And Who Disguised As Clark Kent…

I mentioned in Thursday’s post that straw that finally broke the camel’s back as far as me dropping the Superman titles was the fact that we weren’t going to be seeing Clark Kent in the titles for at least another year. It’s kind of funny to me that THAT was what finally drove me away because of all of the other problems I’ve had with the books over the past four or so years but in a way it makes total sense given my feelings towards the character. So then the question is simple; why do I feel so strongly about Clark’s place in Superman’s world? What is it about the character that appeals to me?

It occurred to me some time back that my views of Clark Kent were formed in Superman II and Superman III. Sure I have nothing but love and affection for Superman: The Movie and it is the best of the film series, but the second and third films are where my opinions on Clark were first formed. In Superman II we get a Clark Kent that seemed more of a character than the first movie. The fact that he got more screen time helped but also the dynamic shifted slightly, especially when it came to his friendship with Lois. She was pretty dismissive of him in the first film and they really didn’t have much to do with each other1 but in the second movie they seemed to have a genuine friendship. Lois seemed to care for Clark and be considerate of his feelings. Beyond that when push came to shove over the fact that he loved Lois Lane Superman made the choice to be with Lois as Clark, not a powerless Superman sans glasses. Sure he got his ass handed to him in that diner, but to the seven or eight year old me this meant that Clark was just as important as Superman2.

This carried over into Superman III where Clark took center stage. In fact, the emotional crux of that film ended in Clark Kent fighting the Dark Superman and winning. It wasn’t Superman fighting Superman, which they could have done very easily. When Superman went bad the colors of his costume darkened so you could have had two Supermen fighting on screen with little confusion. No, it was Clark and that aspect of his personality that was needed to defeat his own evil and selfish thoughts and every time I watch that scene and see Clark win the day I get a big ol’ smile on my face. Plus there is the whole Clark/Lana dynamic, which I also dig. This is where I became a sucker for characters coming in and being interested in Clark and not Superman. It’s not that the Lana in Superman III wasn’t impressed with Superman. She just preferred Clark, which carries over somewhat from Superman: The Movie where she was one of the few people to treat him with any kindness during the Smallville scenes.

So those two films really informed my opinion of Clark, which is probably why I was primed for what John Byrne did with the character in Man of Steel and what he and Marv Wolfman would do as the revamp of Superman continued. The concept was really simple; Clark Kent was the real guy and Superman, as Byrne put it in Man of Steel #6, was the fancy pair of long johns. This was quite the departure from the decades of stories where Superman was the main guy. He was the dominant personality and Clark Kent was his disguise. It’s right there in the opening narration of the radio and fifties television series. “And who disguised as Clark Kent…” While that is a valid way to approach the character there was something about Clark not only thinking of himself as the real deal but also as a human first and Kryptonian second that just appealed to me. I can relate to that take on Superman more than the Superman that thinks of himself as Kal-El of Krypton and somewhat detached from humanity and since I am the type of person that has a weird need to relate to the characters that I follow for an extended period of time that connected feeling I had for the new Clark Kent was important.

There’s more to it than that, though. I think the Clark first, Superman second take on the Man of Steel is more heroic than the Superman first version of the character. One aspect of the Pre-Crisis on Infinite Earths Superman that always left me a little cold was the idea that he was a hero pretty much from birth. There’s nothing wrong with that approach but to me a person that chooses to be a hero because it is the right thing to do is just a whole lot more interesting than either the person being born into the role, as the Silver Age Superman was, or having some terrible personal tragedy make him or her realize that they need to walk the path of the hero. The Pre-Crisis Superman seemed to have waited until he was old enough to don the costume and became Superboy. The Post-Crisis Clark used his powers for his own ends until a disappointed Jonathan Kent showed his son where he and Martha had found him3 and told Clark, in not so many words, “Playing football is not the best use of your abilities,” and it was in that moment that a young Clark Kent, aged seventeen or eighteen, realized his destiny did not lie in Smallville playing football but in the larger world.

That take on the character just made more sense to me and I responded to that more than the Pre-Crisis version of Superman or even the movie version of the character that left home after the death of his father. Over the years the creators that followed Byrne on the titles took that ball and ran with it and developed Clark as this fully formed person with very human doubts and feelings but in the end he always did the right thing. I just plain liked the idea of a Superman that thought of himself as a human and to me it made perfect sense that he would feel this way considering this Clark Kent didn’t discover his alien origins until he was an adult. For over a quarter of a century Clark walked around thinking that he was a human being. Sure he could fly and lift boulders and see through walls, etc. but inside where it counted he felt like anyone else. It wasn’t his powers or heritage that defined him but how Jonathan and Martha Kent had raised him.

I liked that. I continue to like that and because that was the version of the character I “grew up” with. With few exceptions this was the take the creators working on the Superman titles had for Clark until Infinite Crisis and it seemed like that this would continue after that event but sadly this was not to be. Starting with Last Son it seemed that Clark was once again relegated to a mild mannered disguise very much in the mold of Superman: The Movie4 and that brings me back to why I have chosen to drop the Superman books. Not only have they changed the dynamic back to the Pre-Crisis days but Clark hasn’t even been in the books since New Krypton. I would argue that he hasn’t really been part of the books since Geoff Johns’ Superman and the Legion of Super-Heroes storyline. Sure you saw him in the first part of that arc and he was shown in the Brainiac arc a bit, but outside of Jonathan Kent dying5 nothing was really done with him. The focus was on Superman, which to some is fine and dandy, dandy and fine since the books are about the Man of Steel but to me Clark is such a vital part of the equation that when he is missing I find my interest in the stories slipping. The current powers that be at DC seem to have no interest in using Clark in the stories.

I’m not sure why this is the case. Maybe it has something to do with the legal battle going on between DC and the Siegels. Maybe they are trying to play it safe and focus only on Superman in case they can’t use Clark Kent anymore. I have no direct proof of this so don’t take any of what I just wrote as gospel. Maybe they think that in the current marketplace people would want to see Superman more than Clark and I guess I could buy that as a reason. Comic book storytelling is so radically different now. When I was coming up as a fan not only were the comics cheaper but there were more titles to work with. When you have three or four Superman titles6 there is more time to devote to developing the Clark Kent side of things. Nowadays comics are built to be published in single issue format and then re-packaged as trade paperbacks. To this end the stories are more self-contained so that someone picking up the trade because they want to see Superman strut his stuff won’t be bogged down in what’s going on with Clark Kent.

Am I right? I am not sure. Again I have no hard evidence for these theories, just a series of educated guesses. What I am sure about is that without Clark a fundamental aspect of Superman is missing and that is my bridge too far. To me Clark is more than a blue suit and a pair of glasses. He’s the heart and soul of the character. He’s the important human component that makes Superman such a great hero. He’s the aspect of Superman that allows me to better connect with the character and for the moment he’s just not there.

Oh well. As bummed out as I am I take solace in the fact that I have a whole bunch of back issues to read and enjoy. My friend Walt Kneeland suggested via a Facebook message that maybe From Crisis to Crisis: A Superman Podcast, which I host with Jeffrey Taylor, can serve as a support group and I kind of like that idea. Jeffrey and I are smack dab in the middle of the books from 1990 at the moment and those were the stories that made me such a Clark Kent fan in the first place. Plus I know that comics are cyclical in nature, so at some point the tide might turn again and the type of Superman stories I like to read will come into fashion again.

Sigh. A man can dream.

Tomorrow: YouTube Tuesday returns and I stop being such a Mope. Promise.

More to follow…

Fortress Footnotes

  1. This makes perfect sense when you consider that the main thrust of that film was establishing Superman not his secret identity.
  2. And that is why I prefer the Lester cut of Superman II to the Donner cut. All of the scenes featuring the friendship of Lois and Clark were Lester’s. Donner’s version had its moments, but I missed the Lois and Clark dynamic from the theatrical cut.
  3. Actually Jonathan showed Clark the craft that gave birth to him, but that sounded clunky as a sentence, so here’s the footnote for those that are as familiar with Man of Steel #1 as I am.
  4. The fact that Gary Frank drew both Clark and Superman to look like Christopher Reeve drove this point home. Some people liked this. I thought it was creepy.
  5. I don’t have time to get into my feelings on that subject, so I’ll let it be for the moment.
  6. Five if you count Superman: The Man of Tomorrow.
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8 Responses to AND WHO DISGUISED AS CLARK KENT – 07/05/2010

  1. omike015 says:

    “Sure he could fly and lift boulders and see through walls, etc. but inside where it counted he felt like anyone else. It wasn’t his powers or heritage that defined him but how Jonathan and Martha Kent had raised him.”

    I think it would be pretty easy to make a strong case that that was a true statement pre-Crisis, as well.

    But, you’re right. Clark Kent is an integral part of the mythology and to continue to toss him aside is a shame. It may be you are right when you say DC has no interest in telling Clark Kent stories now. But if it’s any consolation, they don’t seem too interested in telling Superman stories, either.

  2. Nick says:

    You couldn’t be more right, Michael. I would never describe myself as a hardcore comic collector, but I’m trying to get a nice little run of awesome in the Crisis to Crisis era, since that is the Superman I “grew up with” as well. But I’m trying to give DC (and more specifically JMS) his opportunity to do good work, so I’m in for the first two issues of the new story. But if I’m not hooked at that point, it’s easy for me to walk away.

    And it would give me the time to hunt down that Action Comics #644 I need….

  3. Bibliomike says:

    Michael — A nice essay! I agree with all your points, and would add that the relative absence of Clark Kent was also one of the biggest shortcomings of “Superman Returns.” And that’s too bad, because Routh didn’t play him as *quite* the doofus that Reeve did — close, but not quite (notice how good Clark was with Jason, for instance, in the few scenes they had together — *before* Clark/Kal-El knew Jason was his son). Oh, well, since we likely won’t be seeing any more of Routh’s Clark or Superman, it’s moot, I suppose.

    I am interested that you “bought” Lois choosing Clark in S II, but your argument that those scenes of their friendship carried the day make sense. I used to think it made little sense that Kal-El, knowing Lois loved Superman but only liked or (in S: TM) tolerated Clark, chose to become completely human when, arguably, that wasn’t what Lois wanted at all … but I guess I can see that what really won Lois’ heart in the first film was Superman’s personality, as revealed in the interview/flying scene, and the superpowers only second… so. I guess it works.

    For what it’s worth, since I’m all about praising the new Superman musical right now, the lead actor plays Clark much more like George Reeves than Christopher Reeve, which is really a treat. He plays Clark as a sharp reporter, who is mild-mannered and wears glasses, yes, but doesn’t bumble around the Planet newsroom and who — as in those earliest comics in Superman # 1 — presses his own case to Lois. It’s a wonderful characterization.

  4. BBally says:

    It seems that the Superman comics have been going tough times lately, that being said I’m still optimistic about Secret Origin and Clark does get to show his sharp reporter side:

  5. Bibliomike says:

    BBaily — I am with you about liking “Secret Origin.” I enjoyed it a lot. Haven’t read the final issue yet, but I’m confident it will end strong.

  6. Superman, Planet-Kent and Smallville-Kent; that’s what I like to see. Maybe even Superman, Planet-Kent, Smallville-Kent and Ma & Pa-Kent, if you really want to divide him up.

  7. Luke says:

    I can see where you are coming from with this, Michael. I started reading Superman in the post-Reign Of The Supermen era and one thing I liked a lot about those mid-to-late-90s comics was the balance of Clark Kent and Superman. (And even the Clark Kent stuff had balance between Reporter Clark, Hubby Clark, and Son Clark.) At least, that’s how I remember it.

    That having been said I am getting back into Superman thaks to New Krypton and am totally sold on JMS’s upcoming story. I am not interested in reading about Lex Luthor so I am not buying Action. Superboy has never done much for me. Supergirl looks pretty good but I am probably passing. But DC will have at least one new buyer for Superman out of this deal!

  8. Bibliomike says:

    Luke — I’m with you on dropping “Action” (for the time being, anyway — I’ll reconsider when the Luthor arc is over), but let me make a plea for you to reconsider not picking up “Supergirl.” It’s a great book, consistently, month in and month out. Kara is a strongly developed, well-written character, and it sounds like the creative team has some great, solo adventures planned for her after the massive “New Krypton” crossover.

    I was going to pass on “Superboy,” too, but then I heard Krypto would be a prominent player — and I have a soft spot for Krypto, so I’m probably along for that ride. 🙂

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