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.