Cape, Tights and Cowl: The Secret Identity

One of the most common attributes (and argued by some as THE defining trait) of a superhero is their secret identity. Superman’s secret identity is Clark Kent. Bruce Wayne is the man behind Batman. Barbara Gordon, Cassandra Cain, Stephanie Brown and then Barbara G again have all held the Batgirl mantle.

batgirl-000-19(From Batgirl #0 by Gail Simone and art by Ed Benes)

What’s up with the secret identity?

Secret identities were created to protect the loved ones of superheroes as well as themselves. Villains, the media and even agencies such as the government all have reasons to know who the city’s champion is behind the mask to either regulate them, parade them for ratings or destroy them. I found that the use and even the definition of secret identities have evolved and grown from their appearance along side our first superhero in the late 1930s.

How exactly?

Well let’s look at the example of Wonder Woman. When she first appeared in 1941, William Moulton Marston (pen name Charles Moulton) gave Princess Diana of Themyscira (or “Wonder Woman” to Man’s World) a secret identity as Diana Prince, an army nurse. At some point, Diana Prince as a secret identity disappeared where she was Wonder Woman all the time. She called herself Diana of Themyscira which is how she introduced herself when first coming to Man’s World in her signature costume but Wonder Woman was what people ended up bestowing her with. My point is that at some point (I think it started during George Perez’s run but definitely during Greg Rucka’s) Wonder Woman had no “regular Jane” identity but still functioned as a superhero. One could argue that there were downsides such as loved ones getting hurt but you could also say that she didn’t lose loved ones due to a secret double life. This is where the need of secret identity in order for something to be superhero story is challenged.

wonder woman

Another example would be Batman and the question of  “Who’s really Bruce Wayne?”. I saw a documentary on the History Channel called Batman Unmasked: The Psychology of the Dark Knight and one of the things it discussed was who was the secret identity? Is it Batman or Bruce Wayne? Many people (including myself and the documentary) believe that Bruce Wayne is the mask whereas Batman is his true self. This is different from the inception of superheroes where in order to protect oneself and other, you’d wear a mask a create this persona for yourself.  When Bob Kane with the Help of Bill Finger created our caped crusader, the reason for his costume is explained. He wants to strike fear into the heart of criminals and thus making Batman a tool to fight crime. These days however, Bruce Wayne is now the tool to make sure suspicious is thrown off of Batman and this can be seen in the amount of time he wants to spend in the Bat suit and that part of his life versus the philanthropist billionaire playboy. I’m sure if he could, he’d eat, sleep and breathe Batman 24/7.

(I suggest watching this. It’s a really great documentary. I also suggest watching The Science of Superman)

The secret identity has been the staple characteristic of superheroes that has created memorable and iconic symbols we recognize today such as the ripping open of Clark Kent’s shirt to reveal the Superman sign or going into the phone booth to change into Superman. The notion of the secret identity has been infused with deeper meanings but also challenges it’s existence or need for one. For me, I find that having a dual identity adds some personal conflict to our heroes by having them judging two lives and their need to save people as well as have a life of their own with some form of normalcy.

So what do you guys think of the secret identity? Need it? Love it? Has it changed or remained the same for you?

A. A. Omer

P.S.

I forgot to mention Tony Stark who side stepped the whole “secret identity” thing by announcing to everyone that he’s Iron Man.

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