this is legit btw
I mean, there were folkloric heroes like Robin Hood before the Scarlet Pimpernel, but they didn’t really do the secret identity — people might not have known Robin Hood’s real identity but he wasn’t out living a double life and his costume was just what he and his buds wore in the forest, whereas the Pimpernel was actually doing the exact same thing as Bruce Wayne (pampered aristocrat by day, avenging hero by night)
also I wanna point out that the Scarlet Pimpernel was actually the leader of a league of twenty people also living double lives — Baroness Orczy also invented the first superhero team
Also The Scarlet Pimpernel is goddamned amazing and if you’ve never read it you’re missing out.
So we’re not counting Hercules et al as superheroes? I mean, Odysseus disguised himself as an old man to sneak into his old place and get the drop on Penelope’s suitors—that sounds a lot like a secret identity to me.
If we’re defining superhero as “hero with superhuman or extraordinary abilities,” then we’d definitely count ancient legendary and folk heroes like Hercules and Gilgamesh and Beowulf. But if we’re using moviebob’s definition of “costumed vigilante with a costume and a secret identity,” then the Scarlet Pimpernel is certainly the first that I know of. Odysseus and the others may have used disguises when they had a reason to, for information gathering or safety or convenience, but I don’t know if you’d really call that having a “secret identity” so much as temporarily going undercover. No mythical hero (that I know of, my knowledge is limited) consistently juggled between two sustained, consistent, named identities - one masked, the other “real” - the way modern superheroes do and the Scarlet Pimpernel did. Dressing like a beggar and creating a matching backstory (which is different from the backstory he told to all the other people that he lied about his identity to in different parts of the book) to get the drop on his wife’s suitors doesn’t strike me as really being the same thing that Bruce Wayne does when he puts on and takes off the bat costume. But I do see a kinship in Percy’s espionage activities as the Pimpernel coexisting with a “normal” life that he returns to even if he doesn’t exactly wear a Scarlet Pimpernel costume.
Moon Knight and the Golden Age Superman are good examples of people who are “really” their costumed identities and then they just pretend to be a civilian identity to help with their mission. And there are countless guys who don’t have a secret identity; are the Human Torch or Thor not superheroes because they don’t pretend to be ‘Barry Laymon’ in their off-hours?
You can say that the Baroness invented/popularized the trope of the secret identity, but I don’t think you can argue that Hercules or Thor aren’t superheroes when people are still writing Hercules and Thor superhero stories.
Yeah, but would they be writing them as superhero stories if the superhero genre hadn’t been directly influenced by the Pimpernel? I’m not so sure about that.
The superhero genre of comic books was pretty much invented by the creation of Superman and Batman, both of whom utilized the Pimpernel’s secret identity trope by acting like feeble milksops in their civilian lives. Siegel, Shuster, Finger, and Robinson (and maybe Kane in one or two small ways) created so many of the tropes and trappings of superheroics that we now take for granted, and subsequent creators took these ideas in a direction that was more akin to the Pimpernel’s heroic actions over Hercules and Thor’s great feats of strength/power/cunning.
And when Thor and Hercules became superheroes themselves, they did so to fit in with the conventions of superhero comics, which is why Thor and Hercules haven’t always been faithful to the messier, less-heroic parts of their myths. Without the superhero genre as directly influenced by the Pimpernel as it was, we may have Thor and Hercules in fiction today, but it’s damn unlikely that they would turned out the same way. It’s more likely that Thor would be like how he appeared in Gaiman’s Sandman as a brutish, red-headed oaf.
Oh, and don’t forget, Marvel’s Thor DOES have a mild-mannered secret identity: Dr. Don Blake. With he wouldn’t have without the influence of Superman and Batman, who wouldn’t exist without the Scarlet Pimpernel.
Similarly, I don’t think it’s fair to hold up superheroes who don’t have secret identities as proof that the Pimpernel wasn’t an influence because those characters are very much products of a post-Golden-Age mentality that broke away from the older tropes such as secret identities. Again, those characters wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the creation of Superman and Batman, both of whom wouldn’t exist in the same way if they both hadn’t been influenced by the Scarlet Pimpernel’s approach to crime-fighting.
Of course, this isn’t to say that superheroes could have existed without the influence of the classical heroes of myth either, goodness no. There would have been no Superman without them, and thus, no anybody else. But without the Pimpernel, Siegel and Shuster’s Superman may have turned out like the earlier, less heroic version they tried out before they created the first true crime-fighting superhero (with powers, tights, and all) who, yes, maintained a secret identity as a mild-mannered civilian. Just like the Scarlet Pimpernel.
TL;DR: Superheroes as we know them almost certainly wouldn’t have existed without the work of Baroness Orczy. There would undoubtedly have been stories about characters with powers performing great feats for any number of reasons, but the American superhero genre wouldn’t exist without the Scarlet Pimpernel’s influence.