Behind the Mask: Superheroes and their Alter-Ids

The JLA is hiding something.Superheroes and alter egos go together like October and cursing the suddenly freezing weather. What would Spider-Man be without Peter Parker? The Hulk without Bruce Banner? Wonder Woman without Diana Prince? Iron Man without . . . well, Iron Man and Tony Stark are pretty much interchangeable anyway.

Sometimes an alter-ego is almost unnecessary to the superhero, who leads a public life – like Iron Man or the Fantastic Four. Sometimes an alter-ego is just ridiculous and should be immediately obvious to anyone with eyes – like Hawkeye, whose ridiculously antiquated facial hair should be enough of a tipoff.

Sometimes an alter-ego is created to hide the superhero’s identity, and sometimes an alter-ego is created to hide the regular person’s superheroism. The inherent dangers in discovery have been the topic of hundreds of comic book storylines, and formed the basis of the conflict in Marvel’s Civil War storyline. And, of course, there is nothing like a villain about to rip off a hero’s mask to build suspense. Alter-egos have even added the phrase ‘mild-mannered’ to the world’s collective unconscious.

We all love to see superheroes fight, fail, recover, and win. But the real drama of comic books often lies in the unmasked characters – or, should I say, in the characters’ true selves. Superman and Batman are two of, if not the biggest supes. They’ve been in the funny papers for decades, the movie and TV adaptations are legion. And they could not be less alike in the formation of their day-to-day personas.

The Man of Steel

Superman! By day, he is the mild-mannered reporter named Clark Kent. Only a suit and a pair of dorky glasses differentiate the two, and yet somehow, no one has yet figured it out. I love Supes for one reason: because he doesn’t really exist. Okay, yes, I know, he’s a comic book character, but that’s not what I meant. The personality that is ‘Superman’ is completely fictional – Clark is the real guy. In midair wearing his underwear on the outside, Superman is still a gawky, dorky, do-gooder farm boy from rural Kansas. He helps little old ladies cross the street. He smiles bashfully when pretty women address him. He says stuff like, “Statistically speaking, flying is still the safest way to travel.”

I know I’m about to stray off-canon into movies, but in both Superman and Superman II, Clark is almost unable to reveal his secret identity to Lois. Even in character as Supes, and with all the supposed confidence this gives to him, he loses his nerve. Clark Kent is a creature of humility and earnestness, and that is carried through into ‘Superman’, not the other way around. He is even willing to give up the persona of Superman when it endangers the happiness of Clark.

The Dark Knight

Batman! On the other hand, the playboy billionaire Bruce Wayne is the false front for Batman, the Caped Crusader. The recent series of movies highlighted this point. Batman lives for revenge and crime-fighting, and maintains his alter-ego of Bruce only for its necessities in masking and furthering his own activities. I don’t even think I really need to provide much proof for this one. Batman is one twisted S.O.B. who enjoys kicking the shit out of bad guys. He would much more willingly give up living as Bruce Wayne than wearing the mantle of Batman, which he does only reluctantly and only when a suitable replacement can be found.

It’s interesting, then, that Batman has the less revealing costume of the two – speaking of identity, of course. He is entirely the Bat, while Supes is Clark Kent in spandex. Of course, part of that is the difference between mental/mechanical power and physical power. And perhaps because Batman’s identity is so closely tied to Batman, the persona of ‘Bruce Wayne’ is threatened far more times than is Clark Kent’s. Maybe because of the drama of ripping off a mask, but that’s neither here nor there.

If you want to get really psychological about it, you could say that Clark Kent and Batman represent the ego and the id – one (Supes) acting rationally for the greatest long-term happiness, and the other (Bats) acting irrationally to satisfy momentary needs and desires. But I’m pretty sure people have written term papers and stuff on that already, so I’m not going to exhaust my limited mental resources on the topic. Superman and Batman have always been two sides of the coin – dark and light, law and vigilantism, day and night, a little bit country and a little bit rock’n’roll.

So what do you think? Which heroes are putting on a false front to the world like Batman, and which heroes are true to themselves behind the mask like Superman? If you were a superhero, which would you do?

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