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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Jonathan and Martha Kent are dead. Superman writers Grant Morrison and George Pérez killed Clark Kent’s adoptive parents for the latest history-altering DC reboot. Fortunately, Mr. and Mrs. Kent (unlike Spider-Man’s immortal Aunt May) are no newcomers to the afterlife.

Before the first DC reboot in 1986, the Kents were strictly flashback characters for Superboy stories. Before writer-artist John Byrne resurrected them, the elderly couple had always passed quietly away before Clark assumed the adult role of Superman.

In fact, they dropped dead specifically to spur their orphaned son to greatness:

“The passing away of his foster-parents greatly grieved Clark Kent. But it strengthened a determination that had been growing in his mind. Clark decided he must turn his titanic strength into channels that would benefit mankind. And so was created — Superman!”

My parents achieved a similar goal through less melodramatic means:  they sent me to college (the alien planet my daughter will launch toward in four years).

For Batman, Bob Kane replaced the Kents’ flower-strewn gravesite with murdered-before-his-eyes corpses, but the narrative logic is the same. Apparently dead parents are very motivating. Plus it’s hard to be a hero when Dad’s king of the castle and Mom’s still packing your lunches.

It’s a crusty old plot (for starters check out Doc Savage, Tarzan, and Spring-Heeled Jack). So belated kudos to Byrne for breaking it. Even if it did mean the Kents’ Metropolis visits got a bit too regular.

The doting Eddie Jones and K. Callan embodied them in the mid-nineties Lois & Clark: the New Adventures of Superman, and when Annette O’Toole and John Schneider assumed their Smallville roles in 2000, they couldn’t even bother being “elderly” anymore.

Kevin Costner and Diane Lane are up next (Superman: Man of Steel began shooting in August). I’m rooting for director Zack Snyder to team-up with Pérez Morrison and knock them off early. Or at least (please) Costner.

Glenn Ford dutifully died of a heart attack out in his field of dreams back in the 1978 Superman. Scriptwriter and Godfather author Mario Puzo gave Mr. Kent an offer he couldn’t refuse, but not Phyllis Thaxter. She lived on to be reincarnated by Eva Marie Saint in the 2006 Superman Returns. The original widowed Mrs. Kent awards go to Frances Morris in the 1950’s Adventures of Superman TV and Virginia Carroll in the 1948 Superman film serial that launched the TV show.

Perhaps there’s a case to be made for the necessity of only killing father figures (consider Spider-Man again and his Uncle Ben), but during Superman’s first decade neither of the Kents was a target of narrative manslaughter. In fact, neither of them particularly existed.

When Superman first appeared on TV in the early 40’s as a Max and Dave Fleischer cartoon, the Kryptonian had never been adopted by any Smallville couple. He grew up in an orphanage after being plucked from his rocket ship by an unnamed motorist.

The Fleischers weren’t the first to cut that particular narrative corner. When Superman had premiered on the radio a year earlier, he stepped full-grown from his capsule, no Kents in sight then either.

Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel didn’t pen Superman’s radio and cartoon incarnations, but he was no fan of Clark’s foster parents himself. When he and Joe Shuster flew their Man of Steel to daily newspaper syndication in 1939, they replaced them with that same orphan asylum and passing motorist.

The Kents didn’t exist for the first year of Action Comics either. They were shoe-horned in for Superman No. 1, a reprint of previous adventures with a few pages of new, editor-mandated material. The first comic book reboot. Clark’s institutionalized childhood was swapped for “the love and guidance of his kindly foster-parents.” The passing motorist was now named Mr. Kent who, after dumping that alien baby at the orphanage, returns with his wife to reclaim him (“We couldn’t get that sweet child of our mind”).

The Kents were never Siegel’s idea anyway. When Joe Shuster flung the rejected first draft of Superman into the fire, Siegel begged Buck Rogers artist Russell Keaton to replace his partner. Keaton also replaced Siegel’s scripts. There are no Kents in his 1934 summary. They debuted in Keaton’s unpublished sample strips, a fleshed-out version of the adoption story Siegel recycled and condensed for Superman No. 1.

Jerry Siegel’s own origin story is closer to Bruce Wayne’s. His father died in an armed robbery in 1932. Jerry was 18. Was it less painful to pretend that his father had never existed? I’m 45. I don’t want to imagine the stories I’ll tell myself after my parents’ deaths.

Siegel continued to live with his widowed mother to became the permanent baby of the family, trapped at home under her protective wing while he watched his siblings fly off. He dreamed up Superman a year later. Would he have preferred the accelerated adulthood of orphanage life over such loving guidance? Probably not. But Superman was a daydream. An escape. A superhero doesn’t like anybody telling him what to do.

Probably George Pérez and Grant Morrison don’t either, but they’re working under the firm and loving guidance of their editors. DC, like Siegel, wants to snip the apron strings early and send their Superman flying solo.

So rest in peace Jonathan and Martha. See you at the next rewrite.

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