Sunday, January 24, 2016

Retro Review: Identity Crisis

By a DC tradition going back to 1963, the word "Crisis" is used in the title of a story to indicate that the story is about interdimensional travel and a threat on a cosmic scale. It may seem, then, that the title of 2004's Identity Crisis, a seven-part miniseries that had no inter-dimensional dynamics, is a misnomer. Figuratively speaking, however, Identity Crisis did indeed rework the DC Universe, though it did so with physically and psychologically brutal events and unsettling, disturbing themes, rather than the science fiction notion of parallel worlds. The dark deeds around which Brad Meltzer centered this work set the tone for much of the next decade, and unquestionably had an impact that is still being felt today.

The plot of Identity Crisis – those events occurring in the present time – is a simple whodunit. Someone is murdered in the first issue, and the murderer's identity is revealed in the last issue. Along the way, there are red herrings that fool the heroes and attempt to fool the readers. There are, of course, suspects who turn out not to be guilty – at least, not guilty of the crime at the center of the whodunit – and there are false crimes, even extraneous subplots, along the way. It turns out that the false crimes were planned by the killer, but the murder itself was something of an accident, an assault leading to involuntary manslaughter. There are many twists and turns to complicate the mystery. Yet, the story is not remembered because of a death that takes place in issue #1, nor even the several deaths that take place thereafter, but because of the flashbacks that tell of events that took place several years before the time of Identity Crisis. Those events are still remembered as some of the most shocking in a mainstream comic book, and still help frame the code of morality for superheroes – and their creators.

From the beginning, there is a shroud of secrecy that hangs over the story. In the first scene, there is a box with something inside and we don't know what it is. Heroes and villains alike are trying to get information. The narration refers to events taking place before some mysterious "Now" and the reader doesn't know at first that the reference time is the death of Sue Dibny, the wife of the Elongated Man, Ralph Dibny. As the story goes on, the mystery format makes it natural that the reader doesn't know everything, but what is hidden is not so much the story of a murder as a story of disintegration as Meltzer breaks down the ethical binaries of the DC Universe. First, Meltzer makes the villains worse than they've ever been before. Then, he tears away at the moral unanimity of the heroes. He doesn't, to be sure, bring the heroes low as he does the villains, but he replaces the moral framework in which heroes are generally of one mind regarding acceptable conduct and creates one divide among them, then another divide, and finally a complex series of factions and facades, and thereby the DC Universe is irrevocably changed.

The first dark event to set the story in motion is the killing of Sue Dibny. Meltzer goes out of his way to make this hurt – we learn all about the love that Ralph and Sue shared and how special it was. We learn, also, that Sue was pregnant, which doesn't stop her killer from saying, with ambivalence, "Goodbye, Sue…" as a flamethrower is used to torch her body. At her funeral, Ralph is unable to speak, as his sorrow turns his face into a rubbery mess that makes a mockery of the tragedy and the solemnity.

Remarkably, the shocks have at that point just gotten started. Identity Crisis #2 presents the most shocking and controversial revelation, that the villain Doctor Light had years earlier raped Sue Dibny during a break-in of the Justice League Satellite; the rape is shown, partially concealed, on-panel. Arguably more unsettling is the way Doctor Light narrates the rape, mockingly, to the Justice League, making obscene taunts and threats after he is caught. The heroes are upset, and the readers were as well. Sue Dibny's rape was a bombshell, earning Identity Crisis attention in the mainstream media and infamy among some readers.

After the story had thoroughly darkened its villains, it was the turn of the heroes. Immediately after Sue's funeral, Wally West and Kyle Rayner learn that a group of older, Satellite Era, Leaguers have a dark secret. This leads to one reveal connected to the Doctor Light case, then another, and yet another. What is unveiled is that the JLA used Zatanna's magic to remove Doctor Light's memory of the rape. Then, to prevent him from repeating such a vile crime, they narrowly vote to alter his personality. This, they do, but with the alteration turning out somewhat more severe than they had intended. Finally, when Batman walked in on the process and flew into a rage, they froze Batman and removed his memory of the event.

Identity Crisis thereby introduced the term "mindwipe" into the vocabulary of early 2000's DC readers, and established it as a controversial weapon in their arsenal. The controversy is articulated by the characters within the story, with Green Arrow, Black Canary, and Green Lantern voting against altering Doctor Light's personality, and Batman, obviously, completely rejecting the idea. Both Wally West and Kyle Rayner also articulate shock regarding the practice, and the heroes who supported the idea nonetheless knew that it needed to be kept a secret, even from other heroes, seemingly from Superman, among others. However, it is the controversy that was new to Identity Crisis, not the mind wipe idea as such. The idea of memory wipes goes back to a Green Lantern story in All American #23 in February 1941. Later stories show heroes deliberately altering their enemy's minds, such as a 1948 story in which Batman uses an interrogation room to break a prisoner's will, and a 1952 farce in which Batman goes to great lengths to make the Joker doubt his own sanity. Even killing villains was not off-limits for Golden Age heroes, with Hawkman and the Spectre downright bloodthirsty while Batman, the Flash, and arguably Superman finished off some of their enemies deliberately.

However, in the older stories, there was no hint that the reader should doubt that the hero had acted appropriately and justly. What's new in Identity Crisis is the controversy. It's not the deed, but the reaction. Superhero comics operate under the universal truth that heroes try to act justly. When one faction of superheroes decides that another faction of superheroes has acted inappropriately, the worldview that superheroes are just is irreparably shattered, because at the very least, one of those factions is wrong. Mindwiping and even killing villains was not new. Superheroes judging other superheroes as immoral was.

What makes the knife twist deeper is that the mindwipes were not an event involving only some newer, morally suspect superheroes such as Guy Gardner or Booster Gold. The flashbacks in Identity Crisis involved Barry Allen and Hal Jordan, who were not even alive anymore when Identity Crisis hit store shelves. By placing them in the conspiracy, Meltzer made this story about the pre-Crisis Justice League, and tore down the black-and-white morality of DC's pre-Crisis superheroes.

In performing his rewrite of DC history, Meltzer included some thorough scholarship in the details. When, in pre-Crisis history, did the Doctor Light-Sue Dibny incident take place? A panel in IC refers to events from a 1979 story in JLA #166-168, and the deaths of Barry Allen's wife Iris Allen and Zatanna's mother, Sindella, also took place in 1979. According to Meltzer's revisionist timeline, these all took place before the mindwipe and the secret pact to cover it up. Meanwhile, a story in New Teen Titans #3-7 that shows a "dimwitted" Doctor Light is cover-dated January-May 1981. That story itself explains that Doctor Light had been psychically manipulated by Psimon, but IC attributes his state to manipulation by Zatanna. According to the cover dates of the original issues, the rape of Sue Dibny and its shocking aftermath must correspond to an unprinted story that would have taken place sometime between late 1979 and late 1980.

Meltzer’s handling of the DCU did more, though, than simply lower the bar of morality for its villians and heroes. A gritty, noir feel pervades his use of supervillains as criminals who just happen to have superpowers rather than as superbeings who just happen to be bad. Meltzer’s villains are involved in all sorts of criminal activity, and are first and foremost out to make a buck, often without the traditional flamboyance of standing up in costume to make a public show of some grand robbery. In contrast, Meltzer’s heroes are more of a family, if an often dysfunctional one, than the traditional DC lineup, with first names being used at almost every opportunity. These people, heroes and villains alike, feel more real than the characters of earlier years.

The destruction of traditionally "good" characters is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the handling of Jean Loring. This character had been through the ringer before: In pre-Crisis stories, she was driven insane, then cured of insanity, by the villains in two science fiction stories, and abducted by the villain in another. In Identity Crisis, she is conspicuously on-panel early and often, and was, before the conclusion, correctly identified by readers as the killer. Other possible culprits might have been motivated by a desire to strike heroes through their vulnerable loved ones (as Doctor Light articulates in the rape flashback); the story illustrates that this is not a sound motive for super criminals because it drives the heroes to harass all super criminals even harder than usual. Yet, Jean Loring's motive is less than rational: Seeking to win her ex-husband back, Jean plans to attack Sue Dibny with the use of the Atom's shrinking suit, give her a stroke "or something" and thereby draw Ray Palmer back to her side as her defender. Her microscopic invasion of Sue's brain accidentally killed her, but insofar as that goal is concerned, her plan works, until her culpability is discovered. She accidentally gives away her complicity to her ex-husband, Ray Palmer, at virtually the same time that Batman separately solves the case. Her efforts to conceal the crime include a staged attack on herself, a threat to Lois Lane, and a hit-for-hire that killed Jack Drake, the father of Robin, and his attacker, Captain Boomerang. In perhaps the story's weakest moment, she smilingly tries to get Ray to accept her despite the killing. Predictably, he doesn't go for it: The story ends with Jean in Arkham Asylum and Ray shrinking himself to go into some microscopic exile. Identity Crisis a fair mystery in the Agatha Christie sense, Jean Loring was already marked as a damaged individual all the way back in 1970, decades before Meltzer planned this story. Surely, earlier writers didn't foresee her future use as the villain at the center of a rape-and-murder story, but Meltzer didn't choose the story's killer arbitrarily.
JLA #81: Jean Loring's first bout of insanity
While many readers objected to the formulaic and seemingly unrealistic "good person goes insane" story arc, it is worth remembering the character's history of externally-triggered madness, and one might consider that, whether or not it made

Jean Loring's role in Identity Crisis may have had some slender precedent in the past, but superhero comics had never seen anything like the rape of Sue Dibny. The shocking reveals and realism (not the same thing) in Identity Crisis create an unmistakable air of revolution. The use of Silver Age characters, including a pointed statement that Hal Jordan might soon return from the dead, turned the Crisis on Infinite Earths revolution into a counter-revolution, and Identity Crisis became the first of several monumental works that rolled back the entire post-COIE continuity. Within four years, it would all be undone: Hal Jordan would return to life as soon as Identity Crisis ended, then Infinite Crisis would bring back the Multiverse, and Final Crisis would bring back Barry Allen. The entire era from Infinite Crisis to Flashpoint was presaged by Identity Crisis. The darkness implied by Identity Crisis joined the deaths of Superman and Jason Todd and Bane breaking Batman’s back to become a rationale for Infinite Crisis and seemed to justify a quest to repurify the DC Universe.


  1. I have such mixed feelings about this story, Rikdad. Some days I outright hate it, other times I really appreciate it. Great blog!
    I like how an issue in the weekly series '52' tied up a couple of the mysteries loose ends, like what was the sound Sue heard from the other room before she died.

    1. Although why she had a flame thrower with her at the time of the murder is still something of a question

  2. Although I've read "52" a few months ago, I can't recall the details to which you allude: The major events of the Ralph Dibny plot were very well done, and really justified the off-the-wall approach of making that series center on minor characters. I should be reviewing "52" soon, although it may merit more than one post.

    There are many blanks in the mystery, and the flamethrower is certainly one. Among others, Animal Man was on the scene to pick up scents, and if Jean was full-sized, then he should have detected her. Apparently, she visited the scene in person, with Ray, between the killing and before the investigation, so they may have excused her scent in the room on that basis, but that still should have put her on Batman's short list of suspects.

    I don't see an explanation, either, for why their team of investigators in the Dibny home were not used in Jean's home after her attack.

    It's not, then, that strong as a mystery, which we can perhaps excuse, because it serves other purposes, although it obviously makes so much effort to be a mystery.

    1. all great points Rikdad. The detail I mention in "52" takes place during Week 27. Ralph Dibny with an assist from the Spectre is able to transport, with an Eclipso possessed Jean Loring, back in time to moments before Sue's murder. Eclipso accidently knocks a vase over during the struggle, which accounts for the sound Sue hears while upstairs which prompts her to call out "Ollie, is that you?"
      Mark Waid wrote the scene and discusses it in the writers commentary that the "52" trades (in a very welcome special feature) include at the end of every issue.

  3. Rikdad -- Well stated. This series had brilliance in terms of setup, setting and characterization, even if it fell apart on some of the mystery details near the end (which often happens -- Bruce Wayne: Murderer/Fugitive had a key moment when Nightwing deduced the real killer had to be small, and then it turned out to be a hulking David Cain). When I read this, I thought Jean still believing Ray might stay with her after the revelation was Meltzer's way of indicating just how deep her insanity was; it became a moment I remember because of that interpretation.

    Twelve years later, I lament how few comics stories feel as layered as this one did. It was a rare feeling as a reader of truly wondering what might happen next, page turn by page turn, mainly because the heroes had lost their compass.

  4. ManWithTenEyes,

    As I posted elsewhere, I'm not sure if any "fair" mystery in a serial format during the Internet era is possible. If it's solvable, then someone will solve it and spoil it. If it's not solvable, then it's not a fair mystery. What we have, instead, are things like "Who Shot JR?" which stir up interest, get people guessing, and there is a resolution, but there was no way to prove a guess in advance. In a way, the Black Glove mystery was a bit like that: There was no way to solve it in terms of fingerprints and timelines and who-knew-what-when or anything like that: One just had to try to decipher the author's intentions.

    And, you're right: This story is, despite whatever flaws it has, worth thinking about 12 years later, and I'm not sure if anything published in 2016 will be an interesting topic in 2028, but here's to hoping…