by Eddy Zeno
As a young reader, I
always liked Superman better than Clark Kent. Didn't we all? My
favorite stories might begin with an unfolding headline event teletyped
into the Daily Planet newsroom. Clark might be working at his desk
or chewing the fat with Perry, Lois, and Jimmy. He would have to
find an excuse to change to Superman so he could fly to wherever
the threat was and deal with it. If he never appeared out of costume
for the tale's remainder, it was fine with me. Yet despite a child's
opinion that Clark was not needed except perhaps as a brief story
springboard, he did not go away. That's because the editors and
writers, starting with Superman's co-creator Jerry Siegel, were
smart enough to know that without Clark Kent, Superman wouldn't
Denny O'Neil, interviewed
in January 2006 for the book The Krypton Companion (by BACK
ISSUE's Michael Eury and published by TwoMorrows), in essence said
that even those long-ago, goofy tales in which Lois or Lana schemed
to prove that Clark was Superman/Superboy were necessary. They helped
ground a near-invincible space alien with godlike powers in the
everyday world so readers could relate to him. In current continuity
Superman remains grounded by having Ma and Pa Kent alive and by
Clark/Superman being married to Lois.
The careers of the writers
participating in the Clark Kent Roundtable span these wide gulfs
in the reporter's history and events in between. Their comments,
received by email between July and October 2006, serve as reminders
how each of them has added dimension to the fictional character.
For contrast and clarity they are divided into pre- and post-Crisis
teams-or the "Clark Kent Red" and the "Clark Kent Blue" teams, in
a nod to the classic Imaginary Story. However, all Roundtable participants
maintain a sharp interest in Clark as he appears today, and many
of them still participate in his adventures in some form. -Eddy
to Michael Eury for helping with the following questions.)
CLARK KENT RED TEAM
CARY BATES Superman
ELLIOT S! MAGGIN Superman
DENNIS O'NEIL Superman
writer and Superman Family editor, 1970s
MARTIN PASKO Superman
writer, 1970s-1980s; Superman Returns adaptation, 2006
LEN WEIN Superman writer, 1970s
EDDY ZENO: From
your perspective, which was the "real" and which was the "manufactured"
personality, Clark or Superman? Is he primarily a simple North American
type of guy or a stranger from another planet?
Wow. This question reminds me of all the subplots and story premises
I pitched that explored Superman's identity issues. They kept being
rejected by the editors I had to satisfy because they didn't "get"
them, and they didn't conform to their purely escapist sensibility
and their preference for gimmickry. I'm used to people not understanding
why I find this a more complex and nuanced question than your phrasing
of it implies. That's because I'm probably unique among Superman
writers in that I have firsthand experience with the sort of identity
issues Kal-El would have-the kind that abandonment, early adoption,
and displacement create.
For me, the "truthful"
way to write it is that the Kryptonian began his conscious life
thinking of himself as Clark Kent, believing himself human until
his powers began to manifest themselves. But from that point on,
I think that what you're asking about differs depending on which
version of the continuity you're talking about. In the continuities
in which there is no Superboy, the timeline of Clark's self-discovery
is different. The creative choice writers must make is greatly affected
by where the information about Superman's past comes from, at what
point in his life he gets it, and how many years he's been thinking
of himself as a costumed vigilante (a longer period if he's been
I had to work with was essentially a Julie Schwartz-modified version
of the Weisinger continuity of the '60s, in which Clark learned
of his Kal-El identity when he was in grade school, rather than
as a young adult. So it always seemed to me, because of the way
I learned of my own identity, and had to revise my self-image as
new information became available to me, that once "Clark Kent" became
aware of "Kal-El", Kal-El became the "real" person, and both Clark
and Superman became constructs. But, because he was, in effect,
cut off from his "real" self because he had no memory of having
lived as Kal-El, that real self felt less real to him-paradoxically-than
either of the "manufactured" identities.
I base this conclusion
on the way my own history parallels the character's: I was born
in French Canada, of which I have no firsthand memory (so, for me,
Canada = Krypton). In my birthplace, I was given the name Gaston
Claude Rochefort (= Kal-El). I was adopted by an American couple
who were a good 10-15 years older than most of my contemporaries'
parents (= the Kents) and brought to the US (= Smallville) at a
very early age.
My adoptive parents
were completely honest with me about the fact of my adoption, and
from as early as I can remember, I knew I was different from other
kids in that respect. So, Gaston-Claude feels unreal to me because,
to my conscious mind and memory, Martin Pasko has always been my
identity. Yet I know it's a construct because I wasn't born with
That condition leaves
one with a sense of being two people at once, and no one at all-and
I was luckier than Supes; I didn't have yet a third identity to
But that sense of being
a man without a real identity-as well as a man without a homeworld,
if you will-leads to a kind of alienation from others that is fairly
unique. I would think that Kal-El's awareness that he is considered
human but isn't really of humans is in the forefront of his consciousness
most of the time. It's this tragic dimension of the character that
I always thought had great story potential, but nobody has ever
really explored it, to my knowledge.
CARY BATES: To
me it was never an "either-or" question, because he could never
simply be just regular-guy-Clark-Kent any more than he could "just"
be Kal-El-the-Kryptonian. From the moment his rocketship reached
Earth and the Kents started raising him, the way I saw it, both
aspects of the character were forever entwined.
LEN WEIN: The
Clark Kent persona was definitely the real personality. He was raised
as Clark from infancy and only became Superman (or -boy, if you're
so inclined) years later. I've long said that what makes Clark Kent
Superman isn't his ability to change the course of mighty rivers
or bend steel in his bare hands, it's the fact that he was raised
by the two most decent people in the world, people who helped form
his moral center. All the rest of it emanates from there.
O'NEIL: To me, the guy in the cape was always the real one.
And though he might try to fit in by being a wholesome, Midwestern
kid, that's not who he was.
ELLIOT S! MAGGIN:
It is and has always been very clear to me that the character we
are dealing with is Superman, not somebody named Clark who pretends
to be Superman, and not Kal-El with some sort of alien consciousness
who puts on Superman like a suit of clothes or a toga or something.
The hero of the story is the character's best self, given all that
character's aspects. A primary element of traditional mythology
as well as contemporary mythology has always been the disguise,
but the disguise is the fantasy, not the reverse-whether the hero
is aware of that or not. The little kid growing up as his step-brother's
squire in the duke's home was really King Arthur. The beggar who
crashed the party thrown by Penelope's suitors was really Odysseus.
The swan that seduced Leda was really Zeus. And the strange visitor
from another planet with powers and abilities far beyond those of
mortal men-as well as the mild-mannered reporter for a great Metropolitan
newspaper-is really Superman.
ZENO: How come
Clark could fool Lois?
dim? Maybe she wanted to be fooled? I never answered this for myself,
nor did I really try to. Clark's fooling Lois-and everyone else-by
changing clothes and putting on glasses was a convention I accepted.
WEIN: I always
wondered the same thing until I watched the late, much-lamented
Christopher Reeve demonstrate on screen that Clark Kent looks nothing
like Superman; he's shorter, his facial structure is different.
I'm telling you, they're two entirely different guys.
MAGGIN: I like
Noel Neill's answer: "To keep my job." That's actually not a bad
answer. People see incomplete stories in the world around them.
Nearly half the people in this country voted for a man unqualified
to be president twice in a row. Probably the best explanation for
the failure of characters to perceive "reality" is that we rarely
tell ourselves the whole story either; that metaphors are a convenient
way around complications. I don't want to spend my effort explaining-or
hearing-that the hero is a master of disguise and theatrics and
hypnosis and misdirection or the Kryptonian glass gives off a kind
of mirage effect or some damned thing. I just want to get on with
the storytelling and if glasses and suit gets me there, that's fine
Like explaining how the Force works (anyone remember midochlorians?),
some questions are better left unanswered. A valiant but not too-successful
attempt was made to address the disguise conundrum in a story Julie
ran in the late '70s (by Marty Pasko, I believe) [in Superman
# 330, Dec. 1978, and referenced above by Elliot as a "mirage
effect or some damned thing..." caused by Clark's special glasses].
Because the eyeglass disguise was a simple conceit intended to suffice
for small kids. Of course it's preposterous in the eyes of an older
audience, but that's not the demo for whom the books were intended
in 1938. Moreover, it was easier to go along with the conceit before
the mid-'70s, when the Superman-Lois relationship was unambiguously
chaste. The 15 years immediately prior to the Clark-Lois wedding,
in which there was an implied sexual intimacy between them, strained
credibility to the breaking point. But I'm not convinced that if
the glasses were eliminated, there wouldn't be a howl of protest
-most of it from the very same people who deride the disguise as
hokey. I was the reluctant scripter, by editorial fiat, of a plot
submitted by a fan which attempted to offer a science-fictional
rationale for the glasses disguise. The story was quickly ignored
because it "felt wrong" (as it did to me even as I was writing it).
I think it's better not to even ask "How can Clark fool Lois?" Every
time a writer tries to answer that, no one is satisfied; the attempted
rationale is eliminated from continuity; and the franchise reverts
to the conceit that the Kent disguise is effective.
ZENO: If the
Clark Kent identity was an act, why was he hurt when she only loved
I think, it made for better stories.
MAGGIN: He wasn't
hurt. He was thrown off-track, and just a little. Hal Jordan wanted
Carol Ferris to be in love with him and not the guy in the mask.
Superman has a more complicated life and he's better at finding
his way around the complications. I wrote a story a thousand years
ago called "Gorilla Grodd's Grandstand Play" [Action Comics #424,
June 1973], which I still like quite a bit. In the last page of
the story Lois took back some things she had said earlier, in a
manner that ought to have hurt Clark's feelings, and afterward Clark
walked through the hall down-in-the-dumps until he was out of earshot.
When he was sure he was alone he burst out laughing. A friend told
me at the time it was a cruel thing for Clark to do to Lois, but
I thought about it and didn't think so. I still don't. It hurt no
one, and helped me answer this question, after all.
Was he? I remember it more as frustration and ambivalence than hurt:
On the one hand, he was gratified that the disguise was working,
but frustrated that at the Planet he was forced to keep playing
the shlub when he didn't want to. I'd also suggest that he was skeptical
that she really loved him, as opposed to having a romantic fantasy.
I mean, how can you truly love someone-in a mature, committed way-before
you know them very well? And since they weren't close enough for
her to be entrusted with the secret of his double identity, it's
doubtful he could regard her professed "love" as much more than
an adolescent crush.
Even though Clark is
an artificial identity, I don't think it's an "act" in the sense
of a deliberately fraudulent alias, such as one a con man might
assume. Rather, it's a displacement of Kal-El's deepest emotions
and vulnerabilities into a manufactured vessel. I put it that way
to distinguish the process from dissociation as in multiple personality
disorder, because in Kal-El's case it's conscious, vitally necessary,
and not at all pathological.
We all know that actors
who work internally will draw on sense memory and facets of their
own psychological makeup to make their characters as real as possible.
In this process, it's not uncommon for actors to so closely identify
with their roles that they start imprinting their own personalities
on their parts. As a result, the actors so closely identify with
their characters that the actors start taking what happens to the
characters "personally." Often, actors in long-running TV series
will feel that they've come to understand their roles better than
the writers, and that's what starts the "My character wouldn't say
that" wars. From that phenomenon, I extrapolate that, if he were
hurt at all, Kal-El, the actor playing Clark, was hurt by Lois's
rejection of Clark the character because that's the way the character
Clark would react.
WEIN: Well, since
I never believed the Clark identity was an act, I think the question
answers itself. Besides, I always thought that back in the Silver
Age, Lois was a bit of a starf*cker, if you'll excuse my language.
She was smitten with Superman because of what he was, not who he
ZENO: Why didn't
previous attempts to make Clark more appealing (Superman #210,
Oct. 1968, under editor Mort Weisinger, and Superman #233,
Jan. 1971, under Julie Schwartz) endure?
Don't recall those particular issues, but in general ...back in
the '60s and '70s the mild-mannered schtick was the prevailing mantra
of the day, and I would expect any departure from the status quo
to be temporary at best.
MAGGIN: I'm not
sure what issues the numbers refer to, but it seems to me that #233
probably included the first "Private Life of Clark Kent" story,
if my geography is right. [Actually, the series began in Superman
#242, Jan. 1972, with initial story by Denny O'Neil.] I don't
think Clark is unappealing. He's just normal, and that's part of
the point of having him around.
And I'm not sure that
any attempt to make him more appealing didn't endure. In the nature
of a shared universe like this, whoever is making decisions about
who the character should be and where he should go, and what mood
the storyteller is in, all change like life. Readers' responses
to a momentary shift in direction are only a factor in whether or
not a manifest thought somehow becomes canon. There was this big
editorial meeting at some point where the publisher and all the
editors at DC decided that from now on, the secret identity of a
major character would be homosexual. Really. It was kind of silly.
And when it became clear that it was kind of silly, everybody quietly
forgot about the notion. These characters have lives and dynamics
of their own. The storytellers who are the most successful at creating
time-worthy stories are those who best steep themselves in the characters'
histories and traditions, and then simply tell stories, letting
the characters take their own natures into their own hands.
PASKO: I don't
think anyone in charge at DC ever thought analytically enough to
reach a conscious decision that Clark needed to be made more "appealing."
#210 merely reflects editorial director Carmine Infantino's
attempts to make the books look more modern and dynamic (note that
#210 has a striking Neal Adams cover). Carmine also insisted that
the older DC artists update their swipe files on fashion and prop
design. That's when we first started seeing Clark get out of the
perennial blue suit and into double-breasted jackets and colorful
shirts, etc. To the extent that the stories seemed to be about a
"new" Clark Kent, it was wholly superficial; merely a matter of
trying to find story hooks that would account for the design changes.
So it wasn't so much that the ideas didn't "endure" as that the
following Fall brought the designers' new collections. The experiments
of #210 and the issues following it were just another flailing attempt
to seem as hip as Marvel-briefly considered and discarded like the
"Go-Go Checks" of 1966.
As for the TV news anchor
business that began under Julie, that was gradually dropped because,
by 1980, it was clear to DC that the character of Clark Kent had
taken on a life that was larger than its creators or owners. The
company's failure to persuade the Superman movie producers to incorporate
the Galaxy Broadcasting franchise into the feature film was DC's
first inkling that, because of Superman's long-term presence in
mass media, the character had a multi-generational recognition factor
that meant that the image of the "true" Clark Kent would always
be that of a newspaper reporter. WB's own research showed that DC's
efforts at "updating" Superman weren't registering with the public.
In 2006, we saw exactly the same pattern repeat itself in WB's decision
not to do a film in which Clark was courageous and virile and married
because it wasn't a great idea? The storytelling advantages of a
double-identity character are pretty much lost when both identities
are admirable (or equally lousy). In the current interpretation,
Clark is pretty darn great-brilliant, prize-winning journalist,
etc. And his nerdishness was never consistent; if memory serves,
he was often played as an ace reporter.
ZENO: What was
the impact of the editor(s) with whom you worked when it came to
was much more rigid in terms of everything from plot and dialogue
to panel layouts, but since he was my first editor and I was green
it worked out okay in the long run. I certainly learned a lot. Julie
was a great teacher, too; he also had a lot of his own rules ...but
once he trusted a writer, more often than not he'd give you a much
wider latitude of creative freedom.
Well, since I only really worked with Julie Schwartz as my editor
on Superman, the impact was considerable. Julie taught me a bunch
of simple, basic rules when it came to writing a Superman story,
and I've never forgotten them.
MAGGIN: I have
generally worked with editors who were more concerned with the immediate
story I was telling-whether it hung together, whether it made sense,
whether it was exciting or engaging-than with where I was taking
the characters. That was certainly true of Julie Schwartz. And for
that matter, the characters were kind of dragging me along in that
PASKO: Not much.
Nobody ever questioned or directed me in my treatment of Clark,
perhaps because none of my editors felt very sure-footed when it
came to the Superman franchise. That may have resulted from the
same development that made the '70s Superman such a mess (e.g.,
the sons of Superman and Batman). Petty politics triumphed over
both sound business judgment and creative integrity: neither Infantino
nor his immediate successors wanted a single editor to wield as
much power at National Periodicals as Mort Weisinger had, so the
line was split up when Weisinger resigned in 1970. It would be 15
years before all the Superman-related titles would come under a
single editor's stewardship again.
Consequently, I did
Supes stuff for three editors-Schwartz, O'Neil, and [Joe] Orlando-and
each approached both the character and the script-writing process
In matters of mythology,
Julie deferred to writers who knew it backward and forward, like
Cary, Elliot, Len, and I did, so when we needed to shoot down an
editorial suggestion because it was "off-continuity," Julie went
along. Denny was always a joy to work with in comics. He freely
admitted that he was never that comfortable with the Superman property,
so when called upon to edit it, he just found a writer he trusted
and got out of the way.
had no feel for super-heroes, and no respect for the genre conventions.
I had no problems with that; I understood what he found silly and
didn't blame him for thinking so. But he'd waste hours of your time
asking questions like, "Why does Superman have to crash through
the wall instead of go in through the door?" And, since he was an
insecure little man, he tended to be dictatorial and apt to get
petulant at every imagined slight. So you could never give him the
straight answer that was in your head, which was, "Look, Joe, you
either get it or you don't."
ZENO: What did
you do to make Clark uniquely yours?
MAGGIN: I didn't.
He wasn't. He belonged to the ages like Lincoln, f'r heaven's sakes,
and will you stop calling him Clark? The character I worked with
was Superman. Clark was the character Superman worked with.
and I made no attempt to. It would have been inappropriate to do
so, from a professionalism standpoint. Besides, realistically speaking,
making that big an impression would've been impossible anyway. Any
major change one writer would've tried to make-even if s/he had
gotten away with it-would have been undone immediately by other
writers and turned into what some DC fans today call "Mopee stories."
O'NEIL: Not a
BATES: See answer
to question 1.
enough, I think the most important thing I did with Clark-aside,
of course, from giving him a home life, introducing his neighbors
in the apartment building he lived in, etc.-was to return the character
to his basics. With rare exception, every Superman story I wrote
contained that seminal moment where he would rip his shirt open
and proclaim, "This looks like a job for... SUPERMAN!" It gave me
chills as a kid and continues to do so to this day.
ZENO: What were
Kent's most important contributions to the Superman mythos?
O'NEIL: The Clark
identity gives readers someone with whom to identify, and provides
PASKO: It's a
fair question. Unfortunately. The very fact that anyone would find
it necessary to ask that underscores how wrongheaded the most recent
interpretation of Clark is. But, fortunately for the prospective
longevity of the franchise, the fearless, macho Kent appears only
in the comics, which have little influence in defining the property
in the public imagination any more. Historically, Kent is the repository
of the human failings Superman can't afford to admit to himself.
Whatever self-doubt, fear-indeed, any weakness-may have, he mentally
relegates to Clark. Kent is Superman's vehicle for inhabiting the
human world so that he can be treated as an equal by humans (though,
with delicious irony, he's usually seen as inferior), rather than
being worshipped or feared as a demi-god. But if you make Clark
just as strong a personality as Superman, differing only by not
wearing a costume and pretending not to have super-powers, then
Kent not only has nothing to contribute, he's virtually unnecessary.
BATES: I've never
seen that question answered or delineated more effectively than
the first five years of Smallville.
ZENO: Had you
been given carte blanche, what would you have changed about the
Silver/Bronze Age Clark?
A lot less of Lois snooping into his secret identity, I think. Other
than that, not much. That's the character I grew up with, the Superman
BATES: From my
perspective any answer to a question like that, some 30-40 years
after the fact, would either be self-serving or b.s.
PASKO: The Weisinger
stuff was pretty silly, but it was age-appropriate, it worked commercially,
and, operating synergistically with the media incarnations, it kept
the character alive in the comics about ten years longer than his
super-heroic contemporaries. So, since it wasn't broken, I wouldn't
have tried to fix it.
As for the post-Weisinger
stuff, I'd have to have been the editor to make the changes I'd've
liked to see: the writers would've been asked to think about the
material a bit more deeply in terms of character logic, and to place
more emphasis on policing the fantasy elements for believability,
extrapolating more logically from known science. This would have
constituted an effort to appeal to an older, slightly more sophisticated
audience. Then, once a template for a new approach was established,
I'd have insisted that all the writers treat the material consistently,
rather than O'Neil having one take, [Bob] Haney another, Bates yet
a third, and so on.
In retrospect-although I didn't feel it was so at the time-I think
I did have a kind of carte blanche, at least as far as I wanted
to take it. What I tried to do overall with Superman was explain
in my own words who this character was. I never wanted to make up
a new character that I wanted everyone to call "Superman." I wanted
to demonstrate the viability of a character in whom, at the time
I began writing his stories, no one was really very interested in
anymore. I believe I went some distance in doing that. I think the
only regret I had was the kind of regret you have when you lose
someone close to you: that you wish you could have spent more time
roundtable, with comments from the Clark Kent Blue Team (KURT BUSIEK,
JOHN BYRNE, JERRY ORDWAY, ROGER STERN, and MARV WOLFMAN), continues
in BACK ISSUE #20, the "Secret Identities" issue, on sale
Jan. 17th! Explore the histories of four characters with unusual
alter egos: Firestorm, Moon Knight, the Question, and the "real-life"
super-hero the Human Fly. STEVE ENGLEHART and SAL BUSCEMA talk "Pro2Pro"
about their Captain America collaboration, and JERRY ORDWAY is spotlighted
in a career-spanning interview. Featuring artwork by and commentary
from DOUG MOENCH, DENYS COWAN, AL MILGROM, GERRY CONWAY, FRANK ROBBINS,
JIM SHOOTER, BILL SIENKIEWICZ, KEVIN NOWLAN, and many others. Bonus:
a four-page Superman and Clark Kent COLOR art gallery, with ultra-rare
art by CURT SWAN and others. With a Shazam! cover by Ordway, re-creating
the classic "Spider-Man No More" cover from Amazing Spider-Man
#50. Edited by MICHAEL EURY. 100 pages, $6.95.
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