Comics and Cosplay
No More Secret Identities: The Trouble With Alter Egos

Marshall Lemon | 29 May 2014 19:00
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Zorro

The Age Of Masks

Secret identities can be traced to the earliest fictional vigilantes, especially Zorro and The Scarlet Pimpernel in the early 20th Century. Though fighting for justice, these characters were outlaws; their enemies included police officers and other authority figures that would destroy their private lives if the truth came out. For that reason, Don Diego Vega (Zorro) and Percy Blakeney (Pimpernel) created dashing, masked personas to battle corruption without threatening their public images. The concept inspired subsequent radio serials like The Shadow and The Lone Ranger, and eventually took hold in the modern superhero with Action Comics #1.

It's worth remembering that even though superheroes had powers, they were still very similar to vigilantes in their outlooks. Batman, for example, was literally inspired by Zorro, an aristocrat who wears a costume by night to fight crime. Superman fought institutional corruption and ordinary gangsters instead of super-powered villains, even uncovering a conspiracy to bribe a US senator in his debut appearance. Social justice continued to be a driving force for each character, as were clashes with traditional authority structures. Although these characters weren't outlaws in the way Zorro or Scarlet Pimpernel were, they operated outside of the law to achieve their goals, occasionally opposing it when necessary.

Cap Punches Hitler

Heroes Become, Well, Heroes

Everything changed during World War II when comic book creators placed their protagonists at the front lines. Suddenly, heroes were no longer independent of authority figures, instead actively following their orders at home and abroad in service to the war effort. Captain America was the most obvious example of this new patriotic superhero, rallying his country against external enemies. Cap also maintained a secret identity, but here it was to protect his identity from German spies instead of a corrupt police force. For the first time, superheroes were part of the social order, and have arguably been tied with patriotic values ever since.

By the time superheroes returned to a post-war world, they were far too changed from their vigilante roots. According to Comic Book Nation, DC Comics "adopted a postwar editorial direction that increasingly de-emphasized social commentary in favor of lighthearted juvenile fantasy", swapping corrupt business officials for mad scientists and alien invaders. Instead of questioning authority to create social change, superheroes had become the authority, and editors wanted them portrayed appropriately. The new generation of heroes were notably reserved compared to their 1930s counterparts. Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, and other social crusaders began to reflect a decidedly pro-establishment point of view, a trend that only strengthened after a national furor caused by psychiatrist Fredric Wertham's controversial book Seduction of the Innocent prompted the comics industry to adopt self-censorship via the Comics Code Authority.

By this point the logic behind secret identities became strained. Superheroes had changed from outlaw vigilantes to public servants, but for some reason, alter egos survived the transition. Superheroes were beloved by all but wouldn't share their real names, even to the government officials they supposedly respected. Bruce Wayne never told Commissioner Jim Gordon that he was Batman, even though they had an amicable relationship. Superman kept his human identity of Clark Kent a secret, even though he wasn't tracking down government corruption like he used to. Silver Age heroes like The Flash and Green Lantern used aliases despite literally serving as a police officer and Air Force pilot, respectively. Never mind that regular police officers and prison guards didn't get secret identities of their own; by now the tradition was fixed, and wasn't going anywhere.

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