With the rapidity with which our digital changes from week to week, day to day, and sometimes even hour to hour, I sometimes wonder if we are any more nimble at navigating the often-volatile world of the Internet than we were when it became available for mass consumption two decades ago. Some of that clumsiness comes from the speed with which technology evolves, true; but, as with many new technologies to arise over the course of human history, it’s sometimes become an issue of use first, ask questions later.
Get upset about something in the news? Immediately regurgitate whatever vitriol is stirring about in your soul on Twitter, despite the potential backlash. Conversely, don’t like something someone posted on Twitter? Organize a witch hunt. You don’t know that person in real life, anyway.
Share personal information in email because that’s always and always and always private, right?
I’m hardly saying that we shouldn’t be outraged when we feel our personal lives are being invaded and violated in some way. But I do feel that maybe we need to be more vigilant with the information we do share online. I’m old enough to have just barely been exposed to the Internet during my last couple years in high school, but younger readers might not remember a time when they didn’t have access to the web as part of their curriculum. As the Internet’s reach and grasp became more and more understood, I remember frequently warning the young’uns in my life that maybe they shouldn’t post every thought that pours out their skulls. Or send that naked picture to their “bae”. Or spew the screen with cursing and poor grammar. The Internet has a long memory.
Which brings me to Superman #43 by Gene Luen Yang and John Romita, Jr., now in comic book stores.
In the recent DC Comics stories, the world has discovered who Superman is in his civilian life, leading him to become a man hunted and on the run. Yang and Romita, Jr. have been exploring the hows and whys of this revelation in their story “Before Truth.” While the plot is a bit more complex, the distilled version involves a villainous cyber-criminal going by the name of Hordr_Root, who has discovered Superman’s secret identity and has hard proof that Clark Kent is the Man of Steel. In the previous two issues, Hordr_Root has been leading Clark around by the nose, attempting to blackmail the Kryptonian into doing his bidding. In an effort to cut himself free from the villain’s grasp, Clark destroyed mounds of data accumulated by Hordr_Root, including the incriminating information tying Clark to Superman.
However, as Hordr_Root explains, he’s like the rest of us (or how we should be) and maintains back-ups of “critical stuff,” which would include his crown jewel: Superman’s secret identity. After beckoning Clark to one of his many bases, Hordr_Root attempts to bend the Metropolis Marvel to his will yet again, reminding the hero of who he’ll be putting in danger otherwise. Lois, who accompanied Clark to Hordr_Root’s lair, rashly releases the information to the world, reasoning that the villain would now no longer have Superman under his thumb.
Yang has taken a trope of the superhero—protecting the secret identity—and has put a 21st century spin on it. In this world of Julian Assange and Edward Snowden and leaked Sony emails and Ashley Madison, information can be released unto the public with a few keystrokes, for good or ill. Clark learns this the hard way and discovers that turning back the clock isn’t as easy as destroying a few pieces of data. There’s always a backup. Remember when Snapchat claimed that Snaps are deleted, but then, as it turns out, not so much? Again, the Internet has a long memory.
While this story was written prior to the Ashley Madison mass data leak, I’d like to think that Yang at least the Sony email scandal in mind. Information is power—power to gain resources, power to garner attention, power to gain influence, power to expose what we see as injustice. I’m not defending the Ashley Madison users in the least, because fuck those people. But Yang does pose a question that is pertinent to AM, Sony, Snowden, and the rest: Who has the right to keep information and who has the right to reveal that information?
Let’s look at another angle to the superhero secret identity trope: the public’s right to know. Many storylines in both Marvel and DC comics have examined superhero registration. The argument is that superheroes work outside the bounds and are so powerful that they should be made to register with the government for the public good and safety. In “Before Truth,” Hordr_Root is obviously blackmailing Clark with revealing his secret ID for his own ends, but it does get at the idea of whether the public is entitled to Superman’s secret identity. Clark has the power of a god and, while he fights on the side of light, there’s always the danger that he could go rogue and be humanity’s greatest threat. (See Injustice: Gods Among Us and many other.) Does the public deserve to know Clark’s truth? Where does his liberty end and our security begin? Similarly, is Edward Snowden a hero and a patriot for revealing what he saw as a government corruption or a traitor endangering the people of the United States? Again, once that information is out there, it’s out there for always, for good or for ill. The Internet has a long memory.
While Yang wraps his discussion of the dissemination of information in a superhero tale, he uses Superman #43 as both a cautionary tale on the sharing of data in the Internet age as well as the fine line between security and liberty. While we cheer Clark on to gain some victory in the end, his struggle is one that we recognize and may have also encountered ourselves.