Why Secret Identities Are Stupid

If you want to look at superhero comics realistically, then…

  1. Superheroes should not lie to their nearest and dearest about the most important thing in their lives. That’s pathological.
  2. … not to mention a bad example for a hero who values truth to set.
  3. If you really do want to create two lives, you shouldn’t hang out with the same group of people in both. That’s just asking to get caught.
  4. If you’re trying to maintain a secret identity to “protect your loved ones”, then don’t let villains know who’s special to you (by having it known they’re able to contact you, for example), or they’ll kidnap them anyway.
  5. If you have a secret identity for private downtime, then don’t have a career, like journalist or artist or model, that makes you doubly famous.
  6. The reporter or lawyer you’re involved with might be able to help you with this immense deception, if you’re honest with them.

That’s why we shouldn’t try to make superhero comics realistic. Don’t get me wrong, I like superhero stories with secret identities. They’re an important convention of the genre. I just don’t think they should be looked at too closely, for the above reasons. If you want to use them, they have to be accepted and left alone. Trying to write entire stories around them is a fool’s game, because too much focus only reveals the fundamental contradictions they demonstrate.

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7 Responses to “Why Secret Identities Are Stupid”

  1. Dennis Culver Says:

    Hmm, I was kinda thinking along the same lines this morning…

    http://www.funwrecker.com/2006/06/hey_kids_its_nerdwars.html

  2. Michael Rawdon Says:

    (1) was a plot point in some (Barry Allen) Flash stories back in the day.

    (5) was probably less relevant for people like Superman back when the character was created. While some journalists were famous and recognizable, most probably were not, and there was no indication (way back when) that Clark Kent was a famous figure. Indeed, Superman being no dummy, he took pains to keep a low profile.

    John Byrne looked briefly at “realistic” secret identities when he took over The Star Brand (part of the unlamented New Universe). Some creators at a comic book convention pointed out that even though Star Brand was wearing a mask which covered his whole face except for his eyes, they probably could still make a good stab at who he really was, since they could see his eyes, his skin color, the fact that he had a big nose, and his height and build (and gender, obviously).

    I always enjoyed that the Jay Garrick Flash stories just ignored the whole thing: He had a secret identity, but it wasn’t really that “secret”, and it wasn’t really relevant to the stories. They came up with some lame notion of him vibrating his face to obscure his features in the silver age (or later), but I just ignored that. :-)

    On the other hand, the “secret identity dances” made for some amusingly wacky stories. Remember the Justice League story where the members revealed their identities to each other in order to defeat the villain? Naw, I don’t really remember it either. :-)

  3. David Oakes Says:

    1. No, they shouldn’t. But then who among us hasn;t kept something from the people we love?

    2. No, it isn’t. And of all the counter arguments, this is the only one I really can’t answer. Lying is lying, and lying for a good cause only makes it worse. (As much as I am sure that CW is just a stunt, as much as I despise seeing characters act out of character just to drive a plot hammer, I have to admit I had a really warm moment with “I am proud of what I do.”)

    3. Superman was pretty guilty of this one, and the New Spider-Avenger might as well just, um, OK. But I think this is a bit of a Straw Man. We see the stories where Spidey saves Mary Jane. We don’t see the stories where he saves any number of other people. A careful analysis might uncover a commonality, but I think that the reality is much more varried than the stories.

    4. Silver Age Superman really defined “What not to do”, didn’t he? (Probably because he wasn’t a Secret ID at the time, but a force of nature, like gravity or karma.) Though to be fair, “This man is under my protection” should give everyone this side of Luthor pause. (Especially when you can get Superman’s attention kidnapping the local bank clerk just the same. The real problem here are all the people *not* singled out for special attention.)

    5. Woodward and Bernstein made Journalism a household word, but really, how many reporters from your local paper do you recognize by by-line, much less on sight? Supermodel, OK, bad idea.

    6. Yes, they can. Which is why I enjoyed the marriage of both Superman and Spider-Man. (And to a lesser extent, all the various “I want to tell you the truth” reveals over the years by other heroes.) It shows an evolution of the secret identity, and therefore the superhero. When you are a child (Golden Age), secret id’s are just something that happens when you aren’t being a hero. When you are a teenager (Spider-Man through New X-Men), no one on the planet can possibly understand who you are and what you are going through. But eventually you become an adult, and find someone you trust, someone around which you can truly be you – and not the mask you wear. You find strength in companionship, and a safe harbor from the never ending battle. Superheroes finally have the chance to grow up, to finally tell adult stories, and they waste it on a publicity stunt and another WiR. It’s shameful.

    But with the exception of #2, I think all of these are reasons that comic books have handled the idea of “real” secret ID’s poorly, not that the idea is (neccessarily) flawed itself. “Fade from Grace” had a very nice use of secret ID’s. Supreme Power, by not having them, shows a mature counterpoint. Hulk and She-Hulk have been and are great vehicles for exploring the concept of Self. Even Superman and Spider-Man have had a few good stories about secret ID’s. It just takes work. And hard work never got anyone on the cover of the New York Post.

  4. Lyle Says:

    This discussion thread has got me thinking about Ultimate Spider-Man and how his secret ID is being handled. It’s been an effective tool for melodrama, especially with the MJ/Peter/Kitty love triangle.

    There was one scene in the Barry Allen Flash series where one of the Rogues knocked out Flash. He gleefully unmasked Flash and stood in puzzlement at who he was looking at. I’ve always liked that moment.

  5. Johanna Says:

    Michael, you’re right, working journalist should be a low-key profession, but then Kent became an award-winning novelist or something like that. I miss the idea that doing a good job is enough reward.

    David, great analysis on point 6. I like that illustration of maturity.

    Lyle, I quit reading Ultimate Spider-Man, but I love the idea of Peter dating Kitty.

  6. Lyle Says:

    The most recent Utimate Spider-Man had an effective moment. Pictures of Spider-Man and Kitty showed up in a celebrity magazine and MJ was very hurt to see them. I may have problems with most other Bendis comics, but in USM he’s handling superhero melodrama well.

  7. Katherine F. Says:

    There was a particularly moronic instance of #5 during the early Byrne issues of Alpha Flight — Northstar was an internationally famous athlete in his civilian identity, complete with screaming groupies, and Alpha Flight were a public and government-backed superhero team, and his costume didn’t include a mask. Yet his identity was supposedly a secret, which he was so eager to protect that he let his dearest friend die rather than reveal it. (It wasn’t as callous as that makes it sound — he didn’t realise that his non-intervention was going to be fatal — but still, he knew something bad was likely to happen.)

    I’ve toyed with the idea of doing something with a superhero who, like the Spirit, is believed by all and sundry to be dead. I suspect you’d run in to the same problems as with any secret-identity story, but it might throw up some interesting variations on the theme in the process.

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