Superman is to Clark Kent as Spider-Man is to Peter Parker.
And lots more. The mighty Thor (in his various comic book incarnations, silly; surely you didn’t think I was talking about the Norse god?) has an alter ego as Dr. Donald Blake. As Blake, the superhero looks like a meek, disabled physician whose walking cane turns into the supernatural hammer Mj√∂lnir.
Scientist Bruce Banner, irradiated by one of his experiments, is a twentieth century Dr. Jekyll, the gamma rays stripping him of his ivory tower dignity and turning him (when he gets angry-you wouldn’t like him when he’s angry) into a green, mindless, raging beast with a good heart and a tendency to rescue kittens and other helpless things. Leave alone that gamma rays are pretty much good for only one transformation upon mammals: frying them to an inert crisp.
Nerdy Diana Prince is secretly the Amazon princess known to the world as Wonder Woman, starting out her career by aiding the allies in World War II. I always thought it odd that someone following Greek ideals, and answering to an ancient monarch, Hippolyta, the queen of the Amazons, should be so go-go-America, but hey, Superman isn’t even from this planet, and he’s here to protect “truth, justice, and the American way.”
And don’t get me started on the Batman franchise. Need we dig too deep into the psychology of billionaire industrialist Bruce Wayne, who dresses as a bat and kits himself out with high-tech gadgets? Sure, it’s cool. But even the films poked fun at how outlandish it was. And truly, Gotham must be populated with real cretins if no one thought to guess at the cost of such technology and the very few city residents that could afford it. Makes one wonder what our mayor has in his sub-basement.
And on and on. Comics-and, by extension, the rash of TV shows that brought them to live action: Wonder Woman, The Incredible Hulk, and Batman being the most famous of them-so celebrate this idea of the secret identity that it’s become a trope not only in the superhero genre, but many others that it inspired.
We all know that comics are built into the American psyche as solidly as white bread and drilling for oil. But let’s think about this for a moment. What did these heroes really teach the kids that grew up devouring their storylines?
For one thing, that it’s somehow exciting to have a secret identity. Friends, colleagues, even spouses and partners don’t know the secret, or at very least, it’s a huge event when they’re actually told. The lesson: I’m more interesting-even heroic-if I have stuff going on that no one knows about, a whole other life in which I’m someone else. It’s okay, even desirable, to conceal major parts of myself from those close to me. And I can somehow get away with hiding it.
Don’t get me wrong. I love these iconic superheroes as much as the next guy. They’re not what I write; my characters have secrets, but not secret identities.
Still, you can’t not love them. Decade after decade, closeted superheroes are the subject of films that lavish millions upon bringing them to life and rake in billions from those who want to watch them fly around, blow things up, and save the world (while causing a good deal of destruction and mayhem as they do). Alan Moore’s brilliant (but disturbing) Watchmen attacked, among other things, the absurdity of vigilantes wearing costumes and masks, thinking that no one would guess who they were, and looked pitilessly at the reality of what such people might be like (and the horror that would be an actual super being with powers greater than the rest of the species). There’s something weirdly and powerfully archetypal going on there.
Look at it another way, through a more modern set of superpowered heroes. The X-Men franchise represents a sort of reboot of superheroes, in a way that attempts to be a bit more scientifically plausible than the first wave of crime fighters, many of whom had such flimsy backstories to explain their powers that the science was practically skipped altogether, or just made up. (Radioactive spider, anyone?) In X-Men, our heroes are mutants: freaks who have powers due to genetic abnormalities. They are hated by the “normal” humans that they’re always trying to save from even bigger threats, or from mutants who want a world of their own rather than peaceful coexistence with the unmutated.
This is, of course, a metaphor for a lot of things. Much is made of mutants who can “pass” somehow, linking mutation with race and sexual orientation. Very recently, the comics field was abuzz with one superhero’s rejection of a “mutant” identity and his declaration that “The ‘M’ word is everything I hate.” This particular inversion of the standard “secret identity” formula turned up some interesting creepy crawlies lying beneath the image of the superhero. If you’re blue, or have wings, it’s not so easy to have a secret identity. But we’re still talking about People Who Do Exciting Things in secret.
Forgive me for a moment as I descend into pop psychology, but if any kid admires and emulates such figures, isn’t the result that he or she will look at “normal life”-a job, even a good and interesting one; a partner; family, all that regular stuff-as boring, compared to what might go on without anyone knowing about it? Suddenly we have a whole area where a shadow identity can thrive and flourish, an identity that becomes, for some, more real and more exciting than the everyday persona. And this quotidian identity becomes the secondary one, the boring, innocuous disguise one must wear to get through life in order to pursue the true adventures. The mask becomes the true face.
We’ve all met people like this. We’ve known the colleague who turns out to be a thrill-seeker on the weekends, the dull accountant who visits fetish clubs at night, the spouse who turns out to be frighteningly good at living a secret life for years on end, or even deeper mysteries that are discovered only when their keeper is no more (as Eliot wrote in The Waste Land, “in memories draped by the beneficent spider / Or under seals broken by the lean solicitor / In our empty rooms”).
Today’s superheroes are more nuanced, of course, but the secret identity game continues despite today’s more cynical reader. I think some of this material caught a couple of generations when they were still very impressionable. Let’s hope people keep writing some other sorts of stories to offset the encouragement to develop a second life, and that kids (and grown up comics buffs) can focus on the lives they actually live in companionship with those around them.