Action Comics, where Superman first appeared in 1938, just printed issue number 1,000 as the Man of Steel turns 80 this year—a milestone not hit by any other comic. Invented by two Jewish high school kids from Cleveland, writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster, Superman has a brand new writer, Brian Michael Bendis. Bendis is a star in the comics field who was lured last year to D.C. Comics from his longtime home at Marvel.
In this banner year for Superman, Bendis offers intriguing clues as to what he might have in store for the character. At a recent convention he made an interesting point about Superman’s not having a secret identity but in fact a very public one, as Clark Kent, metropolitan reporter: “It’s the one thing he can do to serve justice that he can’t do as Superman. He can reveal truth. That’s Clark’s job.” The music and culture critic David Hajdu, in his new book Action Comics: 80 Years of Superman, has noted this complementarity, with the “godly endowed” Superman meting out justice and Clark Kent revealing what happened accurately and fairly. Siegal and Shuster, writes Hadju, “made clear that they saw both sides of their cleverly dualistic character as companionably heroic.”
Bendis, for his part, has critics everywhere on the political spectrum. He made Spider-Man a mixed race character and turned Iron Man, previously a billionaire industrialist and playboy, into a genius African American teenager. People on the Right scored him for identity-mongering. When his Spider-Man argued against identity politics, though, it irritated people on the Left. “I don’t want to be black Spider-Man,” Miles Morales says. “I just want to be Spider-Man.”
It’s easy to imagine Bendis enlisting Clark Kent as a Bob Woodward who battles Donald Trump, a stand-in for Lex Luthor. Or perhaps Trump will be some lesser villain, as the President, a rich celebrity, doesn’t seem as fixated on global domination as does Luthor. If Bendis honestly explores the world of modern journalism and Clark Kent’s place in it, he will not just have some fun with the current occupant of the White House but produce a perceptive and socially relevant Superman.
Why not have the Daily Planet reporter uncover fake news and reveal the way the worst journalists push agendas and try and destroy lives? Bendis has written with great humanism, particularly in his brilliant and underrated run on Moon Knight, and it would be interesting to see him have Clark Kent not just launch social justice crusades, but uncover the rot at the core of so much of the fourth estate.
The media need criticism now more than ever. They throw a party for the March for Our Lives, organized by Parkland Hugh School students and advocates for gun control, yet barely cover the annual pro-life March for Life. Former anchorman Dan Rather of CBS has been lecturing reporters on their duty to report only the facts, but we all remember his bogus reporting on George W. Bush’s time in the National Guard. The NBC show Dateline notoriously faked a truck explosion to goose up a story. Gatekeepers in the liberal press also ignore or downplay stories that contradict their progressive narrative. As Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer noted recently, the scandal involving Republican fundraiser Elliot Broidy garnered major coverage at the same time that fired deputy FBI director Andrew McCabe’s being cited by the Justice Department inspector general for lying under oath three times got buried. This is prime territory for Clark Kent to investigate.
Let it be said (and I have said it in this space before) that there are problems with conservative journalists as well. Several one could name seem addicted to reacting to the Left rather than doing original reporting. There are far too many pundits and not enough shoe-leather investigators of what’s going on out there. It would be fun to see the Man of Steel admonishing a young right-wing pundit that yelling on television is no substitute for reporting.
As Glen Weldon observed in his fun book Superman: The Unauthorized Biography (2013), Clark Kent expressed pride in being a journalist from his first appearance in 1938. Back then he worked for The Daily Star (only later would it become The Daily Planet) and in his off hours thwarted crime as Superman. One of his first rescues was of a woman being beaten by her husband. Afterward he went and checked the newspaper account, and was relieved to find that Superman wasn’t mentioned in the story. What modesty—but it wasn’t complete, for, with a wink to readers, Clark went to his editor with this boast: “Listen, Chief, if I can’t find out anything about this Superman, no one can!”
His colleague in the newsroom, moreover, underwent a significant evolution. At first Lois Lane was a “sob sister,” a sarcastic term used for female reporters who wrote human interest stories. But after the 1940 movie comedy His Girl Friday, featuring a star reporter played by Rosalind Russell, Lois began to be portrayed as tenacious and independent.
In 2018, Superman and Clark Kent need to be their usual humble and virtuous selves, but most of all they need to be fun. They barely survived the bleak, rainy crudscape of Zack Snyder’s 2016 movie Batman v Superman. Bendis, while a funny writer, often invents characters who are psychologically dark and struggling, like the Marvel character Jessica Jones, a private investigator (the first season of the Netflix series based on the Jessica Jones comic is wonderful). He’s also been known to bring existing heroes like Daredevil to the point of mental breakdowns, and beyond. Hopefully he’ll resist doing something similarly dour with Superman, though. After all, he’s handsome, has a great girlfriend, and flies around a gleaming, modern city all day in a red cape.
To creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Superman was the personification of American optimism. Writes Weldon:
The Superman they envisioned was to upbeat—and far too busy—to waste time on survivor’s guilt and introspection. He had things to do. He was also, quite simply, the ultimate American: a Gatsby who’d arrived on a bright new shore, having propelled himself there by burning his own past as fuel. The Old World could no longer touch him, and it was now left to him to forge his own path.
Bendis, it appears, would not be hostile to such thoughts. He recently told the New York Times that “Truth, justice and the American way” are “under siege,” and that “These are things worth fighting for.”