A secret identity is a person's alter ego which is not known to the general populace, most often used in fiction. The concept is particularly prevalent in American comic books.
In American comic books, a character typically has dual identities, with one identity being a superhero persona and the other a civilian persona, the secret identity. Superheroes often have a secret identity to protect themselves from legal ramifications, pressure, or public scrutiny, and also to protect their friends and loved ones from harm secondary to their actions as superheroes.
Superheroes often use pseudonyms or wear masks to complete a costume in order to conceal their secret identities. To help further preserve the anonymity of secret identities, characters may use eyeglasses, particularly clothing, or display a set of characteristics when assuming the secret identity persona. For example, when the superhero Batman is not in costume, he 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 is Clark Kent, his secret identity.
Types of characters that may have secret identities include heroes, superheroes, thieves, villains, supervillain, vigilantes, aliens, and "monsters". A character may have several types of secret identities simultaneously, such as adopted names, undercover identities, and crime fighting code names.
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). 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."
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.
- 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.
The question of genuine identity
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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 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!
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, 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.
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
- Housewife: Elastigirl
- 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 (also a war department secretary and agent)
- 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, Dash Parr, Violet Parr
Keeping the secret
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
- 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 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.
- Who's wearing the mask
- The Many, Many People Who Know Batman's "Secret" Identity
- No More Secret Identities: The Trouble With Alter Egos