Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” –Oscar Wilde
It’s a long-standing tradition in comic books for the heroes and villains to wear masks. Everyone from lone rangers (but not Tonto, for some reason) to secret squirrels (But not Morocco Mole) don the mask. The mask is the symbol of the genre. But why?
The logical reason is that they need to protect their true identities from the public. They give rationale like “protecting their loved ones,” and there’ve been enough “women in refrigerator” incidents to give this validity.
Less spoken of is the less virtuous “freedom from repercussions.” They act in anonymity, not unlike the horrible comments at the end of every internet article (but that’s a different issue).
I think there’s more. There’s a psychological aspect to it, where the small and helpless can take on a new identity, free of their former self. Like the Oscar Wilde quote above, once inside the mask, they can be their true selves, or at least the self they want to be.
Which One’s Real, The Man or the Mask (Spiderman and Batman)
I’m going to use Spiderman and Batman as examples, because 1) everybody knows them (who would get it if I talked about Atom Smasher and Moon Knight?) and 2) they are great representations of what I’m talking about. Both heroes are one man with the mask on, and one off. The difference is which one is the true self (or is either?)
My friend, Dr. Osvaldo Oyola, (whose website The Middle Spaces has just about the best comic analysis on the Net) recently wrote an article that talked about Spidey, responsibility, and identity (among other things). Part of the article was born from a conversation we had about The Superior Spiderman storyline and a post I wrote. He noted how when Peter Parker regained his body from Doc Ock, Green Goblin noticed it right away from Pete’s wisecracks.
What Osvaldo notes is that Spiderman is a joking, obnoxious, free spirited hero, but Pete is not. Peter Parker is quiet and shy, always picked on by guys like Flash Thompson and ignored by girls. He grows out of this somewhat over the years, but there’s no doubt that they’re two separate personalities.
In this case, the Spiderman mask gives Peter the strength and confidence to be the person that he always wanted to be. He went from a shadow in the back of a classroom to a bright red and blue dynamo that won’t be ignored. Remember, when he first got his powers, the first thing he did was try his hand at Pro Wrestling. He wears a loud costume of primary colors. He wants people to SEE him. He wants to be noticed.
As Spidey says on the cover of his very first appearance, Amazing Fantasy #15: “Though the world may mock Peter Parker the timid teenager, It will soon marvel at the awesome might of Spider-Man.” He couldn’t state it any plainer than that. The mask makes him the man he wants to be.
Batman is a bit more complex. He underwent a psyche-ripping trauma as a kid. He’s obviously insane (people seem to gloss over that). I would say that unlike Spiderman, who affects a strong persona to hide a weak one, Batman is the strong persona that wears a weak mask.
Bruce Wayne is the mask. Batman is the real person. Bruce Wayne is a role that Batman made up so that he can interact in society. His real psyche is so destroyed that he can’t handle the real world without some buffer. He can only handle the world of madmen criminals and two-bit thugs.
This damage even bleeds in under the mask. Look at how he treats his Robins, or how he acts around other Justice League members. Hell, he devised methods to kill every one of his friends in case he needed to. No sane man would do that.
But Bruce Wayne would never act that way. He’s just a rich playboy with not a care in the world. There’s no way Bruce Wayne could be Batman, right?
Maybe Bruce Wayne is the man Young Bruce wanted to be before Joe Chill shattered his world. Batman is living out a fantasy through his alter-ego. It’s the fantasy of a normal life, one that he’ll never have.