"You know, I'd really like to know how the "almighty Despot" looks. I mean, why is it that nobody has ever even seen a picture of the guy who runs our city!?"They rule the entire city/country/world/galaxy... but has anyone ever seen them? May not exist at all, or could be Dead All Along, or not even human to begin with. The Man Behind the Curtain is also possible. Overlaps with No One Sees the Boss, which deals with the overarching conspiracy surrounding our mystery person.
— Civilian, The Nameless Mod
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Anime and Manga
- In Arachnid, Alice eventually discovers that her new-found best friend Yoriko Tajima is not only the immortal, telepathic Boss of the Organization, but that she has also been using her powers to rule Japan from the shadows since World War II.
- In Attack on Titan, it is revealed that the society within the walls is ruled by one. The Fritz royal family were actually puppets, and the true royal family is House Reiss, led by King Rod Reiss, Krista's (AKA Historia Reiss) biological father.
- Embryo has traces of this. While the Mana users are left to do their own thing for their Fantastic Racism, he's in control of what's giving them power, is the one who created this world, and can control the people as he wish.
- Ribbons Almark for the first season of Mobile Suit Gundam 00. He's fully revealed in season two and becomes a major player in the plot.
- The Principal in the School Rumble manga.
- In Naruto', Pain starts out as one. He rules the Hidden Rain Village as a god after annihilating everyone even remotely associated with the old leader, but nobody's ever actually met him in person. Sasuke intends to become one as well.
- By the second season of Death Note, most of the world's countries have declared their support for Kira, and the United States eventually backs down and obeys his orders. Japan doesn't, however. Nobody actually knows what Kira looks like, only that he/she/it will kill anyone who commits a wrong. The cult who is building a temple to Kira assumes that Kira is an old man with a beard, though in actuality, Kira is a handsome young man who makes use of a few proxies.
- In Psycho-Pass, Japanese society is overseen by the Sibyl System, a Master Computer that quantifies people's tendencies to commit crimes by doing biometric scans in real time and authorizes police to either do a Precrime Arrest or execute them on the spot. This is seen to be the most fair, unbiased system possible because a computer is the ultimate measure of objectivity. The Sibyl System may have started off as a computer, but by the time the show begins, it is now a Wetware CPU composed of over 400 brains of sociopathic killers who are essentially the ruling council of Japan, because even the Japanese government has to filter its decisions through Sibyl. By the end of the first season, Akane Tsunemori is the only person in the world who knows the true nature of Sibyl.
- The Father from Equilibrium, inspired by 1984. Though we do see broadcasts featuring him, they are faked, since the original Father died and DuPont was chosen to replace him.
- In The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, few of his own people had ever seen the wizard, and those who claimed to have seen him disagreed as to who or what they'd seen. He turns out to be his own Man Behind the Man, using special effects to create an illusionary appearance.
- While not a world leader, Dr. Mabuse in Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler and its sequels has a vast crime network that allows him to control the economy of pre-WWII Germany. Mabuse goes mad at the end of the first movie. In The Testament of Dr. Mabuse someone follows the "manual of crime" he scrawls in the madhouse before he dies. Subsequent movies, not as good, feature would-be masterminds copying his methods.
- The Viceroy of Turaquistan in War, Inc.. His identity is a closely guarded secret. On the omnipresent TV screens that broadcast his platitudes, he is represented by a rotating montage of headshots — everyone from Theodore Roosevelt to Arnold Schwarzenegger to Flipper.
- God from The Bible is a more benevolent version. Islam takes the Shadow Dictator part very seriously, considering all anthropomorphic images of God and Muhammad as blasphemy.
- Ironically, the first chapter of the Book of Revelations has John interacting directly with God, writing down His messages to the seven churches. Verses 12-17 even give a broad description of Him. Ironically, He looks a lot like the traditional Grandpa God image, but other elements that stand out are the gold belt around His waist, His eyes glowing like fire, His feet shining like polished brass and His voice sounding like a roaring waterfall.
- Discussed in Battle Royale. As Shuya, Noriko, and Kawada discuss the nature of the totalitarian Greater East Asian government, Kawada suggests that the head of the government, known as the Leader to the public, may just be a figurehead, with the true power lying elsewhere. However, there's no indication given of whether or not this is true.
- In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Big Brother is never seen in person, yet his face is worshiped throughout Oceania. Given that one of the characters claims that Big Brother cannot die, it's pretty likely that he doesn't exist in the first place. A member of the Inner Party explains the reason for this, describing how people are more empathetic towards a person than towards a faceless system. The existence of the revolutionary leader Goldstein is similarly questionable, as is pretty much everything we're told about world politics... or anything else.
- Lord Azzur, ruler of Port Blacksand in the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks.
- Monstrous Regiment: The sovereign of Borogravia is the Duchess, who has not been seen in decades. It is eventually revealed that she died some time ago, but her spirit has remained as a harassed demi-goddess because the citizens of the country have gotten in the habit of praying to her.
- Malkariss in the Redwall series only communicates by speaking to The Dragon Nadaz through his statue, refusing to let anyone see him directly. When we find out what he actually looks like, he turns out to be weak and crippled, making him The Man Behind the Curtain.
- The Real President of the Galaxy in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Also the current Galactic Emperor, who "is now nearly dead, and has been for many centuries." Someone had the inspired idea of putting him into a Stasis Field whilst on his death-bed, and since he apparently didn't think to appoint a regent or formally abdicate due to ill-health, political power has now bloodlessly shifted to the old parliament and the president they appoint. Or so the general public believes; the truth is a bit more complicated and, this being the work of Douglas Adams, considerably weirder.
- Adam Selene, leader of the Lunar revolution, in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. Actually the virtual avatar of the supercomputer AI Mycroft Holmes, aka "Mike".
- Spoofed in How To Be A Villain by Neil Zawacki, when the author suggests that not actually existing might be a possible strategy for a Big Bad Wannabe. Everyone's afraid of you, but as no-one knows where you are they can't kill you either.
- Wolfram and Hart's "Senior Partners" in Angel.
- On Lost the Others follow the orders of Jacob who only talks to Ben. Locke suspects that Jacob is not real and Ben is the one really giving orders. Jacob is real and quite powerful but Ben was actually tricked into following the orders of the Man in Black.
- The Prisoner. Who is Number One? You are, Number Six.
- In Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the Dominion is ruled by the Changeling Founders, a race of shapeshifters. The Founders' contempt for "solids" means that they avoid interaction with non-Changelings, save for their Vorta and Jem'Hadar underlings. Most of them cloister themselves in the Great Link, with a small number serving as spies, infiltrators, or Dominion representatives. It's apparent that several races that have been victimised by, or even belong to the Dominion believe that the Founders are just a myth (which carries the implication that for any who don't believe that the Vorta run the show, the identity of the Dominion's leaders is a mystery).
- The "ruler" of Sigil the Lady of Pain in Planescape is seen partially, but direct interaction tends to be a bad idea.
- The God-Emperor of Mankind in Warhammer 40,000. Most notably, the followers of Chaos call him a corpse while the human Imperium of course largely exalts him as a god guiding the organization. Neither of the people involved in this debate are particularly unbiased, however. All the evidence used by his supporters have equally plausible counter-arguments and rationalization proposing why they happen - for instance, Imperials will emphatically claim that the Emperor's power prevents the forces of Chaos from overrunning reality, something far more likely to be done by Necron technology and the fact that the Chaos Gods simply find the slow death of the galaxy far too amusing to get their game on. Lore however largely states the God-Emperor is actually alive as a fact (Well, for a given value of it since he's stuck on the life-support chair the Golden Throne and as editions have gone by the Emperor has been visually displayed on his throne as increasingly skeletal and withered in appearance), considering the thousand of psykers a day sacrificed to keep him alive to let him direct the Astronomicon which is necessary for the Imperium on whole to be able to function together across the galaxy - and there is no one else capable of taking over for this. However, said lore also says that the amount of psykers required to power the Golden Throne is inflating and failures in its mechanisms have been found that are beyond its engineers' ability to repair, and as mentioned there remains a large amount of in-universe conjectures and factoids about what and if the Emperor does anything outside of this.
- The Dark Powers from Ravenloft. Many Darklords also qualify, as some do not openly rule their domains, lurking in the shadows behind a stand-in, servant, or puppet. Some citizens don't even know they exist at all.
- Yawgmoth, dark god of Phyrexia from Magic: The Gathering. He is referred to on cards, but never depicted or even directly quoted. Even the tie-in novels keep his appareances low, because he spends most of his time in a sleeping state to preserve his world. As such, most Phyrexians have never seen him and neither have his enemies. The only books in which he makes any real appearance are the prequel The Thran and the Grand Finale Apocalypse.
- In Castle Falkenstein, Aaron Burr, the President for Life of the Free State of Orleans, hasn't been seen in public in more than a quarter of a century, causing the entire country to slip into Wretched Hive territory. Since he's over 100 years old at this point and his mistress is Marie Laveau (a Hollywood Voodoo sorceress in this setting), he might be dead...or he might be undead.
- Hc Svnt Dracones has Mega Corps with "Shadow Presidents" whose identities are unknown to everyone but themselves and their immediate successors and predecessors, but who pass on the access codes to networks of agents threaded throughout their Mega Corp. so they can keep ambitious executives and subsidiaries in line. In recent history four of the ten shadow presidents in the solar system have died without designating a successor. Two of whom were usurped by entities that pried the passwords from their brains.
- Despot in The Nameless Mod is never seen, doesn't use an avatar when he PMs people and leaves everything to his second in command Ghand, but as he is a Cloud Cuckoo Lander things fall to the de facto second in command, King Kashue.
- The ruler of Tolbi city, Lord Babi from Golden Sun. Even though the heroes get to see him in the game, very few normal people actually see the old geezer themselves
- The Shi Emperor in Fallout 2 Turns out to be an advanced non-AI computer used to advise the actual ruler: Ken Lee, officially a representative of and advisor to the Emperor.
- In Gratuitous Space Battles, the leader of the Empire has apparently become this, at least officially:
The current emperor took power over 1,100 years ago, and despite coming from a species whose lifespan rarely exceeds 100, the official line is that he merely 'under the weather' which is why he is no longer seen in public.
- Star Wars: The Old Republic: No one in The Empire has actually seen the Emperor, not even the Darths on the Dark Council. He does have a network of "voices" and "hands" - avatars who have sacrificed their very existences to providing him a public face. That doesn't stop the Empire from their fanatic loyalty. Too bad it's completely misplaced as he's an omnicidal nut who doesn't give a damn about his empire or anything but wiping out everything in the universe but himself.
- At the end of the Jedi Knight class quest, the Knight confronts and "kills" the Emperor himself. The Emperor persists as a Force ghost, as powerful Sith are wont to do. Then, in Shadow of Revan, Revan himself plans to reincarnate the Emperor and kill him properly this time — except that, while he's successful at the first part, the second is beyond his abilities. The Emperor had deluded Revan into believing he could kill him; what if anything actually can has yet to be seen. The upshot of this is, the Dark Council is in charge for all practical purposes. The Knights of the Fallen Empire expansion reveals why the Emperor hasn't been seen in centuries: he was busy forming another empire under another identity that comes out of nowhere to conquer both the Sith Empire and the Galactic Republic.
- In the end, we never get to see his true face. BUT, in Knights Of The Eternal Throne, we do get to see his father, so we now have enough data to make a calculated guess.
- Subverted in Phantasy Star IV: the immortal wizard (and Phantasy Star I veteran) Lutz reigns over the magic users of the planet Dezolis from the depth of the Esper Mansion... except his body grew too old to even be maintained through hibernation and life prolonging methods inherited from Algo's golden age, so now he uploads his mind into capable young sorcerers, like party member Rune, and send then around the Algo solar system to seek signs of Dark Force reemergence. The actual ruling of the Esper Mansion is apparently left to the mortal elder mages, with Lutz only taking part in some ritual ceremonies when he's around.
- Tyranny: The overlord of The Empire, Kyros, is an enigma to almost everyone. Male characters tend to portray them as female, female characters tend to portray them as male (unless they're lesbians), and the ones who do know say not telling is funnier. Whatever they are, they might be alien.
- In Drowtales, no one has seen Queen Val'Sharess Diva'ratrika Val'Sharen for 16 years. She is dead and three of her daughters, who arranged her death, now rule as the Man Behind the Man. They pulled this off because Diva was already well known for liking solitude, though the illusion is starting to crack, with both the Sullisin'rune and the Sarghress factions suspecting the truth. After a timeskip she starts appearing again but this is actually a Body Double, and when the double is publicly assassinated the ruse is ended for good.
- In Sluggy Freelance, His Masterness, the ruler of 4U City, fulfilled this trope for quite some time. He was eventually revealed to be that universe's Riff, succeeding that universe's Schlock.
- The king of Legara in Looking for Group has not been seen for years resulting in some suspicion among the upper ranks of his Legion. He was eventually revealed to be an immortal Tavor who had inherited the throne by killing the previous king. Why he had gone into seclusion is uncertain, though it may have been an attempt to avoid being recognized by Cale.
- Comedians joked about this with former U.S. vice president Dick Cheney, who allegedly spent a significant portion of his term at 'an undisclosed location'.
- For years many people suspected that Osama bin Laden was already dead and his terrorist organization was controlled by others. This was proven wrong in 2011 when US troops stormed his compound in Pakistan and killed him.
- Kim Jong-il's voice has only ever been broadcast once, for seven seconds at a 1992 military rally. His speeches are usually read out on radio or television by actors. In 2008, it was claimed that he had died in 2003 of diabetes and had been replaced by a body double at public appearances. There were also rumors that, even if he was still alive, he was extremely sick and not exercising power. He was even Photoshopped (badly) into a photo of some soldiers. He nominated his son Kim Jong-un as successor in 2010 and made a few public appearances, quashing rumors of his death.
- Then died for real in December of 2011.
- Should be noted that the president of North Korea is still Kim-il Sung, who died in 1994. Surprisingly for a place like North Korea, however, they do publicly acknowledge that he's dead; his status as President is roughly analogous to the tradition that no officer of the US armed forces may outrank George Washington.
- Before being beaten in World War 2, the Japanese Emperor was thought to be a God and the Japanese people weren't even supposed to look at him because they weren't worthy. Supposedly, when he went on the radio to announce their surrender, hearing his voice was as much a shock as the surrender itself.