Superman 1.54: The Stupid Question

I got sidetracked yesterday talking about the special effects in the helicopter rescue sequence, which means I’ve left dangling reporter Lois Lane up there hanging on for dear life, approximately two feet south of safety.

I hate to leave her up there with nothing but a seatbelt, a camera crew and some front projection for company, but there are pressing matters that I need to attend to here on the ground, so she’s going to have to hang tight for today. I’m pretty sure she’ll be okay. The location filming for these Metropolis street scenes was completed in July ’77, and they didn’t start shooting the hanging-off-the-roof scenes until October, so technically we have three months before it even becomes an issue.

The thing that we need to discuss today is Clark Kent finally tearing off the guise and garb, revealing the supersuit and taking charge of the situation. It’s the moment that we’ve been waiting for — some city-stunning from the caped wonder, at last — and the only thing between us and it is a button-down shirt.

Now, at this point some people might ask where he puts the Clark Kent clothes when he changes into Superman. They say there’s no such thing as a stupid question, but then a question like that comes along, and you start to wonder if there might be a couple exceptions.

The scene begins with a metafictional sight gag that always gets a laugh. Clark realizes that someone up on the roof needs assistance, and he looks around for a place to change his clothes. He spots a pay phone on the corner, and gives it the once-over. He sees that it’s not a phone booth, just a little hutch with three half-walls, and he takes a second to register that before moving on.

This is a reference to one of those elements that make up the collective cultural concept of “Superman”, which was assembled unconsciously over several decades by the American public, mixing together all of the most memorable and story-productive concepts from all of the different kinds of Superman stories. Naturally, there’s stuff from the comic books in there, but there are also pieces that originated in the radio show, the comic strip and the TV show, held together and reinforced by parodies like the Bugs Bunny cartoon.

The popular idea that Clark changes his clothes in a phone booth originated in the 1941 Fleischer Studios cartoons. Up until then, the audience never watched him change his clothes in real time — the comic book and comic strip did the switch off-panel, and on the radio show, he could change from Clark to Superman in the middle of a sentence, just by dropping his voice at the end of “This looks like a job… for Superman.”

But the cartoons could show the moment of transformation — or as much of it as they could manage, without actually showing him naked — and the staging choices that the Fleischers made in the early cartoons would resonate down through the ages.

In the first cartoon, The Mad Scientist, Clark slips off to the Daily Planet stockroom to get changed…

And the second cartoon, The Mechanical Monsters, used the phone booth. In the cartoon, Clark and Lois are covering an exhibition of rare gems at a Metropolis museum, when a huge robot stomps in and starts helping itself to the jewelry. Everyone evacuates the museum, and Clark dashes to a phone booth to call the Daily Planet and report the scoop.

Finishing his call and exiting the booth, Clark sees the robot flying away, and decides it’s a job for Superman, so he ducks back into the booth, and emerges in his uniform.

This moment wasn’t necessarily supposed to represent Superman’s regular practice; it just happened to be an appropriate place to stage the scene for this particular story. But the Fleischer cartoons were a big success, and there were more people who saw the cartoons than read the comic. As far as the public was concerned, this was how Clark changed his clothes.

The Fleischers used the telephone booth gag again in the fifth cartoon, The Bulleteers. In the other cartoons in the series, he uses storage rooms and closets, and in some he just looks around and doesn’t see anybody, so he changes wherever he happens to be standing.

The Mechanical Monsters is really the only one of these early cartoons to stage the transformation scene in a particularly interesting way, so the telephone booth is the image that stuck with people. Two years later, Bugs Bunny used a phone booth in his 1943 cartoon Super-Rabbit, and there you have it — a permanent fixture of the American imagination.

In the early comics, Superman didn’t really do anything in particular with his clothes, because the comics were fast-moving and a bit slapdash; most of the time he just changed off-panel, and that was that. The one time that Siegel and Shuster made a big deal about it was in Action Comics #9, in a comedy sequence that basically instructed the audience not to worry about it anymore.

The story’s called “Wanted: Superman”, and it’s so early in the Man of Steel’s career that the police are offering a $5,000 reward for anyone who captures the violent lunatic who’s running around and destroying people’s homes. They get a famous detective from Chicago to come to Metropolis — Captain “100%” Reilly, who always gets his man.

Clark hears that there’s a guy in the hospital who’s out on a ledge and planning to jump, so he ducks into an alley and changes his clothes. He’s seen by a little shnook named Mortimer Snoop, who’s hoping to claim the five thousand dollars.

Snoop reports his discovery to Captain Reilly, who comes out to the alleyway to inspect the clothes. He doesn’t find any identification, so he decides to wait and see if Superman returns to collect them.

Snoop realizes that Reilly wants to chisel him out of the five thousand dollar reward, so they both wait around, wishing the other one would leave. Superman spots them, and waits to see what happens.

Reilly pretends that he’s giving up so that Snoop will leave, and Snoop does the same, so they both walk around the block in opposite directions.

By the time they both return, Superman’s picked up the clothes and taken them away, and Reilly and Snoop are both furious at each other for losing him. And that’s the last time that Siegel and Shuster worried much about what happens to Clark’s clothes, writing it off as a comedy premise that didn’t have much to offer in the more dramatic adventure stories to come.

That’s not to say that it never comes up, but it’s usually treated with a vague handwave, like in this panel from Superman #30 (Sept/Oct 1944), where Superman says, “Now to put on Clark Kent’s clothes, which I have hidden under my cape!” This doesn’t seem to mean anything in particular.

It’s in the mid-1950s that the writers started worrying about the stupid question, and they came up with an appropriately stupid answer. This panel is from a story in World’s Finest Comics #68 (Jan/Feb 1954) called “The Menace from the Stars!” which is either a comics adaptation of the TV show episode “Panic in the Sky” (Dec 1953) or it’s the other way around; they both came out at pretty much the same time, so maybe they’re adaptations of each other.

In the story, Superman’s lost his memory after colliding with an asteroid that’s heading for Earth. He wakes up outside a costume ball, and thinks that his supersuit is a costume. He looks around for identification, and thinks: “Hmm — this pocket in the cape… why, there’s a suit in it! Odd… But why not try it on? Better than wandering around in this get-up while waiting for my head to clear!”

So that is supposedly the answer, that the cape has a pouch in it where Superman is carrying around his civilian clothes, which I find irritatingly prosaic. While our hero is flying around in the clear blue, rescuing damsels and performing amazing feats, he’s got what is essentially a fanny-pack banging him in the butt, containing his glasses and house keys. It doesn’t bear thinking about.

Naturally, once you’ve started explaining something that shouldn’t be explained, you end up adding more details that make it worse; it’s midi-chlorians all the way down. This panel is from Action Comics #252 (May 1959) where the captions say, “Moments later, the shy reporter becomes Superman, Man of Steel! With one squeeze of his mighty fingers, he compresses Clark Kent’s resilient clothing and special fibre shoes into a compact ball! The next moment, Superman thrusts his compressed Clark Kent clothes into a secret pouch in the lining of his cape.”

And, I don’t know, am I the only person who finds this utterly depressing? Just thinking about Clark walking around all day in special fibre shoes and a compressible wristwatch makes me want to cry. What kind of life is that?

By the 1970s, the concept got embroidered even further, with the compressed clothes shrinking down to wafer-size, and in this story from Superman #296 (Feb 1976), he decides to store the “compressed little bundle” in his mouth.

The in-universe explanation for this strange behavior is that he’s going to meet Lois at karate class, where presumably he’ll have to take off his clothes and put on a karate gi, so he can’t wear the costume under his Clark clothes. But why he puts it in his mouth rather than his pocket like a normal lunatic is beyond me.

The story is about Superman temporarily losing his powers when he’s got his Clark Kent clothes on, and on his way to the karate class, he gets knocked unconscious by a car and taken to the hospital. When he wakes up, he’s wearing hospital clothes, and he needs to change into his Superman costume.

So I guess that’s why they decided to have him store the costume in his cheeks like a chipmunk, because he wakes up without his pants. “Accident or not, I’ve got to get out of here,” he thinks, “because I’m sure whatever’s really wrong with me is beyond the ability of medical science to cure! And my exit is in my mouth!”

Then the caption informs us, “It is the tiny compressed wafer of indestructible Superman costume that Clark takes out of his mouth, to puff up to normal size on contact with the outside air.” The reference to “outside air” making the costume grow to normal size makes me wonder if they’re trying to say that this isn’t an unusual case — that Clark Kent walks around all the time with his costume rolled up into a wafer that he keeps in his mouth.

This is such a monstrous idea that I would classify it as a hate crime against literature. It suggests that Clark has a saliva-soaked Superman costume that he spits out whenever he wants to change. “This looks like a job for Superman,” thinks Clark Kent, expectorating his soggy costume into the palm of his hand. There isn’t a Crisis big enough to wipe that out of continuity.

And so — given the opportunity to create the definitive version of this story, the #1 box-office sensation that will embody the collective cultural concept of “Superman” forever and ever — Richard Donner gives us the right answer to that very stupid question.

Clark Kent walks into a revolving door…

The door spins so fast that you can’t see him, like a magic portal…

and Superman walks out. Period.

Q: Where does Superman keep Clark Kent’s clothes when he changes into the costume?

A: It doesn’t matter. It’s magic.

This is how the trick works: The character wants to do something. The audience agrees. He does it. The audience is happy.

That’s how “the Force” works in Star Wars, and wizards in Harry Potter, and the sonic screwdriver in Doctor Who. It’s how boxing works in Rocky, and how shark hunting works in Jaws, and how driving works in The Fast and the Furious. It works because the result that we get is more interesting than anything else could possibly be.

There’s nothing wrong with having a magic costume. People like magic, when the magic thing makes the story more funny and sexy and thrilling. This is especially true when the alternative is that Superman keeps his shoes in his mouth.

Later on in the film, they go ahead and put a period at the end of that sentence, by having Clark dive out the window into free fall, and change into his Superman costume in midair. It’s cool. It’s romantic. It’s magic. Leave it alone.

The only Black character in the movie
1.55: The Bad Outfit

Movie list

— Danny Horn

10 thoughts on “Superman 1.54: The Stupid Question

  1. I remember how they explained it by having his civies soaked in a solution that allows them to be compressed, but ruins them if they’re not red, white, or blue.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. There are stupid questions like this all thru comix. Why are Hulk’s pants always purple? How does Invisible Woman’s costume disappear too? Why doesn’t Flash’s costume catch fire? And that’s just the clothing-related stuff.

    The answer is The Rule of Cool. If it’s cool enough, we won’t care how it works. But some goof will waste time worrying about it.

    The other day I mentioned “Superman 78.” There’s also “Batman 66,” which is just the same. Except it’s about Batman instead of Supes. And it’s set in 1966 instead of 1978. And it’s inspired by a TV show instead of a movie. But they’re both basically fanfic.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Thanks for mentioning this. I had no idea what you were talking about, but a quick search revealed Batman 66 did crossovers with The Avengers (the non-Marvel ones) and the Man From UNCLE! Fanfic indeed! I’ll have to chase those down. Batman, Steed and Mrs. Peel! The mind boggles!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I found it online–Hoopla through my library. Favorite scene–Catwoman complementing Mrs. Peel on her catsuit! I’m not sure they quite have the Emma character down but I thoroughly enjoyed it! If anyone is a fan of the old series–either of them–it’s a lot of fun.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. In the Earth-One era, DC Comics did have some fun showing The Flash’s compressed costume popping out of various things Barry Allen carried with him. It was drawn in such a way that it not only looked like it was wriggling around, but also so that you had to look at it twice before you thought “Hey, that’s the costume!” That was particularly apt for a panel in a comic book about The Flash, because it isolates a single instant in an extremely rapid process and freezes it for our examination, which is the whole idea of comic books about The Flash.

    Superman is at the opposite extreme from The Flash. Drawing Superman is not about separating one instant from a process of movement, but about suggesting a long series of movements all in one image. The movies tend to emphasize this aspect- it isn’t conventional for a motion picture to keep giving you freeze frames to study. Since the only relationship in the process of Superman stashing his costume is his relationship to the costume, an inanimate object over which he has total control, there isn’t much drama to be developed in any representation of that process.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I remember in the first season of the Wonder Woman series, they’d show her do the twirl and then toss her uniform behind some random item, presumably to come back for it later. They soon realized that everybody completely accepted the twirl being her extra-dimensional closet where she quick changes and dropped that part of it.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Obviously Donner’s Superman keeps his super-compressed costume under his anachronistic hat. …What? It’s not as bad as making it a horse pill, grant me that.


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