Superman Is Cool, Pt. 3: The Three Faces of Superman

One of the greatest criticisms labeled against the Man of Steel is that he is a flat, uninteresting 2-dimensional (in terms of personality; not the obvious) character. In Part 3 of my series of articles delving into Superman’s “cool factor”, we’re going to take a look at whether or not that’s true. It isn’t, by the way.

Two Faces Out of Three: Superman says goodbye to Clark Kent in a classic DC Comics cover.

To be fair, Superman was born into an era where comic books were still a rather new and novel medium. Flat characterization was encouraged, and only really changed drastically about two decades after Superman’s first appearance; during the Silver Age and with the advent of the “Marvel Universe” of comics. To be even more fair, Superman (and most other comic characters of that era) really started as a one-dimensional character. Stan Lee’s Marvel Universe helped herald an era of 2-dimensional characters, with the late 70s and early 80s pushing things into the realm of 3D (the 90s, conversely, seemed to take things back a bit; but that’s for another article).

But these articles aren’t just about Superman in the 30s or the 60s. They are about Superman as a composite pop cultural meme of sorts; a sprite constructed in our minds over a decades-long period of development and growth. He is the sum of his experiences and the contributions of various writers and artists from across his existence. Just like us.

Marvel Comics’ big claim to fame as a competitor to DC, and not just another redundant comic publisher, was that its characters were flawed, confused and volatile: human. The X-Men (supposedly) dealt with issues of racism and the teenaged development of identity, while Spider-Man slogged through “realistic” scenarios like paying bills, sexing hot college babes and generally being a mopey sonuvabitch. It may come as no surprise to anyone who read this article’s title, but the Marvel guys weren’t the only ones dealing with psychological problems and a sense of unquantifiable sadness. Superman did too.

Everyone knows that the confident and successful Man of Tomorrow spends his days labouring in the secret identity of one Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter and sentient doormat. But how many times have you asked yourself why the world’s greatest superhero might do this? The obvious answer provided by most of his detractors would be that it’s his clever “Fuck You” to mankind, while some fans may suggest it’s his best means of protecting his friends and family from bad guys. It’s an identity so far removed from his superheroic one as to make the two people he portrays seem unrelated. But really, Clark Kent is a farm boy with perfect homespun values that would make him feel awfully bad about affecting such a ruse without good reason.

And he’s only human, after all, so forgive him his demand for acceptance.

The notion of being ‘alien’ or ‘separate’ is probably never stronger for us than when we are in our teens. For Superman, this feeling is accentuated by his discovery of, first, his unique physiology (and abilities), and then his secret origins. He’s a real alien, but as far as he was concerned up until that point, he’d always been a human. A different, “special” human, yes, but still one of us.

His sense of self completely destroyed, the teenaged Kent projects his insecurities into an unflappable, infallible identity as Superboy. But ultimately, Superboy (and later, Superman) is really just a way to puff up his chest, help where he can, and perform his amazing feats in the public eye without being shunned or booed off stage. Superman postures confidently where the real Clark Kent just wants to feel loved and accepted for who he is, and gets as much of that as he can from his mother, father, and his best friends, Pete Ross and Lana Lang.

But then there’s the other Clark Kent.

The other, other Clark Kent: Would you take this guy seriously?

The bumbling, stuttering, clumsy oaf who stumbles into the world’s biggest stories and somehow survives crazy, repetitively attacked and alien-invaded Metropolis without so much as a yelp for the city’s bulletproof protector. That Clark Kent is clearly overcompensation in the other direction. It is Superman’s way of showing everyone how normal and human he can be. He goes to great lengths to hide his activities as Superman behind a veneer of awkwardness, but really it’s less about a disguise then it is his cry for help. [EDIT – 09/05/2010: I had to pull out an erroneous statement here. I did a rereading of the scene in All Star Superman I’d been referencing and I misinterpreted it slightly. Funny how that happens.]

Superman may be from the planet Krypton, but the idea of playing a role in public, or among a particular group of people, is not alien to anyone. People adopt and invest in marked distinctions in their behaviour in different social situations, though the degree to which these changes are evident depends on the individual. Superman is no exception. At work, Clark Kent emphasizes what he assumes his co-workers will interpret as his corn-fed roots; rendering himself the most average man alive. Meanwhile, at his other job, Kal-El must project the value system that he has forced his superior persona to live up to, i.e. Truth, Justice & the American Way. Superman does not mince words or alter his moral standing. He doesn’t need to because everyone accepts him automatically, and those that do not are usually evil, insane and destructive toxic personalities like Lex Luthor.

Both the Metropolitan Clark Kent and the alien Superman share the role of being commonly accepted traits of their respective social settings. The Clark Kent of Smallville, however, is too “weird” to fit in amongst his Kansas brethren but may be too “normal” to be just another reporter in the big city. And although some may criticize Superman’s unflinching moral credo as childish or “gay”, that is essentially the point. It is a value system based on an ideal, and Superman is just the idealized version of a sad young man with a big heart and a good soul: the sullen third face of the world’s greatest hero.

Next up: Alien Love Triangle
You can still take a look at Part 1 and Part 2.

4 Responses to “Superman Is Cool, Pt. 3: The Three Faces of Superman”
  1. Kelly says:

    I was sitting through a workshop a few days ago, analyzing some films according to a cycle of myth-based principle… Some of the cycle is based on Jungian archetypes and some, on what Joseph Campbell proposes on monomyth and “the hero’s journey”. Amongst all of the unexpected brouhaha, I thought of your posts on Superman. Stupid question, but: have you checked out “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” or any other of Campbell’s stuff?

    • Nas says:

      I realize I could/should have replied to this many months ago, but anyway, here I am to do it now: I haven’t actually had a chance to read Campbell’s “Hero with a Thousand Faces”, although I’m well aware of the content and basic ideas behind it. I’ll admit now that I’m not exactly one for a ton of research, but I’ll certainly get to it when I’m reading Campbell purely for the sake of adding to my knowledge base. Superman does go through his own version of Campbell’s “hero’s journey” in a number of incarnations and stories, but there’s obviously this sense of inconclusiveness to his world, since his stories never actually reach a true climax (which is, I suppose, sort of the point of both the hero’s journey and Superman’s).

  2. Jase says:

    Looking forward to Alien Love Triangle.

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  1. […] previous article in this series gave me an opportunity to cover the human drama in the Superman saga. I wrote at […]

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