Last week, I mentioned something about Batman and Superman’s secret identities, and that I would talk about them if anyone was interested. Well, I recall at least two “yes” votes. That is really all it takes. To be frank, I wanted to do it anyway as long as no one actively said BOO THIS IS A SUBJECT ABOUT WHICH I DO NOT WISH TO READ.
But let me preface this with two things.
-I can’t claim the ideas I’m going to talk about are totally new or innovative, especially because I’ll cite existing sources of the characterizations in action.
-I also can’t claim my take is the “right” way to handle Superman and Batman’s secret identities. There is no right way; these characters are 70 years old, so diverse and contradictory interpretations are valid and inevitable. I’m just saying this is the way I prefer to think about it, and you might dig it as well.
So here goes: Superman and Batman do not have dual identities. They have triple identities.
See, during Batman Begins I always think Rachel’s being unfair in that bit at the end where she touches Bruce’s face and says, “This is your mask,” the idea being that Batman has become the “real” personality, and the Bruce Wayne persona is an act. This is a popular characterization of the Bruce/Batman split, and I used to buy into it as well.
But then who is that sharing jokes with Alfred, and who is that talking to Rachel at that very moment? It’s not the public “drunken playboy” persona that Bruce has cultivated, but it’s not Batman, either. Bruce doesn’t talk in his gravelly “intimidation voice” to Alfred or Rachel or Ra’s al Ghul (and thank goodness for that). Heck, this is a guy who talks about Batman in the third person (“Batman has no limits,” not “I have no limits”).
The Dark Knight is as much a role, then, as the drunken playboy. The real guy isn’t Public Bruce or Batman, it’s Secret Bruce. In the JLA trade paperback of “Rock of Ages,” there’s bios of all the Justice Leaguers, and I absolutely adore this fragment of the one Morrison wrote for Batman (or at least I assume he wrote it, because it sounds like him, and it’s somewhat in opposition to DC’s official treatment of Batman at the time).
“Perhaps the most misunderstood and complex figure of his day, Batman is not driven by vengeance, as he would have us believe, but by a desire to use the persona of the Dark Knight to instill fear in his opponents and ensure that others will never experience the tragedy that has shaped his life.”
That absolutely blew the doors off of how I used to think of Batman the first time I read that in high school. I knew the big scary “I AM THE NIGHT” stuff was to scare criminals, but I never stopped to consider he might be trying to put one over on his JLA comrades as well. The guy is a method actor. And whoever’s writing that text does say “us”; looking at it through a metafictional lens (metafiction in a Morrison comic? Unheard of!), what if all of Batman’s dreadfully angsty, emotionally stunted “MY PARENTS ARE DEEEAAAD!” characterizations in other comics are him trying to fool the audience as well? Maybe Private Bruce, that ultracompetent perfectionist seen in all of Morrison’s Batman appearances, is so committed to his role that he even started thinking like the psychotic vigilante sometime in the eighties just in case anyone is reading his mind (or reading his thoughts in little word balloons over his head)! He out-Andy-Kaufmans Andy Kaufman!
No? Well, it’s just an idea…
As for Superman, I tend to go in a similar direction. Mort Weisinger’s version was Superman first, with Clark Kent largely a charade; I confess I don’t really understand what pre-Crisis Superman would get out of just pretending to be Clark Kent. John Byrne’s version was Clark Kent, and Superman was just a suit he wore; I don’t feel the two identities were contrasted enough to be compelling, and Byrne’s assertive, outwardly confident Kent lost that poignant humility that’s the whole point of the character.
So instead, I like the notion put forward in Millar/Morrison/Peyer/Waid’s rejected Superman 2000 proposal:
“Clark Kent isn’t what Superman really IS, Clark is what Superman WAS–until he reached his teenage years and began to realize what all those years of soaking up the Kansas sun had done to his alien cells. Superman’s story here is seen as the tale of a Midwest farmer’s son who BECAME AN ALIEN shortly after puberty. […] This is someone who by any stretch of the imagination is no longer just human–except for the part of him, the ethical, humanitarian base nurtured by the Kents, which forms the unshakable foundation for everything Superman is BUT WHO IS WHAT SUPERMAN CAN NO LONGER BE.”
Thus, the “real” character in this dynamic is the alien who was raised by the most decent people in the world. Let’s call him Kal-El for the purposes of discussion, though he might more properly think of himself as Clark.
Metropolis (or Public) Clark, then — that timid, bumbling, sad-sack reporter — is a role; even if he had no other reason to exist, his function is to give this incredibly powerful demigod some much-needed perspective, to remind him no matter how powerful he becomes or how high he might fly, just what it feels like to be The Little Guy.
But Kal-El isn’t just Superman, either, because Superman has to be a symbol. Superman has to be all things to all people as the world’s pre-eminent superhero; the Kal-El lovingly raised by the Kents, on the other hand, is a specific person. Superman has no political ideology, but Kal-El does. Superman endorses no religion, but Kal-El has his own belief system. Superman doesn’t have a preference when it comes to Coke or Pepsi, but Kal-El certainly buys one or the other when Clark Kent goes to the supermarket.
This “threecret identity” notion, I feel, is a richer way of looking at what is usually thought of as the dichotomy of superheroes’ lives, and I feel it’s more relevant for the 21st century. In 2009, it’s not quite as simple as one’s “public” life and one’s “personal” life anymore, is it? The lines have blurred; we have multiple facets we show the public, whether they’re on our blogs or our Facebook pages or our interactions with co-workers, and these merge the public and personal in many respects. But somewhere underneath it all is the true self, the one not even the closest to us are invited into entirely.
Maybe sometimes you even think differently than you feel … just in case somebody’s reading, right?