I guess it's the kind of thing you wonder about as a kid, if you read comics or watch the characters in other media.
When comic book crusaders arrived on the scene in the late 1930s, it was believable that a vigilante in a weird outfit operating under cover of darkness could occasionally go out and wreak havoc among the criminal underclass. Especially a guy like Bruce Wayne, who was wealthy and could afford great stuff. And fellows like Superman or the Flash had superpowers, which would be helpful in hiding their true identities. If you're flying at 10,000 feet or running at 500 mph, no one can get a good look at you. And Billy Batson, mentioned in this space last Friday, had the best second identity as Captain Marvel, essentially a distinct and older human being.
Later it got harder to believe. Private Steve Rogers (if I recall correctly--a bit before my time) supposedly kept that big round Captain America shield hidden under his army shirt during the war. By the 1950s, the cops knew the heroes and were pals with them, and you had to accept that the entire police force respected their privacy. Superman hung around with the same people as Clark Kent. A pair of glasses is not a bad disguise if no one has a good idea of what you look like in your other, secret life. It is not great when both your personas are close with the same people.
In his first appearance, the master villain Ra's al Ghul shows up in the Batcave. He had easily deduced that Batman had to be a wealthy young Gothamite with time to devote to crimefighting---and I don't recall Ra's mentioning this, but the public information that Wayne's parents had been killed by a mugger could not help but make the case. Commissioner Jim Gordon couldn't have guessed the same thing?
Writer Marty Pasko once tried to explain Clark Kent's disguise as being an inadvertent and helpful offshoot of his superhypnosis power--while disguised as Kent, Superman so wanted to project the image of nebbishy weakness that he actually made people believe it. I think it's an example of why Superman has too many powers, but I'd rather believe that than that the Daily Planet hires only imbeciles.
|Sorry, spoiler alert. (Image courtesy of DC Database)|
Clark Kent also was smart enough to have a job that would explain his being out of the office quite a bit---although not for days or weeks, as some of his adventures required. Any job I ever had I would have lost if I had spent enough time away from it to fight villains three or four times a month. Ditto for Peter Parker and Diana Prince. Bruce Wayne was smart to be really wealthy, freeing him from the ol' 9-to-5, but as a handsome young billionaire he'd have paparazzi shadowing him all the time. (Back in his early days he was just a generic rich guy, not a super celebrity with his name on buildings; easier to blend in that way. Lots of trust-fund babies in New York are unknown to the populace at large.)
Today it looks like it would be virtually impossible to have a secret identity. People would be online every minute of the day trying to figure out who the mystery person was. Any photos would be analyzed to death. Why is Spider-Man seen in Queens as well as Manhattan? There's nothing in Queens. Every human in Queens would be a suspect. The police would devote huge resources to figuring it out---they don't like mysterious figures doing things, even nice things. Anyone who disappeared from work without advance warning would be a suspect. Half the people at the office would think Karl the rummy is Superman because he can't make it in on Monday or Friday.
Unless your superpower enables you to be in two places at once, or virtually so (the Flash can run to China and back before his lab assistant can take a pee break), you're not going to be able to get away with it forever. There are security cameras and phone cameras everywhere. People talk. You leave DNA all over the place. A mask and gloves are not going to be enough. And you'd have to be willing to break a lot of noses the first few times you appear, because every fun-loving prankster is going to want to pull off the mask---until word gets around that that's a punched ticket to Hematoma City. Will the cops still love Captain America if he keeps sending non-criminals to the ER?
It looks bad for secret identities.
You may say: What about Banksy, the mystery artist? Or Anonymous, the mystery hackers? Well, Banksy doesn't commit public acts of violence as superheroes must, or believe me, he or she or them would have been found. And Anonymous does not appear outside their lair, which is generally required for superheroes.
It seems to me that the only routes for superheroes are: A) Give up on the idea of a secret identity, and just be a celebrity like the Fantastic Four; or B) Be a real nobody in real life and don't let people know much about you even when you're heroing away.
Like. just stay home and don't make waves. That's one way to keep private.