You can't have wishes without drab realities, and that's where superheroes' secret identities come in. These characters were, after all, created by artists and writers who felt vulnerable in every situation but the fantasies they fashioned. In his Pulitzer Prize–winning novel about the origins of the American comic book, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000), Michael Chabon is not the first to note the alchemy of promise and desperation that led two Depression-era Jewish youths to create Superman, characterizing the superhero genre's purpose as being
to express the lust for power and the gaudy sartorial taste of a race of powerless people with no leave to dress themselves. The Supermen of the new medium were what its creators and readers aspired to; the Clark Kents were what they identified with, and thus the secret identity was born.
This concept was actually one of comics' deft carryovers from earlier adventure literature; everyone from Zorro to the Shadow had fought injustice under cover of idle rich daytime identities. One of the Superman character's many innovations was to make the hero's cover identity a common man, or at least one with common flaws. This was a populist development that fit the New Deal era, even though wealthy paragons like President Roosevelt himself would persist in the person of heroes like Batman, a masked avenger by night and a suave millionaire by day.
In contrast, Superman's alter ego Clark Kent was shy and awkward, a supposed coward and weakling. The legendary cartoonist and commentator Jules Feiffer, in his classic work The Great Comic Book Heroes (1965), explained the Clark Kent persona as a satire of human foibles, a kind of noncostumed drag with which Superman has a private laugh at the ordinary humans he serves. In more recent treatments of the Superman mythos like Marvel Comics' Supreme Power series (2003–present), the omnipotent character Hyperion, a government-raised alien superbeing recognized by all, longs to establish a secret identity just so he can know what it's like to be ordinary. One thing that is certain is that superheroes' secret identities have always provided a buffer between the everyday reader and the superpowered exploits that reader is asked to believe.
Of course, most superheroes don't have to pretend they're ordinary Joes and Janes; it's typical for a superhero to be born after some strange magical phenomenon or scientific accident thrusts great power onto some unsuspecting everyman or -woman (the lightning bolt that hits scientist Barry Allen's chemicals, turning him into the Flash, or the nuclear explosion that transforms Bruce Banner into the Hulk being two familiar examples). Some of the grimmer heroes transform themselves into crime fighters after the intervention not of a miracle but a tragedy, like the murder of his parents that makes Bruce Wayne become Batman. And as comics have gotten more realistic, their heroes' feet-of-clay alter egos have become progressively flawed; Clark Kent's occupation as a Daily Planet reporter put him in a position to learn of crimes and disasters as they happen and then save the day, while Spider-Man's true identity, Peter Parker, takes a job as a crime photographer so he can make ends meet by selling photos of himself to the Daily Bugle.
Notwithstanding these touches of realism, almost from the start comics have prominently featured characters of such an alien nature or mythic stature that they dispense with secret identities altogether. Back when it was called Timely Comics, Marvel's very first heroes (and hits) were Namor, the Sub-Mariner, a prince from the sunken kingdom of Atlantis who went by his own unusual name, and the Human Torch, a combustible android created only as a sideshow curiosity.
Timely's characters were renowned for running much more to the weirder end of the superhero spectrum than those of Superman's home, DC (originally known as National), and in the early 1960s resurgence of superheroes, Marvel would lead the way in introducing characters who are former regular guys and gals, but make their identities known to the world. As Fantastic Four co-creator Stan Lee remarked in his 1974 book Origins of Marvel Comics,
I was utterly determined to have a superhero series without any secret identities. I knew for a fact that if I myself possessed a super power I'd never keep it a secret. I'm too much of a show-off. Why should our fictional friends be any different?
This concept for Marvel's flagship series would be extended to other heroes, some of whom even go by their civilian names like Luke Cage, Hero for Hire (only later changed to
Power Man, but switched back to the hero's given name in current comics). However, Lee's other idea for modernizing the superhero—that the Fantastic Four would not wear costumes—lasted all of one issue, and the secret identity itself has remained alive and well for many heroes.
It is often a kind of currency carefully guarded by the superbeings. Everyone is familiar with Lois Lane's repeated attempts to
out Clark as Superman (though in modern comics he has confided in and married Lane), and anyone who saw the feature film of Marvel's Daredevil (2003) knows the story (adapted from comics written by Frank Miller in the early 1980s) of muckraking reporter Ben Urich discovering the hero's secret and then self-sacrificingly keeping it for the good of those Daredevil protects. In 2000s Daredevil comics there has been an extended storyline revisiting this concept, as a tabloid reveals the hero's identity and his lawyer alter ego fights to repudiate it in court. Marvel's Captain America has also unmasked himself on international television, so that a terrorist opponent could focus his fight on Steve Rogers rather than all Americans.
It may be far-fetched when compared to everyday life, but as both historical and modern examples show, the secret identity is a device that exposes dramatic shades of psychology in the superhero genre, and is unlikely to be removed anytime soon.