Thursday, June 15, 2006

The Secret Identity Post

Well, if you hadn't heard by now, a fairly popular comic book character unmasked himself in the Marvel comic "Civil War #2" yesterday. It's been in the papers, and I went ahead and showed Jamie the page last night (I know! I'm totally reading a Marvel comic. Go figure. Plus, I'm a becoming a big fan of McNiven.), so you'll probably know who the person was who unmasked themself on TV. But, given the hoo-hah that's gone on around here in the past, I didn't really want to spoil it for you guys who did the unmasking.

Since Superman first hopped over a building in a single bound, a dual identity has been key to the basic format of the superhero comic. When Superman first appeared, we were to understand that he was working outside the law, and for that reason above probably any other, he didn't give away his civilian identity. It's fairly well documented that the original take on Superman (pre-heat vision and flying) is most an amped up version of the lead character form the novel Gladiator, by Philip Wylie, mixed with some Tarzan and Amazing Stories features.

The conceipt of Gladiator is that the character can't live a normal life thanks to his power and others' knowledge of that power. Taking a page from the popular Zorro pulps and films, as well as The Shadow, and teaming that with the interest in the business of journalism. Siegel and Shuster came upon the idea of seeming weakling Clark Kent.

As any Zorro fan can tell you, the idea behind Don Diego's dual personality (perhaps, in itself lifted from The Scarlet Pimpernel) was to give our hero a way of moving about in society without constant fear of arrest, as well as being able to gather information that others might not readily hand over to Zorro. In that manner, Superman's early stories centered on his ability to be first to hear of disasters or potential good locations for a character of his abilities. To this day, Clark Kent still disappears abruptly when there's trouble on the wire or coming in online.

Moreover, there is the notion that Superman cannot have a private life, but Clark Kent very much can. From his earliest appearance, Clark Kent was hitting on Lois while Superman acknowledged her only with a wink and a nod, but a promise that he was there to help. As the comics progressed, the idea grew that Lois was in enough danger just being associated with Superman (while simultaneously also being someone crooks wanted to avoid lest they tangle with Superman). Meanwhile, Superman carefully guarded his secret identity in order to maintain a basic life among other human beings, rather than being basically exiled to the Fortress of Solitude.

Batman, upon the character's premier, established Bruce Wayne as having a fiancee and other trappings of a normal life, giving Bruce Wayne a bit more of a split personality. As Batman was a mere mortal, the suggestion in the comics seemed to be that the secret identity (a) kept the cops off his back, and (b) helped Batman maintain the element of suprise. It's sort of tough to get the jump on crooks if they know every time you leave the house. As the rogues gallery grew, it was logical enough to understand that Batman didn't really want these guys to be able to ring his doorbell while he was in the tub.

Of course the exposure of a character's secret identity has always been a mainstay of superhero comics, especially going back to Silver-Age Superman comics where it seemed every fourth story was dedicated to the topic. A good chunk of Superboy stories were centered around nosy Lana Lang trying to prove that Clark Kent was the Boy of Steel.

Some characters have famously not bothered with secret identities. For example: Aquaman is pretty clearly Aquaman as he lives in the sea. For years, at least the government has known Banner is The Hulk. The Fantastic Four have always had public identities (and are regularly attacked in their home). At one point Wally West's persona of The Flash was public, but they reversed that decision (see Flash: Blitz and Flash: Ignition) when terrible consequences befell The Flash's family. The prime example of late, of course, is Ralph and Sue Dibny from DC's Identity Crisis.

A few years ago, Marvel decided to reveal Captain America's identity as Cap took on Al Qaeda stand-in terrorists in the wake of 9/11. The decision was prompted by a narrative choice that neither the US nor Cap had anything to hide. I thought it was the right choice then, as I do now. Also, Cap doesn't really have a supporting cast and is more or less a career soldier, anyway. His real family is all dead and his line of girlfriends is mostly comprised of super-folk and SHIELD agents. In a story I didn't read, Iron Man revealed his secret ID.

But for some of these comics, it just didn't matter. Captain America is a perfect example. The character WAS Captain America. Steve Rogers was just a name. Other characters' dual identities are so integrated into the comics that the series would change not at all for the better if the identity were revealed. Fantastic Four has always done a good job of spinning the FF as superhero celebrities, like the Beatles living in Manhattanand they happen to have a dimensional portal to the Negative Zone (which may make a great name for a blog for Steanso or Jim D. I must pitch it.).

In my opinion, of late Brian Michael Bendis has had one of the firmest grasps on dual identities. With his excellent creator owned "Powers," featuring the homicide cops who show up when a "super" is found dead, Bendis has done a great job of exploring the dual face of celebrity and private life and public and private in a world where superheroes run rampant. Moreover, Bendis's Peter Parker in Ultimate Spider-Man is unmasked by his foes with alarming regularity. The joke being, of course, that nobody knows who the heck this fifteen year old kid might be. So why would he wear the mask? Because he doesn't want his Aunt to know what he's doing, and he wants, despite the fact that great power comes with great responsibility, to be able to escape from the insanity of being Spider-Man for most of the day. That, and when a super-villain figured out generally where he lived, they killed his best friend.

There's a sense in the Ultimate Spidey books that, eventually, all of this is going to catch up with Peter. He's one camera-phone away from having his picture plastered all over the internet.

The best look at all of this, of course, was Bendis's recently concluded run on Daredevil where Daredevil's identity was published in a tabloid paper. He managed to fill three years with that concept, and the idea never got old. But it also couldn't sustain a series forever.

So, why why why would Marvel choose to unmask this one when it's just been done?

The option that Marvel has given their heroes with Civil War is to either (a) be conscripted into SHIELD, give them your name and work for "the man", (b) sit home and don't use your darn powers, or (c) use your powers and go to jail.

I think thus far from the little I've read, Marvel has handled the topic more intelligently than I'd expected. They've started at a very good point, by demonstrating the negative side-effects that can befall the public when super heroes run around without any supervision or anybody they answer to. There's a legitimate argument to be made. On the other hand, there's a legitimate argument to be made for not wanting to be forced to do the dirty work of a government organization that doesn't have the best record of keeping the public's interest in mind.

A lot of things can be changed in comics. There's plenty of science fiction, magic and what have you. As was done in Flash, the memory of the character's public ID can be wiped from the mind of the public in general. But, as we saw in DC's stellar miniseries, Identity Crisis, all that mind-wiping and concern about loved ones can cause a lot of havoc.

Marvel is now looking at either a very large change in the structure of one of it's strongest properties, or else they're planning a "Death of Superman" style cop out. Either way, they're going to irritate a lot of readers. I'll be keeping my ear to the ground to see how this one pans out.

Personally, I find the idea of the secret ID to be a great element of comics. I dig the idea of the everyman having unknown potential. There's something a little liberating about the idea that a hero isn't, literally, a cop or a soldier (although comics are littered with their fair share of excellent versions of those as well). Perhaps it was my early take on a compromised Superman having to play the dutiful soldier against his will in Dark Knight Returns that made me see the potential issues with losing your identity. Or perhaps Batman's unwillingness to play along with any whim of others that had forced him to quit (and just as much to return) as seen in that same volume.

My concern is this: for all their bravado about their edginess, Marvel is married to the status quo in a way DC is not (with the exception of Superman and Batman). DC's recent mini-seires was about change, and real change took place. By creating the idea of legacy in the DCU, people DO, in fact, die. New characters come and go.

How far is Marvel willing to go with this idea for the sake of short term sales gains? Especially when they stand to risk alienating lifelong readers? It's just a bit difficult to swallow that this whole deal isn't a bait-and-switch for some other change Marvel is going to try to pull. I strongly suspect that they are not planning to follow Bendis's well-worn Daredevil track.

Marvel's given itself quite the job. We'll see how they deal with it as a company. At the end of the day, for me, it's about the company. Given how they wrapped up House of M, Age of Apocalypse, etc... and how often their sprawling mini-series/ cross-company events land the reader exactly where you started, something leads me to believe there's going to be a magic "reset" button somewhere.

All I'm saying is: I see one clone show his face and I'm out.

No comments: