This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on September 1, 2016.
Every week in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Publisher of Comics Bulletin Mark Stack will ask Co-Managing Editor Chase Magnett a question he must answer. However, Mark doesn’t plan on taking it easy on Chase. He’ll be setting him up with questions that are anything but fair and balanced to see how this once overconfident comics critic can make a cogent case for what another one obviously wants to hear.
So without any further ado…
How has the concept of a superhero’s secret identity shaped your development into adulthood?
I don’t know if there’s an audience for me opining about adulthood and superheroes, but we’re about to find out.
As you take steps into adulthood, whether it’s attending college, taking on your first career job, or leaving home, you quickly learn how much you control your own image. Going to school or work or a new city allows you to reinvent your image. The you people see is no longer determined by how they saw you ten years ago. It’s a big deal and one that I think is simultaneously over- and undervalued.
It’s overvalued in the sense that most of us aren’t capable or willing to undergo a massive shift in personality, even if it’s primarily focused on public presentation. Habits are difficult to change and most of us like ourselves more than we’ll admit.
Yet it’s still undervalued in that making this sort of choice is an incredible opportunity and one we don’t receive very often. How often do you move cities or change jobs? As you grow older, it tends to happen less and less. That’s what we mean when we say “settling down”. It’s something I’m going through right now as I close on a house and make wedding plans. That bit of adulthood is terrifying because you’re fixing parts of who you are for the foreseeable future.
Those opportunities as you move into adulthood to alter how you present yourself are important however you value them and will affect the course of your life. Going to school, dating my future wife, accepting my first career-like job, moving around North America… each of these opportunities allowed me to alter myself a little bit and change my identity. How else would an American comics junkie like myself think about these changes than through the lens of the superhero genre?
I think the most illustrative example for how you can view these changes rests in a character whose core theme has always been about maturation: The Amazing Spider-Man. When you first meet Peter Parker he’s a scared adolescent obsessed with himself. There’s no part of who he is that he wants to show the world. Even his intellect is shadowed by self-doubt and self-loathing, making him unsure of how he can impact others.
Parker received multiple opportunities to reinvent himself, like taking a job at the Daily Bugle where he meets Betty Brant or going to Empire State University where he first meets Mary Jane Watson (seeing a pattern?). The most significant reinvention is the one that occurs when he put on the guise of Spider-Man though. When he put on the red and blue jumpsuit after Uncle Ben’s death and dedicated himself to helping others, Peter was still the same boy underneath. Despite being a fifteen year old, he has chosen to refer to himself as Spider-Man, and the world acknowledges him as such.
When people see the mask of Spider-Man, they don’t see someone terrified about his Aunt May’s health or incapable of standing up to bullies at school or overwhelmed by anxiety. People look at Spider-Man and they see a hero. Some may see a menace, but they recognize Spider-Man as someone capable of changing the world and accomplishing a great deal. That’s not because Peter becomes a different person when he puts on the mask; it’s because he alters how he sees himself and how others see him.
Just look at the Spider-Man persona Peter invents. He makes jokes under stress and is almost always cocksure. For any problem that appears, he believes he can find a solution and is happy to seek help from others. This is a superhero who landed on the Fantastic Four’s doorstep and demanded membership when they were the hottest celebrities in the Marvel Universe.
None of this is separate from Peter though. It is Peter. He is the wisecracking, fast-thinking hero who puts his life on the line for the people of New York just as much as he is the nebbish young man chained to responsibilities he never asked for. You are all of the things you do, there’s no real you. Peter Parker is Spider-Man and Spider-Man is Peter Parker.
You can take that analysis and extend it from the example of an adolescent growing into the role of a superhero to that of the man who has achieved the ideal of the superhero: Superman. Superman and Clark Kent are the same person. Neither is an invention or disguise. Both are good hearted men who seeks truth and justice. Clark Kent may be much more shy and submissive, and those elements are part of Superman’s personality. If you take away his powers, he would still operate as an effective journalist dedicated to doing the right thing. Take away his secret identity and he will still have demure moments even when there is a cape on his back. Superman is always Superman, no matter what name he may be using.
That illustrates one more key concept of adult identity, at least in how I’ve come to understand it. Superman and Spider-Man are both facets of complete human beings. Just because Peter Parker can exude confidence when fighting crime, it doesn’t remove his fear or anxiety under the mask. It allows him to present a different face to the world, then go home to someone like May or Mary Jane to grieve for his losses. Superman enjoys a mentorship from Perry White as Clark Kent in a way he never could as Superman. The face he presents as a member of the Justice League, as a reporter for the Daily Planet, and as Lois Lane’s husband are all different. It’s the same man, but viewed through different facets depending on what he is doing and who is there to see it.
To me, the choice of who you are in each aspect of your life and how you choose that identity is a key part of becoming an adult. We don’t get to have secret identities, unless you count the anonymity provided by the internet. However, we do get to pursue multiple purposes and can craft who we are in each of those roles.
You didn’t ask how secret identities reflect the transition to adulthood though. You asked how it shaped my development, so I suppose I should get a bit more specific. I’m not sure if this question is compliment or curiosity, but I hope what comes next satisfies in either direction.
The easiest way for me to tackle this question is by discussing my personality in comics. Over the past few years I’ve worked here, at ComicBook.Com, and with a variety of other projects engaged with comics journalism, editing, and criticism. During that time I’ve become acquainted with quite a few people. Some of them are close friends now, while many others are just aware of who I am. I have some sort of a reputation in this community and I guarantee you that personality is very different than what people in my life at work or home know. It’s a unique adult identity.
I’ve done some things in comics that I’m very proud of, but also plenty that I’m not. It has been a process of discovery, figuring out this industry and what I want to be in it. I’m happier with where I stand now than a couple of years ago, but it’s still an ongoing process. What I am aware of though is that who I am in comics is a unique identity. It allows me to have some (very small) impact on others and I have to take that seriously.
I’m not going to compare myself to Superman or Spider-Man because that would be ludicrous, but I am capable of accomplishing some good. What I choose to show others and do allows me to have an impact. That’s a real thing and I aspire to do some good with it.
As I’ve moved along I’ve learned to pick my fights better and question how to approach those fights. There’s work to be done in comics, lots of it, but how you do that work matters. What I might be able to do in other facets of my life varies from what I can accomplish in comics, and it’s important to be aware of how that plays out.
A big component of that is what I choose to reveal about myself. For as much as I tweet and write, there’s a lot about my life and identity that is hidden from my comics identity. There’s a lot about my childhood, health, and status that I don’t disclose. Most of what I’m comfortable discussing pertains primarily to what allows me to help others. I’ll discuss problems with healthcare in relation to my diabetes, but that’s not something that makes me feel vulnerable. It’s just something that I’ve been dealing with since I was very young.
That choice isn’t good or bad, it’s just the identity I’ve chosen to construct. It’s my “secret identity”, if you will, the mask I put on when discussing this medium and the industry that produces it. By purpose and accident alike, I’ve constructed a version of myself that people in comics are aware of and that impacts how they see me and what I can accomplish. It’s something I’ve become more aware of as I matured and have tried to purposefully affect as a result. What I choose to say and not say, to reveal and not reveal alters what I am capable of doing in this specific facet of my public life.
This makes me think of a very recent event, the death of Gene Wilder. It was not widely known that Wilder was suffering from Alzheimer’s until the announcement of his death. Wilder’s nephew Jordan Walker-Pearlman explained in a letter why, “The decision to wait until this time to disclose his condition wasn’t vanity, but more so that the countless young children that would smile or call out to him, ‘there’s Willy Wonka’ would not have to be then exposed to an adult referencing illness or trouble and causing… worry, disappointment or confusion.”
Wilder and his family made a choice to maintain a persona that provided incredible joy to fans young and old throughout the world, and to keep their private struggles to themselves. It’s a personal choice with no right or wrong answer, but I think there’s bravery to be found in the choice Wilder made. He only offered most of the world a small glimpse of his life in his later years, still functioning as a popular figure at festivals and on the streets, but it was one that gave many people memories and experiences they will always cherish.
As I move further into adulthood and my personality becomes more settled, I hope to make better, more heroic choices about the person I choose to show the world. It’s not a matter of keeping secrets or fearing weakness. It’s a matter of how to be the change I wish to see in the world.
Right now in the world of comics I’m focused on being an advocate and promoter. I want to help share unique voices and aid others in sharing their journeys with the world. It’s my biggest focus here at Comics Bulletin. I’m striving to be a voice that can add to the conversation about this artform I love and a better, stronger, and healthier environment for it to flourish.
Maybe one day I’ll talk more about myself and my own background, but that’s not for today. I have a great support network of friends and family to help me through those fights. And you’re one of those people Mark, so thanks. But until then I’ll keep honing the adult I show the world and striving to make sure the costume I wear is one that stands for something good.