I can’t speak to every single super hero comic because I don’t follow all of them, but in what I do follow I have noticed that the secret identity has become a thing of the past. Why that is true is a subject for debate and I have my ideas, but let’s first put my proposition to the test.
Clark Kent has been absent from the Superman comics for a long time. With the New Krypton storyline and the War of Supermen and now the Grounded arc coming up I’m guessing we will not see Clark for a long time. The last time I remember Clark being an integral part of the Superman stories was when Geoff Johns was writing Action Comics. What is really odd is that most people always felt like Clark was the “real” character and Superman was the persona he adopted to be a hero. Now Superman is all that there is of the character.
Bruce Wayne is dead and returning, but even before he died he had died. I can’t remember the last time anyone ever really used Bruce Wayne as part of the story line. It has been years since Steve Englehart wrote Batman and actually had a life for Bruce. Of course Batman was always considered the “real” person and Bruce was the persona, so I’m not sure if this hurts the book as much as losing Clark.
Hal Jordan has died again and Green Lantern is alive and well. When the series started again Geoff tired to give Hal a life of his own and was even trying to develop a new love interest for him with Cowgirl. Since the build up to Blackest Night I don’t think I have seen a picture of GL without his mask in over 18 months. I know a fair amount of people believe Hal to be a cookie cutter character and now we don’t have to worry about that anymore.
Barry Allen is alive and well. As much as many of us bemoaned the fates about losing Wally as being the main Flash, at least Barry is playing an integral part in the Flash. Of course we are only 3 issues into the new series, so it is still early.
Wonder Woman is Wonder Woman and all of her secret identities have crashed and burned. I’m not sure if you can force one on her now, but this maybe one of the problems writers are having with her as they keep trying to make her have a secret identity.
Dick Grayson has been lost and eaten by Batman. In Nightwing Peter Tomasi was really developing Dick’s alter ego and setting up a strong secret identity thing that has gone by the wayside now that he is Batman. I believe that he has made a few appearances as a civilian and I believe Dick remains himself even under the mask, but still, he is gone.
Marvel is probably worse with secret identities as they just recently tried to do it with Thor and that effort, I believe, is over, Matt Murdock is all but gone (and will be I’m sure with the Shadowland story), Spider-Man is dead to me anyway and I’m guessing (because I stopped reading it) that maybe Tony Stark is still an actual character. For the vast majority of their characters Marvel abandoned the pretense of a real life years ago. Hard to believe but Scott Summers used to wear civilian clothes and go into the city with Jean Grey on dates.
So why have all the secret identities died off or just go unused?
My theory is that first and foremost it comes down to lazy writing. It is just easier to have the super hero side be front and center all the time and not have to deal with the ramifications of a real life. As comic book writing has matured the idea of a secret identity is harder and harder to make work. The old conventions of Clark or whomever just disappearing whenever danger strikes and then reappearing feels worn and lame to an older and perhaps more sophisticated audience. Instead of trying to be more inventive or making the secret identity more integral to the story the writers have abandoned them as an old time convention that is no longer needed. Again this is just my theory, but it sure seems that way.
The other problem is that everything is a long story arc. In the middle of Blackest Night that took over nine months of our time and maybe a week or two of comic time it would not have made sense for Hal to make an appearance. The push towards more “realism” in our super hero books has made the civilian sides of our heroes out of place inside the confines of these grandiose stories. Even worse, the propensity for following one big story with the next big story never gives us time for the character to go back to their true identity. In the old days the character would be off on an adventure and then we would have a quiet issue or two building the character back up and checking in on the supporting cast. In fact the supporting casts in most books are now other heroes and long gone are the people who would normally surrounded the main character.
I understand and can even see how this has happened as an almost natural outgrowth of how super hero stories are now told. The problem is that we have lost what, at times, made these characters identifiable to us. We no longer have Bruce with a failing relationship, Clark getting yelled at by Perry White for missing a deadline, Donald Blake being ignored by Jane Foster, Tim getting a bad grade on a test, Matt screwing up a case because of his night job and on and on. I don’t have a Batmobile, I don't come from another planet, I haven't been bitten by a radioactive spider or the rest. I do have had job issues in my many years working, I have had failed relationships, and I have had some other screwy things happen to me and enjoyed successful relationships and many happy times. These are things that make a character and I have a commonality. I can relate to these characters in their civilian identities. I can’t relate to the super hero side. I can enjoy the adventure, but the character and I have lost the elements that made us the same.
Hopefully this is a phase and the writers will go back and try to re-establish secret identities because I think they are an important element in the overall appeal and stories of these characters. If they don’t put these secret identities back into place it makes it easier to walk away from a title because there is nothing of me in the character and without that commonality how can I care about them?