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Superman’s Face

Superman’s problem is that no one can see him. Trapped in the premise of secret identity without a disguise, he becomes by necessity the invisible man, unrecognizable to his closest friends, all of whom he has held close on countless occasions as both Superman and Clark. He is the world’s most generic man, unidentifiable as himself.

It’s no wonder he’s fought so hard, for so long, to foil plots aimed at discovering him. He’s waiting for Lois or Lana or Jimmy or Lex to look into his eyes one day and say, “Jesus, Superman, you’re Clark,” or vice versa.

The Superman comic book is the visual paradox of Magritte’s “ceci n’est pas une pipe” turned into an identity crisis that never ends. Throughout the Fifties and Sixties, the problem metastasizes into narrative fixation, with countless panels containing both Clark and Superman, or two Supermen, or two Clarks, or a dozen identical Superman robots.

Like a Warhol series out of control, Superman’s face is a single photograph iterated into infinity, until it is no longer individual or even iconic, but instead a cipher that is wholly without visual interest. Lois Lane can’t really see that face, and neither do we, except perhaps when it is defaced.

Superman was a perfect superhero for exactly as long as he was the only superhero. He created the category – it’s named after him – and in doing so, he rendered himself generic, redundant: He’s the super superhero man. He went from being unique, to being the Platonic form, to being the boring one. Batman is a super man, but with more bat. The purity of Superman’s conception meant that every subsequent superhero was Superman with an interesting twist, or at least some additional visual interest.

And then there are the things that could only be learned after 100 stories and the birth of 100 more superheroes. Masks are really cool, and very handy in a secret identity scenario that is going to continue for 70 years, especially if it’s going to revolve around a love triangle in which the superhero plays two of the three roles.

It’s an Archie scenario in a superhero comic, a whole world that springs from and depends almost completely on a single, absurd suspension of disbelief. Archie can’t decide. Clark and Superman are different people. Archie’s version burns with the power of a million yellow suns; I can buy his comics in my grocery store checkout line. Superman, however, lost his struggle against the narrative kryptonite inherent in his original conception.

Having your superhero’s head look less interesting than that of his boring civilian alter-ego probably isn’t the best idea. Creatively and conceptually, undressing to become a superhero is brilliant. It’s sexy, for one thing, but putting on a different face has proved to be the most convincing way to “change an identity” – in both the reader’s and the character’s minds. Imagine Batman without a mask, or The Hulk with Bruce Banner’s face. Batbruce (The Dark Playboy) is a joke, whereas Superclark is an apt summary of the problem around which Superman revolves. You can see it written all over his face.

And this is why Superman actually remains unique. He is the unfinished and irresolvable superhero. There have been debates about which of his aspects is the ego, and which is the alter ego, but really it’s a chicken and egg scenario; neither had priority. He arrived as an infant, tabula rasa, and the very first time his adoptive parents concealed his super-baby traits, he was split in two by a super-secret concerning his identity. He was always both Superman and Clark, or he is forever neither of them, two possibilities that are equally chilling.

As an adult reading those mid-century comic books, I am torn between campy amusement and a horrified sympathy for the poor guy. When I encounter all those stories that turn out to be “what ifs,” dreams, imaginary weddings, and events that might actually have happened in an alternate reality, I should see generations of comic book writers struggling to overcome the inherent narrative kryptonite. Instead, I like to imagine that these stories are Superclarkmankent’s desperate, blissful, and surely inevitable fantasies of a self who can finally come to rest.

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8 Responses to Superman’s Face

  1. Sarcastro says:

    I think that you forgot to upload the conclusion.

  2. Dan Nadel says:

    Nope, that’s the whole enchilada.

  3. John Hilgart says:

    Ha! Admittedly, I’m relying on the “picture is worth a thousand words” premise here, so the final stretch of images is my five-thousand word conclusion – an illustration of my parting thought that we are more likely to really see Superman’s face when it is defaced in some way; that he is less invisible when he is less “himself.”

    Update: The comments on this post prompted me to extend the essay and give it a conclusion (now appended to the original). Thanks!

  4. bkmunn says:

    Beautiful scans, as always. Almost horrifying in their closeness.

  5. James says:

    “Superman’s face is… iterated into infinity, until it is no longer individual or even iconic, but instead a cipher that is wholly without visual interest.”

    Nice quote (and bonus points for the alliteration). But wouldn’t you agree that very few DC heroes have iconic faces? I see that as more associated with the rogues–Two Face and Joker immediately pop into mind.

  6. patrick ford says:

    For years the Superman stories in Action Comics and Superman were alternately drawn by Wayne Boring and Curt Swan. Their versions of Superman didn’t resemble one another.
    http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_mJ4lc_Q9Q6k/Sk4h8PPSwhI/AAAAAAAAflY/jfXApQUW0wU/s400/JawBiggerThanCranium.jpg
    http://members.shaw.ca/super-heroes/silver-age/talent/curt_swan_2.jpg
    And re the discussion on original letter press printing. Out of register colour often has the unintended effect of mimicking the look of reflected light. Note the Swan Superman head. An accident of the process, but one of it’s charms.

  7. patrick ford says:

    The real Superman showed up and parked a grand slam in the upper deck.

    Like Segar’s Popeye the initial surge of the crowd was seen as an indication the best thing to do would be to make a model citizen out of him. In short order he had reformed his lawless ways.

    Thank god Chaplin’s Tramp was Chaplin’s and not subject to castration.

  8. Khoi Vinh says:

    This is really wonderful. I’ve been reading about and thinking about this character for decades, but some of these ideas never occurred to me before — or at least I’d never been able to articulate them so well.

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