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Superman Turns 70: The Mask of Clark Kent’s Glasses

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clark-header.jpgIn the final essay in our celebration of the 70th anniversary of Action Comics #1, Comics Editor Jason Green explores Superman's mild-mannered alter ego Clark Kent, and how a storyline revolving around the human side of the Last Son of Krypton forever changed his view of the character.

 

 

 

 

Superman illustration by Justin Crouse.

Illustration by Justin Crouse.

Heroes with secret identities were in vogue long before Superman burst onto the scene as the first of the modern superheroes. Though following on the heels of such masked adventurers as Zorro, the Lone Ranger, the Shadow, and the Phantom, Superman turned that tradition on its ear: rather than a man in a mask, he was "disguised as a mild-mannered reporter." The hero, the strange alien from another world, was the character's reality, and the glasses-wearing human underneath was the fictitious construct.

When I first read Superman comics, I didn't really "get" the Superman/Clark Kent dichotomy. It probably didn't help that most of my exposure to the character was through team-ups that revolved around the Man of Steel's ability to punch things really hard, whether to help out his pal Batman in the pages of World's Finest or his Justice League cohorts on episodes of Superfriends. Like many readers my age, my first real dive into the world of Superman's monthly adventures was the "Death and Return of Superman" storyline, again a story that, at its beginning, concentrated on Superman wailing on a villain for page after page, only to be followed by months of stories where the hero wasn't even there. When compared to a character like Spider-Man, where the tough times of his alter ego bear even more dramatic fruit than the costume-clad battles with supervillains, Superman's wimpy alter ego seemed unnecessary, even quaint.

The cover to Man of Steel #44 by Jon Bogdanove. Click for a larger image.As our own Carlos Ruiz pointed out, invincibility makes Superman an extremely difficult character to write. How do you create credible threats for a man who can't be hurt? The secret lies not in Superman, but in Clark Kent, whose connections with humanity makes him susceptible emotionally in spite of his invincibility physically. One of the masterstrokes of John Byrne's recreation of Superman in the 1986 miniseries Man of Steel was in reestablishing the connection to humanity that the character lacked, pre-Crisis on Infinite Earths. This new Superman didn't develop his powers until his late teens, and his adoptive parents were still alive and well in Smallville, Kansas. Having spent so much time as an ordinary human before his powers developed helped emphasize the "man" in Superman, making his act as bumbling country boy trying to make it in the big city of Metropolis that much more credible.

Where this all fell into place for me as a reader was in a little-remembered storyline that ran through the Super-books in 1995, "The Death of Clark Kent." The story is the essence of simplicity: a villain named Conduit discovers Superman's secret identity and makes the hero's life a living hell. What makes it work is the villain's connection to Clark's Smallville days: Conduit is Kenny Braverman, a former classmate of Clark's from his high school days who had to spend his entire childhood coming in second to Clark Kent. When he discovers that Clark is Superman, he is livid: his entire life, he'd been convinced by his domineering father that he was a loser, when it turns out he'd really been cheated. After all, how could any man measure up when he's competing against Superman? But now that Braverman has been turned into the (conveniently Kryptonite-powered) supervillain Conduit, he can exact revenge on the man who ruined his life by attacking the people he holds dear, manipulating Clark as only someone who has known him since childhood could.

The shiny, shiny cover to Superman #100. Click for a larger image.Since it dates from the 1990s, the series does suffer from some of that decade's excesses. The first issue shipped with one of those nice, shiny lenticular covers that beefed up its "collectibility" (and jacked up its cover price). [1] The storyline ran through all four ongoing Superman books, which meant a total of 13 cooks in the kitchen [2] stretching the story out with unnecessary fights against Conduit's lackeys. Not to mention Superman is sporting that oh-so-fashionable post-death mullet of his.

Re-reading the story for the first time in a decade or so, the flaws in the story are obvious. But despite any shortcomings, the two issues that bookend the story still perfectly nail the essence of what makes the Superman/Clark Kent dichotomy such a vital part of a truly great Superman story. As Conduit systematically attacks everyone close to Superman, you see him running scared for the first time ever, and because he's scared, he's making mistakes, darting across the country between Smallville and Metropolis as Conduit consistently stays one step ahead of him. In a brief conversation with Lois (written by Dan Jurgens), he sums up his fears:

 

"Superman is the mask I've worn all along to have a private life. Soon that mask will be stripped away and my private life...my life with my parents and you—will be opened up for the whole world to feast on. Once that happens, Clark Kent will be gone, and my whole sense of being will be wrapped up in this red cape.

"See, all my memories of life are as Clark Kent! It wasn't Superman who went off to the first day of kindergarten or graduated from high school—it was Clark! Me! Do you realize that it means more to me to win an award for a column I've written than it does to fly to the moon? One of my fondest dreams isn't getting along with the JLA—it's to write the great American novel! It's because I can achieve those things honestly—without benefit of my powers!"

 

Later, with his parents and Lois presumed dead and Jimmy Olsen held hostage, Superman feels utterly hopeless. Having already forsaken his human guise as Clark Kent, he rips off the Superman uniform and destroys it with his heat vision, giving up in the face of the seemingly undefeatable Conduit. That Superman ultimately wins, that the Kents and Lois are actually still alive, and that the Man of Steel takes back both of his names won't surprise anyone who has read more than one comic book in their life, but the twist with which the status quo is returned is one of the most perfectly executed moments in the history of the series.

Stuart Immonen's cover to Adventures of Superman #525. Click for a larger image.  In the story's surprisingly action-free epilogue—Adventures of Superman #525 by writer Karl Kesel, penciller Stuart Immonen, and inker Jose Marzan, Jr.—Superman is finally reunited with Lois, and yet he remains unconvinced that he can go back to maintaining a secret identity after all he's put his loved ones through. Fortunately, no one quite knows how to get in Clark's head like his fiancée Lois, who proves her point by sending him to get coffee...in costume as Superman. In the small town coffee shop, he's greeted with suspicion, awe, fear, and even worry from the local cops, who hope his presence doesn't mean there's an alien invasion on the way. Immonen makes the discomfort palpable, and the page-ending shot of Superman flying alone through the bright, clear sky perfectly illustrates the isolation that being Superman causes. "You need a secret identity," Lois tells him afterwards. "It's what protects you from people...and it's what connects you to people."

The "Death of Clark Kent" storyline was not only the first time I "got" Clark Kent, it was also the first time I had gotten this fully invested in a storyline in any comic, where I had to go to the comic shop every Wednesday to get the next chapter instead of depending on the mixed bag of comics at the grocery store. I've continued to follow the Superman books off and on over the years, and I've always gotten the most enjoyment out of stories like the recent Up, Up, and Away and other stories that concentrate on the Man of Steel's more mild-mannered side. | Jason Green

Special thanks to Comics.org, whose database supplied the images that accompany this article.

 

[1] Ironically, it was that stupid shiny cover to Superman #100 that got me to buy the comic in the first place...heh. That's what being 15 years old does to a person, I guess.

[2] At the time, Superman starred in four monthly books -- Action Comics, Superman, Adventures of Superman, and Superman: The Man of Steel -- that shipped so that a new Superman book was on the stands virtually every week. The creative team behind the issues in question (whose covers you can see scattered throughout this page) were writers Dan Jurgens, Karl Kesel, Louise Simonson, and Dave Michelinie, with Jurgens contributing art along with artist Stuart Immonen (some of his earliest work), Jose Marzan Jr., Jackson Guice, Denis Rodier, Jon Bodganove, Dennis Janke, Brett Breeding, Josef Rubinstein, and comics legend Gil Kane.

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