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One of the defining trails of the Superhero is the Secret Identity. Not all heroes have one but those who do usually have a good reason to keep it from the public, be it privacy or to keep their loved ones safe.
There are questions, though. Who should be Secret Keepers? Is there a time to reveal it? Is it worth all the effort to try and keep it from being exposed?
This thread is used to share your thoughts on the trope plus show examples in comic where the trope is explored.
For my thoughts, I agree with Linkara. I think a superhero should reveal his secret identity to his family and close friends. Sure, they most likely not going to take it well but at least it's better than trying to make up excuses for why you are late and where you got your injuries from.
Also, one thing that bugs me about Pre-Crisis Superman stories is that 1/3 of them seem to be stories about the guy protecting his secret identity. If it happened that often, it wouldn't be worth the effort. Is it any wonder that for Post Crisis DC, it was decided that most people didn't even think he had a secret identity because he didn't wear a mask?
edited 25th Oct '17 8:57:25 AM by DS9guy
Those stories were a crutch in the Silver Age. Interestingly, too, is that you largely didn't see them until the Silver Age. The first Lois-suspects-Clark story was in the Golden Age, but the vast majority of them didn't start happening until after Siegel and Shuster left the book.
It's also worth noting that Siegel wrote a story very early on in which Superman revealed that he was Clark Kent to Lois; his idea was that Lois would become Superman's confidante and assistant (one imagines that the amount of time he saved her from getting tossed off buildings wouldn't have changed much), but it was nixed by his editors. The story would also have introduced "Element K," which was Siegel's first stab at what would eventually become Kryptonite, which wouldn't appear until it was utilized on the Superman radio show.
Jaime Reyes is famous for having a lot of people know his secret identity but this is kind of a Blue Beetle tradition.
When the Charlton version of Ted Kord found his girlfriend on an island looking for evidence to prove Ted's innocence in the murder of Dan Garret, what does he do? He reveals his secret identity to her and tells her the whole truth. Steve Ditko did this in the 60s.
edited 25th Dec '16 11:29:11 PM by DS9guy
It should be pointed out as well that, as often as we hear some folks taking Superman to task for not at least telling Lois about his secret, there's ample evidence that Golden and Silver Age Lois was not to be trusted with such information. In the radio serial "The Scarlet Widow" which amounts to Superman's second encounter with Kryptonite, Clark decides to take Lois and Perry into his confidence in regards to the existence of Kryptonite. They promise him they'll keep it secret, and then turn around and blast it all over the front page of the Daily Planet. Clark believed, and with good reason, that should he tell Lois his secret she'd feel obligated to turn it into a news story. The way she as written at the time, this is a distinct possibility.
Before designing a superhero, one must ask if a secret identity is even warranted.
Secret identities go back to the pulps, where the reveal that The Scarlet Pimpernel and Zorro were secretly the apparently weak fop all along was used as a shocking plot twist. It was just there for added drama, and revealing the identity was a crucial narrative beat (Zorro sequels notwithstanding).
It's also worth noting that pre-Golden Age superheroes did not have secret identities. Mandrake never pretended to be anyone else, and The Phantom... OK, the Phantom is weird, and the situation tends to go back and forth, but it's usually the case that the Phantom is his real, and occasionally even legal, identity, with Kit Walker merely a mask he wears when he needs to hide in an urban area. Even so, the 21st Phantom showed Diana Palmer his anatomical face as soon as he met her, back in 1936,.
At this point, DC is just holding on to secret identities because of tradition. Very few Marvel heroes except for Ms Marvel and the spiders even bother with secret identities, and even that tends to get stretched. A narrative thread running through Silk is the search for her family, which would be a lot easier if she'd just go public as somebody who was held prisoner by Ezekiel for a decade, but that would compromise her secret identity, which she only really has because Amazing Spider-Man has one, but he only has a secret identity because he literally made a deal with the actual devil.
But even before Marvel started phasing out secret identities, Image tended to ignore them. Youngblood were celebrities, Stormwatch and the Authority were registered with the UN, Savage Dragon is a registered police officer (though in his case, trying to keep his identity secret would be rather difficult), and Spawn is just Spawn. Witchblade did have a secret identity for some reason, and it caused her no end of trouble.
Yes, I do agree that if you're going to go to the trouble of maintaining a secret identity, you should tell your family and close friend at least. I still don't understand why Kamala never told Nakia that she's Ms Marvel. (Well, Nakia hates Ms Marvel right now, but if I was making the movie, I'd have Nakia be in on it from the beginning).
As far as the Phantom goes, I think even Kit Walker is a secret identity, his real name (or, at least the real name of the original Phantom) being Christopher Standish. As with the Shadow, at least before Orson Welles rebooted the character for the 1937 radio show, who's real name was Kent Allred, but used a wide variety of aliases (one of which was Lamont Cranston).
I agree, though, that characters shouldn't have secret id's simply because "super heroes have secret id's". A close look needs to be taken at the character in question to determine if a secret id works with the concept. Captain America and Iron Man, for instance, work much better without secret id's, whereas Superman and Batman, I think, work better with them.
X-Men work better without secret identities as well. The fact they used to have them just seems to be an artifact from Lee and Kirby because between the 70s revival and Grant Morrison making them moot, it is hardly brought up.
edited 26th Dec '16 12:21:32 PM by DS9guy
I agree that for Batman, a secret identity does make sense. Moreover, Batman actually does go so far as to let his closest friends in on his secret, even if it's just Alfred and the current Robin (Aunt Harriet notwithstanding).
There's a nice gag in a Radioactive Man comic about this. RM anguishes over how he can't possibly reveal his identity to Gloria, since only the Superior Squadron, Fallout Boy, the Mayor, and most of his villains know who he really is. The joke is that by that point in his career, there was really no reason for him to keep it a secret.
Wonder Woman is another character who works best without a secret identity.
I've noticed that with a lot of recent works- Man of Steel, Ms. Marvel, the CW Flash and Supergirl series, and now Homecoming'', characters have a really limited secret identity if any and one thing that's striking is that whether or not all of their friends are aware of their identity, there's an aspect of other heroes and/or covert organizations knowing their identity as well as helping them keep it/ supplying them with gear. And as a result, there's much less emphasis on their being drama with friends and loved ones not knowing their identities.
Lois being in on the Masquerade was one of the few things I liked about Man of Steel, and while I do agree that Superman (and Supergirl) work well having a Secret Identity, the aspect of the government knowing of them makes a lot of sense, not least because it's not realistic to be able to adopt a child with no identifying paperwork. And while I'm a big believer in idealistic/heroic Superman and really like the Supergirl show, it does also seem to make sense that with that power level, they would have official personnel watching over them, but also being prepared to stop them in the event they go in a bad direction.
edited 26th Dec '16 4:43:33 PM by Hodor2
Calling the adoption into question is a bit of a double-edged sword, as it's a bit hard to see why, if the government knew the Kents had found an alien baby, they'd let them keep it. It also depends on whether you see the government as a benevolent entity or an amoral one out to further it's own interests.
I think John Byrne actually did the best at solving the questionable adoption angle, by having the Kents living on a remote farm that got snowed in during a blizzard that struck immediately after Clark's rocket landed. It took them months to get back into town, and so the Kents were able to pass him off as their natural son (which actually isn't really that far fetched).
I'm actually a little surprised that no one has ever suggested that li'l Clark be home schooled, at least once his powers started showing up.
Funny you mention home schooling because I had been thinking of commenting in that "character revisioning thread" about accounting for Clark coming from what would presumably be a very politically conservative background and him being homeschooled would very much fit into that.
I should also backtrack slightly. I think that "government created origin" works particularly well in the Supergirl CW series because of the fact that she lands on Earth when she's already several years old (I think like 10) and she's specifically placed in a home by Superman. So, there's really no way she could have gotten a civilian identity without some strings being pulled.
Also, IIRC, Man of Steel fudges the issue of the birth certificate (don't recall it being mentioned). It has Clark mostly live off the grid post K-12 education and the government as well as some of his co-workers are in on the "Clark Kent Mild-Mannered Reporter" identity. Which is kind of interesting I think in a Reality Ensues way but definitely fits into the film's playing up the idea of Superman/the alien being the real personality and the civilian identity the fake one. Besides being tonally better, I prefer Supergirl's take on this, because not having come to Earth as a baby, it makes more sense that being Kryptonian is a large part of her identity.
edited 26th Dec '16 8:30:45 PM by Hodor2
It's not like all conservative families homeschool, and right or wrong homeschooling has a reputation as something that only the crazy religious types who are afraid of evolution do for their kids. Superman, and by extension the Kents, have always been used as an exemplar of the best parts of America, especially the homegrown lower-middle class parts. That includes going to public school and being very welcoming of new people and ideas.
For Superman's origin, the simplest thing is to have him thrown clear of his crashed spaceship. The Kents find him and bring him to a local government office to try and track down his parents, and take a strong interest in the case.
When his biological parents prove unable to be tracked down, the case worker tells the Kents they'll need to put him up for adoption. Martha and Jonathan suggest they might adopt him (having been unable to have children of their own), and after passing an inspection, they get approved.
There are two ways to deal with the spaceship. One, when it crashes, it activates a camouflage system. After a few weeks it manages to repair itself and tracks down baby Kal-El, which allows the Kents and Clark to find out the truth.
Two, there is no camouflage. The government finds it and takes it to Area 51, so Clark doesn't know he's an alien until he's an adult.
Secret identities, like a lot of things in the comic book industry, are an interesting idea that ultimately got turned into something of a joke thanks to the overuse of it as a narrative crutch and cheap installment of drama. Like Kryptonite and sidekicks, in the Silver Age everybody had a secret identity even if they didn't actually need it, because that's what everybody else was doing it. It became one of those "Status Quo for the sake of Status Quo" that now writers have to deal with thanks to Grandfathering.
Some heroes have perfect set-ups for secret identities, such that they definitely need them (Spider-Man). Others have good set-ups for secret identities, such that them having them makes sense (Batman, Superman). Others really don't, but keep up the farce anyway why not (Green Lantern). And others absolutely don't, and so later writers just dropped the idea because it's stupid (Captain America, Iron Man).
I like that Spider-Man is bringing secret identities to the MCU, because he's an actual character that needs one. He's a nobody and an everyman, gifted with the ability to do amazing things. His idealized life as Spider-Man involves a lot of wishful thinking and escaping his own life, and is one that could absolutely ruin that normal life and those of people around him if it got out, so it makes sense that he trying to protect that life - he's one of the few superheroes around these days that legitimately has one. Still, Ultimate Spider-Man (the comic) did good when it had Peter's closest friends and family be in on the secret. Rigid devotion to the idea isn't what it's cracked up to be any more.
With the Hulk, I find it interesting that no one except Rick Jones knew who he was at first. It was only in "Tales to Astonish #77" when Rick thought Hulk was dead (he was actually in the future) that he told Major Talbot that Bruce Banner was the jade giant.
I remember Kilowag making fun of Hal Jordan's mask in Green Lantern: The Animated Series. "He wears it in case some Earthling climbs aboard the Interceptor, while we're in space mind you, and says 'AHA! THE GREEN LANTERN ON MY PLANET IS HAL JORDAN! I'M TELLIN' EVERYONE!'"
edited 27th Dec '16 11:13:08 AM by DS9guy
Always felt that Green Lantern in particular would work better without a secret ID.
However little sense they make, secret identities have been a time-honored crutch for lazy writers who need a ready-made source of drama they can build an issue around. (That's been especially true for characters like Superman, whose incredible power makes it tough to come up with realistic challenges on the regular.) Now, neither tropes nor labor-savers are inherently bad ... but with a few honorable exceptions, the "secret identity" wheeze hasn't yielded anything worth reading in forever.
However, so long as lazy writers exist, there'll be corners of reluctance to do away with such an easily trotted-out plot element.
I don't know that I'd call it a crutch for lazy writers so much as a traditional trope that a lot of writers choose to continue implementing. The question of whether or not a character has a secret ID should be contingent one whether or not it makes sense for the character to have one, in my opinion. I'm certain a writer could wring story potential out of either scenario, but eventually you're going to run out stories you can build on that one element, whichever way you choose to play it. I will say, I don't think you could write a super-hero as having anything like what most people would call a normal life if that hero's id was public. They'd be thrust into permanent celebrity status. That'd be fine in some cases, and at best counter productive and at worst a violation of core concepts for others.
Didn't Brian Michael Bendis or Joe Quesada or somebody over at Marvel say a few years ago that they would not be giving every character a secret id anymore? That they'd evaluate it on a case by case basis?
Most of Marvel's heroes function fine without secret i.d's. And what core concepts are they violating?
Again, it would depend on the individual character. For the ones who function fine without a secret ID, I expect it's not violating their character's core concepts. It never made sense, for instance, for Captain America, Iron Man, or Thor to have secret identities (though I suppose one could make the case that Cap's identity might have been classified, but it made much more sense for it to be public). One can see the possible necessity of the Hulk's ID being secret, but that's one I think that can work well either way. Spider-Man, though, needs a secret ID or else he becomes a much different character.
edited 2nd Jan '17 10:00:48 AM by Robbery
One thing I wanted to clarify/distinguish is between the public at large not knowing of a civilian identity (which essentially means there's not separation between civilian identity and super identity), and a superhero's friends and family not being aware of their superheroing.
I think the latter is something that's rightly been dropped to a significant degree (and it's kind of weird in things like the Flash show and Ms. Marvel, wherein most of the hero's friends and relatives know of their identity but not all, and there's drama with those who don't- which makes it strange that the hero wouldn't tell those other people, but I think the former still works, depending on the hero.
It makes sense that none of the original MCU characters really have secret identities as such, since they are public figures, government operatives, and/or heads of state, but a secret identity makes a lot of sense for a "street level" character like Spider-Man.
One other thought- what's kind of interesting with Superman and Batman is that their masquerade partly works because the public at large doesn't necessarily expect them to have a civilian identity in the first place.
edited 2nd Jan '17 12:21:46 PM by Hodor2
How do people not expect Batman to have a secret ID? He's clearly a guy wearing a mask. Or is this from the perspective of people who think he's an urban myth or something?
edited 2nd Jan '17 12:51:26 PM by Robbery
I was thinking of the urban myth idea- not in terms of the kind of stupid idea of people not actually knowing that the hero exists, but more in terms of how thanks to powers in Superman's case and tech in Batman's case, they are able to apparently show up whenever a crime is happening. Which coupled with their larger-than-life personas as The Cape and The Cowl, gives a sense that this is someone who doesn't have a day job/normal life.
As a caveat, I'd say this is most/only true of Batman where he doesn't use a lot of obvious technology. Whenever you have a Batman with the Batmobile, Batplane, and high tech armor, it doesn't seem realistic that people wouldn't narrow the identity down to the subset of extremely wealthy people with ties of manufacturing.
Granted, Spider-Man also foils lots of crimes as they happen, but since he's more clearly a jokey guy in a mask and has a specific regional accent, it's more obvious that he would have a civilian identity.
edited 2nd Jan '17 1:14:09 PM by Hodor2
One setting my tabletop RPG group and I did was an organization that was essentially "Heroes Without Borders" (yes, we're fans of Metal Gear Solid; why do you ask?)
Partially influenced by Warren Ellis' Stormwatch, the basic premise was that the characters had powers (from various walks of life [alien/magic/cybernetic/etc.]), but they were more of a black-ops unit. Or as one player put it, "We do the heroic stuff that doesn't make the front page of the Daily Planet." So their identities weren't exactly secret, but they weren't the types of heroes who stuck around for the journalists afterwards. (Except for that one jackass who couldn't keep his mouth shut, but that's a completely different story).
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