Friday, October 05, 2007

On Secret Identities

Ah, the secret identity, the classic troupe of superhero stories that falls apart the moment you think too hard about it.

I mean, it's hardly going over new ground to point out that a pair of glasses is hardly a disguise, but as John Byrne and Howard Mackie pointed out in an issue of Star Brand, even with a full mask it shouldn't be THAT hard for any motivated person to figure out the identity of any sufficiently public hero.

Add to that the fact that justifications for a duel identity are often weak and maintaining a secret life leads to some pretty irresponsible behavior, and it seems like a story idea that's not worth keeping.

And yet it persists. In fact, it's one of the things almost all superheroes have in common, from Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne to Harry Potter and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And while it makes no sense in terms of "realism," as power fantasy it's almost necessary.

It's what allows us to both empathize with a superhero ("Hey! I'm a mild-mannered schlub who awkwardly hits on my hot co-worker!") and imagine what it's like to have inhuman abilities ("Ooh, if only she knew that I could fly in my underwear!"). It brings the fantastic into the mundane world, and lets us imagine that anyone could really be a secret superhero, they just are hiding it, for some reason.

Perhaps the purest example of this fantasy is Captain Marvel. I mean, it doesn't get any more pathetic than Billy Batson, orphaned AND homeless eight year old, but with just a magic word he can become the most powerful superhero on the earth! And not just a kid superhero, either, like Robin or Kid Flash, but an adult, sidekick to no one! There, the secret identity works perfectly. One, it's a disguise no one is just going to see through, because he actually looks different in his different identities. Two, it makes perfect sense for him to hide the fact that he's actually eight. No one would take him seriously if they knew he was just a kid, but as Captain Marvel he gets the respect reserved for adults.

And, in a way, every superhero has elements of that escapism, even for the characters themselves: their superhero identities are where they are loved, respected, and feared, no matter how mundane their "real" lives are. That if their superhero life became their ordinary life, along with the ordinary problems of paying bills, maintaining relationships, just being human, then being a superhero becomes less special.

It's interesting how, on the whole, the Marvel heroes subverted the secret identity troupe, where people are burdened by their superpowers and secret lives. Either their abilities are feared by the general public, even when used for good, like the X-Men, or their abilities out and out prevent them from having a normal life, like the Thing.

Most interesting of all in this respect is the Incredible Hulk, who is the negative side of the superhero power fantasy, the dark incarnation of Captain Marvel. Like Billy Batson, Dr. Bruce Banner becomes a physically different being when he becomes the Hulk. But, instead of just being freed from the bounds of human ability, the Hulk is also freed from the bounds of human behavior.

Captain Marvel still feels bound to protect the city and save lives. The Hulk, on the other hand, does whatever the Hulk wants, which more often than not is destroying everything he comes in contact with. The Hulk is escape not just from the physical self but also the moral self, and demonstrates the usually catastrophic results of such freedom.

The secret identity is our doorway into the world of the fantastic, the device that allows us to be both ourselves the readers in the real world and our heroes flying through a world of wonder. But it's important to remember there is a risk to this escape, a danger of losing sight of consequences, and somehow seeing our own actions as the responsibility of someone else.


Just Another Girl said...

Having a secret identity is a fantasy of mine :), mother/housewife by day leather clad supervillain by night!, but i guess the secret identity its there to add some normality to the character a humanistic side that we can realte to, a job, a love intrest some vunerablity that makes them less then perfect.

Anonymous said...

I don't think they're worried about the generic major culture. I think they're worried about the 33.1's, the "Company" and other such small organizations. Once you're on the books, or on the radar, the comic and TV universes all have various well-funded will-do-anything organizations that would gladly take you away from Star labs and study you.

You can almost imagine some sick and wealthy person wanting you kidnapped just to that they can try to make super-medicine from your blood to save themselves. Or some strange terrorist group wanting to use you as a weapon. I don't think it's the large organizations that scare you - it's the small ones.

Anonymous said...

Great post (and blog, I've been lurking for quite a while). :) One of my fave things about Superman is the Clark Kent persona. I think he would have been less intriguing and interesting to me if he had no secret identity. It's through Clark Kent that I really got to know him better.

Secret identities fascinate and excite me. Also, the moment the character blows their cover and another character learns of their secret, a lot of that "magic" is lost in my eyes.

Jeff said...

Superman's an interesting case. Many writers take the tack that he's really Clark Kent at heart, and Superman is the secret persona, the part that the real man hides away.

Other writers approach it from the opposite side -- Superman, Kal-El, maintains a "Clark Kent" fa├žade. In one of his Superman novels, Eliot S! Maggin described Clark Kent as Superman's "hobby." Superman would come up with all of these things a "real" Clark would do, like boring his friends with vacation slide shows, and decorating his apartment the way Clark would.

The current approach in most media seems to be the former, with the popularity of "Smallville" in particular.

Anonymous said...

Personally, I think no face of Superman/Kal-El/Clark Kent is entirely false/dominant/true. No matter what persona he is in, he is essentially still the same: a good man. Not a perfect man or a wholly moral man (yes, I said it, he does lie after all!). But a good one. He is truly a hero at heart, but as Superman there are times it's just bravado or stoicism for the sake of keeping face in front of the public and maintaining an ideal of what they expect of him. As Clark--around other people--his nervousness and excitability can be genuine, out of 1) being grateful to have the chance to interact socially on a normal level and 2) having to control his strength constantly. And as Kal-El, although he is from another world and has to acknowledge his heritage, he was raised on Earth with the qualities of a human being.

Thus I consider all his masks only as partial ones. In his core he is all of these things, and without one of them he is incomplete.