Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

The downward spiral of Arthur Light, Ph.D. (final Identity Crisis post)

Some comic book characters find eternal fame right from the start. Some rise from obscurity to become legends: John Stewart made one appearance in 1971, a few more Bronze Age guest turns then eventually he became one of the ring-wielders. Green Arrow, an also-ran from the Golden Age to the end of the Silver Age, launched CW’s Arrowverse.

Dr. Light (eventually revealed to be not a nom de crime — his name really is Arthur Light) went in the other direction. A formidable villain of the Silver Age, a solid B-lister, in the 1980s he became a joke and never turned things around. Well, until Identity Crisis turned him into a joke and a rapist.

It’s a shame because Dr. Light showed unusual tactical skills in his Silver Age appearances. Rather than commit crimes and wait for the Justice League to stop him, Light decides to strike before they know he exists. In “Last Case of the Justice League” he captures the entire team, banishing them to parallel worlds designed to neutralize their powers. J’Onn’s on a world of fire. Superman’s on a red sun world, GL a yellow world. Flash is trapped on a world where he suffers constant vertigo, making it impossible to run. And so on.It was not, of course, the League’s last case so in his next appearance, Dr. Light tries another innovation. Rather than take on the entire team, he decides he’ll battle them one at a time, starting with the Atom. By Silver Age standards, that’s astonishingly ingenious.

Of course it wasn’t the Atom’s last case either, but Dr. Light kept trying: Green Lantern, Flash and in the early Bronze Age, Superman. Eventually he wound up fighting the Teen Titans, figuring at least they’d be easy to beat, but still no.

So no, not a worldshaker, but you could count on him for a solid scheme and a readable story with some spectacular light-based super-stunts. And like Zatanna, having him move freely between different books was very novel for DC in the 1960s.

Then Marv Wolfman got hold of Dr. Light in an early issue of the Wolfman/Perez Teen Titans. Light decides to organize and lead a new supervillain team, the Fearsome Five. It proves a bad career move: his team realize he’s nothing but a bungling windbag and kick him out. Instead we were stuck with Psimon, an annoyingly pompous and omnipotent windbag (the Wolfman/Perez team’s contribution to the “my new character can beat everyone because they’re just that awesome!” school of comics writing).

I have no idea if Wolfman actually thought Dr. Light was a dork or if he simply needed a buffoon supervillain and picked Dr. Light’s name out of a hat. There were lots of jokes about the absurdity of his lightbulb trap for the Atom but it’s not particularly stupid as deathtraps go. Either way, it launched Light on a downward spiral he never got out of. With every appearance he became increasingly inept and cowardly, unable even to beat the children of the Golden Age Blue Boys in one story. It turns out he didn’t even invent his own tech, he stole it from a smarter dude who was planning to become a superhero.

Identity Crisis made it worse. He was still a loser and a coward; when he learns the League is after him for her death, he goes to pieces. Once Zatanna lifts her mind-control spell he regains his old forcefulness, but now he’s a slimeball for whom sexually assaulting Sue Dibney constituted a personal best. He’s lucky there’s not much lower to sink.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I’m calling for the Wolfman/Perez/Meltzer Dr. Light to be revealed as a Durlan imposter or a Doombot so that the real doctor’s reputation remains unsullied. There’s plenty of villains to go around; turning one of them into a loser, even if I find it out of character, doesn’t cause me to lose sleep.

But still.

#SFWApro. Covers top to bottom by Neal Adams, Murphy Anderson, Gil Kane and George Perez.





  1. Peter

    Identity Crisis was probably the first comic I read with Dr. Light. Then I read Ostrander’s Suicide Squad last year, which has a few Dr. Light appearances and where he was played as near-total comic relief. Those issues were entertaining, but the rape retcon really made every laugh I had feel guilty…

    My advice to the youth of today is to just read Suicide Squad unsullied and skip Identity Crisis.

  2. Jeff Nettleton

    Light was a fun villain, before Meltzer. His traps were imaginative, in the Silver and early Bronze Age and he was at least memorable in New Teen Titans. Then, DC just started picking on him and even stole his name to promote a female Japanese Dr Light, who lasted a shorter duration than a discount 60 watt discount bulb from a Dollar Store.

    I chalk it up to fin envy. Nothing says style like a sleek fin on the cowl/helmet: Rocketeer, Adam Strange, Dr Light, Starman, Yondu.

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