Hidden identity a key element of comic book superhero stories

 
Posted12/15/2014 12:43 PM
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  • At the 2012 Superman Celebration in Metropolis, Illinois, Mayor Billy McDaniel and Josh Boultinghouse, the official Superman of the celebration, unveil a street sign marking "American Way." In popular culture, many superheroes, like Superman, keep their real identities secret to protect their loved ones and themselves -- and because it's expected in superhero stories.

    At the 2012 Superman Celebration in Metropolis, Illinois, Mayor Billy McDaniel and Josh Boultinghouse, the official Superman of the celebration, unveil a street sign marking "American Way." In popular culture, many superheroes, like Superman, keep their real identities secret to protect their loved ones and themselves -- and because it's expected in superhero stories. AP Photo/The Southern Illinoisan, Stephen Rickerl

You wanted to know

"Why do superheroes hide their identities?" asked a young Grayslake Area Public Library patron.

Superheroes like Wonder Woman, Superman and Spider-Man have superhuman powers. They devote their lives to fighting crime and freeing their communities from the dastardly escapades of their archenemies like the Joker and Dr. Poison.

"Superheroes hide their identities because it has become a standard storyline in the superhero industry," said Irving Rein, professor of communication studies at Northwestern University in Evanston.

Rein's course, "The Rhetoric of Superheroes," explored the popular comic book good vs. evil stories that relate basic moral messages that readers enjoy as much today as when they first appeared some 80 years ago.

"Hidden identities basically began with Superman in the mid-1930s, who hid his identity for a number of reasons," Rein said. "First, by having a civilian identity, he could keep his identity from crooks and from family and friends."

Rein explained that if criminals knew the hero's identity, they would be able to track him down and attack him in his civilian life.

"Secondly, the desire to unmask the superhero creates a tension that drives the story line of a superhero narrative. Thirdly, there is always a superhero weakness -- Superman's Kryptonite or Hulk's inability to control his powers -- that if discovered by the enemy, he or she could be destroyed."

The overwhelming reader response to Superman when it was first published in 1938 fueled the Golden Age of comic books that lasted until the 1950s. DC Comics, Superman's publisher, sold millions of copies of that and other superhero stories, including Wonder Woman, Batman and Robin, the Flash, the Green Lantern, the Atom and Aquaman. Captain Marvel's publisher Fawcett sold nearly 1.5 million copies of their featured superhero comic books.

"The hidden identity makes the search for the weakness as a constant theme throughout the superhero's existence," Rein explained.

While the superheroes and their diabolical villains have different goals and abilities, some basic story threads are found throughout this type of art/entertainment. Rein describes how authors weave the mystery of hidden identity throughout the superhero comic book.

"The usual script of a superhero episode revolves around a threat occurring in which the superhero is the victim of the decision making of the criminals. The hidden identity is a standard form of the superhero narrative and it allows the creators to use the formula and still deviate from the script.

"Throughout the comic book or movie there are a series of fundamental questions. Will the superhero be identified? When and under what circumstances will the superhero become a superhero? How will the superhero get back into his civilian identity without being identified?"

These and other questions can only be answered by reading superhero comic books or watching superhero movies. One thing is for sure, these superheroes are still super-popular and don't hide from entertainment industry market domination.

Marvel Comics, owned by the Walt Disney Company, and Time Warner's DC Comics are available in all media formats, including comic books, digital comics, graphic novels, TV shows, movies, video games, costumes and toys.

Together, they control 70 percent of the comic book and related products markets.

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