The Fine Art of Blowing a Secret Identity
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve heard that Spider-Man has revealed his secret identity to the world in a recent issue of Marvel’s Civil War mega-event.
However, back before it was cool to unmask on international television, a superhero’s secret identity was guarded with the utmost care and vigilance. Ostensibly, the importance of heroes hiding their identity was to protect their loved ones from an enemy’s retribution, but for those of us reading their adventures, the true appeal of the secret identity was….well…that is was a secret.
Secrets have a powerful kind of currency in the world of children, so the concept and sanctity of a hero’s secret identity was easily grasped and solemnly supported. It naturally followed that whenever we spied a comic book cover depicting a secret identity threatened or even (gasp!) exposed, we’d snatch ‘em up, no questions asked. After all, a secret I.D. in jeopardy was some heavy drama, pal!
The fine art of blowing a secret identity often fell into three distinct categories: (1) The “What?--Is he CRAZY?” self-reveal, (2) The betrayal of a trusted friend or family member, or (3) discovery by their enemies.
The first, and in some ways, most disturbing category is when the hero apparently loses his mind and reveals his own secret identity.
The cover of Flash #149 (1964) shows Barry Allen doing just that, earning a “jumpin’ jets” exclamation from freaked-out sidekick Wally (Kid Flash) West.
Years later, renowned Flash artist Carmine Infantino handles the cover for another startling self-reveal, this time on Nova #21 (1978). Even more puzzling than Richard Rider’s decision to unmask is how he kept his hair so late-70’s perfect under that helmet.
Predating his Civil War revelation by more than three decades, Peter Parker fesses up to his friends on the cover to Amazing Spider-Man #87 (1970), complete with a slump-shouldered Spider-Man image that seems to mirror the reader’s dismay with Peter Parker. (“Hey! What gives?...”)
In Action Comics #237 (1958), Clark Kent appears to pop a bolt while angrily insisting that he is, indeed, Superman…only to be brushed off by Lois Lane and Perry White (who doesn’t seem too alarmed by the imminent pulping of his legs).
The next category of the blown secret identity is when a close friend, family member or otherwise trusted figure reveals a hero’s secret to the world.
In her first and only appearance in Batman #89 (1955), Bruce Wayne’s meddling Aunt Agatha not only reveals his secret identity to criminals, but also refuses to believe her foppish nephew is actually the Batman!
The cover of World's Finest #136 (1963) shows Batman once again betrayed by those closest to him, as a clueless Superman and Robin reveal his identity to the world (as represented by Commissioner Gordon and Lois Lane).
Karma catches up with Superman one year later in Action Comics #313 as a backstabbing Supergirl hands Perry White the scoop of the century!
Of course, Superman had a long history of close confidants blowing his secret identity, dating all the way back to his boyhood in Smallville. Adventure Comics #266 (1959) shows just such an instance, as Krypto’s “super-prank” reveals Clark’s Superboy costume to his startled classmates. Luckily, Krypto’s clothes-nabbing fly-by didn’t snag the costume itself….which would have exposed a lot more than Superboy’s secret identity (ahem).
Barry Allen experiences the ultimate betrayal on the cover of Flash #204 (1971), as his wife Iris just “can’t keep it a secret any longer” and announces his secret identity to the assorted Groovy Cats passing by. I’m guessing the head-cameos of his fellow Justice Leaguers probably transformed an already awkward situation into a Major Professional Embarrassment.
The final category of the secret identity reveal was, of course, the knowledge falling into the hands of the bad guys.
Daredevil #29 (1967) finds Matt Murdock literally falling into the hands of “The Boss” and his mob, as the blind lawyer is revealed to be the Man Without Fear…overshadowing the more subtle revelation that Matt Murdock improbably wears his dark glasses under his mask.
The double life of Diana Prince is uncovered by…uh…an evil artist on the cover of Wonder Woman #86 (1956). Okay, not exactly an earth-shaking threat, but a blown secret identity nonetheless.
Beyond run-of-the-mill bad guys (or evil artists) learning a hero’s secret identity was the supreme threat of a hero’s deadliest enemies coming across that knowledge, such as the Joker on the cover of Batman #148 (1962). Robin is so shook up, he inadvertently uses Superman’s standard Silver Age catch phrase.
Iron-Man #11 (1969) finds Tony Stark unmasked (or would that be “un-helmeted”?) by his deadliest foe The Mandarin and his ten rings of power.
Speaking of rings of power, Hal Jordan gets a double-whammy from Star Sapphire on the cover of Green Lantern #26 (1964), as she simultaneously reveals his secret identity and threatens to marry him…causing ten year-old boys across the nation to recoil in horror.
It’s “not a dream, not an imaginary tale” when Peter Parker is unmasked by a triumphant Dr. Octopus on the cover of Spider-Man #12 (1964). Worse yet, he’s unmasked directly in front of then-girlfriend Betty Brant and his Spidey-hating boss J. Jonah Jameson! Awk-ward!
A double unmasking takes place in Spider-Man #39 (1966), as a hog-tied Peter Parker finally learns the mysterious Green Goblin is none other than Norman Osborn, the father of his friend Harry. This development was supposedly one of the final straws that drove artist and co-creator Steve Ditko from the series, since he was adamantly against revealing the Goblin’s identity.
From a double unmasking we move to the double-threat of Brainiac and Lex Luthor, who reveal the Man of Steel’s secret identity to Jimmy Olsen in Superman #173 (1964)!
As threatening as the Brainiac-Luthor expose’ might have been, an infinitely greater threat from yet another bald villain emerged on the cover of Action Comics #345 (1967), as Candid Camera’s Allen Funt revealed Clark Kent’s secret to 40 MILLION TV VIEWERS!
So, as A-list superheroes continue to publicly unmask for the non-amusement of jaded and cynical fanboys, remember a time when the secret identity was a sacred thing a hero (and his young readers) would carefully protect from discovery…and Allen Funt!