Sure, Superman was popular in 1938, but a lot of things were popular back then, like Mickey Rooney and Betty Boop and the Spanish Civil War. Being popular in the late 1930s does not guarantee that your story will still be told in the 2020s. Pop culture is a competitive environment, and for any popular idea, there are a dozen copycats trying to get their own share of the audience’s attention and affection.
It’s a process of natural selection, and the characters and stories that survive for decades in the popular imagination are the strongest and most adaptable. Sherlock Holmes, the Wizard of Oz, Mickey Mouse, Dracula and Superman — all of the long-lasting pop culture icons have overcome dozens of challengers, continually finding a niche in the changing cultural landscape that keeps them alive for another generation.
One thing that these pop culture champions have in common is that they managed to jump out of their original medium, and often out of the reach of their original creator, inspiring plays and parodies and sequels and pastiches and comic strips and films that strengthened the concept by passing on the story-productive details, and removing the parts that didn’t work as well.
Superman is the perfect example: a story that started in comic books, but very quickly expanded into a comic strip and a radio show, then a cartoon, a movie serial and a TV series. Each version of the story is an opportunity to tweak and expand, and figure out what works and what doesn’t.
Over time, Superman ended up with a core set of characters and ideas that are practically bulletproof. The concept “Superman and Lois” was there in the first issue of Action Comics in 1938, and it worked so well that 83 years later, there’s a TV show called Superman & Lois.
The concept “Ma and Pa Kent”, on the other hand, took a while to find its place in the cultural conception of Superman. The details that worked, like running a farm, stick around forever. But sometimes a concept’s evolution takes a weird turn, and you end up drugging a crowd of elderly people at a lemonade party. Here, I’ll show you what I mean.
As we’ve seen, in June 1938, there wasn’t such a thing as a Kent family, just a caption that said, “When the vehicle landed on Earth, a passing motorist, discovering the sleeping babe within, turned the child over to an orphanage.”
We got to see that passing motorist in the comic strip, which launched in January 1939, and I have to say, he looks just like I dreamed he would. “Good heavens! It’s a child,” says the passing motorist. That was his first take, too. Sometimes you just nail it.
In January ’39, when Siegel and Shuster got the chance to retell the origin story for Superman #1, they created the Kents, a belated explanation for where Superman’s human name came from. They were “an elderly couple”, and the wife was called Mary; the husband didn’t rate a name yet.
This version is just four panels long: #1) the Kents find the child; #2) the child wrecks the orphanage; #3) the orphanage is quite happy to hand the baby right back to the Kents; #4) profit.
“The love and guidance of his kindly foster-parents was to become an important factor in the shaping of the boy’s future,” says the caption, which is a little hard to swallow, given that the character was still mostly hitting dudes and threatening to drop them out of windows.
When the radio show started in February 1940, they spent the whole first episode on Jor-El and the destruction of Krypton, but they skipped Superman’s youth entirely. At the start of the second episode, the announcer said, “During the long journey of the rocket ship to the Earth, the child has become a man. The rocket landed in a desert. Superman stepped forth full grown, to explore this strange new world in which he found himself!” And then he’s just flying around, eavesdropping on people at a trolley station in Indiana, for some reason.
It’s obvious why the radio show would want to skip over Superman’s boyhood — they’d already spent the first episode on another planet; they wanted to get Superman out there punching people. It’s the same logic that made Siegel and Shuster dash through both Krypton and childhood in a couple of panels, the first time around.
But in 1942, when radio scriptwriter George Lowther wrote a novelization called The Adventures of Superman, he expanded quite a bit on the origin story, setting the first two chapters on Krypton and then spending the next three chapters on Clark and the Kents. This drilldown on the family story added several elements to the characters that endured, which means that some of the things that you know about them came from a book that you probably never knew existed.
Most importantly, this is where the Kents became a farm family. When they were introduced in Superman #1, they looked solidly middle-class, providing love and guidance while sitting comfortably in their living room armchairs. Lowther brought them out into the sunshine, where they could bring up their alien offspring in wholesome surroundings.
Unusually for a Kent sighting, nobody’s driving; Eben Kent is out plowing the fields in the South Forty, when the rocket crashes right next to him.
Then we get a whole bunch of new information:
Eben Kent and his wife, Sarah, never knew where the child had come from, never pierced the mystery that surrounded his strange appearance on earth. Destiny perhaps played a part in directing the rocket to the Kent farm, for the Kents were childless and desired a child above anything else on earth. And here, like a gift from Heaven, was the infant Kal-el. The old couple took him into their home and raised him as their own.
They called him Clark, because that was Sarah Kent’s family name. The circumstances surrounding his arrival were almost forgotten as year ran into year and the infant grew to be a strong and handsome boy, helping Eben with the chores about the farm, listening to stories at Sarah’s knee in the long winter evenings. He seemed no different from other boys of his age. He attended the little country school, played games, went fishing in the hot summer afternoons, and worked and studied as all boys do.
It was not until his thirteenth year that the incident occurred that was to set him apart from ordinary humans, and was to give him his first glimpse of the powers he possessed, beyond those of the earth people who were his companions…
Practically everything in those three paragraphs is new, even the improved spelling of Superman’s Kryptonian name, which was “Kal-L” the last time we saw it. The Kents are childless, Clark is Sarah’s maiden name, the boy has an idyllic farm upbringing, and he discovers his powers at puberty. Sarah makes his costume, too, and Eben dies when Clark is 17, of a heart attack brought on by his attempt to lift an anvil over his head.
The radio show had its own reboot in 1942, when it was picked up for national broadcast on the Mutual Broadcasting System. The relaunch, written by Lowther, included Eben and Sarah, and had Eben die before Clark leaves for Metropolis.
In 1944, when Jerry Siegel was in the Army, National Periodicals took the liberty of starting a Superboy strip without telling him. This expansion of Superman’s career began in More Fun Comics #101 (Jan/Feb 1944) with a five-page intro story — three pages of Krypton and Jor-El, and then the passing motorist makes a surprise return, looking a little the worse for wear.
The early Superboy stories followed a pattern: one or more children are playing outside, when they encounter two or three mean adults with guns. The adults, who are criminals of one kind or another, try to push the kids around, and then Clark turns into Superboy and destroys their house. I swear, that kid hates architecture more than anything else in the world.
The Kents didn’t make an appearance in the More Fun stories, beyond that one panel of cooing over the wild animal they’ve brought into their home. Superboy moved over to a regular spot in Adventure Comics #103 (April 1946), but the Kents didn’t become regular supporting characters for several years.
Okay, more Kents: we meet a new pair in the first installment of the 1948 Superman serial, “Superman Comes to Earth”, and they’re pretty much the same as they were in Lowther’s novel. Dad’s name is Eben Kent, but Mom has changed from Sarah to Martha. Clark grows up on a farm, and Martha makes his costume.
I hope that you’re all finding this fascinating, by the way, because I am feeling like a grade-A nerd at the moment, obsessing over these historical details. But here I am, waist-deep in Kent facts, so I’m passing them on to you. You can do what you like with them.
Back in the comics, Superman #53 (July/Aug 1948) celebrated the character’s 10th anniversary with a story called “The Origin of Superman!”, which continued to tweak the story. They’re a farm family driving an automobile again, but this time they’re named John and Mary, and they look like characters from Al Capp’s Li’l Abner.
The weird thing about this retelling is that it erases Superboy from the story, several years after he started appearing as a regular feature. They don’t give an age for when he starts to develop his powers, but it appears to be late adolescence. Mary dies first, and Clark has already grown up when Dad, on his deathbed, gives him the name Superman.
After that, it gets so confusing that I can’t keep it all straight. Superboy gets his own comic in 1949 in addition to his regular spot headlining Adventure Comics, and there are occasional flashbacks in Action Comics and Superman, and there’s just too much material to sort through. I’ve looked at a bunch of books and websites, and everyone has an idea of when the changes happen in the 1950s, but they contradict each other, and I’m not going to be the one who actually sits down and looks at every goddamn issue of four different titles to figure it out.
So Pa Kent becomes Jonathan sometime around 1950, probably in Adventure Comics, and he owns a general store. Ma Kent is first referred to as Martha in 1952, in Superman #74. The question about whether they live on a farm or own a general store is cleared up in Superboy #78 (Jan 1960), where they explain that the Kents lived on a farm when they found Clark, and then moved into Smallville to open a general store when he was old enough to go to school.
The general store is actually a great example of how the story evolves to fit the needs of the current format. The Kents became regular characters once the Superboy book started, but you can’t keep writing adventure stories that take place on a farm. By 1949, when Superboy has one story a month in Action Comics and three stories every two months in Superboy, there was too much narrative pressure to keep him locked down on a farm. Owning a general store was the perfect solution, because it gave the characters the opportunity to mix with a variety of people, which opened up story potential.
But after a while, if you have to write multiple stories a month about Superman, Superboy and Supergirl, you just run out of ideas and start doing weird stuff, even if it contradicts everything else.
So in May 1963, Leo Dorfman decided that he was going to write the definitive story of how the Kents died, and it’s done in such an off-hand way that it’s not even featured on the cover. The cover line on Superman #161 is very excited about the “Sensational!” story in which “Superman Goes to War!”, while the Kents’ death is given a little box in the corner that says “Extra! The Last Days of Ma and Pa Kent!” That’s gratitude for you. Kids those days, am I right?
And then it turns out to be completely insane, unconnected to anything else that’s ever been written about the Kents. In this story, Superboy takes his parents on vacation — “How thoughtful of Clark to build us a pleasure cruiser for our Caribbean holiday!” says Martha, which is amazing — and they dig up a pirate treasure chest, which is contaminated with a “fever plague” that kills them both.
Of course, it’s not that simple — first Superboy takes them back in time 100 years to go mess around with Blackbeard the pirate, and later on, when they get sick, he thinks it’s because of the time travel, and he feels really bad about it. He tries a bunch of ridiculous things to try to cure them, like squeezing all the sap out of a Brazilian orchid tree. That doesn’t work, so he arranges for teenage Lex Luthor to be released from prison so that he can cure them with a vibro-health-restorer machine, which also doesn’t work.
Superboy even tries projecting them into the Phantom Zone, but it only works halfway because solar flares are causing a magnetic storm, and that apparently interferes with the Phantom Zone projector somehow.
So they die, both of them, from a random pirate disease, and it’s heartbreaking, just like it was when one or both of them died in completely different ways.
It rattles on this way, through the decades. Writers pick up whatever they remember from the past, and they write something new, based on whatever they need at the moment. If you’re just writing about Superman, then Clark can be inspired to put on the cape after the Kents die, but if you’re writing Superboy stories, then you’ve got to keep them alive, and give them a general store.
And because long-running cross-media serialized narrative is a fertile environment for the natural selection of story concepts, the most useful ideas carry on, and the stupid ones get left behind. Giving the Kents a farm in 1942 was a productive idea — it grounded the characters in old-time Americana, and made it clear that these are good, simple folks, who would raise Clark to believe in the right things. On the other hand, having them both die of pirate fever while being unsuccessfully beamed halfway into the Phantom Zone is a stupid idea, because it doesn’t mean anything in particular, so that part of the story was ignored, and nobody used it when they wrote further Superman stories. The only reason that I know about it is because I specifically went looking for dumb, forgotten Kent concepts, and there it was.
Now, technically this post should end right there, because I’ve done the overview of how the Kents’ story evolved, and tied up the main idea about natural selection. At this point, I should wrap up this metaphorical Zoom meeting, and give you some of your afternoon back.
But I have to tell you about “The Fantastic Faces!” from Superboy #145 (March 1968), because otherwise I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night. I can not take this secret to my grave; it must be shared with the world.
Here’s the setup: in 1968, the editors decided that it was weird, having teenage Superboy living with foster parents who are clearly grandparent-age. It’s not actually weird at all, or at least not any weirder than anything else in Superman comics, but it was the end of the Silver Age, when they started taking things much too seriously. Kids weren’t reading Superman comics as much as they used to, and the powers that be thought that a younger, hipper Ma and Pa Kent would help to reverse that slow slide in readership.
They could have accomplished this in a subtle way, by altering the characters’ hairstyles and taking off the glasses, but they decided to do the opposite, and make a huge deal out of it.
The story begins with the above splash page — Superboy showing pictures of his parents directly to the reader, and announcing sternly, “These are the faces of Mom and Dad Kent! Take a good look at them! You’ll never see them again!” I don’t know why he thinks it’s our fault.
The way that the writers are going to get this unnecessary job done is to project their own desire for a younger Ma and Pa Kent onto a character in the story. In fact, they project it all the way through a dimensional rift to a sci-fi planet called Thraxx, where the latest hit in home entertainment is an opti-screen show called The Superboy of Earth.
The situation on Thraxx is a bit complex. The Superboy of Earth is produced by a guy named Jolax at the Galaxo Movie Studio, which doesn’t really exist. Instead of hiring actors and filming them, Jolax is using his super-space camera, which uses special telescopic lenses to record happenings in other dimensions. Naturally, instead of doing anything useful with this incredible invention, Jolax uses it to spy on Superboy, and then sell the footage as a TV show.
“Actors, sets, stage hands, cameramen, special effects… who needs them?” he brags to his assistant. “I save all that money by filming real events! I’m brilliant!” And I guess he is, in a way.
Thraxx is one of those planets where everybody talks about space and technology all the time, so people zooming by in their flying cars yell things to Jolax like “By the jumping moons, Jolax! Your new show was good!” and “Galactically terrific!” which obviously is very gratifying.
But — great moonquakes! — Jolax has a big problem: people have been writing in with their electro-styluses to complain about the Kents, and the big tycoons in the skyroom have a request. “All the optiviewers say that Jonathan and Martha Kent look too old to have a teen-age son like Superboy!” they say. “But that’s easily remedied! Before we sign a contract, you simply hire new, younger actors to play the roles of Ma and Pa Kent!”
Naturally, Jolax can’t just hire new actors, because he’s filming the real thing, so he needs to come up with a way to transform the real Jonathan and Martha Kent into younger versions of themselves.
The lunatic plot contrivance that Jolax comes up with is to convert his super-space camera into a dimensional transporter, and then transport a bottle of youth serum to Earth. (The Thraxxians use youth serum to punish criminals by turning them into babies, as naturally they would.) So Jolax takes a deep breath and spits a bottle of youth juice across the dimensional spaceways, to land directly in the well on Jonathan and Martha’s property.
Obviously, this plan works out perfectly; how could it possibly fail? “Have some lemonade!” Martha chirps. “I just made it with fresh, cold well-water!” And then they all go to bed, and during the night, Ma and Pa get twenty years younger.
At this point, Jolax basically drops out of the story, and now it’s all about how the Kents are going to deal with this surprising blow to the status quo.
They spend several pages thinking that the effect is due to a weird glowing space jewel that Superboy picked up in the asteroid belt — and they can’t let anybody see them getting younger, or people in town will figure out that their adopted son is Superboy.
The first thing they try out is to put on wax old-age masks, which actually works well enough that Lana Lang doesn’t notice anything’s different. But the masks melt in the summer heat, so they have to try something else.
Superboy learns that the jewel isn’t responsible for the change, and then he has one of those convenient flashes of insight that give characters exactly the information that they need to move the story forward. He finds the bottle in the Kents’ well, instantly divines that it’s a bottle of alien youth serum, and comes up with a truly twisted plan.
The idea is: take the remaining lemonade, and serve it to some other oldsters in town, so that nobody will know that the Kents are responsible. This is an example of what happens when you provide years of love and guidance to a foster son who’s actually a monster from outer space.
The heist goes off without a hitch. Jonathan and Martha put on their old age masks, and invite a bunch of senior citizens over for a cool glass of lemonade.
Just as they all sip on their spiked drinks, Superboy zooms by, spilling out a pot of luminescent crystals behind him. The crystals make it look like an extremely low-flying comet, which brushes them with its long tail.
And that’s when the lemonade party gets out of hand, as all the seniors magically become juniors. The Kents take off their wax masks just at the right moment, and now everyone thinks that they got younger because of the comet.
There’s a comedic kicker at the end of the story, where the sky tycoons on Thraxx ask Jolax to create a new series about Superman and his old parents, which he can’t deliver. It’s actually a cute comedy story in the haphazard late-Silver Age style, but then the family appears on the final page to inform us that they are deadly serious about this.
“A final message from us, readers!” Superboy announces all the way through the fourth wall, and into our dimension. “The youth serum’s effect is permanent… and I wouldn’t change Mom and Dad Kent back if I could!”
Which is true, for a while. But ten years later, when they write the script for Superman: The Movie, they ignore this silliness and cherrypick the elements that work: an old couple, a farm family, and a meaningful, tragic death that inspires young Clark to become a hero. And that’s how superhero movies work, from then on.
1.17: For Unto Us.
— Danny Horn