Secret Identities: 10 Ways to Unspill the Beans
Lately I've been thinking about secret identities. For instance, how can a superhero's real name become known to the "wrong" people - without this fact permanently changing his lifestyle in the process? I've seen a lot of diferent ways used over the years, and I managed to break them down into a basic list of ten categories. It is likely that I've missed a few, however.
I'm skipping over a few special cases - such as the False Alarm where the cover makes it look as if the hero's secret will be revealed, but it really isn't. Or the Deliberate Revelation to someone "trustworthy," such as a parent, sibling, spouse, or lover would supposedly be. (Some such gestures of trust have turned out to be unjustified in the long run, but that's a different problem.)
My concern is with cases where the hero didn't intend for a particular person to find out, and probably doesn't have any solid reason to trust that person, but it happens anyway. Then a writer - either the same one who wrote that story, or a new writer who comes along later - starts looking for ways to do damage control and preserve (or restore) the Sacred Status Quo where the hero really does have a Secret Identity.
After the beans have been spilled, how do you unspill them? Here's what I came up with.
10 Ways to Unspill the Beans
01. Unexpected Virtue
02. Secret Agenda
05. Throw Doubt on it
07. Killed in Action
08. Missing in Action
01. Unexpected Virtue
"Sure, I knew who you were - but I never ratted on you! What do you take me for?"
Sometimes a character who would seem unlikely to keep important secrets, such as a supervillain, discovers a superhero identity and ends up keeping it quiet for his or her own reasons. For instance, Ra's al Ghul already knew who Batman was before he ever waltzed into the Batcave and introduced himself in Batman #232, but he has never issued any press releases on the subject, no matter how many times they have crossed swords (sometimes literally) since that occasion.
One reason for his reticence appears to be his ongoing hope that someday Batman will come to share his worldview, marry Talia, and agree to start training to take over the family business after Ra's is gone for good. Another reason may be his own sense of "honor" when dealing with a very respected adversary. Most villains would be a lot less finicky about such things, but Ra's is usually presented to us as a special case.
02. Secret Agenda
"I've got my own plans for you - and revealing your secrets to the general public would just get in the way!"
When The Kingpin learned Daredevil's secret identity in the "Born Again" story arc by Frank Miller, he arranged for Matt Murdock to run into heavy financial trouble, be slandered and disbarred, have his house blown up, be driven into a nervous breakdown (or whatever a psychiatrist would call Matt's unstable condition as it was depicted at the time), etc. Later he personally beat him up in a fight and arranged to have the battered, unconscious body dumped in the river - while trapped inside a taxicab - so that the autopsy would later "reveal" that Murdock had drowned under circumstances that would make it look like it was all his own drunken fault, after murdering the taxi driver and stealing the car. (That last part didn't quite work out, obviously - but it was a darn good try!)
Sweet guy, The Kingpin. So you can see that he definitely made heavy use of this valuable information - but he did not see fit to publicize the secret identity. Presumably because he didn't want to give Murdock a "martyr image" - he wanted to crush and humiliate him so that Murdock would be remembered as a miserable failure of an ex-lawyer, instead of a great hero who had probably saved a zillion innocent lives from one threat or another in the course of his career.
Why he continued to keep the secret for so long after Murdock bounced back from those events was less clear, but at least Miller had provided a decent excuse for why The Kingpin preferred to keep that ace close to his chest at the time.
"I used to know who you were - but then an editor snapped his fingers and I forgot!"
Superman's Total Reboot in the Post-Crisis era naturally wiped out any previous discoveries of his secret identity by anyone else in decades of Pre-Crisis stories. The same thing would be true of Wonder Woman, although as far as I know the Wonder Woman of Post-Crisis continuity has never seriously tried to lead a double life, and thus people can't very well discover a "secret" she never had in the first place, can they?
On a smaller scale of retcon: Henri Ducard first appeared in the "Blind Justice" story arc in 1999, written by Sam Hamm (Detective Comics #'s 598-600.) This version of Ducard, unlike the guy in the recent movie, had no connection with Ra's al Ghul. However, he had been one of young Bruce's teachers many years earlier, and - brilliant detective that he was - reached the conclusion that Batman and Bruce Wayne must be one and the same. He shared his conclusion with Bruce but did not end up getting much use out of it by the end of the story. It was a loose end that was left dangling for future use.
However, I have heard that the "Blind Justice" story arc is now considered "out of continuity," thus removing the problem of having such a shrewd, amoral mercenary running around with Batman's secret identity inside his head.
"Nonsense! I don't care what sort of evidence you think you have; why would I believe a stupid story like that?"
During John Byrne's run on the Post-Crisis Reboot version of Superman in the late 80s, he produced a story where Lex Luthor had done the following:
1. Reached the conclusion that there was some special connection between Superman and Clark Kent.
2. Gathered together all available data about either of them.
3. Fed it all into a supercomputer and asked the machine to tell him what the personal connection was between the two of them.
The machine crunched its numbers and - on the next-to-last page of the story - offered its conclusion. It seems to have decided that the simplest explanation, not squarely contradicted by any available data, was that they were probably the exact same guy!
So the information was handed to Superman's worst enemy on a silver platter - except Luthor just couldn't see it. His basic attitude was that any man with the incredible power of Superman would never demean himself by spending roughly half of his time being treated as just another ordinary guy by all the people he met. An emotionless machine might think it was a "logical" possibility, but Lex Luthor knew better in his gut. (After all, he wouldn't do it that way!)
So Superman - who hadn't even known that this big computerized analysis project was going on - was saved by Luthor's own psychological blind spots.
A couple of decades earlier, Stan Lee did something that would fall into this same general category. He found a very cute way to publicly reveal Spider-Man's identity without publicly revealing Spider-Man's identity. A neat trick if you can pull it off, and Stan did it beautifully!
Peter Parker's girlfriend Betty Brant was being held hostage by Doctor Octopus, so Spider-Man went to the rescue - except that he was already getting sick as a dog, to the extent that he put up no more of a fight than a normal young man of his height and build might have done. Octopus, quickly smelling a rat, easily subdued him and pulled off his mask to reveal the face of an unconscious Peter Parker - right in front of a crowd that included Betty Brant and J. Jonah Jameson. Everyone thought he was incredibly brave (and/or stupid?) to have tried to pinch-hit for the wall-crawler, but nobody (including Doc Ock) ever seriously considered the possibility that he might have always been the real Spidey and was just having a really bad day this time!
05. Throw Doubt on It
"I found out who you are! Or did I?"
Batman Annual #10 was written by Doug Moench. Published in 1986, in the last days of the Pre-Crisis version of Batman's continuity, it showed Hugo Strange as the master villain. Hugo had learned Batman's identity several years earlier in the Steve Englehart-scripted stories collected in the Batman: Strange Apparitions TPB, and that material was still firmly in continuity at the time. Working from behind the scenes for much of the story, he managed to cause an unbelievable amount of hardship for Bruce Wayne.
By the very end of the story, Batman had figured out what was going on, captured Hugo Strange, and handed his unconscious form over to the police - along with a risky cover story to the effect that Strange had in fact detected his secret identity, and Batman hadn't been sure he could completely remove the crucial knowledge from Strange's mind, short of killing him . . . but he had managed to hypnotize him and rearrange his memories to make Strange think that the "secret" he had discovered was that Batman was a very unlikely person . . . that spoiled playboy fop known as "Bruce Wayne!"
When Harvey Bullock, greatly amused, "explained" all this to Hugo, the poor villain started showing signs of having a nervous breakdown himself as he tried to figure out which of his memories of recent events were actually reliable and which ones might only be symptoms of mind games that Batman had played with him to confuse the issue . . .
Various Post-Crisis appearances of Hugo Strange have fiddled around with a very similar pattern of "I think I know who Batman is - but wait! That's odd! Maybe I was wrong?"
And I understand that back around the Silver Age, there were any number of corny Superman stories in which someone (Lois Lane, for instance) would think she had stumbled across "proof" of his secret identity, but he would then jump through hoops to confuse the issue and make her question her own deductions.
"I know who you are - and if word gets around that I know, my life ain't worth a plugged nickel!"
In the third issue of the original Kurt Busiek's Astro City series, Busiek showed a smalltime hoodlum called Eyes accidentally discovering the secret identity of local superhero Jack-in-the-Box, without Jack realizing that this had occurred. Eyes had a vivid imagination. He spent much of the story trying to figure out how he could make a quick buck off of this information - and imagined himself, for example, trying to sell it to a crimelord called The Deacon. He could then imagine The Deacon ordering his gang of thugs to kill the informant before he tried to double his money by doing similar transactions with anyone else.
And, of course, there was always the question of what Jack-in-the-Box might do to Eyes, if Eyes managed to ruin his private life by publicly spilling the beans, and if Jack stayed alive long enough to hunt down the guy who had started all this trouble. In the end, Eyes had an attack of good sense and decided to leave Astro City and get out of his life of crime entirely, rather than risk playing high-stakes poker with the big boys by using his volatile information as a chip.
(Eyes wasn't just getting paranoid. Earlier I mentioned the time when The Kingpin acquired a sealed envelope with Daredevil's real name written inside. Here's what I didn't mention: Preferring to keep this information to himself while he double-checked its veracity and made plans to ruin Daredevil's life as thoroughly as possible if the info turned out to be the real deal, Wilson Fisk promptly ordered hits on anyone who had possessed that envelope for any length of time before it reached his own hands. Just in case they might have somehow read the contents without unsealing the envelope, and might leak the information, given time.)
07. Killed in Action
"I know who you are! And now I'm gonna - ouch. I think I just died."
For many years, Norman Osborn did not remember he had formerly been the Green Goblin, and did not remember having learned Spider-Man's secret identity. Then it all came back to him and he used the information just long enough to abduct Gwen Stacy and toss her off a bridge before dying himself in a subsequent encounter with Spider-Man. That was one way to "permanently" tie up that loose end and make sure he wouldn't be able to use his knowledge of Spidey's secrets in the future. (It worked for about a quarter-century, until Norman was brought back during the notorious Clone Saga of the mid-90s.)
08. Missing in Action
"I know who you are! I know who you are! Oops, will you look at the time? I'm scheduled to vanish into comic book limbo before I can actually do anything with the information!"
In a story arc published in 1982, when I was just starting to buy superhero comics regularly, Batman and Robin were both transformed into vampires by a brother/sister team called Dala and The Monk. Although it's been a long time since I reread that story arc, I believe Dala and The Monk must have learned the secret identities of Bruce and Dick during the period when Dick was completely under their spell and helping them trap his mentor. However, they were defeated and captured in Batman #351 and then at the start of Detective Comics #518 we saw the aftermath, as a kindly Roman Catholic priest loaded their strapped-onto-stretchers forms into his vehicle and drove off, allegedly taking them back to some sort of religious institution he worked at. Neither the mysterious priest nor his two passengers were ever heard from again in Pre-Crisis continuity. (And offhand, I don't recall ever hearing anything further about them in the past two decades of Post-Crisis continuity, either!)
So the two vampires may have known everything about Batman and Robin's secret identities, but it didn't make the slightest difference in the ongoing continuity because they were swept offstage and never allowed to do anything with the information!
[Note: I first wrote the above material in 2004. Since then, I've heard that Matt Wagner has essentially rebooted those two vampiric villains. I have not yet read the miniseries in question, so I can't speak to the details of it -- such as whether or not Dala and the Monk have learned Batman's secret identity "all over again"?]
"I know who you are! I know - wait. Who am I?"
As I mentioned above, for a long time this was the reason that Norman Osborn wasn't hounding Peter Parker 24/7, back around the mid 60s to early 70s. He didn't remember having been the Green Goblin; he didn't remember anything he had only learned in that role - such as Spidey's secret identity. Of course, it was possible that those memories could return at any moment.
If Spidey had previously found the guts to make a tough call and report what he knew about Osborn's psychological problems to the authorities years earlier, then Norman might have been arrested and sent to a mental hospital for proper treatment, and Gwen Stacy might never have died. But I suppose Peter was deterred by the thought of what a psychiatrist might uncover if he managed to awaken the "Green Goblin" memories, particularly the part about knowing Spider-Man's secret identity. Accordingly, Peter managed to convince himself that those memories and that personality were never likely to resurface on their own, so he could just keep quiet about the whole thing!
"I know who you are! I know - excuse me, what were we talking about just now?"
As I see it, "Amnesia" refers to times when the knowledge just "naturally" flees from a person's mind. A nasty blow on the head, alternate personalities rotating in and out of control of the mind and body, or whatever. "Mindwipe" is when someone deliberately starts deleting certain files from a person's head by any expedient means (hypnotism, telepathy, whatever).
Professor X and Dr. Strange both used to be pretty quick on the draw when it came to telepathically or magically wiping out other people's memories of things that could seriously inconvenience them and their friends. To provide a more recent example, I am told that a Global Mindwipe was performed by The Spectre to erase anybody and everybody's memories of the fact that years earlier, Wally West had voluntarily told the world his real name around the time he inherited the mantle of The Flash from Barry Allen.
Apparently, no matter how many billions of people know a hero's secret identity, it's never too late to Unspill Those Beans!