Friday, June 20, 2003

(Masks, postscript)

Just a quick note to thank mystery reader "David Still" for writing this:

Talking about identity and alter-egos, you should try me sometimes.

And, after a little bit of apprehension (I assumed at first it was just some guy hitting on me), I did. If you haven't done so already, you can try him, too, at You'll probably figure out what's going on right away, and maybe you'll love it as much as I did.

Reminds me a little of "Karen Eliot" and "Monty Cantsin," two other identities that were up for grabs back in the 1980s courtesy of the Neoists. Before them, both Abbie Hoffman and the Diggers used the name of notorious mad bomber "George Metesky" as an alias. (In tracking down the links above, I stumbled across an interesting collection of even more pseudonyms or "nyms" worth checking out.)

In the world of the comics, I'm pretty sure that The Dark Knight Returns, Kingdom Come, and No Man's Land (or at least one or two of them) include a scenario in which lots of everyday people take up the bat logo; they "become" the Batman just as anyone can now "become" David Still. (The "real" David, if there is such a person, is pretty damn cute, or at least the man whose pictures are used to represent him on the site is, at least to me.) Of course, in the real world with its proliferation of internet screen names, it's hard for more than one person to claim a single identity--as the 59 other Batfans before me are no doubt well aware.

Friday, June 13, 2003

(Masks, 3)

Having already written here (in part one of these last three connected entries) about how exciting I think masks are, I feel obliged to acknowledge that I find them even hotter when they're taken away. Whether removed by force or lifted by choice, the discarded mask is the biggest turn-on of all.

Unmasking, or the threat of unmasking, is one of my favorite bat-fantasies. The removal of the disguise is the money shot for me, as it were. I have this cockamamie theory that it has something to do with the fact that for years the only "Batman" episode I hadn't seen was #6, which is the second half of the saga in which the Joker (dressed as the protagonist of Pagliacci) has our heroes cornered and is about to remove their masks on live television. While I could figure out the resolution to the cliffhanger (I mean, who couldn't?), I didn't see it with my own eyes until at least a decade after I first saw episode #5 -- which gave me at least a decade to cook up my own twisted endings to the duo's tantalizing predicament.

The web the garden of special-interest delights that it is, there's at least one site specifically devoted to what its creator calls "Identity Rape". I guess that designation, creepy as it is, accurately pinpoints the nature of the attraction. (It's an equal opportunity site, with pages for both genders; obviously I prefer the one devoted to male heroes, but a little pronoun change or two can work wonders for the ladies--though I gotta say, the "rape" business is a little more disturbing in that case.)

What's so exciting to me about the threat of Batman (or any other mystery man) being forcibly unmasked is the notion that in a single moment, his entire life will be changed. It's literally a fate worse than death, because it implies that all his hard work to keep the secret will have been in vain. The unmasked Batman thus faces debasement and embarrassment on top of all his other troubles. (A reader of several of my bat-stories once noted in passing that I really seemed to be into humiliation. I was all prepared to object until I actually did a search for the h-word and realized just how often it appears in my fiction. Oops: I've been revealed!)

A friend I've made through this blog shares my fascination with this scenario, and here's how he depicts the situation:

"There is something hugely erotic about imagining Batman being overpowered by a villain and being unmasked. It's not just being seen for who he really is. But, it is having something vital taken from him by force by another. I believe that it has been an unuttered truth that, if Batman were ever to be unmasked, really, he would cease to be Batman. He'd just be this rich fellow hanging around a lonely old house with an old butler and a school boy. It seems to be the Batman persona itself that is his strength: so long as he is free to go about unseen -- a pure Batman persona, uncluttered by Bruce's childhood traumas or mortal neediness -- he is free to play the part of the hero. Bruce Wayne and Batman. One precludes the other. For the two to be seen as the same would, perhaps, result in a more well-rounded Bruce, but it would surely kill off Batman."

On the other hand, on those rare occasions when Batman deliberately chooses to expose his Wayne-self to someone (which happens WAY too often in the movies, BTW-- not just with Batman but Spider-Man and Daredevil as well), he's taking a huge leap of faith, which can also be pretty exciting under the right circumstances. He's taking a risk -- one which, of course, also puts the other person at risk as well. (I was intrigued by a story in the comics just a few years back in which Batman finally lifted his mask in front of Commissioner Gordon -- who averted his eyes, if I remember correctly, preferring not to change the nature of their relationship. Of course, if Gordon hasn't figured out by now who's under that cowl, he has no business being Police Commissioner.)

In part 2 of this trilogy of blog entries, I wrote about my adoption of multiple e-mail personae. I actually exposed myself to 3 of my friends as the evil mastermind behind some of the weirder messages they'd been getting lately, inviting them to join me in the project. I felt a great sense of intimacy with them when I did so. On the other hand, a fourth friend figured out it was me on his own and inadvertently outed me (and I use that term on purpose, of course), which pissed me off a lot--that's the last time I tell HIM a secret! (This same guy, who knows about my secret fantasy life, freely blabs about it to anyone who will listen, much to my annoyance.) It's sort of like whoever it was who unmasked Joe Klein as the author of Primary Colors, I guess. There's an etiquette involved in disclosures, which is how Alfred the butler has managed to keep his job for so very long.

I am sensitive to this etiquette because I've also been on the other side of the power dynamic. A couple of years ago I figured out that a friend of mine was a key member of the Guerilla Girls, the real-life masked vigilante activists. (The GGs describe themselves as "feminist counterparts to the mostly male tradition of anonymous do-gooders like Robin Hood, Batman, and the Lone Ranger." Not unlike the Justice League/Society of America, they seem to have splintered into several factions, including this one and this one.) Suddenly I knew exactly how, say, Jimmy Olsen would feel if he finally pulled his head out of his ass about the peculiar habits of his old pal Clark. Because she didn't come right out and tell me, I feel like it's my role to continue to pretend not to know that it's my friend beneath the gorilla mask. In this sense, I am a bit like Peter Maass, who realized that "Salam Pax" was somebody he knew but chose not to name names. His testimony is enough to prove there really is a Salam Pax (since many people suspected the whole thing was a propagandistic hoax) but not enough to undo the anonymous crusader's good deeds (although he does provide enough information that a supervillain could track the guy down, come to think of it).

Every time I don my batsuit, I'm afraid that I'll be found out -- by a housemate, a neighbor, a random stranger. And I've had more than a few close calls in my day. (Once I had myself tied up in my second-floor apartment and the doorbell rang; I quickly freed myself, changed into street clothes, and answered the door. It was the cops, responding to a report of a burglary on the first floor. Guess things could have been much, much worse.) Nowadays I try to keep a pair of oversized sweats which can slip over my tights nearby so I can switch outfits in a hurry. But there's always the thrilling possibility that something will go wrong and I myself will be as embarrassed -- as out of control -- as the unMasked Manhunter. That risk is certainly a part of why I do it in the first place, and why I write about it here, too.

Tuesday, June 10, 2003

(Masks, 2)

To paraphrase an overparaphrased New Yorker cartoon, On the Internet, nobody knows you're a superhero. Or, to be more precise, nobody knows you're both a superhero and a mild-mannered reporter.

I love the fact that we earthlings have created a zone, equal parts fantasy and reality, where we can explore our most private desires in the most public of forums. Sure, that privilege can be abused to deceive and cheat innocent parties, but since I'm neither the parent of an impressionable child nor the potential purchaser of a bridge in the middle of a desert, I prefer to accentuate the positive and celebrate the free reign of anonymity. We're living in the golden age of make-believe. To quote (out of context) the chorus of a song by Hamell on Trial, "We can be who we want to be."

I doubt that anyone reading this thinks my "real" name is either Bruce Wayne or Wayne Bruce. And I take pains not to disclose enough details of my actual life here that someone will later be able to expose me as a perv should I ever manage to construct much of a public self. My motivation isn't fear of embarassment so much as a love of concealment -- the risk of discovery is part of the thrill of superhero lore for me, and the more public you are about your shadow self, the bigger the risk and the more you have at stake. (I learned this dance of exposure and retreat early: My mother was a very guarded person, always taking pains to tell me not to share family business with even my closest friend. At the same time, though, mom was also very outgoing, a natural performer who felt empowered to tell her audience just about about anything about just about anyone if it would provoke a response.) One of the readers of this blog -- somebody I will always picture as Superman since that's the way he appears online -- asks in a recent e-mail, "Why does a professional guy who's pretty quiet and shy in real life love being a cyber-exhibitionist?" He's referring to his own experience there, but I can certainly identify. (By the way, my super-buddy tells me he wants to hear from other men with similar feelings or interests, and you can contact him here. And if you have any thoughts on the question he poses you'd like to share with other readers of this blog, feel free to e-mail me, too.)

The web provides us with such wonderful opportunities to maintain secret identities, some of which really do take on lives of their own. The most famous of these recently is "Salam Pax," creator of the blog "Where is Raed?" and surely the first superstar of this budding medium. Then there's "Mouchette," allegedly a 13-year-old girl but actually the invented persona of a mystery artist who promises to reveal his or her true identity eventually. In fact, the Mouchette site is almost entirely about this riddle, as far as I can tell. (I find the actual project more annoying than titillating, but I still applaud the premise.)

Shortly after 9/11/01, I started playing around with the political possibilities of multiple selves, creating free e-mail addresses for fabricated beings and "letting" them send messages to hundreds of people, some of whom I barely knew. Some were overtly activist-oriented and others were (and I mean this in the best possible way) idiots, passing along blatantly idiotic rumors with an undercurrent of pointed satire. (Ex: I hear Target is giving away everything that's red, white, and blue in the store -- which makes sense, because who would dare to profit off an international tragedy by capitalizing on patriotism?) My humble goal was to launch a worldwide movement -- a meme, to use current terminology -- from my own home. My own little bit of masked vigilante crimefighting, if you will. It didn’t quite take off on a global scale (since it would have required much more effort than I was willing to put into the project), but I got some nice results, the most surreal of which was a person who responded to one of my fictional characters (one of the idiots, a pro-war zealot) by forwarding her an e-mail from one of my other characters (an anti-war activist), saying, "Read this; you could learn something from it"). I learned a certain amount from the prank and I'm pretty sure I could pull it off more successfully during America's next war, but in the meantime I encourage you to try this trick at home.

One of the nicest things about the anonymity of the net is the way it allows us to perform altruistic acts in secrecy. We can offer gifts to the universe without expecting direct repayment. That's the impulse behind so many of the wonders of the web: file sharing, open source software, elaborate sites devoted to a single subject, and blogs like Salam Pax's (and this one), for instance. I have in mind a story by Pablo Neruda, quoted at the end of Lewis Hyde's mind-expanding book THE GIFT, in which the poet recalls his boyhood in Mexico. Young Pablo approaches a fence with a hole in it; a hand materializes (get yer mind out of the gutter--this ain't no gloryhole) and offers him a little toy sheep. The adult Neruda writes: "To feel the intimacy of brothers is a marvellous thing in life. To feel the love of people whom we love is a fire that feeds our life. But to feel the affection that comes from those whom we do not know, from those unknown to us, who are watching over our sleep and solitude, over our dangers and weaknesses -- that is something still greater and more beautiful because it widens out the boundaries of our being, and unites all living things."

That last line, about the unknown ones who watch over our sleep: I can imagine no more vivid description of my beloved Caped Crusader, and no better illustration of how any one of us can become the Batman in our everyday lives.

Thursday, June 05, 2003


Just rediscovered "Dressed for Success," an internet essay by some guy named Meesh written in those crazy hazy days in the aftermath of 9/11/01. In it, Meesh! (responding to a brash statement apparently made by the otherwise wise and wonderful Grant Morrison in shock after the collapse of the Twin Towers) offers 10 reasons why America still needs costumed superheroes and why superheroes still need their costumes.

Some of the reasons: because disguises are cool, they're practical, they're intimidating; because comic book stories reconnect us to our childhoods, etc. You can read the entire list for yourself if you like; it's a nicely written essay (and Meesh!'s entire "Comics of the 80s" site contains both food for thought and lots of sexy comics panels). But what I want to focus on is this part:

"Any first-year anthropology major can tell you about the symbolic significance of masks among primitive tribes; how the wearer of a mask becomes something greater than himself once he puts the mask on. In other words, the simple act of putting on a mask or ceremonial costume allows the individual to sublimate his own personality and assume a new, more potent identity. I submit that this psychological 'trick' is an invaluable tool to our modern-day super-heroes, as well.

"Think about it. You're a rational human being, whose body and mind have been honed to near perfection. You have a plausible motive and the means to become your own one-man army on crime and corruption, and yet there's something holding you back from leaping willy-nilly into the fray. You recognize it for what it is: doubt. And you recognize that doubt as the one thing that will someday get you killed. So what do you do? Answer: Get yourself a talisman -- something that separates your 'secret-identity' self from the being you become when you go fight crime. And what better talisman can there be than a costume that literally covers your 'other' self?" [italics are author's]

As I see it, those same issues apply whether you're a one-man army or simply a kink-loving queer on your own personal journey. Your armor can be leather, rubber, lycra, fur, a uniform, whatever turns you on. My batsuit is a place to hide from the "real" world, but also a chance to expose a side of myself I once kept hidden. I can relax in it, but also confront some of the things I fear most (death, self-doubt, loss of control) on my own terms, albeit in a metaphorical way.

I'm using the ideas of costuming and masking interchangeably here in an effort to engage those of you whose specific erotic interests are slightly different than my own, but I guess it's important for the purposes of this discussion that the guise you adopt be one which alters or conceals your everyday appearance, and masks tend to do that best of all. (Let's not get into the amusing conceit that nobody recognizes Clark Kent once he removes his glasses, musses his hair, and slips into a change of clothing -- a subject best covered by a "Saturday Night Live" routine with The Rock playing Superman, who turns out to be the only person fooled by his half-assed attempt at deception.)

When you've got something obscuring most of your facial features and the color of your hair (along with garments you don't usually wear), you grant yourself temporary permission to transcend the limitations of your body--your personal history, the judgments others make about you based on your appearance, etc. Drag queens and leathermen know plenty about this kind of transformation; mere mortals only experience it at Halloween.

I find it interesting that masks are outlawed in many localities. That's generally because they're associated with crime (from robbery to anarchic confrontations with teargas-wielding riot squads), but it strikes me as a way of forcing everyone to limit themselves to a single, inescapable public persona. We're suspicious of masked men (as the Lone Ranger knows all too well), who are thought of as con men or liars. But I see the mask as bearing a different kind of truth.

There are times when I think of Bruce Wayne as the ultimate closet case; he's spent at least as much of his time and money trying to cover up his secret nighttime obsession as he has fighting crime. There is always much confusion about which is his "true self" and which is the phony one. (Although that implies one has to be more authentic than the other, and I suggest that each role has its own crucial place in his life.) One of the things that fascinates me about the myth (aside from the tights and the bondage, of course) is the contradiction at its very core: the vigilante hero's calling obliges him to adopt a disguise and work outside the usual channels, but instead of allowing him to disappear into the night, his getup screams for attention. It makes him both a target and a celebrity. (The official constructors of the myth keep going back and forth about that last part: on the TV show. in the movies, and in the comics of the 50s and 60s Batman is very much a public figure who is not above making personal appearances in broad daylight, while the earlier and later comics (and the animated series, if I remember correctly) depict him as exclusively nocturnal and often something more like an urban legend. Either way, though, his striking and unconventional appearance can't help but call attention to itself, and it would do so even more if a real-life Bruce Wayne tried to pull off something so outrageous.)

If you're interested in the deeper meanings of masks, allow me to recommend a couple of bat-tales which explicitly address the subject, both of which are available in softcover book form from DC. The first half of the story arc compiled as Robin: A Hero Reborn (by Alan Grant, Norm Breyfogle and Steve Mitchell, first published as issues 455-7 of the Batman comic) is built around compelling quotes from The Encyclopedia of Magic and Superstition (no author cited) as it portrays Tim Drake's decision to don the mask of the new Robin --AND it contains some very hot images of Batman bound and suspended upside-down by the Scarecrow, to boot. Bryan Talbot's story "Mask" (originally in issues 39-40 of the once-excellent Legends of the Dark Knight comic books, later republished as Batman: Dark Legends) is a beautifully told adventure about a villain fucking around with the sanity of a captive Bruce Wayne.

Probably the best, most detailed discussion of the deeper implications of masking that I've ever seen is Walter Sorell's book The Other Face: The Mask in the Arts. I stumbled across it in my public library years ago and I'm sure it's long out of print, but it's well worth haunting your local used bookstore in search of a copy. I'll end this entry with a typical passage from it:

"The mask is the beginning, trauma, and essence of all metamorphoses, it is the tragic bridge from life into death, it is the illusion of another reality, or the disguise with which man reaches reality on a higher plane, stronger in its awareness, clearer and more concrete in its expression than the elusive image of reality itself. The mask contains the magic of illusion without which man is unable to live."