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"Anyone who puts on a costume paints a bulls-eye on his family's chest."
—Ralph Dibny, The Elongated Man
When DC first announced their newest limited series, Identity Crisis, fans thought of two things: 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, the Justice League attend the funeral of Sue Dibny, the wife of the superhero, the Elongated Man. The League investigates the scene of the murder, the Dibny household, and are bewildered in 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 secretly turn their attention to small-time villain, Dr. Light (the male one, not to be confused with the woman superhero who debuted in the Crisis). But before they can confront them, Wally West and Kyle Rayner overhear the League's plans and demand to know why they are confronting Light.
The story goes that Dr. Light managed to teleport to the League's satellite and discovered Sue alone and proceeded to rape her. Light is stopped quickly, but uncontrollable, swearing he will do it again. The League then decides to wipe his memory and change his personality so the threat is diffused. As we later see, the Green Arrow, who is explaining, left out the part where Batman's mind was wiped of the moment when he tried to stop the mindwipe.
Dr. Light discovers he's a 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. Sue's autopsied and it is revealed she didn't actually burn to death. 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 discovered 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 and shrinks to a microscopic size and disappears completely.
In the end, the League is shaken up, it is implied 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.
It is important to know that the point of this story (at least now) isn't that it's supposed to be an "awesome story", but rather it is something that one isn't supposed to like , since it is a means to remove the rose colored glasses from the readers about the past and the present DCU.
However, fan response to this comic was still highly split. So Your Mileage May Vary, though it is worth pointing out Joss Whedon liked it enough to write the foreword for the trade paper back. But then again, Your Mileage May Vary on Joss Whedon too.
Identity Crisis was directly followed by Infinite Crisis, which followed the typical format much more closely.
Tropes used in or associated with Identity Crisis:
Chronos: He rolls double sixes. Mirror Master captures France.
- Badass Abnormal: 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.
- Coy Girlish Flirt Pose
- 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.
- 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.
- Deconstructive Parody: Tim O'Neill'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.
- External Retcon: Retcons much of the goofiness of The Silver Age of Comic Books, particularly in the form of Doctor Light.
- 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.
- Idiot Ball: A superhuman search for evidence lead by "The World's Greatest Detective" doesn't check the phone records.
- 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
- 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 and Love Makes You Evil: Jean, though it's implied it was the result of a nervous breakdown that got a lot worse.
- Mind Rape: The League pull this on Dr. Light and Batman.
- 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.
- Not So Harmless: Dr. Light, and HOW.
- Nuclear Physics Goof: A nuclear-powered character ( Firestorm) is skewered by a sword. He has to fly off to prevent himself from killing his allies, as "they ... 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 Did Not Do the Research 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".)
- Pieta Plagiarism: Ralph Dibny holding Sue's body in the comic's opening scene.
- 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. Unfortunately, this series led to other comics to include rape as a source of drama often with little need to and little tact.
- This pretty much upended Dr. Light's return to form, as subsequent writers tended to make him a serial rapist.
- Red Herring: This turns out to have been what the entire rape subplot was, since it had nothing to do with who murdered Sue.
- The Reveal
- 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.
- Stuffed in The Fridge: Sue. Mind you, it is a murder mystery, presumably someone had to get killed off to motivate the story, someone close to a superhero. However, that someone just had to be a superhero's wife. Also Jack Drake.
- Sudden Sequel Heel Syndrome: Jean Loring goes completely off her rocker to try and win back the affection of her ex-husband, Ray Palmer.
- Tomato Surprise: Batman's role in the Dr. Light incident and the subsequent mind-wipe when he objected.
- Took a Level In Badass: This series revamped the Calculator into Oracle's Evil Counterpart.
- The series also returned Dr. Light to a credible threat.
- Twist Ending
- 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."
- 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, without giving any reason for not telling other than presumably accepting Green Arrow's creepy monologue about how "the League always endures", which is yet another What the Hell, Hero? moment.
- Actually he does mention why he didn't tell anyone. He did it out of respect for Barry (Who was implied to have been motivated by Iris' death) and Hal.
- Yandere: Jean Loring, for Ray Palmer.