LOS ANGELES -- Superheroes die all the time.
Superman kicked the bucket a few years ago but was back in no time soaring through the skies. Batman's sidekick Robin also bit the dust once. Capes fall and refill again, a new story begins, and crimefighting goes on ...
So after that, what's the worst thing that could happen to a fantastical crusader?
A seven-part DC Comics series has become a best seller by answering that question with a brutal premise: kill off a hero's wife.
That is the central story of "Identity Crisis," now reaching its fourth installment, that puts Batman, Superman, the Flash, Wonder Woman, Green Arrow and other notable characters through an emotional hell.
The story line has electrified comics readers by immersing the Man of Steel, the Caped Crusader and their fellow good guys in pain, guilt, anger, fear and realistic violence and consequences.
Could these icons of righteousness sometimes commit horrible wrongs in pursuit of good? Comics fans either adore "Identity Crisis," or consider it heresy. Either way, it's the No. 1 comic in the world right now.
"If nobody really cared, that's an insult to us," said "Identity Crisis" artist Rags Morales. "If they hate it, that's great. If they love it, that's great. But if they're like 'Ehhh ... So what? No big deal.' Those are the ones that would bother us."
The story begins with a well-known woman from the DC Comics universe - someone who didn't have any special powers - being raped and murdered: Sue Dibny, wife of Ralph Dibny, who comic book lovers know as the Elongated Man from the Justice League.
Nobody is safe: not Ma and Pa Kent, not ex-wives, not even the non-powerful acquaintances of villains are free from the serial killer's wrath.
A few of the world's most notable superheroes may have indirectly had a hand in Mrs. Dibny's demise, or unjustly punished the wrong suspect - and find themselves agonizing over the responsibility.
A villain who wants to destroy the world is one thing - but "Identity Crisis" writer Brad Meltzer said a single realistic death, in all its brutality, could have more resonance in his story as the consequences unfold in front of the reader.
"This is not an adventure. It's a tragedy," said Meltzer, the best-selling novelist of thrillers such as "The Millionaires" and "The Zero Game" and the co-creator of the new TV drama "Jack & Bobby." "It is taking the heroes and testing everything about them, putting them in difficulties and seeing if they come out the same way."
The fourth installment of "Identity Crisis" is due in stores next week. The first installment, which came out at the beginning of summer, is sold out, and just a handful of the first books remain in stores.
Both the appeal and the outrage of "Identity Crisis" is the way it alters the characters' lore. It would be one thing to kill off the Elongated Man. It's another to keep him alive - so grief-stricken that he literally cannot hold his body together when he breaks down.
DC editors say any future story featuring the Elongated Man would have to reflect his newfound suffering. Similarly, the morally questionable investigative methods of Hawkman, the Green Arrow and the Flash in "Identity Crisis" will reverberate throughout their own respective comic books.
"It has long-term ramifications for the next two years of storytelling, and we've already laid out one year," said Dan DiDio, the DC Comics editor who's overseeing "Identity Crisis." "It's a tonal shift. It's an attitude and expectation. The DC universe is a very optimistic place. It's a place you want to be living in. It's a place where you know they're building to a better future. They just have to work harder to get to that better future now, which is more reflective of the times we live in."
The first issue featured all the major characters arrayed around a coffin, with Superman at the center. The final installment will feature Batman on the cover.
Both of the stoic characters have tears in their eyes - not the usual dramatic pose of a hero.
Some comics fans are livid over the story. Morales said he has heard rumors about editors punching walls after reading the "Identity Crisis" script and other writers and artists who have threatened never to work with DC again, although few have come out publicly.
DiDio said most internal comics people who are angry are waiting until the end of the series to cast judgment.
Comics readers haven't been as restrained. The popularity of the books speaks for itself.
But there are strong detractors.
One recent posting on a DC fan Internet chat-room read: "Much as I loathe 'Identity Crisis,' I don't see that it's worth quitting DC over. The best way to combat the creeping 'Identity Crisis' syndrome in the DC universe is to do good comics that point the company in another direction."
DiDio understands the reaction, noting that the story line "in some way shatters the perception of the icons as they existed in a more pure time."
"But the newer readers, or the people looking for much stronger and multilayered storytelling, are embracing it," he added. "This book has generated no apathy, that's for sure."
In some ways, this is also a response to the popularity of rival Marvel Comics, which has such characters as Spider-Man and the Hulk, whose appeal comes from battles with personal woes as well as supervillains.
DiDio didn't want to go the "trouble with girlfriends" route, but he recognized that DC needed more emotional depth.
"I had the belief that our characters, being superheroes and cast in heroic roles, really have to be forced to examine what their desires and motivations are to be heroes. Why do they have that need to put their lives at risk above the lives of their own family?"
Meltzer said he pitched the story with the death of the Elongated Man's wife becoming secondary as the books progress.
"I said forget the death of the character, we're going to test every character in the DC universe. We're going to test what they believe, what they stand for, we're going to test whether Superman is as good as we think he is. We're going to test whether Batman is, too. Yes, it will be in the context of this murder, but we'll get so much more out of it."
Meltzer has been the focus of ire from the disgruntled fans, and adulation from those who love "Identity Crisis." He said it's inevitable that characters evolve as they pass from writer to writer and artist to artist over the years.
"The most beautiful thing about comic books as a medium," he said, "is the tapestry of interpretation."
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