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Private Lives and
Secret Identities

by Bruce Bachand

We all wear masks… each and every one of us. It is not a bad thing, either. There are many different aspects to whom we are as people. Fewer of us have secret identities. It is safe to say almost none of us. Maybe a few polygamy candidates. Otherwise, what you see is what you get… depending on the face that is being worn, that is. On the subject of personal lives… well, many of us who work or attend school full-time feel that our time away from work\school is our personal life. And what treasured time it is!

This whole thing of private lives and secret identities is equally complicated in the land of comic books. When the super hero genre leapt into the foray of popular culture (with the appearance of Superman over sixty years ago) it was easier to believe that men and woman could secretly moonlight as heroes\heroines. Times were far simpler. By contrast, at the end of the 20th century it is much more difficult to hold the same conviction. Sure, we all read the comic stories and willfully suspend our disbelief for their duration. But if we look at the issue of realism (which all of us do to varying extents) then we must questions how viable it is that one could maintain a secret identity and, if so, for how long before being exposed. I'm going to throw out a few of my ideas for y'all to read and ponder. Plain and simple.

Let's imagine the following scenario.

You are in your bank to make a deposit. The line-up is horrendously long, as usual. BOOM! The sound of a shotgun goes off about 20 feet from where you are standing. You spin around to see a would-be thief who intends to relieve you and every other bank patron of their money… by force, if necessary. What this guy doesn't know is that you are secretly PowerDude, the famous super-powered meta-human. The crook shouts at everybody to stand still and simply hand over their valuables. Fortunately, you have your costume in your gymbag (hitting the dry cleaners was next on the list!). It was now a matter of having an opportunity to change into it and then save the day.

Things didn't go that way.

At one point the crook bent down to look in a cupboard. That was your moment! You ducked down and crawled into the hallway. From there you made your way downstairs and towards the bathrooms. Damn! The mens' room was locked and the key was upstairs. Now what to do. Wait… the door was open a crack to the custodial room. You grab your gymbag and enter the tiny room. Hmmm, you think… "I don't know if there is enough room in here to…" BOOM! Another shotgun blast thunders through the building. That cements it. You must change into the PowerDude outfit!

Man, is it ever small in there. You manage to get your top off and put on the Power top very quickly. The Nike's come off your feet fast as well. It happened when you were undoing your pants. You lost your balance and banged your head firmly on the water pipe. BONGGG! Ouch! That really hurt. Your eyes are seeing stars and the sensation that you are about to vomit overwhelms you. You are able to get the one pant leg off regardless. Just as the second leg is coming off your foot hits a patch of wet concrete. WHOOSH! You are on your butt and your outfit is covered in the Mr. Clean that you bumped off of the shelve. Now you are looking pretty bad. But you smell like lemons… sort of.

It is at this point that you realize your PowerBoots are not in the bag (it is not as if they needed to be laundered). You decide to wear your Nikes. What else are you going to do? Too bad that the shoes are purple and your outfit is brown and yellow. You rush up the stairs and survey the room. Fortunately for you, an ambitious teller had already grabbed a marble paper weight and bonked the thief-wannabe on the cranial. The bank robbery had been thwarted and the thief would be unconscious for the rest of the day in police custody. You decide that it is best to slip out of costume. There is only one problem: the door closed on the custodial room and now you have to ask someone for the key.

Ok. You get the point, eh? Sure, this is a spoof that punches at "real world" limits. The closest thing you will find to read in a comic like this is the Giffen run of the Justice League book from the late 80's and early 90's. But then who really reads comics for the point-by-point realism that parallels our own day-to-day experiences? Not me!

This brings us to the matter of secret identities and secret lives. As a comic reader "grows up" in his\her tastes they tend to read more for mature characterization and personal growth in a character. Simply seeing Superman beat the snot out of the Cyborg for the 34th time doesn't have the same appeal it once did. But the genre of comics tends to be somewhat static in this regard. Change doesn't go all that well in the DC universe in the long haul. Look at the state of things in 1999as compared to the past 30 years.

The hottest DC title\series is JLA by Morrison and Porter. But what is it that has been the drawing card? A return to a former roster that many fans call the "dream team". The team includes the big guns of the DC universe: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, the Flash, Aquaman, and the Martian Manhunter. After two-and-a-half years, this core team is still holding it's wild popularity. Also undergoing a retro refit is the Titans (formerly known as the Teen Titans). Only a month back did we see the return of the original Titan roster of Nightwing (formerly the first Robin), the Flash (formerly Kid Flash), Arsenal (formerly Speedy), Tempest (formerly Aqualad), and Troia (formerly Wonder Girl), as well as later Titans Arsenal, Tempest, Jesse Quick, Starfire, Damage, Argent, and Cyborg. Old is new again!

But why are these teams popular? Because these people hung-out with each other in their secret identities and private lives when they weren't saving the world. They related to one another as people, rather than merely as god-like figures who saved the galaxy from yet another alien invasion. Twenty years ago (in pre-Crisis continuity) Bruce Wayne (Batman) and Clark Kent (Superman) would actually get together just because they wanted to! Imagine that. Batman actually trusted someone back then because he chose to. This is not the "urban myth" Batman of current continuity who broods and lurks exclusively in the shadows. The only time it seems that he speaks up in the JLA is when he is barking out another order. After that he hides in the shadows again and breaks into first-priority defense installations (looking for information) as if they were the local "7-11".

That sharing of personal lives was what turned me into a diehard comic book fan (to some degree) as a kid. Here were a group of people who were really different and yet, for the most part, managed to get along and even hang around with one another for meals and such. Even the Hawkman and Green Arrow of two decades previous, who fundamentally disagreed on many key philosophical matters, still watched each others' backs when in battle. And they would stay in the same room and chat together. Most of the JLA of that era also confided to one another their secret identities. Because they wanted to.

So where are we? Well, where were we? The answer is still recovering from the anti-hero trend of the mid-to-late 80's. Heroes\heroines became far more serious, autonomous, morally fractured, and divisive. Nihilism worked it's way into many characters' writing. Teamplay was often written as a necessary evil that was merely tolerated. Leadership of these teams also seemed to be an ongoing problem. Accusations that having one sole leader entrenched a form of diseased patriarchy became recurrent through implication. Batman was now very alienated from the other players DC universe, by choice as much as by a new disposition. Superman had been powered down to make him easier to relate to (though I see little in the writing of Elliot S! Maggin and others in pre-Crisis continuity that intimated that his powers posed a threat in this regard). The Giffen Justice League of that time period, being quite well written, was a notable exception to the darkness of the time. This was a team that interacted with one another in their personal lives and would do things together. Ther was old general Glory with his worn-out altruisms. Guy Gardner was always quick to show off his well-tempered maturity. Fire and Ice loved to shop and try on new clothes as well as flirt with the men. These were real people whom many readers could relate with and really enjoyed reading about. But loose teamplay ended up reducing the League itself to be a joke and self-parody of it's former glory, in the eyes of many long term fans.

Crisis On Infinite Earths
(the theme of the last issue of FANZING) basically deconstructed the entire DC universe prior to 1985. The devastation and permanent change that this 12-issue maxi-series implemented is still felt to this day. In a nutshell, everything that has been written before 1985 is irrelevent to the history of the DC universe. That includes many details that pertain to the secret identities and personal lives of many DC figures. Whereas Joe Chill was the fiend who murdered young Bruce Wayne's parents, it was now as faceless figure who did the deed. Superman was never Superboy in the new continuity. Thus, he never visited the Legion of Super Heroes in the 30th century. Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman were not members who helped found the JLA. And on and on the changes go.

Very obviously this affected how characters got along. Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent did not hang-out. In fact, their relationship was quite tenuous and cautious. They appeared to tolerate one another for the most part. Superman did trust Batman to take care of a piece of Kryptonite for safekeeping. But this was an exception rather than the rule. Sadly, though, the Justice League was given a new origin, too.

Now let me add this. I am glad that we have made our way through this anti-hero phase. Writers such as Mark Waid and Grant Morrison are writing intelligent and entertaining comic book stories that integrate the best of the Golden-and-Silver ages with the current Bronze age in comics books. There is much more emotional depth all around than there was twenty years ago. What was an occasional glimpse of such depth is now far more common place. We have along way to go but at least ground has been gained. But the dreary banality of more and more DC characters in this phase took away the simple pleasure of enjoying the comic. It was cool for awhile but when we saw character after main character being "killed" I think a number of us sobered up to what was being done in the name of "artistic license".

The interplay of various characters, when out of costume, was always a highlight (and is again, with Kurt Busiek at the comic's helm) of reading Marvel Comics The Avengers. Rather than living in a bunker, an orbital satellite, a cave or, or a base on the moon, these folk live in a house (a mansion, to be exact)! How is that for setting a mood. It is far more difficult to separate yourself from your costumed identity when you have taken a transporter to your headquarters on the moon that it is when you can change into jeans and sit in the lounge on a sofa at Avengers Mansion with Jarvis pouring you a cup of tea. That one fact (living in a house) has always seemed to help the Avengers be a little easier to relate to than the JLA. The JLA are the neo-pantheon of the gods in Morrison's mind! Despite having a "god" in their midst, the Avengers are a family as much as they are a team. Captain America is the true father figure (in the best sense of the phrase) whom everyone seems to instinctively trust. Superman garners as much trust but that is because of his character (being raised by a couple from a small Kansas farm town didn't hurt) not because he can bend steel with his hands.

In the current JLA we have; a former god (Wonder Woman); a king (Aquaman); aliens (Kal-l and J'onn J'onzz); a former angel to God (Azrael); current gods (Orion and Big Barda). Now if that doesn't present some challenges interpersonally I don't know what would! We also have some "regular; folk such as Batman, Green Lantern, the Huntress, Plastic Man, Steel, Oracle, and the Flash to further mix up things. But you know what. These people do not really hang around together. Only very recently has Grant Morrison begun to look at these folk as friends who may want to chill with one another. As glorious as the Watchtower is, it isn't exactly the most intimate place to get in touch with one another as people. Also add the fact that very few of the heroes\heroines know one anothers secret identities and you have a frustrating scene. The place is so huge and complicated that it's very logistical demands discourage "hanging out". Better to just meet on Earth at a Starbucks or such.

The Titans have much better odds. They have always been friends first and foremost. It is the glue that has cemented them relationally. Though a vast chunk of time may pass, if one has put the effort in to get to know the person behind the mask then it is far more likely that those people will be able to carry on where they left off at. Look at the recent JLA\TITANS crossover from a few moths back. Who has the tighter knit team? Though the League has a great formal relationship, it is tentative and professional at best. It is getting better. But there is still a certain emotional distance that each of the League members has with each other.

Not so with the Titans. They have been brought together in the first place (again) because of the subconscious link that a former Titans had emotionally\relationally with the team in the past. And it is that link that re-unites the team tenaciously to see their friend saved if it is at all possible. Not because it was their duty. Not simply out of honor/ But because they cared about him. That fundamentally stems from their ability, as a team, to take the costumes off, sit around, eat some meals together, and share their personal lives with each other. That day-to-day commonality made for great characterization and the potential for some fantastic stories. Trust, vulnerability, and emotional warmth became staples of the early-to-late 80's Titans. This translated into a series that rocked! Sales were hot and reflected the enjoyment of the fans.

The JLA of the Giffen era was strong in the areas of personal lives and secret identities. Dan Jurgens also did well in this regard. Who can forget Guy and Ice heading out on a date. Or the renewed focus and cohesion that was brought to the team when Superman was brought on board… until he was killed, that is. The whole thing with Doomsday slaying Superman and defeating the JLA showed how much of a joke they were as a team. The irony is that they were getting along pretty good as just Ted, Booster, Maxima, etc… there was a real family tie there. Despite differences they stuck together. Their secret identities were not really an issue.

Morrison has returned the glory to the JLA. Of that there is little question. In the span of sixteen issues they gained and lost two new members. They also established a new headquarters on the moon as a safeguard against further alien attacks. But the biggest thing that fans have screamed for is to unite Clark, Bruce, Diana, Arthur, and J'onn again. This has been hit-and-miss. We have settled for uniting Superman, Batman, WonderWoman, Aquaman, and the Martian Manhunter. It is the "newbies" that seem to be establishing the family kind of bond more. I am referring to Kyle and Wally here. Notice how everyone knows their first names! They are the young bucks who bring youthfulness, spontaneity, and invention to the team. These guys touch the others as much by who they are in their personal lives as they do in a professional regard. Diana does this, too, to a greater degree.

The Titans were in very competent hands with Wolfman and Perez piloting the project. The New Teen Titans was a stunning read in the early-to-mid 80's. Most agree that Wolfman simply burnt out on the series at the end (after 15 years). The standard for writing the Titans had achieved a high benchmark. Dick, Wally, Garth, Donna, and Roy had always been friends first and foremost. That was the bond. When the masks came off they were still chillin' and hangin' together. That is why their losses were so much more difficult to see heal. They were a family. That is crucial in a personal life. For many people who have no real intimacy in their own families, strong friendships come to function as a family. They become families. Dan Jurgens did not build the same fan approval with his stint on the Titans that Wolfman did in his peak season. His talent is there. The magic just seemed elusive to many readers.

Let me recap. This is why the Titans have a wee bit more stability than the JLA. The Titans have cultivated being a family and have incorporated being a family in their private lives (that is, outside of costume). True families see the individuals share more and more of their private selves. With folk like Orion and Batman on their team, is it little wonder that the JLA has not been able to achieve the same family-type bond that the Titans have managed? I think not. Kinda ironic, too, considering that the JLA are older and "should know better".

So where do we go. Well, Devin Grayson has confirmed with fans in the recent JLA\TITANS three-issue mini-series that she can write mature, intelligent and passionate characterization. How she handles the dynamics of the Titans in their secret lives and personal identities is a matter of speculation at present. Let's give her a year or two and see how she does. I am very optimistic. She really seems to want to pay respect to these people as she charts new ground for them. The best of the past will meet the best of the future. Her capability to write many characters in a book and give them their "distinct voices" is quite refreshing in the JLA\TITANS mini-series. I have hope that we shall be learning as much about Dick, Donna, Garth, Wally, and Roy (and the other Titans) and we shall about Nightwing, Troia, Tempest, the Flash, and Arsenal.

The Justice League of America? Well, Morrsion is a Silver Age fan (as is Grayson) and has incorporated many fine things from pre-Crisis continuity into his run on JLA to date. He is talented and has the knack to distinguish the various "voices" of the JLA members. But there is a certain impersonalization that permeates the team. We never really see Morrison tap into their personal lives to the extent that they were in pre-Crisis JLA continuity. Some like this and are perfectly content. I would rather see the League establish a ground HQ and hang out more. Not a lot. But more than they do. I would really like to see Bruce take the cowl off and suck back a beer with Arthur, Clark, Diana, and J'onn for once. And talk about the stress of being defender of a city with so many criminals. No pouting. No whining. Just open and more vulnerable sharing. The guy is bound to snap otherwise any time soon. C'mon, Grant…. let's see what you can do! Chart new ground here, too!

DC characters are not likely to ditch their secret identities anytime soon. Let's utilize the roster of the JLA more effectively, from a writing perspective, in regards to the JLA'ers personal lives. Let's see more of the faces behind those masks (literal or professional). The Titans look very promising. They will be a stronger and healthier replacement for the JLA members one day if things continue. And that because of one big difference: they have reformed because there are a family\friends first, and then they are team of working professionals. They have taken many masks off so as to be seen for whom each of them are. Secrets are shared, and lives are shared. The joy that this brings readers is inspiring and relaxing. At least to this writer.

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All characters are ™ DC Comics
This column is © 1999 by Bruce Bachand.
All artwork is © 1999 by their respective artists.