heroes' families, and no one is safe, not even Superman's wife, Lois Lane. Someone knows everyone's secret identities and is using that knowledge to perpetrate evil. After a horrific initial death, the heroes hit the streets hard to uncover the mystery threat, but their efforts hit a huge snag. The supervillains, it turns out, after years of being thoroughly romped by their do-gooder counterparts, have organized and are approaching their crimes and attacks in more strategic ways. One of the most controversial parts of the story lies in the heroes' different reactions to these events, and how much they go across their own moral lines in seeking justice. In many ways, their own heroic missions become extremely compromised.

Aside from the treatment of superheroes as morally ambiguous characters, many fans took offense at what they saw as rampant mischaracterizations and plot holes. Additionally, other critics, such as Johanna Draper Carlson and Valerie D'Orazio (who was working at DC at the time the series came out), have commented on the perpetuation of violence against women in this series (and superhero comics in general). They characterize such violent actions as vehicles to elicit reactions and some sense of nuance in male characters, in a phenomenon that has been called the "Women in Refrigerators Syndrome."

The creative team on this story, along with Meltzer, included Rags Morales and Michael Bair, two artists who frequently work collaboratively. Their depictions of the characters are noted for their humanity and emotional expressiveness. They are credited very much in conveying the image of superheroes as regular human beings in extraordinary circumstances. The covers for the series were drawn by fan favorite artist Michael Turner.

Identity Crisis created quite a stir when it was released, and there are a multitude of reviews available online. I include a few here that I think characterize the general discussion: one from Tom Bondurant, one from Collected Editions, and one from Jeff Lester. The story draws very much from earlier stories and DC Comics continuity, and for those interested, here are two links to possible source material, as well as a page of annotations explaining a great number of the characters and situations in chapter 1.

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