I’ve often wondered why so many superheroes bother with secret identities. An otherwise normal human in a silly get up, I can understand. If everyone knew Bruce Wayne was actually Batman, he’d probably get laughed out of every Wayne Enterprises board meeting and snickered at by the local newspaper vendor, never mind the hate mail he’d receive from Arkham Asylum. But a guy like Superman, why does he bother holding down a day job at the Daily Planet? Does he need the money or something? Seems like he could save himself a lot of aggravation if he’d just go Superman full-time and leave his personal relationships behind. It’s not like Supes would be hard up for loving, you know. The guy could be banging multi-tentacled outer space supermodels if that was his preference.
But my assumption that Superman would want to be screwing interstellar hotties helps define why I am a sweaty, smelly, gruff man-ogre and not a sensitive, progressive humanist, because when I think of Superman, it’s of him punching Mongul through an oil tanker and not of him sharing a smooch with Lois Lane. That human connection is ostensibly why Superman hangs around to protect Metropolis and Earth in the first place. So the Clark Kent alter ago, as unbelievable as it may be, is necessary, both as a reason for Superman to bother fighting space crimes and to protect his loved ones from warranted super villain attacks. Same goes for folks like Hal Jordan/Green Lantern, Ray Palmer/the Atom, and Ralph Dibny/the Elongated Man.
I really liked the Elongated Man when I was younger, far more than Plastic Man and Jimmy Olsen as Elastic Lad (I swear the three of them teamed up to become the Rubber Band in the 1980s, though I have never seen any evidence other than my own faulty memory). The Elongated Man is, first and foremost, a detective, while Plastic Man and Olsen are pretty much hapless dopes who are lucky to have a super power because otherwise they’d be long dead. I also liked that he was happily married to his wife, Sue, and that he went public with his super identity. So I was very pleased to find that, upon reading the trade collection of Identity Crisis, that this public life was immediately exploited in the very first pages of the comic when Sue Dibny is murdered. I mean, I’m not pleased that Sue Dibny was murdered, just that Ralph’s option to absolve himself of a secret identity was going to be a plot point.
Following Sue’s death, events ramp up pretty quickly as members of the Justice League scatter across everywhere to solve the mystery of how she was killed. A select few, voiced mainly by the venerable Green Arrow, go to find Dr. Light who they believe is responsible for killing Ralph’s wife because–brace yourself–they performed a magic lobotomy on him after he stole aboard the Justice League’s secret clubhouse years earlier and raped Sue Dibny. And with that, it’s like the whole happy world of the Superfriends and the Batman TV show with Adam West just falls apart, every issue of Power Pack and Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen is deemed irrelevant as we learn that the superheroes tasked with protecting mere humans are no less vindictive and spiteful than we are on a daily basis. And that, for the citizens of Fictional Comic Book Land, is a scary prospect.
Comic book stories have tackled the issue before, but it is implied that the only reason certain people are allowed to prance around in leotards while others are incarcerated or worse is because the former stands in defense of the status quo, while the other hopes to destroy it. Moreso, the former group of heroes are expected to act above and beyond the common mores because there’s a lot more at stake when you can shoot lightning from your eyeballs or talk to marine animals or whatever. I mean, if I found out that my friend had the ability to freeze things with his mind, and he was using it solely to keep his beer cold, I’d be a little leery of getting on his bad side. Lord knows I like my beer cold, too.
What was my point? Oh yeah. With great power comes great responsibility. In a reality where being attacked by laser-spewing planet eaters is the norm, one would hope that the superhuman strike force being deployed won’t be swayed by creature comforts or a threat against their pet Fluffy. From superheroes we expect self-sacrifice, adherence to a strict moral code, and for fuck’s sake we can’t let them kill people. Seriously. Once Green Lantern gets that blood lust he’ll be snipping our heads off with giant emerald pinking shears. In Identity Crisis, we see very fallible heroes who justify some pretty fucked up acts in the name of protecting their secret identities and, by extension, their loved ones.
So yeah, I recommend this collection to anyone already pretty aware of the DC Universe, and who doesn’t mind watching the fictional characters they may have once looked up to act like heart-wrenching douchebags. There is one nagging inconsistency about this whole mess that I feel I have to mention: if the Justice League feels okay with performing ethereal brain surgery on friend and foe alike (Seriously. Read the book.), then why the fuck haven’t they killed the Joker? If any DC villain (that isn’t an immortal of some kind) ever deserved death, it’s him. The Harlequin of Hate has killed so many and caused so much misery, what is the purpose of keeping him around? Besides for product licensing, I mean.