Secret Identity

I never, ever thought it would happen.

I didn't even consider for a minute that Marvel would really do it.

But they did.

And where, oh where do the Spider-Man titles go next?

Spider-Man’s secret identity is now public. Everyone - friend, foe, the don't give a damns, and Jolly J. Jonah Jameson - knows that Peter Parker is Spider-Man.

And what's more, it didn't happen at the hands of Norman Osborn, Venom (Brock or Gargan), or the Chameleon - supervillains who already knew the secret. Nor did it occur as the result of a careless slip of the tongue from the wild and reckless Felicia Hardy, nor an outing by the press ala Matt Murdock/Daredevil, not even a mistake on his own part.

It was by his own choice - surrounded by the international media.

The magnitude of this event cannot be understated. In the 45+ year history of Spider-Man, we could probably count on one hand events of comparable magnitude that potentially impact the character forever (ignoring the relentless "and things will never be the same" shilling that seems to occur with frightening regularity). I can think of three (or four) at this moment, although the fan faithful may have some more:

But this - hmmm. Other than the origin story, this may just top them all. So, let's look at the questions raised by one of the most significant events EVER in the Spider-Man mythology:

How it Happened
It's all the fault of Civil War.

Or perhaps we should be call it The Event That Ate Marvel, because virtually the entire line has been held hostage to this event, not just to the story elements, but also the back stage bungling that has resulted in chronically late shipments of not just the lead title, but of several other titles, including such flagships as Fantastic Four and Amazing Spider-Man. A summary and review of Civil War itself is beyond this particular article (wait just a little longer, grasshopper), but in a nutshell - the supergroup known as the New Warriors go cruising for supervillains to kick around as part of its superhero reality show, but gets in over its head as one of the bad guys - a slimebag called Nitro (Spidey fans will recgonize him as the antagonist in Spectacular Spider-Man #51 (June 1981) and the villain hired by the Kingpin to take out Norman Osborn in Peter Parker #95 (September 1998)) - detonates himself near a school in Stamford, Connecticut, killing hundreds, including children.

In response to public outcry, Congress draws up the Superhero Registration Act, which will require superheroes to register their identities with the government, and essentially go onto the government payroll (I'm oversimplifying, but bear with me). So far, not too much of a problem, since it seems that everyone in SHIELD knows who Spider-Man is, anyway.

But this is where it gets dicey for our boy Spidey.

In Amazing Spider-Man #529 (April 2006), Tony Stark asks to meet with Peter and Mary Jane over a private dinner, where Tony begins to articulate his fears that a crisis is coming, a crisis so problematic that he does not believe that he can even trust Captain America to do the right thing - but he does think he can trust Peter. He tells him that during their time together in the New Avengers, since he invited Peter, MJ and May to live in Stark Towers after the Parker homestead was burned to the ground back in issue #518 (May 2005), that they have become like family to him. He now wants to hire Peter as his protege, his successor to go with him everywhere - but the price is high. Stark wants a blood oath, that Pete will stick by him, no matter what.

And then Stark promptly rewards this vow by going off by himself to a secret cabal meeting of the Illuminati (New Avengers: Illuminati). But that's not what's important now.

The situation continues to deteriorate as public and congressional fervor for passage of the bill grows, and Stark tells Peter that due to his high profile in taking the lead for the registration act, that he will unmask as Iron Man - but that if Peter wants to continue to work with him - he will have to unmask as Spider-Man.

That sound you hear is Spider-Man's life falling completely apart.

Tony tells him that if he doesn't unmask, then he will be a criminal, and Mary Jane and Aunt May would be considered accomplices, and arrested as well. Tony gives Pete some time to think about it. After a heart to heart discussion with Aunt May and Mary Jane, Peter arrives in Washington and tells Tony the following, which I've quoted from Amazing Spider-Man #532 in its entirety because I don't think it's as effective in the paraphrasing:

"You took us in when we had nowhere to go. You've been good to MJ, and to Aunt May. You stood by us. You've been like - like a father to me. I made a promise that I would stand by you no matter what. I keep my promises, Tony. Do what you have to. I'll back you up. All the way."

The issue ends with the tease - will he or won't he - but the outcome - which was completely BLOWN by Marvel on two occasions (1) by showing an unmasked Peter Parker at a media conference discussing his decision in Thunderbolts #103, which was released the week before Civil War #2 came out, and then (2) revealing the spoiler to the friggin' media that Wednesday morning before the faithful even had a chance to get to their local comic shops and read the story for their bloody selves. Marvel ran ragged on websites that were discussing the reveal the week before, but it was all fine and good for them to release the damned Thunderbolts too early, and then spoil the story themselves later.


The Cult of the "Secret Identity"
As I mentioned earlier, Spidey revealing his identity to the public isn't just the end of an era in his own titles, but it's virtually the abandonment of one of the most cherished facets of the whole superhero gig, the "secret identity." This is such a core part of the superhero mythology that it’s hard to let it go as a matter of principle. If I recall correctly, Spider-Man was one of the last, if not the last, major Marvel superhero to maintain a true secret identity.

It's at the heart of the superhero fantasy and that of the misunderstood hero. It's the perfect metaphor for teenage (and even adult) angst. After all, no one – such as that pretty girl sitting next to me in Mr. Seifert’s American Studies class during freshman year in college – knows how special I really am. She probably just thinks I’m just some nerd.

And of course, the reality? I was just some nerd. As most of us were - and maybe still even are.

But that’s the power of the secret identity. It allows us to persist in the delusion that we are something really special, that there is no one like us. It also allows us to indulge in a fair amount of self-pity and a martyr complex. Ah, the suffering that we must endure because we can never really let anyone see through to our true selves, our real vulnerabilities – because if they did – then they would know how to hurt us. Sometimes a character doesn’t even have to wear a mask to have a “secret identity.” After all, Mr. Spock, one of pop culture’s icons of the alienated tried to keep “secret” from all of those pesky, illogical, irrational humans on the starship Enterprise his own flawed humanity. He did a pretty lousy job, though, as I recall.

And yes, for those who are counting, that was another one of my irritating references to Star Trek.

And although we don't wear literally wear masks in our daily lives, we all have secret identities. Really. How many of you can say that the face you present at work or school is the same you present at home - when your guard is down? Don't a lot of us treat the people we love the worst - simply because we can? You talk to your boss or your professor a lot differently than you do your wife, your kids, or your parents - don't you? Of course you do.

And then there are people with addiction problems desperately trying to keep the rest of the world in the dark about them, homosexuals who maintain a public personna of heterosexuality so that their true orientation will not be discovered, men and women hiding affairs from their spouses, the list goes on and on. The secret identity is something that we can all relate to.

But if we look at it under a microscope (literally and figuratively), the concept of the superhero secret identity doesn't hold up. For one, superheroes for the most part move about the public way too freely and in broad daylight. They aren’t like serial killers who keep to the shadows and strike only intermittently. Their pictures are taken, their voices are recorded, their blood spilled, etc. Science can collect DNA from hair samples, spit, skin, any number of ways. You probably wouldn't have to follow a superhero for very long before you had a chance to collect a DNA sample. Remember when Spidey chucked his costume in the trash in the classic Amazing Spider-Man #50 (July 1967) and JJJ proudly displayed it in his office (this was a key scene in Spider-Man 2 as well)? Peter Parker would have left tons of biological evidence all over that costume. Just the mask would have had enough hair samples to make for a positive DNA match. More than once someone deduced that he had to be from Queens because of (1) his accent or (2) Spider-Man was often seen coming from there. In Amazing Spider-Man #123 (August 1973), Luke Cage, in tracking down Spidey, stated that there were three places he was most often seen at: The Daily Bugle, Empire State University, and an unspecified neighborhood. Wouldn’t take a whole lot of effort to put two and two together from there. And any investigative agency worth its salt would have maintained close surveillance on Peter Parker from the day he started coughing up that plentiful portfolio of exclusive Spider-Man photos. Satellite tracking, heat signatures, voice matching, the methods of identification go on and on.

And we won't even get into the whole thing with Clark Kent's glasses.

No less an authority than Stan Lee himself once expressed a certain amount of ambivalence with the secret identity concept. He stated in the original Origins of Marvel Comics (1974) in his section on the creation of the Fantastic Four "I was utterly determined to have a superhero series without any secret identities. I knew for a fact that if I myself possessed a super power I'd never keep it secret. I'm too much of a show-off. So why should our fictional friends be any different?" Of course, he originally conceived the FF without costumes, but changed his mind on that topic by issue #3.

But then again, so what if the concept of the secret identity isn't realistic? Neither is faster than light travel or time travel based on science and physics as we understand them today (or at least the way I understand them, which mind you, is NOT saying a whole lot). However, in any good science fiction, the FTL travel, for example, whether it's called "warp drive" or "hyper drive," or whether you travel through time using the Guardian of Forever or slingshotting around the sun is really irrelevant (as long as your psuedo-scientific doubletalk at least sounds good) because the crux of the story is not about how you get to your destination - it's what happens when you (and the primary characters) arrive and what is learned or achieved once there. The secret identity is a storytelling device, a prop, but not the fulcrum on which the story usually hinges.

Marvel's Ultimate Universe has always been much more realistic about the "secret identity" concept and government control of super powered people. Peter told Mary Jane the secret very early on, just like any real 15 year old boy would do with his best friend/best girl. The government, specifically Nick Fury, had him under surveillance from the get go. People weren't complete dolts when it came to putting two and two together, such as Eddie Brock Jr., and Curt Connors. And Fury has already told Peter that when he turns 18 - he works for him - and Pete will have no choice. Unfortunately, in my opinion, that “realism” is part of what makes the Ultimate Universe a lot less fun than the regular Marvel Universe. There’s something special about the mythology of superheroes where the hero operates outside the law - which the Ultimate Universe has pretty well eviscerated. There, superheroes are just costumed cops and soilders. Superheroes are best when they are acting because of their own moral compass – not because they’re collecting a paycheck or doing it to stay out of jail.

So, it really doesn't matter that the "secret identity" is bogus. It's always been a part of the tale that we've cheerfully accepted, even as we smugly sneer about how stupid Lois Lane was.

Was the Unmasking Just a Stunt?
First of all, contrary to what many may think - I wasn't against the unmasking of Spider-Man on principle. And I don't think it's out of character. After all, there are reasons for it to be very much in character. And this does present the possibility of exciting new story directions to go into.

However, the way it has shaken out so far - it does seem like a stunt - and one that has not particularly paid off very well in the form of increased interest in Spider-Man and sales of the monthly comics (while Amazing is doing quite well due to the fact that the Civil War wraparound has been gracing every issue lately, Sensational and Friendly Neighborhood are struggling, which is unfair because I think both are good books right now.

Unfortunately, the staggering import and result of Tony's request and Peter's response is poorly handled. While as a standalone story, it's fairly good, it takes too much of a short cut to get to the payoff, a shortcut that given the sheer weight of 45 years of continuity, and the fact that this was an end of an era for Marvel superheroes as we knew them, is completely inexcusable. Like so much of Civil War, too much happened too fast and ran roughshod over the story and the characters involved because Marvel just had to rush a mega crossover event out there to compete with 52 and after watching the sales numbers rack up on Infinite Crisis.

But wait - there's more...Spider-Man, of all superheroes, knew just how catastrophic it could be for others to know his identity.

I have a hard time reconciling the Peter Parker who was so irresponsible that he didn't tell the people he loved, the people who would be most affected by and had the most to lose by his costumed heroics, the truth, while within a very short period of time (relative to comics), he pronounces Tony Stark as his father figure and is willing to compromise his entire life for him. For example, Gwen Stacy should have known how dangerous Norman Osborn could be. Harry Osborn should have been confided in so that Peter could help him deal with all of the turmoil and pain that his and Harry's father's dual identities caused his fragile psyche. And do ya think Peter could have spared Aunt May a little bit of grief by coming clean about the whole Spider-Man/Doc Ock thing?

I do recognize, however, the dramatic limitations of doing everything I suggested. To have dealt with the issue in a reasonably realistic fashion would have been to draw out the decision for six months of issues. But, beyond the Civil War timetable that was already in play - that would have exhausted every reader's patience, including us continuity obsessed fanboys. By the time that would have been over - all of the surprise that did exist would have been sucked dry. Still, it just seems that it could have been handled much better - with a few more, brief nods to the anguish that this very subject has caused Peter over the years.

Why it's not so Hard to Understand
The knock about being "out of character," is an all too often used fanboy response to something we don't like. I've probably done it myself time and again. Rather than really dissect or articulate why we don't like something, or focus on where the storytelling lapses, we just throw our hands up and says "it's out of character. So-and-so would never behave that way." And it's true - when writers get careless, tired, or lazy, a common tactic is to shoehorn a character into a desired story outcome, whether or not it makes sense. But then again, as human beings, we all get careless, tired, and lazy, and do stupid things or make bad choices. Fictional characters wouldn't be immune to such things, either. But I think that there are a number of reasons that Peter would indeed have considered doing something like this - and none are too far-fetched:

So, I think it is just as easy to argue that Peter had reasons enough to reveal his identity, just as he would have had reasons to continue to keep it secret.

Is it Permanent?
I haven't a clue - you'll have to ask Joey Q. But it should be. I didn't say I wanted it to be permanent. But it should be. Anything less is a dramatic copout. The god Loki returning the "favor" he owed Spider-Man as a result of assisting in the rescue of his daughter in Amazing Spider-Man #504 (April 2004), a massive mindwipe by Dr. Strange, spinning the earth backwards, travelling in time, rebooting the Marvel Universe, Superboy punching through a wall - all of these are out and out cheats. Admittedly, they would be perfectly logical within the context of how the Marvel Universe operates, but they would be dramatically lazy.

But - I wouldn't be surprised at anything Marvel pulled.

Although it raises an interesting question. After all, for the last 25 years, we've been hearing from one creator or another, and relentlessly from Joe Quesada himself, that the marriage of Peter Parker and Mary Jane was a mistake, because it limited the types of stories that could be told and took Spider-Man too far away from his "core" character concept.

AND THIS DOESN'T? This isn't just a dramatic diversion from the so-called core of Spider-Man. This is an absolute shattering of not only that, but the superhero myth as far as Marvel is concerned. Once again, Marvel speaketh with forked tongue.

Which makes me think they'll reverse it. Not now - not in 2008 - but soon after, when the best stories related to the reveal have been told and the writers find themselves boxed into a corner.

I don't know whether I should hope I'm wrong or not. There is so much that can still be done with it. But then again, Marvel hasn't done anything with the results of all of the other "Events."

Does it Destroy the Character of Spider-Man?
Oh, hell no. The character of Spider-Man will survive. The message boards are always full of threads about how such and such destroys the character and by god, so and so is dropping the titles for good. Blah blah blah. If there is anything that we should have learned in all of our years of following this particular character - it isn't one idea or another, or one story or another, that is his greatest enemy - it's consistently bad storytelling - which is always a possibility - that's what we got in the 1990's. THAT will destroy the character. But marrying MJ, Gwen Stacy having Goblin Babies, Clones, revealing his secret identity - the problem has almost never been the idea (o.k., saying that Peter was a clone was bad) - but has almost always been in the execution.

For the moment - I'm willing to give the idea a chance. Let's see where it goes from here.

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Copyright © 1998-2007 J.R. Fettinger. All Rights Reserved. All original content is the exclusive property of J.R. Fettinger. Spider-Man, the Green Goblin and everyone else who appears in the Spider-Man comics is the property of Marvel, and are used in these articles for the purpose of analysis and commentary.