Brought to life in the form that we know in 1938 by two Clevland, Ohio based high-school students named Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the ‘worlds greatest hero’ ignited the imagination of many already familiar with extraordinary, swashbuckling heroes – some of them even possessing secret identities.
The origin story was as straightforward as it was groundbreaking for the medium. A baby named Kal-El born on the planet Krypton is sent to planet Earth by his scientist father Jor-El and mother Lara, using a rocket ship in order to save him from the planet’s imminent destruction. The rocket ship crash-lands in a field in Kansas, USA, only to be discovered by Johnathan and Martha Kent a humble farm couple who adopt him as their own and raise him as Clark Joseph Kent. Their values inform much of how he uses the immense power he develops on becoming a man. Eventually, he makes his base in the East-Coast city of Metropolis where he works as a reporter for for the Daily Planet newspaper – in between regularly saving the world.
In our world, times of angst and concern are new to no-one and the arrival of The Last Son of Krypton on the dusty pot-hole ruined road that connected the Great Depression to the burgeoning global war of 1939 was timely for many children who could sense the hard-to-suppress feelings of helplessness that their parents held.
In early incarnations, there was a no-nonsense approach to dispatching the bully, the criminal and the corrupt. A benevolent big brother protecting the average citizen from social injustice.
Not anticipating the success and reach of their comic strip, Siegel and Shuster had to tone down the violence, remove the more scary characters and limit the social-crusading in order to ensure a wider appeal. In 1940, a notable editorial decision made by comic book editor Whitney Ellsworth decreed that the ‘Man of Steel’ would be ‘forbidden to use his powers to kill anyone, even a villain.’
The archaic and misguided measures of the comic book code were well-meaning but were born of a moral panic that would pervade though the war and well into 60’s America. This particular restriction to how our hero could dispense justice would come to have more significance than simple a refusal to indulge youthful blood-lust.
Having any human being snuffed out by going up against a being of such immense power would not only be morally dubious but perpetually unfair. Eventually, larger, more dangerous and challenging villains would be introduced, mostly for spectacle, with the remaining human challengers now having to be more intelligent and devious. Dealing with these enemies not only required more creativity, but provided the Man of Steel with a line that he could not cross and played into a self-imposed moral discipline that made him much more than the sum of his parts.
As much as I enjoyed the character as a child I didn’t ‘get’ him until I was older and had read the collected original stories by Siegel and Shuster. I initially saw him as incredibly strong but ultimately good, able to fly, lift a vehicle above his head without breaking a sweat and among many other feats, dissect mountains with laser beams that shot from his eyeballs. The stories were fun escapism pure and simple, but as I grew to understand the character more, I found that I felt no need to relate to him on that level. Who could? He sets the bar pretty high and ironically, this is what I have come to appreciate the most.
Yes, he fights for truth, justice, and a value system that, lets face it, is not exclusively American, but most importantly, he is very aware of how powerful he is, knowing that it’s as much a duty to his new home as it is to himself, to not be corrupted by such power.
He doesn’t have to find this easy, in fact he could be tested to his very limits by the internal struggle to maintain who he needs to be. This is because hope lies in the line that can never be crossed.
The ‘World’s Greatest Hero’ need not be brought down to my level. That is not inspiring. Not inspiring at all. I am far from perfect. Apart from in the occasional dream, I can’t fly, I can just about hold my own against a paper bag and need glasses to clearly see the surfaces of objects. To this day however, I am continually motivated by the idea of striving to be my best self regardless of any advantage or disadvantage I may have with others.
Speaking of glasses…
As Clark Kent, he is to be among the people of Earth, available to answer the call of those in need within his reach from the offices of the Daily Planet, like some kind of on-call hero. Some still claim that ‘Clark Kent’ is a necessary chore for the Kryptonian, nothing more than a modest suit and a pair of goggles. Additionally, with all the years of stories, essays and scrutiny, a debate persists: is Clark Kent the true personality or is he the brightly coloured suit, representing an ancestry he has no direct connection with? Or is he neither? They have missed one:
He is both.
For those who still, after all this time, express frustration at how to write for such a powerful hero. Clark Kent is the way in. He has always been the way in. With regard to relatability, one of Clark’s biggest challenges seems no different to one that many of us have to deal with on a daily basis. Primarily he’s trying to fit in.
Kent, being the everyman, knows that those close to him must be kept safe – in addition to this, parading around 24-7 as ‘Kal-El of Krypton’ would not only be emotionally trying for one so in demand (it has been well established that the alien has emotions – very human emotions) it would also be a lonely existence.
We all appreciate sophistication in our stories. The modern day pop culture audience of which I am a proud member, does take a certain degree of pleasure in knowing ‘how the sausage is made’ but should it all be at the expense of a healthy suspension of disbelief?
For the many escapades of the ‘Metropolis Marvel’, drawn readily from the deepest corners of the imagination, there are still so many folks – grown up, adult folks – who just can’t get past a pair of horn-rimmed spectacles. As a child, there was something obvious to me that is obvious to children now and will be obvious to children well into the future…
Clark Kent isn’t trying to deceive us, he’s allowing us to share in his greatest secret.
Of course there’s a sly glee in seeing him pull the wool over peoples eyes with such a simple guise, poor Lois Lane not withstanding, but much has been made of this over the years. Too much. The often-cited (perhaps too often these days) dichotomy of man; the strong, charismatic alpha-male and the mild-mannered insecure beta are central to this character. It could also be argued that having Lois Lane, be intrigued with one while barely tolerating the other makes for one of the strangest love-triangles in storytelling history.
But such a smart, determined reporter should see through it all immediately surely? Not only does this make for an incredibly dull scenario when it comes to their relationship but more significantly, a very human element that is at the heart of this lore would be lost.
It was clear to many of us, long before actor Henry Cavill’s amusing social experiment. that it’s not just a simple disguise that renders the mild-mannered reporter practically invisible, it is the self-absorption of the people around him. Lois is no exception and it doesn’t make her any less intelligent. To me, the beauty of their story specifically, is that she will see him eventually. She always does and this is as much due to Clark allowing himself to surrender to his love for her. It will start all over again with new contexts and an even newer generation of readers because there are many more stories waiting to be told here – eighty years worth at the very least.
One wonders in his 80th year, what place the legend holds in the 21st Century? Some would say that memories have become very short in this era but I hold tight to the memories of my childhood and the eternally enjoyable adventures of the worlds most famous immigrant. His overall appeal endures because he ignites the joy and wonder of imagining what it would be like to possess such outlandish abilities and he is an icon because at his very core, he is unashamedly decent, living for the most part, to help others. There’s plenty of life in the old dog yet and as I observe the many places where he now resides, I live in hope that I can once again look up and see a world that has a place for Superman.