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Comic Book / Identity Crisis

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"Anyone who puts on a costume paints a bulls-eye on his family's chest."
Ralph Dibny, The Elongated Man

Crisis on Infinite Earths and Zero Hour: Crisis in Time!—these two series were massive crossovers and usually resulted in some form of Retcon for at least one character involved. Crisis was the big one, merging Earth-2 and Earth-1 together, bringing us into the newly established Post-Crisis era. Zero Hour… made Hal Jordan, the most popular Green Lantern, into a supervillain and mucked up continuity. What Identity Crisis brought was similar but definitely NOT what readers were expecting.

As the story begins, Sue Dibny, the wife of the superhero the Elongated Man, is mysteriously murdered with her body set on fire while her husband is on stakeout. The Justice League investigates the scene of the murder, the Dibny household, and are bewildered by the lack of evidence to be found. While sending out most of the League and the Teen Titans to look for fire- and/or teleport-based villains, the core members of the League (minus Superman and Batman) secretly turn their attention to small-time villain Dr. Light (the male one, not to be confused with the female superhero who debuted in the Crisis). But before they can confront him, Wally West and Kyle Rayner overhear the League's plans and demand to know why they are confronting Light.

They reveal that years ago, Dr. Light managed to teleport to the League's satellite, discovered Sue alone, and proceeded to rape her. Light is stopped quickly, but he lustfully swears he will do it again as soon as he's released and in the meantime will tell all the other supervillains how he raped Elongated Man's wife. The League then decides to wipe his memory and change his personality so the threat is defused. In the present, Dr. Light discovers he's the League's target and hires Deathstroke, but in the tail end of the fight, Light regains his memories and escapes, revealing the truth in an optic construct only the Flash is fast enough to see. The Flash sees that Batman was there the night Sue was raped, but Zatanna mindwiped him as well when he tried to stop Dr. Light's mindwipe.

Sue's autopsied, and it is revealed she didn't actually burn to death. Meanwhile, Jean Loring (ex-wife of Ray Palmer, aka The Atom) is nearly lynched by an unknown assailant, and Lois Lane is threatened by someone who knows she married Superman. Tim Drake goes through a parental struggle with his father, who knows Tim is Robin and wishes for his safety. Captain Boomerang reconnects with his bastard son and discovers he is a speedster. While the divorced Atom and Jean reconnect, Jack Drake, Tim's father, is sent a gun with a warning and attacked. Jack uses the gun to kill his attacker, Captain Boomerang, but is killed by one of Boomerang's weapons. Robin and Boomerang Jr. both lose their fathers, and the mystery is apparently solved… until the autopsy of Sue reveals tiny footprints in her brain, which really killed her. Batman learns of this and deduces also that the Atom didn't kill Sue, and we learn that Jean discovered one of Atom's spare suits. In an attempt to reconnect with Ray (her ex-husband), Jean tried to organize an illusion of a threat to superhero families, but accidentally killed Sue and hired the wrong assassin for Jack Drake. Ray commits Jean to Arkham Asylum, shrinks to a microscopic size, and disappears completely. In the end, the League is shaken up, it is implied by Green Arrow that Batman might know he was mind-wiped; Dr. Light regains his old personality, Boomerang's son becomes the new Captain Boomerang, and Ralph Dibny is now a widower.

So in the end, where the Crisis and Zero Hour were large crossovers that involved retconning and large gigantic battles, Identity Crisis was much more low-key, being a quieter crossover that was instead a murder mystery. However, that is why fans would point to this book if a new reader ever asked for a good starting point to get into The DCU. The retcons were smaller, but a little obvious. Especially with the Justice League.

Identity Crisis was directly followed by Infinite Crisis, which followed the typical format much more closely. Over a decade later, the story had a Spiritual Successor in Heroes in Crisis, another "crisis" that tackles a smaller scale threat concerning heroes' personal lives and privacy.

Written by Brad Meltzer with art by Rags Morales.

Tropes used in or associated with Identity Crisis:

  • Arc Words: "Who benefits?"
  • Artistic License – Nuclear Physics: A nuclear-powered character (Firestorm) is skewered by a sword. He has to fly off to prevent himself from killing his allies, as "They all know what happens when you puncture a nuclear reactor", and he is shown exploding. Except, as Greg Morrow notes, not much actually happens if you puncture a nuclear reactor. (Further flavoring the inaccuracy stew is that the character's powers were never shown to work that way previously; he had nuclear abilities, but was not a "nuclear reactor".)
  • Assassins Playing Risk:
    Chronos: He rolls double sixes. Mirror Master captures France.
  • Bad-Guy Bar: The villains have a satellite where they hang out for meetings and such.
  • Bait-and-Switch: The penultimate issue had Dr. Mid-Nite discovering a pair of tiny footprints in Sue's brain, suggesting it was the Atom who killed Sue. The issue closes with Ray Palmer and Jean Loring together, Ray wearing a very sinister-looking smile on his face. The next issue reveals that it was Jean, not Ray, who was the culprit.
  • Berserk Button: Deathstroke goes totally nonlinear when Ollie sticks an arrow in his (blind) eye. Calm and collected the first moment, completely insane the next. (In fairness to Deathstroke, he's going unstable from his serum again at this point.)
  • Bookends: The story begins with Elongated Man talking about how much he loves his wife. It ends with Ralph talking to Sue's invisible ghost as he goes to bed.
  • Brainwashing for the Greater Good: The Justice League B-team does this to Dr. Light but it alters him further than they expected.
  • Central Theme: Violation, be it sexual assault or mind rape. Or trust.
  • Clueless Mystery: Linkara once explained that one of his biggest problems with Identity Crisis was that the story followed this trope but had to contrive very bizarre reasons to do it.
  • Comic-Book Fantasy Casting: According to the collected edition, Rags Morales did this with a number of characters, basing them on actors, singers, models, and other famous people, including...
  • Conflicting Loyalties: The Flash must grudgingly keep a secret from Superman and Batman in order to protect Zatanna and her accomplices in the mind rapes. Mostly out of respect for his uncle Barry's memory, since he voted for the memory wipe.
  • Covers Always Lie: The JLA "Big Three"—Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman—are center stage of the cover for the first issue, but these heroes (with the partial exception of Batman) are very peripheral to the story.
    • The cover for issue number 4 shows Wonder Woman alone and front and center, but she only appears for two pages, and even then we only get to see part of her hip, a hand, and her lasso.
  • Coy, Girlish Flirt Pose: During a flashback of Ralph Dibny meeting his future wife Sue for the first time, Sue does this pose while talking to him for the first time.
  • Crossover Finale: While JLA (1997) wouldn't officially end until Infinite Crisis, the revelations about members of the Satellite-era League's mindwipes would be the beginning of the end for the series with one of the major factors, the Trinity's falling out, being sparked in part by Batman's reaction to his own mindwipe.
  • Curb-Stomp Battle: Perhaps as a Deconstruction "Batman vs. The Justice League" is no contest. Bruce is soundly beaten even without the heavy hitters like Superman or Wonder Woman taking part.
  • Darker and Edgier: With the DCU already being darker and edgier in most places, one might say that Identity Crisis is far more realistic. The heroes and villains are weaker than usual and the fight scenes don't last for too long.
  • Dating Catwoman: In the follow-up comic, Crisis of Conscience, Batman says he is especially upset because he fears that Catwoman’s Heel–Face Turn is due to Zatanna manipulating her mind.
  • Death by Secret Identity: We learn that during The Silver Age of Comic Books and The Golden Age of Comic Books, villains learned superheroes' secret identities all the time. Heroes toed the line of the Moral Event Horizon by using Zatanna to make them forget, and neglecting to tell the more principled heroes — such as Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman — who are also implied to have an inkling that something fishy is going on, but refuse to investigate why villains mysteriously keep forgetting their identities.
  • Deconstruction:
    • Of the Silver Age JLA. It fills in the blanks between adventures to explain the measures necessary to clean up after defeating supervillain schemes and restoring the status quo. They specifically reference an occasion when the Secret Society of Supervillains took control of the JLA's bodies and (likely) learned their secret identities. How do you think the heroes averted Death by Secret Identity for the villains? Green Arrow further suggests that Superman and Batman knowingly look the other way and don't ask questions about how the League's B-Squad does its clean-up.
    • More broadly, this deconstructs the hierarchy within the JLA, the role played by the "lower-ranked" heroes, and their feelings about that. It also discusses Elongated Man's feelings about being in the Flash's shadow, and how his love for Sue is in great part due to the fact that she looked past Barry and preferred him instead.
    • It also deconstructs the idea of the supposedly Crazy-Prepared Batman vs. the Justice League. The fight is no fight at all with Batman quickly dogpiled and overpowered, even by heroes who don't have superpowers.
  • Deconstructive Parody: Tegan O'Neil's remix of the third issue. "I make stabby."
  • Downer Ending: Even catching the villain doesn't make the ending any brighter.
  • Dropped a Bridge on Him: Firestorm's death really comes out of nowhere, has no bearing on the plot, and seems only to exist so that a superhero dies in the book to give it more dramatic weight. Then it never gets mentioned again in the book after the one page scene. The event was later followed up on in Manhunter, where the League tracks down his killer, but most people didn't know about that tie-in.
    • According to Firestorm Fan:
      It wasn’t a glorious or heroic death. Ronnie was killed by the Shadow Thief using The Shining Knight’s sword. It was a minor scuffle, the kind superheroes partake in all the time. Brad Meltzer’s intention with this scene was to show that sometimes heroes die a quiet, accidental death on the job.
  • Escort Distraction: In the opening, Sue Dibney sends Ralph off on patrol with Firehawk so that she can wrap up his anniversary present without him seeing. Unfortunately, he gets a different "present" when he comes back.
  • Eye Take: An absolutely haunting one, when Tim discovers his father's body; Bruce, still dressed as Batman, hugs Tim tightly, and all we see of Tim's face is one eye, wide and wild with grief, flooded with tears, staring back at the reader.
  • Fallen-on-Hard-Times Job: Captain Boomerang's last gig. By then, he's accepting any bottom of the barrel murder job.
  • Family-Values Villain: Captain Boomerang is trying to get in touch with his estranged son.
  • Flashback: A good deal of the story is told via flashbacks by Green Arrow to Wally West.
  • Foreshadowing: In issue 4, Green Arrow has a conversation with The Spectre/Hal Jordan on when is he coming back; Hal replies, "I'm working on it". This foreshadows Hal's return as Green Lantern in Green Lantern: Rebirth, which was published next month.
  • Forgot About His Powers: So many in the fight with Deathstroke.
    • Wally West forgets everything he can do aside from "run fast". Using the Speed Force to speed up his perceptions? Forgotten, unless he wanted to run into a sword. Stealing speed? Gone. Using his healing factor? Gone. Just making a tornado to blow Slade away? Gone.
    • Kyle forgets that his ring's entire point is to be a ranged weapon. He doesn't just not create constructs, he also doesn't even bother with lasers or containment bubbles.
    • Black Canary forgets her Canary Cry can destroy steel and also all of her martial arts training.
  • Freak Out: You can pinpoint the moment when Jean snaps completely in the flashback after she accidentally kills Sue (originally wanting only to attack but not seriously injure her), in a single facial expression hyperventilating and sobbing while grinning maniacally, preparing to burn Sue in order to cover it up. Her resulting complete insanity results in two more deaths.
  • Glory Days: Are way behind for Captain Boomerang, who veers quite close to Alas, Poor Villain territory.
  • Heinousness Retcon: Whilst Dr. Light was always a supervillain (including being a literal case of Light Is Not Good, given not just his power, but the fact he's a scientist named "Arthur Light"), in an attempt to explain him going from a dangerous criminal to an idiotic fool Identity Crisis retcons him to have originally been a monstrous Serial Rapist and that his Villain Decay was the result In-Universe of a group of Leaguers' effectively lobotomising him in response to him raping Sue Dinby.
  • I Never Said It Was Poison: In the last issue, Ray Palmer relaxes with Jean Loring. Jean offhandedly asks about where a certain note (which warned of Captain Boomerang's impending attempt on Jack Drake's life) came from. Ray, horrified, knows Batman had confiscated the note before it could get in the news. When he grills Jean about this, she confesses to killing Sue and hiring Boomerang and Calculator.
  • Idiot Ball: A superhuman search for evidence lead by "The World's Greatest Detective" doesn't check the phone records.
  • Improvised Weapon: Deathstroke takes out the Atom with a laser pointer.
  • Implied Rape: While it's clear what Dr. Light did to Sue, the word "rape" isn't actually used.
  • It Gets Easier: Jean clearly has a Freak Out after she accidentally kills Sue Dibny, but after that, she has little problem setting up Jack Drake to kill Captain Boomerang, and when that results in Drake's death as well, she doesn't seem all too bothered in The Reveal.
  • Keeping Secrets Sucks: Wally The Flash West finds this out in the end when he keeps quiet about the Justice League's mind rapes on villains and especially the one on Batman. Wally considers the mind rapes immoral and that they ought to be disclosed, but he's also very aware that if Batman ever finds out for sure what really happened, it would probably bring about the JLA's breakup as well as possible trouble for half its well-intentioned members. You can see in Wally's final panel in the story that the dilemma is eating him inside.
  • Light Is Not Good: To the point of rape — and like with Light Yagami, this is literally (given Dr. Light's powers and that his real name is Arthur Light) as well as figuratively.
  • Love Makes You Crazy/Love Makes You Evil: Jean, though it's implied it was the result of a nervous breakdown that got a lot worse.
  • Lower-Deck Episode: The important role played by the League’s B-squad members is front and center, particularly regarding post-conflict clean-up operations. It also shows some of the dynamics within the group and the true origins of the animosity between Green Arrow and Hawkman. In addition, besides Wonder Woman’s eulogy of Sue and Batman’s lead role in investigating Sue’s death and the revelation that he too was mind-wiped, the JLA "Big Three" barely appear in any of the issues.
  • MacGuffin: The Lex Luthor battle suit during the Elongated Man vs. Bolt stakeout at the beginning of the story.
  • Meaningful Background Event: When Dr. Light suddenly recovers his memory in the middle of a fight he flashbacks to the Justice League Tower where he's overpowered by all the League's members present. It's the very same scene that was shown when Green Arrow flashbacks the event for Wally West, the difference is that in Dr. Light's flashback, Batman is also included in the melée. If you're not looking for him you might miss this future important detail.
  • Mind Rape: The League pull this on Dr. Light and Batman.
  • Mutual Kill: Jack Drake and Captain Boomerang.
  • My Eyes Are Up Here: Subverted and Lampshaded with Slipknot. Green Arrow notes he's smart enough that his eyes are not on Wonder Woman's "famous rack", but on her hip—where her Magic Lasso is.
  • Mythology Gag: If you look closely at Sue's funeral, you can see Jack Knight standing next to Stargirl. This is actually Jack's last known appearance after retiring at the end of his series; as the Dibnys were key characters in Starman, it's fitting to have him here. He's pointedly not in his old uniform.
  • Open Secret: Green Arrow implies that Superman may be aware of the lobotomies that the Justice League has performed (see Weirdness Censor).
    • This is confirmed in Adventures of Superman #636, when Superman summons Batman and Wonder Woman to his Fortress of Solitude and confesses that he was aware that the League had Light lobotomized which resulted in an argument from Wonder Woman. This is not very surprising, as in the third issue of Identity Crisis, Superman can clearly overhear Ollie and Wally talking about Dr. Light's lobotomy, with Ollie saying that people "hear what they want to hear," which can be seen as a subtle reference to Clark looking the other way.
      Wonder Woman: How could you be so stupid?
      Superman: This wasn't simply about what Light did to Sue! This threatened to tear apart the League just as it was getting started! He bragged about it, he said he'd do it again! He was threatening everyone we loved—
      Wonder Woman: And a lobotomy was your solution?
      Superman: That wasn't the intention! But we couldn't lock him up, we couldn't take the chance he'd get free again. By the time I knew what had happened, it had already been done... ...and I kept seeing Lois, my parents... I kept imagining myself in Ralph's place....
    • As Owen Mercer questions why he sees Batman at the Drake household, the policeman accompanying Batman denies that he's there, even when Bats is right there in the middle of everyone in plain sight.
  • Painting the Fourth Wall: Dr. Light staring at the viewer as if to say, "I'm back."
  • Pietà Plagiarism: Ralph Dibny holding Sue's body in the comic's opening scene.
  • Plot Hole: It's mentioned that Sue was pregnant when she died. Ralph Dibney got his powers through the use of Gingold. One of the side-effects of Gingold is sterility. Where did the baby come from? (There's no mention of them using a donor or anything like that.)
  • Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil: Dr. Light's rape of Sue is enough for a circle of JLA members to lobotomize him, something they never did to any villain beforehand.
  • Red Herring: This turns out to have been what the entire rape subplot was, since it had nothing to do with who murdered Sue.
  • Retcon:
    • The reason behind the years of infighting between Green Arrow and Hawkman, thought to be because of their political views, is revealed to actually be over the decision to mind-wipe Dr. Light and Batman.
    • Later, it was retconned that Jean Loring was possessed by Eclipso the whole time.
    • The series retcons much of the goofiness of The Silver Age of Comic Books, particularly in the form of Doctor Light.
  • Revealing Continuity Lapse: The presence of Batman in Dr. Light's flashback when Ollie had said he wasn't there. These things happen by mistake in comics all the time, especially team books with many characters to juggle — but this time it's not a mistake.
  • Slasher Smile: was just like the old days, wasn't it?
  • Start of Darkness: Arguably for the entire present-day DCU.
    • And this was the last straw for Alex Luthor, Superboy-Prime, and Kal-L.
  • The Stool Pigeon: Wally West averts the Whistleblower Wilson (heroic) option.
  • Sudden Sequel Heel Syndrome: Jean Loring goes completely off her rocker to try and win back the affection of her ex-husband, Ray Palmer. Eventually it leads to her getting possessed by Eclipso.
  • Tomato Surprise: Batman's role in the Dr. Light incident and the subsequent mind-wipe when he objected.
  • Took a Level in Badass:
    • Deathstroke the Terminator goes from a Crazy-Prepared, highly trained and slightly augmented badass to a superhuman with reflexes that can allow him to "surprise" The Flash with a sword thrust behind Slade's back. That would be the Wally West Flash who once had time slow to a standstill when a sniper's bullet touched his neck.
    • This series revamped the Calculator into Oracle's Evil Counterpart.
    • The series also returned Dr. Light to a credible threat.
  • Took a Level in Jerkass: Before his resurrection, the original Black Spider was a vigilante targeting other criminals. This, taking place after his resurrection, saw him hanging out with (among others) Merlyn, the Monocle, Cheshire, and Deathstroke when Dr. Light turns to the assassins for help.
  • Tragic Villain: Sort of. The story doesn't make clear whether Captain Boomerang's son will turn into a villain. But it shows how he loses his father shortly after reconnecting with him and the indignity of watching the police deny Batman's presence in front of his very eyes.
  • Turn Out Like His Father: Captain Boomerang's son is good at throwing boomerangs as well.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Jean Loring's telling of Sue Dibny's death. We can't tell if it really an accident since she's appears to be mentally deranged.
  • Villain Decay: League members lampshade and reconstruct this trope in explaining how they caused Dr. Light to go from being a threatening villain to a total joke and, by the end, back again.
    • Bolt decays to the point of being shot and severely injured by two petty under-aged street thugs.
  • Villains Out Shopping: Merlyn is shown painting his scale model figures of period soldiers during his leisure time.
  • Weirdness Censor: When Wally West and Kyle Rayner ask how the inner circle managed to keep their memory-wiping exploits a secret from everyone else (especially Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne, who would probably kick them out of the League if they knew) Green Arrow says that the others "only hear what they want to hear." The conversation takes place not ten feet away from Superman - one panel is on his ear, but he's obviously not paying attention.
    • Subverted in Adventures of Superman #636; Superman reveals to Wonder Woman and Batman in his Fortress of Solitude that he knew about the lobotomy of Dr. Light, although he wasn't involved in it ("by the time I knew what had happened, it had already been done"), but kept it a secret because of the unrealistic alternative, such as bringing in half of the League to face "justice" for lobotomizing Light, as well as the fact that he sympathized with Ralph's plight at having his wife raped by the rapist madman who is Dr. Light.
  • Wham Line:
    Ray Palmer: How'd you know there was a note?
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: During a bonding moment with his father, it is discovered that Boomerang Junior has super-speed. The story proper never explains why, although Geoff Johns' run on The Flash would explain that his mother is Meloni Thawne (related to the first Reverse-Flash) and he is Bart Allen's half brother.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: A few, but the biggest being The Flash when he learns they wiped Batman's memory. And then the Flash lied to Superman about why the group was chasing Dr. Light. And then after finding out the whole story, he still doesn't tell anyone, out of respect for Barry (who was implied to have been motivated by Iris' death) and Hal.
  • Yandere: Jean Loring, for Ray Palmer.