My first thought, in collecting these stories for this anthology, was that I spent a lot of my early writing career underutilizing female characters – which is still something I’m working on changing. My next thought is that in writing about superheroes and super-villains one of the primary difficulties is avoiding merely reiterating what’s already been said better by other, more talented writers.
I remember cringing when the film ‘Megamind’ came out as the plot bore a strong resemblance to ‘Dr. Genocide and the Five Stages of Grief’ and I worried that my short story would forever be seen as derivative (this was back when I was a much younger writer, and concerned about such things). Any story featuring empowered protagonists is inevitably, and rightly contrasted with innumerable works that came before it, often hitting the same notes. Even beyond comics we’ve been telling these stories forever; Gilgamesh was (more or less) a superhero, as was Hercules and Beowulf. We’ve always loved telling stories about larger than life heroes with incredible powers beating up monsters and other people with powers and I can’t anticipate us stopping any time soon.
For me, if there is an original(ish) thread to tug at when discussing these sorts of characters it’s this; I think the secret identity is relatively new. And I think that it is important to tease out why this might be and why it’s important.
Not that the secret identity is entirely new, no. Hardly anything ever is. There’s the Scarlet Pimpernel and Zorro, each with their masks (the physical one and the mask as their degenerate, spoiled, aristocrat to disguise their hero’s heart); there’s gods and angels travelling through the worlds myths – often in disguise. But the concept of a secret identity came into its own with the modern superhero.
In ‘Field Exercise’ the superhero identity is just drag for the young recruits, they can’t imagine not having a colorful alter ego. In ‘I Reach Behind My Utility Belt’ Captain Commander Lad flashes the iconography, colors, and domino mask of (perhaps misguided) idealism to be able to get on with his bloody, pragmatic work. Eddie from ‘Origin Story’ doesn’t have two identities yet, maybe he never will. And in his monologue about mummies, it never really comes up for Dr. Genocide. But still, this double identity is integral to modern superheroes.
I think it’s a particularly potent fantasy (and great ground for story-telling) to feel like there’s this hidden power inside you; this brightly colored, strong and fast, super version that you can’t share with others for their own protection. You get to be that, you are that, but you also get to keep it in a box while you go about your day. It can be thrilling to wear your tights just under your business suit.
The problem with secret identities is they imply that ordinary people are not supposed to be amazing or -perhaps more exactly- weird. We use two names, two personas (or more): use these for different things and as cover for one another, trying to balance our pieces out. Of course we’re more than one thing- we’re different things to different people and in different seasons. But sometimes, I wonder about how the insistence on the strict divisions of this framework shapes our society.
You need the secret identity because this unjust, cruel world filled with diabolical geniuses would take it out on you (and your loved ones) if they knew what you were, the goodness you were trying to enact. In comic books it’s your beloved aunt being crushed by robotic octopus arms; in real life it’s not getting hired because responsible people don’t do that, being shunned or called evil, or even being beaten to death depending on what you are and where you live.
The people who need secret identities are the ones who feel like they are not powerful enough to defend themselves and their people in a threatening world. The ones who insist secret identities are unnecessary are those with the luxury of believing that the world is fair(ish) and that they and the people they love won’t be destroyed by honesty. I think that even if you’re strong enough not to need a secret identity yourself, it’s evil to deny others access to such an important protection.
I think what’s interesting is that, if we go by nothing more than the stories, this might be more of a modern dilemma. Hercules owned his name, never went about his days as anything other than Hercules. Mythological heroes with multiple identities followed a path of claiming a heritage and power they didn’t know they had and making it part of themselves; eventually taking it back with them into their home village. In the modern (superhero) myths, the heroes claim power but keep it distinct and different from their everyday identity.
The biggest disappointment for superheroes is that for all their power, they rarely reshape the status quo. More often, they are defenders of the status quo. Sure, they can stop the planet chomper from munching down on the world, but they can’t rearrange infrastructure to better serve people; they can find the cure to the werewolf plague, but not cancer. And I think the insistence of the truly powerful in maintaining a secret identity from fear of reprisal is one of the biggest ways superheroes reinforce the unjust status quo.
I’ve begun to suspect that the world changes when Jim Jimson and Captain Commander Man are no longer seen as two separate individuals; where the same being who punches robots from outer space also sits quietly to type out an story on corruption in the transit department. Because the division is arbitrary. We are both super and ordinary, we are both demigods and scared goatherds in one. Bringing your superpowers to fix the sink, bringing you business acumen to figure out a way to defeat the battlebots – that’s when things really change.
And even if alter egos are necessary, even when the world forces you to hide certain aspects of yourself, realizing first and foremost that for all your disparate parts you’re all one thing is a vitally important realization. The standard thinking is that one is a mask and one is the ‘real you’ but the truth if you’re all of the above -that you’re a playboy billionaire and vengeance obsessed freak in vinyl clothing- that’s when, finally, you can most effectively fight for truth, justice, and hope.
You’re not this or that, you’re this and that.
Everyone wears many masks, which is to say everyone gets to bring different aspects of themselves to the fore. That fifty year old grandmother at the office, that one you think is so basic and boring; she has hidden sides which are true and real but also she feels she must keep hidden. Making the world a better place means, in large part, making it safe for her to try on different costumes, to wear brighter (or darker) colors without denying the other things she is and does.
And, if nothing else I think the goal of all superheroes, the goal for all of us, should be to make the world a better place.