In a world of TMZ and Wikileaks, do secret identities even matter anymore?
Bruce Wayne is kind of a tricky one. In Grant Morrison’s Batman, Inc., Wayne came out publicly as the source of Batman’s financing, but not as the actual man behind the cowl, which seems a strange move. In theory, it makes him just as vulnerable to being targeted and having his loved ones hurt by Batman’s villains as if he’d simply unmasked himself. But it also leaves the door open for other writers to tell classic-model stories about Wayne being exposed or almost exposed as Batman and putting the people he cares about at risk. This just happened in Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s “Death of the Family” story arc, where the Joker’s big reveal was that he knew the true identities of the entire Bat-family. It was never concretely confirmed whether or not he was telling the truth, but that’s beside the point. Right now, DC has a cake-and-eat-it-too situation whereby Wayne can be actively involved in the vigilante side of things without the whole world actually knowing he’s the Dark Knight.
A possible reason for this duality is that in Batman’s case the Bruce Wayne persona is an essential piece of the puzzle, yet there’s also been a more general trend recently moving away from the very concept of secret identities in mainstream superhero comics. Having one isn’t an intrinsic part of the superhero DNA like it was originally. It’s not at all uncommon nowadays for a hero’s “real” name to be public knowledge, for there to be a much smaller (or non-existent) divide between the human and superhuman parts of their lives than used to be typical. Thor no longer requires a Donald Blake, “Wonder Woman” and “Diana” are used interchangeably, Havok held a press conference explicitly asking the world to think of him as Alex before they think of him as a mutant, and so on. The expectation that superheroes have to lead normal lives among non-powered people has all but disappeared completely, giving them more time for their superheroics. They get to be full-time good guys now, which removes some storytelling options but makes others newly available.
You won’t, for example, find Hawkeye’s foes trying to uncover that he’s Clint Barton, because everybody knows that now. But you can see Clint having casual discussions about being an Avenger with his neighbors at a rooftop barbecue. This is the kind of stuff that goes on in his own title, where the whole premise of the book is to see the character during his down time. Yet even as Clint, he’s able to find plenty of trouble, make enemies, and use his archery skills. Then in Secret Avengers he’s a regular super-spy, masked and dressed in his usual purples, loaded for bear with trick arrows, having his memory regularly wiped by government science, fighting against the high-powered baddies, and other bona fide comicbook superhero goings on. His civilian life doesn’t interfere with his life as Hawkeye. The two worlds can successfully coexist and even conflate, which didn’t used to be the way of things.
Hawkeye is just one example, and a particularly relevant one because of the nature of his self-titled series, but similar things are happening with lots of other characters. In some cases there’s a genuine inability to separate the hero from the person: Cyborg is always a cyborg, Swamp Thing is always an elemental, Iceman is always made of ice. Then there are heroes like Iron Man who have willingly exposed their true selves to the world. John Constantine has never gone by a codename, Matt Murdock was outed as Daredevil by the media, Captain Marvel just plain gave up on masks when she decided on a new moniker and costume. The reasons are as varied as the characters themselves, but the end result is the same: superheroes are who they are all the time now, in costume and out, no matter what name you call them.
I see a couple of explanations for this shift. Partly, I’m sure, it’s just the natural evolution of the superhero concept. Secret identities were formally par for the course, but now that they’ve been rather thoroughly explored over the past several decades, creators are trying out other things. It was inevitable, with so many different people working on these characters over time (and at the same time), that eventually the shape of the mold would change.
But there are more specific things about life in the modern world that I suspect have contributed to the drop in secret identities. Social media has created an environment where nearly everybody has multiple versions of themselves. Who I am at home is not who I am on Facebook is not who I am on PopMatters. It’s no longer as simple as the work life/home life dichotomy that used to be typical. People have online personas to maintain as well, sometimes entirely invented ones that have nothing to do with who they really are. In that setting, superheroes pretending to be regular folks just isn’t as interesting as it was before. The juggling act feels commonplace, everyday, mundane. It creates far less of excitement and suspense than it once did, because we all participate in it every day.
Along the same lines, the Internet has made keeping secrets considerably more difficult, particularly if you’re a celebrity. Everyone has a camera phone, sites like The Smoking Gun and WikiLeaks and TMZ are always digging, and information spreads like wildfire when it’s uncovered. All of these things are just as true in the current Marvel and DC universes as they are in our own, perhaps even at a heightened level since science and technology tend to be advanced in comics to the point of impossibility. How could a masked do-gooder hope to stay masked for long anymore? There are just too many people paying too much attention in too many ways for the façade to hold up.
Most of all, and connected to all the online stuff I mentioned above, there’s the fact that the we don’t want our public figures to do anything we can’t see or know about. Surely this has always been true to some degree, but the demand for transparency seems to have grown into a roar of late. Look at the Obama birth certificate outcry, or Edward Snowden’s sudden folk hero status, or any number of other headlines from recent memory about the people we trust to lead and protect us being called out for the appearance of secrecy. And these are legally elected or appointed people, so just imagine if they had superhuman abilities and took it upon themselves to dole out their personal versions of justice through violence. If superheroes want to be accepted these days, then they can’t be viewed as having something to hide, least of all who they are outside of their costumes. To be perceived as legitimate heroes, they can’t give the rest of us any excuse to mistrust them.
Just as not every superhero even had a secret identity to begin with, there are exceptions to the current state of things as well. To the best of my knowledge (I’m not currently reading any series he’s in) Clark Kent and Superman are still distinct and wholly separate from one another. But I also know that Metropolis didn’t care for Superman at all in his early days in current DC continuity. He’s an extra powerful alien being who plays things close to the chest, not exactly a guy who’s easy to welcome with open arms. Over at Marvel, in an even more extreme case, Spider-Man’s true self is still unknown to most, and the few people he does trust enough to know that he’s Peter Parker still aren’t aware that Doctor Octopus’ brain is presently running the show. In other words, his secret identity has a secret identity, taking him in the opposite direction than most of his colleagues. Of course, before this was Spidey’s status quo, he showed the entire world his face and told them his name as a part of Marvel’s Civil War event, a reveal that has since been retconned away. So even the exceptions weren’t always exceptions, and may not remain so forever.
Personally, I prefer my superheroes without secret identities getting in their way. Having to drop everything in order to check in on their un-super lives is a hassle, and I’d definitely rather see them have as much time as possible to do what they do best. Plus it doesn’t have to prevent them from acting human nor disconnect them from the people for whom they fight. On the contrary, by removing the need to have two different selves, the heroes are more easily humanized, since they aren’t playacting through 50% of their day. They’re free to behave like their actual selves in all things, rather than having to compartmentalize every aspect of their lives. Best of all, they can be better, more effective, and more devoted, putting all of their energy into being heroes, not spreading themselves so thin. In the always brilliant words of Ron Swanson, “Never half-ass two things. Whole-ass one thing.”