A View from Atlas Park: The Unlamented Death of Secret Identities

Having a secret identity used to be an essential part of having super powers. Every hero worth his / her salt (and some villains too) had a persona where they played at being Average Joe / Jane. While in their secret identity, these characters would publicly feign ignorance or indifference about the actions they had just performed, while privately taking satisfaction in their costumed achievements.

Thank god those days are over.

Secret identities are something that belongs in the dustbin of comic book ideas. At one point having one may have made some sense, but that time is pretty much past.

Back in the Gold and Silver Ages of Comics, characters that had a secret identity were the norm. Most heroes had a nice, normal, respectable alter ego that they spent most of their time being. Often this identity allowed them to gain more information or insight into the particular problem they were facing that issue. It also let them have relationships with “normal” people and be in the right place without attracting attention when, say, Circe the Sorceress showed up to cause problems.

But these Ages had a very different type of character to the ones we see today. They could be called “amateur” heroes – they hero’ed part-time, then retired to their apartments / mansions / homes in the suburb so they would be on time for work the next day. Superheroing was shown as being “the right thing to do” and all that, but really didn’t appear that having superpowers really disrupted one’s life too much – if anything, it made it more exciting, but you still went home at night.

The impact of Spiderman changed this, with Ol’ Webhead being given feet of clay along with the proportionate strength and powers of a spider. From this point, heroes often had personal problems they had to deal with along with the villains they fought. But Spiderman still kept up a secret identity.

But in doing so, he created the problem of people finding out who he was. Over the years, Peter Parker has been unmasked as Spiderman many times by some of his most villainous foes, making it only a writer’s conceit that the entire world doesn’t know Spiderman’s postal address. It is this problem that undermines secret identities – they have to remain secret to be of any use. As soon as a few people know, you run the risk of the whole identity thing being blown open. And once everyone knows who you are, why maintain the facade?

In recent times, fewer heroes (and villains) have secret identities. Those that once had them (eg Tony Stark / Iron Man and Matt Murdock / Daredevil) have stopped pretending that they aren’t superheroes outside of their day jobs. Newer characters either don’t have secret heroic identity (eg Luke Cage, although he was known as Power Man and was born Carl Lucas) or have scrapped their mundane names for codenames (eg Apollo and the Midnighter). These characters no longer try to separate their lives between costumed and non-costumed, realising that such distinctions just lead to confusion and complications.

So why have a secret identity? The only real reason is one of protection – of yourself or of others. Although “I have to keep my name a secret to protect my son / job / aunt / dog” is a common reason for hiding behind a mask, it also comes in handy for protecting a character from themself. Lots of characters have survivior’s guilt (Batman) or feelings of inadequacy (a younger Peter Parker) to deal with – having another identity means they are free to act as though they were someone else.

Which doesn’t improve the secret identity situation. The whole “why don’t people recognise Clark Kent as Superman with glasses on” debate is completely valid, especially in today’s world. How many photos of Superman exist that could be used to link him with Clark Kent?

In a world where super-geniuses can create machines in their basement that can create (or end) worlds, how likely is it that someone wouldn’t be able to create a facial recognition program that would scan the people of Metropolis to find out who Superman is? A quick hack into Metropolis’ security cameras, leave the problem running in the background until one day, bingo! We have a 99% match on Superman with some guy called Kent.

It wouldn’t even have to be a villain doing this – the internet is full of people who spend lots of time on pointless hobbies just for personal interest. There could even be a whole community working on newsgroups and building open source software dedicated to finding out who Superman is just to get their fifteen minutes of fame.

(I’ll point out here that I don’t read any Superman titles, so he could have been “unmasked” a while ago. But as with many things in comics, if the problem is applicable to Kal-El, it is applicable to a lot of other characters.)

I certainly won’t cry over the death of secret identities. They have been a comic book staple for so long that they are accepted, but they no longer fit with the times. I certainly won’t miss the smug attitudes of characters who just manage to slip into their normal personas after doing some hero work and then have a “what, didn’t you see Manly Man save that orphanage from falling off a waterfall? No I was tying my shoes at the time” situation with their love interest. Sure, it may have been funny at first, but over 50 years later, the joke has well and truly worn off.

(As a link to CoH – of course, in CoH you can have a secret identity once you unlock a costume slot by having a “citizen” costume and a “hero” costume and switching between the two with the press of a button. But I don’t think it’s much fun walking around as a citizen, so don’t think that many people have used a costume slot like this.)

– UnSub [email protected] 1 October 2004

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