On Clark Kent, and Superman
Okay. In Kill Bill 2, David Carradine gives this speech about Clark Kent and Superman, and how Clark Kent is the disguise that Superman wears–that the lame, clumsy, glasses-wearing guy is what this demigod thinks human beings are like.
Because David Carradine says it, and because he was a Buddhist monk in Kung Fu (and Kung Fu: The Legend Continues), it is perfectly natural to think that he’s imparting some kind of secret wisdom about the nature of Superman. The thing that you have to bear in mind is, while it was David Carradine who says it, it was Quentin Tarantino who wrote it.
This is why I’m perfectly comfortable saying that it’s completely wrong.
What’s important to remember about Superman is that he was born on Krypton, but he wasn’t raised there. In fact, he didn’t even know he was from Krypton until he was…well, dates vary, but the general consensus is that his personality and worldview had been shaped by then–somewhere around his teenaged years, possibly later. Superman was born on an alien planet, yes, but he spent his entire youth thinking he was from Kansas.
There’s not been a lot of writing about whether or not Kryptonians have inherently alien personalities from Earthmen (an interesting allusion in Starman, I think, about the Kryptonians and their native need for solitude); generally speaking, though, Kryptonians have personalities and perspectives that are very like the human one. When, for example, General Zod comes to Earth and discovers that he has powers, he does what basically any human would do if they discovered they had powers: acts like a dick.
Superman grew up in Kansas. Kansas–a fictional Kansas, even, a fantasy of a down-home, earthy, god-fearing people, just the creamiest of the cream of the American crop–is where Clark Kent became who he was. And who was he? A farmboy. A doofus.
See, this is important. Superman is a disguise that Clark Kent wears. And, in fact, it MUST be this way. Superman has god-like powers, and it is only permissible for us, the ordinary people in the world, to apprehend that power in the hands of someone who is pathologically humble. Whatever else there is about Superman, he must NEVER think that he is a god. No matter what Superman goes through, he MUST believe that he is still that good-old-Kansas boy who (this is a charitable opinion of Kansans I’m working with) might be mildly disgusted by homosexuality, but is a good enough guy to know that it’s not his place to say anything about it.
The awareness of his difference can only lead to one of two things: a disconnection from the human race, as he finds their problems paltry and irrelevant, or a domination of the human race, as he gets tired of watching humans fuck around when he knows he can fix everything. The line between those two positions is possible only because of Superman’s persistent delusion that he is a human being from Smallville, Kansas, and that the world’s problems are his problems.
Now, you want to talk about secret identities and disguises, let’s take a second and look at Batman. Bruce Wayne IS the disguise that Batman wears. Here’s how you can tell:
If you go to Superman and you say to him, “Look, you have to pick one of your identities and live in that identity for the rest of your life. Which one do you want?”
“Well,” he’ll say, “what about all the problems in the world?”
“Taken care of. Other superheroes will pick up the slack, they’ll be happy to do it, no one will get hurt. The consequences to the world will be identical.”
“Okay,” he’ll conclude. He’ll decide he wants to be Clark Kent, and live a regular life with a regular (if annoying) woman, and have regular kids. He’ll be a mechanic or a newspaper reporter forever, or who cares. We know this, because he’s done it–repeatedly. Always, Clark Kent views Superman as a necessary burden in his life; something that he MUST do, because he has the power to right wrongs, and couldn’t live with himself if he knew that wrongs were out there going unrighted.
Now, let’s ask Batman the same question.
“Okay, you have to pick one of your two identities–”
“Right, but so you know, whichever one you pick–”
Why? Because Batman views Bruce Wayne as a burden–a disguise that he must maintain in order to make his job as Batman easier. We know this for two reasons: first of all, Batman basically only does stuff as Bruce Wayne when he thinks people are looking; the rest of the time, he’s just doing his Batman thing. Secondly, whenever we see a possible future with Batman in it, it generally involves him having abandoned the pretense of Bruce Wayne and just living full time in his horrible, dank cave.
See, Batman doesn’t have any powers, which is why his fascist personality can be his real personality. He can be monomaniacal, sociopathic, even delusional, because he doesn’t have the power to change the world. In fact, based on his continued failure to turn Gotham City into anything other than a complete fucking hellhole, Batman’s task is fundamentally futile. That’s why we don’t have to worry about him–he can be a lunatic in a costume, that can be who he really is, because we know he’ll never succeed at imposing his warped view of law and order on the entire world.
Now, I know what you’re thinking, “But Braak,”–this is what’s going on in your head, right now–”we all saw the part where he decided that the bat was a symbol he was going to use to scare the piss out of criminals. We know it’s a disguise he chose for himself.”
That’s a fair point, so I’ll clarify: the “bat” part of Batman is actually not really the important part. He picked a bat for whatever reasons, yeah, but who he was was always a guy that was going to try and scare the piss out of criminals. The bat stuff is an accidental property of his obsession, which is beating the fuck out of people that he (wrongly) blames for his parents’ death.
Anyway, the stuff about Superman and Clark Kent is really interesting to me. As some of you may have realized, Superman is often seen as a product of the Jewish messianic tradition–I don’t know how you could have missed this, actually, he’s from the House of El, for fuck’s sake.
This leads to an intriguing question about someone else from that tradition: the Jesus. Was Jesus a divinity that knew he was a divinity, and chose to manifest in the form of a humble human guy as a kind of diguise? Or did he always believe he was a regular guy, that the powers of divinity were nothing to do with him, just a kind of coincidence of the universe that he was obligated to use rightly?
There’s a neat Jewish folktale about the Lamed Vav Tzaddikim–you might remember them from that one Sandman graphic novel that had Emperor Norton in it. These guys, also called the Lamed Vufkin, are basically just the nicest, most regular guys they are. Poor, humble, kind, these thirty-six human beings are the only reason why God, pissed off at the rest of us YET AGAIN for doing the horrible shit we always do, doesn’t just blow up the world.
(“Shit,” says God, “Nuclear bombs? Are you fucking kidding me? That’s it, I’m just wiping out the whole…aw, no, wait, I can’t kill Herb. I love that guy. *sigh* Fine, Earth, you can live a little while longer.”)
The thing about the Lamed Vufkin is that they can never know that they’re one of the thirty-six–because knowledge of their elevated status would make humility impossible.
This is generally how I think it should work with Jesus.