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Secret Identity/Public Persona: Oppositions and Plurality (part 1)

Hello, I’m Darren Fisher, I teach into the animation degree at Swinburne University.  

I’ve been drawing forever and making comics since I discovered Superman through George Perez when I was 12. I finished my doctorate last year research focusing on truth and identity in autobiographical comics and storytelling, which has turned me a little bit into a comics theorist. 

I’m interested in how stories help reflect and even shape the world, and how we use stories to make sense of our selves within the world. Superhero stories are a part of this zeitgeist of fiction that parallels and interacts with the everyday.

“While superhero storytelling offers a window onto the past and can provide grist for rigorous, theory-inflected investigation, superhero tales also represent a means by which individuals can interrogate and articulate their own feelings, experiences, and social relations.”

Charles Hatfield, The Superhero reader, page 200

This blog entry will begin to look at the secret identity as an expression of golden and silver age world-views, examining its history and functions, and then moving in later entries through to more contemporary views on identity via modern age superhero comics, in particular focusing on the work of Scottish author Mark Millar. 

I’ll be hoping to unpack some of the implicit and explicit moral lessons of these identity states, comparing them across time and comparing them to their point of origin, and raising some possible ideas on being in the world that we might take away from these stories.

Identity for Dummies

Identity can help us better understand and define ourselves through categorisation and affiliation, as we seek to find our place in the world. 

We often use for example our own social status, our tastes, our likes and dislikes, our political conviction, our cultural background and sometimes even race or sex as guide when we match/compare ourselves to others. 

According to cultural theorist Stuart Hall, identity is “a ‘production’ which is never complete, always in process” (1994, 392). It is an assumed role, and aspects of our externally projected identity change to suit our context in a fluid state of impermanence. In this way, identity might be viewed as an attempt to map a static representation of parts of our inner self onto disparate portions of the external world. 

This gathers in complexity when taking into account theories of our pluralistic inner selves. German psychologist Friedemann Schulz von Thun’s concept of the “inner team” (1998) states that individuals are an amalgamation of different identities that all demand attention and fulfilment in varying degrees, taking the idea of our selves in a permanent state of flux even further. 

Schulz Von Thun aims for “co-operative leadership” (21), where all of the pluralistic states are acknowledged as valid and necessary.

According to American Neuroscientist David Eagleman (2015), the brain resembles a complex machine made up of conflicting and competing networks- instead of one single sense of self, he prefers “to think about it like a neural parliament, where you have all these different parties fighting it out to control decisions.”

Pulp Fiction Origins

Pulp fiction heroes are early examples of the dual identity, often dealing in tales of good vs evil & assuming a heroic identity in the name of justice. These characters, including Robin Hood, Zorro, The Scarlet Pimpernel, Doc Savage and The Shadow, operated outside the law as ‘avenger-vigilantes’ guided by their own codes of morality and justice. 

According to Peter Coogan, the pulp heroes were presented as physically, mentally, socially and morally superior. They took it unto themselves to act as guardian for society, taking care not to disrupt social institutions, while purging criminal and corrupt elements acting as prototypes for the Golden Age superheroes, who operated as extensions of the law.

“After time these tropes and conventions in pulp fiction were so entrenched that their presence in seminal superhero tales would go unquestioned”.

Peter Coogan:Superhero: The Secret Origin of a Genre, 2006

Seduction Reduction

Dr Fredrick Wertham’s 1954 classic Seduction of the Innocent, and comics publisher’s resulting creation of the self-imposed Comic Code Authority is well traversed ground. Suffice to say that it greatly impacted how comic books were not only perceived by the public, but also what kind of stories were told in comics for decades.

Simplified stories were favoured, and the prescribed comic fiction became all about good vs evil; reactive hero characters vs proactive villains, seeking only to maintain the status quo and at all times and respect the law and authorities. Heroes were bastions of virtue, therefore a binary of oppositions arose in storytelling. A villain had to be evil, and a hero good.

Thus, character complexity, shades of morality, and inner struggles were to some extent lost from storytelling during the Golden and Silver Ages of comics.

Age of the Super Man

Superhero comics in the Golden and Silver Ages draw a line between citizen and criminal, separating in the style of Westerns “the civilised world from the savage one” (Coogan 2006) and presenting a world that is simpler and more appealing to parents and children than the sometimes murky world of the pulps.

According to Jewett and Lawrence, with Superman;

The unknown redeemer on a horse becomes ‘The Masked Rider of the Plains’; his sexual segmentation is complete; he assumes the uniform and powers of angelic avengers; and thus he grows from mere heroism to super heroism.

1977, page 185

Serialization in comics necessitated this sexual segmentation. The hero is not able to ride into the sunset with their bride at the end of each comic, and the secret identity helped to make sense of their loner status and renunciation of sexuality, which was further entrenched as an ideal of heroism, and goodness.

According to Richard Reynolds;

What has been established is in the nature of a taboo… He pays for his great powers by the observance of this taboo of secrecy—in a manner which is analogous to the process in which warriors in many traditional societies “pay” for their strength in battle by abstaining from sex, eating special foods, and other taboos designed to isolate and protect the “masculine” in the characters.

Cited in the Superhero Reader page 105

Moral lesson- There must be a price for greatness.

To be continued in part 2. Stay tuned, and let me know what you think in the comments :)