Why do so many superheroes have secret identities? It’s a huge part of the genre—but at times a superhero’s alter ego seems to be nothing but a throwback to the old days, when superhero comics were heavily soap-operatic and needed a constant stream of drama.
These days I constantly see articles and essays in which critics, comics nerds and TV recappers dismiss the “secret identity” as a cheap plot device which is best disposed of. And yet, many of the CW superhero shows, including The Flash and Supergirl, still devote tons of energy to storylines in which somebody threatens to reveal the truth about what Barry Allen or Kara Danvers do in their spare time. Why is this? And can we keep believing in these dual identities in a world of ubiquitous surveillance, including face recognition but also gait recognition and other biometrics?
The usual explanation for the superhero secret identity is along the lines of “If people knew who I really was under this mask, my friends and loved ones would become targets and I couldn’t protect them.” Which is not entirely implausible, if you discount the fact that a superhero frequently has civilians in their life who are also “friends” of their costumed identity. And thus they’re already in danger, either way.
The hundredth episode of Supergirl underscored this by showing us a series of alternate realities in which Lena Luthor had found out Supergirl’s secret identity earlier, and then ended up getting hurt either physically or emotionally. Or both.
But I feel like the secret identity is important for a completely different reason: work-life balance.
Especially lately, with everybody stuck at home, I’ve been thinking a lot about the ways that our professional and personal identities are increasingly blurred together. Or for students, our school life and our home life.
Long before covid came along, we were being encouraged to put all of ourselves into work or studying, and to put our “professional” identities at the center of our lives. This isn’t just a matter of spending longer and longer hours working at the computer, but also how we define ourselves. Social media, in particular, blurs these lines a lot —like, it’s nearly impossible to express an opinion or feeling on the internet without having it reflect on our work lives. You’re expected to be “professional” even in your off-hours.
So when I think about secret identities lately, I think about them not so much in terms of “protecting the hero’s loved ones” and more in terms of “keeping a healthy balance between what you do, and who you are.”
And yes, as a certified workaholic, I’m aware that I’m being a total hypocrite about this. Blah blah blah, do like I say, not like I do.
The secret identity forces a superhero to act like a regular human being, at least part of the time, which is often the main thing that allows the rest of us to identify with them. Back when I obsessively read Spider-Man comics in the 80s and early 90s, I was at least as obsessed with Spidey’s problems at school and the Daily Bugle, and his constant struggle to get medicine for Aunt May, as I was with his latest supervillain fight. I just rewatched Into the Spider-Verse, and it was even more obvious this time that Miles Morales works as a character in part because of his school and his family.
It’s like in Star Trek IV when Captain Kirk says that he’s not from space. “I’m from Iowa. I only work in outer space.”
It’s not a matter of pretending to be an ordinary person some of the time — it’s about remaining connected to the ordinary person they were before they got bitten by a radioactive branding opportunity.
But also, an underrated aspect of superhero stories is the non-superpowered supporting cast. It can get super boring when the only people superheroes talk to are other superheroes. Because it’s all shop talk, and talking about the villain they’re trying to catch, and dissecting what happened in the last fight. A superhero who has a secret identity will also have friends and colleagues who don’t have superpowers, who have real-life concerns like paying their rent and going to parties.
Superhero comics are increasingly written only for diehard superhero fans, who just want to lose themselves in the fantasy of wearing a costume all the time and hanging out at the superhero clubhouse. So increasingly, you don’t seem to see a superhero working at Taco Bell or dealing with real-life problems. My fav superhero comics of the last several years are the exceptions, like the Vision miniseries, Squirrel Girl, Ms. Marvel and the recent Miles Morales comics.
In order to remind us that Superman and Batman are still people somewhere under all that stuff, their comics increasingly feature them calling each other “Clark” and “Bruce” in costume, even in public. They might not actually spend much time as Clark and Bruce, but those identities still exist.
But I feel like the platonic ideal of a superhero comic includes a lot of soap-operatics about ordinary life stuff, in between the latest bad-guy plot.
Because I was obsessed with novelist Doris Lessing for many years, I went and read some books by one of her main inspirations, the psychologist R.D. Laing, who used to be super trendy. And in books like The Politics of Experience and The Divided Self, Laing argues that it’s unhealthy to present radically different versions of yourself in different contexts. (I’m oversimplifying a little.) Laing argues that we need to integrate our different selves — professional, personal, political, romantic — into one unified identity that we can present to the world, or we’ll be constantly compartmantalizing. We’ll be at war with ourselves.
But the longer I go on, the more I feel like it’s actually healthy and desirable to present different versions of ourselves in different contexts. Within reason. (I wonder what Laing would have made of the current discourse around “code-switching.”) You don’t want your boss to own all of you, and it’s actually kind of soul-crushing to have to bring your work self everywhere with you.
So I like to see superheroes who are able to present a different face to the world sometimes, because I think they’re setting a healthy example for the rest of us. We should all have secret, or at least separate, identities.
Talking Heads, the 1980s art-rock group, always had a huge R&B influence. Jerry Harrison used to talk openly about the band’s James Brown influence, and they included P-Funk alums Bernie Worrell and Lynn Mabry in their touring lineup.
So lately I’ve been really loving some covers of Talking Heads songs, which bring the R&B influences to the fore and show how different these songs sound when performed by people who are a little less detached and ironic than David Byrne always seemed to me.
In particular, Philip Bailey from Earth, Wind & Fire does a wonderful version of “Once In a Lifetime” on his latest album, Love Will Find a Way.
And then there’s Bonnie Raitt’s “Burning Down the House” from the mid-1990s.
When other artists cover the Talking Heads, I find I appreciate their songwriting chops in a whole new way.
We already know how it’s going to go with climate change. Hundreds of millions, maybe billions, of people will be displaced and suffering—and the people who did the most to create the problem will say that we need their Strong Leadership to deal with all these crises.
I can’t help feeling like this is one reason why our ruling elites aren’t too worried about climate change: at least some of them believe that they’ll be even more powerful in a world full of refugees and food scarcity.
Check out Saga Books’ “Scifi State of the Union,” featuring editor extraordinaire Jonathan Strahan, Fonda Lee, Malka Older, Elizabeth Bear, Fran Wilde and me.
I’ve now published 22 essays about how to use creative writing to survive a garbage moment in history. I hope they provide a little inspiration and consolation as 2020 continues to 2020.
And finally… I am publishing my first ever young adult novel in April 2021, and pre-orders are going to be more important than ever in a world where bookstores are struggling. Victories Greater than Death is probably the most fun and heartfelt thing I’ve ever written, and it deals with the cost of committing violence in what I hope is a realistic, thoughtful way. I would love if you could pre-order it for yourself or the kids in your life. Thank you!!!!