I've been thinking a lot about secret identities lately for some reason. I know I'm not the only one, because double lives have been the subject of a lot of thought-provoking works of fiction, both in and out of comics (but mostly in).
During the Golden Age and particularly in the Silver Age, the secret identity was more of a gimmick or storytelling tool than something that drove real drama. It was a way to keep the heroes out of (presumably) dull committed relationships (the classic Superman-Lois Lane-Clark Kent love triangle model) and also provide goofy gags as mysterious absences needed to be explained in "hilarious" fashion. Rather than facilitate any interesting conflict, it seems like the early secret identities sidestepped that as heroes never needed to face the consequences of their actions.
This all changed with the advent of the Fantastic Four and then Spider-Man. With the FF, you had to the best of my knowledge the first high profile super heroes whose identities were public (and please correct me in the comments if I'm wrong on that score). Spider-Man took the Clark Kent idea to the next level with Peter Parker, who was every bit the wallflower, and a guy the average comic reader was supposed to be able to relate to better than a larger-than-life dude in tights. Clark Kent was mild-mannered and all, so he was relatable to a degree, but he was also an alien and a grown man; Peter Parker was close to the median age of readers and, spider powers aside, a normal dude.
I wasn't exactly raised on Spider-Man comics, but I've always recognized the historical significane of the character as far as being a trendsetter, and his secret identity was no exception there. Peter Parker didn't smile and wink at the end of a story because he had fooled Betty Brant into thinking he wasn't Spider-Man, he agonized because he had an alter ego where he was powerful, bold and charismatic--and he couldn't tell anybody about it. He had to pretend to keep being a dweeb when he knew there was a special person inside.
That's why secret identities are so powerful in comics (and elsewhere): We've all got something inside us we want the world to know about, but for whatever reason, we don't get to share it. I think in a most cases people imagine themselves as somebody else, be it somebody more famous, stronger, smarter, or whatever; in our dreams, these are the secret identities we can't reveal to the world. Folks who like to escape in the world of fiction are especially indicative of these feelings, so it's no wonder these double lives so fascinate and captivate us.
Like I said, I didn't read much Spider-Man as a kid, and by the time I did, Peter Parker was married with a wife with whom he could confide how special he really was. Infact, in a lot of the comics I grew up reading, the secret identity was de-emphasized to a large degree because a lot of the characters who traditionally kept secret lives had married or at least were in committed relationships where their significant others knew what they did (Superman had married Lois Lane, after all). A lot of other characters like Wally West had gone the public identity route. And then there were the X-Men who never really seemed to need secret IDs.
It was actually the third Robin, Tim Drake, who I read the best secret identity stories about. Chuck Dixon did some really interesting stuff with Tim being unable to have a healthy relationship with either his girlfriend or his father because of the secrets he was keeping. It created great drama that was only enhanced by the fact that Batman just didn't seem to get it. It's often said with Batman that he is the true identity and Bruce Wayne is the mask, so it was (and still is) interesting to see the smartest guy in the DC Universe unable to puzzle out something like why a teenage kid would want to tell the hot chick he's dating that he doesn't get all those black eyes from getting his ass kicked, he's actually out fighting crime every night.
I guess I've always found the secret identities that suck to be more interesting than the ones that are actually pretty sweet (not to keep harping on poor Superman, but outside of the brilliant movies by Richard Donner, I never bought that Clark Kent's schlubby existence was that bad). I'm not saying I've had a terrible life by any means, but I could certainly relate to wanting girls to know how secretly cool I was and feeling sometimes like I was trapped by an insecurity I knew I could release if only I had a snug pair of red and green tights.
Uh, belay that last part.
It also made the super heroes who were able to share their identities with other seem that much cooler. Superboy got to be Superboy 24/7 and his life rocked. Nova had to keep his secret from the general public, but his family knew, he had rad friends with similar issues in the New Warriors, and he had a hot super hero girlfriend in Namorita. Years later when Geoff Johns puts the genie of Wally West's life as the Flash back in the bottle, his connection to Linda only seemed that much more impressive because she shared his burden.
Given that those were the characters I really dug growing up, I never really took much stock in the secret identity. I didn't think it was a big deal. Sure there were those great Robin stories that I mentioned, but in the 90's they were more th exception than the rule.
Ironically enough, it was the Spider-Man movies that taught me the value of the secret identity in dramatic storytelling. I got to see in digestible two-hour drops all those classic, tragic Spidey stories where he went through so much agony by shouldering the pain of his struggles alone. When he told Mary Jane the truth at the end of the second flick, I got it. All the crap he went through sweetened the payoff. Of course it also eliminated all that great tension, but you always have to find that next story...
Ultimately, I think there's room for characters with secret identities, with public identities, with identities only their loved ones know, and for the X-Men too. It's all part of that beautiful tapestry that is comics. On some level, I like being able to relate to the struggles of Spider-Man and Robin as they have to let romance fall by the wayside to do their duty. I also want to escape with Superboy and Nova into a world where being rad is a way of life and all your friends come along for the ride. It's all good.
I'm not sure how much I really said in the course of writing a lot, but like I said, I've been thinking a lot about secret identities lately for some reason, so there you go.