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"Identity Crisis" was one of the comic-book world's highlights of 2004 and has become the cornerstone of DC Comics' upcoming "Infinite Crisis," which looks to be the biggest shake-up in the DC universe in 20 years.
But "Identity Crisis," a seven-issue miniseries collected this month in a special hardcover edition, didn't start out as a big event.
Instead, writer Brad Meltzer says, it was intended to be a small, emotional story - a look at the cost of being a hero.
DC's editors approached Meltzer after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. With those attacks giving Americans a new appreciation for firefighters and other everyday heroes, DC wanted a story that explored the risks its heroes faced when they donned masks and capes.
To give the story emotional weight, DC gave Meltzer a list of characters he could target for death.
But Meltzer, a best-selling novelist whose only comicbook work before "Identity Crisis" was a six-issue arc of DC's "Green Arrow," wasn't interested at first.
"I had no desire to kill a character for no good reason, not just shock value or sales," Meltzer says.
But in more talks with editors, an idea clicked.
"I said, `You know what, I got it. Let me go.' In my head, it all made sense to me."
A few days later, he returned with the pitch for what would become "Identity Crisis" - a murder-mystery that at its heart is a story of loss and families and heroism.
The story follows the investigation into the murder of Sue Dibny, the wife of the stretchable Elongated Man. In doing so, it reveals a secret from the past of the Justice League of America.
To protect their loved ones, DC's greatest heroes had voted to perform "mindwipes" on some villains, erasing key memories. The JLA went a step further with Dr. Light, performing a sort of magical lobotomy on him.
When one of their own, Batman, objected, a mindwipe was performed on him.
Meltzer also used "Identity Crisis" to explore and revamp many of DC's second-tier heroes, such as Boomerang and the Calculator.
He was offered the option of using the baddest of the bad, such as the Joker, but he opted for the villains he says nobody cared about.
"I wanted to put a human face on both sides of this equation, hero and villain," Meltzer says.
What Meltzer didn't know was that executive editor Dan DiDio would seize the threads from "Identity Crisis" and pull them together in plotting the future of the DC universe.
The mindwipes have been a key element in various titles as relationships between DC's heroes have soured - most notably the ties between the big three: Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman.
Similarly, the newly reinvigorated villains from "Identity Crisis" have proved critical to DC's current direction.
"The beauty here is that Dan saw what he had," Meltzer says. "I thought I made a sweater and he realized he was building a bigger quilt."
Meltzer has the inside scoop on what's ahead for DC's beleaguered heroes - though he, of course, isn't telling. Geoff Johns, one of his closest friends, is writing the "Infinite Crisis" miniseries.
A longtime comics fan, Meltzer is thrilled to see so many stories spinning out of "Identity Crisis.
"To see this level built on something that we started, there's no greater kind of geek moment than that."
(Bill Radford writes for the Colorado Gazette. Contact him at comics(AT)gazette.com.)
(c) 2005, The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.). Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.