Of Anonymity and the Self
“In an era where celebrity is the most sought-after prize in life, we can barely comprehend that there might be those who would go to any length to preserve their anonymity.” ~Bruce Thomas
As a child who experienced their fair share of moving and disruption, it was comic books of all kinds that I often found solace in. Characters like Batman, Superman, and Spiderman (not to mention Tintin and Asterix), always did their thing, met their challenges, and overcame the odds. The story arcs and formulaic consistency — even those bordering on predictability — often provided me with comfort no matter how inconsistent my surroundings were and what I was going through.
While the gadgets, mystery, martial arts and heroic acts were enough to capture any boy’s attention, deeper realisations later emerged as to why Batman in particular resonated so strongly.
Over the past 75 years, hundreds of artists and writers (and several filmmakers) have envisioned their own interpretations of Batman, based on particular truths, traits and motivations; a dark and vengeful nature contrasted with Bruce Wayne’s flippant alter-ego. But after looking a little closer the question of who this person really is becomes more complex. Somewhere between the two theatrical extremes of Batman and Bruce Wayne there had to lie a true self. So instead of defining his character as someone who occasionally dons a disguise to become someone else, maybe it was the opposite; the disguise was a way to become himself free from acquired behaviour, social acceptability — and curiously enough — fame.
In an age of shameless self promotion, where recognition is often more important than what’s being recognised, the constant need to record everything we’re doing and share it with the world has become the norm. Andy Warhol’s prediction about our 15 minutes is now more an orchestrated life goal than happenstance. But imagine for a moment the incredible acts that happen in the world that we don’t hear about, or the people who avoid the limelight. Not everything is on the internet. Not everything has been recorded, formatted, curated and shared. We’re now infinitely well connected and seemingly omnipotent, but as a collective we may not perceive the truly meaningful things that are happening— we’re so caught up in the blossoms and branches that we may be ignoring the roots.
When discovering who we really are, social acceptance can become a barrier and self-image a prison. Layer upon layer of social conditioning now builds up quicker than ever before until it’s hard discern between what we believe in versus what is reconstituted public opinion. A lot of discomfort comes with peeling these layers back. The catch is that the more resolved you become with your self, the less you feel a need to talk about it simply because you live it and act upon it without needing to explain yourself. It’s what the taoists would call the hidden and nameless aspects of reality: truth is something that ceases to exist once identified, which seems to be why it is so hard to grasp.
If we were to take an introspective path, the question would inevitably arise: who am I, if no one really knows who I am? It’s a difficult question to answer because it relies on different criteria than we’ve become accustomed to using. This isn’t about becoming a recluse — in fact it’s somewhat the opposite. Perhaps it’s more a form of social introspection that doesn’t exclude communication and human contact, but conversely doesn’t need them in order to help define oneself.
“All human beings have three lives: public, private, and secret.” ~Gabriel García Márquez
So what does this have to do with a fictional superhero? If you think about it, we all lead multiple lives. To wonder if there’s something sinister about this disregards the nuances of human nature. Consider how you might talk differently to a child, a colleague, a friend, a family member, a lover, a stranger. There are inadvertently things we choose to say or not to say, aspects of ourselves to reveal or hide, and we often do this without even thinking about it. It’s not necessarily deception, but it is a choice. As for dualism and alter egos as represented in comic book lore, I don’t know that anything is so black and white. The grey area, the in-between, may in fact allow us the space and time to assess things before acting, devoid of anything other than our own original nature. A storm’s eye where our acquired nature — that which is introduced upon us by external factors — becomes irrelevant. Yin and yang, while representative of opposing forces, cannot exist as simply one or the other…they must be both simultaneously.
When it comes to this grey space of the self, you might tell yourself it’s risky to be who you really are and to speak up. What will people think of me if I say…this? But in the end the greater risk is to not act, to suppress purpose or ignore even that smallest spark of your true self fighting it’s way into the light. More often than not we censor ourselves for the benefit of the greater audience, and now is certainly not the time to be doing so.
In my industry fame and fortune often bubble to the surface as the primary goals of life. Honesty, good will and social responsibility are often sprinkled in along the way for the sake of PR. In the end this leads people to set aside doing what’s right for doing what’s popular, all the while convincing themselves and everyone else of the former. We’ve entered a place in time where it is increasingly difficult to do the right thing because of an overabundance of conflicting information and a maelstrom of public opinion which wears us down and leaves us craving distraction or escape.
Professionally, sketching is a necessary tool of my trade — the visualisation of an idea as it goes from concept to reality. But in recent years it has become far more useful to me as a method of catharsis and self expression than one of commercial communication. These days if I put pen to paper without thinking more often than not it results in an almost subconsciously generated illustration of Batman. It’s something that I use as a reset and reminder, and that provides a level of comfort because of those childhood roots and a sense of familiarity.
The transience which I spoke about earlier has carried on from my youth and into my adult years for various reasons. What I find consistent no matter where I go are external opinions of my identity (of which there seems to never be a shortage), and an artificial attempt to be pigeonholed and defined by nationality, upbringing, industry, the list goes on— an experience which is by no means uniquely my own. However the more I feel people attempting to paint a portrait based on any number of superficial layers, the more I want to slip out of the frame. Any and all methods to disregard this on a daily basis are increasingly valuable, and hence the reminder of that childhood hero.
The real heroes of the future will be a generation of people who needn’t just perpetually react to how wrong things are, but instead be proactively making the right choices. Who will these people be? Educators, leaders, doers, makers — at the core of it all, people who will leap into the fray with nothing other than their true selves as armour.
Until then I say suit up, and wait for your signal.
“The things to do are: the things that need doing, that you see need to be done, and that no one else seems to see need to be done. This will bring out the real you that often gets buried inside a character that has acquired a superficial array of behaviours induced or imposed by others on the individual.” ~Buckminster Fuller