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Committed: Secret Identities – Online Privacy & Invisible Disease

061114_DaredevilWith Tony Stark doing a “I AM IRON MAN” all over the place, it’s hard to remember a time when a threat to reveal a secret identity could be the entire plot of a comic book. Nowadays no one seems to want to deal with secret identities, maybe it’s too implausible (sure, because otherwise super powered heroes are everywhere, *ahem*), or unfashionable as reality shows and social networks blur the line between public and private lives. On some level there is seems to be assumption that fame is desirable for everyone, even if the cost is a person’s privacy (or in the case of a superhero; the safety of loved ones).

Whatever the reason, the secret identity aspect of superheroes just isn’t a very big deal right now, but the superhero secret identity is a powerful metaphor on many levels, and one which ought to become an important device again soon. Primarily, the secret identity is an excellent metaphor for our own dual lives on and offline. There is increasing interest in reserving our privacy as we lose more and more of it to voluntarily to social networks, to (hopefully benign) NSA information mining, and to smart phone location-sharing. Moving on from these obvious correlations between online privacy and a secret identity, it is also a potent metaphor for the way a large proportion of people deal with an “invisible” long-term disease, like mental illnesses or chronic pain management.

061114_GreenLanternWhen social networks first popped up it was generally assumed that (as in our real-space social lives) it would be possible to maintain a level of separation between them and our professional lives. Over time that has become increasingly difficult and it has generally accepted that most of us can no longer maintain a separation. Employers research potential hires on Facebook and Twitter, dates do too. Location tracking on phones not only enables us to map our routes, but also helps marketers trace our movements through stores and businesses.

Many of the early adopters of Facebook and Twitter are moving away from sharing their lives, initially as their parents’ generation migrated there and later as businesses and government began to actively monitor posts. After years of embracing social networks people are becoming more careful about which aspects of their lives are publicly shared online in order to maintain a degree of privacy. Having everything out in the open might have felt liberating at first, it has spiraled into a sort of trap and the concept of a secret identity is starting to sound appealing again. Google is dealing with demands for “the right to be forgotten” and it’s news when a smart phone doesn’t share our location with marketers we don’t know about.

061114_AmazingSpiderManAway from the virtual world of social networks in a more basic sense many adults quietly deal with depression, anxiety, addiction, IBS, Crohn’s, endometriosis, allergies, injuries and a litany of other so-called “invisible diseases” every day. It isn’t that people are keeping these things secret, but because these kinds of pain can’t be seen externally it is that much harder for the world to understand or even know about them. In some instances it can be easier not to mention what is going on because of the social stigma attached, and many people choose not to risk associating themselves with a perceived weakness of disease, whether the attached stigma is logical or fair. Living with an invisible disease can begin to feel like functioning with a kind of secret identity, creating a dual aspect to lives which might overtly seem easy. By surmounting these private diseases people become their own heroes, even if no one knows what feats of strength they’re exerting.

These are just a couple of ways in which the old superhero secret identity trope is a powerful metaphor for our lives. When superheroes desperately struggle to keep their private lives separate from the world in an effort to scrape out a small square of life, they’re more relatable. The argument that the dual identity is implausible only carries us so far when we’re all working so hard to maintain our own dual identities. If superhero comics books are concerned with being realistic then the era of superheroes proudly announcing their identity must be nearing saturation point. Today the most realistic, relatable move a superhero could make would be to have an elaborate, secret, “ordinary” life… just like the rest of us.

24 Comments

Very interesting post. Although I would love to see some more superheroes have secret identities I understand why writers get rid of them. There have been so many secret identity scares in the past that most authors are either sick of writing about them or feel the readers would be sick of reading about them. Anyway, I personally wouldn’t mind a few more secret identities.

I never really liked secret identities in comics. Wait, let me elaborate on that. I think secret identities are fine, but I don’t like the length older superheroes used to go to hide them even from their more intimate loved ones. It’s okay to use a mask to preserve your privacity from the general public, but if you’re hiding something so important from the aunt that raised you, from your best friend and partner in your law firm for years, from your girlfriend and from your “pal”, then something is very wrong with you.

I don’t buy the excuse that it’s for their own protection. Aunt May, Foggy Nelson, Lois Lane, are always getting kidnapped anyway.

To me, it’s just a cheap ploy to generate melodrama and a lazy way of recycling 80-year old cliches: “She likes my superhero identity more than the real me. Boo-hoo” “I can’t tell her I’m really Turnip Man and that is why I stood her up on our last date!” “She will get hurt if she knows I’m Captain Amazing.” Dude, she is been kidnapped 17 times last month only. She is already getting hurt, the least you can be is be honest with her.

That is so vomit-inducing, and if it’s a metaphor for anything, it’s a metaphor for adultery or some other sort of personal betrayal. Or maybe for closeted homosexuality. Just be proud of what you are, man!

Now, a hero hiding his name from the general public, that is okay. I’m not crazy about it, but that is okay. And in some cases it’s actually required, when the character is the vigilante type.

Agreed completely with renenarciso.

I have always felt that it reflected very poorly on Barry Allen that he did not reveal to Iris West that he was the Flash. And IIRC, she only discovered it because Barry was talking in his sleep. That just seemed like such an incredibly insensitive move on his part. I mean, shouldn’t Iris have been allowed to know that her fiance was moonlighting as a costumed vigilante fighting against supervillains. that’s a gigantic secret to keep from the woman who you say that you love and who you intend to spend the rest of your life with.

I was happy that shortly after Clark Kent and Lois Lane got engaged in the early 1990s, the writers finally had Clark come right out and say he was Superman. Otherwise he would have eventually come across as much too like his Silver Age incarnation, back when he went to ridiculous lengths to keep his dual identity a secret.

Look, it makes sense for Matt Murdock not to want people to know he’s Daredevil. After all, he’s a lawyer, and he’d probably get disbarred for his vigilante activities. But why should Captain America have a secret identity? It’s not like Steve Rogers ever had a career that lasted longer than five minutes. Hell, he even once admitted that when he takes off his mask he looks like a dozen other blonde-haired guys, or something to that effect.

Sonia, are you reading BKV & Marcos Martin’s The Private Eye? From their own description of the comic “Set in a future where privacy is considered a sacred right and everyone has a secret identity”. It’s a good comic and has some interesting similarities to your post.

Do readers have patience for secret identity stories anymore? There is a constant need to know every detail of everyone’s lives, there seems to be less room for the unknown.

Alexandre Juliao

June 11, 2014 at 1:12 pm

When all the Marvel heroes revealed their identities it wasn’t a creative choice, it was a editorial mandate. Joe Quesada argumented, that he made that decision because he felt that keep a secret identity it’s not only a ridiculous and outdated concept, but it’s completely unrealistic. My reaction to that was thinking ” Oh really? Tell that to all the people who live under witness protection , law enforcement officers who work undercover and members of counter-terrorism forces!”

I like the way Bendis handled Ultimate Peter Parker. By issue #13 of Ultimate Spider-Man, he told MJ. Later, Aunt may told him she had figured it out.

“First Avenger” handled Captain America pretty well, and so did Avengers a little. Steve Rogers is more of a soldier. No reason for a soldier to protect a secret identity. Stark’s ego pretty much dictated his “dual” identity.

I can see Bruce Wayne or Matt Murdock keeping a secret. Geoff Johns had Hal in action as Green Lantern to the point that he’s very rarely been at work…

I agree with renenarcio.

But in particular, I want to express my love for that Daredevil cover. Especially the aspect that Matt Murdock apparently wears his sunglasses under his Daredevil mask and it stays on perfectly even when his mask is whipped off.

bonus points for any writer who can make the secret id relevant and original again

” To me, it’s just a cheap ploy to generate melodrama and a lazy way of recycling 80-year old cliches: “She likes my superhero identity more than the real me. Boo-hoo” “I can’t tell her I’m really Turnip Man and that is why I stood her up on our last date!” “She will get hurt if she knows I’m Captain Amazing.” Dude, she is been kidnapped 17 times last month only. She is already getting hurt, the least you can be is be honest with her. ”

In a recent Spider-Man arc, Peter tried to justify keeping his secret ID from Carlie Cooper by saying that he wanted to “earn her love as plain ol’ Peter Parker”. This did nothing but make him look like a selfish prick, because in addition to the reasons you express about the loved ones already being in danger, it has Peter present his emotional needs above honesty in the relationship.

There are some real-world consequences that rear their ugly heads when heroes reveal previously-secret identities–not the least of which is that they could face prosecution or other legal issues. Matt Murdock finally admitted to being Daredevil in open court, was disbarred, and now is unable to practice law in the state of New York. If he hadn’t already been admitted to the California bar, he’d have to find another way to support himself as it’s unlikely he’d be able to get admitted anywhere else.
Consider the collateral damage caused in those giant superhero battles. It’s kinda hard to file a civil suit against an unknown person, but if Captain Blue Guy throws your new car through the wall of a building and then six months later is revealed to be Edward Morgan of this address in this city, you and the building owner (or your insurance companies) damn well will immediately sue him for damages. And they’ll probably win.
And, of course, unless you have an in-universe legal band-aid in place allowing masked vigilantes to testify in court, you run up against an inconvenient legal principle called “the right to confront your accuser.” “Who arrested this guy?” “Spider-Man.” “Is he here?” “Nope.” “Any other witnesses to the crime?” “Nope.” “Evidence?” “Right here.” “Where did it come from?” “Spider-Man left it with the defendant.” “You’re free to go, Mr. Creel.”

This reminds me:

Judge Richard Straniere of New York laid down a ruling where he criticized a lawyer named DeFilippo who tried to dodge paying a refund on a retainer from a previous differently named law firm. Straniere objected to the idea of DeFilippo thinking he could evade the consequences of his actions by coming up with a name for his company. Straniere also wrote that DeFilippo “must be reminded that Zorro (Don Diego de la Vega), The Shadow (Lamont Cranston)…..each had an alter-ego but was, in fact, only one person who understood the difference between right and wrong and, unlike the defendant, never sought to disavow responsibility for their own actions.” Did this judge not bother to see even the 1994 film version of The Shadow or the 1998 Zorro movie? Zorro and the Shadow worked outside of the law and adopted dual identities to shield one identity from the consequences of the other identity’s actions. As Max Allan Collins pointed out in Amazing Heroes#119, they adopted alter egos since the cops would have arrested them on the spot (and in Zorro’s case, the Spanish army would have possibly executed him). Zorro acted as a social protester in the 1998 film; in the 1994 Shadow film the police commissioner noted he would appoint a task force to stop the Shadow from interfering with police affairs (the Shadow tampers with the commissioner’s mind to protect his alter ego’s activities and stop him from appointing the task force-not a stellar example of obedience to rule of law). In other words, Zorro and the Shadow adopted dual identities to shield themselves from the consequences of their actions. Only later on did the idea of “to protect my loved ones” come up when the genre started growing more self-consciously juvenile. Zorro and the Shadow came from the days of the unbuilt trope. (Doc Savage stood as officially deputized and so did not maintain a dual identity.)

http://goodcomics.comicbookresources.com/2013/02/15/comic-book-legends-revealed-406/

http://goodcomics.comicbookresources.com/2013/03/15/comic-book-legends-revealed-410/

People such a Frank Miller have tried to obscur this a bit, but the more prominent indigenous comic book heroes stood as deputized by and large by the early 1940?s. Intriguing that the radio hero the Green Hornet (“on police record, a wanted fugitive”) stood as an outlaw in his TV show.

I miss having so many heroes with secret identities. I think it’s the only way to have a superhero with a normal life and job. It’s okay to have some professional heroes with public IDs like the Fantastic Four, and others that are not known to the general public, but whose identities are open among friends and teammates. But we need the full mix, including the old-style heroes who hide their identities from everybody.

Sadly, not only are secret identities so much rarer these days, but so are heroes with ordinary jobs and private lives. Way too many of them seem to just be full-time heroes these days.

I think we can all agree that threats to secret identities were horribly overused as a plot device for way too long. But that’s just lazy writing. A good editor is supposed to shoot down such cliché plotlines as soon as the writer proposes them. Along with constant kidnapping of loved ones and other overused stock plotlines.

I don’t know. I like the secret identity thing. Especially for those heroes that aren’t officially sanctioned. If everybody knew who they were, they’d kind of end up arrested. Also, it allows them to just plain be ordinary. A lot of people need alone time. That doesn’t happen much for celebrities.

I like your reasons listed, but there’s another reason I like secret identities: a hero’s choice of “day job” tells a lot about him/her and what they value. A hero who decides to be a lawyer will be different than one who decides to be a detective or a doctor. That choice of career says a lot about a superhero’s moral code. It’s how they choose to relate to the human world. It can make a hero who’s a Martian more relatable to us humans. (Though I don’t think J’onn J’onzz gets to use his human secret identity very often these days….he should, though.)

There’s also a danger to being out in the open, and not to the hero or those he cares about. There was a Silver Age Lee/Kirby issue of Captain America where after Steve tells the world who he is, people who look like him, and other people named “Steve Rogers” are attacked, and it troubled him that innocent people were getting hurt because he decided to reveal his identity. So that’s one more reason to keep it a secret.

Funny you mentioned invisible disabilities. I’ve always been a strong advocate of superhero secret identities, even thought they aren’t too popular these days. I have Crohn’s. I think you hit on an important idea about stigma and private lives that I never thought about before.

ItCameFromTheFridge

June 11, 2014 at 11:42 pm

I think there’s a more practical side to needing a secret identity: money.

Unless someone with super-powers/exceptional training is going to go the mercenary route, how are they expected to eat? There’s always that tricky perception issue to worry about too – the instant someone takes payment for their regular, ongoing, ‘heroic deeds’, does that make them less heroic? How does that reflect on the next person they save, who doesn’t give them a reward? What are the implications if the payment comes from an official source, such as they mayor’s office? It’s a huge can of worms.

On the other hand, take off the mask, walk into the office, and start doing your ‘regular’ job, and, problem solved. Until you have to explain all those unauthorised absences from the office, of course. :)

As a 60+ age comic reader I grew up in an age were if you read comics after age 10 you were regarded as immature; as a teenager rather sad and odd; as an adult weird and suspicious. So I have had a secret identity all my life. My wife and kids obviously know (it’s hard to hide a stack of shortboxes), but my work colleagues and none comic reading friends have no idea. Not as serious as a debilitating disease but still an important part of my life I’ve felt I needed to keep secret to be taken seriously at work etc.

Tony Stark is so BORING with him not being the secret ID of Iron Man. The good thing about that is that I have saved a lot of money by not buying his comicbook series. Same goes for Carol Danvers and Steve Rogers.

I owe marvel comics a debt of gratitude by getting rid of every marvel caharacters secret ID, because I immediatly stopped buying their comicbook series, so THANKS MARVEL!

The Fantastic Four are no longer special with having public ID’s, Peter Parker does not count to me because the way Peter Parker became the secret ID of Spider-Man again (One More Day) I view as extremely lazy.
I like Bruce Banner but dislike other marvel characters (examples; Tony, Carol) who appear in his comicbook series from time to time. It was clear to me that I could not go on supporting his comicbook series.

Daredevil is the exception (I dunno why but I still like this marvel character enough to support his series). I am also exited for Savage Hulk because this series will tell stories about Bruce Banner and the Hulk that are set in the past. Although there is Savage Wolverine I have not supported it but may do so in the future because Origin II has ended and Savage Wolverine is the only series left that features stories about Wolverine set in the past.

I also could not bring myself to support the Spider-Man: Learning to Crawl series. Yes it is set in the past and before Peter and MJ got married, but I find comicbooks written by Dan Slott not to my liking.

I think another factor that is influencing that abandonment of secret identities is that entertainment executives are finally starting to realize that their audiences aren’t cold, heartless monsters who can’t identify with someone unless they are demographically similar to them.

What I mean by this is that there is this idea that has been firmly entrenched in the entertainment industry that audience won’t identify with someone who isn’t like them in various superficial ways. You get executives telling writers that white people won’t watch something with a black lead, that women won’t read something without a female character, that kids or teenagers will only latch onto media that have a kid or a teenager as one of the protagonists.

This idea is one of the editorial justifications for secret identities. The editors think people won’t be able to identify with a superhero unless the superhero has to work at a job, go to school, or deal with friends and family the same way a normal person would. The most blatant example of this I’ve seen is the original Power Rangers series, where the villains always knew the identity of the rangers and kept attacking them when they were in civilian form, but the rangers maintained secret identities as high schoolers anyway. Why? Because kids supposedly won’t identify with people who don’t go to school like they do.

Luckily, this idea is being increasingly revealed as false. White people go to see movies starring Will Smith and Morgan Freeman in droves. Men and women both frequently enjoy series where the main character is the opposite sex from them. And kids have no problem identifying with adults (lots of kids love the Robin-less new Batman movies). Now that executives are finally starting to learn better, they realize that superheroes don’t need secret identities with school or day jobs. People can identify with public heroes just fine, because the human capacity for empathy isn’t nearly as limited as entertainment industry executives used to think.

This was a really great article. I prefer Secret Identities with my Super Heroes but have definitely noticed the shift over the last decade. The connection made with the rise of Social Media makes a lot of sense to me.

I miss Secret Identities too. I agree with some complaints about keeping it from “so and so,” but I think that is more of a fault of the writer than the actually character.
Spider-Man is a super hero for altruistic purposes. His identity should be secret because his life would be ruined if he told the world. Its an issue of safety.
Captain America is always Captain America. No need for a secret identity.
She-Hulk’s identity is technically secret, but she’s seven feet tall and green. She realizes and embraces the limitations, but she also isn’t seeking the lime light.

I have a secret identiy myself. I do stand up comedy and use a stage name. This is to seperate my day job activities from my comedy activities. I also had a really bad stalking situation in college; its an issue of safety. Now close friends, etc know about this. Others may know I have a stage name, but its just not talked about.

Great article, and having struggled with clinical dperession since I was a kid I absolutely empathise with the reasoning of a superhero wanting to protect their loved ones (and why I think renenarciso and Ben Herman are missing the point in a big way).

When I am depressed the very first thing I do is “put on a mask” to hide how I am feeling. Not because there is something wrong with me, but because I want to protect those around me from having to deal with my depression. Why ?
Part of it is the depression itself – when in the episode I feel as if I am not worthy of receiving help from anyone, or that I am worthy of having someone around who WANTS to help me. In that respect I do not think I deserve to be helped and so will not even consider asking for it.
A larger part is the feelings of guilt I have about “bothering” those around me by “burdening” them with my feelings. I do not want loved ones to be worried about me, as often there is nothing they can do to help me with the depression and their feeling helpless is not sometihng I want to have a role in producing. This goes double for work colleagues, there is no way I would ever consider hurting them, so revealing I am depressed and would prefer to be in bed and/or ending the torment by jumping through the nearest widow and the subsequent feelings this could potentially produce in them is totally verboten.
The point of my rambling (thanks for putting up with it) is that there are legitimate reasons (beyond “being a closet homosexual”) for wanting to have a secret identity and the point Sonia was making regarding the secret identities assumed by those with “invisible diseases” is one of those. Is it healthy for me to do this ? Nope. Is it rational ? Nope again. IIs it presumptious as hell, thinking others will not understand ? Is it a tad ego-centric ? Yep. But that’s how it is when you have depression. You become adept at blending in to the crowd, making sure they have not uncovered your secret – that you are feeling so down and lethargic it is a supreme effort to get out of bed and not just overdose on a crapload of pills.

In a very real sense

Hey, Brett –

While secret identities can work perfectly well as a metaphor for depression, I don’t think that was in all those witers’ minds when they created those superhero stories (yes, I know, death of the author, and all that). Yes, neither was homosexuality or adultery, but…

Superhero secret identities existed for two reasons, basically.

First, like PB210 said, as a story element inherited of older vigilante characters like Zorro. Superman and Batman were vigilantes when they started, and the secret identity made sense. It made far less sense for characters like Wonder Woman, that already start with approval of the public and the authorities. I think Charles Moulton Marsten gave her a secret identity just because it was “expected” of superheroes. And that is lazy.

But I don’t object to secret identities per se. You can say that Wonder Woman just wanted to experiment some privacy. Okay. But what I really hate is when the superhero keeps a secret even from people who are very close to him. While you could justify Batman being distrustful of anyone, since he started as a vigilante, I don’t see why Wonder Woman had to keep her double life a secret from Steve Trevor.

Here is a man that is utterly devoted to her from day one, and she keeps lying and deceiving and messing with his head. For no good reason.

As for metaphors, if the secret identity was an INTENDED metaphor for anything, it was for shy teenagers that were seen as wimps by the world, but got a kick of fantasizing that, behind the wimp, hides a superman that will show them all. I think a lot of people have noted that aspect of superhero secret IDs before.

That works for some superheroes, like Clark Kent and Peter Parker, but only as long as the secret identities are despised. If everybody hates wimpy Clark, and then he gets the last laugh when the woman that despised him is now in love of his other ID, manly, muscular Superman, etc.

Not very mature, but effective as a nerd fantasy.

The metaphor colapses when Peter Parker becomes attractive on his own, like he did soon after Steve Ditko left. Now we have a guy that has a lot of very good friends, and a collection of beautiful girlfriends. The way he keeps hiding that he is Spider-Man only makes him look like a manipulative asshole. Gwen Stacy died on his arms and she never knew why she died, because Peter didn’t trust her. That is the way a hero acts?

But ultimately, being a nerd, or suffering from depression don’t work very well as a metaphor because your depression isn’t putting other people at a big risk. Keeping a secret identity from everybody is more like being a Mafia hitman and never telling your girlfriend. Or being a closeted gay who has lots of unprotected sex with other men and then giving your wife a venereal disease.

It’s living dangerously and not telling the people closest to you that they’re at risk for associating with you.

“This did nothing but make him look like a selfish prick, because in addition to the reasons you express about the loved ones already being in danger, it has Peter present his emotional needs above honesty in the relationship.”

This kind of highlights the odd multiple personality nature of it. At best, it’s “I want her to love me for me at my worst, I don’t want her to know about all of the good stuff that I do.”

I also thought of one other thing.

Hiding your depression is one thing. While I was never diagnosed with clinical depression, I’ve been in therapy for a few years, I’ve strugged with relatives with drug addictions, I even had to break up a knife fight between two relatives. Yes, I’ve been thru some serious shit.

And I understand that you don’t want everybody to know your home life looks like that. But that sort of blending in is more like lying by omission. You tell people you’re okay, people believe it (or not, but they don’t dig), and everybody goes their way.

Secret identities in comics are not like that. Superheroes used to perpetrate those elaborate ruses to protect their “secret”. Superman lied, asked Batman to take his place, used disguises, all of that, apparently, just to mess with Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane. And, by the end, he winked at the reader. This is not a guy very depressed about it all. There are reasons why we call that “Superdickery” today. It’s a dick move.

It’s rather more like a cheating husband that asks a friend to cover for him (“Tell my wife I was having a bear with you Friday night, okay?”) and then he has a good laugh afterwards. Or a gay guy that has elaborate cover stories, imaginary girlfriends, or female friends serving as “beards”.

A person with depression or going thru trouble at home would not have the energy for such elaborated ruses.

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