Comics Ate My Brain

March 15, 2006

"Our Top Stories Tonight: Stuff I Did"

Filed under: superman — Tom Bondurant @ 2:15 am
In the same way that I think of Batman being in marketing, I keep thinking about Clark Kent the journalist. The Golden Age Clark was a crusading reporter in an age when reporters could proclaim an agenda. The Silver Age Clark was an establishment type, a nerdy guy in a suit and glasses whose purpose was to fade into the woodwork and give Superman some cover.

(The Earth-1 Clark’s significant stint as a TV anchorman is still fascinating to me. Seems like Superman would often have a Clark robot cover the nightly news, which is clearly a jab at talking-head culture. However, in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, Clark would have been a nationally-known figure, alongside Walter Cronkite, John Chancellor, and Frank Reynolds. Clark was a precursor of sorts to young up-and-comers Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, and Peter Jennings. Imagine a young Brokaw ducking into a storage closet to fly off and stop a tsunami – with plenty of time to write it up and report on it at dinnertime — and you see why I want Grant Morrison to devote an All-Star Superman issue to Clark’s TV career.)

Today’s Clark falls somewhere between his predecessors in terms of social activism. Mild-mannered no longer, he has more freedom to crusade without endangering Superman’s secret identity, but by and large writers have given Lois Lane all the juicy reportage. This isn’t surprising — with Lois being his fianceé/wife for the past fifteen years, she’s going to be around constantly and has to look good next to Clark/Supes — but it takes away from the chance to use Clark’s job as a window on Superman.

The most significant paradigm shift of the post-Crisis Superman was the approach to Clark Kent. In the past, Clark was Kal-El’s disguise which allowed him to operate effectively as Superman. Today, Superman is Clark’s disguise. On Earth-1, Kal-El (as the teenaged Superboy) was a superhero before he became a journalist. Today, the sequence is also reversed. Clark’s social activism still springs in significant part from a desire to his powers productively, but (as seen in Superman: Birthright), his “streak of good” fuels both sides of his life.

Moreover, it makes sense that Clark would want to be a reporter. Clark clearly believes that people are fundamentally good, so if he can present them with the facts they need to make informed decisions, they will make the right decisions. The biggest check on Superman’s power is his own trust in the rest of humanity, just as the core of Superman’s appeal is the public’s trust in him. This two-way relationship keeps Superman from taking over the world and keeps the public from being afraid of him.

Of course, Clark’s crosstown colleague Peter Parker presents an alternate take on the superhero journalist. For Peter, photography isn’t a calling, just a way to pay bills. Clark is in a position to portray his alter ego favorably, but Peter isn’t — the more foolish his photos make Spider-Man look, the more job security he has. Both men use their positions as cover for their heroic identities, and naturally both want to make the world a better place, but the similarities end there. Peter’s experience as a journalist is fundamentally shaped by Jonah Jameson’s announced agenda of ruining Spider-Man, whereas Clark’s editors have never seriously crusaded against Superman.

In fact, didn’t one DC/Marvel crossover make it a point to show Jonah applauding Superman in an editorial? Again, this issue of trust is at the heart of Superman’s character, and today it can be played ironically against the sort of journalistic smorgasbord which the information explosion has given us. Clark-on-TV was, for its time, a simple updating of Clark-in-the-paper: Clark went where the public got its news, whether in print or on video. Today, Clark works for a “major metropolitan newspaper” not only to get instant access to breaking news, but also probably because a cable-TV head or (heavens!) some schmoe with a website would just fill a niche. It could be argued that newspapers are becoming their own niche, I know, but they are far from being marginalized — and they still are seen as fulfilling a higher journalistic calling than either network or cable TV.

Makes me wonder why Clark never worked on radio. (Silver Age Clark could have done his reports through super-ventriloquism.) Having no personal experience with the golden age of radio news, I will still speculate that radio in the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s was seen as the TV news of today — more immediate, more visceral, and therefore less intellectual than the newspaper. Electronic media, from Edward R. Murrow in London forward, arguably deals more in emotion and impression than print, which could actually separate Superman from his fellow citizens. Through the Daily Planet, Clark can bring stories to light that help people live their lives better. Showing Superman’s exploits on TV makes him a spectacle, and he wants to be more of an example. Clark probably isn’t above setting Supes’ adventures in a context which emphasizes the latter.

Wow, sounds like I have talked myself out of the Clark-as-anchorman story, doesn’t it? Oh well, probably best to keep the Ron Burgundy comparisons to a minimum….

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