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Superman and his secret identity: Should DC really be putting the Man of Steel back in the closet?

Does Superman actually need a secret identity?

Superman #17 cover
Image credit: DC

For the first time since 2019, almost nobody knows Superman’s secret identity. And I’m not sure how I feel about that.

Just before Christmas, Philip Kennedy Johnson, Tom Taylor and Joshua Williamson co-wrote Action Comics #1050, in which Lex Luthor uses the amped-up psychic powers of Manchester Black to wipe the entire world’s memories of Superman’s secret identity. Williamson, who just finished penning DC’s latest line-wide event Dark Crisis on Infinite Earths and now takes over on the main Superman title, told CBR that the change was borne of a desire to be able to “play with every single piece” of the Superman story. “We want all the mythology and to be able to touch all of these different things. How do you do that without Clark Kent?”

Taylor, who has been writing the story of Jon Kent in Superman: Son of Kal-El and now takes him to the Adventures of Superman mini, similarly thought anonymity was a “great reward” for all the sacrifices that Jon made in his father’s absence. “He hasn’t been able to be a teenager and walk down the street without cameras in his face,” Taylor pointed out. “Anonymity gives us something.”

Elsewhere, Johnson has said that “some elements of the Lois and Clark dynamic can only be there with the secret identity.” Within Action Comics #1050, characters actually point to the way in which Superman’s reveal unintentionally turned Lois Lane into “Superman’s girl.”

I definitely understand a new creative team coming on and wanting to make their own mark on a book. And, this 'new' Superman is the first move in DC's year-long 'Dawn of DC' rollout.

But is it a good move, for Superman and the characters around him? Let’s take a look, one by one.

Clark/Superman

Williamson says he wants to play with all the toys in the box, and I get that. I guess the question I have is, If that's the case don’t you want to take a minute to play with this toy, too? Superman came out in issue #18 of the Bendis/Ivan Reis run on Superman. And the initial implications of that reveal played out mostly over the next ten issues of Superman. But even then, Superman spent a considerable amount of that time fighting Mongul in outer space. And when Philip Kennedy Johnson took over the character, he promptly sent him away from Earth to Warworld. Now he returns and immediately his identity is reset.

All of which is to say, it seems like there is still a lot of story still to explore about an outed Superman. To take just one idea that Bendis touched on: Do people start asking the very reasonable questions as to why Superman saved other people’s lives and not their loved ones, why he’s even working as a reporter when the are fires and car accidents and hurricanes happening literally all the time? Does his life as a normal human being end up seeming selfish?

And more importantly, is it? Coming out stories generally change a lot more about a person’s life than they realize going in. How might Clark’s own sense of his purpose or identity change as a result of what he’s done?

By putting his secret identity back in the box, DC has effectively short-circuited that journey. That’s not to say they don’t have big plans ahead, or good ones. Certainly they've given the reset some interesting story implications: rather than something that Clark and his family sought out, Lex Luthor thrust it upon them, with the twist that if people discover who Clark or Jon is, it may kill them. If you’re going to get Clark and Jon Kent to keep shtum, you couldn’t come up with a better or more painful trap than that.

And so Clark enters into this new era potentially with a tremendous internal conflict between his desire to be transparent and his mission to protect people from being hurt. Even with Lex already off the table (for now), that’s an ingenious way to seed the reset, and a very Superman way, too. He has to sacrifice his own happiness to protect everyone.

At the same time, when you’re describing your initiative as a 'Dawn' for the DC Universe, starting by re-closeting a character whose self-revelation was such a hopeful (and recent) moment for the DC Universe seems off the mark. Clark's coming out was done so well. It put him in a position where he could actually grow and change, where he could actually have a new dawn. Why not give it to him?

Lois

The argument that putting Superman’s identity back in the bottle 'fixes' Lois is the least compelling of the bunch. In the abstract, maybe there is a 'Superman’s girl' problem. But in reality that’s not what happened at all. Even before Clark’s reveal, Bendis gave Lois an independence and freedom greater than any run on Superman in recent memory. His non-traditional vision of their marriage was completely unique, and built upon the radical trust and respect they have in one another. Bendis’ is the first run I can remember where Lois and Clark are truly portrayed as equals.

Lois also got a fantastic title of her own from Greg Rucka and Mike Perkins in these years that let her be the great reporter that she is. And Bendis made her a central part of the DC Universe’s new Checkmate team, giving her a footprint in the broader DC Universe bigger than she has ever had.

Do these things go away with the new status quo? It doesn’t look like any of them have to; the superheroes all still know who Superman is and therefore their relationships with Lois are intact. And she’s still the world’s greatest reporter.

But it was precisely because Bendis was so insistent on seeing her as an equal in their relationship and exploring what that meant that Superman’s coming out became essential. There’s only so many times that people can see Lois Lane with Superman and not wonder what the hell is going on there. It’s hard to see how re-closeting Clark doesn’t also mean forcing Lois back into a more traditional relationship and perhaps career. And the stories that come from that move seem a lot more been there, done that.

Jon Kent

No character had a rougher time during the Bendis era than Jon Kent. He left Earth with his crazy grandfather at age 11—a story choice that itself never made any sense—and ended up trapped in a volcano as the prisoner of Earth 3’s Ultraman for SIX YEARS. Oh, and when he finally made it back to his parents, only three weeks had passed in their team.

It’s a brutal series of events, the consequences of which have never been fully explored, probably because if they were Jon would be in a long-term care facility or a super villain. When Bendis left the line and Superman left the planet, Tom Taylor and John Timms took over and made Jon Earth’s Superman. And it proved to be a really interesting run; much like Mark Waid and Humberto Ramos’s run on Champions, Taylor set out to try and imagine superhero-dom from a Generation Z point of view.

In Taylor’s hands Jon became a truly inspirational character in his own right, one so great that he was a centerpiece of Williamson’s Dark Crisis. (While Williamson ended the series by raising up Nightwing as the true heart of the DC Universe, I would argue that no character tried harder or in the end risked more during that event than Jon. His willingness in Dark Crisis #6 to face all of his father's greatest enemies alone, knowing that he’ll be killed but hopefully that will give the heroes the time they need is to my mind the series’ most powerful moment.)

More than any of the other arguments in favor of resetting the secret identity, Taylor’s makes the most sense. We haven’t seen Jon (at least not post-Bendis teenage Jon) in a world where no one knows who he is. And probably there are stories to be told there which are different than the kinds of stories that Williamson and Johnson can tell about Clark.

But I do wonder what the implications will be for his relationship with Jay Nakamura. They sure have kissed plenty in public. Will people still know that Jon Kent-Superman is bi and has a boyfriend? Or is that part of what’s been erased? And if so, how will DC keep from making that feel like an attempt to literally recloset him?

Perry White and Jimmy Olsen

Jimmy and Perry both got a lot to do during the Bendis era that hadn’t been afforded them in a long time. Jimmy got his own book, written by Matt Fraction and drawn by Steve Lieber, and it is a brilliant, funny, and ultimately beautiful piece of work. Almost certainly it is the best Jimmy story ever.

Meanwhile Perry was asked to deal not only with Superman coming out, which was a pretty massive thing for the Planet; he was given a boss/antagonist of his own to tangle with, and with it moments to stand up and be a hero himself.

(Note: I am a huge fan of Perry White and am available to pitch a Young Perry White, Crime Reporter book. Teaser: It also involves a young Jim Gordon and a pre-Pa Ma Kent.)

Changing Superman’s status doesn’t impact the possibility of giving Jimmy or Perry storylines of their own. But it does withdraw some of the intimacy that Bendis was able to mine, particularly from the Perry/Clark relationship. If Pa Kent is the ideal dad, the wisdom figure who will always stand by Clark’s side, Perry has always been much more of a realistic father figure, messy, career driven, unpredictable. And Clark for his part has been able to be a more typical son in his presence—talented and worthy of praise, but also sometimes (seemingly) super irresponsible.

Clark’s silent coming out scene with Perry in Bendis and Reis’ Superman #18 is an iconic moment specifically because their relationship has been so much more real, more familiar. More than any other moment in Clark’s coming out story, in fact, that was the one that resonated for me and I think for many other queer people. And the reason is, it had everything in it—not just the moment of acceptance that we long for from those we love, but that initial moment of fear and uncertainty, because you know that things could go either way.

The way that Williamson and company have reset the universe doesn’t erase or negate that moment; in fact I think their choice to use White to reveal how the world has changed in Action Comics #1050 was probably a nod to it and a way of acknowledging just how tragic (and dangerous) Superman’s new status quo is. And maybe the sadness of that lost intimacy becomes an engine for meaningful story.

But I can’t help but imagine what it might have been like to keep Perry in the loop when they reset everyone else. When it comes to that relationship, I think they left a lot of money on the table. If the story goes back to 'Perry gets mad because Clark is always mysteriously away when he needs him,' it will be sad.

I’m not trying to yuck someone else’s yum here. This is the world of comics. Everything changes. And what’s the fun of bringing a new creative team on if you won’t let them do their own thing.

I just wonder whether there are some story choices that are so significant that once they’re made are not really meant to be stuffed back in the box at a moment’s notice, that need five years or more to explore rather than ten issues. You look at what Marvel is doing with the X-Men and Krakoa: It was such a radical venture, I’m sure some in the company wanted it to go back to status quo almost immediately.

But if you’re going to do something big, you have to be willing to go big with it. And if taking your franchise character and having him come out doesn’t count as big, what does?


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About the Author
Jim McDermott avatar

Jim McDermott

Contributing writer

Jim is a magazine and screenwriter based in New York. He loves the work of Stephen Sondheim and cannot take a decent selfie.

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