Superhero Identity Themes

Recently, while doing research for another comics-related project, I was reading Amazing World of DC Comics #5 (March/April 1975), which spotlighted the work of Sheldon Mayer. For those not familiar, Mayer is one of the legends of the business, having been involved since the very inception of comics publishing. More specifically, he’s also the man that convinced National/DC to publish Superman, which just might make him the most important figure in comics history. As such, Mayer’s recollections and opinions should be of interest to any comic fan. In this issue of AWODCC, I found his thoughts on the dual identity trope to be of particular interest:

The thing that fascinated me about the Superman concept was the very theme that has so frequently been forgotten over the years. The thing that really sold Superman in the first place is the alter ego of the hero as contrasted to the costumed crimefighter himself. I fell in love with Superman for the same reason I liked the Scarlet Pimpernel, Zorro, and the movie, “The Desert Song.” The contrast between the hero and his alter ego is the very essence of the mystery man concept. (Sheldon Mayer, “Origins of the Golden Age,” Amazing World of DC Comics #5, March/April 1975, p. 4)

Identity—a theme that I bring up often on this blog. We human beings are complex creatures and thus it is exceedingly difficult to truly capture us on page or screen. The “double identity” motif present in most superhero comics is actually a rather clever workaround. None of us are as brave or powerful as Superman; nor are any of us as clumsy or bumbling as Clark Kent. The truth is that most of us have a little of both in us. So when the two are combined as one person in the comics, the effective result is a more complex character than one might normally expect. More complex and therefore deeper; more relatable; more “real” than many other characters of more conventional fiction.

Since the specific subject here is that first Superman story, let’s take a look at a few scenes from the issue itself, Action Comics #1 (June 1938). First there’s Clark Kent out on the town with Lois Lane:


Then Superman shows up:


Note the contrast—in both Clark/Superman’s behavior and Lois’s reaction to him. It’s fairly extreme.

So which personality is the real guy—Superman or Clark Kent? The kneejerk response is likely Superman, but how true is this really? He grew up as Clark Kent after all; he spent (and spends) most of his life as Kent. This being the case, isn’t Clark Kent the “real” him?

The most probable truth is, like the rest of us, he’s both. Or, perhaps more accurately, neither. He has aspects of both, but the real man is someone else; someone inbetween; someone that is unknowable, perhaps even to himself.

Expanding on this line of thought, Mayer goes on to say:

The mystery man and his alter ego are two distinct characters to be played against each other. What appeal would “The Scarlet Pimpernel” have had if his alter ego wasn’t scared of the sight of blood? He was a hopeless “dandy.” No one suspected he was the mysterious “Pimpernel,” peerless swordsman and masked hero. The same goes for Zorro and Superman. It’s been a successful pattern since the beginning of theatre. Give the audience an opportunity to say, “I know something that the people on stage don’t know” and “Boy, isn’t the bad guy gonna get it when the ‘sissy’ turns into the hero he really is” and they’ll love you for it! (Ibid., p. 5)

Go back to the panel above where Lois slaps that brute in the mush. Clark Kent speaks out of both sides of his mouth almost literally. While he outwardly chides Lois with “Lois—don’t!” he’s also whispering/saying to himself, “Good for you, Lois!” This emphasizes the duality of the character as well as letting the reader “in on the joke,” as it were.

In nearly all the classic Superman stories, from comics to radio to television to film, they almost always ended with Lois complaining about Clark being weak and/or cowardly, and Clark responding with some variation of “I guess we can’t all be Superman, Lois!” In visual mediums, this was almost invariably accompanied by a knowing wink to the audience from Clark Kent.

Mayer hit it right on the head. The audience loves being made to feel like they’re smart—like they “know something that the people on stage don’t know.”

One thought on “Superhero Identity Themes”

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.