Would You Have A Secret Identity?

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.

spider-man-20071204051329349-000I 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.

35_3066_0_ActionComics301TheTrialOfSuperWhich 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.

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Ryan Haupt may be using this column as a clever ruse to cover up his own superpowers. Try and see through the deception by listening to his podcast Science… sort of.

Comments

  1. CaseyJustice CaseyJustice says:

    A) SO glad someone remembers Identity Crisis besides me. Loved that story as a lad, and the follow-up series “Slingers” even more.

    B) “…the New 52 doesn’t deserve Wally.” Amen, brother.

    C) You gotta keep your ID secret for all the obvious reasons, but if I had powers I would definitely want to be a public figure. Doesn’t mean I’m giving press conferences or running charity auctions, but to me part of being a Super Hero is showing both citizens and criminals that there are people willing to stand up to evil and do the right thing. I’d want to inspire.

    And the coolest thing about that is that it’s something we can do without powers, even!

  2. JokersNuts JokersNuts says:

    “The earliest Superman stories don’t really feature Clark as a character” – ah the comics nerd in me is screaming out for you to re-read Action Comics #1 where Clark Kent is absolutely a character and his relationship with Lois is already established.

    Anyway, yeah I would absolutely have a Secret Identity if I was a Super Hero. I wouldn’t want my loved ones threatened and I wouldn’t want lawsuits coming after me every other day.

    • CharlieRock CharlieRock says:

      I would keep a secret identity for one reason mainly: lawsuits! You know how many criminals would try to sue you? I don’t know but I will never find out either.

      If you re-read Action Comics #1, I believe you will also find Zatara debuting in it and he wore no mask, told everyone he used magic, and his name was actually Zatara thus establishing at least as long a tradition for heroing sans secret identity.

  3. Lovedrop Lovedrop says:

    Great article. Simply put, it’s glory and worship vs the safety and well being of those you love. Also, your power level and financial status should play a crucial role in your decision.

  4. marlo marlo says:

    Dude, I couldn’t do it. The secret identity stuff stresses me the hell out when I read about it. Poor Spider-Man. Especially Miles Morales – he’s only 13 and he has to maintain this elaborate web (heh) of secrecy. I couldn’t lie to my friends and family and have to keep up with the lie.

    If I can only choose one or the other, I’d have to go public. But if I’m allowed to fudge my answer, I’d like to be able to just tell those closest to me, but keep it on the down-low otherwise. A bunch of strangers don’t need to know, but my boyfriend and my parents would, you know?

  5. IthoSapien IthoSapien says:

    It would depend on the powers; Superman-like? No secret ID. Green Lantern? Yes (cause the ring needs to recharge, y’know?). Flash? Maybe, remember what Bart Allen said in “Smallville”; “When I’m asleep I’m as slow as everyone else”. Plastic Man? No secret ID, since no elastic heroes need em I guess. Any powers that are like level 4 or 5, where I’m one of the toughest people on the planet, no secret ID needed. Just keep my hideout on the DL and social life to a minimum and all that leaves villains is to come after me directly (after they find me, get it?). I’d like having the secret identity otherwise, but there’s all that sexual innuendo that goes along with it that I don’t know if I could take it. Something to point out; heroes that went public have all tried to get secret IDs again.

    About the elastic power heroes, Ralph Dibnet did wear a mask for awhile but just went public because he thought it was rediculous. I think none of them wear masks and have secret IDs because they seem too silly otherwise, or writer’s wanted them to be more appealing to kids or something.

  6. Metamorphic Metamorphic says:

    My identity is already secret!

    Now if only my power was to age gracefully…

  7. glennsim says:

    I think yes, but not just because of the “protect the loved ones” thing, but also I think you’d end up with all of the bad parts of celebrity (people constantly wanting to take your picture or whatever) without the good stuff (the $$$).

    One element that sorta figures in is that if you had super-powers in the real world, a big chunk of the world would be scared of you just for existing (in addition to those who simply wouldn’t believe it was true). So I think also it’s not so much about criminals getting revenge as it is crazy people wanting to kill you, oh spawn of Satan!

    One trick to having a secret ID, by the way, is not letting yourself get photographed (as best you can) and certainly don’t hang out with the same people in both identities. That last bit is the part that seems like something that really needs to be removed from modern super-hero comics.

  8. CharlieRock CharlieRock says:

    I believe the first super-hero to eschew a secret identity would have to be Zatara who debuted at the same time as Superman (Action #1, 1938). His name is actually Zatara, he wore no mask, and made no bones telling people he was a magic user.

    • CharlieRock CharlieRock says:

      Or Doc Savage if your definition of ‘super hero’ is elastic enough. But certainly not the FF. Black Mask of MLJ comics even quit using a mask back in the 40s and exposing or revealing his identity and continued heroing.

  9. Out of all this article, “The New 52 does not deserve Wally.” got me.

  10. flakbait flakbait says:

    It’s funny, just yesterday I was playing with my daughter (age 2) with her Little People superheroes. The following exchange happened:

    “This is Batgirl. Her name is Barbara.”

    “Thas not Bar-ba!”

    “This is Green Lantern. He’s Hal.”

    “Not Hal!”

    So clearly, the secret identities are still working for some of them.

  11. pyynk pyynk says:

    I remember Stan saying in an interview years ago that one of the reasons that the Fantastic Four didn’t use masks was because as much of a showboat as he was, if he had powers there was no way he was going to hide his identity. Why should they? It’s possible the story was apocryphal and the Fantastic Four was simply Jack’s newest take on the Challengers of the Unknown, but why let the truth ruin a legend?

    As for me, I’d definitely have a secret identity. To a certain degree I already do. All my fandom interests, my social life, and my online presence tend to fall under my high school nickname of Pyynk while my professional life is under my real name. It is very rare that my real name and my online handle are used together.