Who's Wearing the Mask?: On the Nature of Secret Identities

Secret identities. Do we really need them? More importantly, do superheroes? And how do they really work? (Do they?)

Secret identities are sort of a messy idea. The definition is apparently a "persona developed in order to keep the true identity secret," which, okay, is a workable definition until you start asking questions like, "If Clark Kent developed Superman to protect his loved ones, is Supes the secret identity?" And, "After Ralph Dibny told the world he was Elongated Man, does that make his secret identity just an identity? And does that mean it's okay for his foes to call him Ralph when he's in costume?" Because as bad as it is being taken down by a guy who goes by "Elongated Man," it's probably even worse being brought to justice by some guy named Ralph.

So I was going to talk about why certain heroes use certain identities, but the more I thought about it, the more I feel that the real question how a superhero finds a way to make his hero identity and his everyman identity (because sometimes it's hard to tell which is really the secret one) work in tandem with each other.

(I'd like to apologize in advance if this list takes a decidedly DC-centric bent; I'm afraid I'm not as much of a Marvel person as I'd like to be yet.)

Exhibit A: Where the Two Identities are Essentially the Same Person

Who's Wearing the Mask?: On the Nature of Secret Identities

Let's start with the obvious, and look at Clark Kent and Superman. Whereas the opposite may have once held true, since the '80's or so, it's been generally accepted that Superman is the mask and Clark the real person, to simplify it a bit. At the same time, they're both fundamentally the same person, body language and projected self-confidence aside. And as to why Clark Kent chose to be a reporter, some people explain it away as being the natural choice, because it's easy to write stories about yourself. (This also being the general explanation for Peter Parker's chosen profession as well.) I think that's selling Clark (and Peter) a bit short, though. I much prefer the explanation that states that in his quest for Truth, Justice, and the American Way, Clark/Superman feels the need to do more than just punch things. Off an on, Superman will mention the fact that he wants to be more than just a blunt instrument, and perhaps working in a more investigative field as Clark Kent helps him feel he's reached this balance between brawn and brains.

Other superheroes who fit the category of essentially being the same person both in and out of their tights include people like both Green Arrows (especially Oliver Queen, who might just be the worst out there at keeping his secret identity plausibly secret). Actually, a very high proportion of the costumed crime-fighting community can probably be lumped into this category, probably because it's easier to consistently write characters that are a little more consistent with themselves. But if we choose to ignore the man behind the curtain, so to speak, we could probably say it's because they all want to protect their friends and loved ones by putting on a mask, thereby preserving their own identity, which, nine times out of ten, they had long before they took up superheroics.

Exhibit B: Where the Secret Identity Isn't All That Secret, After All
As previously mentioned, Ralph Dibny could be said to be the poster boy for the Public Secret Identity, being the first Silver Age superhero to go public with his civilian identity. To take a step like this puts him firmly into the category of guys whose two identities are the same person, but now that that's literally true, it's near impossible to draw any sort of line between Elongated Man and Ralph, since everyone knows they're the same person anyway. Maybe this is the most dangerous way for a superhero to go on the secret identity path, but you have to admit, it takes real guts. Take John Stewart, for example, the Green Lantern who chooses not to wear a mask because he feels he doesn't have anything to hide. Plus we've got Tony Stark. And the only people who don't know he's Iron Man are pretty much either dead or . . . Actually, you might have to be dead not to know.

Exhibit C: Where the Secret Identity Isn't Actually Anything Like You

Who's Wearing the Mask?: On the Nature of Secret Identities

This is where Batman comes in. About the same time that the world decided that Clark is more real than Superman, they also decided that Batman was more real than Bruce Wayne, which is probably a good thing, because I don't trust Bruce Wayne, flaky playboy extraordinaire, to do a very convincing job at pretending to be Batman. Meanwhile, Batman, crafty genius that he is, can do a very good job at faking playboy billionaire. (Perhaps the only Batman and Bruce really have in common is the billionaire part. Bruce is very good at making sure Wayne Enterprises keeps making money in order to continue funding Batman's very expensive hobbies.) In this case, of course, Bruce is the mask adapted to keep those closest to Batman safe from his veritable legion of certifiable foes. This delineation gets a little messy, though, when you think about the fact that those closest to Batman mostly all know he's Bruce Wayne, but the Bruce Wayne that they know can be described more as "Batman when he's actually being nice to people and not trying to scare them half to death."

Who's Wearing the Mask?: On the Nature of Secret Identities

At the moment I'm hard pressed to think of another superhero who does what Batman does to the extent he does it, but on a totally different note, Billy Batson is absolutely nothing like Captain Marvel, in that he's a kid and Captain Marvel is the man he becomes, making Billy's life pretty much my childhood dream. (Although I guess I didn't want to spontaneously turn into a man.) In this case, however, he's a completely different person physically when he's a superhero than when he's a kid. And in terms of superheroes whose super identity is the guise, I can't help but always want to bring up the Blue Raja from Mystery Men (who was not, as far as I can tell, part of the original Mystery Men from the Flaming Carrot comics), because he adopts a British accent while in costume, despite being American-And I'm sure for a fact that there are less ridiculous examples out there, but I love Hank Azaria.

Exhibit D: When You Become a Superhero First and Get the Identity Later
It's the Superclan that has the best track record of doing this, I feel. For someone whose home planet is supposed to have been destroyed, Superman sure ends up with a lot of wayward Kryptonians who turn up on Earth, being all flashy and super, and have to retroactively have civilian identities created for them. Power Girl (Kara Zor-L) created Karen Starr, Supergirl (Kara Zor-El) became Kara Kent, Nightwing (Lor-Zod, not Dick Grayson) acquired the name Chris Kent, and the latest guy to become an honorary Kent, Mon-El, took up the name Jonathan Kent in last month's Superman. At this rate, Clark Kent has a ridiculous number of surprise cousins, all orchestrated on paper in order for their pre-existing superheroics to continue.

Who's Wearing the Mask?: On the Nature of Secret Identities

More interestingly, though, is John Jones, secret identity of J'onn J'onzz, secret identity of the Martian Manhunter. Because he can shapeshift, he's able to pose as John Jones, a human detective, which doesn't seem like so much of a break from his usual line of work, but doing this is probably mostly a case of having somewhere to blend in and get out of the Manhunter costume. (And who can blame him? It's an awkward costume.)

I don't want to blanket-statement here, but I can help but feel that they're mostly right when they explain the necessity of keeping a secret identity as a safeguard against total insanity. After all, nobody can be super all the time. (Even if Batman would really like to try.) Sometimes you just need to be the girl who spends her lunch break balancing her checkbook. Or the guy who plays Scrabble in the park. Besides, there's always gotta be more to a person than their job. Just because you're a Green Lantern doesn't mean you can't also be an artist or architect, and just because you're Black Canary doesn't mean you can't do a stint as a florist. So while the invention of the "secret identity" is an interesting side effect of the superhero genre, it's pretty much unavoidable.

Besides, Zorro and the Scarlet Pimpernel did it far before these guys, and it worked for them.