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Superman's comic book reveal proves anonymity is impossible — even in fiction

Not only are phone booths a thing of the past, but social media means that a secret identity no longer belongs in the Superman universe.
Image: Superman
After decades of hiding in plain sight as Clark Kent, Superman is no longer going to live a double life.Courtesy of DC

No more phone booths needed. Superman is coming out of the secret identity closet.

In Superman issue #18 out Wednesday, the last Son of Krypton will finally reveal to the world that he and Daily Planet reporter Clark Kent are one and the same. While he has been outed in past, mostly self-contained storylines— usually with a plot twist to fool people or in a “What if?” scenario — this will be a permanent decision splashing big ripples across the DC Comics cosmos.

The development still raises the question of why DC Comics is making this radical move, and making it now. It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s a gimmick!

While the move couldn’t come soon enough from the perspective of the changed telecommunications landscape, the development still raises the question of why DC Comics is making this radical move, and making it now. It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s a gimmick!

Employing such a device puts history’s most famous comic book hero in danger of alienating a diehard fan base for a fleeting bit of attention to draw in new, younger readers. But that doesn’t mean it’s the wrong storyline.

Not only are phone booths a thing of the past, but the whole concept of anonymity in the age of social media has morphed into something that no longer belongs in the Superman universe. And it doesn’t hurt that the dramatic decision could cause a stir and boost the audience of a franchise that Warner Bros. seems to feel is not relevant to modern movie audiences. (A new Superman series is also coming to the CW; perhaps they will test a new approach there as well.)

Shipped units of the best-selling comic in any month usually top out in the 150-160K range, with Top 20 titles generally falling in the 50-120K range. But when the Man of Steel and his costumed ilk have taken bold stops, it has often boosted sales considerably. The 1992 plotline on the “Death of Superman,” which spanned four Superman comic book titles, culminated in 6 million copies of Superman #75 being sold. The whole storyline was compiled into a graphic novel of the same name. (Supes was later resurrected, but the story remains iconic and beloved.)

Similarly, the anticipated wedding of Batman and Catwoman in Batman #50 last year led to shipments of 440,000 copies which was basically quadruple those of issues and after it. (Their pending nuptials were called off at the end of the issue.) DC recently rebooted its whole comics universe twice — with The New 52 line in 2011 and then DC Rebirth in 2016 – both generating short-term sales boosts, although not at ’80s or ’90s levels. (Fan reaction was decidedly mixed.)

Image: Superman is Clark Kent!
Superman reveals his identity in front of the press in the new edition of the classic comic book.DC Universe

And therein lies the risk. The payoff can be big, but it can also be a turnoff for the Gen X and Boomer readers that form a big part of comic book fandom and who are viewed as resistant to changes to beloved icons. And lower superhero sales overall these days indicate that perhaps younger acolytes aren’t as enthusiastic about superhero tales as their predecessors.

But the author of Wednesday’s Superman edition, Brian Michael Bendis, thinks the plot move is far from contrived and in fact a necessary evolution regardless of audience reaction.

A major scribe in modern comics who jumped ship from rival Marvel Comics two years to join DC and write the Superman series, Bendis is excited about the character’s big reveal. He says that the idea was carefully discussed and crafted through the Superman and DC editorial teams, including his writer friends (and fellow Eisner Award winners) Greg Rucka and Matt Fraction, and even vetted with some readers.

“I expressed that this is a story about Clark owning his stuff,” Bendis told me. “You literally have been looking at Clark accidentally revealing his identity [since the beginning]. It's the biggest cliché in comics and was getting bigger and bigger with every year that Superman evolved.”

Bendis pointed out that culture — and the idea of secret identities — has advanced since Superman’s creation. “I inherited a father and a husband and someone much more locked into their world than the young Clark who joined the Daily Planet and was trying to figure out his world all by himself, the lone immigrant refugee,” noted Bendis.

The issue of anonymity in 2019 is also quite relevant. There is a scene in Superman #17 where Lois Lane flies into the night with Superman from the balcony of the apartment she shares with her husband Clark Kent. In our era of surveillance and ubiquitous cell phones, one would imagine that somebody would have seen them together at some point. And wondered what those two were up to.

This is not the first time that Bendis has unveiled a hero’s secret identity. Under his creative auspices, Daredevil’s alter ego of blind attorney Matt Murdock was revealed to the world in early 2002 (albeit against the superhero’s will). Bendis stresses that that plot point was not a quickly reversed gimmick and guided the comic for 15 years, even after he stopped working on it.

Beyond shedding a classic comic contrivance — one that has suspended our disbelief for decades — the disclosure also raises the issue of how other DC superheroes and their secret identities could be affected.

“With the [new] Superman reveal came everyone’s question: ‘What does Batman do?’” enthused Bendis. “Isn't it exciting, after 80 years of publishing, you literally don’t know what Batman is going to do?”

Bendis doesn’t fear turning off old readers — and dismisses the notion that the younger generation isn’t as interested in comics. Indeed, this is one of the greatest times in comic reader history because it is probably the most diverse in terms of titles and subject matter. Overall comic book sales are up, mainly from the graphic novel market for children and young adults.

But current superhero sales specifically are slumping, and DC execs have pointed to the glut of new books coming out from many different publishers. The future then, as Bendis implies, will lie with those younger disciples rising up the ranks with fresh ideas.

The disclosure also raises the issue of how other DC superheroes and their secret identities could be affected.

At 52 years old, Bendis has lived through all the big comic book events since the 1980s, as well as the cinematic boom of the 21st century. He recalls hearing how fans were sick of crossover events like DC’s 52-issue “Final Crisis” (2007-8) and Marvel’s “Secret Invasion” (2008-9) spanning 100-plus issues, the latter penned by Bendis. He also remembers how eight years ago, some people thought superhero movies were over. Cue “Avengers: Endgame” and a $2 billion-plus global gross in 2019.

Superman coming clean is not being billed as a crossover to multiple comic book titles or part of a bigger reboot. For Bendis, narrative and character are the essential elements for keeping fans reading new stories, and he sees the unmasking of Superman squarely as a character-driven storyline. These days, many fans grouse when gimmicks trump quality narratives.

“What I have learned is the story always wins,” Bendis asserted. “If the story is of value, if it’s honest, if the creators are coming from a great place, it always rises to the occasion because what people want is the real thing. What they don’t want is tricks.”