Saturday, November 14, 2009

On the Importance of Clark Kent, Part One

Nah, Bill. You may have been right about Beatrix Kiddo, but you were dead wrong about Clark Kent. He ain’t a mere mild-mannered disguise for the Last Son of Krypton. He ain’t a critique by Superman on the human race. He ain’t some mask that Superman puts on in the morning. Clark Kent is more than a pair of glasses, a blue suit and red tie, and a fedora. He’s not just some milquetoast behind the typewriter, pining for the affections of Lois Lane. No, Bill. You got it all wrong. If Superman has a psyche, then Clark Kent is the very thing that keeps it, and him, from exploding like Krypton into a billion planetary fragments.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A desperate scientist and his wife place their infant son into a rocket ship that is sent hurtling toward Earth just as Krypton goes ka-boom. The infant lands safely in the heartland of America, found by a kind couple, Jonathan and Martha Kent, who raise the child with a Midwestern sensibility. Named Clark Kent, he grows into maturity where he develops powers and abilities far above those of mortal men. And like many small town dwellers, Clark migrates to the big city of Metropolis—a New York stand-in—and soon begins his double life as a mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper and the defender of American values as Superman.

It’s an origin told a hundred times before, so much so that it is a vital cog in the American collective consciousness—a shared delusion and aspiration.

Superman debuted in Action Comics, No. 1 in June 1938 . He is the creation of writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster. The children of Jewish immigrants, the pair met in Cleveland during the Great Depression and bonded over their love of science fiction. Soon they collaborated on their own adventure tales inspired by the pulp and comic strip heroes of the time. Brave, omnipotent men who dared the impossible populated their stories. But Siegel and Shuster were nothing like the men they wrote and drew. They were more like the alter ego of their famous powerful protagonist—awkward, shy, and mild-mannered.

Perhaps that is why Clark Kent resonated for a great deal many boys, myself included. I have occasionally been insecure, weak, and cowardly but felt there was a strength and ability hidden underneath a seemingly fragile façade, ready to take flight with the ripping of a shirt.

Yet Superman chooses to live on a daily basis in the persona of the meek, bespectacled human not to merely masquerade as one of us, but rather to become one of us. But, then again, he was raised as a human by human parents. Makes you wonder which is the person and which is the persona--Clark Kent or Superman?

Next, "On the Importance of Clark Kent," part two--Disguised as a mild-mannered reporter

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