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The Man in the [Man of Steel] Mask: Clark Kent vs. Superman as "Real"


While going through some old stuff I recently uncovered, I found this old essay I wrote for a class in my undergrad days…probably 2002 or so. Figured I’d share it on this blog, as it’s at least some “new” content, and I’ve obviously not been posting much lately.

A lot has changed in the intervening years since this was written–including the fact that the Superman in the comics today is NOT the same Superman referenced throughout this essay (as of 2006 and the end of Infinite Crisis).

As I formatted this to post, I spotted a bunch of glaring errors and issues…but left ’em in here, to maintain the integrity of the original document. And…this could become a monster of a project if I were to play editor to my 8-9-years-younger self. 

In Superman comics since 1986, Superman’s identity has been changed—most notably in the portrayal of the Clark Kent portion as “true” while Superman is portrayed as a “mask.” Despite nearly sixteen years since the change, this portrayal of the character has had little impact on the way he is seen. Many people—fans, scholars, and the general public—see Superman as the “real” character while Clark is the fiction. “Superman differs from his predecessors in science fiction by being able to exist within society by disguising himself as the self-deprecating and mild-mannered Clark Kent. It is the Kent alter ego that is supposedly a fiction, while the Superman personality is taken as real.” (Thomas Andrae “From Menace to Messiah” 1987.) Using the Superman comics themselves, I will show Clark Kent as the primary character while Superman is the mask.

In the essay “The Good, the Bad, and the Oedipal” (1987), Lester Roebuck suggests that “The Man of Steel’s heroic stature depends on his ability to keep the Clark Kent portion of his psyche carefully segregated.” I believe that it is actually the maintaining of his Clark Kent psyche that allows for the heroic stature of Superman. Raised as Clark Kent from birth by adoptive parents Jonathan and Martha Kent, and instilled with a sense of American values inherited from them, Superman as a hero is merely Clark Kent in a costume. In The Death of Superman (1993), this is explicitly stated: “The raised him to be a hero…to know the value of sacrifice. To know the value of life.” In World Without a Superman (1993), the reader is shown a flashback to Jonathan talking with a young Clark, and Clark explains “You’re the one who taught me how to care!” Additionally, in 1986’s Man of Steel, after revealing to Clark the rocket that brought him to earth, Jonathan tells him “Whatever this thing really is, wherever you came from, you’re our son now. You’re an American citizen–and that means you’ve got responsibilities.” When Clark prepares to leave Smallville, he shows acceptance of parental guidance when he tells Martha “After all the times you and he have talked to me over the years . . . You told me all those times that I should never use my special abilities to make myself better than other people–to make other people feel useless . . . It’s time for me to face my responsibilities.” With that, Clark began several years of secretly helping others, before he was discovered. He worked in secret, seeking no glory or fame for himself, simply wanting to help his fellow man, as his parents had taught him to do.

After the world’s discovery of this super-man, Clark returned to his parents for advice. Explaining his concern:

“They were all over me! Like wild animals. Like maggots. Clawing. Pulling. Screaming at me. And it was all demands! Everybody had something they wanted me to do, to say, to sell! It was as if my first public appearance had unleashed the worst, the greediest, the most covetous part of everyone . . . They’d taken everything you’ve ever taught me and ripped it apart . . . I know I still have to use my powers to help people who really need me…but now they’re going to be looking for me. Expecting me. And I just don’t know how to deal with it!” (Man of Steel)

Working with his parents, the costume and identity of Superman is created. Years later, Jonathan reflects to Martha “I had the idea . . . The costume. The secret identity.” (World Without a Superman). After the costume is created, Clark proclaims “The whole thing works just fine! It’s got exactly the symbolic look I wanted. So, from now on, whenever there are people who need my very special kind of help, it won’t be a job for plain, ordinary Clark Kent…It’ll be a job for Superman!” (Man of Steel). This illustrates that Superman is intended as a “mask” to be worn in public. As Clark tells Lois in The Death of Clark Kent (1997): “I’m Clark Kent first and Superman second! Superman is the mask I’ve worn all along to have a private life!”

In “Superman and the Dreams of Childhood” (1987), Jane Kessler suggests that “Clark Kent is a pleasant but unremarkable young man who even has a visual problem that requires that he wear glasses . . . The reversal-of-roles fantasy is particularly satisfying because of the surprise element. The weak one or the small one who is usually the butt of ridicule beats out everyone and rises to fame.” Yet, in the Superman comics, it is not Clark’s being able to become Superman that allows him to escape ridicule and rise to fame–he maintains his handsomeness and general appearance as Superman that he has as Clark, and has achieved respect and acclaim for his work as a novelist an a Pulitzer-prize winning reporter, and thus is successful and free of ridicule as Clark, regardless of Superman.

Several others have suggested the weakness and fictitious nature of Clark Kent. Gary Engle refers to Clark as Superman’s “feigned identity as a weakling” (“What Makes Superman So Darned American?” (1987). In her essay “Superman/Superboys/Supermen” (1992), Norma Pecora says “his alter ego, Clark Kent, is presented as a wimp . . . Kent is easily dismissed, but Superman is to be emulated.” Umberto Eco puts forth in “The Myth of Superman” (1979) that “In fact, Superman lives among men disguised as the journalist Clark Kent; as such, he appears fearful, timid, not overintelligent, awkward, nearsighted, and submissive…”

The only weakness that Clark feigns is that of any mortal–he is average, rather than weaker than most. Clark Kent has many friends and contacts as a reporter, does his best to do good work for others as well as get the truth out to all through his writing for the Daily Planet, and is not easily dismissed. Rather than appearing fearful, timid, etc. Clark carries himself as a normal, confident, intelligent individual capable of handling himself around people, whether interviewing someone, asking them out on a date, or discussing the newspaper with editor Perry White.

Though Clark is often seen as Superman’s easily dismissed façade, Jeffrey Brown realizes that that is not quite the case:

“Superman, however, has never been complete without Clark Kent, his other self. Emphasizing just how exceptional a masculine ideal Superman is, Clark Kent represents an exaggeratedly ordinary man. He is shy, clumsy, insecure, cowardly, and easily bullied by others. In short, where Superman is associated with all of the social attributes prized in men, Clark Kent represents those attributes traditionally associated with femininity and thus feared as unmasculine.” (Brown, Black Superheroes, Milestone Comics, and Their Fans, 2001)

Clark is not easily bullied by others–though having little to no desire for fighting, he will allow someone to gain an “upper hand” and will seek simply to continue as he is. During a period in which Lois had broken up with Clark, her old friend Jeb Friedman attempted to provoke Clark, and Clark let it go instead of starting a fight.

Superman–Clark Kent–is in love with Lois Lane. Lois fell in love with Clark–not Superman–and when Clark proposed, she agreed to marry him. (Superman vol. 2 #50) This was based strictly on her feelings for Clark, with no knowledge that he was in fact Superman. Rather than being nervous or afraid of romance with a woman, it is Clark’s deep love that allows him–though wearing his Superman costume–to in one case journey to Hell itself to rescue Lois, who was captured and being held prisoner. Another time, it was established that a single kiss shared between Lois and Superman/Clark–a sign of their love for one another–was the key to restoring reality when it was altered and manipulated by an alien “god” named Dominus.

In 1996 after Lois broke off their engagement, Superman was affected deeply–it hurt him as a person, and resulted in a noticeable difference in Superman’s actions–grimmer and grittier, less forgiving of wrongdoing. In Superman: The Man of Steel #56, Mr. Mxyzptlk, a magical entity that occasionally appears in order to torment Superman, offered Superman the opportunity to have Lois’ feelings restored magically. Despite his own heartache over Lois having left him, a man of power–Superman–may have accepted; but Clark Kent, the man, chose to make Mxyzptlk leave. As he explains on the final page of the issue “Love is a kind of magic–but only if it’s freely given. It can’t be forced…by magic or otherwise!”

After Clark’s death as Superman at the hands of the monster Doomsday, Jonathan Kent had a heart attack and found himself not quite dead, but in a realm in-between, where he encounters his son. When Superman tries to deny his identity as Clark Kent, Jonathan suggests that perhaps the only reason he even died was that he was raised–as Clark Kent–as an earth man with mortal beliefs, including the belief that he could and would die. Though he was raised as an earth man, being physically Kryptonian,there was no way to know if death was even the same thing to a Kryptonian as it was for an earth-born person (World Without a Superman).

In “What Makes Superman So Darned American?” Gary Engle presents the idea that

“The core of the American myth in Superman consists of a few basic facts that remain unchanged throughout the infinitely varied ways in which the myth is told–facts with which everyone is familiar, however marginal their knowledge of the story. Superman is an orphan rocketed to Earth when his native planet Krypton explodes; he lands near Smallville and is adopted by Jonathan and Martha Kent, who inculcate in him their American middle-class ethic; as an adult he migrates to Metropolis where he defends America–no, the world! No, the Universe!–from all evil and harm…”

While this may be true to the view that someone with marginal knowledge of Superman’s story has, with sixteen years of stories emphasizing Clark Kent, it would be possible to expect someone with even this marginal knowledge of the story to see Clark Kent as the real and Superman as the mask.

If Clark Kent were merely a mask, I would think that anyone he was “close” to would not actually mean much to him, and therefore it would be an annoyance or inconvenience at most for someone to discover his dual identity. When former friend-turned-enemy Kenny Braverman (the villain Conduit) discovers that Clark Kent is Superman, he begins attacking those Kent is close to, knowing that he is Clark Kent first and Superman second, and by striking at Clark he would be striking just the same at Superman.

When Superman/Clark believes his parents have been killed, he is overcome with grief, remembering them and reflecting. As the narration states:

“What builds a man? Memories…deeply cherished images of the past. Security, family, and happiness. Laughing. Learning right from wrong. Character traits, developed over the years of growth. Trial and error. Responsibility, taught by family and friends–and the awareness that he must reflect those qualities. Love. For parents and one special person–even while being responsible for the security of an entire planet. Take all that away from a man. What do you have left?” (The Death of Clark Kent)

This suggests that without the things learned growing up, as Clark Kent, Superman would be a mere shell, or less. If you take away all that makes a man who he is, one is left with nothing to establish identity, or self, or simply who he is.

One of the ironies of the comics is that in Superman vol. 2 #2, Lex Luthor–Superman’s arch nemesis–managed to discover that Clark Kent and Superman were one and the same; however, he dismissed this as ludicrous, assuming that a man of Superman’s power would not lower himself to hide as a mere man. If a man had such power as Superman, and that was all he’d ever known, it would make sense–but a man raised as Clark who only later discovered these powers and had the parental influence of parents such as the Kents would not be a man of power, rather it would be power of a man. In Jeph Loeb’s Superman For All Seasons (1999), Lois Lane wonders “He can do anything he wants to…and he decides to do what? Be a hero? Why?”

During a year-long saga (Spring 1997 – Spring 1998) in which Superman found himself changed into a being made of energy, he was split into two individuals–“Superman Red” and “Superman Blue.” With Superman as the main character and Clark Kent as a mask or simple disguise, there would seem to be no problem, one might think. However, a major problem quickly became apparent in the story: there were two Supermen, and when they switched from energy to human form, they were both Clark Kent–both had the same memories up to the moment they were split, and that included memories and feelings for Lois. With two Clarks rather than two Supermen, the problem became much more pressing–the two had to find a way to re-merge into one entity, or decide who would or could be the one “true” Clark and the other would have to make do. If Clark were just a mask one of the two could spend time as Clark while the other maintained Superman, and they could switch–easily fooling those supposedly close to Clark.

Several years before this story, in Superman vol. 2 #93 (1994), Superman was confronted by Jor-El and Lara–his biological parents–from an alternate timeline. They wanted to take their son back to Krypton with them–a Krypton that had not actually exploded. A non-Clark Kent Superman would have little or no worry about leaving for Krypton–his true home–but Clark Kent could not leave his parents, Lois, Earth. “The Kents are all the parents anyone could ever have hoped for. They’ve always been my real family…” he tells them.

In 2001’s “Our Worlds at War” story, Superman was shown as being far out of his comfort zone–a man raised on a farm and who believed in peace and other American values and not well-suited to lead a war, even to save the earth.

In an “Elseworlds” story, Kingdom Come (1997), the characters such as Superman are shown about 25 years in the future of current stories. Through various events, Superman emerged as a world leader–being an individual that many looked up to…or at least noticed–and he was uncomfortable with it, as to himself, he was simply a farmer–a man who did his best–not a super-powered politician/world figure.

Superman is really Clark Kent–Clark is not a disguise that Superman hides behind, but rather Superman is a disguise that Clark hides behind so that he can do good with his powers in public while maintaining his original life as Clark Kent. As the Wizard Magazine staff points out in Wizard #86

“The focus is less on the ‘Super’ and more on the ‘Man.’ No matter how much he can press, how far he can see or how fast he can fly…he’s still just a country boy from a small Kansas farm. Like anybody, he has doubts and concerns. In his quest for justice, he will make mistakes. For even a Kryptonian, he’s all-too-human. And that connection makes readers care all the more about him.”

Finally, in a conversation with Lois in The Death of Clark Kent in which he contemplates his future after his identity has been exposed, Superman explains

“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 or story 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!”

The comics’ covers may read “Superman” but the stories and the core of the character are truly Clark Kent.

Works Cited:

  • Andrae, Thomas. “From Menace to Messiah: The History and Historicity of Superman” American Media and Mass Culture: Left Perspectives. Ed. Donald Lazere. Los Angeles: University of California, 1987. 124-138.
  • Brown, Jeffrey A. Black Superheroes, Milestone Comics, and Their Fans. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001.
  • Byrne, John. Superman. Vol. 2 #2. December, 1986. New York: DC Comics.
  • Byrne, John. The Man of Steel. New York: DC Comics, 1987.
  • Eco, Umberto. “The Myth of Superman.” The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1979. 107-124.
  • Engle, Gary. “What Makes Superman So Darned American?” Superman at Fifty: the Persistence of a Legend. Ed. Dennis Dooley and Gary Engle. Cleveland: Octavia, 1987. 79-87.
  • Jurgens, Dan. Superman. Vol. 2 #93. September, 1994. New York: DC Comics.
  • Kahan, Bob (Ed.). (1993). The Death of Superman. New York: DC Comics.
  • —. (1993). World Without a Superman. New York: DC Comics.
  • —. (1997). Superman: The Death of Clark Kent. New York: DC Comics.
  • —. (1997). Kingdom Come. New York: DC Comics.
  • Kessler, Jane W. “Superman and the Dreams of Childhood.” Superman at Fifty: the Persistence of a Legend. Ed. Dennis Dooley and Gary Engle. Cleveland: Octavia, 1987. 137-142.
  • Loeb, Jeph. Superman: For All Seasons. New York: DC Comics, 1999.
  • Ordway, Jerry. Superman. Vol. 2 #50. December, 1990. New York: DC Comics.
  • Pecora, Norma. “Superman/Superboys/Supermen: The Comic Book Hero as Socializing Agent.” Men, Masculinity, and the Media. Ed. Steve Craig. London: Sage, 1992. 61-77.
  • Roebuck, Lester. “The Good, the Bad and the Oedipal.” Superman at Fifty: the Persistence of a Legend. Ed. Dennis Dooley and Gary Engle. Cleveland: Octavia, 1987. 143-152.
  • Simonson, Louise. Superman: the Man of Steel. Vol. 1 #56. May, 1996. New York: DC Comics.
  • Wizard Staff. “Clark Can’t.” Wizard: the Comics Magazine. Vol. 1 #86. October, 1998. Congers: Wizard Press. 56-62.

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