A secret identity is a persona of character (usually fictional) that is not generally known to be responsible for actions that are regarded to have been performed by a different persona of the same character. For example, within the DC Universe, Clark Kent, somehow (and seemingly against all the odds), is not generally known to be responsible for actions attributed to Superman.
Types of characters that may have secret identities include heroes, superheroes, thieves, villains, supervillians, vigilantes, aliens and "monsters". A character may have several types of secret identities simultaneously (such as adopted names, undercover identities, and crime fighting codenames).
Because the Scarlet Pimpernel works in the dark, and his identity is only known under the solemn oath of secrecy to his immediate followers.
The use of secret identities dates back to the early 20th century with characters such as the Scarlet Pimpernel (1903), Zorro (1919) and the Lone Ranger (1933). Starting in the 1930s, the concept of crime-fighters, superheroes, and vigilantes (and their adversaries) adopting secret identities became more widespread in dime novels, pulp magazines, comic books, old-time radio dramas, movie serials, and other popular fiction and such characters remain popular to this day. Superman appeared in Action comics in 1938 as one of the forerunners amongst a list of superhero debuts.
The artistic purpose of the secret identity on the part of the writers is that it allows the characters to have ordinary lives, which can allow for human drama as well as create tension with the effort needed to preserve the secret. This can include challenges such as throwing off the suspicions of associates who suspect, and the need to quickly improvise means to get out of sight to change identities. And superhuman characters may benefit from an everyman aspect through having a secret identity, giving them a sympathetic link to their audience. For example, Captain Marvel's secret identity is a boy named Billy Batson - a deliberate attempt to play on the daydreams of a young readership.
Some common motivations for a character to keep a secret identity include:
- Allowing the character to live a "normal life" when not fighting crime.
- Preventing the hero's enemies from seeking revenge on others the hero may care about.
- Giving the hero an advantage in crime fighting (e.g. Batman or The Shadow striking fear into criminals).
- Gaining timely information on incidents as they happen, often through their occupation or that of their associates (e.g. a reporter or a newscaster would likely be more informed about incidents that a hero might be able to help with).
- Aliens, upon coming to Earth, may choose to set up one or more secret identities as a learning tool. By pretending to be humans, they can explore the different roles and lives that a regular human is expected to have in his/her or her life and using their deeper understanding of human condition to help others.
The question of genuine identity
Sometimes the distinction as to which persona is the "real one" may be blurred or confused, as has sometimes been the case with Clark Kent and Superman. In the earliest Superman comics, Clark primary purpose was to fulfil the perceived requirement that a superhero cannot remain on full duty all the time and Clark thus acted as little more than a front for Superman's activities. In the television series Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, after Lois Lane learns that Superman is Clark Kent, he discusses his dual identity with her. "Clark Kent is not a disguise. Clark is who I am, while Superman is what I do."
The compromises that Clark still needed to make to secure his alter-egos were limited as the Pa Kent of the Man of Steel comics enthusiastically explains:
"SEE MA? WITH HIS HAIR ALL SLICKERED BACK AND AN OLD PAIR OF MY SPECTACLES, HIS WHOLE FACE SEEMS TO CHANGE. ALL HE NEEDS TO DO IS STOOP A TAD AND HE LOOKS LIKE A WHOLE DIFFERENT MAN. AND SO LONG AS HE'S CAREFUL NEVER TO LET ON THAT HE HAS TWO SEPARATE IDENTITIES, HE'LL BE ABLE TO MOVE FREELY LIKE ORDINARY FOLKS!
Beyond stooping Clark develops a tendency of avoiding conflict. Sometimes this is in order to allow him to change into his alter ego and at other times it is to maintain a consistently non Superman type image but, either way, it opens the "mild mannered" reporter to the charge of cowardice and weakness. Heroes in this type of situation are known to find their love interests developing interests in and even infatuations for their heroic personas.
Superman's face remains uncovered on the justification that he wants to be trusted by people while Batman wears a mask partly because he wants to be feared by criminals. It has also been suggested that Bruce Wayne is "the mask" that Batman wears, meaning that Batman is the true persona, hidden by his public image.
Characters who experience an actual transformation when changing from one persona may have two relatively genuine identities, al-be-it with additional possibilities of inner conflict. An example of this is Dr. Robert Bruce Banner who needs to seek genuine calmness in order to prevent transforming into the genuinely raging Hulk.
Other characters have abilities that help them conceal their identities such as: shapeshifting or mind control. For instance Marvel's Mystique has an unaltered form with features including blue skin and yellow eyes and yet she has shape shifting and vocal mimicry abilities give her the potential to fit into any required situation.
Other characters either miss the opportunity to conceal their identities or choose to stay public. For instance, the Fantastic Four, who would have always had difficulties concealing the Thing, have typically maintained a public appearance from the Manhattan based Baxter Building.
Secret identity occupations
- Aristocrat/Nobleperson: The Scarlet Pimpernel, Zorro
- Business magnate: Batman, Blue Beetle (Ted Kord), Green Arrow, Iron Fist, Iron Man
- Flight Attendant: Daytripper
- Lawyer: Daredevil, [She-Hulk (inclusion disputed due to early disclosure of identity)], Manhunter (Kate Spencer)
- Magician: Zatanna
- Miner, American Ace
- Model: Vixen
- Nomad-Vagrant: The Hulk, The Punisher, Spawn
- Nurse, Wonder Woman
- Office clerk: Mr. Incredible
- Pilot, Rocketeer
- Photographer: Spider-Man
- Police operative: The Flash, Raven
- Reporter: Captain Marvel, Green Hornet, Question, Superman
- Scientist: Ant-Man, Captain Britain
- Singer: Dazzler
- Student, in a non superhero related establishment: Batman (Terry McGinnis), Spider-Man, Static (DC Comics), Superboy (Kal-El)
- Teacher, in a non superhero related establishment: Lionheart
- Students and staff, within a superhero related establishment: Students and staff at the Xavier Institute for Higher Learning, Students and staff at the Jean Grey School for Higher Learning, Students and staff at the New Charles Xavier School for Mutants
Keeping the secret
If secret identities are to remain secret then others must fail to recognise and subsequently publicise that personas of a character belong to the same person. Identities may be kept secret in a number of ways including:
- actual physical change
- the application of elements of disguise on the various personas of the character
- becoming or remaining less visible due to: camouflage, transparency, invisibility or speed
- the adoption of different mannerisms and vocal characteristics by the various personas of the character
- Chemical influences, hypnosis, magic and telepatic/psychic influences
- The causation of physical damage with the result of impaired mental ability, impaired communicative ability or death.
- Yeffeth, edited by Glenn (2006). The man from Krypton : a closer look at Superman. Dallas, Tex.: BenBella Books. p. 132–133. ISBN 9781932100778. "In many television or movie portrayals of the role of Clark Kent, you have to work hard to imagine how incredibly stupid everybody has to be not to realize that the guy with glasses who's acting and looking and talking exactly like Superman wearing glasses is, indeed, Superman wearing glasses. Only Christopher Reeve got it perfectly. When his Superman became Kent he actually seemed to shrink. His mannerisms were different, his voice was different. His hair changed. You could see that he was a different guy.
That's extremely important. Because Clark is a different guy. He's not Superman, and Superman knows that. Think how carefully Superman has to control everything he says and does as Clark. It's no exaggeration to say that Clark has to literally be a second, separate personality that Superman turns on and off. Yet this separate personality also has to be fully aware of and working with the Superman personality at all times. That's quite an accomplishment in itself. The physical aspects of maintaining a secret identity (the apartment, the clothes, the job you don't really need) pale next to the mental strain of living as someone else a great part of the time. This isn't something the average mental health professional is likely to recommend."
- Orczy, Baroness (2005). the Scarlet Pimpernel - CHAPTER IV THE LEAGUE OF THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL. London: Hodder. ISBN 0340894989.
- Man of Steel #1, Chapter2.
- DeFalco, Tom (5 May 2003). The Hulk: The Incredible Guide. London: DK Publishing.
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