One of the strangest and most distinctive elements of a super-hero is a secret identity. It’s so distinctive we don’t even think about how strange it is. Or, more precisely, how strange the heroic identity is. There’ve been disguises and alter-egos throughout fiction, whether Odysseus showing up at his home incognito before killing his wife’s suitors, or the heroines of Shakespearean comedy dressing up as men and taking male names, or Sherlock Holmes ferreting out clues while masquerading as a humble old book-seller or opium addict. But the super-hero identity, in its classic form, is less a person than an idea: a being known by a code-name, who does not pretend to be a specific person, but instead wears a mask or cloak, and who exists only for one reason — usually to defend against some injustice, to right wrongs, or generally to fight crime. The super-hero identity is not a person or a personality; it’s the idea of a person, the dream of an identity. Much has been written about the symbolic presentation of masculinity the dual identity implies, a weak or nerdy exterior hiding a powerful secret persona. It’s interesting, then, that the idea seems to have been created by a woman.
They’re not scholarly sources, but both Wikipedia and Tvtropes suggest that the first true heroic secret identity was the Scarlet Pimpernel, who was the title character of a 1903 stage play and a better-known 1905 novel written by Baroness Emma Magdolna Rozália Mária Jozefa Borbála “Emmuska” Orczy de Orczi, better known as Baroness Orczy. I can’t think of an earlier example myself. The French character Rocambole first appeared in 1857, but (so far as I can tell) only had the one identity. The villainous Fantômas and the heroic Nyctalope first appeared (separately) in 1911. Zorro was introduced in 1919, The Shadow was given a background and real name in 1931, the Lone Ranger debuted in 1933, the Phantom in 1936, the Clock — the first masked hero in comic books — also in 1936, and Superman came along in 1938 — seventy-five years ago tonight, in fact. I suspect (but am not at all sure, if someone would care to put me out of my ignorance) the first woman with a secret identity was Domino Lady in 1936. Orczy, born in 1865, would go on to publish 11 Pimpernel novels before her death in 1947, along with two collections of short stories and several spin-off novels dealing with the hero’s ancestors and descendants. But to say “hero” here is slightly misleading. The Pimpernel is not the hero of the first book, in the sense of being the protagonist.
As the first example of the secret identity, The Scarlet Pimpernel is an interesting creation both for what has remained the same, and so still seems natural, and what has changed over the past hundred-odd years — both what has changed and now reads as strange, and what has changed but still reads as normal. The book itself is good well-structured adjective-heavy melodrama, and an entertaining read; no surprise the character went on to be adapted for film, and still has a loyal following today. But while it’s difficult at first not to think of the Pimpernel as the first in a long lineage of super-heroic identities, the book actually comes from a slightly different tradition: it’s a gothic romance. I’ve said a couple of times before that the super-hero story is the daylight form of the gothic; The Scarlet Pimpernel makes it clear that the one genre actually birthed the other.
The book’s set in 1792, and opens in France, where Revolutionaries are sending aristocrats to be executed on the guillotine (Orczy’s slightly inaccurate here; she refers to the Reign of Terror and the tricoteuses who knitted during the executions, but both the phrase and the spectators first appeared in 1793). The man known only as the Scarlet Pimpernel, master of disguise, spirits some condemned aristos out of Paris. Then we cut to an English inn, where the aristocrats arrive, courtesy of the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel, twenty young Englishmen, headed by the mysterious Pimpernel, who have united to save aristocrats from the Revolution. Soon after, Marguerite and Percy Blakeney arrive at the inn, to join friends of theirs who are part of the League. Marguerite’s a brilliant, beautiful, talented French actress who was touched by the love of dull, foppish (and wealthy) Percy, and married him. But now there is tension in their marriage, for Marguerite had betrayed a family of aristocrats to the Revolutionaries, in revenge for a beating they had ordered for Marguerite’s brother; once Percy found out, he turned utterly cold toward Marguerite, and has yet to forgive her.
At any rate, Marguerite’s brother, a moderate Revolutionary, is now facing execution himself. A French agent, Chauvelin, promises Marguerite that her brother will be freed if Marguerite will help him uncover the true identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel. She agrees. She does not at first succeed, but does find out that the Pimpernel is returning to France, and passes this information to Chauvelin. Then she makes her way into a secret chamber of Sir Percy’s vast estate and learns that Percy’s not the fop he appears — he is, in fact, secretly the Pimpernel himself! Marguerite must rush to France to save him, and, in the process, reconcile herself with the man she now knows to be every bit as brilliant as she.
As I say, it’s a melodrama. Everything and everyone in it is larger-than-life; beautiful and clever (though it has to be said their dialogue isn’t especially witty) and brave. If there is at this point almost a kind of nostalgia involved in reading such an uncomplicated and unapologetic adventure story, still the thing succeeds because it’s a good specimen of its kind. It’s tightly-constructed, moves swiftly, and is effective in the way it builds and releases tension. At points, even the least logical elements seem to make a kind of oneiric sense: why does Chauvelin involve Marguerite in his plans? Is it not coincidental that she learns Percy’s secrets at precisely the right point in the story and not before? Well, who knows? It all works, and you don’t think about these things as you read.
In fact, the book gives you a lot of other things to think about, if you happen to be so inclined. Orczy cast aristocrats as heroes and Revolutionaries as villains — and indeed was writing at a time when the concept of ‘aristocracy’ had more societal weight than it does now — so you might characterise the story as conservative. Certainly she’s making an argument about national identity, about Englishness. One of the Pimpernel’s men is asked why they risk their lives for the sake of the aristos:
“Sport, Madame la Comtesse, sport,” asserted Lord Antony, with his jovial, loud, and pleasant voice; “we are a nation of sportsmen, you know, and just now it is the fashion to pull the hare from between the teeth of the hound.”
“Ah, no, no, not sport only, Monsieur … you have a more noble motive, I am sure, for the good work you do.”
“Faith, Madame, I would like for you to find it then; as for me, I vow, I love the game, for this is the finest sport I have yet encountered.—Hair-breadth escapes … the devil’s own risks!—Tally ho!—and away we go!”
Melodrama necessarily flattens out character, and national identity becomes a marker for behaviour. Lord Antony illustrates his point with a fox-hunting analogy, not only English but aristocratic; though it’s odd the image has him ruining the hunt.
At any rate, the image of the Scarlet Pimpernel was chosen for the identity of the ringleader of reactionaries specifically because it’s “the name of a humble English wayside flower.” Orczy here hits on the key aspect of the secret identity, the thing that makes it a great device for adventure fiction: it’s a metaphor, a heightening of what’s important about a hero. The Pimpernel is English, springing from English soil, so opposed to France. You can hear echoes of that in a later hero deciding to take advantage of allegedly “cowardly and superstitious” criminals: “I shall become a bat!” The hero is a walking metaphor. Melodrama is unconcerned with psychological realism, and tends to pull character toward abstraction; the secret identity is the ultimate end of that abstraction, a character without mother or father, without family or background. It is pure idea.
The Pimpernel is unusual, I think, in that there’s an eminently practical reason for his adopting the secret identity. He has to infiltrate an enemy country, where the authorities would arrest and execute him if they could. Most later heroes, operating in the here-and-now, didn’t have that iron-clad rationale, and were forced to find increasingly baroque explanations for the adoption of another identity. And, unlike the Pimpernel, they usually became the focus of the stories in which they appeared, so the maintenance of the secret became part of the plots of their adventures — they had to make sure nobody found out who they really were. The Pimpernel, on the other hand, is at least at first a supporting character. Marguerite, his wife, is the central character, and the story is about her coming to realise the truth of who her husband really is.
As I said, structurally The Scarlet Pimpernel is a gothic romance. Marguerite is married to a man who is oddly cruel to her — not physically abusive, but cold, hating her ever since he found about her betrayal of the aristocrats. It is slightly unconventional, in that the usual gothic manor barely makes an appearance — but when it does, it’s absolutely critical to the plot. Marguerite’s discovery of Percy’s identity as the Pimpernel comes when she wanders about his vast mansion and goes into the one room he had always forbade her from entering, a room the text explicitly compares to Bluebeard’s chamber. Atmospheric landscape, a traditional signifier of the Gothic, makes an appearance at the climax of the book, which takes place on the storm-swept coast of France. There’s nothing explicitly supernatural in the book, but the Pimpernel’s incredible mastery of disguise pushes the book beyond the realistic, in the same fashion that Ann Radcliffe’s novels used apparently-supernatural events which were eventually explained away.
The Scarlet Pimpernel is Marguerite’s story, or the story of her relationship with Percy. She spends much of the book in elegant settings, sneaking and spying; there is in fact an odd voyeuristic element to some of the scenes, as from points of relative safety she watches confrontations between various males. She becomes more active through the course of the tale, though, ultimately triggering the last movement of the story by going herself to France to rescue Percy from the doom she has unintentionally brought down on him. The book ends with Marguerite and Percy reconciled, now closer than ever and ready to share further adventures.
But The Scarlet Pimpernel is an intriguing instance of one genre unwittingly spinning off another. The super-hero emerging from the gothic, which itself went on its own way. Several transformations happened as the idea of the secret identity entered the pulps and then the comics. As I said, to start with, the focus of the story shifted to the (usually male) hero, so the story wasn’t about the discovery of the real identity of the hero, it was about the hero trying to keep his identity hidden. But beyond that, the idea of the hero having a support group — an equivalent to the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel — continued on into the pulps, as characters like the Shadow maintained a web of operatives. This dropped out in the comics, which had to be terser and focus on a more limited cast.
The idea of the hero as a foppish man of leisure who is secretly competent and physically dangerous has roots at least as far back as Shakespeare’s Prince Hal, and it survived in the later super-hero through such characters as Zorro, The Shadow, Batman, and arguably Iron Man; I don’t know how much life it’s had since then. Characters like Moon Knight and Night Thrasher fit the bill, I suppose, though neither became terribly popular. At any rate, a change had come to the secret identity, perhaps a function of the Great Depression. Clark Kent was an early example of a middle-class persona for the super-hero. Practically, his job as a reporter let him hear about crises he could investigate as Superman; this concept of the super-hero as a creature of 20th-century media, haunting a newsroom, would go on to inspire Billy Batson/Captain Marvel, Alan Scott/Green Lantern, and Peter Parker/Spider-Man, as well as Jack Ryder/The Creeper and, arguably, Carol Danvers/Ms. Marvel.
More broadly, though, it moved the super-hero out of the realm of the upper class. Heroes were college students (like Jay Garrick/The Flash and Al Palmer/The Atom) and policemen (Jim Harper/The Guardian) and even boxers (Ted Grant/Wildcat). The super-hero became an everyman. The hero lived a seemingly-ordinary life, with work and romance and family, but secretly had another and perhaps truer identity — truer, because it was the hero-identity that sold the book. It was a kind of wish-fulfillment, both an evasion of ‘real life’ and an assertion that what was really real was not what was on the surface. That your real identity was not the face you wore at work.
On the one hand, early super-heroes were aimed at children and lived a child’s-eye view of adult life, but then again they were written and drawn by adults, if often surprisingly young adults. These were men (usually) who were often still negotiating their way into adulthood — especially true in the ‘Golden Age’ of the 40s, but Gerry Conway published his first comics story in 1969 at age 16 (and his first super-hero story at 18), and Jim Shooter his first work in 1966 at 14. One way or another the books spoke to children, usually boys — there were always girls reading the super-heroes (as there were women creating them), but as commercial creations in the mid-20th-century, it was assumed that their main audience would be boys, not girls and not adults. It’s not surprising that the most popular super-hero in history, judged by the number of copies his regular title sold, was the original Captain Marvel: a boy who spoke a magic word to become a super-powered adult — the adultest adult around.
Still, if the idea of the secret identity, as it became transformed in super-hero comics, is easy to read as some kind of parable for North American masculinity, then what happens to the male hero’s romantic relationships? Few heroes were married, like the Pimpernel. With the shift from a story about the wife who learns the truth of her husband to the hero himself comes an almost neurotic concern with secrecy, an obsession with hiding oneself from one’s loved ones. The early Superman stories set up a downright sadistic love triangle, with nebbishy Clark Kent frequently humiliated by his co-worker and love interest Lois Lane, who throws herself at his alter-ego Superman — while, as Superman, he shows no interest in her whatsoever. Few characters were shown in an easy relationship with a woman who knew both of his identities (the original Flash is one of the few exceptions). It allowed for an ongoing state of romantic tension, which now seems to have become embedded in these characters — both Superman and Spider-Man were married off to long-standing love interests, then had the marriages undone because the developments were (somewhat controversially) felt to hinder the central themes of the characters.
Again, this all seems to reflect a child’s idea of a relationship and of gender roles. Some of that was conscious on the part of the creators. Wonder Woman was created by a psychologist as, in his words, “psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world.” Then again, some of the characters were notorious for their unaware weirdness: the minor character Madam Fatal was a man who dressed up as an old woman to fight crime.
At any rate, stories about women with secret identities, or girls with secret identities, were relatively uncommon in North America. It’s interesting that that’s not true of Japan. The 1953 manga Princess Knight, by the revered mangaka Osamu Tezuka, introduced Princess Sapphire, who was raised as a boy — and fought evil in a mask as the Phantom Knight. This has been regarded as an early example of a genre that developed over the following decades, called Mahou Shoujo or Majokko, stories about ‘magical girls’ who often had a normal school life complicated by a secret heroic identity. Perhaps the best-known of these, Sailor Moon (first appearing in 1992), also became likely the single most popular example of the secret identity theme in North America in the past two decades or more.
In a sense, it’s as though the secret identity has come full circle; first imagined by a female writer, it’s now a function of popular literature for girls — even as it’s begun to fade out of pop fiction for boys. By the time Marvel Comics came along during the 1960s, the Silver Age of North American comics, creators like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, seemed less interested in the idea of the secret identity. Ditko’s Spider-Man was a teenager, a boy who became a man by putting on his mask, but Doctor Strange was an older man who had no alter ego; his name was, simply, Doctor Stephen Strange. Kirby’s Fantastic Four had publicly known identities from the start, and I’ve argued here previously that his run on Thor grew progressively less interested in Thor’s civilian identity of Don Blake, to the point where the device of Blake became essentially vestigial. Kirby’s Captain America similarly had little time for the civilian Steve Rogers identity. The Hulk was a split personality. The X-Men mostly lived in their own world, isolated in a school of their own, only ‘passing’ as normal humans on occasional forays into the human world. Marvel did have a playboy hero, Tony Stark/Iron Man, but there was a twist: Stark’s abilities were not hidden under a facade but created by the facade of his super-powered armour — and he needed to constantly wear the chestplate of his Iron Man identity to keep himself alive. The heroic identity gave life, but literally prevented any physical intimacy with a woman.
The most popular new super-hero characters of the 70s, 80s, and 90s, Wolverine and the Punisher and Cable and Deadpool, didn’t have secret identities as such. They had secret pasts. They had civilian names associated with those pasts, but no parallel lives to carefully maintain. Few popular characters have come out of super-hero comics in the past two decades, and in general it seems to me that super-hero comics these days are creating stories in which the characters’ work lives and personal lives are defined by their relationships with other super-heroes. Everybody’s in the Avengers. Everybody knows everybody’s real name. That may be a sign that something in the sense of masculinity of the 20th century, or in its way of life, is changing in the 21st. Or it may simply be that writers are finally realising what Jack Kirby knew fifty years ago: nobody cares about the mild-mannered boring guy. The point is to try to be the hero all the time.
With respect to which, it may be worth closing on a note about the surprising influence of the Scarlet Pimpernel. One of the best known film adaptations of the character was a 1934 movie starring Leslie Howard; in the early 40s, Howard, active in anti-Nazi propaganda, decided to update the character to the Second World War. The resulting film, 1941’s “Pimpernel” Smith, featured Howard (who also directed and co-produced) as a heroic archaeologist who smuggled prisoners in concentration camps out of Germany. It was released in the United States as Mister V — but was banned in neutral Sweden. Nevertheless, a copy was shown at a private screening at the British Embassy. One member of that audience was a businessman named Raoul Wallenberg, who apparently observed to his sister on their walk home from the film that the hero’s actions were the sort of thing he would like to do. As it happened, in 1944, Wallenberg was appointed to the Swedish legation in Budapest — and became the key actor in a scheme that would save the lives of tens of thousands of Jews. Sometimes, the idea of a hero does help change the world.
Matthew David Surridge is the author of “The Word of Azrael,” from Black Gate 14. His ongoing web serial is The Fell Gard Codices. You can find him on facebook, or follow his Twitter account, Fell_Gard.