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Friday, May 07, 2004

Cracking the code. 

Chris M. over at The All-New, All-Different Howling Curmudgeons may very well have figured out what makes secret identities such an intrinsic part of the superhero genre:

Also, I think a final aspect of secret IDs that is good, interesting, and powerful comes from the fact that in a mass-produced, mass-marketed, homogenized, industrial society (which, interestingly enough, was really just starting to get going at 90 mph when Superman was first created), we all lose a little bit of ourselves, a little bit of our sense of the unique wonder of being me. Secret IDs give the creator a mechanism by which a character can be recognizably a real person who is part of the mass-produced, mass-marketed, homogenized, industrial world outside our windows, and yet be able to step outside of that and be wonderfully unique, and free, and tacky. I think that’s an important aspect of why superheroes won’t go away no matter how vehemently they’re attacked or intellectually derided.

Maybe this isn't such a revelation to anyone else, but you know that feeling when you're reading something good and a part of your brain just... takes shape as the ideas are fed into it, and suddenly a piece of the puzzle is filled in? That's what that was, right there, for me.

Excellent piece.

There's been some talk floating around lately about secret IDs, thanks in large part to the Superman monologue in Kill Bill: Volume 2, and it's one I'm still forming opinions on. Especially since my favorite comic book character, the Punisher, has no secret identity. He is what he is.

I think this take on what secret IDs have brought to superhero literature is more or less correct:

[T]here are probably a thousand different “dual nature” aspects to any individual, examples of the ID and Ego at odds, all sorts of stuff like that. Secret IDs are the perfect vehicle for exploring and expressing all of these things.

Excuse me while I think out loud. This won't be coherent; apologies all around.

Secret IDs sure as hell have presented a lot of material for superhero comics, and none, I think, flagellate this theme to the extreme more than the Peter Parker character, and has manifestations of such in Robin III. The conflict of leading the double life, who that person has to keep things from, and how they are constantly tormented by it doesn't really interest me all that much. It's nice window dressing, but I only have so much tolerance for angst.

What interests me is why such noisily tormented souls continue to do what they do anyway, despite the problems it causes in their personal lives and general disruption of happiness. My slightly cynical mind follows the Frank Miller course -- the sensation of unleashing one's id on the world becomes so intoxicating to them that they just can't stop themselves, and why should they? Who's going to stop them? The police? Super villains? The government? Concerned spouses? Don't make me laugh. All of these sources of intervention are either ignored or meet tragic ends.

These people get to take the superego shackles right off their id every single night in ways most of us can only dream about, and no one in the world can stop them. Most people, in fact, applaud them. I get the feeling guys like Matt Murdock and Peter Parker bitch about how their double-lives hurt them so much out of lip service alone: They feel like they should feel badly for what they do, that that's what is expected, so they act it out in largely pointless and overwrought self-flagellation. It's all an act, and they've even bought their own hype.

I guess this, ultimately, is why a guy like Frank Castle appeals to me so much. For Big Frank, there's no posturing. There's no superego. There's no second life, trying to scrape by a normal living, while having a crush on the unattainable coworker. There's no mask, no superficial identity-change device (unless you count the skull shirt, which he wears almost all the time anyway.) Frank Castle has let his id dominate his entire life, has refined and worn down all the excess baggage of the superhero into its nightmarish extreme: he is the merciless embodiment of his own darkest urges, given no need nor method for restraint. His war is his life.

And he knows it, too. He's not into self-delusion in the way Parker, Murdock and Co. are. He makes no apologies about what he does, and he doesn't even make the pretension that he does what he does for the betterment of mankind.

He's The Punisher, not The Avenger. As is stated so succinctly in "Welcome Back, Frank," he kills criminals because he hates them, not because he wants to make the world safe for good people. He wants those who have got it coming to get theirs. I suppose the Marvel Universe can be thankful that Castle had enough of a shred of morality left to aim his guns at the criminal element instead of the world at large.

This isn't me celebrating what the guy does, by the way. I'm not saluting his violence or spinning his genocide as "a man doing man's work in a world of spandex-clad children." But I think there's something raw to Frank Castle, a statement about the violent beast that's lurking under every set of red horns or web-spackled mask. When I was reading the Daredevil issue wherein Ol' Hornhead kicks Kingpin to the curb, sheds his mask, and declares himself the new, ultra-violent Kingpin of Hell's Kitchen, I imagined Castle watching from a rooftop, crossing his arms, and thinking...

"Now he gets it."

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