Pressganging Superman

Since this year’s release of Man of Steel, the legacy of the Superman comics and – more specifically the figure of Clark Kent/Superman – has been on my mind.

All Star Superman by Frank Quitely

I’m biased in so many ways it’s not even worth me detailing.
I’m just putting that there so you know that this is an opinion piece and not something I can claim to be an authority on just because I worked in a comic book shop for a year. I am not an authority on Superman comics. Hell, I can’t even claim to be an authority on the comics I re-read every year. I would, however, suggest that this post could add to the ongoing critique and interesting literary criticism around Superman if only for its sub-headings.

From the Superman comics I’ve read, there are – of course – many facets to his character. Some of it brilliantly detailed by Superdickery, in all its Silver Age weirdness. His is the biggest legacy because his are the biggest powers and he was super first, so much so that I even enjoyed a JLA comic [JLA: The Nail] in the midst of a fairly hocum run. So it is that writers want to write for him: I particularly enjoyed the autobiographical It’s a Bird; but so many writers simply want to write for him because he’s the biggest.

Though many disagree with me [and I’m planning the process of my next novel to challenge my own thoughts on this], I’ve always thought that any writer worth their salt will know their exact ending before they even start. Without it, how can you build the foundations? Perhaps what many writers do is sign onto the job because it’s FRIGGING SOUPERMAN!
[No, not Pea-SouperMan, I’m just misspelling and being declamatory for effect, if ever such a parody character existed I would have written him…YES I’VE WRITTEN HIM. Declamatory funtimes.]

Perhaps that’s also why I see the standalone stories as the better Superman stories.

This post has been prompted by my [now thrice] reading For All Seasons.
What it gets right about Superman is what All Star Superman gets right about Superman and what the recent film, Man of Steel got so very wrong. That is simply one thing:

Superman isn’t the hero of the story, Clark Kent is.

It is only Clark Kent’s humble kindness, his older-wiser parents, and his recognition of the fragile beauty of life which separates him from being another ultraviolence superhero with parental issues.

*SPOILER WARNING: Don’t read the next 4 paragraphs if you’ve not read All Star…, For All Seasons, or seen Man of Steel. [I don’t really give much away but if you’ve read my blog this far, you’ve probably read ’em and seen it anyway. If you haven’t, get out there and find them!]*

In All Star…, one of the most heartbreaking moments of the whole thing is when Morrison sends the Superman we know back in time so that he can be there when Pa Kent dies. To spend just another moment with the man that raised him, even though both are dying, is more important to him than preserving his own life.

In For All Seasons, when he returns to Smallville and his Pa knows he’s behind him without seeing him then says ‘Mud on city shoes has its own sound. And I’d know your footsteps anywhere, Clark.’ This intimacy and loving human bond is what makes the character so great, Clark honours that. Then later, Jeff Loeb [the writer] shows a conversation between Ma Kent and Lana Lang that really puts my earlier statement into perspective:

Ma Kent: The right woman can often help the right man find the answers he’s looking for.
Lana: I don’t know if a girl from Smallville has very many answers for a “Superman”.
Ma Kent: “Clark”. You, of all people, should know that whether or not he wears a cape and a big red “S” on his chest, he’s still our Clark.

In the film Man of Steel, there is little of this intimacy or recognition of his character and Clark comes across as [if you’ll excuse the particularly academic term] a bit of a dick.
E.g. Some drunk trucker offends you and throws a beer over you when you can fly around the world 12 times in a minute and still have time to punch a warhead into the sun? Well of course destroying his livelihood is an appropriate response – that’s the steely thing to do – if you’re Zach Snyder or Spiderman on one of his Venom days. It isn’t Clark Kent. The only reason Superman is interesting as a character is because that is exactly not what Clark Kent would do. He’d rise above it. Literally if needs be.

*SPOILERS OVER – c’est parti*

Why am I writing then? This has all been done, you say, and it has all been said.

What I want to say is simple:

since the 80s, Clark Kent has been press-ganged into becoming an Ubermensch.

Yes, and all the awful connotations that last word brings up.

Having an overview in a comic book shop helped me see this but it is only now that I’m delving into the short, tight stories that I’m reminded of what I first found interesting in Superman and what I adored in All Star Superman: Clark’s humanity.

Perhaps Snyder’s second film will address this [and Superman won’t kill millions of humans by not doing the right thing and acting off-planet] but at the moment it still adds to the massive swathe of ill intention that wants to make every quiet, humble superhero into an aggressive, militaristic teen who feels the need to shout about his issues regularly, tell his parents that they’re not his parents, and be so very boringly moody. We’ve all been in bands, we all got over it. Clark never needed to be in a band, he talked it out with his Ma & Pa; they knew that compassion, patience, and learning through hardship & experience is the key.

Perhaps Grant Morrison’s recent run on the new Action Comics will address this and I’m going to go out tomorrow and find every issue of that [if it’s not in trade yet] but I think it’s important to reiterate what’s great and missing about Superman in wider contemporary conceptions outside of interested parties and regular comic-book circles: Clark Kent is kind, quiet, and humble. That is what makes him super. Not Superman.

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2 thoughts on “Pressganging Superman

  1. First of all, I need to ask you this. Who is Clark Kent?!

    Is he the farm boy raised in Smallville, Kansas? Is he the journalist obsessed with Superman? Is he the man in love with Lois Lane? Or is he merely a creation of an alien entity to assimilate himself into the human race?

    Its impossible to separate Clark Kent from Superman in exactly the same way we have difficulty distinguishing nature from nurture. SM is Kryptonian, and in that regard he is unknowable. No comic writer through his history has attempted the impossible full biological profile of Supes’ alien species, probably because that would be one niche comic.
    His values, his code of honour, as far as we can discern are from nurture, its the Truth, Justice and American Way of middle America, idealistic and outside of the industrial sphere. Clark is from agrarian stock yet he diminishes all of Earths technological advancements through his mere existence. No wonder he’s constantly at odds with self made entrepreneur Lex Luther.

    At best we are talking about a Janus, a god with two faces, two masks if you will. Neither constitute a whole. One represents an intimidating masculine wish fulfilment: Superman, unlimited power, muscle-clad, gets the girl and exerts influence on the world. The other is an idea of masculine anxiety: soft, lumbering Clark Kent, withdrawn, unable to act, unnoticed by Lois Lane. Clark Kent is a gateway for the reader, swimming in accessibility, nostalgia, and frustration. Yet at any moment he can break out of that timid shell with a dream body and confidence to boot.

    A strict code of honour and a lie at the centre of his identity? Is Supes wary of humanity or condescending to it?

    Another All Star quote for you my friend:

    Lois Lane: What if there really was some part of him (Superman) that was bumbling, oafish Clark Kent? I just don’t know if I could live with that…

  2. Clark Kent is: the farm boy raised in Smallville, Kansa; the journalist who needs to be obsessed with Superman to understand the concept; the man in love with Lois Lane; and the man whose core principles aren’t always The American Way but simply compassion.

    His core principles are formed by these things.

    Let me unpack that: he *is* from agrarian stock but is made steelier [and more understanding of industry] through his newfound place in the city, amidst people – he is made more compassionate, still; he needs to be obsessed with Superman in order to constantly evaluate himself, to never grow to a tyrant [a la Frank Miller’s Superman in The Dark Knight Returns] and, of course, to keep his job; he is the man who loves Lois Lane because he recognizes what she doesn’t [which I think G.Mo purposefully acknowledges in All Star] that humanity is nowhere near as beautiful without its faults, its stumbles, its limitations [acknowledged as he falls asleep listening to his Pa in For All Seasons]; and all of these things reinforce his compassion. Clark’s compassion. I am a firm believer in nurture, not nature.

    I agree that it’s impossible to separate the two in being, but we can in character: for example, both must often take on the visage of ‘protector’ but Clark does so quietly, humbly, in the background [notice how he saves Luther’s life in the prison riot in All Star while Clark] whereas Superman must do so above and in front of everyone in order to give them a symbol and to let them know that they *do* have a protector.

    I think you’re wrong when you say neither represents the whole – you’re forgetting that you’re talking to an actor who knows we all wear many masks each layered over the top of one another each and every day. 😛 [Judith Butler’s ‘performative identity’ if you want some theory on it.]

    The big question might well be: why doesn’t he just stop being Clark Kent? And anyone who asks that doesn’t understand the essential, humble nature of Clark – he *is* Clark Kent, he doesn’t dislike the bumbling or the play of it, he acknowledges our shared humanity by being a part of it, he needs that time to understand himself. Some of us, I definitely do, need time alone to readjust, to evaluate, to enjoy time with myself: the only time Clark gets this time is when he is dimply Clark – Superman’s ‘Go to a safe place’ becomes ‘Be yourself’.

    Which leads me to respond to your gender evaluations wherein you presume Clark to be ‘anxiety’ personified – I have at this moment realized that many of my childhood assumptions about Superman are based on the fact that the 90s cartoons of Batman and the separate Superman cartoons feature the same figure drawn for both roles. This is my bias and thus I am making us aware so that when we discuss it again [as we will] we can both comment, laugh, and deconstruct it. Nevertheless, Clark isn’t swimming in frustration: Clark’s played-foibles are the mask the zen man takes when he must interact with others who are not zen, who expect particular responses; Clark is quiet, yes, thoughtful, definitely, and [especially in All Star] tentative-to-bumbling in Lois’ presence but all this to *enable* interaction, not to shy away from it.

    He is neither wary nor condescending, only compassionate.

    You would give me conflict, I would give you hope.
    [And hope that this doesn’t affect your dissertation too much ;D]

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