Thursday, February 22, 2007

Kent State

Oh, here we go again, another lamentation about the loss of the Earth-1 Clark, a guy literally too good to be true. Let’s call him the Maggin Clark, after Elliot S! Maggin, chief architect of the 1970s Superman, who most prominently described the differences between Kal-El and his alter ego.

Here’s an excerpt from Maggin’s second Superman novel, Miracle Monday (available to read on Superman Through The Ages):

Superman loved Clark Kent as much as he loved anyone or anything else. He loved his alter ego as he loved the memory of the two good people who had taken him as their son; as he loved this adopted world that had accepted him as its hero; as he loved Lois Lane. Clark Kent was a person as real and individual as any man ever created by the mind of man. Superman even gave Clark a demon: Clark videotaped television commercials that particularly amused him, and showed them to friends who were polite enough to sit through them. Superman spent appreciably more time creating the reality of Clark Kent than he spent doing anything else. Clark Kent spent more time walking the Earth than Superman spent flying above it. Superman valued his creation as he valued a human life.

The Maggin Clark follows decades of Superman tradition, going back at least as far as the ‘40s radio-show narration (“And who, disguised as Clark Kent...”). Superman encumbers himself with Clark, donning a bulky suit and clunky glasses over his skintight costume and super-powered eyes. Clark isn’t quite a Harrison Bergeron-like burden, but he does personify Superman’s voluntary acquiescence to the necessities of human life. On Earth-1, Clark was Superman’s connection to humanity, and had been since childhood. Later in Miracle Monday, Maggin indicates that if something ever happened to Clark, Superman would have to re-establish that connection almost from scratch.

The Maggin Clark fits pretty well with a Superboy career. On Earth-1, Kal-El’s powers developed fairly quickly, so he knew (and was constantly reminded) early in life about the responsibilities of using them. His foster parents taught him how to fit in, but were his only confidants (outside of the Legion of Super-Heroes, but he didn’t need to be Clark Kent with them). Thus, when they died, “Clark” was a way to remember them. No wonder Superman was so attentive to Clark.

Does it follow, then, that if we change a whole slew of those elements, we can flip the characterization so that “Superman” is the disguise? I wonder, and my hesitancy comes straight from the first Christopher Reeve movie. Superman (1978) eliminated Superboy, withheld knowledge of Krypton from Clark until adulthood, and allowed Martha Kent to survive. Clark had to hide his powers, of course, but the weird, emasculated teen of the movie’s Smallville scenes wasn’t the formal “I don’t watch television; I was reading Dickens” alter ego who showed up in Metropolis. Does this mean that, at some point during Clark’s twelve years (!!) with Jor-El’s Giant Floating Holographic Head, one of them came up with the glasses-and-slouching idea? I suppose if you’re going to learn Acting!, you could do worse than Brando, just post-Godfather (and pre-Apocalypse Now...).

So Movie Clark, as much as I really love him, now seems like even more of a construct than Maggin Clark, because Movie Clark doesn’t have all of Maggin Clark’s underpinnings. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. However, it does make the developments of the 1986 revamp more understandable.

That revamp went a little further than the movie did. Both Ma and Pa Kent are alive today (All-Star Superman notwithstanding), there was still no Superboy career, Clark’s powers developed slowly (no lifting pickup trucks for baby Kal-El), and he didn’t learn about Krypton until well into his Superman career. (I’m going by Man of Steel here; I’m pretty sure Birthright is different with regard to the Krypton revelation, and who knows what it’s all supposed to be now.) The point was, Clark got to grow up more as a human and not as Kal-El. Man of Steel doesn’t touch on this significantly, but Clark also got to grow up discovering his powers in a world that was used to super-people -- another change from Earth-1, which had no explosion of superheroics a la the Justice Society until Superman came along. The Kents might have had a bit of “we have to hide him because the JSA got forced underground,” but the flip side of that might also have been “hey! everyone loves superheroes!”

In this respect, it’s almost inevitable that Clark would end up hiding in plain sight as Superman, even going without a mask (and thereby tacitly recalling the Congressional demands that stymied the JSA). As a disguise, “Superman” thus has the potential to become such a ... flamboyant isn’t the right word, I know -- how about “distracting?” -- superhero parody that it lets Clark be himself. Naturally, as it turns out, Clark and Superman are both pretty decent guys, so the Superman performance seems like a pretty thin tightrope. To be sure, in comics we don’t get to hear the different voices.

Anyway, all of this reinforces the notion, dropped anvilliciously by Byrne in Man of Steel #6, that Revamped Clark is practically hardwired to feel human by the circumstances of his upbringing. He might think he’s the last Kryptonian, but that’s just an explanation for his powers.

Where does Lois Lane come into all of this? After Lana Lang, not to put too fine a point on it. Earth-1 Lana was more of a plot device than a girlfriend; in fact, she wasn’t Clark’s girlfriend at all, was she? Revamped Lana was saddled with the knowledge of Clark’s powers, and she got to be his first love, but the necessity of getting her out of the picture made her Missed-Opportunity Woman. Today Kurt Busiek has made her head of LexCorp, which is a lot better than some other writers (I"m looking at you, Chuck "Amuck" Austen) have treated her.

Lois' portrayals are many and varied, of course, from the nosy obsessive of the '50s to the tough career woman of the '70s and '80s. However, for our purposes the biggest Lois innovation may be her role as Superman's anchor to humanity. Whenever something happens to Lois, Superman ends up going nuts: mad enough to change history in the first Reeve movie; despondent enough in an alt-future to go into exile (Kingdom Come) or even commit suicide (JLA's "Rock Of Ages"); and restoring Lois to the mix was part of the resolutions of "For Tomorrow," DC One Million, and the "King of the World" storyline from about 10 years ago. Still, in light of Maggin Clark being the anchor on Earth-1, and Revamped Clark being his own anchor, does Lois really play as big a part as we think?

I say she does, and I think it's because Lois validates both Clark and Superman. Lois -- I'm tempted to say regardless of iteration, but I'm more comfortable saying it in the '70s and more recently -- confirms that Superman, in whatever guise, can relate to humanity successfully. The combination of skepticism and idealism that makes Lois a great reporter serves as an acid test for Superman: if he can relate to her as "normal" Clark and extraordinary Superman, all is right with his world.

This, I think, helps explain the lack of Clark in Superman Returns. Superman needs to reconnect with Lois, because she represents the degree to which he's successfully connected with humanity. However, all of his business with her concerns Superman, not Clark. Indeed, the Clark of the movies is apparently such a non-entity that his return barely registers with Lois. This is not entirely surprising -- in fact, it suggests that the Clark disguise works a little too well. Besides, Lois is clearly more concerned with the aforementioned unfinished business with Superman than she is with getting reacquainted with some random guy she used to work with.

Naturally, this is not optimal for Superman, so just like in Miracle Monday, he has to learn to reconnect with the world when the world's relationship to Clark isn't what it used to be. Moreover, "Superman" is the public expression of the powers, and one of the missions of Superman Returns was to show off the powers using the latest technology, so not much room for Clark. I agree with plok and his commenters that Clark could have helped Supes deal with his Lois issues, but it's nice to see that he can adapt otherwise.

Man, this has gone on too long, and there's probably still another post in my Lois notes and my thoughts on Clark getting pushed aside ... so if any of you are still awake at this point, that's certainly something to look forward to, huh?


iamza said...

Nothing substantive to add, but just wanted to say I really enjoyed this column.

I'd not really considered the lack of Clark in Superman Returns in this light before, and this makes me want to pull down the DVD and have another look.

Tom Bondurant said...

Thanks for the kind words! Plok goes into that in more detail, so now I'm itching to watch SR again too.