In response to Marvel’s tendency to release hero vs. hero events, I had planned to look at DC’s Infinite Crisis today, as DC’s main events tend to revolve around multiverse-warping catastrophes. But on this occassion, I found myself easily distracted from the story and instead started browsing through Comixology, where I happened upon Identity Crisis for a rather reasonable price.
While this comic lacks the multiversal stakes of most DC crossovers, it does mirror Marvel’s Civil War in many respects. It examines the cost of doing something for the greater good, the true nature of heroism and the importance of the secret identity. So this week, the spotlight is on the Elongated Man, in DC’s Identity Crisis.
Published by: DC Comics
Written by: Brad Meltzer
Art by: Rags Morales
Real Name: Randolph William Dibney
Affiliation: The Justice League
First Appearance: Flash #112 (May 1960)
As a young man, Ralph Dibney was fascinated by two things above all else: contortionists and a good mystery. In trying to discover the secrets behind how contortionists could warp their bodies in such ways, he learned that many of them drank a soft drink made from the exotic Gingo fruit. Distilling the fruit’s essence, Ralph drank the juice and was given the incredible powers of elasticity! Operating out of Central City, Ralph soon found himself in the spotlight, becoming firm friends with the speedster known as the Flash, and a detective comparable to Batman himself! But his most valuable partner was his future wife, Sue Dibney. Together, the pair managed to evade the troubles that plagued many superhero relationships, living a happy life solving mysteries as member and honorary member, respectively, of the Justice League of America!
WHAT’s THE STORY?
While Identity Crisis itself doesn’t feature a story that sees our heroes transverse universes, it does do its own bit of world-building when it comes to realigning the world. Particularly, this comic focuses on the increasing darkness that grew in superhero stories between the bright-and-campy sixties, and the dour, death-filled nineties, with a particular focus on the late seventies of Justice League comics.
As such, there are references to stories gone by, that are framed in a new way that indicate what the current universe is meant to look like (DC Comics are prone to changing up their continuity a lot more than their competitors) and which characters are at the forefront.
However, that’s mostly just background dressing, as although this comic does do that, first and foremost, it tries to tell a compelling mystery. Does it succeed? Well, you’ll have to read on to find out.
WHAT’s THE PLOT?
With the Elongated Man’s birthday coming up, his loving wife Sue Dibney is planning one of her annual faked mysteries for her detective-husband to solve. However, the joy is quickly taken out of the proceedings, as Sue is murdered in her own home.
But as former Justice League members, Ralph and Sue’s apartment has the highest security possible, and with no trace of a break-in, the Justice League are stumped.
Unfortunately, the heroes will need to find answers quickly, as it becomes increasingly obvious that Sue’s murder may be the work of a serial killer who knows all of the heroes identities. But as the Justice League fight past their grief to pursue the killer, untold truths come out about their past that threaten to tear the League apart from the inside.
IS IT ACCESSIBLE?
Surprisingly, yes. While this comic features quite a sizeable cast of characters, it mostly remains focused on a core set of heroes: namely, Green Arrow, the Flash, Robin and, of course, the Elongated Man.
As the focus, the most important facets of Elongated Man’s world are laid out for readers new and old, and he quickly becomes a compelling character from the first few pages he appears on.
Likewise, there are a fair few villains in the book’s line-up, but the most prominent, again, are those who have appeared in other media, like Deathstroke and Captain Boomerang, or characters like the Calculator, who, through his exchanges with other villains, has his own past revealed.
WHAT’s THE VERDICT?
First off, I should probably say I would understand why people might not like this comic.
Sue’s murder being the catalyst for the plot is a somewhat unfortunate trope in comic-books (known in comic-book circles as ‘fridging’ or the ‘Women in Refridgerators’ trope – where a character, usually female, is killed off or injured to further the heroes journey). However, the most important thing about using this or any trope is, of course, what the writers does with it. And in this case I believe that this story is written well enough to justify it on some level.
But the murder isn’t the only potentially controversial thing about this comic, as flashback sequences go on to examine a certain criminal’s motive for murdering her, and in the process depicts a rape scene, which some may, understandably, find unpleasant, and might argue is unnecessary – a point I wouldn’t argue against.
The consequences of said scene leads to a debate between some of the heroes about what is a morally correct response in such situations, and some of the heroes cease to be the bastions of truth and justice that heroes are celebrated as.
Looking at all of these factors, some readers may decide that this comic isn’t for them. It’s understandable. The contents of this story aren’t exactly pleasant or all that progressive.
However, as I said before, the key here is to not just tell a horrific story for the sake of telling it, but to focus on telling a good story (which, in this case, features some horrific elements), and in that task I believe that writer Brad Meltzer has succeeded.
The structuring of this story is phenomenal. Usually, when it comes to events or crossovers, there’s either a slow build that leads to a rushed finale, or a rushed start that drags on too long. I often find myself reading these stories and thinking how a few issues could be shaved off and I’d probably enjoy it more. But not here. Each issue I read delivered an intriguing new chapter in the story, and even though halfway through I remembered that I learnt the killer’s identity some years ago, I still found myself compelled to continue. Plus, in my opinion, as the story progresses, that first unfortunate trope I mentioned up top becomes less trope-esque as new developments further enrich the case.
Also, if you buy one of the later editions (the ‘New Edition’, to be precise) then the back of the book also comes with pages and pages of the writer and artists explaining the process behind the various frames and processes. It just cements how much thought and care has gone into this comic.
The art is equally strong. Rags Morales has a fun, comic-book-y style that really lends itself to superhero fiction, yet, at the same time, is capable of depicting real emotion in each scene. His portrayal of emotionally broken Elongated Man, in particular, is very effective, and in later scenes, the pain the various characters are going through radiates off the page.
Together, Morales and Meltzer craft a thoughtful story that, while it does have some rather upsetting beats, is a fascinating examination of the lengths superheroes will go to to maintain their secret identities and the balance between right and wrong. It sets up intriguing storytelling possibilities going forward, but keeps the focus on telling a poignant murder mystery that is always character focused and never gives up its story in favour descending into a colourful, explosive bust-up. There are fights, don’t get me wrong, but they are secondary to how the mystery’s proceedings affect each and every character.
Other comic writers could learn a thing or two from this creative team. A dynamic duo if ever there was one.
Identity Crisis is available on Amazon.co.uk (and, at the time of writing, Comixology for only £3.99!)