What on Infinite Earths is: Identity Crisis?
At a midpoint between gigantic galaxy spanning crises that completely and explosively changed the past and future of the DC continuity the Identity Crisis mini-series was quiet and introspective. It was a detective story at its heart, about the wife of a superhero being killed, wrong leads being followed and the downward spiral into a history that everyone would prefer was forgotten. It was one of the central books in what would later be called the “Dark Age” of comics, where plot-lines competed to be more gritty and grim than the others. It is the book that has been cited as the root cause of rape being used for drama and back-story in mainstream comic books.
Retroactive continuity changes are a staple of superhero comics to the degree that they are often played for laughs. Everything that I am describing in this particular mini-series has been overturned several times since to the degree that DC was left with a pick and choose kind of continuity where writers could use the parts of history that made sense and ignore the parts that did not. The “retcon” in Identity Crisis was to explain away why villains mysteriously forgot the heroes secret identities and to explain why a cosmically powerful character like Zattana played on such a low level.
I am not going to spoil the central mystery of Identity Crisis because for all of its flaws it is still a perfectly functional whodunnit story and anyone who wants to read it can find the trade paperback online for a very reasonable price. It is not the main plot that makes the story interesting but the red herrings introduced along the way. The book does a good job of building a world around the repeated conflicts in the DC Universe, showing both heroes and villains socialising outside of work hours. The primary theme is that of the secret identity and it is examined from several different perspectives, all ending with the same conclusion that without the protection of a mask a superhero cannot perform their duties as their friends and family would become victims of gruesome reprisal. By taking the focus off of the major characters and spotlighting the “B-List” superheroes who do most of the background work you get to see superheroes as people doing a job instead of impossible ideals. This makes it all the more tragic when loss starts to strike among their ranks.
The big Red Herring in the book is a character named Doctor Light, a comically ineffectual villain in the normal continuity, usually paired off against child teams like the Teen Titans. The moment Sue Dibny, wife of the elongated man, is murdered the entire B-List of the Justice League take off after him. Interestingly enough, he doesn't know why. Eventually he is caught and the secret is revealed that many years ago he came upon Sue and brutally raped her. In light of those events Zattana used her magical powers to not only strip him of his memories, as she had dozens of supervillains before, but also to cause the shift in his personality that left him so useless in his criminal career. This is the heart of the moral problems of the book. While the heroes had more or less passed by any ethical concerns about removing villains memories they now baulked at the idea of changing their enemies personalities to protect themselves and their loved ones. It is strongly implied that Zattana had been forced into this role many times over the years and that the A-List heroes pretended that they were unaware of the dirty work being done behind the scenes to keep them safe. The tension was heightened when, after it had already been decided to alter Doctor Light the conspiracy were interrupted by Batman himself and forced to erase his memory of events so that they could proceed unhindered.
More murders are committed, the villain is caught and locked away but the book acknowledges that its events cannot be walked away from. The “happy ending” of the bad guy getting caught is spoiled by the knowledge of everything lost on the way there. It set the tone for so much of what happened to comics in the future. There were no more triumphant heroes, only bitter-sweet victories and memories riddled with remorse. Everything that made superhero comics a positive and unique medium, still rooted in the mythological opposition of good and evil, was chipped away piece by piece until we were left with the blurred grey mess of every other medium. The first blow fell here.