I picked it up while browsing the shelves at Barnes & Noble and read it through. I was surprised: the superhero genre is not one I usually read, and a quick readthrough of another book on the feature display (Superman & Wonder Woman: Power Couple) quickly reminded me why. Superhero comics are not often characterized by character development; in fact — outside the ’90s dork age when they went and killed off Superman etc. — the fact that superheroes have to hew to archetypes that in traditional mythology was the exclusive provenance of the divine and semi-divine pretty much kills character development dead. Even so, I’d heard of it, and heard that it was pretty good.
What makes it good is that it shunts the Big Three — Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman — off to the side, and instead focuses on the D.C. Universe’s secondary and tertiary heroes: the Flash and Green Lantern, the Atom, Hawkman, Elongated Man, Green Arrow, Zatanna, and … someone else who I have no clue whose name is.
The plot revolves around a killer stalking the Justice League’s loved ones: the Elongated Man’s wife, Sue; the Atom’s ex-wife, Jean; Superman’s wife, Lois*; the current Robin’s father. As the story unfolds, our protagonists exhibit a sort of herd mentality, initially suspecting Dr. Light of killing Sue due to his raping her a long time before; Robin’s father is killed by another washed-up two-bit villain, Captain Boomerang. But all these leads are red herrings — indeed, we get to hear chatter on the other side, and the villains have no clue who’s behind the killings.
The writer, Brad Meltzer, proves why he’s a suspense writer, offering us a whole hand of possible villains even as our heroes get hurt where it hurts. One can almost sense them losing their edges due to their emotions and pasts buried deep; despite their boasts to the contrary, there’s a definite subparness about their tactics and investigations, a focus less on justice and more on vengeance. Even with all that, there’s also a sense that he was constrained in his writing — he couldn’t make the Atom the villain, even when all the clues pointed to him, and because of this, the novel — much like its heroes — loses its edge and begins to unravel just when focus and taut storytelling is needed the most.
Generally, I don’t much care for the superhero genre. I find the characters rather unrealistic and unlikely — and not because of the characterizations, either! I like multidimensional, complex characters and the usual approaches to the genre leave a certain flatness. What I found most appealing about Identity Crisis is the believability of the characters — except one.
I keep fixating on Jean Loring, because Jean Loring’s really everything that’s wrong with the novel. I simply find her break from sanity hard to believe. It’s something that had to be explored further, and yet it’s just — glossed over.
Honestly, I’m not sure where I would have gone with the story. At a certain level, I suspect that Mr. Meltzer wrote himself into a corner. Jean Loring was an ass shove — I found the idea of a character who had written a tell-all about her superhero ex resorting to the drastic measure of harming Sue to get him back somewhat confused, at the very least. While the idea was that she’d gone insane, it was a poor rendering of mental instability; frankly, it was kind of off-putting. She was also barely explored as a character; it almost felt as if “insanity” was a don’t-need-to-worry wink, when in reality exploring her mental instability — mood disorder? attachment disorder? addressed or no?; if so, why the manipulation when she could have talked it out with her therapist? — would be a fascinating work in and of itself.
So. Interesting character exploration of heroes, but relatively clichéd plot and underdevelopment of the most fascinating character. It’s definitely better than most superhero comics … but it also showcases the genre’s structural weaknesses.
3/5. Borrow from the library. (Or just read at Barnes & Noble.)
Notes: I really, really, really don’t give a rat’s ass about inconsistencies in their powers or how their personalities deviate from canon. I’m not a superhero genre reader and I never will be. That isn’t my technical focus, either as a writer or as a critic. Also, the most interesting story here is hardly the heroes’; it’s Jean Loring’s descent into madness, much too brusquely depicted and wholly unrealistic to anyone who actually deals with issues such as mood disorders.