The Problems Of A Secret Identity: an article by: GF Willmetts.

February 28, 2021 | By | Reply More

Back when super-heroes were first created, the nature of the disguise was, for the likes of Bruce Wayne, to scare felons by looking like a bat. All right, a man-sized bat but criminals back then were probably jumpy anyway. As they mostly go around at night, you would think they would be used to bats.

The mask was mandatory if you didn’t want anyone to know who you are. That’s the coda of any vigilante, especially if you could be instantly recognised. The vigilantes that followed just decided a masked costume, cape optional, was the main requisite to be a vigilante, occasionally with flag implication to show they were the good guys. If anything, it was mostly the super-villains who opted to look scary.

With Superman, it is actually the other way around, as an alien, Clark Kent is the disguise. Oddly, those who sought to find his civilian identity never thought to wonder why he never needed a mask. On the other hand, who would think glasses and brushing your hair back would work without super-hypnosis?

The nature of having dual identities was never really developed beyond having a civilian life and that of a vigilante, working against villains beyond the police force. The above applies to all of the super-heroes of them from the 1940s-50s, just in case someone recognised you and attacked while out of costume. From what I’ve read, that didn’t happen or the writers never though that deeply in the plotting. Even Lana Lang and Lois Lane’s pursuit of Superboy/man’s secret identity was usually played for laughs than out to reveal it to the world.

The problems of a Secret Identity: an article by: GF Willmetts.

The problems of a Secret Identity: an article by: GF Willmetts.

Even so, the dividing line is a grey area. I mean, both Superman and Batman swooped on felons and administrated physical injury before leaving them for the police. The fact that they were also acting outside of the law and committing violent acts let alone breaking into buildings themselves is also law-breaking but usually over-looked. Well, at least for Batman and Robin in the TV series where they are deputised law officers so kids wouldn’t realise that what they were doing was actually illegal.

In a court of law, it is likely they would get a shorter sentence regardless of any crime, short of murder, they were doing themselves. More so as it is unlikely if these vigilantes appear in court. After all, how could they be subpoenaed as no one has their addresses? That’s right. They had secret identities. Even if that were possible, their own actions would also incriminate themselves in acts of violence and the felons would have lighter sentences. No one’s really explored that which might explain why they don’t stay locked up for long. You would think the police force would have a super-powered unit for such work but I guess there would be a lot stand-down time. Even Task Force X, otherwise the Suicide Squad, are kept incarcerated more than the missions they are sent out on. With vigilantes, you aren’t actually paying them to do your job for you. The main pay off from having a secret identity.

There’s a fine line between going on the offensive simply because you recognised a known criminal and apprehend in the least violent way and attempting to capture someone committing a crime. Regardless of any good intentions, ‘super-heroes’ are still unauthorised vigilantes and shouldn’t be beyond the law. Of course, in the early era of the super-hero genre, deep thinking wasn’t really done. It’s rarely explored today. Where the Batman is concerned, Commissioner James Gordon made his own compromises simply because his police force’s hands were tied or weren’t prepared for the likes of the Joker and the other crazies that commit crime in Gotham City.

It would be a lot harder to track down a real super-human or an alien posing as a human because the only thing they really has to worry about is their costume and particulars of any dietary needs. A city patrol and where they stop felons might present a pattern but they would also be aware of surveillance. Those with the ability to fly would obviously have a wider range. Crime was more rife at night than during the day. Alan Moore’s observation in ‘Watchmen’ was the presence of costumed vigilantes meant the criminals opted similar disguises if they wanted to stand out and get similar press. Saying that, you do have to wonder why when captured and released super-villains would mostly adopt the same identities as they are already known by. Clearly, something else is going on here.

However, when it comes to disguised human vigilantes where they have an arsenal of weapons and vehicle, then there is a need for money to pay for it and concealment when not in use. This brings the number of affluent people to a reasonable number to look for motivation and work out who they are. In many respects, the likes of Bruce Wayne would stand out like a sore thumb. His parents were killed in a street robbery, missing abroad for several years and certainly had a manor at the side of Gotham City that could hide any number of cars and even the winged vehicles that had been seen flying around. He even has a young ward that had a similar loss of parents and hence a similar profile, with the exception of money. If bachelors and wards were prevalent in Gotham City, it might slow down investigations a little but not by much in working out their identities. There was another millionaire and ward with similar circumstances and good at archery over in Star City. What is it with millionaires and taking wards into crime-fighting?

You would have to wonder why this wasn’t done? Of course, they were being more effective than the police forces of the time. They might be grateful but eventually it would surely pique them by such intrusions on their authority. American police forces are more beholden to the city mayor’s office and, although its rarely seen in American comicbooks, one would imagine they would probably prefer results rather than who got captured them. With so many crazy people committing crime in Gotham City, an apparently crazy vigilante targeting and winning them seems an economic fair bet and no doubt save police force lives. One could imagine that either the police force were too appreciative not to investigate, a bit on the dumb side or lacking any grudges in that direction.

In many respects, you would have thought a detective unit of the police force to discover where these vigilantes go when they are not active, just in case they really go rogue. It isn’t as though they go into a cave, is it? Hmm…maybe in a few cases. How grateful the police force could be depends on how dangerous the criminal is. Let the vigilante take the knocks and bullets would save them a lot of paperwork. They could certainly do more not hindered by the letter of the law and had better resources or super-powers that gave them a better edge.

There is some apparent real craziness when these vigilantes grouped up to become a team, often to thwart villainous teams or alien invasions. Although never shown with the likes of the Justice Society or Justice League, there would be a need for more than standard office equipment but it would invariably be high class wares and such a purchase could be tracked matched to an announcement of such headquarters. Considering how many rich men are in either team, it probably comes out of their budget although you would have to wonder on the tax situation. More so when it comes to sophisticated computers for a particular time period.

Them and the likes of Marvel’s Avengers do have some legal standing to address villainy around the world but one rarely sees behind the scenes how that is made legally possible without revealing their real identities. I mean, if its all right to work as a team, then there must be something in there for them to work solo. Likewise, many of these super-teams have had resignations and down-sizing from time to time without addressing their legal status as crime-fighters. Considering how most of them know each other’s secret identities, it no doubt prevents them revealing this information beyond their own group.

In many respects, the need for specialised equipment applies to heroes and villains. Even if they create the really unique kit, they need to be capable seamstress, knowledgeable in physics and chemistry and, in some instances, even bio-chemistry and certainly good with technology. If they have ordinary jobs contrary to what they portray themselves as, then further scrutiny would be needed. You could use this MO to work out expert scientists and such and narrow down the suspects. Even if they weren’t experts in these sciences and tech, they would certainly have the finance to hire the best to make the components for them. Someone would blab sooner than later.

You would think a creator be he or she be hero or villain could make more money from their inventions than take the criminal route. After all, some of the super-villain discoveries are even more ingenious than whatever the super-heroes have come up with to match their MO. Then again, bitterness against people who crossed them or just plain ambition to make their own use of the equipment could be among the main reasons to go their own way.

Something that rarely comes up is their diet. Conventional muscle men depend on protein shakes and such to build up their muscles. Although there are various sources for energy-sourced super-humans, for those who are super-strong, their diets must also be high in protein to feed those muscles. There are various sources for such foodstuffs but from a detective point of view, many of these firms do keep records and the most unlikely people ordering substantially would make them would stand out. They might use cover names and bank accounts but it does leave a paper trail. Certainly enough to raise suspicions. I should point out something I only discovered last year was muscle-builders might have balloon muscles, it doesn’t mean they are any stronger than a normal person and its mostly appearance. Even so, there must be some similarity in diets unless they received their power from other energy sources. Even so, they still have to eat and you wouldn’t have a stodgy diet but something high in protein to encourage healthy muscles and their recovery from injury.

Even so, any physicality means possible injury and recovery and interesting American medical insurance bills from time to time unless they work under the radar or have doctors in the know about what they do and pay privately. They can’t all be lucky like Daredevil was after a fight with the Hulk and allowed a stay in hospital with his mask left on him. Even so, although the latter Batman showing scars on his back clearly indicates these people keep going long after they should have been forced into retirement by the injuries they receive.

Sometimes, things can be too obvious. Anthony Stark in his early years also declared that Iron Man was his bodyguard. As such, you would expect to at least see his bodyguard’s civilian identity doing that job as behind him from time to time than being armoured all the time. After all, it isn’t as though Stark didn’t have a personal chauffeur in ex-boxer Harold ‘Happy’ Hogan and he never wondered where or who the Iron Man bodyguard was before suddenly appearing. Had the two identities been separate, then surely Iron Man would always be flying nearby to keeping his boss from harm. Likewise, how could Stark let Iron Man have time off to attend to Avengers business? It wouldn’t take long to work out who he is. This problem was addressed to some extent with the presence of Jim Rhodes a couple decades later and then quietly ignored. It’s no wonder in the ‘Iron Man’ films, the matter of secret identities was quickly addressed and admitted at the end of the first film, although no one targets Stark to get revenge for his Iron Man activities.

Therein lies another problem for the celebrity or well-known face vanishing whenever his vigilante identity needed to appear on the scene. How many times can a re-used explanation of going for help be used when no one else arrived on the scene. Running away for an identity switch can only go on for so long before your friends think you’ll jump at a bursting balloon and hardly likely to keep you around. Not helped neither, if they choose to run the same way as you do and can’t spot you. Comicbooks seem to depend a lot on supporting characters have odd low IQs or blind-spots when it comes to secret identities.

In a similar fashion with photographer Peter Parker always being on the scene to photograph Spider-Man in action. Over the years, you would think other press photographers would have taking similar photographs and would surely have seen Parker in action or question his absence taking the snaps. Cameramen don’t become invisible and over the years some have to be in the right place at the right time. Granted publisher/editor J. Jonah Jameson, had to have seen past his obsession, would surely wonder at Parker’s knack for being in the right place at the right time ALL the time. Jameson did make at least one attempt to find out how Parker did it with Mac Gargan watching him and later became the Scorpion that ended disastrously. An odd side-line from this is in the current covid-19 crisis and we are all getting used to masks, getting a decent gasp of air through them has been interesting, so you do have to wonder how ventilated Spidey’s mask is considering he has to exert and breathe through it and not steam up his lenses.

There has only been one man to actually accomplish this and he wasn’t a police officer but a Daily Bugle reporter Ben Urich who worked out Daredevil was blind attorney Matthew Murdoch but chose not to disclose it. Even so, when the Kingpin also discovered Murdoch was Daredevil, he was forced to go public and lost his friends and civilian life. Well, for a time. Things rarely stay permanent in the comicbook universes.

Is it any wonder that some enhanced humans, especially villains, ignore the double life and hang around dedicated bars and such. Considering so many have been imprisoned from time to time, maybe they only use a civilian identity to get their groceries. Even so, if you were going to try to capture them, wouldn’t you wait for them to go to the bathroom for a pee or even in the shower and forget any etiquette for fighting and just snare them?

Of course, this goes against the comicbook mandate for physical battles than just being effective. The likes of Superman could round up all criminals in a matter of hours but he would also need to build even more prisons to contain them. Clearly the three strikes and you’re out regime in our reality’s USA doesn’t apply in the comicbook universes although they must have some wealthy or bent lawyers getting them off all the time. It’s not difficult to see what a lot of the stolen loot pays for.

The cinema and TV versions of the super-hero medium tends to be a little more dismissive of secret identities or at least showing them unmasked for the studios to make use of their celebrity actors faces. Even so, with the likes of the ‘Titans’ TV series, Dick Grayson is going around unmasked and gives his own name when out with his team-mates. It wouldn’t need a genius to figure out who he was ward to. So much for secret identities keeping yourself, relatives and friends safe.

Although side-kicks are becoming a thing of the past, mostly because you’re putting children at risk, not to mentioning keeping them out late at night. Revealing their identities puts their adult’s identity at risk as well. After all, the instances where heroes turn villains or being brainwashed, you would think the knowledge they contain would be more useful than getting them to do things for you.

Even with the likes of the Marvel Universe Civil War and the likes of Peter Parker revealing his Spider-Man identity didn’t have any effect on his Aunt’s heart. Putting obstacles against revealing secret identities to nearest and dearest is now becoming less of a problem than protecting them from harm which is certainly a bigger danger. After all, if you can’t beat the hero directly, then relatives and friends are open fodder to winning and no thought is given to giving them protective devices or even a signal watch anymore.

If there is a need for the next comicbook evolution, then there is a need to explore the necessity of secret identities and certainly better reasons to explore concealment and reasons for going out at 3am and doing something stupid to quote the second Silk Spectre from ‘Watchmen’. Even with super-powers, would you really want to be a vigilante? There’s so much hassle with leading a double life that you might as well join the police force and work within the law.

© GF Willmetts 2021

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Category: Culture, Superheroes

About the Author ()

Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’ If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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