Revisiting DC's IDENTITY CRISIS With RAGS MORALES as HEROES IN CRISIS Approaches

Identity Crisis
Credit: Rags Morales (DC Comics)
Credit: DC Comics

DC Comics' newest event, Heroes in Crisis, will focus on the trauma and psyche of the modern superhero - but its not the first. The comparisons between this week's Heroes in Crisis and 2004's Identity Crisis are on the minds of many readers, as both delve inside the lives of superheroes and explore the psychology of being a superhero.

With that in mind, Newsarama reached out to Identity Crisis artist Rags Morales to talk about that well-remembered event and how it affected the Justice League, and more specifically Ralph Dibny, Sue Dibney, Tim Drake, and Ray Palmer. In our conversation, Morales spoke about his collaborattion with writer Brad Meltzer, the event's biggest emotional beats, and how it's remembered now.

Newsarama: Can you take us back to how this project was first pitched to DC Comics and how Brad approached you for the story?

Rags Morales: Brad didn’t approach me. The funny thing about us professionals is that you guys know stuff before we do. We work at home. So we don’t have meetings – Geoff Johns has meetings, Jim Lee has meetings – but we don’t have meetings because we are work for hire. Same thing happened to me with 52. It’s completely out of the blue.

Credit: Michael Turner (DC Comics)

I was working on Hawkman with Geoff Johns, and Geoff was kind of not letting me know about something that would be happening that I would be involved with for my next project. So I said cool what’s it going to be. He said "I can’t tell you just yet, but believe me it’s going to be a big deal." And I said "cool, I can use a big deal."

We were just wrapping up “Black Reign”, that was the JSA/Hawkman crossover, and I got a call from, I think it was Mike Carlin, telling me I’ve been tapped to do something called Identity Crisis and that they needed me to come into New York City in order to discuss it. I got there and they kind of moved me through the bowels of the DC offices, areas I didn’t even know existed – big meeting rooms, big glass tables. When I entered the room I was hugged by a man, who I assumed was Brad. It was unexpected, he said "I’m a Jew – we do that." I said "As a Latino, I understand."

We talked about it, we started talking about certain characters – the Calculator being one we talked about a lot. Since he was a pretty important character. I went home with just the first two issues. They didn’t want to give me the whole thing all at once yet. I had to sign a non-disclosure agreement. I didn’t know what to think. Okay, it’s my next job. Geoff said it was a big deal, and that can mean anything.   

I remember going home with it, sitting in my bed, and the only thing I knew about Brad Meltzer is that he took over for Kevin Smith on Green Arrow for that arc. My first impression is that he’s a novelist – I don’t know maybe I had a weird prejudice at the time, but no novelist comes in and tells me what to do in my industry. I’d been marinating in it for 15 years at the time.

And so I’m reading it, and I got to the part where the Atom is breaking through rope – and I said 22 panels over 2 pages, that’s insane. No one does more than 9 panels a page. Maybe if you want George Perez, he will do 15 panels a page. I was just like "Who does this guy think he is?"

Credit: Rags Morales (DC Comics)

But the time I got to the rape scene, I found myself getting really angry over the scene because I was really invested in the story at that point and I was really upset for Sue Dibny. And then I realized this guy was communicating to me at levels that I never had anyone communicate with me before. His ability to convey the story to artist without it being – in this panel this happens. He had a way of being able to write it like a novelist would write it. It was almost poetry the way he wrote it. By the time we got to the rape scene – I was like "Dude, if he wants 22 panels. He is going to get 22 panels." I was fully invested at that point. 

Nrama: Can you expand more on what your collaboration with Brad was like?

Morales: I like to joke around, only because it’s true, that he is a taskmaster. He had a specific vision. He had a certain pacing that he wanted to do. As an artist you have to convince your writer that he’s the screenwriter, I’m the director. And yes give me the story, but it will go through my machinations before you see it. I was a little put off of the inability to have that flexibility and freedom, but I couldn’t disagree with most of what he was doing.

Sometimes he would call for something that I couldn’t get my head wrapped around. We would discuss ideas and I would do the thumbnail, the quick sketch, and I would shoot it off to him. He’d call me back, and we would discuss. Then he would say yes or no. For the most part, he trusted me, but he still wanted to see it. Outside of little touches – it’s basically the way he wanted it, certainly the pacing he wanted it and it was brilliant the way he wrote it so why should I change it.

Nrama: Take us through your process of visually creating the emotional beats that are sprinkled throughout this series.

Morales: I just have an knack for it. Some people are good at it, and some people are not. I think other people like Adam Hughes is really good at something like that. Kevin Maguire is really exceptional at that sort of thing. If anything I’m really trying to communicate with those guys. That’s the way I look at it at a professional point of view, as far as my peers go.

Even back in art school people told me I was very good at subtleties and I was never good at Hal Foster, Al Raymond type of dramatic posing. I didn’t have that cinematic feel of a 1940’s movie. I remember being a kid just looking at comic books, redrawing panels that I thought I could do better because I thought it was missing a certain thing.

I can’t really specify a process. I just read and draw to the dialogue. I act along with the dialogue. I set the scene in my head with the character, and that’s what I put down.   

Credit: Rags Morales (DC Comics)

Nrama: There are so many strong and important beats in this book. If you had to pick a favorite moment in the series what would it be?

Morales: I pulled off the twitchy nose during the funeral scene. That was one of the ones I had to talk to Brad about because he didn’t specify he wanted it in there, but I did. Because in the beginning of the story Oliver Queen is talking about how he thought it was a publicity stunt and that it wasn’t a natural thing. I kind of liked the idea that it had a mind of its own and that it could really tell him about a clue or tell him about his emotional state. It would vibrate almost like a beacon of sorts.

I told Brad that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to answer that question that Ollie proposes in the beginning. He said "Sure, just don’t let it look stupid." I said I think I can do it.

Just him grasping his face, it dripping down around his hand, and the loss of control. I’ve seen enough movies. I’ve seen enough life where people when they are very emotional lose their shit, essentially, and they don’t look like themselves anymore. I didn’t have any qualms about getting straight into the emotion. Not worrying it would look weird because the pacing of that particular scene just prior to it was so engaging that by the time you opened up and got to that point you have forgotten that he is just odd looking. This man has just lost his shit over his wife. I was able to latch onto that. So that particular scene was very gratifying.       

The double-page spread at the funeral, getting it done, that was gratifying. I added the little bit about segregating the photographers and the reporters away from the heroes. I really thought my way though that, how that scene should play out. That there should be a police line keeping people away from the thing. So I kind of enjoyed that.

Credit: Rags Morales (DC Comics)

But probably my favorite scenes had everything to do with Identity Crisis #5. All the father and son stuff with Captain Boomerang and his son. It just brought me back to when I was a kid, and my father would come home from work and we’d play catch. I was able to bring some of that emotional attachment from my childhood into that. And the scene where they try to race to save Tim Drake’s dad that was one of those you are feeling it when you are drawing it. I think those are my favorite scenes.    

Nrama: When did you find out Jean Loring was the killer? Did you know the whole time, and how did that affect your illustration of her character?

Credit: Rags Morales (DC Comics)

Morales: I think I modeled her after Susan Sarandon of Rocky Horror Picture Show, the earlier Susan Sarandon. As far as the modeling themselves, I always try to, in varying degrees of success, attach it to a specific actor, sports figure, even a political figure. I remember using Patty Hearst as a model for Firehawk because she had a background similar to it. So I was trying to channel some of that.

As far as the rendering itself of the character Susan Sarandon I think makes a good evil character. I think she has that type of range. So for her to be able to turn her into this psychotic character at the end that wasn’t much of a stretch.

Again I got the first two scripts at home, and then one at a time, one at a time. In order for me to do my job artistically, I have to have an idea of where the book is going so I can set up for it. This was 14  years ago, so I can’t remember specifically what made me call Brad to ask who the killer was – Oh, it was the scene when Sue Dibny was being torched. I was at that point drawing the silhouette of the character with the flamethrower to burn Sue Dibny.

I had to have an idea of the form I was drawing, at that point I still didn’t know who the killer was. I had to call Brad, and I talked him into telling me. He didn’t want to tell me at first. I don’t know why it was such a big secret to be honest. It was one of those things he was keeping to himself, and I finally got it out of him just so I could finish that picture.

Nrama: There were so many characters affected by this event. In your opinion who was affected the most?

Morales: Well certainly Ralph. He’s the one most personally responsible for the emotional content of the book. He changed dramatically, when a person loses the love of their life it makes it hard to see your future. It’s a lot easier when you have someone, you can make these plans and you can visualize it. But when that one person that was there for you is gone then that makes the future harder to see. I think at that point everything becomes more about the immediate. Let tomorrow take care of itself.

They were all affected. It was really interesting how everyone was taken aback by it all. Certainly, the wives. Lois Lane was affected by it. I always tell people to read this by looking at this as a bunch of cops and their families – there’s a cop killer is what it boils down to. That’s the best way to really grasp the whole thing. Certainly the wives in that scenario because there is always that fear that they don’t come home. Despite the heroism, the abilities, the super powers, and all that they go up against people who are equally as equipped to do some serious damage.

Credit: Rags Morales (DC Comics)

Of course, Tim. He can no longer be a happy-go-lucky Robin. Dick Grayson was the only one who was able to survive being Robin. All the other Robins have been tortured. He’s the only one to maintain his own sense of light heartedness and looking at life through a smile. The wives, Tim Drake, and, of course, Ralph were the most affected.  

Nrama: Were there any beats that you had to use in this story because editorial needed a certain scene in the book since this was an event for the company?

Morales: No, it was all there for me. When I did the thumbnails I actually handed in the thumbnails with the coloring because there’s a marker company called Prismacolor and they have gray tones. So when I did the thumbnails I did them in marker with cold tones and warm tones. So I had different light sources so I could hit very dramatic lighting effects. Certainly, they all saw that because I would hand that in so Alex Sinclair could have an idea of where I’m going color wise and he really liked that, which was probably the start for me to doing more wash in my work to help colorists because they like it when they are not given too much to think about because they are the last people in the line and they are usually given very little time to finish a project.

Handing in all that stuff they saw everything ahead of time, there was not really much communication back and forth saying this had to be this or that had to be that. At least, I don’t recall anything like that. It was pretty much here’s this script, do that.  Like I said, it was a very tight script and Brad had a very specific vision for it.

Credit: Rags Morales (DC Comics)

Nrama: This week Tom King and Clay Mann wll be launching anotherpsychologically-driven DC Crisis event called Heroes in Crisis. Do you have any thoughts on the event and what you would like to see personally come out of it? Any advice for what the event can learn from your work on Identity Crisis?

Morales: You guys know things before I do. I’ve been out of the mainstream for a while, working with Claudio Sanchez on his Amory Wars book. I really haven’t been paying much attention to what has been going on. So I couldn’t tell you. I can only hope it’s successful.

If I can give any advice I would say listen, you are going to get what you signed up for. The idea of art is able to tap into the human condition. Anytime you can draw any type of anger from fans because you killed off one of their favorite characters, as if the people who hired me is going to fire me for doing my job, but if I get that kind of emotional response ever I feel pretty good with what I have done. Not for hurting people’s emotional attachments, but I feel happy because I’ve done my job as an artist.

I think every artist should be rattling some cages here and there. It’s what makes life worth living, knowing how fragile it is and how we are dancing for a very short time. Anytime you can wake people up, and say you should really care for this because either this is going to be you one day or it will be someone like you that you know. Nobody gets out free. I think that’s what the job of art is, and whatever Crisis they do – and gee I hope they stop calling it a Crisis – call it a conundrum. I hope it’s well done. It’s very hard to do.

Credit: Rags Morales (DC Comics)

Nrama: Would you ever want to return to this story again? Any thoughts on how a sequel could work?

Morales: Oh no. When you do sequels you do it for money. That’s my view of that. I remember one time I talked to an editor they had pitched me – I think they wanted me to do some JLA work. I think it was centering around Hawkman at the time or something like that. He looked at me and he said you get to draw Hawkman again. I looked at my then fiancé and she looked at me and started to laugh because I did 21 issues of Hawkman.

When you do something for that long for over two years you basically said everything that you’re going to say. To only go back and to do it again it’s more of the same so let someone else do it, give them the chance to do something different and I feel the same way about Identity Crisis. If they would ever do a Ralph Dibny chronicles, cool, I hope whoever does it does a great job, but I hope it’s not better than what I did though.

Nrama: Would you like to see this story adapted somewhere? Either in one of the TV shows or a DC animated film. What approach do you think they should take with it?

Credit: Rags Morales (DC Comics)

Morales: I would love if an animated, CG animated house would handle it. Like a Pixar or Dreamworks. I would love something like that. A live action would be great, but boy I have been having a hard time getting my head around a lot of these costumes.

I’ve been watching Black Lightning, and I love everything about it but I hate the damn costume. Maybe it’s just me, but it’s just too much armor on superheroes. There’s no super powers any more it’s just all this crap on top of you that you get to run into walls with. I’m kind of resonate seeing something like that on the big screen. I despised The Flash’s outfit, all those wires – why? That’s not at all aerodynamic. I would think if you were running at super speed that stuff would be falling off of you.

Something like that I would like to see along the lines of a CG because then you have the freedom to be artistic and characteristic without having to worry about it looking odd and you don’t have to deal with all that crazy armor.   

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