August 18, 2014

Clark Kent, badass

It can't be easy being Clark Kent.

It's very easy being Superman. Everyone knows he is an alien, possesses the powers of flight, super-strength, and super-speed, laughs at bullets, and sees through walls. And he doesn't wear a mask, so everyone assumes he has nothing to hide. Superman can do whatever amazing things he wants, and no one is surprised.

However, when Superman arrived on Earth, he was not quite ready to reveal himself to the world. He assumed the alias of Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter, so he could walk among its citizens unnoticed. Meanwhile, as an employee of a major metropolitan newspaper, he can observe the citizens of his new planet, know when his aid is needed, and has an excuse to get close to the action.

This occasionally—well, pretty frequently, actually—leaves Superman on the horns of a dilemma, or even a trilemma. Danger strikes, and Clark is faced with three options. One, he can dive into a nearby storeroom or phone booth, transform into Superman, and do what he does so well. However, he risks exposure. In the early 1940s, Superman is still a mystery man by choice. Two, he can remain in the guise of Clark Kent, meek everyman, and do nothing. This preserves his secret, and no one really expects better of Clark. Unfortunately, it's also out of character for someone who has "sworn to devote his existence on Earth to helping those in need," if he ignores those in need because it's inconvenient.

Option three—the one we hear so very often in radio's Adventures of Superman—is to take action as Clark Kent.

While Lois Lane thinks Clark is a bumbling farm boy, he actually isn't particularly cowardly or inept. He is a competent and resourceful investigative reporter, with a multitude of talents that become apparent as the series unfolds, calling his "mild-mannered" status into question frequently.

Take, for example, his first encounter with the supervillain the Yellow Mask. In episode 9, Clark arrives at the Daily Planet to learn that everyone in the building is minutes away from being lixiviated by a stolen atomic death ray set to "Independence Day," but Perry White has vacillated on evacuating because the reputation of the paper is at stake. Also, Lois Lane is being held hostage by the Mask, who will throw her out of his airplane if anyone tries to interfere with his plan to visit atomic Armageddon upon the Planet.

What is Clark's answer to this state of affairs? He tells Perry to have the airport ready a plane for him, and rushes over there (as Superman, but that's neither here nor there under the circumstances, though it is ironic that he flies under his own power to the airport just to pick up an airplane). He then deliberately crashes the rented plane into the Yellow Mask's, destroying the plane, the atomic beam weapon, at least one henchman and presumably the Yellow Mask himself, and then rescues Lois from midair. All in a day's work for Superman, of course, but the next day, Clark's friends at the Planet think he did it. Not only does Clark not deny credit, he dismisses the stunt as nothing.

We're accustomed to seeing Clark Kent feign ignorance of Superman's feats. He has a secret identity to protect, after all, so as far as his friends are concerned, he just wasn't there. For radio-Clark it's Superman himself that's the secret. Therefore, Clark has to select Option Three, and he generally does it by dismissing Superman's existence and pretending he opened up the big can of Truth, Justice, and the American Way. Since he did technically save the day, I guess this doesn't count as lying.

Other incarnations of Superman don't have this difficulty. The Clark Kent of the comic books of the time was spineless, and had no trouble finding an excuse to get out of sight. The less-cowardly Clark of the Columbia serials, portrayed by Kirk Allyn, just claimed to be somewhere else at the time, or occasionally rolled with a punch that knocked him conveniently out of view. George Reeves' television Clark was a take-charge kind of guy, so it wasn't entirely out of character for him to do something courageous. And Christopher Reeve's Clark was actually quite adept at clandestinely helping people under cover of his oafishness.

This is not an occasional problem with the series. Mr. Mild-Mannered Reporter has to perform these feats regularly, and then shrug them off with an "aw, gee, 'twarn't nothin'" and a knowing wink to the audience, so to speak. Since it's such a regular characteristic of The Adventures of Superman, I've been wanting to add a tote board to my Superman posts every time one crops up, and I've finally created it:

Clark Kent: Unintentional Badass

So far, Clark has claimed to:

I hope to resume Superman Saturdays this coming weekend.