Batman: Secret Identity?

by Alex Hern

Another month, another graphic novel book club. This month, Seb and James (and me, I guess) are looking at Superman: Secret Identity. As in previous months, I’ll be sharing my thoughts on the book, guided by their discussion questions, over here.

5. How well might this concept translate to other characters, especially in light of the announced plans for a thematic sequel about Batman?

Simple answer? I feel like this concept needs actual powers to work. Without that instantaneous change – one I was normal, now I’m special – it’s not the same concept. How can you just wake up to find that you’re Batman?

I’m sure that Seb and James will have some big new angle that I won’t have considered (they always do), but it seems to me that Secret Identity has two major elements to it, that make it’s concept unique – or more so than a generic “what if super-heroes were real?!” story.

The first is the existence of Superman in the “real world”. That much is obvious, and that is a story which has been done over and over, with almost every superhero possible. Essentially, any superhero story with a somewhat revisionist flair featuring the “first” superhero fits, to some extent, this description.

In comics, Batman: Year One fits, as does the recent Superman: Earth One. Watchmen is famously, at least partially (certainly the part that every comics creator for the next 20 years focused on), an examination of superheroes in general in the real world.

The best example of this concept, though, is in movies. Pretty much every recent superhero flick applies it, as do most earlier ones. Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy is built around this concept. So too are Iron Man, Fantastic Four and Spider-Man. I believe (I haven’t seen them) that Green Lantern and Hulk are as well. Conversely, Captain America emphatically isn’t; the superscience exists from the off, and there is no real feeling of shock at the extent of Cap’s power.

But this element is only the first of the two, and it’s definitely the one that has been used most frequently. The second is the one that is more important to the feel of the book, and that is that Clark lives in our world, right down to the existence of comic books.

(Parenthetical: I can’t enter into this discussion without linking to this relevant, and fantastic, entry into the New Yorker caption competition. If I could, I’d just embed it. This also plays back into my discussion of the knowledge of zombies in zombie media)

When Clark gets his powers, he thinks “I’m like Superman now!”. He dresses up like Superman. He saves people like Superman. He does this because he knows what Superman is, because he is even named after fucking Superman.

I really like this as a concept generally, by the way. I’m a big fan of stories just saying to the audience, “Look. There could be a scene here that you’ve seen a thousand times – be that the hero working out that he should help people with his powers, the protagonists discovering that these weird rotting people are zombies, or the two remaining teens thinking that they should split up with the scary killer on the loose – but we’ll just save time by giving our heroes the sort of knowledge that they’d have if they knew what you know.” It can be done explicitly, as with Secret Identity, or Scream, or implicitly, as with The Walking Dead, but when done well, it frees a genre story from the rote of repeating what came before it.

Anyway.

That element is crucial to Secret Identity, and it’s something that I just don’t think could work with a Batman parallel.

How do you wake up one morning, and discover that you’ve become Batman?

Do you lose your parents at age eight, and then think “I’m Batman now!”? Well, while that would make for a fascinating tragicomic story – and I bet someone is writing it right now – it’s hardly the conceptual twin to Secret Identity.

Do you lose your parents, swear revenge, train yourself up to take on crime and then, just as you’re deciding what to wear on your first patrol, think “Huh, I’m basically Batman, maybe I should dress up as him”?

Do you reduce the character of Batman to “rich guy who fights crime”? Or just “guy who fights crime”? Because if so, Kick Ass has you beat on that, especially the movie, where Nick Cage’s Big Daddy is pretty clearly an homage to Adam West’s Batman.

I’m sure whatever spin is eventually put on it will be entertaining. And if DC has a good team, the resulting book might be good too. But I can’t see it really being a twin to Secret Identity.

But to answer the more general question, about other characters? Absolutely. Any character where powers can come out of the blue could be ripe for this treatment. But why bother? You’d be rewriting Secret Identity, but – oh! – he webswings instead of flies!

Comics are better than that.

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