I spend an unhealthy amount of time wondering what I’d do given superpowers. I’ve written before on the very idea of using powers for superheroics as well as whether or not superheroes ought to get paid, but I’ve yet to tackle one of the fundamental issues of the superpowered lifestyle: secret identities.
If my memory of history serves, there was a time when the public superhero was unheard of. A secret identity was just the name of the game. The earliest Superman stories don’t really feature Clark as a character, and the earliest Batman stories require that the vigilante appear as more than human. At a certain point, I can’t say exactly where for I am no comic historian, it was established that in order to keep your loved ones safe you had to keep your true identity secret.
The first superheroes to eschew the secret identity may have been the Fantastic Four. This of course depends on your definition of superhero, because Namor was always just Namor but also not necessarily a superhero is the classic sense. Then again, one might argue that the FF are adventurers and explorers more so than they are cape and cowl heroes.
I think my first exposure to the superhero as a public person was Elongated Man. There must just be something about stretchy heroes not feeling the need to conceal their true identity. Not sure why that might be but I would welcome hypotheses in the comments. Anyways, the arc by which I became aware of Elongated Man as a hero, let alone one without a secret identity is somewhat circuitous yet apropos.
I remember catching snippets of a Spider-Man arc wherein Peter Parker, possibly the poster child for the necessity of obfuscated identity, was trying out some other types of heroic guise. There was the stalwart and upright Prodigy, the high-flying tech-loving Hornet, the rambunctious and spastic Ricochet and finally the dark and brooding Dusk. Each hero captured some facet of Spider-Man such as his heroism, scientific acumen, bombastic agility, or his guilt-laden sadness. I’m not sure why the story struck a chord in me, possibly it was just a fun romp (which is a thing that used to matter in comics) but regardless of the underlying reason I was hooked. And the name of this arc? Identity Crisis.
So imagine my surprise when I walked into a comic shop and asked for Identity Crisis. Hoping for a collected edition of Spider-Man stories but instead being handed an issue of a book that was mostly just Elongated Man` and a fire woman whose name I can’t remember, two characters I’d never heard of, talking to each other on a rooftop. That’s right, master of timing that I am, I’d asked for the Spider-Man: Identity Crisis storyline in the midst of one of the defining DC tales in the modern era.
I’d call such a mishap a mistake had I not genuinely enjoyed the DC book I was handed. I tore through the available issues, 5 of 7 if I remember correctly, and was transfixed. The entire tale was that of how a public hero, Elongated Man, had his life ruined by someone who would have had access to his identity public or not. Ignoring the more controversial elements of the story, you wind up with some pretty deep and dark themes concerning the nature of heroics.
Which brings me back around to my original point: is a secret identity worth it? They seem like a lot of work. By all accounts, Superman spent several decades convincing Lois that he wasn’t Clark Kent, only to eventually marry her and spill the beans anyways. How many people died while Superman was up to his antics? I know the man needs to have his fun, but was there any actual benefit to having an unknown alter ego?
For a time, there seemed to be a trend away from the hidden human persona. Matt Murdock messed up his privacy, Wally West went public, and even Peter Parker pulled off the mask. And now Matt Murdock is attempting to brush it off, Wally West is dead or something (don’t care if I’m wrong, the New 52 doesn’t deserve Wally), and Peter Parker made a deal with the devil to put the genie back in the bottle if I may mix mythological metaphors. So against all odds it seems each character decided it was worth the hassle to going back to being hidden. But WHY?
Let’s walk through it. You get superpowers; some power potent enough that you can really affect change in the world and ought to be nervous that someone else would wish you ill for it. What do you do? If I were me, and I’m reasonably certain that I am, I would never go public as a person with powers. That seems to be the fatal misstep. I’d stay Ryan Haupt, normal dude with brain for science and a lust for life, and on the side there would be this blur that helped people from time to time. I think Smallville and Superman: Secret Identity (OMG DIDN’T EVEN MAKE THIS CONNECTION UNTIL RIGHT NOW) got it right in that you’re best defense is to never be noticed in the first place.
Granted that solution necessitates that you can move fast enough or are invisible enough to avoid being seen, so presuming I had powers that didn’t work that way I’d probably just go back to some sort of military camo with full face covering. Nothing gaudy or showy. Let criminals beware? Let criminals be hit, who cares what they’re beware or even aware of, let alone me. And of course, if I was given stretchy powers, I’d go public. For some reason that just makes sense. I don’t have to explain, I can stretch.
What about you, iFanbase? If you had powers are you going public or keeping it on the DL? Do you like the logic behind the secret identity or do you see another way? Let’s hash it out in the comments.