I’ve read exactly one of Brad Meltzer’s novels. This was The Book of Lies, which attempted to tie the biblical story of Cain-and-Abel to the murder of Jerry Siegel’s father, and thus to the creation of the grandfather of all superheroes, Superman.
From this, I knew he had a connection to the world of comic books.
I also watched a few episodes of his History Channel series Brad Meltzer’s Decoded, which focused primarily on historic conspiracy theories. I like paranoid conspiracies, for their entertainment value, not because I believe any of them. No, of course not. That would be . . . crazy, wouldn’t it?
I was familiar with Meltzer’s comic book bona fides and his penchant for conspiracy theories. So, it should have been no surprise that he could come up with the super-conspiracy story Identity Crisis. The plot unfolds as a murder mystery. Sue Dibny, wife of Ralph Dibny, the hilariously-named The Elongated Man, is murdered in a locked room. Sue’s death affects the entire superhero community, who realize that their un-powered civilian loved ones are always vulnerable to supervillain attacks. The plot thickens as a small subset of supers think they may know who killed Ralph’s wife: Dr. Light.
It seems that Dr. Light once raped Sue Dibny on the JLA satellite headquarters. The JLA members at the time—Atom, Black Canary, Hawkman, Green Lantern (Hal Jordan), and Flash (Barry Allen)—voted to allow the sorceress Zatanna to mind-wipe Dr. Light and alter his personality until he became the buffoonish villain who battled the Teen Titans and showed up on cartoons. Revelations of this secret super-conspiracy leads to revelations of more illicit mind-wipes, and further investigation into Sue Dibny’s death leads to the conclusion that maybe, just maybe, Dr. Light wasn’t the guilty party. This time.
So, what we have here is a murder/conspiracy story told in seven issues. While most of the characters are super-powered individuals (or at least individuals who like to fight bad-guys while wearing masks and tights), Meltzer does an admirable job of highlighting their humanity (even the non-humans) in this story. It is a story about people who just happen to be superheroes.
The art of penciller Rags Morales (and inker Michael Bair) keeps the story grounded in reality. Morales takes great pains to model the heroes after real people, so that each character has their own distinct personality without saying a word. In one of the trade’s many extras, Morales reveals his inspirations for the faces of the characters he drew. Sue Dibny was based on the Gilligan’s Island-era Dawn Wells. Nightwing was Johnny Depp. The Elongated Man was a mashup of Danny Kaye and Dick Van Dyke. And so on. This is an interesting behind-the-curtain look at Morales’ attention to detail, something supremely important in a tale that places more emphasis on emotion and character psychology than pyrotechnics and spectacle.
There’s that aspect of this series. If you’re looking for a great big superhero romp with falling buildings and clashing armies, this is not the book you’re searching for. This storyline, though fifteen years old at this point, is often mentioned in the same breath as Crisis on Infinite Earths or Death of Superman. In spite of the quieter nature of the story, it continued to affect the universe of the DC Comics superheroes long after it was over. I’m seeing its ripple effects in Infinite Crisis, which I’m currently reading. I like storytelling that makes you think long after you finish reading.
The trade paperback version of Identity Crisis comes with a lot of extra features I’ve enjoyed as well. Interviews, sketchbook pages and the entire script of the first issue. Great stuff if you like to see how the sausage is made. It also features an introduction by Joss Whedon, the patron saint of nerd-dom, and no slouch in the storytelling game himself.
I liked this book a lot. It’s not what I usually pick up for light reading in the superhero genre, but that quickly becomes its chief selling point.
Firewater’s Superhero Conspiracy Report Card: A