The Allure of Secret Identity Heroes

Since Baroness Orczy created THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL shortly after the turn of the 20th century, the secret-identity hero has become a staple in fiction. Literature, comics, motion pictures, and television have all adopted the device with varying degrees of success.

I, a child of the late 1950s and early 1960s – and the Cold War – grew up on the televised versions of SUPERMAN, THE LONE RANGER, ZORRO, and BATMAN. The dark rural nights of my childhood echoed with eerie laughter as my cousins, siblings, and I re-enacted The Wonderful Word of Disney’s THE SCARECROW OF ROMNEY MARSH. Even then, I knew there was something very special, very romantic, about the hero who performed his good deeds in disguise.

I knew then, too, that the mask/glasses weren’t only to deflect the villain, but also because a true hero doesn’t need credit for his escapades. A true hero does the right thing because he is inherently good.

Sometime in the 1980s, I saw a made-for-TV movie called THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL, starring queen-of-the-mini-series Jane Seymour and BRIDESHEAD REVISITED’s Anthony Andrews. The tension between the characters of Sir Percy Blakeney and Marguerite St. Just was exquisitely believable. I fell in love. I dashed out and bought the book, which is when I learned the movie I’d seen was actually a compilation of two Pimpernel books: the original and EL DORADO.

Here was a hero. A true, secret-identity guy who risked his life to rescue the French aristocracy from the guillotine. But Sir Percival Blakeney was much, much more than someone with a gift for theatrical make-up and derring-do. He also created a secret identity in which to live, one that very nearly cost him the love of his life.

Ah, yes.

In the 1990s, Warner Brothers resurrected Superman in the form of LOIS AND CLARK: THE NEW ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN. The spin was a little different on this updated version of my childhood hero, but one I could easily embrace. Dean Cain’s portrayal of Superman didn’t hurt, nor did Teri Hatcher as Lois Lane. And this incarnation of Lois was someone with whom I could identify. Even better, the sexual tension between the two characters was believable.

And explosive.

The first season of this series simply blew my mind. I didn’t like it as much once Lois learned that Clark Kent was really Superman, and I really didn’t like it when Clark told Lois, “Clark is who I am, Superman is what I do.”

Wrong. Completely, dead wrong.

The unique thing about Superman as opposed to other comic book superheroes is that Superman – Kal-El – is the character and Clark Kent the disguise. Bruce Wayne became Batman, Peter Parker became Spiderman – even Percy Blakeney and Don Diego de la Vega became The Scarlet Pimpernel and Zorro.

Kal-El became Clark Kent. The Clark Kent identity was created to disguise the baby from the far-away planet with the red sun. The whole “mild-mannered-reporter” persona originated, exactly like the “fop” persona of Sir Percy Blakeney, in order to distract the everyday world from the true character. Percy and Clark shed their disguises to do the right thing, using their inherent abilities as opposed to hiding behind masks, gadgets and nuclear mutations/lab accidents, etc. (It’s my understanding that this is also the Phantom’s m.o., but I never read the comic.)

Neither the Scarlet Pimpernel nor Superman is motivated by revenge.  Peter Parker wants to get back at the men who killed his uncle; Bruce Wayne wants the men who killed his parents. What does Superman want? He has no hidden, personal agenda for helping. Same with Blakeney. He is a wealthy man, a baronet, and could easily live a stress-free life. Indeed, in the original book, he claims he goes into revolution-stricken France to rescue those sentenced to death for “sport.” Pretty noble, if you ask me, when others in his time sported with dog/cock fights, fox hunts, wenching, and gambling.

So it’s not surprising that given my penchant for the secret-identity hero whose every day life is the identity he sheds in order to be his heroic self, that my books feature characters of the same ilk. But Tokarz, Stoker, Restin, and the gang – er, pack – aren’t from mysterious planets or privileged societies. They’re down-home guys who value family above all else, patriots of the nation that granted sanctuary to their ancestors when the old country was awash in revolution. Okay, things get a little hairy when the moon is full, but no one gets hurt – unless the core values of these heroes are threatened. Then there is no stopping a pack of crazed werewolves bent on revenge.

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