Secret Identities: Theory and Practice

When you ask someone to describe a ‘superhero’, you’ll probably get a laundry list of basics that are by and large completely optional for making a good superhero. The thing is, even casual fans know there are glaring exceptions to those rules. I’ve already covered what really matters in the superhero genre in another post.
You know how it is: people say ‘cape’ and you can point to Captain America. They say ‘powers’ and you can point to Batman. But then you get to secret identities, and unless you want to pick and choose specific incarnations of groups and teams, you’ve got the Fantastic Four and that’s it as far as popular consciousness.
[[At this juncture, I’m well aware that someone is rushing to the comments to point to my beloved X-men, but the truth is, they’ve only really been public since Morrison’s run. The school itself had a secret identity up until then, no matter how paper thin and totally known by their enemies. Also, Punisher doesn’t count because Punisher is not and will never be a hero.]]
Hell, you’ll notice that there is a grand total of one hero in the whole of the Descendants Universe as of this writing with a public ID: John Harding, New York City’s own Infinity.
If you stop and think of it, the secret identity is one of the hardest to break ‘rules’ in superheroes. People toss out heroes with no powers (or even gadgets) all the time. Code against killing? Ha! You’ve be hard pressed to find a hero from the main two who doesn’t have blood on their hands by now thanks to hack writing. But a secret identity? You damn well better work it in there somewhere, even if for a little while. The practice is so pervasive that The Runaways, a team who usually operate so far on the down low that literally no one in-universe takes notice, still took time to adopt (then quickly discard) codenames.
So why is this trend the one that seems more unstoppable than the Juggernaut and more immovable than the blob? I don’t deign to speak for the rest of the world, but in this blog post, I’ll tell you what secret identities mean to me and the surprising depth there is to be had in this devise.
We’ll start with the ‘why’ of secret identities. Secret IDs serve two major purposes: they provide an easy way to side step several problems all superhero stories must deal with and at the same time, they create drama in characters’ lives. Let’s look at the former first:
There is a reason we don’t have a lot of real life superheroes who fight crime directly. For one, you have the matter of retaliation. I’ve discussed before why it’s a terrible idea to murder the loved one of a super-powered being (hint: it’s all the being beaten to death you’ll be doing); but here’s the thing: there are a lot of people without common sense but with things like guns and machetes. Translation: you don’t take chances in this situation. A secret identity is a simple buffer that can be put between the hero and having their family murdered.
For a writer, this means you never have to explain why the hero doesn’t pay the kind of consequences a mob witness would for putting a passel of bad men in prison. Speaking of consequences, this also shields Our Hero from uncomfortable and hindering issues like property damage and the legalities if vigilantism. While some stories can make hay on these ideas, not all of them should have to if it’s not the point and ‘no one sues him because they don’t know who he is’ just works.
It also serves as justification for the classic costume and codename. Without the need for some level of secret ID, there’s little reason why heroes wouldn’t dress in the boring-ass outfits like the ones the X-men got stuck in for their movies or the Underarmor-based blah outfits that were all the rage when the Ultimate Universe first started out (You know, the ones: the basic body suits with ribbing all over the place, plus built-in pads and never any primary colors?) and no masks. Already, they make superheroes inherently better.
Also, they let you do this.
On the writer side of things, this is where my relationship with this trope gets hairy.
Yes, a secret identity creates drama and the more secret, the better. If the hero has to keep their activities a secret from everyone, then unless they’re a complete loner every call to action is a social problem where they have to make excuses, find a place to change, and then go after the bad guy. This behavior in turn causes friction with loves ones, employers, etc. Thus, drama.
I disagree with some of this. Here’s the thing: You know how in the Spider-man movies he’s always revealing his identity to someone and spends like twenty minutes of his time in costume with the only important part (the mask) torn off his face?
…That was intensely stupid and happens because of a combination of Toby McGuire’s manager not understanding what ‘your client is playing a masked character’ means and test audiences demanding reveals… because some of the reveals make sense.
It’s just that they’re to the wrong people or at the wrong time.
Would you like to know what reveals I would have Peter do if I was allowed to take Spider-man back to formula? Aunt May and Harry Osborn. No, this has nothing to do with derailing the plot or anything, it has everything to do with the core of the character.
Arguments can be made for other aspects being the core of Spider-man, but the motto of the entire franchise is “With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility”; a lesson Peter learned the hard way thanks to the death of Uncle Ben and one that he will do everything in his power to uphold.
I didn’t say he was good at it.
If he’s going to be Captain Responsible, then in the movie the first move—the very first move—is to come clean to Aunt May. Tell her that he could have stopped Uncle Ben’s death, that he now understands that because he can do good with his powers, he has a responsibility to and that he intends to do so as a vigilante.
Why? For one (and the movie hides this in a time shift), but Peter lived with her for months and in that time, he very well could have had some crazy find a way to follow hm home, powered or not. She needs to know about this so that she’s not blundering around with bare-minimum security and/or staying up at night worried sick about him being ‘late’ without explanation.
There’s even drama in this. Do you really think she wants her nephew hurling himself into danger? Do you think she won’t be worried when Spider-man is on TV fighting thugs and goblins and rhinos? Hell no! And don’t think there wouldn’t be conflict over it—conflict Peter shirks by never telling her.
The same goes for Harry. Harry is his best friend and (at the time of the first movie) trustworthy. When Harry first asks Peter to move into that loft with him for college, Peter should have taken hm aside and asked ‘I’m not so sure you want me there, man. Look, the truth is, I’m Spider-man, and living with me might put you in danger. Now, you’re my friend and I’m trusting you with this, but I’ll also respect your decision as an adult whether you choose to put yourself at that kind of risk or not.
For that one, you don’t even have the excuse of being afraid of their reaction. We’ve seen enough of Harry in the first movie to know that he would be all over being Spidey’s secret sidekick, bankrolling all kinds of Spider-gadgets (Like Spider-man 2099’s awesome web-cape). And when Stormin’ Norman went nuts, who do you think Harry would have sided with had he been in the loop with Peter?
Did I just come up with the best Spider-man alternate origin ever? Well yes, yes I did. God, I’m humble. But it was just to illustrate the point that the application of the secret identity trope can be a lot broader and offer a lot more creative options if some thought is put into them. Choosing who will be a secret keeper is just as important as choosing to have the secret in the first place.
One show I think almost gets the right mix on who gets to be in on the secret is Smallville. Yeah, it was on the CW. Yeah, it was cheesy, and yeah, it kind of overstayed its welcome, but at its height, I feel like it had some decent, if heavily soap opera-inspired writing.
To break it down:
Both of Clark’s parents know who he is and what he can do right from the start. I am firmly of the belief that if you have good parents, there’s never any excuse to not tell them you’re a superhero. It’s both a matter of courtesy to the people who raised you and part and parcel of that ‘yeah, you should get better security just in case’ deal. In the show, this provides Clark with a support network for both advice and back-up, freeing the writers up to allow young Clark to screw up pretty badly at times because his parents were able to go ‘hey, Clark is probably late because of all the obvious evil going on—we should help him.
Besides his parents, Clark’s friends, Chloe and Pete are also in on the truth. Again, this gives him a safety net so that he doesn’t always have to ‘win’ on his own (a common complaint about Superman). It also Gives Clark peers he can talk to and relate with—which is one of he reasons I really like Smallville’s early years; it kept the show from being all brooding and introspective like a lot of full-secret ID stories fall into because Chloe and Pete kept him grounded in being a teen.
Clark did not have love interest, Lana Lang in on the secret and that is something I really want to expound upon.
For human beings with common sense and a basic understanding of common sense, ‘I’m a superhero’ is not first date discussion material. Someone you’re just dating (or hoping to date) is not the person you want to arm with the ability to kill you bundled with a book deal, okay? They’re basically strangers—that’s why we date prospective mates: in order to find out what kind of person they are and whether or not they might one day spike your Cheerios with kryptonite. So yeah, I’m not in favor of smart, rational people (purposefully) outing themselves to someone who they’re just dating. Deeper relationships, yes, ‘basic love interest’, no.
Here’s the twist on this one though: teenagers in general are… less rational than they will be in a few years when their bodies aren’t trying to drown them in sex juice (editor’s note: this should read ‘hormones’, but Vaal threatened the rest of the editorial staff with a pitchfork to keep it in). They’re impulsive, they’re intense and they love drama like the internet loves drama. Every love interest is forever, and every relationship is the most romantic one since the one Shakespeare wrote about with Mercutio and the two idiots accidentally pulling a murder-suicide pact kind of deal. I’m frankly shocked I haven’t seen this one yet: Our teen hero gets power and tells his girlfriend of two whole months… who promptly outs him on Facebook for ten thousand likes.
If you’ve ever seen Smallville, you know that Clark embodies the ‘dumb teen’ stereotype more than he will ever be able to embody the spirit of hope. The boy is dumb. Like birther dumb. We’ve seen him outsmarted by shelves. It’s almost unbelievable that he didn’t tell Lana in his first thirty seconds alone with her. Lucky he had Chloe and Pete to stop him, really.
So yeah, not telling Lana: pro secret ID behavior. The party foul comes from the one person he absolutely should have told by the end of Season 1: Lex Luthor.
Again, I must reiterate that this isn’t about preventing plots. There’s no way anyone could have guessed that Lex would be driven to madness and evil by his quest to figure out Clark’s secret. However, when you come right down to it, it’s all about responsibility again.
If you’ve seen Smallville, you know that eighty percent of the negative consequences linked to Clark’s actions with his powers effect—you guessed it—Lex. Over the course of just the first season, the guy is pummeled, has his house broken into, has his business harmed, and is generally left looking like a lunatic as he tries to figure out what the hell’s going on. Oh, and did I mention that his BFF Clark keeps abandoning him whenever danger strikes (and inevitably screws up his life)?
You tell Lex. You tell Lex for the same reason you tell Harry Osborn up there: if the things you do are going to continually screw someone close to you continually and chronically, AND you can trust them not to instantly out you, they deserve the chance to opt out.
None of this is to say that, for story purposes, everyone who should know the character’s secret will know and that everyone who shouldn’t won’t. There is a great deal of value in how the secret is kept or revealed.
As you might have already guessed, I like a good mix of purposeful and accidental outings. What I don’t like is stupid or inconsistent reasoning for keeping the secret or showing it to one person and not others. As I’ve done a couple of layered secrets in The Descendants, I think I’ll use those to explain some of the reasoning.
First, there’s Lisa as Occult. This started as a bit of a retcon. Lisa clearly saw Ian and Alexis as Chaos and Darkness way back in Volume 1, but after I wrote the issue, I realized there was never any closure on that reveal. So the story became that Lisa claimed to have lose those memories due to trauma in order to keep Occult separate from the Descendants.
This is a mix of good reasoning (she wanted to learn about her powers and pursue Morganna on her own) with bad in-character reasoning (not wanting to hurt her friends’ feelings by choosing not to join them). I feel though that this is the kind of bad reasoning I can see Lisa following through with because she’s never confronted with a worse consequence than Cyn being annoyed.
If instead the Descendants suffered by not being able to contact her, then that withholding of information would quickly become unforgivable. Again, I understand characters needing things like this illustrated for them, just not having them derp their way past it and continue on as before, knowing the consequences for others. That behavior is not heroic.
A different situation, one I feel like I should handle better, it Tink’s emergent power arc.
After being impaled by an attack from Metal X that also passed through The Whitecoat, Tink became infected with both Type VII and Type VIII nanites and both adopted the ‘master program’ Whitecoat’s Type VII’s held: upgrading and maintaining a human body at maximum power and efficiency.
I hesitate to call her choice to come clean to Laurel ‘responsible’. One on hand, she’s smart enough to be secure in the choice to go to Laurel. On the other—and I can’t stress this enough—if you have a foreign object (or colony of foreign objects), SEEK IMMEDIATE MEDICAL ATTENTION. Tink’s excuse is ‘SCIENCE!’, and I’m down with that, buy Jaysus Croist… (and yes, I did write it with that in mind. The girl is sometimes too brainy to be smart. Call it character development at Step 1)
Her choice to hide it from Warrick falls completely in the realm of teenaged drama. She doesn’t want him feeling guilty about her being stabbed in that fight, she doesn’t want to make hm feel inferior because she’s not just taller than him now, but physically stronger by far, etc, etc. I give them a pass and write them like this because they’re young, but if two grown-ass people acted like this, I’d smack them with a clue-by-four.
Months ago, someone who was reading through the series asked me why Tink hid the Renaissance suit in the first place, and that one has a better explanation (one I thought I made clear, but maybe not. I’ll clear it up when I edit the books): namely, Tink originally designed and built it as a thought exercise. She didn’t know if she wanted to be part of the action or stay as mission control at that point and it wasn’t really until Waylaid that she decided she wanted in.
One aspect that I did with The Descendants and secret identities that I really wish more team books used is the act that if you’re part of a team that spends time together in their civilian lives, your secret identity stops just being your secret identity. Because once people know who you are, it won’t take a lot of scrutiny to figure out everyone else’s identities too.
The one place where it is discussed and considered is in the Bat Family of books, where of course Batman has thought of this and impresses upon the various Robins how they damn well better have a long talk with him before revealing themselves to someone. This is amusingly taken to its perfect extreme in Young Justice, where Batman refuses to let Dick show his face to his own team. There’s paranoid, then there’s Bat-paranoid.
And there’s good reason for this. One I adopted when dealing with Callie Kreiger. She has a bizarro version of a secret identity: She’s known to the public and even does commercials and such—but she has no idea who her teammates are in the Descendants.
It’s not even that she can’t be trusted. She’s proven herself time and time again by now, but her connection to Lily and part of the team’s distrust for Lily keeps them from unanimously letting her into their circle of trust. And if it isn’t unanimous, it just can’t be done because it would boil down to forcibly exposing them to someone they don’t trust just by process of elimination.
Dealing with that and the dynamics of how its going to work, is going to be a lot of fun.
That’s it for this week. Next week, a friend of mine is playing substitute teacher and guest posting so I can get back into my writing groove. Play nice, yeah?
Questions, comments, verbal abuse? Please post them below in the comments, or the forum.
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Landon Porter is the author of The Descendants and Rune Breaker. Follow him on Twitter @ParadoxOmni or sign up for his newsletter. You can also purchase his books from all major platforms from the bookstore
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  1. Interesting to see your thoughts on secret IDs, in particular (to me) the differentiation between team and individual identities. I do think there’s an interesting distinction that could be made between teams that just work together vs. teams that live together, or at least interact socially a significant amount. Certainly, living and/or socializing with the team makes a lot of sense, for a lot of practical reasons as well as the fact that team members will tend to develop trust and whatnot. I can’t think of any teams that have professional connections but lack social ones.

    I would be interested to see how a team might handle it if they collaborate professionally, as it were, but weren’t close socially. Coordinating might be difficult, but I could see a pragmatically-minded group consciously choosing not to share secret IDs even if they wanted to fight evil together. I’m not sure I can think of any teams like that. Even teams like, say, the Justice League – composed largely of people accustomed to working individually – often end up knowing each others secret identities. In a world with mind control, mind readers, impersonation by shapeshifters, alternate universe doubles, etc., I sometimes wonder why there’s never a team that specifically sets out, from the start, to learn as little about each other as possible beyond their job-relevant skills. I don’t expect or want every group (or even most groups) to act like that, but I’d expect someone to give it a try.


    • I think the reason you don’t see it is because such a group would fail. Most successful team-oriented organizations eventually have that ‘Band of Brothers’ effect where the group members grow closer because having an affinity helps with the job.

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