This is the second part of a five part series on the concept of identity viewed through the lens of comic books and superhero mythology. Part one of the series is You’re Such a Poser. This series originally appeared on DethPaw.com.
What would you do if you found out that you had one year left to live? If you were Superman you would decide to drop your disguise and spend that time with the person who mattered the most. At least, you would if that last year of your life was written by Grant Morrison. Morrison’s All-Star Superman is easily one of my favorite Superman stories of all time. In my opinion, it’s also one of the few that gets Superman right. (Although, to be honest, I think I might actually prefer the animated version, written by the late Dwayne McDuffie, a bit more than the print version.)
All Star Superman is a great examination into the concept of a secret identity, why a hero would need one, the good (and bad) that they serve and how it impacts what it means to be a hero. Far too often comics through the idea around very loosely and treat it more like a trope. But, it’s not a trope. Identity, and what we do and do not choose to share with the world, is one of the cores of what it means to be human. What we do, often defines who we are. So the idea that someone like Superman, Batman or Spider-Man would need choose to have a secret identity is what you might call a “big friggin’ deal.”
For Batman, his secret identity is Bruce Wayne. Bruce is a wild playboy, an irresponsible ne’er do well. His real face is the cowl, the mask is when Bruce has to stand in front of a boardroom and address investors. Bruce Wayne is the ultimate insider who often wants nothing more than to be left alone, to operate in the shadows. He’s the guys every guy thinks they want to be, but whose burdens not even Superman could bear.
Superman desperately wants to be a part of humanity. He’s an alien, but he looks like one of us, he thinks like we do, he feels like we do. Yet, his abilities mean that he can never truly be one of us. He lives with the knowledge that he can be among us but never truly be one of us. As anyone who has seen Superman II can attest, his gifts are far too important for him to give up so that he can be just like us.
Peter Parker is a geek. Arguably, if you listen to Stan Lee, he was conceived as sort of an “every-geek.” Spider-Man is his second chance. It’s his chance to finally be more than the gangly kid with glasses and straight A’s in science. But, we all know, “with great power comes great responsibility.” So, much like Superman before him, Spider-Man is a character who, in spite of his aching desire to belong, will always struggle with feeling like an outcast.
These characters, our modern heroes, don’t have secret identities simply because that how you write a superhero book. Superman and Batman in particular, characters who arguably created the modern concept of a “secret identity,” shouldn’t have their alter-egos reduced to tropes. Who they are in and out of their costumes reflects something important about what it means to be a hero.
More importantly, those characters are a reflection of ourselves. In many cases they represent our hopes (Superman), our dreams (Peter Parker) and our fears (Batman). How we read their secret identities is also a reflection of how we see ourselves.
In part three I’ll dig a bit deeper in the Jungian/Analytical Model of psychology and what we can learn about our heroes.