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Martha Kent and her vital role in the Superhero mythos

Superman got his moral compass and sense of compassion from his parents, with Martha Kent finally getting her just due.

Martha Kent
Image credit: DC

While Superman may get his superpowers from his Kryptonian heritage, his greatest power of all comes from his Midwestern upbringing by his adoptive parents Jonathan and Martha Kent. The kindly Kansas farmers instilled their moral compass and deep sense of compassion to their son Clark, effectively making Superman one of the most upstanding characters in the DC Universe, with or without his powers. And while Martha’s role in raising Clark has been overshadowed by her husband in many years of the Kent couple’s history, Martha is finally getting the overdue recognition she deserves.

Here is a quick overview of Martha Kent and her evolving role in the Superman mythos, from her shifting mortality to changes in how she has been depicted in different multimedia adaptations of the Man of Steel.

Who is Martha Kent?

Martha Kent
Image credit: DC

Martha Kent was introduced alongside her husband Jonathan by Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in 1939’s Superman #1. This was a retcon from Superman’s origin story in the preceding year’s Action Comics #1, which described the infant Kal-El as being discovered by a passing motorist after his rocket landed on Earth. Martha’s full given name was Martha Hudson Clark Kent, revealed in the letters column included in 1961’s Superman #148, with her maiden name providing Kal-El with his first name. While Martha and Jonathan were described as having died from natural causes by the time Clark became an adult, stories set in Clark’s teenage years as Superboy revealed it was Martha who fashioned his superhero costume from Kryptonian blankets found in the rocket. 1963’s Superman #161 by Leo Dorfman and Al Plastino revealed that the Kents contracted a fatal disease while Superboy took them to a tropical island in the 18th century to search for pirate treasure, further cementing Clark’s commitment to become a superhero to honor their memory.

Following the wholesale revisions to DCU continuity with the 1985 crossover event Crisis on Infinite Earths, the rebooted Superman origin story The Man of Steel by John Byrne revealed more about the Kents. No longer an older couple, the Kents discover Clark and his crashed rocket shortly before a lengthy blizzard overtakes their hometown of Smallville, covering up their claim to the locals that Clark is their biological son. One of the biggest revisions to the Superman mythos regarding the Kents was that the couple survived to see Clark become an adult hero, helping him stay grounded whenever he spoke with them or visited Smallville.

How modern DC Comics redefined Martha Kent

Martha Kent
Image credit: DC

In addition to being a continuing fixture in Clark’s life as he became the most celebrated hero in the DCU, Martha became a more prominent part of Clark’s early life and the overall mythos over several revisions to Superman’s backstory. The 2003 maxi-series Superman: Birthright by Mark Waid and Leinil Francis Yu established Martha as something of a mediator between Clark and Jonathan when the father and son endured tensions over Clark’s heritage and differences in worldview. This change significantly humanized the entire family dynamic, bringing Clark and Martha closer together than they had been in prior depictions of their familial relationship.

More than simply be Clark’s mother, Martha stepped up to become a mother to many heroes in the growing Superman family, from the various iterations of Supergirl to the cloned Superboy Conner Kent. After Jonathan passed away from a fatal heart attack following Brainiac’s attack on the Kent family farm, Martha continued to run the farm alone, insisting that she not become a burden on her children, with Conner and Superman’s dog Krypto keeping her company.

How movies and TV expanded Martha Kent’s prominence

Martha Kent
Image credit: Warner Bros.

Martha’s early depictions in Superman multimedia adaptations limited her role similar to her initial comic book appearances, with the character dying before Clark relocated to Metropolis in the '50s show The Adventures of Superman – the series also depicted Martha and Jonathan under the names Eben and Sarah Kent, with Sarah played by Francis Morris. 1978’s Superman: The Movie had Clark leave Martha (Phyllis Thaxter) behind after Jonathan died from a heart attack, with the young man embracing his superhero destiny while his mother passed away off-screen in the interim.

More contemporary adaptations of the Superman mythos have been much kinder to Martha, with the character – played by Katherine Callan – surviving alongside her husband for the entire run of the '90s series Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. This was echoed by the 2006 film Superman Returns, with Martha, played by Eve Marie Saint, still alive and running the Kent family farm in Smallville, with Martha the very first person to welcome her son back to Earth after he was away searching for Krypton for five years. The DC Extended Universe, beginning with 2013’s Man of Steel, saw Martha maintain the Kent farm after Jonathan was killed by a tornado, helping Lois Lane mourn Clark’s death in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and celebrating his return in the theatrical cut of Justice League.

Where Martha truly stepped into the spotlight was the long-running television series Smallville, with the character played by Annette O’Toole. Playing a prominent role across the entire show, Martha stepped up to become a Kansas State Senator after Jonathan’s untimely death, with Martha eventually progressing to represent Kansas in the US Senate. In addition to this career change, Martha maintained Clark’s secret by squaring off against the government agency Checkmate and embarked on a romantic relationship with Daily Planet editor-in-chief Perry White.

Martha’s current standing in DC Comics

Martha Kent
Image credit: DC

Martha and Jonathan were killed off in the DCU reboot 'The New 52,' described as having died in a tragic car accident on Clark’s prom night, never living to see him become Superman. The 2017 maxi-series Doomsday Clock, written by Geoff Johns and illustrated by Gary Frank, revealed that this was caused by tampering from the omnipotent Watchmen character Doctor Manhattan as he altered the DCU’s history while observing it. After being inspired by watching Superman in action, Manhattan restores much of the DCU’s history, effectively bringing back Jonathan and Martha to live into old age and be a presence in their grandson Jon’s life.

2022’s Action Comics Annual #1, written by Phillip Kennedy Johnson and Si Spurrier, illustrated by Dale Eaglesham and Ian Churchill, colored by Lee Loughridge, and lettered by Dave Sharpe, provides a new detail in Martha’s background while she raised Clark in Smallville. While Clark deals with bullies at school, Martha faces a grave cancer diagnosis and grueling chemotherapy regimen. However, even in the face of cruelty and adversity, Martha advises Clark to persevere with compassion and understanding, a lesson that sticks with Superman all of his life as he protects the DCU.

While Jonathan Kent was an important part in Clark’s upbringing and developing his steady moral compass as Superman, he by no means raised the young Kryptonian alone. Martha is finally getting her recognition as an equally vital piece of the Superman mythos. And with Clark and Lois’ son Jon stepping up as the DCU’s new Superman, Martha is ready to share her compassionate wisdom with the young hero as the Man of Tomorrow keeps his roots firmly in Smallville.

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Sam Stone avatar
Sam Stone: Sam Stone is an entertainment journalist based out of the Washington, D.C. area that has been working in the industry since 2016. Starting out as a columnist for the Image Comics preview magazine Image+, Sam also translated the Eisner Award nominated-Beowulf for the publisher. Sam has since written for CBR, Looper, and, with a penchant for Star Trek, Nintendo, and martial arts movies.
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