The secret identity is a common superhero trope that has endured since the thirties and possibly even longer when you consider the breadth of fiction. While it is a common storyline to have a superhero’s secret identity compromised in some way, it’s never really been something that has any real lasting effects on the hero or their overall existence as a character. No matter how bad the situation may be, or how powerful the villain that holds the secret identity hostage, the hero always finds a way to make it to next storyline safe and sound.
But what if no one cared about who you were and just used your secret identity to attack your family? What if your wife or children became targets and not you, the superhero?
DC Comics 2004 seven-issue limited series, Identity Crisis, seeks to answer those very questions by examining loss, grief, pain and secrecy amongst heroes and aims to bring an unflinching reality to both the hero and villain communities of DC while forcing the reader to accept that these heroes, icons, aliens and gods among us as decidedly human.
The story starts with Ralph Dibny, a classic (if unknown) hero for DC’s Silver Age,the Elongated Man, as he is on patrol with a younger hero known as Firehawk. While on patrol, Ralph’s wife Sue is brutally murdered in her home. The attack and murder of the super spouse sends shock waves throughout the superhero community and uncovers a dark web of secrets lies and shows us that while superheroes may be gods to some, they all start out as humans; humans capable of doing wrong.
Writer Brad Meltzer weaves and incredible story that, on its surface, may seem to rely too heavily on shock value, but aims to make the reader feel genuine emotion for characters we may have never cared about or even known about before reading this story. We get to see the raw and emotional effects the death of his wife has on Ralph Dibny, we get to see why Green Arrow has a certain disdain for the superheroes around him and we get to see how the Justice League really views the trinity of heroes that everyone knows and loves.
While the mystery of who exactly killed Sue Dibny is the driving force of this story, the real crux of the series is the humanizing moments in the heroes lives. The relationships they value and the downtime in between massive super-fights. For this, I believe artist Rags Morales deserves a lot of credit for this story being as emotionally impactful as it is, as his art is decidedly more on the realism side than the fantastic. While almost every hero and villain is depicted as something of an Adonis, their age and experiences are worn across their faces. While everyone is depicted as wearing their brightly colored classic costumes of old, it is never meant to look ridiculous and fits right in when younger heroes in more modern attire (for superheroes) share the same panel.
Perhaps the most powerful part of this story are the themes of legacy found within Identity Crisis. While Ralph has lost his wife, part-time Flash villain, Captain Boomerang, reconnects with his son Owen Mercer who in turn takes up his mantel after his father’s overwhelming desire to step back into the limelight as a legitimate supervillain proves to be his downfall. While Owen is not necessarily a villainous man, he is unwillingly set upon the path of villainy by the superhero community.
Friendships and legacy are put to the test in this story due to secrets kept within the Justice League as seven heroes within the League’s ranks deal with the (heavily) implied rape of a friend and honorary League member, Sue Dibny, by the almost unassuming villain known as Dr. Light. Told in flashbacks, the rape of Sue Dibny and the heroes reaction to it is something the younger heroes struggle to come to grips with. Legacy heroes the Flash (Wally West) and Green Lantern (Kyle Rayner) find the decisions of their elders and mentors an incredibly hard pill to swallow and it tarnishes their views of the fellow Leaguers.
Arguably, Green Arrow (Oliver Queen) is the main character of this story as he takes up the most real estate within this story and his cynical and world weary commentary on the hero community as well as the mystery of who killed Sue Dibny make him an unlikeable hero to the reader. Something tells me though that writer Brad Meltzer would tell you that Green Arrow wouldn’t have it any other way. Green Arrow seems like that person we have all known at some point in our lives that wants to be known as a bit of an asshole and enjoys it when people dislike them. His views on the hero community seems the be reliant on the level of power found within a fellow superhero and this makes sense because Green Arrow has no superpowers, he’s just an incredibly good shot, a a skill that anyone can acquire with training and time. While he views Ralph Dibny, a man who can stretch his body and limbs to incredible lengths, as a best friend, he is seemingly very jealous of Superman, a god amongst men, and only talks to him if he has to.
The trinity of heroes, Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman, are barely featured and have very few lines and little interactions with the main characters of this story, but there presence is felt throughout the story as they are seen as infallible icons for every hero and person to live up to, even if this isn’t always the case.
While the revelation of who was behind the murder of Sue Dibny leaves something to be desired, the reader comes away with the realization that the story was never really about who murdered who, but about the fragility of who these heroes are and how there really isn’t much differentiation between them and us. We will all have to deal with the loss of a loved one at some point in our lives, seeing that our greatest heroes have to deal with the same pain and loss as us regular humans is refreshing and makes us value them being on our side even more than we did. While many stories use death in comics as a way to sell more books, this story uses death as what it should be in regards to fiction, it’s a tool designed to show us who are heroes really are and what they’re really capable of.