On Clark Kent, and Superman

Posted: March 25, 2009 in Braak
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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–”

“Batman.”

“Right, but so you know, whichever one you pick–”

“Batman.”

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.

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Comments
  1. Jeff Holland says:

    I quite distinctly remember throwing my hands up in disgust at this point in Kill Bill part 2 – I was already at my wit’s end with all the Tarantino-isms, but for him to so fundamentally misunderstand the whole Clark/Superman thing was just about the last straw.

    BUT, we have to remember we’re thinking of modern Clark Kent – the competent, capable newsman people like and respect. Perhaps Bill, on account of he’s Older Than Dirt, is thinking of silver-age Superman. You know, “Superman is a Dick” Superman.

    I’ve flipped through a few of those stories, and aside from wondering if Superman wasn’t bipolar (concocting an elaborate birthday mystery for Best Buddy Batman one minute, then tricking Jimmy Olson into marrying a monkey or something the next), it became clear that BACK THEN, Superman was in-costume pretty much all the time, only breaking out the Clark Kent routine when he had to throw suspicion off one of his ridiculous schemes.

    But all that means is that Bill liked Superman best when he was being a dick. Which shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, since Bill is also pretty much a dick (and so is Quentin Tarantino).

  2. Sam says:

    I think most of us were thinking the same thing when we first saw that scene.

    “Bill is so cool!”

    “Hooray!”

    “He’s getting that precisely wrong!”

    “Hooray!”

  3. braak says:

    Yeah, I guess he could have been thinking of Shitty Era Superman, though I’m not sure that going back to the Silver Age is any reasonable way to make any kind of coherent point about…anything.

  4. Jeff Holland says:

    I’d like to think that if I had secret paralyzing agents at my disposal, I’D be the one deciding what makes a good point about what.

    If I want to show how Superman gaining the ability to shoot a tiny Superman out of his finger has clear parallels to the Bay of Pigs invasion, then that’s what I’m gonna do!

  5. Josh says:

    Assuming Jesus’ divinity as a given (not that it is, obv, but that’s what the post does), it seems like we have to consider the New Testament a reliable source in terms of his self-knowledge and motivation. And if we do that, it seems awfully clear that he was a divinity who knew it.

    And that’s where I think it gets interesting. I mean, if there’s a point to his being the Incarnation of God, it’s not so that he could use his God-magic to fix all the problems, Superman-style. It can’t be, because God doesn’t need to become a human being to do that. Moreover, one gets the definite sense that although the parameters aren’t clear, Jesus’ powers are not absolutely unlimited. They seem to be constrained, whether by personal choice or some kind of rule like the ones that bite Morpheus in the ass in The Kindly Ones. He doesn’t, like, call lightning down to clear the money-changers from the Temple, and he doesn’t save himself from crucifixion, and many of his miracles seem at least partially contingent on the faith of another person.

    Here’s how I read the Jesus situation: Imagine (not that you can, but try) you’re an omnipotent Creator of the universe. Then imagine that Your greatest creations, these finite little monkey-things, just can’t get their shit together. You love them, but You can’t help but lose Your temper once in a while—and then, of course, the smiting.

    Eventually, though, Your love compels You to see what it’s like to be one of them. And all of a sudden, by way of this portion of Your infinite Self made finite, you get it. Like, Holy shit, this is hard. So much is bound up in this puny packet of flesh, and even though you know there’s More out there—that you’re more—now that you’re here in this place limited by space and time, it’s all but incomprehensible.

    And so you go to your painful, painful death hoping for the best, but honestly, that’s all you can do, because even God Incarnate can’t get around the fact that with Incarnation come the limits of existing in four dimensions.

  6. Erin says:

    I think Bill was mostly talking about the version from the Donner movie. I love the scene, and I actually think it’s a fair assessment of the movie version and some of the older comics.

    Overall, though, I think Braak is about half right. Superman WANTS Clark Kent to be his destiny. There’s no question that, given the choice, he’d take the farm boy life in a heartbeat. But the question which makes Superman interesting is whether that’s who he is or just wishful thinking.

    There have been a lot of future Superman stories, and many portray him as living the simple life (“Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow” being a personal favorite). But lets not forget the destiny portrayed in Dark Knight Returns and Batman Beyond. In these stories, and others like them, he reaches a point (usually around the time Lois dies) when he decides he isn’t human… and stops acting like he is.

    The best version of the character I’ve ever seen was in Justice League Unlimited, where Superman was shown struggling to hold onto his humanity. Good stuff.

    As for Batman… I used to agree with Braak assessment. Really, I did. Now that I’ve read more, I think it’s more complicated. The Bruce Wayne persona is an act: there’s no denying that. But he’s also acting when he stares down the Riddler. Bruce Wayne might be a mask, but so is Batman. Regardless what he’s wearing, he’s “himself” around Alfred or Robin; not in a boardroom or wrestling Bane.

    The “Batman’s the truth/Wayne is the act” thing became big in the late 90’s and remained the rallying cry of fans until Batman Begins came out. While it would be easy to credit Katie Holmes’s painful speech with ending this, I think it was dying before then.

    You can get some good stories out of this version of Batman, but it gets old after a while. I prefer the character a bit more nuanced these days.

  7. Jeff Holland says:

    The “Batman as Truth” bit started getting reexamined for a brief time around the end of the whole ‘Knightfall’ series, when Denny O’Neill had Bruce (who usually thought about it that simply himself) acknowledge, after months outside the Batman identity and fighting like hell to get it back, that his identity is far more complex than ‘Bruce Wayne’s just an act,’ and went to examine that more carefully.

    Then by the early part of this decade, Greg Rucka forgot all that, and so managed to paint himself into a corner with the whole ‘Bruce Wayne: Murderer/Fugitive” storyarcs, where Batman is given a prime opportunity to toss aside the Wayne persona, does so, and basically becomes a raging prick to everyone around him until they kind of guilt him into bringing Wayne back. It was a story that ran out of steam way before it wrapped up.

    One of my favorites (outside the JLU/Batman Beyond stuff) was during Mark Waid’s JLA run, where everyone’s hero and secret identities were split into two different bodies. As the story progresses, Plastic Man (yes, that brief shining moment when Plastic Man was a viable member of the Justice League) points out that while they all assumed splitting Batman from Bruce Wayne would result in one psycho and one milksop, they got it backwards – Bruce Wayne was rage without focus, while Batman had plenty of skills but absolutely no motivation.

  8. threatqualitypress says:

    @Erin: If he was talking about the version from the Donner movie, then he’s talking about the Superman that gave up being Superman so that he could be Clark Kent and marry Lois Lane. He didn’t return to being Superman because he wanted to, but because he had to–there was no one else that could do it. The awareness of destiny, in this context, seems to me to reaffirm his Kansas heritage. Likewise, the future/hypothetical stories about him acquiring his godly destiny and just acting like a god again serve as a reaffirmation that, generally, he thinks of himself as a guy from Kansas. That is to say, a story in which you realize that you are a god and should start acting like one only really makes sense if, up until that point, you’ve been assuming you weren’t a god. These future and hypothetical stories are tangential variations meant to assert the basic premise via contradiction.

    As for Batman, I don’t know. In the Batman cartoon, when he gets doused with that fear gas and he was scared of the ghosts and shit, and then he was all “I am vengeance, I am the night,” I believed him. Likewise, that time when he loses his memory and is working on a chain gang for that fat guy, it’s not his memories of hanging out with Alfred that puts him back together.

    I’m disinclined to believe in a Batman that, if he could, would just hang out with Alfred and Robin all day. I’m not seeing a guy who is really that guy also dressing up like a bat and beating the shit out of people. We can want him to be nuanced, sure–I’m not disagreeing that maybe he wants to be that guy (though I don’t know that I buy that 100% either), but I don’t think there’s a way to understand Batman that doesn’t involve him being volcanically insane.

    @Josh: Well, in the first place, I don’t think I do need to assume the accuracy of the New Testament. Or, rather, I’ll assume the accuracy of the New Testament, the Apocrypha, the proto-Jesus stories and the modern Jesus reinterpretations as all being accurate the way that I’ll assume all the Batman stories are accurate. I feel like they’re a big, complicated mess that from certain angles yields a clearer picture than others.

    In the second place, doesn’t it seem a little implausible that an omniscient creator didn’t know how hard he’d made life for his creations? I mean, shit, I’m no genius and I can figure out a half a dozen ways he could have created the world that would have resulted in less murdering. I’m not sure how we can say, “We can’t know what it’s like to be God, which is why we can’t explain why there’s evil; but we do know that there’s good and that Jesus was around because we know that God loves us.”

  9. Erin says:

    “Likewise, the future/hypothetical stories about him acquiring his godly destiny and just acting like a god again serve as a reaffirmation that, generally, he thinks of himself as a guy from Kansas.”

    See, I agree with this: that’s why I think you’re half right. Superman absolutely wants to be Clark (except when he wants to be Kal-El… but that’s complicated); the question is whether he’s right or deluding himself. It’s the ambiguity that makes him truly fascinating as a character.

    Superman’s at his best when we need to stop and wonder once in a while if Luthor’s been right all along.

    As to the Kill Bill speech: the interesting part of Bill’s claim is that Clark Kent is what Superman thinks of humanity. Donner’s bumbling, comical Kent seems to be the pinnacle of this.

  10. Jeff Holland says:

    “Superman: Birthright” devoted a whole issue to the ‘Clark Kent disguise,’ once Clark and Ma realized going sans-mask would go a long way towards cultivating trust with a citizenry that would otherwise be pretty freaked out by a flying demigod.

    But that meant Clark – “city Clark,” at least – would have to become a disguise, too, using unflattering clothes and hunched posture to hide his physique, and Pa Kent’s coke-bottle glasses to change the shape of his face and tone down his beaming blue eyes.

    Ironically, this disguise and the affected ‘mild-mannered’ personality nearly kept him from getting a job at the Daily Planet (where an assertive personality is vital to strong reporting/writing), and so the real struggle became: “Can I be the disguise, and also be the Clark Kent I’ve been my whole life?”

    (None of this proves or disproves Bill’s views, but ‘Birthright’ went a long way toward making me care about Clark as a character. Actually, so did ‘Kingdom Come,’ which was all about getting the distant, wounded Kal-El to re-embrace his humanity…which I guess just means I wish DC wasn’t so stingy about letting Mark Waid write Superman.)

  11. […] based on his continued failure to turn Gotham City into anything other than a complete fucking hellh…  Threat Quality tells it like it […]

  12. V.I.P. Referee says:

    Clark, a well trained religious boy, gets pleasure out of having the ability to accomplish goodness at such an extreme level. He sees the responses his actions get and it drives him to continue saving people. If he really is designed as a nod to certain religious traditions, anonymity while donating resources, volunteering or doing good deeds, earns one a huge gold star across the board–and this perspective isn’t limited to one brand of religious teachings. When he does struggle emotionally and psychologically, occasionally acting out, he’s having trouble maintaining such values and expectations when they conflict with his own needs.

    Clark Kent is who he really is; modest, polite and charmingly self-conscious. We can’t ignore that he was socialized/raised with humans. He needs people and what they can offer him—not simply because of the nature of his upbringing, but because he has nothing else of equal or greater significance to replace them with.

    Let’s imagine he decides to embrace his god-like awesomeness, abandon planet Earth for good—flip everyone a royal “it’s a bird!”. Where else is he going to find that same savior/the saved interaction—how far would he have to travel in order to feel special, again? Krypton no longer serves the purpose it once did and it’s likely that if he were to travel the universe in search of a similar relationship, he’d end up like the kid with last month’s toy; he’d have competition, the other guy might have something far cooler and noone will care that Superman has to hide his Superman-ness because perhaps, to them, Superman-ness wouldn’t even be that special, anyway. In contrast, there’s very little coolness-competition for him on Earth. He may not enjoy the burden of being Superman all of the time, but seems to sincerely enjoy how saving people makes him feel. His choosing to remain relatively near his Mom, in a safe place where he wouldn’t be seriously challenged, also says something about who the character really is.

    Yes, his Kent persona might’ve hindered his movement at “The Daily Planet”–how unlikely is it to find a shy, tweedy-attired geek, writing for a newspaper, right? What are the odds? But Clark Kent is a people pleaser, so he’ll always be kept around, even though he may never be offered a dynamic position. He does his work and doesn’t complain. He won’t challenge the big guys.

    Romance. This is where Clark Kent will always pursue a challenge: Notice how the one girl he seriously fixates on from one decade to the next (and through multiple, cultural trend adjustments) is the one who is nearly impossible to please. She’ll turn him down as Superman if she’s not happy with the direction things are going in. She’s difficult, selfish and suspicious of his intentions. Lois has many stellar qualities, of course, but she’s not an easy catch and doesn’t melt for artful compositions of personality and person. In one page turn, she’ll turn down two typically (and now I’m risking the wrath of my sex by placing “typically” in front of anything that precedes “feminine”,”female”, “women” and “woman”) feminine fantasies, wrapped up in one character (the sweet, sensitive intellectual and the god of compassion and justice) and not be the worse for it. He has to work hard to inspire her to care and must call on his clean-scrubbed, church-boy values to find the patience to do it. However, the big payoff is affection–the same thing he’s looking for in every other aspect of his existence.

    Here is where I insert a discussion about God and gods and how some form of neediness is a given, if the divine party loves or cares about something else. Or even hates it. This is a submission–a place of vulnerability. If you care enough to become engaged in some kind of savior/saved exchange, than you allow yourself to depend on others in some way. You need them for something, even if you don’t have affection for all of them; they serve a purpose. Did we have this disscussion already? Probably. But I think it’s relevent to this topic.

    I adore the character of Kent/Superman because, as you’ve mentioned Chris, he’s going to be challenged by the fact that he could wear is power in poor form. He could be a dick about it. But he chooses not to be, so his work is cut out for him from the very start. He’s an interesting superhero because he challenges assumed superhero ideals; ok, so, superheroes are generally assumed to be good and honorable by lay comic book readers, but how does that actually play out? What would a superhero have to do in order to uphold such human ideals, considering their power?

    Plus, you mentioned “Sandman”, which is lovely. It’s all like a river of candy and sunshine that never stops flowing.

  13. V.I.P. Referee says:

    Edit: Considering their power, what would a superhero have to do in order to uphold such human ideals?

  14. AKS says:

    Good new book of stories about the Lamed Vovniks: “The Book of the Unknown” by Jonathon Keats. No Clark Kent in there though.

  15. threatqualitypress says:

    !!! I was looking at that at the bookstore, but didn’t buy it. Perhaps I should reconsider this decision.

  16. […] long comment I left over at Braak’s (in response to a post he wrote in response to another long comment of mine): Yeah, the omniscience/omnipotence bit is pretty central to my big problems with God. […]

  17. Interesting take. You could also see Clark Kent as the nurture-tamed version of Superman. Biologically, he is really Superman. If he had been raised differently, he might have been a total jerk.

  18. threatqualitypress says:

    Yeah, I want to actually do another post sometime soon, talking about Superman’s relationship to the Ubermensch, and I think that interpretation is going to be of paramount importance.

  19. […] been wanting to talk about this, especially in relation to my previous argument about the nature of Superman and his assorted disguises–this is a discussion of Superman as a moral figure, and his […]

  20. Jason says:

    Don’t know if you guys follow comics for not but currently a New Krypton has been formed. Superman is no longer on Earth, he’s living in Krypton trying to prevent a civil war or something like that.

  21. braak says:

    Yeah…I’d heard about that. One of the things, though…well, it’s bad for me in my position as a comic book literary critic. I tend to ignore things that I’m not interested in. And, in fact, it’s sometimes difficult to keep up with what’s going on at the moment. So all of this is predicated on, “This is what Superman is, given subset [x y z] of Superman literature, where subset [x y z] does not include anything written in the past, say, ten years.”

  22. […] Of The Day Posted on March 26, 2009 by admin based on his continued failure to turn Gotham City into anything other than a complete fucking hellh…  Threat Quality tells it like it is.  Share and Enjoy: This entry was posted in Life, Death […]

  23. […] Threat Quality on Batman. […]

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