Of Men and Supermen
Some men and women are ordinary. Similarly, there are men and women who are extraordinary. In comic books, they tend to be the same.
You cannot have a superhero without the person behind the mask and cape.
George Bernard Shaw wrote a play called Man and Superman, a comedy of manner with anarchistic philosophical ideas (I am oversimplifying). The play shows its themes through the characters of Jack/Don Juan, Anne/Doña Ana.
Duality as plot and storytelling device. Where have I seen this? Yes, comic books.
Ever since the Scarlet Pimpernel became the costumed alias of Sir Percy Blakeney (as far back as 1903) crimefighters have used secret identities. Zorro and the Lone Ranger would continue the tradition. But it would be Superman in 1938 who would popularize this comic book trope.
Therefore, it saddens me when on last week’s Superman #18 (written by Brian Michael Bendis and art by Iván Reis), he reveals his secret identity to the world at a press conference (at the Daily Planet, of course).
By the way, Lex Luthor‘s expression when finding out was priceless and made Superman’s reveal worth reading.
Revealing to the world Superman is Clark Kent opens many storytelling possibilities (and will increase sales due to shock value). However, was it the right choice? What do we lose by having a Superman without a secret identity?
If superheroes are wish-fulfillment power fantasies and modern myths, why do superheroes need secret identities? Are secret identities old fashioned? Is it time to ditch them? Let us debate.
The Case Against Secret Identities
Lots of superheroes function fine without one. Marvel heroes, in particular, do not need them. Captain America is Steve Rogers in name only. He is the Sentinel of Liberty always. No secret life, no domestics. Always Cap, always ready.
The X-men I can understand since they are shunned by society. Still, don’t they need to mingle with humans once in a while? Or hide from them in plain sight?
Iron Man, She-Hulk, Hulk, Spider-Woman, Black Panther, and Thor are heroes all the time. So are the Legion of Super-Heroes and the Doom Patrol.
And do not get me started on the Fantastic Four, the original ‘heroes as celebrities’ concept. Although the FF is a rich family living in a state of the art headquarters full of defensive weapons. Hence they can afford to be out in the public.
These heroes can function without secret identities because they have nothing to be afraid of. Some like Black Panther, Aquaman, and Thor belong to realms that are not easily accessible to humans. Others like Spider-Woman and Captain America, work for SHIELD or receive government contracts.
When being a superhero is your day job and most of your friends are superheroes, why do you need a secret identity?
Besides, is it not the right way to gain public trust to live your life in the open instead of hiding? Why hide in the shadows when you can do more good by becoming a living symbol in the light?
The Case For Superhero Identities
Being a superhero twenty-four/seven must be tiring. Even Superman and Spiderman need to take a break, no? Furthermore, some of them need to pay the bills and need a day job to survive. It is not like crimefighting pays (unless you are a mercenary).
Thor may be a god, Iron Man and Iron Fist are both millionaires, Wonder Woman, Black Panther, and Aquaman may be royalty, but the rest of us need a day job to make ends meet.
Moreover, some superheroes may lose their jobs if their double life was exposed.
Daredevil would probably get disbarred. Black Canary‘s flower shop may as well be destroyed or bombed by a villain. The Flash may get fired from Central City’s Police Department and J’onn J’onzz may as well stop been a detective.
Not only having a secret identity allows our heroes to hold a job, make a living, and attend school or college, but it also allows them to have a ‘normal‘ life. Have friends, dates, families.
Speaking of families, a responsible superhero would never harm their friends and families by going public and allowing every supervillain with a vendetta to kidnap, torture or murder them. It is common sense.
Notice how the heroes who do not have secret identities are also the ones who do not have elderly parents, wives, and husbands, and a social life which do not include other superpowered people.
Do not you get tired from your job and want to disconnect when you get home from work? Why some heroes choose the 24-7, always a superhero persona without allowing themselves to kick back at home with their loved ones?
Why Superheroes Need Secret Identities?
Do superheroes need secret identities? My answer: probably not. Most heroes do not need it. However, the reader does.
Yes, I said it. The reader needs secret identities even if they are perhaps outdated. Let me tell you why.
1. Character Identification –
I spoke about this a little on my post “Does Superman Needs to Be Fixed?” Clark Kent makes Superman. We can relate to his career, personal, and cultural struggles. Clark humanizes the godlike alien. Likewise, Spiderman would not be as relatable if he was Spidey always instead of Peter Parker, next door nerd.
2. Narrative choices and story potential –
Which is more interesting for a reader, Bruce Banner hiding the monster within him from the military and law enforcement or Bruce Banner as the Hulk always? Who else misses the two-people love triangle between Clark, Lois, and Superman? Or the narrative dichotomy of Flash Thompson disliking Peter Parker while idolizing Spiderman? What about Bruce Wayne avoiding the paparazzi and media, protecting his businesses while living a secret life as Batman? The readers lose those plotlines when there is no secret identity.
3. The “wow effect” –
Some superheroes have that “wow” effect; some do not. I am perhaps the only one who misses Thor been Donald Blake. Still, having the alter ego of this godlike hero being a crippled man was phenomenal. Nobody would expect a frail, disabled man to be the muscular god. Neither people expect a pre-teen to become Captain Marvel by yelling “Shazam!”. Clark unbuttoning his shirt to reveal the S shield while saying “this is a job for Superman” is such a powerful visual. Or the Flash launching his costume from his ring and getting dressed at superspeed. Amazing “wow” moments.
When the superhero does not have a secret identity, the reader loses. Granted, Marvel gets around this by giving their heroes human flaws. It does make for better storytelling and three-dimensional characters.
And yet, mortal, flawed heroes can be so isolated. The focus is on them, not the people around them (unless those people happen to also be superheroes).
Back when I wrote why I prefer DC to Marvel I mentioned DC heroes having defined secret identities as a major reason. And why not? It is good to be reminded there is a man behind the Superman. A woman behind the Wonder Woman. A human behind the Cyborg.
Although treating super-heroics as a full-time job produces its own storytelling possibilities, it has the effect of the heroes becoming more myth than people. Myths are not approachable; people are.
In conclusion, while superheroes do not need secret identities, they still serve as a powerful plot device and a way to ground our heroes into the real world. Getting rid of them may be a disservice to the reader.
After all, which kid did not grow up wanting to be Superman?
Reader, do you prefer heroes with secret identities? Or should they be disposed of? Share in the comments.