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Grumpy Old Fan | What do the simple folk do?

by  in Comic News Comment
Grumpy Old Fan | What do the simple folk do?

Since War of the Supermen is the final arc in the sprawling “New Krypton” saga, we readers are that much closer to a more familiar Superman status quo. I’m hoping this means more Clark Kent, because Clark tends to get shafted in these big Superman events.

In fact, the secret identity used to be a pretty reliable story springboard. Lois Lane was always trying to uncover Superman’s secret identity. Super-criminals searched endlessly for the location of the Batcave. Barry Allen didn’t tell his wife he was the Flash until after they got married, and then it was a moot point because he’d already blabbed the news in his sleep. These days, though, it doesn’t seem like a secret identity is that big a deal. Such an attitude is understandable, since most readers probably follow superhero comics primarily for the costumed action. One might even say that “New Krypton” was all about “Clark” — in the sense that “Clark” represents Superman’s true persona, unfiltered by either glasses or costume.

Regardless, that’s not really what we mean by “secret identity.” Because the classic concept involves two distinct modes of behavior, it is both protective and problematic. I think that’s why it tends to be downplayed. We can take for granted that a secret identity does what it’s supposed to do: providing cover, concealing friends and family, etc. That leaves writers free to concentrate on more pressing aspects of the story at hand. As for the aforementioned problems, I haven’t done exhaustive research, but I suspect that the circle of people “in the know” has been expanded to a more comfortable extent. For example, Lois has known for almost twenty (real-time) years; and when it got awkward between Bruce Wayne and bodyguard Sasha Bordeaux, she found out. If there are no stories about the secret being pierced, then a big part of the secret’s dramatic utility goes away; and what’s left are briefer interludes in, say, the Daily Planet bullpen or Wayne Enterprises’ boardrooms.

Obviously there’s nothing inherently wrong with that … but I have missed exploring those aspects of DC’s superhero books. I make the distinction between DC and Marvel because one of the big differences between the publishers concerns the treatment of secret identities. From the Fantastic Four (most public) to Spider-Man (most secret), the Marvel characters had a pretty good range of “civilian” concerns. By contrast, DC’s superheroes came equipped with secret identities, such that it was almost a point-and-stare situation when the Elongated Man revealed his to the world. DC’s characters also tended to get into the same kinds of scrapes, many times involving significant others, when it came to their secrets. Whether it was Carol Ferris loving Green Lantern but not Hal, Wonder Woman losing her Amazonian birthright if she married Steve Trevor, or Superman wanting Lois to fall in love with Clark, invariably these came down to justifications for keeping the significant other in the dark. Thus, eventually Carol and Lois found out, and Steve was revamped into a kind of older-brother.

Wonder Woman also gives us a good example of an ineffectual secret identity; namely, the “Agent Prince” disguise she adopted after Infinite Crisis. That miniseries especially made a lot out of her need to reconnect with humanity, and Batman (behind the scenes) apparently went to a lot of trouble to create this Diana Prince’s backstory. Nevertheless, it soon became a contrived exercise in keeping the secret from Diana’s partner Tom Tresser, and I don’t remember it making much of a difference when Tom eventually found out. Another relatively-new secret identity which hasn’t gotten much use is “Linda Lang,” Supergirl’s civilian disguise — but like so much of the Sterling Gates/Jamal Igle relaunch, it’s been pushed to the background in favor of “New Krypton” plots.

Anyway, the modern secret identity isn’t so much about plotting as it is about personalities. “Superman” is now the larger-than-life act put on by the down-to-earth Clark Kent, and “Batman” is likewise Dick Grayson’s impression of his mentor’s terrifying persona. (I’m sidestepping the Bruce/Batman issue until I see how The Return Of Bruce Wayne handles it, but I tend to think that both Playboy Bruce and Batman are creations of the real man behind the mask.) And since I mentioned Dick, DC has also used the idea of “legacies” to switch out personalities: Wally West was/is more animated than Barry Allen, and the four Earth-based Green Lanterns each manifest their considerable wills in different ways. However, with the occasional exception (Dick, again), those new personalities tend to be the same regardless of whether the costume is on. Again, that’s understandable, because you want to feel like you’re getting something new for your trouble — but again, it goes back to not having a more prominent “civilian” outlet. (In some cases, like Hal Jordan’s, civilian life requires pretty much the same personality, and that may be for the best. I doubt readers are willing to let Hal go back to selling insurance just for the contrast.)

Now, I am not suggesting that everyone act square-jawed while in costume and weak-kneed otherwise. What interests me is how a super-character behaves in a more mundane setting. Some situations are clearly fannish (how easily does Dick Grayson step back into Gotham society after years in Blüdhaven and New York? Aren’t the tabloids curious about a kid calling himself “Damian Wayne?”), but I daresay the majority are as diverse as everyday life itself. At this point I try not to hear George Costanza — “There’s a show! That’s a show!” — but you know what I mean. These secret identities were devised in large part to give readers more recognizable entry points into the characters’ adventures.

Instead, I wonder if we readers haven’t become so immersed in superhero-comics culture that we’ve progressed beyond the need for such things. Surely we don’t need to see in every Superman story the familiar beats of a) the Planet, b) the alert only perceived by super-senses, and c) the storeroom transformation. However, it’s quite ironic to me that a genre which strives constantly for “realism” would neglect its characters’ demonstrably real-world elements. Those workplace and home-life elements helped create the illusion that these characters had lives outside their stories’ pages, and therefore helped suspend my disbelief. (The exception proves the rule: even though I never knew how she got started, and never figured out how she made so much money at it, I always liked the fact that Donna Troy was a professional photographer. It was the kind of nebulous occupation, as successful as the story required, which fit Donna’s hazily-defined existence perfectly.)

The classic secret identity also includes a good bit of reader identification. Conventional wisdom holds that bookish kids saw kindred spirits in nerdy Clark and picked-on Peter Parker, and through those stories were comforted with images of their own hidden strengths. That was true for me at one point, although that point has long since passed; but I don’t know how universal that experience is. For that matter, it’s hard to reconcile the reader-as-Clark theory with the presence of Bruce Wayne/Batman. Clearly Bruce, the wealthy playboy who lacks for nothing (not to mention young Dick, similarly situated and a kid to boot), is pretty far removed from the aforementioned social outcasts. For a better point of accessibility we should probably turn to Bruce’s tragic childhood, and the grim, determined figure it produced. The pop psychology behind Batman holds that he is “realistic” (and thus popular) not simply because he is fueled by tragedy, but because that tragedy has made “Bruce” an act more completely than the old “Clark Kent” ever was. In other words, we don’t really need to understand “Bruce Wayne” (or, as I called him above, “Playboy Bruce”) because he’s just a fiction — he doesn’t matter. The same goes for Aquaman, Wonder Woman, the Green Lanterns, and arguably even Superman — they’re all the same, in costume or out. We accept that (where applicable) their secret identities work, so we don’t feel the need to establish more than one behavioral mode. Heck, they call each other Hal and Barry and Diana and Clark regardless of what they’re wearing.

Even so, DC’s writers and editors still at least acknowledge both the continued existence of secret identities, and the implication that they serve a useful purpose. I’m just asking to see a little more of those elements. The imminent return of DC’s most prominent “real people” would be a good place to start.

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