Superman 1.75: The Other Stupid Question

He lied to her. He came all the way across a thousand galaxies, just to lie to her.

He gave her a false name. He insinuated his way into her life. He became a co-worker, a friend. She trusted him. She confided in him. He was the person that knew her better than anyone else, the man who could see right through her.

And he lied to her.

They traveled together. They solved mysteries together. They survived a thousand hair-raising adventures together, one life-threatening, heart-stopping moment after another.

He used his super-ventriloquism, to make her think that he was in two places at once. He used his heat vision, to destroy the telltale evidence that would have confirmed her suspicions. He created dreams and hoaxes and imaginary stories, to confuse and distract her. He even invented a fucking robot duplicate of himself, specifically in order to keep his secret from specifically her. She trusted him, and he lied to her, and he did it for decades. And he thought it was funny.

So now, you want to ask why Lois Lane is so stupid that she never recognized the truth that Superman did everything possible to conceal from her?

We’ve arrived at a tricky moment in Superman: The Movie — the end of Act 2, when the film stops being a romantic comedy, and becomes an action-adventure story. For the last 46 minutes, since Clark’s arrival in Metropolis, the movie has mostly been concerned with the Clark/Lois/Superman love triangle. Sure, there have been periodic intrusions by Luthor and his gang, but they’ve been kept discreetly away from the main storyline — an undercurrent, rather than a subplot.

Superman and Lois are just wrapping up the interview/love scene/musical number, a twelve-minute long sequence where the world stops turning, and nothing matters besides watching these two kids fall in love — and once it’s over, Superman and Lois don’t appear in a scene together for another 35 minutes. It’s the movie’s big structural flaw, that it spends so much time building Lois up, and then leaves her out in the desert somewhere while the plot points happen to other people.

This is our next-to-last chance to see Superman and Lois together, and it ends with something special — the man transforming from Clark into Superman and back again, before our eyes.

And it’s wonderful, a clever one-take special-effects sequence that’s accomplished entirely through glasses, tone of voice and posture. Clark straightens up, squares his shoulders, and calls out to Lois in a clear, strong voice that he has something important to tell her — and then he loses his nerve, and shrinks back into the guise and garb of Clark Kent, all sloping shoulders and nervous mannerisms.

People get a little over-excited about this scene — it’s acting, it’s not like Christopher Reeve invented the idea of playing different characters — but it’s a nice moment that lends some credence to the premise that Lois might not recognize that she’s about to go to dinner with the same guy that just flew off her balcony sixty seconds ago.

But that question — why doesn’t she recognize him? — is another one of those stupid questions, like “Where does his cape go when he’s dressed up like Clark Kent?”, which is a part of the premise that you just need to accept in order to enjoy having stories about Superman in your life.

The fact is that Siegel and Shuster set up this ludicrous premise with no interest whatever in whether it made logical sense or not. They were producing a silly adventure comic about an extraterrestrial roughneck who laughed at bullets and pulled planes out of the sky. Verisimilitude was not an issue.

America fell in love with this man and this woman almost instantly, before we even knew what we were falling in love with. The audience didn’t expect superhero comics to make logical and emotional sense, because before this, there were no superhero comics to have any expectations about. Lois hated Clark and loved Superman as of page ten of Action Comics #1; it was an established fact before anybody even had time to wonder about it.

To the extent that anyone cared in the first few years, the double-identity problems were handled using the Where’s Clark gambit, as seen in the above two panels, both from the same story in Superman #12.

The Where’s Clark gambit relies on the pace of the story being so frenetic that any skepticism is left in the gutters between panels. Lois asks “Where’s Clark?” and Superman answers, “No time to answer questions!” or “I’ve already attended to him!” And then in the next panel, he smashes his way through a door and starts breaking furniture, like he always does. Nobody has time to wonder why Lois doesn’t recognize Clark, because Superman is punching people, and then the story’s over.

By 1942, they realized that Lois almost seeing through Clark’s disguise was a story-productive idea, and they made a huge deal about it in Superman #17.

The story’s called “Man or Superman?” and it begins with this quite stunning splash page of a wondering Lois, surrounded by a couple dozen question marks.

The problem begins with a typically reckless mistake on Clark’s part. He and Lois are getting on a subway train when he spots a missing piece of subway track, far down the tunnel. He changes into Superman and rushes in front of the train, halting it before it reaches the broken rail.

Once he fixes the problem, he’s so eager to call in the scoop that he rushes to a pay phone. When Lois arrives on the platform, she tries to call in the story, too — and finds that Clark’s already reported it. When she asks how he was able to call in the story so quickly, his response is “News like that travels fast,” which is lame, even for him.

The next day, Clark’s got another story, this one about Superman fighting an evil subway saboteur called the Talon. “Another scoop by Clark Kent!” Lois wonders. “That settles it! I’m going to find out once and for all if Clark is Superman or not!”

Lois’ plan is to publish a story announcing that she personally knows everything about the Talon’s activities, in order to get herself kidnapped and placed in immediate danger — with Clark right next to her.

“You see, Clark,” she says, “I have more than a slight suspicion that you may be Superman! All I’ve got to do is get into trouble, and if you expose yourself as Superman, I’ve got you where I want you!”

The scheme is a roaring success, naturally, and three panels later, she’s in the clutches of the Talon, just like she was hoping for.

“For a girl who is in serious danger, you appear singularly unconcerned,” the villain notes, and Lois chirps, “Why should I worry, when Superman has made it his full-time activity to look after helpless me?”

You wouldn’t think they’d be producing self-aware material like this in 1942, but here we are: Lois Lane has figured out how her comic book works, and now she’s actively trying to break the premise, from the inside.

It’s a historic moment for the characters, and I wish that I could tell you the clever way that Superman resolves the situation, but unfortunately it’s not very clever at all. The villain leaves Clark and Lois in a bare room, with Lois inside some crazy glass death pendulum and Clark on the ground with his hands tied.

“What to do?” he wonders. “I’m in Lois’ complete view! If I act as Superman she’s sure to see me! — or will she??”

And then she doesn’t, I guess. He just moves at super-speed, so she doesn’t have time to see what’s going on. The narrator explains, “Swooping hands snatch up old rags, pad his civilian garments with amazing speed…” although where the old rags came from I have no idea.

“So that in less time than the fraction of an instant,” the story continues, “a dummy-figure, hat well down, slouches against the take where Clark had been…”

He rescues Lois in his Superman uniform, and then…

… just as she’s turning around, he pulls the rags out of his clothes, dresses up in his suit and tie, and lies on the ground and pretends to be Clark again.

And she believes it, incredibly, despite the fact that this is exactly the kind of thing that she was suspicious about. She and Clark are tied up in a room — Superman suddenly appears with no warning, and sets them free — and in the twinkling of an eye, Superman is gone again.

There’s no way that Superman could have known exactly where she was just at the very second that she needed him, and he didn’t bust through a door or a window to get into this room, and out of it again. He’s just there, momentarily, and then he’s not there anymore, and luckily she stops asking questions at that point, because where are we going to get another pile of old rags, at this time of day?

Naturally, you can’t pull stunts like that for more than a decade or two before people start thinking that it’s odd. By the time they reached the Silver Age in the late 1950s to mid 60s, the Superman crew were regularly publishing shock-covers that promised startling changes to the status quo.

This is my favorite example, from March 1966’s Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane #63. On the cover, Superman storms out of the stock room to startle Lois and Lana, tearing off his glasses and shouting, “I’ll tell you why I’ll never marry you, Lana, or you, Lois! Who wants a wife so stupid she doesn’t realize I’m Superman when I take off my Clark Kent glasses?”

“Could Superman’s ‘Clark Kent’ disguise fool you…” the cover blurb challenges, “all of the time… or even some of the time? So how can he keep on fooling the world? Here is the story we have NEVER DARED PUBLISH BEFORE!”

Naturally, the story inside does not deliver on that promise in even the tiniest way. It’s a thoroughly wackadoodle tale about an evil anti-Superman cult where everybody dresses up like glowing skeletons, and make detailed wax figurines of Superman’s friends, just like every Silver Age story ever written, except more confusing.

To justify the cover, there’s a panel where Superman bursts out of the stock room and reveals his identity, which goes nowhere.

“It’s typical of your hair-brained schemes!” Superman shouts, chastising Lois and Lana for stuff that isn’t their fault. “You just don’t think — which is why I’ll never marry either of you! Who wants a wife so dumb she doesn’t realize I’m Superman when I take off my Clark Kent glasses?”

“Nonsense!” Lana protests. “You know we’ve often suspected you’re really Clark!”

“Only because of the physical resemblance,” he retorts. “But appearances can be deceiving! You see, Kent isn’t Superman… and neither am I!

And then he whisks off both his glasses and his mask, and it’s actually Van Benson, who’s filling in temporarily as the editor of the Daily Planet because Perry White has been temporarily appointed to the U.S. Senate.

Benson reveals that he’s not actually a newspaper editor — he’s a master of disguise, who’s currently working for the FBI in order to infiltrate the anti-Superman skeleton cult. Everyone is so delighted by his Superman practical joke that he spends the next couple pages showing off his disguise skills, making Lana look like Elizabeth Taylor in a matter of seconds.

The whole thing is so screwy that everybody stops paying attention to the fact that Benson was just saying that Superman and Clark are obviously the same person. The answer “No time to answer questions!” actually looks pretty reasonable, compared to this.

But in 1978 — with an exciting live-action Superman movie about to hit the screens — the Superman comics finally decided to come up with a stupid answer to this stupid question, revealing to the public how he actually tricks people into not recognizing him as Clark Kent. But that’s a whole other story, and I’ve got a new superhero movie to go and see.

So I’m going to leave you in suspense for the weekend, while I write about Spider-Man: No Way Home, and I’ll come back on Monday to tell you all about the brilliant and entirely unsatisfying solution to this decades-old problem.

This weekend:
A special post about Spider-Man: No Way Home!
93.1: The Big Deal

Chapters

— Danny Horn

13 thoughts on “Superman 1.75: The Other Stupid Question

  1. He thought it was funny?
    I never thought that. That would just make him a jerk.
    Superman may not even realize himself why it matters so much that Lois not find out his secret identity. Obviously, the fewer people who know, the safer it is for his mom. If villains knew Superman was Clark Kent, Ma might be a target. Maybe he worried that the same thing might happen if Superman dated Lois. No one would care if Lois dated Clark. (Well, maybe The Daily Planet HR Department.) He had lost so many people in his young life–his whole family and his adopted father. He wouldn’t want to put Lois at greater risk than she regularly put herself. Plus, Lois inadvertently reveals his inability to see through lead to the world, so maybe he has a point in not telling her who he is.
    But maybe there was more to it. He wanted to be loved as a man, not a god. He wanted love, not worship. He wanted Lois to look beyond Superman. The fact that she can’t see that Clark is Superman shows she’s not ready. Clark was a test to see if he could be loved as a deliberately ordinary guy. The fact that he makes Clark SO undesirable may show that he’s not ready yet, either.
    Omg, I’m talking about Superman and Lois as if they have deep character motivations!

    Hidden identities are a large part of “My Man Godfrey”, “Tovarich” and “Sullivan’s Travels”, all screwball comedies. This is the end of that phase of the movie, unfortunately.

    But Spiderman! Cool.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Oops. Spider-Man, not Spiderman. I read the newspaper comic as a kid and I never realized it was spelled with a hyphen. I guess Lois isn’t the only one who’s unobservant and can’t spell.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. This is a problem in any serial narrative. In a regular story, you build tension, resolve it, The End. In a comic, you have to find a new, better source of tension.

    With “Superman,” though, there isn’t much of anywhere to go. A secret identity is an endless source of drama. The basic issue of identity is a gold mine; Shakespeare had plenty of imposters and masks and crossed wires.

    They finally let Clark and Lois marry, which ruined everything. They let Spider-Man marry, and it was such a bad idea, they had the devil rewrite history to unmarry him.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, will they-won’t they is much more of a hook. I noticed as a kid that when the characters got married on tv shows, it meant the end of the series was near (“I Dream of Jeannie” and “Get Smart” for examples.)

      Liked by 2 people

  3. The second characters get together it’s a death knell. The only way it works if if they’re married or an established couple from the get go.

    Even Superman: The Movie, couldn’t resolve the whole “Lois can’t see what’s right in front of her” and had to leave her out of the climax of the film!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. “…I’ll come back on Monday to tell you all about the brilliant and entirely unsatisfying solution to this decades-old problem.”

    It’s that stupid story about the glasses, isn’t it? I think Elliot Maggin wrote that one and it was bad even by his abysmal standards.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I think the comic book panels you’ve included in the post show why this stupid question is of a different order than the stupid question about what Supey does with his Clark Kent clothes when he’s in his outfit.

    The key to a successful Superman comic is constant movement. Each still image has to suggest a whole package of motions leading up to it and away from it. The question, “What does The Flash do with his secret identity clothes when he’s in costume?” opened the way to some interesting visuals, because his stories are all about time-slice imagery, where we freeze on a single instant within an extremely rapid process. But in a Superman story everything is moving all the time, and the readers are filling in the steps for any number of processes in every panel, so “Changing Clothes” is a story you tell with one detail in a panel where several other stories, all of them more interesting, are also being told.

    Lois trying to figure out whether Superman and Clark Kent are different people is an interesting story. A comic book centering on it is successful if it’s made up of images like those of Van Benson above. An investigator who stopped for a moment and thought about the question would immediately be overwhelmed by the evidence that Supey and Clark are one and the same. But people who stop for a moment have no place in a Superman comic. Everything is always happening all at once. So, while a “Where does Superman keep his Clark Kent clothes when he’s in costume?” story is a guaranteed dead duck, a “Lois investigates Superman’s secret identity” story builds in a test for its own worthiness.

    Liked by 1 person

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