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Author Topic: Superman's Secret ID: who should know it?  (Read 7530 times)
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JulianPerez
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« on: June 15, 2006, 11:29:30 AM »

In light of recent events, a good question to ask is, what superheroes that have secret identites absolutely need them to be who they are? Also, who should know their secret identities?

Superman needs his secret identity very much, because it's required for him to stay identifiable. Superman without Clark Kent feels heartless and a little sinister. There was a line in ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER AND CLAY where one of the two boys describes their absent father as "Superman, only without the Clark Kent." There's also the humor and irony of Superman at the Daily Planet. Nearly every single cute bit at the Planet comes from the fact that these people just don't know Superman is Clark Kent. Clark Kent asks if he could give Lois a ride, and she responds "Not unless you can fly!"

Superman needs his secret identity. It's a part of the formula for Coca-Cola. Superman works as a wish-fulfillment projection in a way that his pulp antecedents, Doc Savage and Tarzan don't, because Superman spends several hours a day pretending to be ordinary. We can see ourselves in Clark Kent in a way not possible for Tarzan.

Who should know Superman's secret identity? Not Lois, not the Daily Planet supporting cast, I think, because every single cute moment in the Planet is based on them not knowing Clark Kent is Superman.

Batman should know, but nobody else in the Justice League should know (and certainly not goshdarned Plastic Man - who the hell invited HIM to the JLA, anyway?). The reason is because Batman knowing who Superman really is implies a set amount of trust and frienship that the two characters possess for each other.

Interesting how the one person that it would be the most appropriate to know Superman's secret identiity never has, in any version of Superman: Jimmy Olsen.

That's Superman, though.

The only other character I can think of that needs their secret identity as absolutely badly as Superman does, is the character that is actually the most similar to Superman in many ways, Spider-Man. Every single one of his relationships is defined by some amount of irony that the secret identity creates. Aunt May suspecting Spider-Man of being a furtive criminal, Gwen Stacy believing Spider-Man killed her cop father, Flash Thompson being the biggest bully and pain in Peter Parker's life but being Spider-Man's biggest booster, the fact that Peter Parker collects checks from a guy that trashes Spidey on a regular basis...

And you'd think the whole Spider-Man secret ID humor well would go dry, like "Lois Lane being snoopy" eventually did, right? Dead wrong, sucker. I'm reminded of (...was it Roger Stern? Bill Mantlo?) that nearly had Spider-Man's deadly enemy Doc Ock become Peter Parker's uncle by marriage to Aunt May, or the recent Dan Slott SHE-HULK story where Spider-Man sues the Daily Bugle for libel...only to call the suit off when Peter Parker is included in the lawsuit!

Elsewhere, the secret identity is a tradition of superhero comics. It has several purposes:

Humor and irony. Having a secret identity is sort of like crossdressing. You get tons of jokes because the audience knows something that the people in the story do not, namely that the big hairy girl is really Robin Williams. Superhero comics milk the idea we know something the characters don't for many really, really charming moments. One was in AVENGERS, where Captain America says, "It is a pity our financier, Tony Stark, has so super-power, or else he might join the Avengers!" If it works in a Shakespeare play about crossdressing, it should work for the characters too.

It makes the characters spectators to their own lives. Again, going back to Iron Man, during the incredible Busiek AVENGERS run, Iron Man confessed to Firestar that the reason Ultron gets his goat is because that evil robot is a sign of technology run amok. Firestar responds by saying that he doesn't have any responsibility because "you just fly the armor...it's your boss, Tony Stark, that built it." Zing!


RANDOM FACT: The first character in DC to unmask and reveal his identity on national television was Atom Smasher, back in INFINITY, INC.


CHARACTERS THAT ARE BETTER OFF WITH A SECRET IDENTITY:

WONDER WOMAN. Okay, let me first confess a bias: I loved the Marty Pasko/Alan Gold WW with the white jumpsuit that was a spy for the UN absolutely to death. But Wonder Woman needs her secret identity for another reason. Every single Doc Savage story, a character that has no secret identity and any crime and evildoer would be insane to get within a 100 yerd radius of him, starts off nearly every story with an often clever, but often painfully contrived way to get the Man of Bronze in on the act. With Wonder Woman, it's much simpler to get her in a story: just have her investigate something for the UN. This is why the tube is full of cops and doctors and lawyers: how they get into stories is a part of their "franchise." This is also why the Fantastic Four don't NEED secret IDs: they don't need them because they are explorers and go looking for trouble all by themselves.

DAREDEVIL. Remember what I said about humor and irony above? He's an asskicking streetfighter...who is in reality, BLIND!

IRON MAN.


CHARACTERS THAT WORK WITH OR WITHOUT A SECRET IDENTITY:

Nearly all of the Silver Age DC characters. The Atom, Barry Allen, Green Arrow, Black Canary, Hawkman, all have secret identies, but mostly for the same reason they have their Hero Girlfriend (one each) and Kid Sidekick: to complete their superhero checklist. "Well, we're superheroes, so, uh, I guess we've GOT to have one." They can work with secret identites because they have so far, but them losing their secret identity wouldn't kill the character concept forever, either.


CHARACTERS WHERE A SECRET ID IS TOTALLY UNECESSARY:

MIGHTY THOR. Thor's Dr. Don Blake is the worst example of an un-needed secret identity. All of Thor's interesting supporting cast (the Warriors Three, Beta Ray Bill, the Enchantress, Sif, Odin, Balder, the Norn Queen) is as THOR, not as Dr. Blake. All of Thor's enemies want a piece of Thor, not Don Blake: the Gray Gargoyle wants Thor because he wants the secret of his immortality, for instance. All the really cool stuff we see of Thor is him in Asgard hammer-swinging against Flying Trolls. Unlike Superman, Thor has enough character vulnerabilities that a secret identity is totally unecessary for audience identification.

GREEN LANTERN. It really says something that Hal has changed jobs five million times. Hal Jordan's job doesn't matter, it's his Green Lantern gig that is important. In fact, a case can be made that Hal Jordan is less of a superhero free agent, more of a guy for whom superheroism is pretty much what he does because his bosses (the Guardians) tell him to do it. Being a Green Lantern IS his job. If someone wanted to have Hal Jordan live in space and be a Jedi Knight full time, that would be just fine. Kurt Busiek had a fascinating theory, that the reason the Green Lanterns wear masks is because on joining the Corps, they lose their individuality.

CAPTAIN AMERICA. This is not to say that Captain America's maskless face should be plastered on PEOPLE magazine, but that Cap's identity has never been, really altogether that interesting. He should have incognito alternate identities for when he goes undercover as he did in the Roy Thomas years, like "Roger Stevenson" (Whoa, now THERE'S a brilliant piece of subterfuge!)

CAPTAIN COMET. It doesn't surprise me in the least when Conway brought him back in SECRET SOCIETY OF SUPER-VILLAINS, the ID was the first to go.

WALLY WEST. As much as I enjoy what Geoff Johns DID with the idea of Wally being given a secret identity when previously he didn't have one (and the way it was done, too, was classy), nonetheless a lot of work was done to give Wally an identity distinct from his predecessors. Different villains, a supporting cast including Chunk and a reformed Piper, his needing to eat and wearing out clothing, Wally's "Captain Kirk" womanizing...eventually, people stopped asking when Barry was going to be back. And one of these changes is that Wally had no secret identity.
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« Reply #1 on: June 15, 2006, 02:29:35 PM »

Quote from: "JulianPerez"
Interesting how the one person that it would be the most appropriate to know Superman's secret identiity never has, in any version of Superman: Jimmy Olsen.


actually, there is a very good reason for that, for the answer please read:

http://superman.nu/tales2/phantompal/
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« Reply #2 on: June 15, 2006, 03:20:13 PM »

Who should know Superman's alter ego?  

Definitely Batman and Robin, yes both caped crusaders, due to the high level of trust between all three. When available, I love perusing through World's Finest issues. There is a certain dynamic between this trinity reminiscent of the Three Musketeers.


Hal Jordan, knowing Clark's Superman, works on a certain level. A few years ago, DC dug up an old Neil Gaiman story revolving around their relationship. Not only were they fast superfriends but off the clock buddies. It only makes sense, the two most powerful beings on earth discuss their personal lives and bounce ideas off each other. Both carry similar responsibilities and sometimes need a friend.  


A no-brainer, Supergirl, Kara is after all from Krypton and Kal's cousin. Imagine if they hid their secret identities from one another. Let the hilarity ensue.  Cheesy


 :arrow:  Come on, I agree Plastic Man should not know Clark's id but Eel rules! Props go out to all Quality comic book heroes.
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« Reply #3 on: June 15, 2006, 04:44:48 PM »

Julian, you know it was your buddy Grant Morrison who made the call about Plas! Cheesy

I think Ma and Pa Kent, the Superman Emergency Squad, the Bat-Computer, Pete and Jon Ross, Krypto, the Legion, Kristin Wells, and all aliens should also know.

As much as I love Kirby, Kobra should not know.
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JulianPerez
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« Reply #4 on: June 15, 2006, 06:20:14 PM »

Quote from: "Super Monkey"
Quote from: "JulianPerez"
Interesting how the one person that it would be the most appropriate to know Superman's secret identiity never has, in any version of Superman: Jimmy Olsen.


actually, there is a very good reason for that, for the answer please read:

http://superman.nu/tales2/phantompal/


My point about Jimmy Olsen - the one person that OUGHT to know Superman's secret ID but as yet never has - is strengthened on reading that, because Jimmy Olsen, unlike Lois and others, does not take his special relationship with Superman for granted.
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« Reply #5 on: June 16, 2006, 05:23:58 AM »

>>
RANDOM FACT: The first character in DC to unmask and reveal his identity on national television was Atom Smasher, back in INFINITY, INC. <<

I thought Jay Garrick revealed his identity first, back in the late 70's or so (in a magazine interview)?
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JulianPerez
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« Reply #6 on: June 16, 2006, 07:00:19 AM »

Quote from: "Johnny Nevada"
>>
RANDOM FACT: The first character in DC to unmask and reveal his identity on national television was Atom Smasher, back in INFINITY, INC. <<

I thought Jay Garrick revealed his identity first, back in the late 70's or so (in a magazine interview)?


The random fact was about the WAY the unmasking was done, perhaps I should have been clearer. Atom-Smasher was the first to do it on national TV.

Wonder Man, Simon Williams on the other hand, was the first superhero to own up to embezzling on national TV, and the first to be exonerated shortly after.  Cheesy

Spider-Man is the first hero to have a team-up with the Not Ready for Prime Time Players on National TV ("Look out, John Belushi! That's a REAL Samurai!")

Actually, the first hero to reaveal his secret identity, at least in the DC Universe, is the Elongated Man, who was described as being "the first superhero to reveal his secret identity to the world" all the way back in the 1960s Carmine Infantino/Gardner Fox DETECTIVE COMICS.

Who was the first hero to reveal his secret identity in all of comics? Jeez, that depends on how far back we're all willing to go.
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« Reply #7 on: June 16, 2006, 07:55:44 AM »

The idea of superheroes having secret identities makes sense in many ways, since they are almost always outlaws of a sort, even the ones that openly co-operate with the police. (It's worth mentioning that some of them, like the original Blue Beetle, are policemen, or people somehow involved in the legal system in daily life, who feel too constrained by procedure and like to take matters in their own hands, so they know they'd be in real trouble if anyone found out. The recent Bendis run on Daredevil, which I thought was really good, underscores this.)

Also, a secret identity is necessary in order to preserve the uniqueness of the hero: often they use scientific devices or weapons, like Starman's cosmic rod. If everybody knew who Starman was, they'd constantly be knocking on his door and soon everybody would have one, including his enemies, and then where would he be?

In Superman's case, Clark Kent is a necessity for narrative reasons, as you point out. Without Clark, much of the wish-fulfillment element of the series would be void, and the Lois-Clark-Superman love triangle would be pointless. But beyond that, it makes sense that a guy like Superman would need Clark for his life to have some sort of normal dimension: he is not only the greatest celebrity on earth, he is its most extraordinary citizen; he'd be mobbed all the time without Clark and would be forced to live in the Fortress of Solitude all the time, and would end up like Elvis in Graceland.

I don't think that Jimmy should be in on Superman's secret. Superman probably thinks of him as mostly a part of Clark's life, a part of his normal life, and he would like to keep his two identities completely separate. The fact that they sometimes coincide is probably something he regrets, but was probably also unavoidable after a while. Ideally, Clark's friends would never meet Superman, and vice-versa, but it's like the work-life balance, I suppose. Sometimes it spills over, no matter how hard you try.
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