Spoiler: Clark Kent is Superman.

§ June 10th, 2024 § Filed under byrne reboot § 5 Comments

So another big change in John Byrne’s 1986 rebooting of the Superman franchise was the retooling of the whole “secret identity” thing. As laid out in the preview article from Amazing Heroes #96, Byrne’s idea was that the default thinking in-universe would be that Superman didn’t have another identity aside from being Superman:

The comments continue, bringing up the fact that since Batman and Green Lantern and so on wear masks, they’re obviously hiding who they are. But since Superman’s face is just out there, he’s obviously not hiding anything and surely isn’t roaming the streets with slicked back hair and big ol’ glasses perched on his nose.

This concept was so ingrained in me when it was first expressed in this way during this time, that it caused the occasional hitch in reading older Superman stories. Not, like, a big one, just a thought in the back of my head when I’d look at some Silver Age story and the idea of Superman also leading a secret life is just casually mentioned by someone…I’d be all “man, why should that even be public knowledge that exists!” It’s a security risk, to be sure. (And this doesn’t even touch upon Lois and Lana’s constant attempts to uncover the truth.)

That idea, that people assume Superman is just Superman and not secretly living as a normal human, is as far as I can recall mostly intact to this day. Yes, there have been no less than two major storylines in recent years about Clark being exposed as Superman, but it was more a “oh wait Superman is also Just Some Guy!?!?” versus “oh so that’s his secret I.D.!”

Byrne puts some real effort into establishing this new status quo for our hero’s double identity. I’m sure there are more examples than just the ones I’m mentioning here today, but I’m just going to keep it down to three specific issues.

First is Man of Steel #5, the pentultimate issue of the initial Byrne mini-series introducing the revamped Superman. It’s the issue where Superman first meets an adversary who’s just about as strong as him, giving him a physical challenge he hasn’t had before. To wit:

Now, Bizarro himself is (say it with me) an imperfect duplicate of the Man of Tomorrow, created by Luthor’s attempts at cloning him, and this creature appears to have some vague recollection of Superman’s memories. And that’s why, after stealing some clothes, he shows up dressed as both Supes and Clark:

…which makes Superman recognize his secret identity is in jeopardy. This problem is easily solved, however, with some judicious use of heat vision:

…and that’s that. While the concept of folks knowing he has a secret identity is gone, that doesn’t mean the threat of its exposure has gone away in this new version of character.

Now the story everyone (or, well, certain values of “everyone”) thinks of when it comes to the post-reboot I.D. status is the one in Byrne’s second issue of the ongoing Superman series, which has this provocative cover:

Hoo boy, this should be good, right? The upshot of the story is that a connection is noticed between Clark and Superman, and Lex and his underlings gather enormous amounts of data on the two to find an explanation.

Which all reminds me of Lana Lang’s Superboy Identity Detection Kit:

…which you can read a little more about here.

Anyway, I feel like all the info they gathered would make the conclusion self-evident, but a button is pressed, hamsters run on wheels, and so forth…

…and when the answer comes:

…all are shocked and amazed (though c’mon, “never would have occurred to you?”)…

But Lex ain’t havin’ it:

Thus it is established that Luthor can’t even comprehend someone like Superman would have a secret identity, that the very idea of hiding one’s power is ridiculous. The conniving and clever Luthor of the Silver Age might have at least considered it, but the very idea just bounced off the mind of this more…thuggish interpretation of Superman’s genius adversary.

There’s one more story that, I think, belongs in the New Secret Identity Canon, and that’s Action Comics #597. This is a little later than the other stories, from 1988, and it’s during the “team-up” era of this series. It puports to be a “team-up” between Lois and Lana, and the two do meet, but it’s more about Lois trying to determine the exact relationship between Kent and the Kryptonian.

In short, Lois visits Smallville, bumps into Superman and Lana, Lois wonders why Supes is in town (and also there were lots of wild cosmic things goin’ on here that I won’t get into), and begins to put some pieces together:

But before Superman can answer, in come Ma and Pa Kent to help, with a wild story they probably manage to sell by being Kindly Old Farmers an’ all:

Needless to say, finding out Superman and Clark were basically raised together as “brothers” really pisses off Lois, thinking the two of them were playing some kind of game with her re: Clark getting all the good Superman stories for the Daily Planet an’ such, and she just wants nothing to do with either of them.

I mentioned on Bluesky that the current paradigm in Superman media is for Lois to find out relatively quickly that Clark and Supes are the same. Or rather, after getting a bit of pushback there, that Lois knows Clark is Superman, and that Superman is honest with her about it. It feels…right, that this should be so, to be frank, and the convolutions the Kents go through to cover their son’s secret in that issue of Action, from a perspective three-something decades later, feels so unnecessary and almost…hostile toward Lois.

Okay, the Silver Age stories in which Superman continually gaslights Lois about his I.D. seem borderline abusive at times. But with the post-reboot stories, with marginally more realistic characterizations and behaviors, Superman clamping down at this point is almost worse. And Lois’s response to this new cover story is absolutely understandable.

Now eventually Superman does come clean:

…but that’s a tale for another time.

5 Responses to “Spoiler: Clark Kent is Superman.”

  • Thom H. says:

    I’m not sure I fully buy Byrne’s logic. In universe, every other superhero has a secret identity. Why wouldn’t people wonder if Superman did, too? I’m willing to squint a little, though, because it did give us that amazing character piece about Luthor.

    Random thoughts:

    — Ms. Computer Logic is such a Byrne “smart lady” type. That ponytail and horn-rimmed glasses combo is iconic.

    — I love Silver Age characters’ compulsion to meticulously label their own possessions. That never gets old. I guess there was always a chance you could get amnesia, right?

  • Sean Mageean says:

    I read at least the first year’s worth of Byrne’s Superman run back in the day, but that was so many decades ago that I’ve lost track of many of the details. So, during Byrne’s run does Superman end up divulging to Lois that his actual name is Kal-El and that he’s from the planet Krypton, and is that ever made common knowledge to the masses through a Daily Planet interview/article written by either Lois or Clark Kent?

  • Derek Moreland says:

    That ACTION #662 might be my favorite Superman cover of all time.

  • Andrew Davison says:

    My issue of Superman 2 “Clark Kent is Superman” has a slightly different series of panels when the computer is doing it’s calculations.


  • DK says:

    Why would anyone ever question another identity? What’s he gonna do, wear the mask as a CIVILIAN?!?!?

    And that my friends is why Siegel and Schuster were truly great.

    S&S got it right the first time, Clark Kent is the disguise that Superman wears.

    Lois is a Pulitzer Winner but somehow never gets around to asking the Kents basic questions like:

    -Oh, so what’s Clark’s brother’s name?

    -Can I see the two of them together and hear this story from them to corroborate?

    -Cool let me talk to their teachers at Smallville High and hear all about this, let’s see the diploma that says ‘Kal-El Kent’.

    -You got a birth certificate or old picture ID for either of these guys?

    -Lana grew up here, why didn’t she just tell me this?

    -Why has Clark never ever ever mentioned this cockamaimie story?

    Notably the Team S tradition of “no masks” caries on 1,000 years later in the LSH where nobody has a secret identity or wears a mask (except while in Smallville, why does Mon-El have to pretend to be Bob Cobb the traveling salesman exactly?). Supergirl wears a wig instead of glasses.

    The Legion exceptions are story driven: Ferro Lad is an uggo mutant* and Sensor Girl is fun plot to sneak Jeckie back on the team for a big reveal later. (spoiler warning from 1988). If a Legionnaire is masked they are playing a prank or testing someone or some other Silver Age reason.

    * Jim Shooter famously planned to have Ferro Lad drop the mask later to reveal he was Black and DC Editorial gave a HARD NO so it was retconned to ‘he’s so gross looking even 30th Century plastic surgeons can’t help’)

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