Secret identity

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A secret identity is a person's alter ego which is not known to the general populace, most often used in fiction. Brought into popular culture by the Scarlet Pimpernel in 1903, the concept is particularly prevalent in the American comic book genre, and is a more genre-specific version of the broader trope of the masquerade.

In American comic books, a character typically has dual identities, with one identity being the superhero persona and the other being the secret identity. The secret identity is typically the superhero's civilian persona when they are not assuming the superhero persona. It is kept hidden from their enemies and the general public to protect themselves from legal ramifications, pressure, or public scrutiny, as well as to protect their friends and loved ones from harm secondary to their actions as superheroes.

The secret identity commonly consists of the superhero's given birth name and may involve an occupation they had before becoming a superhero. This is in contrast to the superhero identity, which often utilizes a pseudonym and sometimes a mask to complete a costume to conceal the superhero's secret identity. To help further preserve the anonymity of secret identities, characters may use eyeglasses, particular clothing, or display a different set of personal characteristics when assuming the secret identity persona. For example, the superhero Batman's secret identity is Bruce Wayne, a billionaire who is known to the public for his affluent playboy lifestyle. Another example is Superman, who does not wear a mask when he is in costume, but wears eyeglasses and appears mild-mannered when he assumes his secret identity of Clark Kent.

Types of characters that may have secret identities include heroes, superheroes, thieves, villains, supervillains, vigilantes, aliens, and "monsters". A character may have several secret identities simultaneously, such as adopted names or undercover identities.

History[edit]

Myth and legend is filled with stories of gods or heroes who took on other identities for various purposes. A significant precursor to the 20th century concept of a secret identity in fiction is The Count of Monte Cristo (1844) by Alexandre Dumas, a huguely popular story which was frequently dramatized in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In this story, the protagonist Edmund Dantes takes on the identity of the mysterious Count of Monte Cristo in order to carry out his plan of revenge against the men who were responsible for his downfall and imprisonment.

Five of the members of the superhero team Justice League, in their civilian identity pictured from left to right: Clark Kent (Superman), Barry Allen (The Flash), Hal Jordan (Green Lantern), John Jones (Martian Manhunter), and Bruce Wayne (Batman). Art by Brian Bolland.

The modern popular culture use of secret identities begins in the early 20th century with characters such as the Scarlet Pimpernel (1903), Jimmie Dale, the Gray Seal (1914), Zorro (1919), and the Lone Ranger (1933). A line in the novel The Scarlet Pimpernel reads, "Because the Scarlet Pimpernel works in the dark, and his identity is only known under the solemn oath of secrecy to his immediate followers."[1] The Scarlet Pimpernel is the name of a chivalrous Englishman, Sir Percy Blakeney, who exhibits characteristics that would become standard superhero conventions, including the penchant for disguise, use of a signature weapon (sword), ability to out-think and outwit his adversaries, and a calling card (he leaves behind a scarlet pimpernel at each of his interventions).[2] By drawing attention to his alter ego Blakeney he hides behind his public face as a slow thinking foppish playboy (like Bruce Wayne), and he also establishes a network of supporters, The League of the Scarlet Pimpernel, that aid his endeavours.[2]

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.

Purpose[edit]

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.[citation needed]

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).
  • Gaining information on criminal investigations or on crimes being planned (e.g., in his early days as Batman, Bruce Wayne would learn about ongoing investigations from Commissioner Gordon, while Plastic Man's alter ego, criminal Eel O'Brien, would go along on other crimes, only to capture his cohorts as Plastic Man).
  • 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 life and using their deeper understanding of human condition to help others.
  • To avoid legal ramifications or public scrutiny due to accountability with the collateral damage superheroes are often involved with, which carries the risk of imprisonment or becoming a public pariah such as from being branded as a vigilante. Villains such as the Kingpin also use this reason to hide their unlawful actions to protect their social standing.
  • To allow the public to admire their super alter-ego as its own entity, not weakened by the mortality of their "normal" counterpart.

The question of genuine identity[edit]

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's primary purpose was to fulfill 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![3]

Beyond stooping, Clark develops a tendency of avoiding conflict. Sometimes this is in order to allow him to change into his alter ego. while at other times it is to maintain a consistently non-Superman type image. In either case, it opens the "mild mannered" reporter to the stigma of cowardice and weakness. 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.

Heroes in this type of situation are known to find their love interests developing interests in and even infatuations for their heroic personas, as a dual identity can have an influence on romantic attraction. Lois Lane found herself attracted to Superman but is fairly indifferent towards Clark Kent and for years bore some resentment towards him. Similarly, Black Cat was madly in love with Spider-Man but was utterly replused by his revelation as Peter Parker, which eventually led to their break-up. Following a reset that erased her memory of his secret identity, Black Cat and Spider-Man have a strictly "masks-on" relationship whenever they engage in on-again, off-again romance.

Characters who experience an actual transformation when changing from one persona may have two relatively genuine identities, albeit 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. At another extreme characters like He-Man manage to maintain their secret identities with a change of clothes and a tan.

Some characters initially maintain secret identities but discard of them over time. Tony Stark at first told the news media and general public that Iron Man is his personal bodyguard and corporate mascot before he eventually publicly reveals his dual identity. Other characters miss the opportunity to conceal their identities or choose to be public from the very beginning. 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. Much like Iron Man, the members of the Fantastic Four have few surviving civilian relatives and most of their friends and loved ones have superhuman abilities they can use to protect themselves from harm.

Secret identity occupations[edit]

Keeping the secret[edit]

Unless an identity is itself well known, its discovery may not jeopardize the person's safety. For example, the Justice League Unlimited episode "The Great Brain Robbery" features Lex Luthor temporarily body swapping with the Flash (Wally West). When Luthor tries to learn the hero's secret identity by taking off his mask and looking in a mirror, he realizes that he has "no idea who this is".[4] If secret identities are to remain secret then others must fail to recognize and subsequently publicize that personas of a character belong to the same person. Identities may be kept secret in a number of ways including:

  • actual physical change[5]
  • The application of elements of disguise on the various personas of the character
  • Becoming or remaining less visible due to: camouflage, transparency, invisibility or vibration
  • the adoption of different mannerisms and vocal characteristics by the various personas of the character
  • Chemical influences, hypnosis, magic and telepathic/psychic influences
  • The causation of physical damage with the result of impaired mental ability, impaired communicative ability or death.
  • Public appearances of both identities in the same area with the cooperation of a friend in disguise, or an android made to take that appearance, by some form of illusion or by such means as time travel.
  • Does not display any of their special skills in public. (ex. Bruce Wayne not displaying his martial arts skills in public to protect his secret identity as Batman[6])
  • Has special abilities that help prevent from being observed changing identities, such as Spider-Man's spider-sense, that senses when he is in danger, which registers unwanted observers at such moments as a threat.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Orczy, Baroness (2005). the Scarlet Pimpernel - CHAPTER IV THE LEAGUE OF THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL. London: Hodder. ISBN 0340894989. 
  2. ^ a b Robb, Brian J. (2014). A Brief History of Superheroes: From Superman to the Avengers, the Evolution of Comic Book Legends. Hatchet UK. 
  3. ^ Man of Steel #1, Chapter2. 
  4. ^ Sava, Oliver (2015-01-12). "Justice League Unlimited: "The Great Brain Robbery"". AV Club. Retrieved 20 April 2016. 
  5. ^ DeFalco, Tom (5 May 2003). The Hulk: The Incredible Guide. London: DK Publishing. 
  6. ^ Batman (vol. 2) #2 (December 2011)

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