Monday, March 23, 2015

Superman Comes Out

My reaction to Clark Kent revealing to his roommate and colleague, Jimmy Olsen, his secret identity as Superman?

Well, it's about time.

Golden and Silver Age Superman was a pretty lonely guy, with no one who knew his secret and no one to confide in.  Although the Golden Age Superman was too manly too discuss it out loud. Or care, really.


It's the reason that whenever you think of a DC hero pondering his situation via thought-balloon, you almost invariably are thinking of Superman. Batman talked to Robin and Alfred and that old police guy with the mustache.  Wonder Woman talked to Etta and the Holliday Girls and her mother and the Amazons and, well, Wonder Woman never shut up, basically.

About bondage, mostly

Superman had no one to talk to, so readers were shown his inner monologue a lot.


This contributed, by the way, to  his tendency more than his colleagues to break the fourth wall; with no one to talk to, he talked to us.

"Instead, send that money to the Superman Super-Fan Club, to fund our campaign to put my face on the quarter!"

You seldom caught Batman talking to the reader.

Except in a Superman story. P.S. Superwoman's a dick.

In case you never thought about it, it's also one of the reasons the Batman/Superman friendship was so important in the Silver Age; Batman was the only person Superman had to talk to (because who wants to talk to Supergirl?)

Hey, Rob; ixnay on the Upermansay, okay?

One of the most important changes John Byrne made for DC when they rebooted Superman after the Crisis was to have his parents still be alive. Many of today's readers were raised with the idea of the Kents as living touchstones of Superman's humanity and morality.  But since Superman's re-reboot in the Latest Crisis, his parents have been dead; they died in a car crash, a solid reminder to readers that Superman can't be everywhere and fix all problems (and that not all problems are caused by supervillains or long-dormant diseases embedded in buried pirate treasure).

Venal, greedy Martha! Killed by your own dreams of avarice, just like in some "Twilight Zone" episode.
You had it coming, lady.

In the Silver Age, Jimmy Olsen was Superman's Pal-- Superman who lied to him every day of his life.  And for no reason, really.  The stated reason that Superman never confined to anyone who he was is that doing so might endanger their lives.  C'mon, Jimmy's life was already in constant danger from being Superman's Pal.  How could anyone's life be MORE in danger than Jimmy Olsen's?!

Never a dull moment, eh, Lucy?

No one has known quite what to do with Jimmy Olsen since Crisis.  Heck, it's easy to make a case that no one knew what to do with Jimmy Olsen BEFORE the Crisis; that's why he was always being made to swallow noxious foreign substances with bizarre results.  Like Jack Kirby.

Clark's reveal to Jimmy takes two problems and turns them into one solution.  It gives Clark someone to relate to as BOTH Clark and Superman who knows his secret, and gives Jimmy and actual narrative function in Superman fiction.


John said...

In (half of) one mighty panel, Superwoman presages a significant portion of Grant Morrison's career: "Hey, readers! Superman will win because it's his book and the writers will be out of a job if he doesn't. For the rest of us, it's Miller Time!"

More to the point, I've increasingly been of the opinion that the time for secret identities has...kind of passed. While they serve obvious narrative purposes, every attempt writers make to legitimize masks and secret hideouts with trophy rooms rings increasingly hollow. Like you point out, nobody's going to torture Clark Kent's junior colleague or writing partner to learn Superman's identity, but they sure as heck would torture Superman's Pal and Superman's Girl-Friend, so he's not protecting anybody except himself, doubly true since (again, as you mention) weird, dangerous things just...happen, sometimes. Actually, triply true, since the hypothetical torture would end if they gave up the secret.

That doesn't even get into ubiquitous surveillance, facial recognition software, cell phone tracking, crowd sourcing, and so on. Add those in, and no Justice Leaguer would make it to the weekend without their entire lives exposed on Reddit. It was shocking forty years ago, when Ra's al Ghul said "you charge all this to your credit card, moron," but it's criminally negligent for nobody else on Earth to have figured this out.

So, hopefully this is a first step towards a DCU whose idea of "realism" isn't gore and sex.

Assuming this doesn't get rebooted in a few months, I mean.

Also: I've never been able to figure out how Jonathan went from "digging out a shell" the size of his palm to finding buried treasure. How big did he expect that thing to be!? Also a question relevant to Lucy's predicament, I suppose, but the less said about that, the better.

Scipio said...

There are many things I could have said about Jimmy's trouser snake, but chose not to.

Bryan L said...

Honestly, John, I thought the revenge motivation had been abandoned. Really, the point of a secret identity NOW is so you can have some sort of private life, without paparazzi camped out at your home/apartment.

I certainly agree that concealing your identity is almost impossible now, with everyone holding a camera. Unless you're sporting a full face mask (like Spider-man, or maybe Batman Beyond) complete with voice changer, you're not going to fool anybody who knows you. So if Superman is going to have a best friend or girlfriend, he might as well come clean.

Andrew said...

Secret identities, however impractical, will always be with us, because they facilitate power fantasies. "Sure, they may mock lowly Clark Kent, but a quick removal of the glasses and suit jacket transforms me into the mighty Superman!" Anyone who feels powerless in their daily life can relate to that.

Clark's double-talk about the hairstyle, glasses, etc., in the latest issue is as much hand-waving as one needs to satisfy the demands of realism.

I agree that Jimmy being Superman's Beard (so to speak) is a good use of him in modern continuity. We need more Jimmy Olsen! Someone get that kid a signal watch.

Anonymous said...

There are 2 separate narrative issues.

1) I disagree with the idea that secret identities have "passed." I think "realism" as an argument against any trope in superhero comics is bizarre. There's not one realistic aspect to the entire genre.

Once you take away secret IDs (which are mostly gone from the Marvel Universe, BTW), you pretty much drive all your characters into either (a) working for the government, (b) taking over the government, or (c) fighting with the government [or if you prefer, the Authority, the Avengers, or the X-Men].

The superhero genre is great because of its flexibility as a metaphor and secret IDs are a valuable metaphor for exploring internal tensions and dualities in self-identity (I think "power fantasy" is way too narrow a description - plus its kinds of creepy). Not every character needs a secret ID but I think it would be sad to sacrifice such a good narrative device on the specious alter of realism.

2) As for Superman coming clean to Jimmy - it is about time. While I have no problem with the secret identity trope, I do think writers have to guard against the trope driving the narrative. You get to a point where excluding trusted supporting characters from the secret leads to unnecessarily convoluted plotting and actually drives the supporting character away from the storytelling.

And while I am a big supporter of the secret identity concept, I do think modern writers need to work harder at showing us why Superman needs Clark - how he benefits from not being Superman 24 hours a day. What undermines the secret ID in Superman's case is not the demand for "realism" but he inherent problems created by a "shared universe." If Superman were the only superhero, the need to stay connected and be treated normally would make more sense.

SallyP said...

I really should know better than to drink anything when I read this blog, because the mention of Jimmy's trouser snake made tea go up my nose.

I don't mind in the least if Superman wants to talk to Jimmy, because he sure can rock a mini-skirt. And heels. And that is a talent that can come in handy.

Anonymous said...

I don't have much interest either way in whether Jimmy knows. What matters to me is that we finally, FINALLY got the "real" Superman this issue, the one who respects and listens and persuades and inspires. I like to think this is how Superman would have handled it even if he had all his powers (or knew he had them), because that's Who He Ought To Be. Please excuse my use of capitals on a subjective matter, but it's one I feel strongly about.

I'm good with the reveal that Clark's glasses change the shape of his eyes. I'm glad to hear that Superman doesn't hear fifty million cries for help a day because he tends to hear an overall pattern -- that's probably the only way he can keep sane, and I'm happy for it.

I was no fan of the Ulysses story because it was mostly just another dumb Superman vs. Defective Superman story, but when Geoff is on all cylinders, he does one of the best damn Supermans you'll find.

John said...

Andrew, I think the problem is actually that writers have drawn so much attention to the secret identity. If dual identities were just a trope, they wouldn't get in the way of disbelief. It's when you start outlining how secret this is and the lengths the heroes go to protect their lives that it invites so many questions and starts to look...petty, honestly.

Anonymous, I think those are the only options at Marvel, where mistrust and melodrama are written into their DNA, but DC (as Scipio has covered extensively) is steeped in the private detective/bodyguard/soldier of fortune tradition and is what DC does best. There are some characters who might not make the transition easily (officials of a foreign power, like Green Lanterns; they'd probably need close government relationships), but I can't think of very many.

There's also a lot more storytelling mileage in their overlapping responsibilities (Bruce Wayne needs to give testimony to put the Riddler away, but one of the Riddler's minions is (not coincidentally) about to blow up ten sites throughout the city. And Architecture Digest won't leave the front gates until they discover how you can have a cave that deep without the mansion collapsing into it. Compare that to "the Joker is going to reveal Batman's true identity at midnight!" for the five billionth time...

I cite realism, here, only because that's the excuse for all the bad changes. Our heroes are mean, angry, selfish people who use excessive brutality and (sometimes) brainwashing, because--we're told--that's "more realistic."

Bryan, you might be right, but "I need to protect my family" was still being used at least late pre-Flashpoint, and was the entire premise of Identity Crisis, even though the book was something like 97% red herring and out-of-nowhere "gotchas." It's actually somewhat troubling that it's now just all about their comfort.

Especially, if you consider that someone like Bill Gates or Warren Buffett could probably do just as much good as a lot of superheroes, and nobody hounds them day and night. Or, rather, they have infrastructure that shields them from the psychos.

Anonymous said...

John -
But I think DC's private investgator model only really works because of the secret identity device. The Batman scenario you laid out feels more "unreal" to me than Clark Kent's glasses disguise. Once everyone knows who he is Batman goes from being a mythic figure to a creepy guy running around in a ridiculous costume. It would also force writers to address the "exactly why is he allowed to run around town and do things the law doesn't allow police officers do" problem. Wayne Enterprises would be bankrupt from civil lawsuits.

The no-secret ID thing is easier at Marvel. "Falcon" or "Daredevil" could be military call signs. And Marvel's DNA emphasizes the small scale nature of their characters. Iron Man doesn't have to be bigger or more mythic than Tony Stark. But when Batman and Bruce Wayne occupy the same dimension, it diminishes Batman.

I agree that writers overrely on the exposing/discovering secret identity thing but it goes on the long list of tired storytelling devices abused by modern writers.

CobraMisfit said...


Sheesh, a guy can only be Superman's Pal for oh-so-long before he's either killed by a trouser snake or turned into a giant turtle. He might as well face these tragedies knowing the real identity of his buddy so he can curse his friend for screwing him over age after age.

But don't worry, Jimmy. At least you get to be an underwear model in Supergirl. Consider it your reward for all the years of Clark lying to you!

Dick McGee said...

"Heck, it's easy to make a case that no one knew what to do with Jimmy Olsen BEFORE the Crisis"

Stuff and nonsense!

Two words for that: Jack Kirby.

Only time Jimmy has ever been awesome...although he did come close that one time he one-punched out the Joker.

Daniel P said...

Without secret IDs, superheroes would just live their life as that superhero...which would be boring.

I like the FF, but they are the perfect example of living your hero ID. And what do we really know about any of them? Since they don't have secret IDs, all we've seen for 50+ years is them in their job (except for a few stories about Johnny Storm's hot rodding).

If you read Spider-man, there has been NO growth for Spider-man in 50 years (unless you count joining the Avengers for a time). ALL of that character's growth comes from Peter Parker. "Spidey" didn't have a girlfriend killed by the Green Goblin. "Spidey" didn't marry a supermodel. And so on.

If you look at the vast majority of superheroes, there's no growth at all inside the costume. It's the person outside the costume that evolves.

Without the secret IDs, we'll end up with the whole industry reading like the original Image books--all costumed action and not much else. (And if THAT doesn't make you shudder...!)

Slaughter said...

I have to agree with Anonymous here that without secret identities, one either ends with working for the government, fighting against the government or taking over the government.

Seems like the only alternative to this is in the ending of Kingdom Come, where meta-humans finally integrate into human society and eventually become nearly indistinguishable from normal humans - average dudes with Super-powers, as it were. I get the feeling that was the best solution, not a perfect one, but excellent when the alternative is ultra-pissed off Superman going through a blood-soaked rampage in the United Nations. Then again, pretty much every super-villain and anti-hero was dead or reabilitated then.

Slaughter said...

Forgot to add: As we saw in the JSA book, the last alternative results in a Legion of Super-Heroes future, and I think it explains why LSH has nearly no secret identities, the concept is considered mostly quaint by then and metas are seen as no big deal. But then again, that's a society 1000 years after metas appear. Its like wondering why iron weapons are no big deal to someone living in roman times.