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What’s the Real Identity of Superman?

January 29, 2013

… in the context of the story, I mean. I know he’s not real, even though this exists.

Thanks to him appearing in a wider array of movies, television and print media than nearly any other superhero and for longer than any other superhero, Superman has had a lot of different interpretations over the years, so oftentimes when Superman fans talk to each other they are talking about versions of the character that are barely the same. There’s different versions of his home planet, different fates for the Kents, wildly different takes on his villains… in a lot of ways, the long and often contradictory history of Superman is one of the biggest obstacles in the way of him netting new fans.

One of the biggest controversies with Superman fans is whether or not “Clark Kent” is who Superman really is on the inside, or whether he’s a disguise that lets Superman walk amongst people. Fans of the former point out that all the formative experiences of his life are as “Clark Kent,” and he didn’t make up a new name and identity so he must feel some attachment to it; fans of the latter point out that it’s “who, disguised as Clark Kent” for a reason.

At the risk of sounding like a squish, I see both points of view. My personal interpretation is this: the glasses-wearing suit-jacketed Clark Kent is an invention, and he is also 100% real.

Not shown: the Body of Bashfulness, the Fingers of Fate, and the Groin of Groans.An important aspect of Superman is that he is biologically an alien, but he is raised as a human being. Both sides of himself are what makes him Superman. Every superhero needs both means and motivation to be a superhero. The means to fight injustice comes from his powers, and the motivation to do so comes from his upbringing. You need both, and neither can be fully discarded without changing the character to the point he’s not really Superman.

Both of these sides – the humanistic morality coupled with the power to stand up against the evils of the world that too often beat us down – are at their most evident when Superman is being Superman. When he’s helping people using all of his powers, that’s a full and complete expression of who he is. Compared to that, “Clark Kent” is built in such a way that is not all that Superman can be. Clark Kent doesn’t illuminate the forgotten stories of the homeless using super-typesetting; he doesn’t crack an extortion racket using super-getting-a-witness-on-record.

… but, these are still things worthy of Superman’s attention. Clark Kent’s been a lot of different types of reporter, but he’s always been an important reporter, seeking to illuminate injustice. He’s never followed Justin Bieber around on tour. He’s never shoved a camera into the face of a Lesser Baldwin. He may not fight injustice with superpowers, but he still fights it with Superman’s more human talents, and in fact, it’s important that he do so because it illustrates that anyone can act as Superman can, if they use all that they’re gifted with for the betterment of others.

To call that a disguise… lessens it, I feel. Makes it seem like all those times he’s exposed cruel landlords or corrupt businessmen, don’t “count” the same way as when Superman fights dinosaur men and space robots.

So to me, Clark Kent is real. The key is this. Clark Kent is not a disguise. Clark Kent is a construct.

Not that kind of construct.Clark Kent looks a certain way that is unobtrusive and that lets Superman be overlooked and allows him to maintain social contact as the human being he was raised as. He acts a certain way that lets Superman never forget what it’s like to be on the ground, looking up. Clark Kent is in many ways, Superman’s Batman-style contingency plan against himself. Superman knows the temptation that absolute power brings, and this is his weapon against it – an identity that is just a man who pays his rent and has his favorite foods and overstuffed bookshelves and a telescope, and is as vulnerable as any of us to the malign forces of the world, constantly reminding Superman to never become one of those selfsame forces. All this suggests a persona that is “built.”

But a persona that is built is still a real persona, because we become the way we act. If we act foolish, we become foolish. If we act with kindness, we become kind. We become what we do. All the ways that Clark Kent acts are what Superman becomes. If he’s a disguise, it’s only to start with; as time passes, Clark becomes more and more real as long as Superman spends time as him. I believe that Superman unconsciously if not consciously knows this, which is why he’s chosen such a thankless yet noble profession as journalism when no one would blame him for spending his off hours doing nothing. He knows that the time he spends as Clark is important and that Clark is an important side of him. It is not the totality of his ‘human side’ – Superman as Superman still acts very much human – so it’s a pick-and-choose creation made out of Superman’s human side. But that creation is still real. It still matters, and that’s why Superman takes the time to be him.

A lot of people refer to Clark Kent’s glasses as a mask, because they fit over the eyes like a mask does – a cute enough take, but I think it’s misguided. He’s Superman – wearing a mask, period, isn’t something he’d do. Deception isn’t part and parcel of the deal. Superman likes his privacy and his alone-time, but his time as Clark isn’t alone-time, since he spends it around people. When Clark is wearing his glasses and his thick coat and is also putting the finishing touches on the life story of a recovering meth addict, he’s not pretending. When Superman is wearing his cape and his bright red and blue outfit and is pulling an entire bus of children out of a burning wreck, he’s not pretending either. A big part of Superman’s appeal is his earnestness when he’s doing the right thing. He’s not apologetic, or judgmental  or guilt-ridden; by his actions, he is saying, you do not need to be apologetic, judgmental  or guilt-ridden to be a hero, and there is nothing dishonest about noble work.

So I say, it’s all real. Different sides of the same man that are all legitimate. Not only is this a more inspiring and mature take on the character than Quentin Tarantino’s notion that Superman is always sniggering at the human race, it’s more relevant in the age of the Internet. Who I am online is a part of who I am, but it’s a constructed part. I chose what to put in and what to leave out. We all make these constructs. Online, we are all Clark Kent. But this construct we make is real. Its deeds are real, and have the potential to enlighten, to help, and also, to harm. Even in a constructed identity, what I do matters, and like Clark Kent, I should take that to heart and make sure that I do what’s right.

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From → Comics

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