I am also happy to report that I read a new live lit piece at the OMNIBUS proceedings last night. The theme was "Batman vs. Superman," put up in a mock trial setting. I served as an expert witness for Superman, my goal being to prove he's cooler than Batman. Our legal team definitely made the audience feel all the feels, but alas, Batman was still judged to be cooler by the jury (read: audience). I do concede his costume is cool, and I must admit it was generally agreed that each hero has his good points. All in all, an evening well spent. Below you will find the piece I wrote for the event, about Superman and his secret identity:
Picture the newsroom of the Daily Planet. The floor to ceilings windows, the art deco globe looming atop the elevators, the rows and rows of identical desks housing rows and rows of identical reporters. An unassuming man sits at one particular cube, studiously typing up his notes. Coke bottle glasses. Slumped posture. Terrible haircut. A stylishly dressed woman walks over and slaps the morning edition on his keyboard, pointing to the byline.
“I’m confused, Kent,” she says, bumping her hip against the lip of his desk. “I can’t figure out how some yokel from Smallville is suddenly getting every hot story in town.”
“Well, Lois,” Clark responds, calling her closer with a lowering of his spectacles and the motion of his hand, “I’m actually Superman in disguise, and I only pretend to be a journalist in order to hear about disasters as they happen and squeeze you out of the byline.”
A blank, disbelieving stare from Lois.
“You’re a sick man, Kent.”
She walks off as he crooks his arms behind his head and swings his feet up on his desk.
“You asked,” he quips.
This scene -- from underrated gem “Superman: The Animated Series,” and all the funnier because the truth is taken for a lie -- is one of many attempts to explain why the Man of Steel would ever masquerade as Clark Kent, seen side by side in the opposing image. That’s original artist Joe Shuster’s handiwork, by the way, and he doesn’t skimp on the details. I don’t dig our hero’s ventilated boots, but don’t you love how dismayed Clark is by Superman? Like he might faint. Like he can’t contain himself. (A bit of comics trivia: Shuster based Clark’s physique on schlubbier writing partner Jerry Siegel, and Superman’s on his own. Despite his nebbish behavior, Joe was obsessed with body-building and how others viewed his appearance.)
One of the biggest criticisms leveled against the Big Blue Boy Scout, aside from his innate decency and superpower set, is that he has absolutely no need for a secret identity, that it’s part of what makes him far-fetched, pointless, and silly. There’s no juice behind the identity, no urgent need to keep a secret, no reason to have a job like the rest of us regular Joes. Or two full-time jobs, I guess. So why? Why, why, why would he dress up like a nerd and perpetrate scams like pretending to feel pain after stubbing his toe, worrying a lack of harm will convince the world he's Superman? His performance as Clark just causes unnecessary stress, when he could spend his downtime chilling at the Fortress of Solitude, figuring out how to re-enlarge the damn bottle city of Kandor already! Even now, DC is so obsessed with resolving his dual identities that its ongoing story arc in all Clark’s books is about his being outed globally as Superman. Over the past year, readers have experienced the myriad troubles his outing brings, from being hunted by the military, taunted by the DC brand of Anonymous, and shadowed by an immortal serial killer.
Superman’s been through quite a few cosmetic changes in the last two years, too -- efforts meant to make him more relatable to the average reader. He’s grown a hipster beard and gotten a buzz cut;, so bye-bye tousled S-curl! Somehow neither change immediately raised suspicion that Clark and the Man of Steel “share the same barber,” despite their increasing similarity in appearance. And I suppose that’s always been part of the joke with Superman’s identities. He is hiding in plain sight, with only the cheapest of masks, a set of bifocals, to hide his heroic nature. It doesn’t hurt that he looks exactly like any other human being, but there’s a cruel edge to that symmetry. One could argue he’s simultaneously better than the rest of us, and puts humanity on like a costume. Some see Clark Kent as a joke he plays on mankind, and certainly that was true in the Silver Age of comics, when Lois desperately schemed to prove his identity so Superman would marry her already. Meanwhile, poor Clark sheepishly stood in the corner, unseen, begging for a date. Lois’ entanglement with both Clark and Superman is often referred to as the “triangle for two,” and it certainly marks her as consumed with appearance over substance. She couldn’t believe that her co-worker and her romantic lead were one and the same! What a dum-dum, all jilted lovers everywhere screech!
Of course, she had her own appearance to worry about in the fifties and sixties, since plot contrivances dictated she magically – horror of horrors – put on a few pounds or miraculously turned into a centaur. For every overlooked reader alive, Lois’ “friend-zoning” of Clark seemed realistic. Certainly, the easy metaphor of a geek holding all this potential the world doesn’t see was apt for Superman’s creators, given that they were misunderstood Midwestern geniuses themselves. But that take on the character has long outgrown its usefulness. In fact, Siegel and Shuster tried to end the masquerade only two years into their run on Superman in 1940. They wrote a story where Lois and Clark are trapped in a mine, and our mild-mannered reporter finds himself harmed by kryptonite, then known as “k-metal.” Once he recovers, as they struggle for oxygen, he reveals his alter ego to Lois, and flies his partner out of the shaft. Lois’ reaction to all this is amazing. First, she chastises Superman for hiding his secret, because she can better aid his crusade if she knows the full story. At issue’s end, after their enemies have been carted off to jail, she has a change of heart. “I just remembered how long you’ve secretly been laughing at me,” she roars. “I don’t like to be laughed at, Clark Kent—but—I’ll assist you … only for the good of humanity, however.” Which is my favorite kiss-off to a superhero ever published. Superman seems pretty confident she’ll warm back up to him, except this issue was never published. DC refused to disrupt the secret identity dynamics, and that resulted in years of time travel tales, imaginary stories, and plain old in-continuity adventures that showcased Clark fooling Lois time and time again. Picture 60 years of that trope. I mean, as much as writers and artists love telling stories where Lois discovers Clark’s alter ego, cartoonists like Kate Beaton regularly lampoon the messed up priorities of uncovering his identity.
Now don’t get me wrong. I love Clark Kent. I have always believed that Clark is the real identity, and Superman the uniform Clark wears to operate as a hero. Which can seem hokey or outdated or whatever, but we all put on different suits to enable us to get through our days. Sarah drinking at the bar after this show because it’s her birthday is very different from Sarah instructing college-aged students on how to tell the difference between active and passive voice. But each version of myself serves a purpose. So isn’t it possible that Clark wants to seem human in order to engage as best he can with others, primarily so he can hold on to his relationships? With the love of his life, with his adopted parents, with his his co-workers. More than any other hero at DC Comics, he thrives in the presence of people (which is why all his confessions to Lois about his double life can be so powerful). Or perhaps he craves an opportunity where his service is group-oriented, rather than stacked solely on his broad shoulders. Of course, these reasons are often implanted by whomever is writing or reading Superman’s adventures on a monthly basis. The ultimate paradox remains. If you had all the power in the world available to you, would you deign to humble yourself? Would you choose to be Clark Kent?
Some of you might immediately scoff, nope. What kind of sense would that make? Others might consider the possibility, while also admitting you’d rather use his powers to set people’s toupees on fire, rather than listening for police sirens and hot news tips. But the point is, Superman forces you to ask the question. Does practicing humility give you power? Does it gift you empathy? Does altruism for the sake of altruism exist? By following Clark’s misadventures, you can ask, does that kind of charity exist in you?
“But Sarah,” you collectively cry, “emulating a white guy with superpowers isn’t exactly revolutionary!” You’re right about that – even though you could argue Superman is a stand-in for the Jewish prophet Moses, being a baby sent in a rocket ship basket to deliver the multitude from danger. Academic hoo-ha aside: how is cheering a champion fighting for the downtrodden any less complex a fantasy than watching an emotionally stunted billionaire beat the shit out of low lives every night? Bob Kane admitted that he wanted Batman to be both financially carefree and unburdened by the rule of law; his updating of Zorro’s multiple identities has paid off at the box office and on the comic book rack. Although Batman has a tragic backstory, he is not inherently more complicated than Clark. Because his paradox is easier to explain. When you ask why a man might dress up like a bat to terrify Gotham City’s cowardly lot, a murdered family makes about as much sense as any other explanation. (Also, his costume looks cool.) When you try to unite Superman’s two identities, we get self-conscious about comic book tropes and stutter about realistic stakes and moan over that flimsy pair of glasses.
Of course, Clark has a tragic backstory, fleshed out by Bill Finger -- the same author who penned Batman’s origin, by the way. Kal-El lost his entire home planet. But he was also rescued by humble people, who taught him to use his gifts for the betterment of mankind. Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely summed him up in two pages. That’s enough to make Clark Kent a Superman. But if it’s that simple, why do we crave his transformation? Why is it so important to watch the man slip into a phone booth and emerge a golden god? Why did we need to watch every single person in his life mourn his death in the nineties, when we suspected he was coming back, this time with a bitchin’ mullet? Why do we love watching Clark unveil himself in front of Lois? Why do the clothes make the man?
In preparation for this trial of the century, I tweeted Superman writer Kurt Busiek to ask what was so special about Superman. He wrote back that our hero “is an alien, and the alienation that he feels as a result paradoxically makes him human.” The Man of Tomorrow is often preoccupied by his super-senses in Busiek’s work, though a temporary loss of powers motivates one of the sweetest exchanges I’ve ever seen in a comic book, where his blurred vision, his actual need for glasses, connects him to Lois as a fellow human being. And while I find Kurt’s exploration of Superman as an alien – I mean, we all feel alienated from time to time – a fascinating take on the character, I think he’s excised the heart of the character’s enduring mystery. No one can believe Clark Kent and Superman are one and the same, because that would mean admitting the Man of Steel is vulnerable. Of course, the whole point of Superman is that his skin can stop bullets. He can’t even die properly, he just goes into Kryptonian super-sleep. But in choosing to do good, in choosing to build relationships with the human beings around him, he also makes himself vulnerable, in an invisible way, perhaps in a weightier way than if he could shed blood. He falls in love, he watches friends get hurt. In certain out-of-continuity stories, he watches everyone else on Earth fade away while he lives for millennia alone. And kryptonite excepted, the only things that affect our hero are his unscrupulous villains and his imperfect loved ones, who throw themselves into danger simply because they feel like it. I’m looking at you, Lois.
Superman’s choice to embrace what others – likely what Batman – would call soft-heartedness may seem like a tactical error. If he separates himself from people, if he wants nothing from them, if he doesn’t bother to mimic them, he could be a more efficient, but certainly more tortured and boring superhero. Sure, Clark’s clumsiness and gee-goshness are a bit of a performance; remember his decision to pretend a stubbed toe hurt? But his life as Clark allows him to pull people closer, to appear unassuming so he can see what’s best in them, in order to emulate humans as Superman. See, the magic of opening one’s shirt to reveal the thrilling S-shield doesn’t lie in watching Clark turn into Superman, but in watching Superman reveal what was already present in Clark. Neither identity can be contained, because they are one and in constant friction. Superman is both the big guy protecting the little guy and the little guy himself. He is every single one of us. And while that might not make a ton of logical sense, it gets at the heart of why he matters so much to me, and why he should matter to you.
In Action Comics 662, fifty-one years after his original creators intended Clark to reveal to Lois that he is Superman, our hero actually accomplished this feat. The newly engaged couple had to grapple with this information for a pretty mundane series of stories that ended up delaying their wedding for far too long, but it’s still my favorite depiction of Lois’ reaction. Because she acknowledges the problems of life with a super-powered alien, while completely understanding how two men could actually be one. “Actually I’m kind of relieved …” she admits. “I mean, it’s like a puzzle that suddenly makes sense because the missing piece is finally in place … In my heart I think I’ve known for a long time, but my brain would always dismiss the notion.”
Lois says what we’re all thinking. This makes sense. Not on an intellectual or narrative level, certainly, but on a deeper, intuitive one. Superman and his masquerade prove that we are all stronger than we seem. To the world, to ourselves. That we share the potential to change things for the better, that even when we hide, our best selves shine through. And maybe that’s a fantasy, too, but it’s far from silly or pointless.