One of the interesting things about the most successful super-hero films to date is the relative extent to which they discard the convention of the secret identity while trying still to play with the fetishistic character of masks and costumes.

Tim Burton’s Batman started it off, with the reveal of Batman’s identity to the Joker as well as Vicki Vale. Since then, this has become a predictable part of most superhero films: both the antagonist and the love interest are let in on the secret, and relatively little effort is made by the hero to protect his identity. In the Spider-Man films, it’s even been clearly implied that Aunt May knows Peter Parker is Spider-Man, let alone the reveal to Mary Jane. No robot doubles, or butlers dressing as the secret identity, or any of the other staple narrative tricks for protecting secret identities that have filled comics for decades. Mostly this works well in the films, I think. It’s ok to have the reveal of the identity to the villains, because another thing that’s become common in super-hero films is killing off the bad guy at the end. That’s a difference between having to tell twelve or twenty-four or fifty stories about a character each and every year without making major changes to his status quo and just telling a single story about him.

There are some exceptions: the wonderful Bruce Timm cartoons based on various DC characters have continued to work a bit with secret identity storylines, but they’re consciously retro in their fidelity to an older comic-book geist anyway.

I’m kind of disenchanted with mainstream DC and Marvel comics these days, for reasons I’ve written about before. If I have to choose between two kinds of juvenalia, I’ll take the trippy, sappy, Boy-Scoutish character of a lot of Silver Age DC comics, or the adolescent angst and soap-operatics of Marvel comics in the 1970s and 1980s–as opposed to the kind of superficial “darkness” and “maturity” that largely appeals to the kind of 18-year old who thinks that stories where a supervillain attacks a member of the Authority by beaming back in time and molesting her as a young girl or where Giant-Man has a violent sexual relationship with the Wasp are really sophisticated, deep and daring.

But one interesting trend over the last decade has paralleled the cinematic de-emphasis on the secret identity. Superman stopped playing games with deceiving Lois Lane and married her. For substantial chunks of time, characters like the Flash and Iron Man have operated with identities known to their entire fictional world, though in both cases there were eventually fairly silly attempts to magically reset the storyline so as to restore the secret identity. A lot of the old staple stories about secret identities have been set aside. In a few cases, there have even been really compelling narratives about the dangerous consequences of a revealed identity: the comic book Daredevil has more or less been centrally focused on that issue for many years now. I would say the only character where the secret identity remains a major narrative theme is Batman, and even here, the circle of characters around him who know who he is (including some antagonists) is now quite large. More in this case, psychological duality (or questions about his lack of duality) is a staple of Batman narratives.

There’s one other character where “secret identity” has always been a defining part of his comic-book adventures: Spider-Man. Now that’s over, too, and in dramatic fashion. In the current Marvel “event” comic Civil War #2, Spider-Man reveals his identity to the entire world.

I’m feeling mixed about Civil War, not so much because of the editorial dictates that have shaped it (e.g., the major events that are being hyped, the reveals and the deaths and so on). The underlying story is a much more coherent one than DC’s recent “blockbuster” series Infinite Crisis: the US government decides that all superheroes need to register with the government in order to legally operate. Yes, it’s very consciously intended to invoke stories ripped right out of today’s headlines. Sometimes with all the subtlety that Stan Lee used to evince when he did stories about Commie supervillains or what have you. Sometimes it’s a bit richer and more nuanced in its potential. Partly though it’s because the characters aren’t terribly consistent with about thirty years of development. I’ve always liked Mr. Fantastic, for example, but he seems unrecognizable to me in this series: a servile wuss. (I’m wondering where my other long-time favorite, Dr. Strange, has gone to, after declaring his opposition to super-hero registration in the first book of the storyline.)

It’s Spider-Man that I really wonder about, though. Almost everyone regards it as inevitable that they’ll undo this story in some fashion given what a deep part of the character’s mythology his secret identity has been. But you know, Spider-Man hasn’t been a neurotic, guilt-ridden young adult for a while now. He’s married to a supermodel, is basically successful, and even Aunt May knows about his career as Spider-Man. I tend to think what a lot of other folks are suspecting: they’re going to kill off Mary Jane and Aunt May as a way to reboot Spider-Man’s guilt and anxiety.

In a larger sense, I wonder if comic-book superheroes really work without secret identities. The costumes become even odder than they already are, unless they’re basically utilitarian the way the Fantastic Four’s costumes always have been. It isn’t just the “protecting loved ones” that makes the genre work, it’s also the tensions that arise from characters pursuing individual action in a world where institutions provide neither safety nor justice.

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14 Responses to Unmaskings

  1. Rob MacD says:


    Lovely post, as usual. I think you’re dead on in highlighting the difference between movies and regular comics continuity as a driver here. The incentives or pressures on the writers are so different for the two different media. If we’re making just one movie (even or two or three) about a character, the movie should tell THE single most interesting story of their life.* In regular comics continuity, there are powerful commercial and sub-cultural reasons for NEVER doing that. The big “event” comic series like Civil War occupy a funny middle ground between those two extremes: there’s obviously a desire to shake things up, make dramatic changes to continuity, like Peter Parker revealing his identity. But in the long run the pressures to restore the status quo are probably too great. I suspect Spidey’s identity will be “un-revealed” in due course, and there are any number of ways for creative writers to do so. The publishers and the audience are, or are perceived to be, conservative in their tastes.

    You say you’re disenchanted with mainstream comics because of the dark turn (though isn’t that turn about 20 years old by now). I find it’s the straightjacket of continuity that puts me off. There are any number of mainstream titles I’ve enjoyed lately, but they all have at least an arms length relationship to official continuity.

    (*)Which is often, but not always, the origin story – a bit of a beef I have with many superhero movies.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    I think the point about continuity is also correct–I tend to enjoy the comics that have the strongest vision about what they’re doing, as long as that vision isn’t just flatly stupid. My favorite right now is Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman, which is delightfully free of continuity while also being richly situated within the storytelling traditions of Superman comics.

    It isn’t the darkness per se that I dislike. I love it at times, when it’s brilliantly done. Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke is as dark as anything you can imagine, but it’s a terrific, compelling story. I even liked the first storyline in The Authority. But if it comes to hack work, I’ll take Silver Age hackery over “dark” hackery any day. It’s one thing to read a silly Silver Age Justice League and roll your eyes at the contrivances, and another thing to read some low-rent writer trying to top his last story by piling on the body count and the atrocities. Even with the more creative attempts, such as the Authority story I referenced in the main entry, I hit a point where I say, “If you want to start telling me stories like that, then you’re going to have to stop all the shit about spandex and capes and superheroes where almost everything is comic-bookish EXCEPT for the outlandish atrocity and so on: you just moved into another league, and the standards are different.”

  3. withywindle says:

    On influences: how much is this simply lets-copy-what-Bendis-did-in-Powers? Not to be too cynical or simplistic or anything.

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    I think that’s part of it too–not the least because Bendis seems to write about 70% of Marvel’s titles anyway. Though the theme of “government regulation of superheroes” also has cropped up from time to time in lesser company events (DC’s Legends), has been a subtheme in some books like Ostrander’s Suicide Squad, and been an element in other independent series like Invincible and Astro City.

    Arguably you could really lay the blame at Alan Moore’s doorstep, since Watchmen and Miracleman both really started from the assumption that superheroes would become the government (or gods) in some respect if they weren’t checked or controlled. Think of all the series and stories that have turned on some aspect of this problem ever since.

    Now things from Powers that I largely don’t expect to see in DC/Marvel would include way Bendis has thought about superpowers in relationship to celebrity culture–you aren’t gonna see superheroes sleeping with groupies every week. Though come to think of it, the Black Cat was kind of a groupie…

  5. withywindle says:

    My other long range influence thought had been “Dark Knight Returns Back-story.”

    Re excessive darkness, particularly in the X-men: And of course it rather justifies either Magneto or the Sentinelistas. With this level of butchery going on, prophylactic genocide one way or the other seems rather sensible, and Xavierian sweetness and light criminally naive.

    I wonder what the education schools would think of the Danger Room?

  6. Rob MacD says:

    Agreed! I just finishing plugged Morrison’s All-Star Superman at my own blog in a long post about Superman, which I am not too proud to link to. Morrison’s just now taking over one of the Batman titles, but I believe that IS in official continuity. I wonder how that will go.

  7. Tim, you have to follow up with a V for Vendetta post (either comic or movie). Check out Jodi Dean at I cite for some good blogging on Moore and masks and identity and politics (digging down in the archives, that is). V is the most important counterexample to your general point on secret identities, which is well taken, and an interesting counter to your other well-taken points about other Moore projects.

    Side note, have you been following more “literary” comics like Sandman (Gaiman) or Promethea (Moore trying to one-up Gaiman) or League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (the comic, definitely not the movie), which incorporate but are not limited to the superhero genre? And what’s with the British invasion that has turned writers into the comics celebs? (I stopped collecting just as Claremont and Miller and Simonson were getting recognition for writers, but it was all about the artists in my day–Claremont the only non writer-artist of the bunch making my point for me). Finally, have you ever taught a course on comics?

  8. Timothy Burke says:

    V is a marvelous counter-example.

    I just caught up on Moore’s Top Ten, which I enjoyed very much even if it wasn’t Moore’s absolute best.

    Haven’t taught a class on comics. I’m planning to teach a week on comics and “sequential art” using Scott McCloud in my spring course on the history of reading, though.

  9. kmunoz says:

    Aunt May has been dead before, and Peter Parker’s love interest has been dead before (and still is), and in both cases the situation was reversed, in large part I think because the writers discovered that Parker needed characters that could ground him (make him “just like us”) and provide him with the anxiety of worrying about their safety. If these two characters do die or disappear again, I suspect it will be under Straczynski’s tenure as writer. It was JMS who had May discover who he was; it was JMS who brought MJ back after an estrangement. So he’s either learned the lesson about needing Parker to be grounded, or he brought them closer to Parker just for the purpose of eventually getting rid of them in a much more intense fashion.

  10. Tim, do you know of anyone who’s done a full semester course? A good friend of mine at U of Rochester is designing one now, but he’s the only one I know of. I can’t picture how to get around the expense issue for students. What do you think of a digital archive with subscription-based levels of access for students and professors (and others) to get around this? (It would only involve getting a bunch of competing companies to agree on a common architecture and get scanning–heh!)

  11. Timothy Burke says:

    It’s an interesting question: I think some judicious scanning could cover it. If, for example, you’re doing a week on Kirby, you could have the class buy one of the two Marvel Visionaries volumes, and then scan some panels from other Kirby and Kirby-imitating work. But you’re right, even with that, you’d still have to assign 10-12 trade paperbacks for a 14-week course, which would run about $200.00 at a minimum.

  12. joeo says:

    This book analyzing superhero comics since Alan Moore in terms of Bloom’s “Anxiety of Influence” theory is suprisingly good.

  13. frisbiefulton says:

    Continuity and expectations have ruined creative freedom on a lot of these iconic and established characters. Despite all kinds of reboots, alternate timelines and dimensions, deaths and rebirths, abiding by or ignoring the comics code, characters that were created 45-60 years ago have been written by hundreds of writers and have been pulled in even more directions within continuity. Even so called “fresh starts” like the Ultimate line or All Star Superman can’t help but reference certain silver age storylines or retell them. The only difference is that they choose to ignore specific continuity.

    I’m the type of comic reader that loses interest in a book if a creative team I enjoy leaves or a story ends, and absolutely prefer the singular vision of the same writer sticking around to tell the whole story. I have grown very tired over the years of worthwhile advancements in a story being completely reversed when the next team takes over (Hey kids! Just like politics!), so maybe what is needed is to completely break from ongoing series, as much of a tradition as they are. We are currently seeing a shift in the medium to writing for the collected trade, which does wonders for story structure and sells to wider audiences, so why not?

    Alan Moore wrote original superhero stories that created the illusion of worlds larger than the current story, and often alluded to the continuity and characters of other comic companies while creating unique stories with beginnings, middles, and ends. Grant Morrison and others have been allowed to write the stories they want to write, accepting or ignoring continuity as they choose. I’d feel a lot better if the current Civil War storyline was just the “Bendisverse” and wasn’t in danger of affecting future Spiderman stories that I might actually end up reading.

  14. Timothy Burke says:

    If it were the precondition of interesting stories, I’d have no problem with it. If, on the other hand, it forced a series of compulsory stories that no one especially wanted to tell but that had to follow from the earlier story, that’s less attractive.

    For example, I would have been very happy if Marvel had chosen to tell a series of stories about what happens in the aftermath of a global conflict after Busiek’s Kang saga, if those stories were themselves interesting. If on the other hand they were formulaic make-work, there’s no reason to prefer them over any other kind of formulaic make-work, and it’s preferable that the company just pretend that the story as told never “really” happened.

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