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Mama Deb
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Essay: Who, Disguised As: Secret Identities in the DC Universe

Superman and Clark Kent. Batman and Bruce Wayne. Wonder Woman and Diana Prince. One is just not a superhero without a secret identity of some kind, and one must do all sorts of things to maintain it. Superboy even had robots to take his place when Lana got too curious. Secret identities have always been a part of the superhero mythos. This essay will discuss the reasons, implications and effects of this concept.

This comes from my own personal history with comics. I read some Golden Age stuff, but stopped reading in 1976, during the Silver Age. I began again in 2000, so the changes were huge.

There are many reasons why costumed heroes wear a costume. They want some privacy. They want to have some semblance of a normal life. They want to protect their families and loved ones. They want to earn a living. They're doing something outside the law and will lose their freedom to act if it is known who they are.

Wonder Woman needed none of those things, but she was given one anyway because a hero has one, and in this case she got to be with the man she loved.

This need to have and protect a secret identity had a tremendous effect on the stories. They had to lie to their friends, coworkers and lovers. Lois dated Superman, not Clark; Steve Trevor dated Wonder Woman, not his dowdy secretary Diana Prince. And Bruce dated Selina, not Batman. Bruce always has to be different.

And then there are their relationships with other heroes. If they made the effort to keep their secrets - well, the other heroes wouldn't pry, although one can be sure that Batman knew anyway. But it meant that they had to put their lives in the hands of someone they don't actually know.

Even if they did know - they're friends or partners or even lovers, once they were in costume, they only used hero names. And when I watched or read these things as a kid, that seemed normal - that even in the Batcave, they would be Batman and Robin, or that Green Arrow would call his ladylove "Canary", not Dinah.

This created the impression that the people in the costumes were somehow different than the people outside them. More than that - the feeling was that the costume was the real identity, and the regular one was the disguise. This was heightened somewhat for the big three, as this was at the time the truth. Wonder Woman was the Amazon Princess, Superman was the alien, and Batman was...well. He did warp Bruce so no one would suspect the airhead playboy haunted the night.

And then we had the exceptions. Ralph Dibny, the Elongated Man never wore a mask or hid who he was. His wife Sue was a full partner. And this was shocking and strange. And in the 30th Century, the kids in the Legion of Super-Heroes sometimes used each others real names and never wore masks or kept who they were a secret. I remember loving this. It made them feel more like people.

I stopped reading comics for a quarter of a century. It wasn't purely by choice - they were getting costly ($0.33 an issue! Ate up a good chunk of my allowance.) and we moved to the suburbs. I didn't start again until 2000, and there were so many changes in that time - storylines, artwork, characterizations. If I hadn't read a few trades along the way and just heard things, I'd have been totally lost. As it was, I spent a lot time and money just getting caught up.

The attitude towards secret identities was one of the changes. I can point to various reasons, although I think many down to Crisis on Infinite Earths.

Before Crisis, there tended to be one superhero per name per Earth. The only exceptions were Green Lanterns, but there was a whole corps of them out there, so a couple of spares on Earth-1 weren't a problem, and Robins, but there was only one at a time.

After Crisis, the Golden Age versions of the heroes shared the same timeline as the Silver/Modern Age ones. We had two different Green Lanterns with different sources and weaknesses; we had three Flashes because Barry Allen has never lost his presence even though they have the grace to keep him dead. We had mantles passing from one hero to another. Once that happened, the person in the costume became more important than the costume itself.

Not only do we have two living and one dead Flash and several Green Lanterns, we have two Green Arrows, and frankly I'm not sure if they have any secrets - Ollie's goatee is pretty distinctive, as Connor's coloration, and Roy Harper is out anyway. We also have the memories of three - no, four - Robins and the wonderful and varied Starman legacy.

So it's no wonder we're seeing more first names - it's a lot less confusing. And as we're seeing them in a context of legacy and family, we're seeing them as more human who happen to wear costumes and have powers, training or toys.

One of the biggest changes is to the perception of Superman vs. Clark Kent. The TV series said, "And who, disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter..." which says that Superman was the real identity. Clark's glasses and suits were the mask and costumes. He's Kal-El of Krypton, strange visitor, not one of us at all.

That's not what we see anymore. That even felt wrong to write. Thanks to John Byrne and the 90s series Lois and Clark and the current series Smallville, we see the son of Jonathan and Martha Kent, who may not be human and who may not have been conceived on Earth, but he is no "visitor." And he is the reporter, the award winning journalist and novelist. He's the husband of Lois Lane. Clark Kent is real. Kal-El? That's his Kryptonian name. He's proud of his heritage as anyone should be, but it's not him.

And he takes off his glasses and suits and dresses up as Superman. But Superman is not who he is.

And then there are the heroes who put on costumes and maybe masks or wigs and even use hero names but who make no effort to keep anything a secret.

Some don't have a reason - Diana has been retconned into arriving with full fanfare as a Princess and an Ambassador. She's not about to take a job just to pine over a man. Others can't hide - Argent has silver skin, Metamorpho has multimaterial skin. Jade is green, and while she can hide it, she doesn't.

Some seem to have given up hiding. Of the former Teen Titans, kids who grew up as heroes, only Dick Grayson remained behind a mask until Wally West made a wish to be forgotten. Some were outed - Cassie Sandsmark, the current Wonder Girl, had to save people at her school.

And then there's Jack Knight. He's the son of Ted Knight, the first Starman, and everyone knew both facts. So, when he decided to become Starman himself, after his brother was killed, Jack did it his way. His "costume" was whatever he put on that morning, a vintage leather jacket and a pair of goggles. No masks, no tights, no capes.

I honestly was wondering what the future of the secret identity was - it seemed more and more irrelevant. Having two became a liability a couple of years ago when the JLA was forcibly split - and it was the unpowered "real" selves who saved the day.

Only Batman and Superman seemed to be taking any care, and Superman seemed to relying on the impression that he was always Superman all the time, just like Wonder Woman.

Except, a year or so ago, Wally West made that wish and now he has a secret identity again. And this year's big event, Identity Crisis, is all about this concept.
It looked like Sue was killed because Ralph was out; we saw the lengths they went to protect their secrets; and we saw how precarious it all was - how a former family member who knew it all could endanger them all.

The secret identity gives the hero downtime. It protects his/her loved ones. It enables the hero to have a life and a job. It means that the hero can to his/her vigilante work. It's also a secret that must be kept, sometimes at a high cost, and a liability. They promise that the events of Identity Crisis will have effects all over the DCverse, beyond the losses of Sue Dibny, Jack Drake and Jean Loring. I hope so. It needs to be done.


I noticed that shift in Supermans during Lois and Clark (though I was a media fan, not a book fan, so I had no idea that it was also reflected in the comics). Part of this is generational--the first Supes TV series was created by GIs, where the hero was the guy in the uniform. There might be a life back on Main Street, USA, but the real guy was the one who went out to fight and defend it. The '70s Supes, with Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder, was a Boomer Superman--he was a misfit who always felt out of place, and was looking for his true identity, which he found in his heritage. Saving the world was something he did because it was part of his self-actualization. Dean Cain's was very much a Generation X Superman--he knew perfectly well who he was: Clark Kent. He loved his parents, he loved Lois, he loved his job, and he saved the world because the world needed saving. He wanted the costume so that he wouldn't get mobbed--totally practical reasoning. (And engendering the best costume line ever, from Mrs. Kent: "Well, no one will be looking at your face.") It's not either/or--Clark levitates while he's typing and uses his heat vision to get a close shave. I'm not sure this isn't a cyclical thing (I'm a semi-groupie of Neil Howe and William Strauss's Generations) rather than a straight-out evolution. If the comics are starting to turn back to the secret identity, we may start seeing a bigger, GI-style split again.

You maketh v. good point, especially the whole Gen X thing about knowing exactly who you are - it comes in for the Gen Y lot, too. Though I'd say that the whole switch back to secret identities is more a post 9/11 manufactured-for-govt-convenience paranoia issue. The sheer amount of paranoia you see when the world is not in fact any more nor less dangerous than it used to be... Christ, they're trying to make us do Identity cards in the UK due to supposed terrorist threat, and has it not occurred to them that the daily threat is in fact ten times less since the IRA stopped its operations a few years back?

And they're still positing the fact in comics that the mask-less identity is in fact the 'real' face in DCU. (well, except for Bruce/Batman, except he's an acknowledged freak) Mind you, the only new-generation Teen Titan who doesn't have a secret ID is Cassie Sandsmark, due to being forcibly outed. Superboy's just acquired one, and the younger generation of titans (the ex- Young Justice) are all fiercely protective of theirs. It's the older generation, the original Titans, many of whom can't actually hide their ID (green, alien, 60% machine parts) that tend to be less picky about ID. Interestingly, many of the younger generation actually chose to be superheroes - Cassie petitioned the gods, Tim stalked Dick and Bruce and presented himself as a viable replacement post Jason death, Superboy flung himself into it as soon as he was out of the tube, and Bart was raised with costumed heroes on the brain. They can all easily 'pass' for human, whereas the older ones can't, necessarily. It's also been shown with them just how much strain being a hero puts on the family, most of whom know all about it.

9/11 had a big effect on comics in general. First we had all those tribute issues, and Marvel did a wonderful "'Nuff Said" featuring mostly Spiderman but also other Marvel heroes and villains (or so I assume from reactions in the book, as I'm not that familiar with the universe) helping out at Ground Zero.

And, since the world got a glimpse of true heroism, we got comics that featured true heroes. It is, I think, one of the reasons behind Gotham Central, which began as and has continued be, well, one of DC's finest.

But 9/11 itself was problematical for DC, I think. There was no equivalent to the Spiderman book from DC, and there really couldn't have been.

1. DC has Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lanterns and the Marvel family - extremely powerful heroes who could easily have prevented the attack on the Pentagon and the downing of Flight 92 and at least mitigated the damage to the WTC - slice off the tops of the buildings and they wouldn't collapse.

2. The DCverse US president was, at that point, Lex Luthor. He would not have ignored the warnings, if they'd come and he'd have taken steps to prevent the attacks in the first place. Not nice steps, probably not legal steps, but steps. He's an evil *genius*, after all. (Or he might have orchestrated them. Can't rule that out.)

3. DC was, at that point, between two major crossover events (a stupid move on their part, because even if the attacks hadn't happened, DC fans were tired of major crossover events. We could have done without the Joker thing.) The one of that summer was "Our Worlds at War" - they'd just concluded an interstellar war that left several heroes dead - Steel, Hippolyta, General Sam Lane - or missing (Aquaman) and had begun with a strike against Kansas, plus had left destruction in other cities around the world. A terrorist attack at that point would have been lost. Also, one of the aftermath comics showed people rebuilding as a way of showing that normal humans had to have a hand in this. What were they rebuilding? The WTC, which had been damaged during that war. I'm guessing they didn't have time to edit the comic. It was rather painful. But all of that made it impossible to do anything, and while the buildings *are* gone in that universe, we found out only in passing. (And Superman's shield was black instead of yellow for the next year, which had been planned but now had an extra significance.)

An Authority comic was pulled forever because it contained something eerily similar, and there was talk of pulling The Authority. As it is, they're not so destructive. In fact, comics in general have held off a bit more on the property damage.

If they've also gotten more of the national paranoia, well, that's not a surprise.

DC Only?

But but but...

Steve Rogers was really Steve Rogers -- cornball patriot with no fear and willingness to do anything to help his country. So, he took the serum and took on the mask and rank of Captain America. But there were (last I checked into THAT continuity, uhm, ten years ago?) others who wore the uniform. Steve Rogers was merely the first.

Namor was really the Sub-Mariner. One and same. The Sub-Marnier was named Namor. A man and his epithet. No secrets.

The Human Torch -- well, when you're an defective android who bursts into flame I guess the secret is pretending to be human.

Fast forward twenty years --

The Fantastic Four were who they were -- following the Namor model. Reed Richards was Mr Fantastic. (Sue no doubt thought so...) Ben Grimm was the Thing. The Thing was Grimm. And the Human Torch was Human. Shocking.

But Peter Parker. Parker was shy. Spiderman was a wisecracking clown. Parker was puny. Spiderman had the strength of ten. (Or forty. It varied.) Parker was a TEENAGER! Spiderman was basically fighting GROWN UPS. Vulture looked like somebody's great grandfather. Doc Ock had middle age paunch. Sandman was in his prime, in a tough sort of burnt out way. But all the grown ups treated Spiderman as an equal -- another grown up.

To me that was always the weirdest thing about that secret identity. Or the coolest.

I take it back. The weirdest secret identity was "Mike" Murdoch, Matt's "twin" brother, who Foggy and Karen "knew" was "really" Daredevil. That didn't last long, but it still holds the prize.

Anyhow, I may have had a point here at the start but I've drooled all over myself now -- fanboy extremis. Oh well.

Carry on. You're doing fine.

I'm a DC girl. Always have been. I know the names and powers of some of the Marvel heroes - enough that I could enjoy 1602 - but very little of their histories and that's from 25 years ago.

And since the closest DC has to a kid considered an adult when he's a hero is Captain Marvel, who is in reality 16, but has the body of a grown man when he invokes his magic word, well, Spidey *is* very cool.

Of course, Captain Marvel is supposed to be uncool, so that's okay. :)

Superman, then.

Did you ever read the novel Last Son of Krypton by Elliot S! Maggin?

Here the take is that Clark Kent is not so much a secret identity... Kal-El portrays Clark Kent as a hobby . Some people knit. Some people sing in choir. Some aliens with vast unimaginable power pretend to be human beings -- all just for the artistic joy and recreational value of the activity, you know.

Oh, and Lex Luthor has secret identities, plural. Sculptor, inventor, small business owner... So many different irons in the fire it would arouse suspicions if they were all traced to one man -- so he is many men, instead. All disposable, if need be. And he -- of course-- believes any sufficiently powerful intellect, like Kal-El, would do the same -- all disposable identities, no actually vulnerability associeated with any of them.

Anyway, these are still different views of the whole secret identity thing from the examples you mention so I thought I'd get them into the discussion. I'm still not sure of my own point...

But the Clark of Metropolis is a mask...a disguise. The Clark of Smallville was more 'Superman', in plain clothes.

Mamadeb's reply was:
Actually, in the last decade or so, it's been written the other way - Clark Kent puts on a costume, just like all the other heroes (except, well, Batman.) Just wrote an essay about that on my lj.

Bringing this over here...

I suppose you would know the comics you've read better. I don't read the regular Superman series. But the Superman of Birthright--as written by Waid--Clark of Smallville, the Clark that his friends and teachers knew growing up, is Superman. The Clark of Metropolis, the fumblefingers, the stumbler, the bad dresser with birth-control-glasses that Lois knows, is a mask. When he goes back to Smallville, he becomes that person again. In his dreams, in the telepathic self-image of himself, he is not the fumbling reporter, he is the farmer in a cape. But neither of them is Kal-el. That persona is, according to everything I've read, alien to him as it is to any Earthling.