No one has been unmasked in comics as much as Spider-Man. For awhile, Stan Lee was using it about once a year to up the stakes. The problem was that it did nothing. No one thought that puny Peter Parker could be Spider-Man or Spider-Man would somehow turn up elsewhere. Then, there was Flash Thompson’s prolonged bromance with Spider-Man cosplay. By the time that Ditko got pissed and quit over similar unmasking issues, one had to wonder…who cares? Below, you’ll see the scene that eventually broke up the Lee/Ditko partnership. Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko wanted the Green Goblin to be just some random guy off the street. He was getting tired of the Soap Opera theatrics of having every super villain tied back to Parker.
For some reason, the frequent unmasking and identity issues all revolve around Norman Osborn. Well, after the Ditko/Lee break-up. Before that, we had Flash trying to emulated Spidey. Hell, we even had issues with the Crime Master and Doctor Octopus causing Spider-Man to be unmasked. The constant threat of unmasking led to a weight being put on the act that is almost on par with Superhero emasculation. I say emasculation due to the lack of serious female penetration at that time in Marvel’s existence. The Golden Age had a handful of Marvel heroines and the Silver Age was getting better. But, it was always young men getting unmasked for the world to see.
It was part reader identification with the enabled human side of the Marvel heroes, but it served a greater point. Parker was an entrenched hero with ties to multiple soft targets that made it easy prey for greater villains. Norman Osborn killed Gwen Stacy. Harry made multiple attacks on Mary Jane Watson, Aunt May, Flash Thompson and Liz Allan. These attacks had very little to do with these people, but what they meant to Parker. Much has been made of the passive rape analogy to superhero unmasking, but I’m not going there.
What I’m saying is that Spider-Man gets exposed to this more often since his point of origin is naturally prone to an identity crisis. If it wasn’t, Marvel wouldn’t have hung a major crossover and the biggest retcon in the character’s history on preserving it. Spider-Man is an adolescent character created at a point in a young man’s life when he becomes a man. Parker had the accident on a field trip right around the age of 15-16, then he started to mature. Much is made of how small and wormy Parker was right before the accident. It’s super powered puberty at its finest with all of the bullshit that comes along with it.
Parker also had to deal with the fact that multiple people liked Spider-Man more than him. The most famous instance of this would have to be the short-lived romance between Parker and The Black Cat. When Peter finally showed her his identity, the Black Cat freaked out. The lady had no problems with Spidey roughing her up for the last two years of comics, but the minute she sees King Dork…she recoils in horror. There’s some terrible subtext there. If she does wrong, you can physically suppress her. Show her a little bit of loving affection and you’re a monster.
Peter can be kind of a White Knight, as he was when he returned to this state after saving Black Cat from nearly dying at Doc Ock’s tentacles. Then, there was his freakout after Captain Jean DeWolff’s death a few weeks later. This led to even more feeling like he had to protect women from being near him while Spidey. There was protecting Betty Brant after Ned Leeds got killed in Berlin. If that wasn’t enough, Mary Jane gets attacked by Spider Slayers and decides to take him up on a spontaneous marriage proposal after previously rejecting Peter.
The biggest moment involving unmasking Spider-Man has already been retconned. For the norms, retconning is practice where a later writer undermines the story crafted by a previous writer. It’s a necessary evil in long-form narratives that appears often in periodical fiction. In Marvel’s “Civil War”, Peter agreed to side with Tony Stark’s efforts to register all superhumans with the government. As a result, he unmasked himself on national television. The resulting whirlwind led to J. Jonah Jameson firing him from the Daily Bugle. Debra Whitman filed a lawsuit against Parker for causing her emotional distress and costing her advancement opportunities at Empire State University. Not to mention, she eventually wrote a tell-all book about her time with Spider-Man and Parker.
What is to be taken away from all of this? A superhero is the costume with the man underneath creating challenges for the greater ideal. Costumes are passed down and legacies preserved. But, the limitations of being a human trying to exist in a greater world will always cause pain and concern. The only time a costumed hero didn’t have to worry about this was Moore and Gibbon’s Rorschach. But, he was vaporized near the South Pole. Take a look at how they worked out for him.