It’s the home stretch of my stint in the Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth summer program. While my second set of students count the days (and writing assignments) till the end of their session, here’s my official unofficial researcher John Wells, with a look at secrets revealed.
I am trying to find out when the major super-heroes’ secret identities first became known to others. Thanks for your help.
– Derrik Quenzer (email@example.com)
Going back to the dawn of the Golden Age, many costumed heroes typically had a confidante (if not outright partner) who was in on their secret. The Crimson Avenger, for instance, was assisted by his chauffeur Wing right from the start in DETECTIVE COMICS #20 (October, 1938). And the first person that Batman took into his confidence was young Dick Grayson, who’d soon become Robin, the Boy Wonder (DETECTIVE COMICS #38: April, 1940). In CAPTAIN AMERICA COMICS #1 (March, 1941), young Army camp mascot Bucky Barnes stumbled onto Steve Rogers changing into Captain America and ended up as Cap’s partner for the rest of World War Two.
In some cases, it simply helps to have been with the hero in question from the start. Wes Dodds’ pals from the Army Air Force (Clyde Dunlap and Happy O’Shea) not only knew that he was the Sandman but had actually joined forces with him as the Three Sandmen at some distant point in the past (ADVENTURE COMICS #42: September, 1939). Wonder Woman’s mother and Amazon sisters knew that she was secretly Diana Prince, an Army nurse whose identity she’d literally bought so that the original Diana could join her fiance in South America (SENSATION COMICS #1: January, 1942). Jay Garrick’s college girl friend Joan Williams and Carter Hall’s reincarnated sweetheart Shiera Sanders each knew from day one that their boyfriends were, respectively, the Flash and Hawkman (FLASH COMICS #1: January, 1940).
Gardner Fox, who wrote both those stories in FLASH COMICS clearly supported being honest with one’s significant other. In Fox’s story in ADVENTURE COMICS #47 (February, 1940), a young woman broke into Wes Dodds’ penthouse and discovered he was the Sandman. The resourceful safecracker quickly enlisted him to help her defeat the man who’d kidnapped her as a child and the Sandman ultimately reunited District Attorney Belmont with his long-lost daughter. After that, the Sandman and Dian Belmont became partners in love as well as crime-fighting. And in another Fox-scripted series, Doctor Fate observed Inza Cramer’s mostly unexpressed desire to know him on a more personal level after almost a year of involvement in his war against evil. In MORE FUN COMICS #66 (April, 1941), he finally removed his helmet and told Inza that he was Kent Nelson.
One can’t help but wonder whether Superman creator Jerry Siegel sensed some sort of trend here. In an unpublished story circa 1940, Siegel introduced the concept of kryptonite and then topped it by having Clark Kent reveal to Lois Lane that he was Superman in order to rescue them from a mine cave-in. In the aftermath, recounted by Les Daniels in DC COMICS: SIXTY YEARS OF THE WORLD’S FAVORITE COMIC BOOK HEROES (1995), Lois lobbied to be the Man of Steel’s partner and he took her up on it. Though a number of possibilities exist as to why the story was killed, it seems likely that it was the Lois and Clark angle that is to blame. There were clearly as-yet-untapped possibilities in the eternal triangle.
Instead, the first person to “officially” discover that Clark was Superman was an unnamed thief who broke into his apartment and caught him putting on his costume. Attempting to flee the Man of Steel, the hood conveniently fell down a flight of stairs and died immediately thereafter (SUPERMAN #6: September, 1940). Several issues later (#11: July, 1941), Clark attempted to convince the dying Pedro Carlos to provide him with details on the mysterious Yellow Plague but he refused to talk to the press. “My interest goes beyond that of idle curiosity,” revealed Clark, pulling open his shirt to expose his costume. Pedro gave him the necessary information — and passed away. Generally, though, people who learned that Clark was Superman were NOT killed off. Rather, Superman engaged in often elaborate ruses to convince each party that they were mistaken. Michael Fleisher’s GREAT SUPERMAN BOOK (1978) devoted nine pages of text to dozens of examples from the 1940s through the 1960s.
For that matter, Fleisher devoted five pages of his 1976 Batman encyclopedia to similar revelations in the Dark Knight’s career. After Dick Grayson, the first person to learn his true identity was the villainous Queenie, a cohort of the Joker who made the connection between the shaving nicks on Bruce Wayne and Batman’s faces. Queenie subsequently saved Batman’s life but was fatally shot in retaliation by one of her partners (BATMAN #5: Spring, 1941).
Unlike her male counterparts, Wonder Woman seems to have had little time for such antics. Indeed, since Princess Diana’s Amazonian origins were relatively well known, Steve Trevor, Etta Candy and others probably assumed WW didn’t have a secret identity at all and spent her downtime on Paradise Island. In SENSATION COMICS #20 (August, 1943), Steve caught Diana Prince using WW’s lasso and came to the logical conclusion but she managed to allay his suspicions. A few 1950s stories also played with Steve suspecting that Diana Prince was Wonder Woman but, on the whole, those were rare. The first people who were in on the secret were the members of the Justice Society. In ALL STAR COMICS #11 (July, 1942), Diana met Hawkman and was stunned when he referred to her as Wonder Woman in front of Shiera Sanders. “The Justice Society manages to learn many things,” he said mysteriously. Shiera balanced the scales by telling Diana that Hawkman was secretly Carter Hall.
This wasn’t the first time Shiera had blabbed. She’d told the terrorist Alexander the Great that Carter was Hawkman in FLASH COMICS #2! Not that her fianc? was any more prudent. One issue later, he let a former classmate and several of his scientific pals in on the secret. They promised not to tell anyone.
That sort of indiscretion was typical of many Golden Age strips, where one couldn’t help but wonder how some of these guys held onto their secrets for any length of time. In both CAPTAIN MARVEL ADVENTURES #s 1 and 2, for example, Captain escaped the embraces of admiring women by saying “Shazam” and changing to Billy Batson. The women seemed oblivious to how Cap disappeared, as did everyone else who was around when he tried this stunt. Murray Ward remarked that this reminded him “of the same, albeit clearly stated, power being possessed by Archie Andrews as 1960s Cap-wannabe Pureheart (‘The power of my pure heart clouds the minds of ordinary people so they forget having seen me change’ or words to that effect, as Archie explained it to pal Reggie Mantle, who promptly became Evilheart [smooth play, Arch!].)”
The major exception in Captain Marvel’s series took place VERY early. In WHIZ COMICS #3 (April, 1940), Billy became Cap in front of Professor Xerxes Smith (secretly his nemesis Doctor Sivana) — and did so again in Sivana’s presence later in the same story! And Sivana NEVER forgot.
Doiby Dickles had been Green Lantern’s sidekick for several months when crooks captured GL and unmasked him. THEY didn’t recognize him as Alan Scott — but Doiby did (ALL-AMERICAN COMICS #35: February, 1942). He promised to keep the secret, of course, asking “Watcha t’ink I am … a tattletale ?”
Plastic Man never really had much of a secret identity but, after becoming an F.B.I. agent, he didn’t want anyone to find out that he’d once been gangster “Eel” O’Brian. Inevitably, though, a background check revealed the truth and the Bureau’s Chief Branner told the embarrassed Plas that he knew he was once the Eel (POLICE COMICS #26: January, 1944). And Aquaman didn’t use a secret identity at all, though ADVENTURE COMICS #260 (May, 1959) had him tell the Navy’s Commander Haskel about his childhood, including the fact that he’d been born Arthur Curry (a detail established for the first time in that issue).
By this point, there was a new generation of super-heroes with a new crop of secret identities to be revealed. Ordered by Superman to operate in secrecy until she was fully trained in the use of her powers, Supergirl was horrified when orphan Johnny Blank learned of her existence AND the fact that she was Linda Lee. Luckily for her, Johnny was actually an extraterrestrial prince named Valzorr whom she returned to his home planet (ACTION COMICS #263: April, 1960).
The new Flash became a mentor to Wally West after the youngster gained super-speed powers in 1959’s THE FLASH #110. However, it wasn’t until issue #120 (May, 1961) that the Scarlet Speedster actually told Kid Flash that he was secretly Barry Allen. Meanwhile, the Silver Age Green Lantern gained a confidante when mechanic Thomas “Pieface” Kamaku noted similarities in the fighting styles of GL and Hal Jordan and realized they must be one and the same (GREEN LANTERN #2: September, 1960). This generation’s Hawkman and Hawkgirl revealed their presence on Earth to Midway City police commissioner George Emmett, who helped them coin Americanized versions of their Thanagarian names as their secret identities (THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD #34: February, 1961). And the Hawks were the first people to whom the Atom revealed that he was Ray Palmer (HAWKMAN #9: August, 1965).