February 2004


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Holy Secret Identities

There's just something about secret identities. The deliciousness of a mask. Its there in the childhood pleasure of Halloween. In the masked ball as the clock strikes midnight. In the way no one, except all of us, realizes that beneath those glasses, mild manner reporter Clark Kent is actually something else entirely. Justice League does a fair job of playing that delicious. The external and the internal. Display. Conceal. Hidden aspects. Costume. Masks. Faces. Eyes.

Yes, I know it’s a cartoon and cartoons are for children. Except, in a world of staged “reality tv,” some cartoons delve into characterization that the average dreck that passes for entertainment misses.

In a way, we all wear masks. The way we behave at work, may not be the way we behave at home. We all wear costumes. Costumes for a first date. Costumes for weddings. Costumes for work. Costumes for fun. We all are the heroes of our own stories. Well, we are the main characters. Our heroism may be going to work every day and perhaps the adventures are just in our imagination, but to ourselves we are at the center of a life long drama nevertheless.

This season’s Justice League, has increasingly focused on the significance of identity. After all we’re talking “real” iconic heroes. Masks. Secret identities. Lives.

Superman

Now, fairly evidently, Superman mightily intrigues me. That he disguises Clark and reveals Kal-el, who is this Superman.

The beauty of that double blind.

Why would it even occur to anyone that Superman has a secret identity? There he is. Larger and broader than life. His face and S-curl exposed for anyone to see.

And yet, in the episode Comfort and Joy, when Clark takes J'onn J'onzz to Smallville for the holidays, “Clark” puts on his glasses and says that this is where he is free to be himself.

Clark, with glasses in front of his eyes, panes for the windows to his soul. Protected. You wouldn’t hit a guy with glasses. Glasses with their implication of correction of imperfection. Of imperfection itself. The slight changes in posture. Superman fights super villains. Clark tries to X-ray vision presents at Christmas. Superman flies into hurricanes. Clark heats up his cold coffee with heat vision.

That animated Superman episode (come out on DVD already!) where Clark is apparently killed in which Superman tells his adoptive parents that he’s not sure how he will be able to bear the burden of being Superman all the time. He needs to be Clark.

All the worse, because the reason that “Clark” was “killed,” was because he (which ever person we are talking about) wanted his Clark identity to get to save someone for once.

Funny. He’s had two funerals now. Superman attended Clark’s. A quiet affair with close loved ones on a hill above Metropolis. Clark, for obvious plot reasons, didn’t attend Superman’s huge cathedral filling, media frenzied funeral.

Batman

What do you say about a character who responds to an early childhood trauma by devoting every aspect of his life to an alternate, deliberately terrifying identity? Who gradually over time, as is clear from Batman Beyond and the various animated series, increasingly sees the created identity as the real one? Who in his own head refers to himself as Batman. Whose interactions with other characters is always through the lens of that trauma?

Hmmm…yes, issues, lots of issues.

Fairly early in JL, there was a running joke that the other characters knew him so little that they didn’t even know why he is, who he is. Martian Manhunter referring to how Batman can’t understand losing those closest to him. Diana wondering what the losing your parents in a violent manner would do to a person. Each time, he just glances at the person and says nothing.

What’s hilarious are the episodes where Batman (or Flash) are injured, lying on some hospital bed with no shirt on, wearing their masks. The preservation of the secret is that strong.

Even when Diana confronts Batman, he denies it. Actually, that episode is fairly interesting. There’s a scene where Batman is sitting in his hotel room with no mask on, but wearing the costume looking at a laptop. He speaks to Wonder Woman over a communicator and it's so delicious, because his face is revealed, but she can't see him.

It’s not so much that Batman’s mask is the real face, which I sometimes like to argue, but, oh, just consider the sheer mass of protection of that comes with wearing Batman’s skin. The armor, the padding, the concealed eyes, the shrouding cape, the tool belt with its answer for every ill. Even a piece of kryptonite and Clark is his friend.

The costume surrounds, but Bruce Wayne certainly isn’t the more “real” identity. The house on the hill with the Bat cave below full of darkness and brooding. Bruce Wayne doesn’t wear a mask, but it often seems that the open face is the mask. Concealed. Closed.

Yeah, interesting guy. Issues. Lots of issues.

And Flash, Flash, Flash

He’s such a kid. So, open. Red and out there. Everyone in his home town knows him and it’s all, “Hey Flash, help me open this can of beer” and he’s got a Flashmobile with a wine rack (hidden depths?) and, “Chicks dig the secret identity” and take the freaking mask off already, so I have more to analyze.

Green Lantern

It’s interesting, masks are traditionally part of the GL uniform. In the episodes when we encounter the GL core, we see them wearing masks. Well, except when undercover in battle bikinis, but that’s different.

I’d guess the reason that he doesn’t wear a mask, that he still lives in his old community, is that he is trying to hold onto his essential identity. He’s just a guy. The ring is just a weapon. Like the guns he keeps grabbing every time he runs out of green juice.

And yet, when he uses the ring, his eyes become green. In a very medieval concept of how the eyes work, his eyes emit light. The ring is a weapon of light. Of vision. Of perception. Of thought molded into shape. Of will: shields, protection against the void, projectiles, hands, tools, anything that the mind can conceive. Exposed in green light.

Thus his fear as articulated in both the dream episode and somewhat in the Metamorpho episode that he has been changed. That he isn’t the man he was. I don’t think he can afford a secret identity.

Or, perhaps, mentally he sees himself as a cop. A secret identity doesn’t buy him anything that he psychologically requires.

Hawkgirl

This season really has been about peeling the layers away and getting…glimpses of a face, a name, glimpses. Over the course of the season the “girl” who is characterized by her appearance “Hawk” reveals her name Shayera. Then the big reveal, that what appeared to be her face was a feathered mask. A mask that made Hawkgirl seem all the more alien, other than mammal. It even shaped the way the eyes that looked through the mask appeared. All this time, her face was a mask. Protecting herself. Unlike every other character, she cannot have a secret identity. Her wings give her away. Yet, the viewer cannot help but wonder what else she is hiding with her “Excuse me, Hawk Girl smash now” façade.

Wonder Woman

She is a woman, see her roar. She never pretends to be less than what she is. Amazon. Princess. Beautiful. No masks. No pretenses. And a whole lot of tall.

Martian Manhunter

Sad to say, I don’t tend to think about Martian Manhunter much. Pre Justice League I was mostly familiar with him in terms of Sandman and Morpheus’ role as the Shaper of Tales. A fact that has more significance now that I know that J’onn can shape his body to fit the tale.

Like Superman, Martian Manhunter is the last of his species. Unlike Superman, he remembers his world. His family, culture, language, beliefs aren’t just images on a screen. Words on a page. They live within him. Ever receding into dust.

Unlike Superman, J’onn Jonzz is demonstrably not human. Green from a dead world. How very Christmas in January. Dead trees on lawns as the dreary comes down.

The character goes beyond adapting his name, assuming a mask. Even when among his Uber Friends, he changes his shape to fit in. Fines down the angles of the head and hands and body in order appear more human. Less alien. Non-threatening. Acceptable.

All the while thinking how alien this (our) environment is. In a Knight of Shadows, he dreams of home and for a brief moment, is in comfortable, comprehensible surroundings. His mind that, he keeps a fortress so that the cities of men don’t overwhelm him, he relaxes and he is.

I consider the way he melts through walls and it seems that Jo’nn is the ghost at the feast. He has a third eye and if he opens it, the world rushes in. So, he stands sleeping with his eyes open. Stands so looming and grave at the Kent’s Christmas cheer door and says, “I’m a Martian.”

Masks. His face is a mask. His clothes are a part of him of his protective coloration. Unlike the Tick’s Chameleon, J’onn can do plaid. I’m not really sure it’s a question of reveal, unreveal. He is the alien. The lost immigrant to a new bewildering land. No wonder “Clark” invites J’onn home for the holidays. There but for the grace of Kent’s goes he.

Me

Okay, no I’m not a member of the Justice League. For one thing, my mutant ability to wake up instantaneously won’t save the world. However, it is in art that we examine ourselves. By considering how the “larger than life” people that we create deal with identity, we examine what identity means in the more than four color world. Plus, it can be darn entertaining.

 
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