What Were They Thinking?: Crisis Identified

We've covered a lot of bad storylines here on What Were They Thinking?. That's only natural, seen as this is the place where we look at all of the stupidest and most ill-advised things in comics history. But we've never covered a storyline that has been refered to as "the comic that ruined comics". Now what storyline could have recieved such a negative accolade? Perhaps it was something from the 90's, like The Death Of Superman, which ironicly killed off the concept of death in comics. Or maybe it could be refering to One More Day, the Spider-Man storyline that more closely resembles excrement than Fearful Symmetry. Or maybe it is refering to something like Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns or Crisis On Infinite Earths, which are absolute classic storylines but had a negative impact on the direction the industry would take as a result. Well, actually it's none of those. We are in fact taking a look at this:

Yes, Ladies and Gentlemen, the time has come where we must talk about Identity Crisis, the first of the mid-00's crossovers from DC comics. But why talk about Identity over Infinite or Final Crisis. All are pretty bad, Infinte Crisis being famous for giving the world the concept of being able to bend and break reality by punching it, whilst Final Crisis decides to take The Monitor from COIE and make him a part of a race of extra-dimensional vampires, and the story makes just as much sense due to the concept of reality crumbling around it. So, why cover Identity Crisis? Well, it goes back to that old WWTT staple, rape.

The overall story of Identity Crisis is much simpler than either of its siblings, at it's core it is a simple murder mystery, that sees the heroes hunt for the person who is killing various people close to various other heroes (such as Sue Dibny, wife of the Elongated Man and Jack Drake, the father of Tim Drake aka Robin). However, things start to go off the rails when we get to the suspects and motives.

You see, until the actual perpitraitor is revealled, there's only one real suspect, Doctor Light. It turns out that some years before Doctor Light had broken in to the Justice League Watchtower whilst the League were out fighting another villain and had attacked and raped Sue Dibny, who was in the Watchtower at the time. Light is also later revealled to be a serial rapist, something which was never hinted at prior to this storyline. When the League found out about the rape, they decided to wipe Light's mind of the incident and alter his mind to reduce his powers, which leads to them giving him a partial lobotomy. This whole aspect of the story was to retroactively explain how Light could go from being a villain capable of taking down the Justice League (as he was in his earliest appearances) to a joke who couldn't even beat Little Boy Blue and his Blue Boys, let alone the Teen Titans. But does anyone else see the major problem here? Well, let's break it down.

Firstly, they used rape as a plot point and it wasn't even the main focus. It was a side-plot. Light wasn't even the murderer, they just added a rape to their murder-fest for no reason other than to retroactively make a C-Grade villain feel like a threat. The victim got no character development or retribution in the storyline, they'd killed her off at the start. At least they didn't go down the victim-blaming route that Marvel liked to in the 80's, so that's a plus. But did the rape add anything to the story? Not really, in fact it actually had a real negative impact.

Which brings me onto point two, how bad the rape side-plot made the heroes look. They decided to mess with the mind of another human being in order to change their behaviour. That sounds scary enough without the fact that they botched it and ended up lobotomising him. There is, of course, a very fine line here. Many superheroes opperate outside the law, but most (if not all) stick within its guidelines. But this pushes that line to breaking point. It is the equivelant to Batman actually killing Joker. Yes, it would solve the problem, but it isn't what a "hero" would do. And it doesn't matter that they put it to a vote and that vote was 4 in favour 3 against (if you're interested it was Hawkman, Atom, Zatanna and Flash (Barry Allen) for and Green Lantern (Hal Jordan), Green Arrow and Black Canary against) they all went along with the descision afterwards. It made them all look bad.

If you take into account what was going on at the time in the world, this could be seen as somewhat of a social commentary on the use of torture in the war on terror, discussing the ethics of "the good guys" doing something evil for a good reason, how should you deal with people who have commited terrible crimes. Problem is, a crime is still a crime no matter how justified you think it is (how else do you think terrorism happens?) so dealing with a criminal in a way that would, in any other scenario, be a crime its self, then sorry, you lose the moral high-ground on that one. Especially when you start doing the same thing to anyone who disagrees with you. Oh yeah, did I mention that they mind wiped Batman as well because he didn't agree with what they were doing? Because they damn well did. If they hadn't crossed the line before, this is where DC went all in.

So that's why Identity Crisis is so objectively objectionable. It used rape as a side plot and made the heroes look almost as bad as the villains? But why do some people describe it as "the comics that ruined comics"? Well, it's the precident it set. We'd had dark storylines before and seen heroes toe the line (see, Wolverine) but the fact that this storyline set the bar for moral ambiguity in heroes left an impression on the industry. Suddenly, heroes could no longer be as heroic (see The Avengers and X-Men deciding to kill Scarlet Witch in House Of M only a few months after Identity Crisis finished, Tony Stark, Reed Richards and Hank Pym building a clone Thor that kills Black Goliath in Civil War, or what about everything Marvel have done to Cyclops since House Of M finished) and the villains would have to be worse than ever before in order to get any sort of reaction (see Joker cutting off his own face in Death Of The Family, Ultron killing pretty much all of humanity in Age Of Ultron or everything that happened in Ultimatum). Identity Crisis may not have been the origin point for many of these problems, but it applified them and accelerated their encroachment into almost every aspect of mainstream comics. Is it the worst comic ever released? No, nowhere near. But it is certainly one of the most destructive.

And with that

JR out.

About JR19759

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4 Responses to What Were They Thinking?: Crisis Identified

  1. CantDraw says:

    Whether you like the story or not, it turned DC to a darker direction. I grew up on DC Comics and always preferred it to Marvel because they were more heroic and hopeful. Identity Crisis turned them toward a darker path which has led them to where they are today. Fortunately, “Rebirth” is attempting to reclaim the higher ideals they once held and hopefully take them on a better path toward the future.

  2. hillbilly says:

    Again you miss the whole point. Why was the rape used? Simple to tie in batman. Batman was against it, and was going to take out the hero’s who did it, but they also wiped batman of remembering it. Plus they have done this before to others. Afterwords, batman remembers and because of this he creates the Brother MK, to watch the hero’s. Which is a big tie-in to Infinite crisis. Plus, Batman is the moral compass of DC. And doing it this way, it pits batman against the whole DC universe. Plus it gives reason why Batman has a plan for every superhero. And why he watches the “watchmen” so to speak.

    The same goes for Light. In the process, they accidentally gave him a partial lobotomy, thus explaining how he fell from a plausible foe of the Justice League to a punching bag for the Teen Titans. After he gets his memory back after IC, he also got his silver age powers, and beat all the Teen Titans. Why did they use light. He was a villain for all the current JLA(except bats).

    To me this subplot was better than the main plot.

  3. JR19759 says:

    @Hillbilly- No, I get the whole point and I still find it distasteful. There’s only ever been one acceptable use of rape in any superhero medium (as far as I’m aware) and that was in the Jessica Jones Netflix series (and to a lesser extent the Alias comic it was based on though she is never physically violated in the comic). And the only reason that is acceptable as a plot device is because the main focus is on the character who was raped, they depict the effects of rape on the victim in a tactful and fairly true-to-life way and the victim gets their retribution in the end. It was not a plot point used to further a stroyline in which the victim is not involved and it most certainly didn’t see the victim killed off as a catalyst to go “oh look she was raped once upon a time, now let’s go and talk about unlawful lobotomy”.
    Then you have the mindwiping of Batman. Did that need to happen? No, not really. It made the JLA look even worse than they already did for what they did to Light and it could have been worked around quite easily by having Batman not know about what happened in the first place and having him find out during the course of the story. You still get his motivations for what he did in the build up to Infinite Crisis (alongside everything they did in Countdown) and he doesn’t lose any “world’s greatest detective” points from it because you just roll with the same justification they use in the comic for why he hadn’t figured out what happened: he did, he’s Batman, he always knows, he just didn’t have enough evidence to confirm what he suspected.
    Light’s role in all of this is understandable. As you said, he is a villain that has connections to everyone in the League and he had a major power drop between the Silver and Bronze Ages. But having the heroes lobotomize him? Yeah, makes him look like a big threat, but like I said, it makes the heroes look much less heroic than it makes Light look more villainous. There are plenty of ways to drop a characters powers in comics (just look at Superman, his powerset halved between the Silver Age and the Bronze Age, they just made up a new form of Kryptonite to explain it). They could have done anything to explain it and could have done anything to explain how it was reversed. They chose the worst possible option.

  4. hillbilly says:

    I agree with that, but we still never had a actual reason why bats keeps a watch over everyone. The whole “What If” argument was never a popular reason with creators. How can you write a hero, that could possible go rogue, yet make moral decisions every month. It put a cramp into the whole creative process. So what they did is only have 3 who voted for the mind wipe. That being Hawkman, Zatanna, and the Atom who don’t wouldn’t think twice about outright killing someone. Only Flash(who was the deciding vote) was the surprise, but he was under stress from his own wife death at the time.

    Now with that said, bats didn’t know about the vote, but arrived afterwords and saw the result, and freaked out. So they either wipe bats mind to keep him from in effect taking them out. Because of these 2 decisions, Zatanna leaves the JLA. Matter of fact, only the flash stays in the team who wasn’t part of the wipe vote. The rest leave. Plus we see that catwoman was wiped to stop being a criminal.

    This was the Batman crisis in a nutshell. Why he only really trusts Superman. Why he is the moral compass of the DC universe. So now we have a actual place to point out when you wonder why Bats, monitors the hero’s. That one rape, opens up a dozen different stories that involve 50 different hero/villians. I think it was well used.

    And their has been some good use of rape as a plot point in DC. Raven, is born from a rape. Huntress was raped while a child, and fueled her hate for the mob. Bats was raped(depending on which retelling) to have his son. Bleez gets her rage for the red lantern from being tortured and raped by the yellow corp. Grace of the Outsiders was raped for years until her powers developed. Not all rapes are bad to further a story. It is just taboo in comics to use it.