comics, comics criticism, dc comics, writing

The Lowest, Most Despicable, and Most Harmful Form of Trash: Batman’s Secret Identity in the Silver Age

The secret identity has been an indelible part of the superhero mythos since Superman first landed in 1938. Little more than children themselves, and writing for a primarily young audience, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster saw the inclusion of mild-mannered Clark Kent as part of the power fantasy of the Superman character. To the world at large, you might seem meek or mild, or bullied, but inside is an unlimited potential–a Superman waiting to break free. For most of the history of the superhero, the secret identity was an essential component of the concept with any masked hero having a hidden life outside of the capes and spandex. 

But as the comics have kept up with modern times and been adapted to the screen where the beautiful faces of the actors are a selling point, the masks and secret identities became less essential and creators began to see the story potential in either removing the component from their characters or putting less focus on it. Often the secret identity becomes a punch line. Indeed, many heroes have grown past the need for a secret identity and make more sense without it. Why should Steve Rogers hide he is Captain America? Or why would Tony Stark, with his massive ego, pretend not to be Iron Man? Even Superman, in the comics, recently revealed his identity to the public at large, no longer able to reconcile the truth and justice he stands for with living a lie.

Only a few superheroes still maintain a secret identity as an important element, and it is primarily because of their public perception as outsiders and vigilantes. Spider-Man went to the ends of the Earth–both on-page and on-screen–to recover his secret after it went public. Daredevil’s brand of justice puts his practice as a lawyer in jeopardy. And Batman, while no doubt a hero, works outside the law and is at odds with the police of his city. Unlike Superman, who often works alongside the authorities even as he criticizes them, Batman is fundamentally opposed to the authority of the state and his mission would be jeopardized if he could be held legally accountable for his actions.

In the 21st century, where we demand a carefully curated authenticity from our celebrities, politicians, and other public figures, the secret identity is an anachronism from a time when private life was meant to stay private, not broadcasted for the world to share. An era of Instagram and TikTok and YouTube influencers, demanding a simulacrum of genuineness from its stars, questions the need for old-world ideas of privacy and secret lives. What was once taboo or shameful can now be shared with the world–the joys, the struggles, the pains, and the triumphs. The 50s and 60s, at the height of the Silver Age of comics, was a post-World War II era that struggled to present an artifice of idyllic life and in doing so hid the dark spots from view. That world long ago passed us by.

While the cultural and social context has changed the way superheroes relate to and reflect the real world, it is worth exploring what informed the importance of the secret identity in superhero stories, particularly in the heyday of its first and second generation of creators. While it is relatively rare for contemporary stories to focus on the secret identity as a plot driver even for the characters who maintain one, there was a time when losing a secret identity was a primary and recurring concern. Characters like Batman and Superman, who would inevitably triumph over the criminals and could never perish, were instead dogged by attempts to reveal the truth of their secret identities. This was the existential threat facing Batman in the Silver Age, an era where he was chummy with the cops and government and a globally admired star. The revelation that Batman was Bruce Wayne was the one thing that struck terror into the heart of the Caped Crusader.

It is never clear why Batman would be so concerned with this revelation. As a duly appointed crime fighter in Gotham City who operated in broad daylight as often as the dark of night, Batman was hardly the vigilante he was first introduced as or became again in later years. He had no loved ones to threaten or be held at gunpoint–after all, his only family members were also crimefighters already. But there was perhaps no plot idea so recycled or returned to over and over for Batman–and Superman–than the threat of someone uncovering the truth.

While Silver Age comics are often treated as a punchline or recalled derisively by those eager to justify their favorite superhero stories as edgy or more acceptable as an adult reader, there is much more to these stories than people often give them credit for. It’s worth remembering that superhero comics were originally for children and as those children grew older, the stories aged and matured with them to keep the same pool of readers. 

Superhero stories today are very rarely appropriate for young readers or viewers–sometimes as a direct reaction to the stigma of their childishness and the “Bad influence” they had on young readers–a cultural phenomenon of significant importance that is largely forgotten. David Hajdu’s book The Ten-Cent Plague outlines the shameful history of attempted censorship and book burnings that plagued comics throughout the 40s through and into the mid-60s. A 1948 radio critic, Mason Brown, called comics “the lowest, most despicable, and most harmful form of trash.” This moral panic still lingers in the general perception of comic books’ value as a medium. 

The artists and writers who were working in those days were ashamed of their jobs–and not just ashamed but scared for their livelihood and sometimes safety if it were ever to be made public. 

The writer of It Rhymes With Lust, one of the first attempts at telling a novel-length comics story explained, “Frankly, we were afraid to expose ourselves with our real names,…Les was writing novels, and I was trying my hand at writing plays and short stories. We wanted to be pioneers, but we watched our backs. We weren’t about to ruin our prospects in the literary establishment, where comic books were looked upon as garbage.”

Comics artist Janice Valleu (one of the first and very few comic artists), when asked why she did not go back into comics after the initial implosion of the medium said, “I couldn’t go back out there—I was scared to death. Don’t you know what they did to us?”

In this way, the secret identity was not just a childhood fantasy about hiding a secret hero or potential, but genuine anxiety writers were grappling with. How do you operate in your chosen profession, something that needs to be done in secret, when it becomes public? What ends would you go to ensure your secret remains safe?

There is a bit of contradiction here, as well, particularly as the superhero stories began to soar in popularity and grew into adaptations. Batman co-creator Bill Finger wallowed in obscurity far beyond his death until he received his credit in 2015. He spent his final years in squalor, scraping together money while Batman became a cultural phenomenon. Late in life, he made efforts to make his identity known, particularly as the 60s Adam West series made Batman an icon of pop art and culture. This dual anxiety–of desiring recognition but also fearing the social fallout–manifested in the often high concept and bizarre stories that define the Silver Age. The farcical attempts to ensure the identity stays secret, the visitors from the future that betray a somber acknowledgment and concern for the legacy of those uncredited creators who toiled so hard.

It’s no surprise that creators who described themselves “like a talented prostitute, making a buck selling my talent,” would grapple with these concerns in their art. In addition to working through genuine emotional pains, the secret identity paranoia provided easy conflict and tension for stories where readers knew that their heroes could not die or lose to a villain. The secret identity revelation was a kind of alternate death.

These stories were especially prevalent in the mid-1950s following the release of Fredric Wertham’s 1954 book Seduction of the Innocent and the moral panic around comics that would change the face of the industry for decades to come, which included Senate hearings led by Senator Estes Kefauver. These hearings on Juvenile Delinquency and the effects of media on young people were a PR disaster for the comics industry. The publicly televised hearings dominated the airwaves and newspapers and in many ways insinuated that those who created comics were morally damaging children. As a result, the industry created a self-regulating body called the Comics Code Authority that strictly curtailed the content that could be published.

Bill Finger, working in anonymity and unrecognized, relied heavily on the secret identity reveal drama even before the comics code. One of the most notable included the introduction of Vicki Vale in 1948’s Batman vol. 1 #49. Designed as a potential Lois Lane to Batman, Vale is an intrepid and dogged news photographer who is dead set on uncovering who is behind the cape and cowl. After witnessing Batman receive a chin injury, she joins Bruce Wayne at the Society Horse Show to photograph Batman in action. When they meet and she finds the same injury on Bruce she becomes suspicious.

She superimposes a photo of Batman over a photo of Bruce Wayne and discovers their faces match up perfectly. To prove herself right, she attempts to use a fluorescent powder to track Batman, placing it inside Batman’s glove. But Batman, naturally, noticed the attempted trick and prepared a countermeasure to hide his identity from Vicki, though she is still not convinced by stories’ end.

The story is a fun sitcom farce (imagine Dr. Frasier Crane as Batman, for a nice silent chuckle to yourself)  but the apprehension, with no mention of why Batman even keeps his identity hidden, is no doubt a real one. It also serves to provide a simple thrill to the young audience; by outsmarting Vicki the reader gets to share in Batman’s secret. By reading Batman, readers are part of an important and hidden mythology. What seems like a simple goof that could be written off works at multiple levels at once. 

Finger’s storytelling is sometimes underestimated both because he was uncredited for so long but also because, like all of the foundational comics creators, they were maligned as peddling schlock to children. 

But Finger also drafted some genuinely chilling stories full of clockwork plot mechanics, character growth, and nuance, like the premiere Joker stories in Batman #1 or one of his most compelling stories is Batman #47, billed as “The Origin of Batman.”

In this origin story, Batman encounters Joe Chill for the first time since the murder of his parents. Batman pursues Chil relentlessly and ultimately reveals his identity to the man. Bruce Wayne promises to haunt Chill for the remainder of his days. Horrified to discover that he created crime’s greatest enemy, Chill retreats to his thugs and tells them that Batman is after him. When they find out their boss was responsible for Batman, they kill Chill in revenge. It is a compelling twist on the secret identity dynamic where it is used for leverage by the hero while also acting as a moral fable for the tragic end that awaits criminals. Finger is inventive in his storytelling, adding new wrinkles to the character over time that gradually shaped Batman into the character we know today. By using his identity to try to force Chill into a confession, Batman is willing to put an end to his career for the closure.

Finger’s career is particularly interesting because he found himself caught between silent (and justified) resentment for the notoriety Kane was building but was also apprehensive about the larger social shame of being in comics. By all accounts a quiet and taciturn man, Finger most likely shirked the limelight and missed out on opportunities to avoid conflict. In his Batman stories, he had a chance to express a braver and more risk-taking figure who pursued the justice he very likely felt he was robbed of. 

There is no shortage of stories about Batman’s identity being at risk. It became a particular favorite in the Batman/Superman Team-Up book, World’s Finest. Even when it was not the main driver for the plot it often came up as part of the resolution.

World’s Finest 71, the second Batman/Superman team-up ever, prominently features a case of mistaken identity with Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent swapping identities to prevent Lois Lane from discovering the truth about Clark. The story, written by Alan Schwartz and drawn by the legendary Curt Swan, sees Lois Lane discovering that Superman is Clark Kent, then Bruce Wayne, and then that Superman is not either one, but maybe Clark Kent is Batman? 

The tone is light and silly. Published contemporaneously with Seduction of the Innocent, the story pre-dates the comics code by, at most, one or two months. But the effects the senate hearings and public book burnings had on the industry were already clear. Gone were the personal vendettas and tragic encounters with murderers. What little actual crime-fighting is here is more backdrop for the conflict with Lois Lane. 

But even though the stories were kid-friendly, the wit and intelligence that Schwartz brought are unmistakable. This is not an inadvertently funny issue, it has genuine comedic beats and also manages to develop a real relationship and friendship between its costars. With Swan’s exemplary storytelling skills, “Batman–Double for Superman” offers a strong glimpse into how superhero comics in the Silver Age were made. 

Schwartz would go on to be a pioneer of corporate market research and psychographics. He clearly understood how to speak to an audience and convey messages both textually and subtextually.  This same high concept silliness is on display throughout the intervening decade, in stories like “The Great Bat-Cape Hunt,” a 1956 Bill Finger/Sheldon Moldoff joint.

But lest you think all Silver Age stories were pure farce, consider the story “The Secret of Batman’s Butler” in Batman #110, also by Finger/Moldoff. This story traces Alfred’s distress that he had inadvertently revealed Batman’s identity to a criminal. It traces the early days of Alfred’s hiring (in the early years, Alfred was hired by Bruce after he became Batman rather than helping to raise him, that change would come in more modern retellings). Shortly after he was hired Alfred was approached by a thug who claimed he had also applied for the butler job at Wayne Manor. This Thug named Noyes wanted to know if Bruce regularly disappeared at night. Alfred refused to share anything about his employer or his habits.

A short time later, Alfred heard a cry from behind the grandfather clock in Bruce Wayne’s library. It was Robin calling for help–Batman had been injured! Batman decided Alfred was trustworthy enough to let in on the secret.

However, one recent evening he discovered Noyes in the mansion. Distressed, Alfred drafted his resignation letter explaining what had happened and his concern that somehow he had revealed something to Noyes, despite proving time and again his concern with helping keep Batman and Robin’s secret. In one final act to try to make it up to Bruce, Alfred dressed up in the Batman costume intending to throw Noyes off the trail. He approached Noyes and began to explain that he was in fact Batman! Bruce laughed, saying that he had been Noyes from the start and had accosted Alfred as a test of whether he was trustworthy.

Secure in the knowledge he had not let Bruce down, Alfred went on to become an indelible fixture in Batman history. 

“The Secret of Batman’s Butler,” while sharing in some of the tropes of the mistaken identity farce in some of the other stories discussed is far more personal and fleshes out Alfred as a character, his motivations, and his relationship with Batman and Robin and emphasizes Finger’s careful attention to the mythos he had created. The secret identity was so important that Alfred being in on the secret was momentous, given the ends Batman will go to to keep it a secret. 

The focus on the secret identity also belies another concern–the legacy of the marginalized creators behind the early years of comics. An illustrative example is a story from World’s Finest #81, “The True History of Batman and Superman.” Time travel is another common trope in many superhero stories of the 50s, and another essay could dive into the implications of that, but this particular story marries both the secret identity and the time travel plots simultaneously. The story, by Edmond Hamilton and artist Dick Sprang, sees Batman and Superman “undoing their greatest feats!” The opening splash page shows Lois Lane questioning why these heroes would be releasing criminals while a bizarrely dressed man explains that it is “Because they performed those feats the wrong way!”

The story involves a historian from 4,000 years in the future blackmailing Batman and Superman to redo their exploits so he can prove to his peers his history books were correct. The two go through with the plot until Batman realizes it is all a bluff. The man would never reveal their identities because it would then contradict his history if their secret was revealed too early!

It is another illustration of just how critical these secret identities were to creating conflict in a context where they could not be truly threatened. The Comics Code required this kind of very roundabout storytelling that dealt more with personalities and formulas than deep explorations of character. Despite that, these common elements also illuminate for us what fears and anxieties motivated writers like Finger, Hamilton, and Schwartz, all of whom saw colleagues run out of the industry and left destitute or hopeless as their reputations were dragged through the mud at the height of the moral panic around comics. 

While the secret identity has become less important to many superheroes, it remains essential for Batman in ways most characters have moved beyond and it still speaks to our cultural context where anonymity can be both blessing and curse, where a polarized social climate where even mild out of context tweets, public statements, or political opinions can be taken out of context and used to smear well-intentioned people. Batman’s mask lets writers wrestle with questions about reputation and anonymity in the virtual age. Though the world has changed since the 40s in incredible ways, the groundwork that Bill Finger and his peers made to make the secret identity so foundational to Batman’s character continues to inspire compelling stories.

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