I've been reading Superman comics for an awfully long time now. Along the way, I've found more than a few stories that seem to have fallen through the cracks--stories that I always enjoyed, but have never been reprinted or given any particular acclaim. I'll be spotlighting a few such stories here, and I'll be starting with one that always sticks out in my memory.
Adventures of Superman #536, Action Comics #723, Superman: The Man of Steel #58, Superman #114.
The body swap story is a staple of sci-fi and fantasy. Seems like every cartoon, most comics, and several movies get around to it sooner or later. The event is generally preceded by some variant of the phrase "you wouldn't last ten minutes in my life," and the whole thing is an exercise in seeing what it's like in another person's shoes. The status quo is restored after both parties have learned an important moral lesson that other people may not have it as easy as it looks.
Sometimes that story's fun. Sometimes it's an interesting way of exploring the characters' relationships. More often, it's a paint-by-numbers morality play. But occasionally the writers do something different with the standard plot, putting familiar characters in very unfamiliar situations and seeing how they react.
"Identity Crisis" is the latter.
After a brief introduction that establishes one of the story's themes (the trust Superman inspires in the general public), we move briskly to Brainiac, strapped to a gurney in Lovelace Psychiatric Hospital, which is apparently just outside of Gotham City. Exactly how many nuthouses does one town need? Although, if Gotham goes through wards the way that Bruce Wayne does, it's not that surprising that there'd be three or four in the vicinity.
Anyway, it appears that the Brainiac personality is dormant, and Milton Fine, the mentalist whose body Brainiac has possessed and turned chartreuse since his introduction into the post-Crisis DCU, is in control. That is, of course, until the psychiatrist briefly remarks that there's a teenager in the hospital who has delusions of being Superman. Suddenly, Brainiac breaks free of both mental and physical restraints, and hatches some devilish plan.
After making some movement with the current subplot (Lois and Clark broke up; I'm reasonably certain it's because Clark accidentally checked "maybe" on her "Do you like me?" note), Superman has to go fend off the illusion of a mental hospital flying over the streets of Metropolis. After declaring to the panicked crowds that it's not actually a hospital, but instead an elaborate illusion, multiple onlookers state matter-of-factly that they'd trust Superman over their own senses. That, ladies and gentlemen, is trust. Surely it can't be misused!
You know what happens next: Superman goes after Brainiac, Brainiac does his brainy-action, and suddenly Superman finds himself in the body of 15-year-old Chas Cassidy, a seizure-prone kid with delusions of Kryptonianism. Brainiac, naturally, has taken over Superman's form, upgrading brains from Milton Fine's fragile human model. He quickly finds out that being a Kryptonian is harder than it looks, as he can't use his telepathic mojo through Superman's skull. Not that that really helps Superman, who exits the issue in the arms of two abusive guards on his way to electroshock therapy.
Now, here's where the story could have taken a very interesting turn, exploring what effect this trauma has on Superman's own mental state, and the various problems associated with ECT, but that could very easily have become a polemic. Instead, the next issue begins with a recap, and Superman shuddering at the thought of enduring another bout with electricity that once would have merely tickled.
In the meantime, Brainiac is exploring the world with his amazing new senses and powers, but he eventually discovers that even Superman's brain has a storage limit. Playing on the public's trust, he's able to organize a massive televised conference as a front for using the Metropolis populace as a giant jump-drive.
Superman--powerless, imprisoned, thought crazy, and wracked with debilitating seizures whenever he gets particularly excited--relies on his wits, his contacts, and his knowledge of Metropolis to give the abusive guards a bit of comeuppance and escape from the hospital, beginning the trek back toward force-field-contained Metropolis. This leads to a great scene where, to avoid being recognized when his picture shows up on the news at a bar, Superman-in-Chas grabs a pair of glasses and slicks his hair back. Old habits die hard.
The story proceeds as you might expect, albeit with a great little battle and some nice character work at the end. I'll let you track it down, since my synopsis doesn't do it a whole lot of justice, and since I doubt it would cost you all that much in your local back-issue bin. There's some great art (Curt Swan and Dick Giordano!) and some very '90s art (some other people whose names I only vaguely recognize!), but the real treat is something I didn't realize until I re-read the story tonight: the writers, Tom Peyer and Mark Waid.
When I get stuff signed at conventions, I try to go for unconventional books, stuff that might stand out from the crowd. I chatted with Gail Simone about "Rose & Thorn" #1 at Wizard World this year, and I gushed at Will Pfeifer about "H-E-R-O" last year, if that gives you any indication. When I make it to a con where Mark Waid's appearing, I'm bringing this story. Good stuff.