Deaths in the family: reviews of Identity Crisis and Batman: The Court of Owls

I read two great graphic novels recently. Both deal with death and new beginnings.

Identity Crisis by Brad Meltzer (writer), Rags Morales (penciller), and Michael Bair (inker)

Few comics can take a story about a superhero group and make it about a superhero family. Identity Crisis, which appeared in 2004, boiled the Justice League down to its most human, setting the powers aside. When the spouse of a League member is murdered, everyone, both heroes and villains, are in danger of falling apart. They cry and they fight, violently in the streets, both together and in opposition.

Writer Brad Meltzer is very good at taking larger-than-life characters and making them small, in more ways than one. The whole murder mystery, which picks off the JLA’s loved ones at random and without mercy, undeniably kicks them when they’re down, and Rags Morales shows us these characters at their most vulnerable — creating a picture of raw emotion, not always pretty. The Elongated Man nearly loses his form. Robin sobs, only just a boy.

Identity Crisis has many meanings, but it comes down to two things: First, finding yourself when all is lost and taken from you, and second, learning your role within a family. These superheros and super villains alike are families. They know the mask doesn’t protect them, but rather the people they care about, and when tragedy strikes, they help one another. The events of Identity Crisis do a lot to threaten that bond, but somehow, they persevere. They take care of their own, for better or worse. They hear and see what they want to, to keep peace among their numbers. They make sacrifices. They lose on both sides, and then win by surviving hardship.

The twist — the person holding the smoking gun in the end — was a little silly, but it’s more a vehicle to telling this story than the crux of it. If you can look past that part, then Identity Crisis is the perfect glimpse into the daily lives of superheroes and their foes, both the ones that are costumed and those that lie within us all.

Batman, Vol. 1: The Court of Owls by Scott Snyder (writer) and Greg Capullo (penciller)

When you start a character and his universe from scratch, to make him stand out from his peers in an initiative like the “New 52,” you have to think big. More specifically, you have to build his city grander than before, cast his shadow longer, and give him a foe unlike any other he’s ever faced.

The Court of Owls is the perfect new beginning for Gotham’s watchful guardian because it challenges his right to that title. There are some secrets, it seems, that even Batman doesn’t know. He, the master of stealth and disguise, has been fooled by those who’ve hidden in darkness far longer: a secret society that dates back to his great, great grandfather, Alan Wayne.

Bruce wants to construct “a better, brighter Gotham” — but to do so, Batman must sink into unknown depths, both literally and metaphorically. When the Court of Owls trap him, a feat accomplished by only the fiercest foes, Batman degenerates in look, in health — horribly, like a monster, thanks to the artistic talent of Greg Capullo. What appeared to be another costumed wannabe, a fanatic with too much time on his hands, turned out to be a deadly threat and, yet, only a pawn — and thus starts the new chapter of evil in Gotham. The Court of Owls is only the preface to the story, and a dark omen to the darker days that lie ahead — a living challenge to the brighter world Bruce Wayne hopes to achieve.

Picking a freak at random is easy, but Scott Snyder tricks us into thinking any lunatic in mask and suit is a warm-up compared to the classic villains — that only the Joker and other timeless rogues like him can do harm. It’s not long before he shows us otherwise — that the new can be as powerful as the old, and that sometimes, they’re one in the same.

An excellent precursor to the new age of Batman.

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