Essay on "Superman" and modern super-hero comics.
Originally published in "EDIT - Papier für neue Texte", 2009.
I am Clark Kent
by Stefan Mesch
I am Clark Kent. This is Africa. The sky is empty and I'm in my mid-twenties and I am hardly six feet off the ground. You can see me in between (or above, or amidst) a herd of wild zebras, all picking up speed, all running in the same direction. There is a lot of dust. I am wearing a light blue shirt and my dark blue backpack and a wristwatch. My arms are spread. I'm on my own. I'm smiling. And if I'd turn just slightly to my left, I could touch the zebra's manes, mid-flight. I am Clark Kent and I am not a laid-back person. Some things are hard for me to do. And then, some things are not.
One New Year's Eve a while ago, Stoff and I stayed up far too long. When dawn came on, it was too late to go to bed, she and I slumped on Fred’s dark couch and we took turns to read out loud the words of his Tabu card deck that stood there from last night: one word on each of the card’s sides, one from the front, one from the back. Stoff wanted me to pick out favourites, decide the better side of every card. She asked with each new word if it would be part of a universe I'd build. I had to choose from pairs like lunch break and attorney. Just random pairs, with no relation. One to dismiss, one to include. I made my choices in no time.
I have my standards. I know my ethics. My boundaries are set and people trip and slip out of my universe. And I can see how sometimes there's some vague fascistic sentiment with Superman, some ugly second thought whenever he appears and speaks in public: He is a giant blackboard set up by Clark Kent, a blackboard where he advertises his beliefs of politics and power. Superman is a golem. Superman is a not-so-public monument. To be a journalist and dress up, fly around the globe and bend the muzzles of the foreign tanks into steel pretzels, while in your day job, you write angry columns and win Pulitzers, an infamous political reporter who has ranted against the Lex Luthor presidency for years… To be the strongest man alive and use your public alter ego, a well-known journalist, like a ventriloquist's dummy to speak incognito in public media... There was another Pulitzer some time ago. It went to Lois Lane. Awarding her sharp essay “Why The World Doesn't Need Superman”. And I can see where she comes from.
This is a crisp and vivid afternoon. I'm hurrying up stairs to make it to the platform. The trains are leaving and you can just make out our office building in the background. I'm in plain sight as everyone looks on at how I’m late again as I am two or three times a week. I'm in plain sight as everyone looks on at how I barely reach the leaving train some other days. And some of these onlookers know me pretty well, they’re sitting at the train station and have a smoke and grin while I am bumbling through the crowds. And some of them are strangers, some are not.
To me, I think this city is a nice and proper place because enough of us make a decision every day to be part of place that’s nice and proper. This is Metropolis (it's not Manhattan). I am Clark Kent (I am not Peter Parker): I'm not some adolescent who’s disturbed by gifts he never chose. I am no underdog and social misfit. I am a citizen. I am the norm. My story is not about chance and atavism. My story is no exploration on how fair it is that I – like all of us, really – grew up and found myself bestowed with a potential to live up to:
Clark Kent has made the effort, the decision to be Clark. His feat is not his powers, it is his knowledge of himself and how to live with that. To know who you can be. And to be ready to embrace it. It was Bruce Wayne who once said: “We have made ourselves as much as we have been made.” (To me, responsibility does not come with great power. Great power only is a means that we can use to make our impact. Responsibility is what we want.)
And here's the newsstand where I buy my paper. And here's the potted plants on our balcony. Here are the Lex Towers, back there you see Centennial Park, there is an airship right above Hob's Bay and here's the Steelworks and the practice of my therapist. I see civilians, but I can't see any faceless extras, no hive of people, simple men. For ordinary people, seems to me, are not to envy, nor are they very envious – for ordinary people simply are not ordinary.
(When I was fifteen, it was different, and I believed that there are rare and very special persons that you should look for and sort out amidst the big, prosaic crowds. The precious few. When I was fifteen, I believed that friends are X-Men: a tight-knight, separate alliance of people, misunderstood and far detached from all the rest. Today, I don't believe in X-Men anymore.)
These are the bleachers dozing by the football grounds. And here are corn dogs and some sundaes, two bottles of Soder Cola from the drugstore, you see the High School and our barn. For this is Smallville. This is Kansas. Wide fields and our family farm, a place my father managed all these years using the values and the standards he believes in. And here's my mother sitting with her laptop, she's reading up on what I do. And if I was autistic, she'd be an expert on autism. And if I came from outer space, she'd be an expert on that, too.
If comics want to make me cry, it's always here, around this farmhouse. As Lana stands there in the slushy snow in our driveway, so angry and so proud of everything that we outlived and left behind by then. As Conner stands there in his tight black shirt on our veranda, the dog next to his feet, a pitcher of iced tea, a summer day. And Jonathan and Martha in the kitchen, this is the breakfast in the morning after Sue was murdered. Our quiet, tender bickering, our careful conversations, “But I bet Batman never does that do his parents, Clark!”
I am Clark Kent. I am where I came from. This is what shapes me (half my life, my Secret Origin). It's just like Hal as he walking to the desert's edge right before school starts every morning, wearing his father’s leather jacket, his fingers intertwining with the wire of the fence. The kerosene-stained asphalt of the runway. It's just like Dinah in her mother's flower shop, and how she trains and dresses up and puts on the blonde wig, and all these ancient uncles with their ancient stories, the laps she sat on while she grew up, trained and learned, Alan's and Jay's, Wesley's, Ted's. We hold these memories in our hollowed hands. We use them as the grounds on which to build our present. We are the sums of such encounters. We are the resolution to become corollaries of our pasts.
And here's the warm and humid night that I spent on the forest's floor when I was fourteen or fifteen, alone in a red sleeping bag. And here I close my eyes. And here I open them again. And I am hanging in the air, up in the summer sky, and moonlight floods the sleeping bag's red nylon. I hear the breathing of the hidden animals. I see the bones inside my skin. My eyes are burning.
I am Clark Kent. And I’m determined to be one of the good guys.
The misplaced sunglasses. The charcoal on the barbecue, the garden chairs. I am back home, here for the summer. We use the weekends to meet up. During the week, I commute into town. And in the evenings, back on the train to our town, I start to read these books, the first time ever, in strange and winding sequences, I’m new to this and still a little insecure about the reading order: “Infinite Crisis” and “Crisis on Infinite Earths”, the marriage to Lois and the marriage of Ollie and Dinah, “Our Worlds at War”, “The Long Halloween”, ‘Identity Crisis”. I'm introduced to all these people and slowly see where each of them is coming from: The Justice League (that's something Kyle explains to me), teaches you how to fight. As member of the JSA, you learn to be a hero. The Titans are some sort of family. The Birds of Prey, I think, are not.
I read these stories and I realize that I'm not Wally West or Hal Jordan. There are some minor similarities to J'onn J'onnz, but I'm nowhere near Tim Drake and I'm not Victor Sage, nor Barbara Gordon. I am, alas, not Oliver Queen. I am Clark Kent. I like how much they differ in their outlooks and their temperaments while they all circle around the same ethical issues – but I, for one, I am Clark Kent.
Since I have started university some years ago, I haven't stayed around so long back home: These summer evenings, these summer railway platforms, the lightning and the thunder over wheat fields while I'm driving to our village late at nine or ten. I'm back in my old room beneath the roof and I will stay until September. And I am nearly done now, I’m nearly ready to pick up the costume and the alias. And it’s a good time for Superman / to lift the sun into the sky.
Hi Fred, hi Sassi, Stoff, I'm here over the summer, hey Antje, Frank, there still is time, just call me up, I'll be right over. And let's please not just talk about the years we spent in school: What's happening now? What's next? I want to know who you have chosen to become by now!
“What does he do?” Antje asks me, “These constant brawls with aliens, villains, what’s his point?” It's hard to tell. It's hard to show: Once, he has died and once, he flew away. Clark Kent has friends, a city and a desk. He has a calendar next to his bed and after some years in the city, he gets married. His childhood hero is Atticus Finch from Harper Lee's “To Kill a Mockingbird”.
“You say these guys have all these great ideals. You say they stand for something.” Antje is wiping out the fridge, she’s kneeling down, fetches a saucepan from the cabinet, “But what, exactly?” She asks me for an illustration. Some picture with some bold and stark black lines, some moment that is tangible and quick to grasp. The way Sue's widower is bending over to the other, empty side of their shared bed, turns out her bedside lamp and says goodnight to her, his voice a single, firm and lonely speech balloon into the darkness of the bedroom. The way that Barbara and Dick are talking while they are driving up the coast in autumn, their cell phones disconnected, in search of a good place to get some lobster, clear their heads of Gotham City in a one-day getaway. These small, kind gestures that are common with these characters. But there's no single frame that I can show you, Antje:
It's like these persons all have made some common quiet and inner resolution on how to treat the world, their universe. They’re having confidence in other people. And at the same time they have very high, uncompromising standards when it comes to their own, individual efforts. Diana comes to mind, as she is facing shrouded middle-eastern women in a compound in the desert, and how she realizes that her message will not reach them while she is stands there wearing such a bright, revealing costume. „Diana?” Antje says, “She has a golden lasso, glowing in the dark! She flies around in her invisible jet. Please tell me: What exactly is her message, anyway?“ I'm at a loss, Antje, I'm sorry: I can show you Diana’s invisible airplane. Diana's message, though, I can’t.
I’m back up here with all this ancient stuff I left behind when I moved on to university. I’m sitting by myself, it’s chilly and there’s dust, a sort of sullen hideaway, and no one has a key for this but me. One time, Clark has said that everything, to him, just felt like it was made of cardboard: No matter what he tried to touch, he has to make an effort that it doesn’t break the very time he catches hold of it. In front of me, right on my table, there’s an entire city someone stuffed somehow into a tall and bellied jar, with tiny, shrunken people living out their tiny, shrunken lives behind the glass. I hold my head. I sit and watch them, watch them live.
In Washington, Lex asked me once: “Why don’t you just put the whole world in a bottle?” For if I did, all things were tangible and easy to point out. For if I did, all things had their determined place. For more than 70 years, these monthly books of twenty, thirty pages showed a man (along with a whole culture, nation and the shifting values that he chose to stand for) who constantly and publicly had to decide anew just what he chooses to embody.
What makes them heroes, each of them? I think it is that they constantly refuse to be anything less. (“It would have… diminished me to let another creature die unnecessarily.”) They share a mutual faith in the effort to make the best out of themselves. It is deliberate and voluntary, it’s nothing forced on them from the outside. It’s nothing they’ve been pushed into by fate. The power is in their attitude and sense of public duty.
It has to do with wearing costumes, too: Consciously being someone, being heard and seen. For every time they show themselves in public, they know that everything they do is of high profile, is something they’ll be held accountable for. And even if he just stands on a piece of lawn, Superman is creating these iconic images and statements, displaying values and beliefs. To me, it seems that each of them has a precise and quite mature and tangible awareness of the subtleties of their own role. As soon as they appear in public, they all know they are saying things, alone for being there, in costume. “And we thought, all these years, that it was about politics!” – “It’s always about politics.”
But here’s the bat-shark-repellent-spray on Bruce’s utility belt, here are Ollie’s boxing-glove arrows, here’s Bouncing Boy and Lobo and Mr. Mxyzptlk and the Black Racer, here is Gorilla Grodd. A lot of silliness and immaturity. I have spent close to 500 Euro at Ebay. But then, I’m not too sure just what it is that I have started to invest in here:
I’m following their twisted stories. And all their constant questioning on how to live and who to be and how to form this ever-challenged sense of self into a narrative. The Fortress of Solitude. The Man who has everything. Peace, Justice, Apple Pie. You Will Believe A Man Can Fly. I’m reading and I feel my way along some underlying distinct notion of identity, ideas of man that constantly point out the potential of humanity. These stories advertise a leap of faith that I feel everyone should make: do bother. Make the effort. …and still, there is no manifest. No great, iconic single panel, Antje, that clearly shows the man that I insist to strive to be.
But he seems tangible enough. He seems a possibility.
And here’s the knight and the detective. The businessman. The foil and gambler. The one who is smarter than me and almost everyone I know: Frank is my closest friend. Frank is Bruce Wayne. Frank is the goddamned Batman! I trust in word. He trusts in observation. I trust in labour. He trusts in strategy. I have faith while he has worst case scenarios.
We walk along the fields, it’s already the end of August. Soon I’ll head back. “You want to see the current movie?” I ask Frank. “Is Catwoman in it?” Frank asks right back. You, Antje, push the baby stroller and just shrug: “Oh well, these summer movies.”
I picture Bruce amidst a wide and cheery group-shot as he smiles under his hood (these are the early seventies, the childish Silver Age of comics), and all around him everyone is beaming, too, in their bright gear. A dog that wears a cowl. A costumed woman. Children with capes, sidekicks. “Greetings from the Bat-Family.” As soon as you are part of this collective, Antje, each one of you looks like a direct answer to the figure in the picture’s centre.
All persons all around him are reactions, counterparts. They look right up to him. They have all kinds of friction with his methods and philosophy. And while his stories all go out of their way to show how deep he’s standing in the shadows, I slowly realize he’s not alone at all, still: He’s intertwined with countless other lives. I’m way more isolated than Bruce Wayne.
Here is the Justice League. And Bruce confessing he was keeping files on all of us, so that he has effective secret ways to take us out if anything goes wrong. And here’s Selina in a tight and moody dress, up at Wayne Manor (did she use the door?), and Bruce commands her dinner plates to be set twenty, thirty feet away from where he’s eating, at the opposite end of his huge empty dinner table. Here’s Helena, all angry and annoyed with Bruce, and rightly so. Here’s Jason, screaming at him, furious. James Gordon punches him. Two-Face calls him a hypocrite. And here, he’s taking Alfred’s criticism.
If I were Frank, I would act different around them. I’d have more faith in them, I’d talk to them much longer, listen harder. And I sure wouldn’t drag a long procession of bitter and frustrated women through my city: He acts as a huge beacon for the people in his city, and at the same time does not even know if they as much as like him. Clark Kent warrants himself even to Lex or to Bizarro – I’m constantly explaining who I am. Bruce Wayne just snarls a scant half-sentence, and hurls himself off any rooftop to get out of a conversation. And still, these wagonloads of other people are slowly closing in on him.
His concept, based on fear and alienation, is a persona I dislike. What Batman is, what makes him necessary, that’s something I can understand. But only through this summer’s books, taking a closer look at all the people that surround him, I finally can understand what he’s assembling here. There is his son. There is his daughter. There is the cosy family couch where all his Sunday afternoons are set. Here is the minivan he drives. Here is the local branch bank that he manages. While I regard myself a citizen, he lives this gentrified, civic life. I hover over things. He’s right inside.
“Batman embodies everything that man can ever hope to be.” I take the concept of the character Bruce Wayne just like some action figure lying on the carpet of Frank’s living room and pit us right against him. I pit Bruce against Frank. I pit Clark against him. Commuting to work each of these mornings, I look out of the windows of the train and ask myself if we would hit it off with Hal. What Stoff would do in Rome if she found the Riddler in her luggage. If Fred would trust in Kyle. If Anahis would hang out with The Question, playing snooker. “Like characters in a myth”, these people “aren’t just people, but instantiations of ideas, or ways of looking at the world.” What would Mary Marvel do? What does Bruce represent? What are the deeper ethical dimensions behind the public persons we create of ourselves?
Here are two ferries cruising at the bay of Gotham City. One carries ordinary people, the other one is used to transfer convicts. The Joker tells both ferry crews and passengers that there are bombs he planted on both boats. Aboard the prisoner’s transport, he left a detonator that can bust the civil ship. The civilians have a detonator for the prisoner’s transport. The Joker tells both parties that if nothing blasts within the hour, he will destroy the civil ship. The ferry full of convicts he would spare, he tells them both. And then the Joker waits if anyone will push the trigger.
And that’s the picture I’ve been searching for, Antje. That’s the iconic act.
“You’re talking of the tired little office slave who, after so much fretting, refuses to press any button after all? Or of the noble, selfless criminals, who don’t want to kill off some citizens?” It’s the whole city, Antje. It’s the sheer width, the scope of this fictional universe. It’s a perspective on humanity and all their limitations, heroes or not, that leaves even the throwaway characters a lot of room to be someone – and no one small! Here is a story where the greatness of its’ heroes is not accounted for by all the rest of mankind being wimps. That is what enravishes me about these people! About Clark. And, in the end, about Bruce, too:
He gives them space. And thus, a stronger sense of self. He is a scratching post for Selina’s sexual appetite. A sandbag for the energy and exasperation of Tim and Dick, Jim Gordon, Helena. He is the myth that the city whispers to itself. The darkness that the police chooses to overlook. Bruce Wayne is like a father that everyone constantly screams at and acts up against. A father holding everything together.
Of course, I sat there in the movie theatre, and waited for the whole “Dark Knight” movie to reach some bitter moment when he lashes out, crosses some line that Clark would never cross. And then, they showed the wall consisting only of surveillance screens. The private person’s cell phones of an entire city’s population, secretly bugged. Brother Eye. To me, that’s wrong, unconstituional. To Bruce, it is a mere well-calculated measure to establish order, regain control. A toned-down version of Bruce Wayne, a version that would not enrage me, puzzle, challenge me, would only be a possibility if Gotham was a place much duller, simpler, black and white.
My boundaries are set: And people slip and trip and fall out of my universe. If things go wrong, I just retreat upon the moon or to the north pole, sit up there and sulk. Bruce Wayne, though, does not fly. Bruce Wayne stays put, right in his city. And everyone knows Frank’s address. Selina and the Joker know which doorbell they must ring.
I take a sip of Mountain Dew out of a small, neon green bottle, the colour very similar to the green glow emitting from Hal’s power ring. I carry things in a big shoulder bag, fall came at last, I’m nearly gone, today was my last day at work. I step further along, follow the train track as it leaves the station’s arched steel canopy, and then above me there is only black and stars and for another fifty, sixty feet the platform stretches out into the darkness. And finally breaks off before a sea of rails and signals, lights.
That was a fine summer. And it was good to read these books. I finish off the bottle and look back. The station’s concourse and the people crossing paths, their individual noises. I take a breath. I turn around. I go back to the benches, to the other travellers. I stand there, nod, return their looks. I stand there in the middle, make myself approachable. I am Clark Kent. I am no laid-back person. Some things are hard for me to do. Some things are fucking hard for me to do.
I am Clark Kent and I can push away the moon. I am Clark Kent - but I can’t separate the world into parts that I like and parts that I dismiss: If someone slips, if someone falls, it is my job to catch them.
translation: Stefan Mesch and Shawn Whatley