Like any other art form, the medium of comic books has attracted a group of scholars interested in serious analysis of its form and content. For these critics who make a serious study of comic books and their function in society, the question of a superhero's secret identity has always prompted interesting speculations and theories. Why are secret identities important? What use are they in a crisis? Why use them at all? If the comic is about the superhero's extraordinary exploits, then why waste panels devoted to his ordinary humdrum life? Why not focus solely on his super powered feats?
The answer to this secret identity crisis is fairly obvious to longtime fans of superhero comic books. When reading about a superhero with abilities far beyond those of mortal men, it becomes difficult to relate personally to the character. This relatable quality is a crucial part of understanding a superhero, since it allows the reader to become emotionally invested in the character and thus feel a desire to follow his story through multiple comics.
Thus it is important for the invincible Superman to spend time living an ordinary life as mild mannered reporter Clark Kent. Thus it is also important for the amazing Spiderman to experience the toil and drudgery of life as the impoverished science student Peter Parker. The ordinary serves to better highlight the extraordinary, and the resulting contrast allows for much drama as well as future storylines.
Oftentimes, the superhero secret identity is also used to highlight an identity crisis on the part of the hero. One question that Superman constantly struggles with is whether his true identity is that of Kal El, Clark Kent or Superman? Batman often wonders whether Bruce Wayne is the mask he wears for the outside world, and if the Caped Crusader is who he truly is.
These are important questions of self and identity that are further explored in comic books and have made for compelling story lines. The secret identity of the hero also decides his relationship with those close to him. Whether they could be trusted with the secret of his real identity, whether they should be protected against super villains, and to what lengths the hero would have to go to in order to keep his secret from the rest of the world. All these questions form the basis of the man and superman debate that comic book scholars frequently indulge in. These are not questions with any one definite answer, but are very much subject to the current attitude towards morality, and a hero's place in society.
The secret identity crisis serves to highlight our own preoccupation with the id and the superego of the human mind, since superheroes are to a large extent our mind's way of dealing with the limitations of our frail human bodies and the desire to achieve greater things than what we in reality are capable of. The debate over these questions will never end, but the point of a genuine debate is not to seek a definite answer, but rather to explore the many possible answers.