I don’t think I’ve ever read two paragraphs with more to say about superheroes, secret identities, and American comics than these, from Joan Didion’s brief essay about Howard Hughes, 7000 Romaine, Los Angeles 38. Paste “Tony Stark” or “Bruce Wayne” or whatever for Hughes in the following:
That we have made a hero out of Howard Hughes tells us something interesting about ourselves, something only dimly remembered, tells us that the secret point of money and power in America is neither the things that money can buy nor power for power’s sake … but absolute personal freedom, mobility, privacy. It is the instinct which drove America to the Pacific, all through the nineteenth century, the desire to be able to find a restaurant open in case you want a sandwich, to be a free agent, live by one’s own rules.
Of course, we do not want to admit that. The instinct is socially suicidal, and because we recognize that this is so we have developed workable ways of saying one thing and believing quite another. A long time ago, Lionel Trilling pointed out what he called “the fatal separation” between “the ideas of our educated liberal class and the deep places of the imagination.” ”I mean only,” he wrote, “that our educated class has a ready if mild suspiciousness of the profit motive, a belief in progress, science, social legislation, planning, and international cooperation. … Those beliefs do great credit to those who hold them. Yet it is a comment, if not on our beliefs then on our way of holding them, that not a single first-rate writer has emerged to deal with these ideas, and the emotions that are consonant with them, in a great literary way.” Officially we admire men who exemplify those ideas. We admire the Adlai Stevenson character, the rational man, the enlightened man, the man not dependent upon the potentially psychopathic mode of action. Among rich men, we officially admire Paul Mellon, a socially responsible inheritor in the European mold. There has always been that divergence between our official and our unofficial heroes. It is impossible to think of Howard Hughes without seeing the apparently bottomless gulf between what we say we want and what we do want, between what we officially admire and secretly desire, between, in the largest sense, the people we marry and the people we love. In a nation which increasingly appears to prize social virtues, Howard Hughes remains not merely antisocial but grandly, brilliantly, surpassingly asocial. He is the last private man, the dream we no longer admit.
It seems to me there’s a lot to unpack here. Secret identities tend to fit the “what we officially want” model—especially old-school ones like Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne. Tony Stark is a funny corner case, since his ‘secret identity’ was not-so-secretly modeled on Hughes, and the character has become popular at a time when maybe we’re more likely to claim we want amoral power, and secretly want justice. (I’m reminded of the weird way many kind, good folks I know and love use creepy “when I rule the world, you’ll die first” type rhetoric.) Or maybe so many enterprises are built to cater to ‘our’ secret desires that these desires are barely secret any more, and even (as in the She-Hulk’s superhuman law arc, which I’ve been reading recently on Alyssa Rosenberg‘s recommendation) become the external identity… Not to mention the way superheroic romance seems to revolve back to that line between “the people we marry” and “the people we love” (which was at least part of Spider Man’s arc in the Sam Raimi movies).
While on some level this is just another way of saying that superheroes address repressed desire, Didion’s essay makes the point that the particular form this desire takes is uniquely US-American… which might explain why secret-identity superhero comics have remained a cornerstone of the US-American comics market, even in an age of competition from robust Japanese and European comics industries. Anyway. I’ll ponder this more; seems deserving of a seriously Long Read. Any thoughts?