Comics, Pop Culture, Visual Cultural Theory

Comic Lore: Batman, Superman, and The Third Identity

 “As you know, I’m quite keen on comic books. Especially the ones about superheroes. I find the whole mythology surrounding superheroes fascinating. Take my favorite superhero, Superman. Not a great comic book. Not particularly well-drawn. But the mythology… The mythology is not only great, it’s unique…Now, a staple of the superhero mythology is, there’s the superhero and there’s the alter ego. Batman is actually Bruce Wayne, Spider-Man is actually Peter Parker. When that character wakes up in the morning, he’s Peter Parker. He has to put on a costume to become Spider-Man. And it is in that characteristic Superman stands alone. Superman didn’t become Superman. Superman was born Superman. When Superman wakes up in the morning, he’s Superman. His alter ego is Clark Kent. His outfit with the big red “S”, that’s the blanket he was wrapped in as a baby when the Kents found him. Those are his clothes. What Kent wears – the glasses, the business suit – that’s the costume. That’s the costume Superman wears to blend in with us. Clark Kent is how Superman views us. And what are the characteristics of Clark Kent. He’s weak… he’s unsure of himself… he’s a coward. Clark Kent is Superman’s critique on the whole human race.”

Bill, Kill Bill Volume 2

 

So far so good, Bill. Except I would dig a little deeper into this.

Superman’s origin story is so cemented into pop culture history that I know I needn’t even bother re-telling it…but I’m going to anyway. Superman, as you’ll know, was not born Superman. He was born as Kal-El on the planet Krypton. He did not have super special powers on Krypton. He was just your average Kryptonian baby. It was not until he was (luckily) jettisoned into space just before Krypton exploded and arrived on Earth that he started the transition to become super (due to the effects of our yellow sun on his physiology, as opposed to the red son of his birth planet). He did not, however, become Superman. Not right away anyway.

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His identity as Kal-El was temporarily lost as he grew up. Instead, he became Clark Kent – a human identity – the adopted son of Martha and Jonathon Kent. He eventually rediscovered his original identity as Kal-El from the ingrained knowledge within his fortress of solitude from his birth father, Jor-El. Kal-El is what evolves into Superman: the human translation of his Kryptonian heritage. And what does Clark Kent become? A caricature. As Bill rightly says – the suit, tie and glasses are the mask. Bumbling and stumbling around the Daily Planet by day and soaring through Metropolis’ skies by night. The mortal vs. the God.

But what happens when neither the Clark nor Superman personas are needed? Which role does he play when he is sitting at home reading Lois’ articles? Or buying dog food for Krypto? Or visiting Ma and Pa back home on the farm? Clark Kent the country boy becomes Clark Kent the reporter; and Kal-El the fallen alien becomes Superman the world’s first superhero. This fracturing of two identities leaves behind a third persona that could be the true identity of the character. This is his private self – Supes with his guard down that only his nearest and dearest will see.

We can see this puzzling trinity of identities in one other comic book character. And it so happens to also be Superman’s direct counterpart – Batman (Who is also my favourite. Sorry Bill.) Again, his origin story is well imprinted into pop culture lore. And again, I’m going to re-tell it.

Bruce Wayne was the son of Martha and Thomas Wayne – Gotham City’s foremost philanthropists and gothic mansion-dwellers. Just like Superman, their sudden deaths triggered the birth of Bruce’s superhero persona – Batman: a physical manifestation of his childhood fears. But unlike Superman, Batman witnessed the death of his parents firsthand. Their killer was not the natural demise of an entire world. Their killer had a human face. Something to punish. Whilst Superman learns of his birth planet’s death in a history lesson, Batman’s knowledge of his parent’s murder is a memory he can never forget. Hence the dramatic contrast between their identities as crime fighters. Justice vs. Revenge. Light vs. Darkness. This binary opposition between the World’s Finest seems to always bind them together like Yin and Yang at the forefront of DC Comics’ empire.

This mysterious third identity draws a distinct parallel. Because just as Clark Kent becomes a secondary costume to Kal-El, Bruce Wayne projects a fabricated public persona of himself to protect his identity as Batman. The Hugh Hefner style billionaire playboy. Clark Kent was created to assimilate, but Bruce Wayne was created to hide in plain sight. And the Bruce Wayne that returns home to the mansion where Alfred is always on hand with a sandwich and a cup of hot chocolate (or a first aid kit) removes the mask or the tuxedo and becomes…what? The third persona. The face beneath the mask beneath the mask. The real Bruce Wayne.

Another option is one that has probably been argued before: That Bruce Wayne’s identity died with his parents. The Bruce that could have been if they had lived. Batman becomes his true identity and the version of Bruce Wayne that shows up to all the charity galas with a model on his arm is the costume. I believe this is interesting but too simplistic. What about all those times that Batman has ‘revealed’ himself to those he trusts? When the mask comes off, Bruce Wayne – the real Bruce Wayne – is what is underneath, very much alive. Not a promiscuous rich kid or a psychotic detective, but a world-weary man.

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But does the celebrity face of the Bruce Wayne identity have hidden depth as well? Is it the way Batman thought he would have turned out should his parents have lived? Or could it be seen as a form of escape…from his original form of escape? Batman was the coping mechanism that gave a grief-stricken child a purpose to go on living for. But as time goes on this mechanism becomes bigger, heavier, and darker. Sometimes it even seems like a burden. This certainly makes the lazy and debouched costume of Bruce Wayne certainly seems like a lighter and easier one to play. But the fact that he constantly returns to the cape and batarangs tells us that – even if it is the harder road to walk down – it is one he can never turn back from.

These two characters, as I hope I’ve shown, are far more complex and intricately built than first meets the eye. As our oldest comic book superheroes, they could have faded into obscurity, but thanks to the strength of their characters and unique origin stories they instead became the two templates of practically all subsequent heroes. The first being those who were born with powers, and the second being those who were given/created their own. The stories of their creation have become our modern day myths and folklore – continually re-told and re-packaged in hundreds of different voices, pens and languages but never straying away from their original formulas.

(And yes, Batman is a superhero. Could you do any of the cool shit that he does? I don’t think so.)

* More of my illustrations and arty stuff can be seen on my tumblr page*

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2 thoughts on “Comic Lore: Batman, Superman, and The Third Identity

  1. Ya know, in the comics and movies it’s pretty well laid out that the World’s Greatest Detective’s alter ego is Bruce Wayne. “Billionaire Playboy Bruce Wayne” is the disguise…. “batman” is wayne’s true identity.

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