Even the secret identity rose from the dead. And now Brian Michael Bendis re-killed Clark Kent. DiDio loves playing to the “cool kids” in the hopes of getting them to buy comics (they won’t) and one of their problems is Clark Kent. They either refuse to believe someone as powerful as Superman would take on a weak alter-ego–meaning they’re basically agreeing with Lex Luthor and the villain from the Kill Bill movies–or they don’t believe a pair of glasses is enough to fool anyone–because they don’t realize it isn’t just the stupid glasses! As the dating on the above image notes this isn’t the first time DiDio’s writers tried to kill Clark off and have him be Superman 24/7. I’ve defended the secret identity time and again both as a story telling tool and why Superman NEEDS his alter ego to maintain the “man” part of Superman that these people keep forgetting. He isn’t called Supergod, you know!
Enter Bryan Reesman, writer for NBC News’s website with a commentary about why it’s a good thing Bendis is getting rid of the identity. Naturally I think he’s not only dead wrong, that wrongness might as well be a Black Lantern. His arguments show how little he understands the character, secret identities, or the modern world. Just look at the headline for this thing:
Superman’s comic book reveal proves anonymity is impossible — even in fiction
Really, because I thought anonymity was one of the arguments about the internet, that it allows people to make attacks on people (both real and imagined) without any consequence. Just because a lot of people have YouTube or Facebook doesn’t mean that’s changed all that much. Oh, and get used to the phone booth coming up a lot because it does. Phone booths are for Superman what “bam, pow” is for Batman…except Superman actually didn’t change in a phone booth that often. Most of the time it’s in an abandoned alley or more likely the storage room at the Daily Planet than he did a phone booth. And yet somehow the phone booth thing always comes up in images both about and parodying Superman, including video games and a Colorforms set I may or may not have packed away somewhere. I wonder where it started? The only time I’ve actually seen it is one of the Fleischer shorts.
No more phone booths needed. Superman is coming out of the secret identity closet.
In Superman issue #18 out Wednesday [the article came out December 2019–SWT], the last Son of Krypton will finally reveal to the world that he and Daily Planet reporter Clark Kent are one and the same. While he has been outed in past, mostly self-contained storylines— usually with a plot twist to fool people or in a “What if?” scenario — this will be a permanent decision splashing big ripples across the DC Comics cosmos.
That was the intent with the New 52 version of Superman. They were forced to undo that, though now that DiDio’s out of his corner he’s shown he’s learned nothing. Of course we knew that when he put Bendis on Superman and promoted it like the best news in the world. The opposite was true.
While the move couldn’t come soon enough from the perspective of the changed telecommunications landscape, the development still raises the question of why DC Comics is making this radical move, and making it now. It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s a gimmick!
Employing such a device puts history’s most famous comic book hero in danger of alienating a diehard fan base for a fleeting bit of attention to draw in new, younger readers. But that doesn’t mean it’s the wrong storyline.
Yes, yes actually it does. DC under DiDio is only interested in gimmicks and making everyone Batman, while trying to drive Batman insane. As far as new, young readers, everything they tried, including killing off the identity last time, has failed to do that. I somehow doubt removing Superman’s link to humanity as a normal person is going to fix that.
Not only are phone booths a thing of the past, but the whole concept of anonymity in the age of social media has morphed into something that no longer belongs in the Superman universe. And it doesn’t hurt that the dramatic decision could cause a stir and boost the audience of a franchise that Warner Bros. seems to feel is not relevant to modern movie audiences. (A new Superman series is also coming to the CW; perhaps they will test a new approach there as well.)
How is it going to boost the audience? I keep hearing about how hard it is to supposedly relate to Superman. How you do that is Clark Kent, going through not only the small daily issues we go through but those unintentional silly moments we have now and then. By creating their Supergod you actually make him LESS relatable while putting him in the hands of writers who have little to no interest in the aspirational aspects of Superman.
Shipped units of the best-selling comic in any month usually top out in the 150-160K range, with Top 20 titles generally falling in the 50-120K range. But when the Man of Steel and his costumed ilk have taken bold stops, it has often boosted sales considerably. The 1992 plotline on the “Death of Superman,” which spanned four Superman comic book titles, culminated in 6 million copies of Superman #75 being sold. The whole storyline was compiled into a graphic novel of the same name. (Supes was later resurrected, but the story remains iconic and beloved.)
That’s because they actually did it right for probably the only time they killed a character off in the DC Universe. The story was about Superman, his impact on the DC Universe both with and without him, and led to the creation of new characters, some of whom still impact the DC Universe today. (Steel IS still around, right?) Those sales are also going down as comic stores close and no other outlet is made outside of graphic novels on one shelf in the back of the bookstore. You have to know where to find them to get them.
Similarly, the anticipated wedding of Batman and Catwoman in Batman #50 last year led to shipments of 440,000 copies which was basically quadruple those of issues and after it. (Their pending nuptials were called off at the end of the issue.) DC recently rebooted its whole comics universe twice — with The New 52 line in 2011 and then DC Rebirth in 2016 – both generating short-term sales boosts, although not at ’80s or ’90s levels. (Fan reaction was decidedly mixed.)
Mixed? The old fans hated it and the new fans didn’t really care. Rebirth gave us hope but as soon as that was over DiDio and his chosen writers have undone as much of it as they could…like killing off Clark. “Rebirth” wasn’t really a reboot so much as a new direction, though you could make the case Superman had a soft reboot by using Mxyzptlk to set up the pre-Flashpoint married Clark and Lois with son Jonathan as THE Kents of the DC Universe, though Bendis undid that good will by making them estranged and aging Jonathan up to the ire of the new Superboy’s fans who wanted to see Superman And Son. In fact they should have made that series instead of aging up Superboy and ruining everything fans liked about the new addition.
And therein lies the risk. The payoff can be big, but it can also be a turnoff for the Gen X and Boomer readers that form a big part of comic book fandom and who are viewed as resistant to changes to beloved icons. And lower superhero sales overall these days indicate that perhaps younger acolytes aren’t as enthusiastic about superhero tales as their predecessors.
So you just demonstrated why this is a bad idea. This can only make sales worth, as demonstrated the last time they did this. Rebirth was supposed to put the DC Universe back on track, but once they dropped it and went back to the New 52 style that goodwill was wiped out. And now they’re going to continue down the rabbit hole of fail.
But the author of Wednesday’s Superman edition, Brian Michael Bendis, thinks the plot move is far from contrived and in fact a necessary evolution regardless of audience reaction.
Brian Michael Bendis is a decent writer, but he has no interest in continuity, in the iconic version of characters. He thinks the only thing that makes Superman iconic was bringing back the red trunks. He doesn’t care about the characters he takes over. This was shown in his Avengers stories where Scarlet Witch goes insane, Luke Cage starts swearing because he’s a black man from the streets, and Doctor Doom is calling Carol Danvers a “cow”. Superman had a good evolution with the addition of his son and being in a happy marriage (which writers hate any notion of married superheroes they didn’t grow up with like Reed and Sue Richards). Bendis undid that but somehow dropping his link to his humanity is a “necessary evolution” according to the article writer.
“I expressed that this is a story about Clark owning his stuff,” Bendis told me. “You literally have been looking at Clark accidentally revealing his identity [since the beginning]. It’s the biggest cliché in comics and was getting bigger and bigger with every year that Superman evolved.”
Really? I haven’t seen that, and I’ve read comics as far back as the literal beginning, most of my childhood, and all of my adult life. I’ve watched TV shows, movies, listened to audio and radio dramas, watched the serials, and every cartoon I know of outside of some of the recent direct-to-video productions. While I’ve seen some fun moments with his alter ego I have not seen him accidentally reveal it to anyone. I’ve seen him forced to once or twice, but usually when he reveals it he chose to.
Bendis pointed out that culture — and the idea of secret identities — has advanced since Superman’s creation. “I inherited a father and a husband and someone much more locked into their world than the young Clark who joined the Daily Planet and was trying to figure out his world all by himself, the lone immigrant refugee,” noted Bendis.
The “lone refugee” is a recent idea. While the pre-Crisis Superman did think about Krypton a lot, especially in the Silver Age, it was just to have that science fiction angle to play off of. It was never what defined him. He was fascinated by his heritage and tried to keep the dead civilization remembered but that was it. You also tossed out that “father and husband” aspect you inherited and exposing his identity so his enemies–some of whom can punch a mountain to powder or build a death ray robot do it for them–know just how to hurt him without tracking down the right glowing rock. If anything he should probably need a secret identity now more than ever! He actually has more to protect than his “are they or aren’t they dead” adopted parents and his quiet Sunday at a McDonald’s.
The issue of anonymity in 2019 is also quite relevant. There is a scene in Superman #17 where Lois Lane flies into the night with Superman from the balcony of the apartment she shares with her husband Clark Kent. In our era of surveillance and ubiquitous cell phones, one would imagine that somebody would have seen them together at some point. And wondered what those two were up to.
Avi Green of Four Color Media Monitor, where I heard about this article while trying to discuss a different topic I’ll get to tomorrow because I don’t have the logo ready for the new article series, answered this one rather well.
Well gee, you could make the same argument about Spider-Man and Daredevil: the latter lived in a fancy penthouse via his laywer’s salary, sometimes heading out through a sunroof window swinging on his gimmicked walking cane, and the former’s lived in various houses and apartments in NYC, and would leap out through the windows shooting his webbing for ropes to swing on and sticking to walls along the way. Somebody’s bound to have seen them and recorded their flight paths to boot. Maybe even spotted Spidey with Mary Jane! So what’s the point? Consider that undercover investigations and witness protection programs by the FBI involve forms of anonymity, protected under law, so it’s not like anonymity is literally a past tense. This whole “argument” by the NBC writer is just the product of somebody who can’t suspend his disbelief and appreciate surrealism. He doesn’t consider that as far back as the 1960s and 1970s, there were already hand-held video cameras in development, and the earliest models went commercial more than 40 years ago. Sure, the internet was far from as developed as it is today, but even if it were, does that mean we can’t suspend our disbelief so long as the finished product is entertaining? If there’s something today’s pseudo-pundits fail to do, it’s convince everyone they can put aside reality and just enjoy a story so long as the merit is there. This piece is no different.
Reesman brings up that Bendis also outed Matt Murdock as Daredevil (which was undone once a writer figured out how to do it as the reveal made Matt’s life even harder than normal…it’s tough to be afraid of heroes like Daredevil or Batman, who use fear and their mysterious guises as a psychological weapon against the criminal underworld, if you know who they really are–it would ruin the Phantom’s legacy) but not every superhero benefits from the same kind of story. Matt sure didn’t benefit, but I hear there were good stories for part of it. Not being a Daredevil reader I don’t know for certain. However, it was undone for a reason, as was Superman’s. They killed off Superman 52 because nobody liked the new incarnation, including some of the writers, and now Bendis is trying to work it all back in, which I’m sure make DiDio thrilled.
Beyond shedding a classic comic contrivance — one that has suspended our disbelief for decades — the disclosure also raises the issue of how other DC superheroes and their secret identities could be affected.
“With the [new] Superman reveal came everyone’s question: ‘What does Batman do?’” enthused Bendis. “Isn’t it exciting, after 80 years of publishing, you literally don’t know what Batman is going to do?”
Well you don’t write Batman (instead Tom King got to damage him…literally in the psychological sense) so you won’t be answering that question. And not knowing what Batman is going to do about a secret identity? If people knew he was Bruce Wayne he’d lose all of his edge, be open to tons of probes, and have his superhero career and possibly his company ruined. I know his life would be over. Even the notion that the Joker or Riddler isn’t an issue only because it would ruin their “fun” by acknowledging it. Beating Bruce Wayne isn’t interesting, beating Batman is. I’m not sure how Superman revealing he actually had a personal life is going to convince the other heroes that’s it’s okay to put their loved ones and personal lives in danger, especially heroes who get their powers from costumes/armor or who can turn back into ordinary people without powers and live a normal life between crimes to fight.
Bendis doesn’t fear turning off old readers — and dismisses the notion that the younger generation isn’t as interested in comics. Indeed, this is one of the greatest times in comic reader history because it is probably the most diverse in terms of titles and subject matter. Overall comic book sales are up, mainly from the graphic novel market for children and young adults.
But current superhero sales specifically are slumping, and DC execs have pointed to the glut of new books coming out from many different publishers. The future then, as Bendis implies, will lie with those younger disciples rising up the ranks with fresh ideas.
Sales are supposedly up in the graphic novel market, but most of the comics coming out now aren’t for children, who just saw their representative aged up. However I’ve seen people question the numbers based on stuff DC and Diamond, the distributor, pull to get the numbers up since they don’t care if the comic store makes money so long as they do. Of course Bendis doesn’t fear turning old readers off because he doesn’t care about them at all. He’s shown that time and again during his tenure on Marvel, where he tossed continuity into the shredder. The only time he got praise was from his work in the Ultimate universe, which was a separate continuity from the main Marvel universe. Even when he creates something it takes other writers to make him good, Miles Morales being the exception because he created the character in a continuity he created. Put him in one that has a long history and he just ignores it.
DC executives can blame new books from multiple publishers but most of them aren’t writing superhero books, and the few that do are part of the deconstruction craze or just give them superpowers without any of the other superhero norms. Stuff like the Captain Ultimate comic I reviewed last week are exception, not rule, in just superheroes alone, while most indie books and manga aren’t about superheroes. Meanwhile superheroes are dominating at the box office, though Warner Brothers can’t figure how to do that right despite the blueprint being right there from Marvel Studios.
Superman coming clean is not being billed as a crossover to multiple comic book titles or part of a bigger reboot. For Bendis, narrative and character are the essential elements for keeping fans reading new stories, and he sees the unmasking of Superman squarely as a character-driven storyline. These days, many fans grouse when gimmicks trump quality narratives.
“What I have learned is the story always wins,” Bendis asserted. “If the story is of value, if it’s honest, if the creators are coming from a great place, it always rises to the occasion because what people want is the real thing. What they don’t want is tricks.”
They also want the characters they know, love, and grew up with to be those characters, with new challenges and new limits to overcome to save the day. Bendis is anti-continuity and anti-characters, two things important when you take on a franchise that predates you. The writer brings up crossovers before the paragraph above but this is a gimmick, just one Bendis thinks will keep him from having to write the Superman we all wanted, the one we were getting during the all too short Rebirth period. We had the Superman we wanted and tons of new potential waiting and Bendis tossed it all out to age up Superboy and toss him into the future, screw up the Supermarriage, and now kill off Superman’s tie to his humanity. One of my favorite Superman stories is one that highlights why Superman needs Clark Kent, but we the reader need him as well. It’s how we see the “man” of “Superman”, how we see he isn’t just some space god with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. Deep down, where it counts, he’s human. He craves that human contact he’s losing under Bendis and will continue to lose without Clark Kent. It’s not just his paycheck. Clark does good in his role as a news reporter that Superman can’t. It’s how he relates to normal people. It’s how he gets to lead a semblance of the normal life he had growing up. Superman is really Clark Kent deep down but with the identity gone again he can’t walk among us and be one of us. Even Jesus maintained a secret identity of sorts, not acknowledging he was the Son of God until it was time.
It is not yet time for Clark to become Supergod. It will never be time. But Brian Michael Bendis and the cool kids don’t care. All they see is a pair of glasses. I wear a pair of glasses. There’s more to me than that, and there is certainly more to Clark Kent than a simple disguise. I guess when all you see is the surface you don’t see what makes Superman a super man.