Meet the not-so-mild-mannered Clark Kent

John Romita Jr's cover for Superman #32 ... these days, the sequence could well be reversed, with Superman changing into a Clark Kent who's rushing off to do battle on the media's front lines.

John Romita Jr's cover for Superman #32 ... these days, the sequence could well be reversed, with Superman changing into a Clark Kent who's rushing off to do battle on the media's front lines.

Superman’s alter ego fights a never-ending battle of his own – for the future of journalism in Metropolis!

Thanks to the Superman radio and TV show intros, everybody knows that Clark Kent has always been “a mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper”. But ongoing events in DC Comics’ Superman have not only altered the status quo, they’ve raised a lot of issues about journalism ethics, today’s media... and Clark Kent himself.

Make no mistake: Superman writers have always meant for readers to consider Clark Kent a top-flight reporter, his mild manner notwithstanding.

Stories dating back to the character’s inception in 1938 have invariably referred to Kent as an “ace” or “star” reporter, whose byline is synonymous with “honesty and integrity” (Superman #98, 1955).

At the same time, he’s been meek to the point of embarrassment. That doesn’t make a lot of sense – how can you be a great reporter, and be afraid of your own shadow?

In 2011, DC Comics re-launched all its superhero characters, and in Superman’s case, began his story over again with young Clark Kent’s arrival in Metropolis.

One major change is that Clark Kent isn’t quite as mild-mannered as he used to be. In fact, he’s an aggressive and idealistic investigative reporter.

So while this new Kent is still a star reporter, the Superman-Clark dynamic has equalised. Today’s Clark Kent is just as much a hero as his caped alter-ego.

“In the early days, (Clark’s) newspaper job was more of a front for his crime-fighting activities,” said Steve Korte, librarian/archivist at DC Comics, in an interview. “It was a handy place for him to find out what was going on in the world in terms of crime. He could easily slip into his costume and fly away and do his Superman duties without arousing too much suspicion. And now, I think it’s probably gone the other way, to where the journalism is really important to him. He’s much more socially aware, perhaps. He probably values being a journalist more than in the early days.”

The new, assertive Clark Kent doesn’t allow Morgan Edge (CEO of the conglomerate that owns the Daily Planet) to push him around. In 2012, when Edge tried to force Kent into doing “infotainment” instead of hard news, the young reporter quit!

“Your job is what I say it is,” a browbeating Edge told Clark in the middle of the Planet newsroom. “The truth is ... if you can’t do that, Kent, I need to find someone who can.”

“You want a conversation about the truth, Mr Edge?” Kent retorted. “The truth is that somewhere along the way, the business of news became the news. Growing up in Smallville, I believed that journalism was an ideal, as worthy and important as being a cop, a fireman, a teacher or a doctor. I was taught to believe you could use words to change the course of rivers – that even the darkest secrets would fall under the harsh light of the sun. But facts have been replaced by opinions. Information has been replaced by entertainment. Reporters have become stenographers. I can’t be the only one who is sick at the thought of what passes for news. I am not the only who believes in the power of the press – the fact that we need to stand up for the truth. For justice. And yeah, I’m not ashamed to say, for the American way.”

I ran that speech by Dr Joseph Hayden, a journalism professor at the University of Memphis, who confirmed that these sentiments are familiar criticisms of media today. But, interestingly, he pointed out that it’s a debate that has roots older than bloggers, Twitter and cable news.

“Journalism was characterised early on by unapologetic opinions,” he said. “It was only until the end of the 19th century that a different ethos emerged (of objective reporting), and there have always been competing models: the ‘New Journalism’ of Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer and others.

“There are many other critiques here, too – complaints about entertainment, superficiality, docility. Those, too, have a long lineage. The mistaken assumption by many is that there was a golden age of journalism. That’s not true. Journalism – like any other genre of creative work – has always included great work and bad, the consequential and the trivial, gold and gunk.”

Edge was unimpressed by Kent’s speech, but one Planet staffer, gossip/fashion/celebrity writer Cat Grant, was inspired. She also quit, and talked Kent into a joint blog/website to do news the way he wants to. And broke the news that Superman and Wonder Woman are dating.

“Cat is pretty business-savvy,” Korte laughed. “I don’t think Clark is.”

Which is an interesting new status quo that DC could have milked indefinitely. Instead, two heavy hitters have arrived on the creative end and turned the board over.

Geoff Johns, DC’s chief creative officer, took over writing Superman about three months ago, and launched a new storyline entitled Men Of Tomorrow. Along with Johns came John Romita Jr, an A-list artist at Marvel Comics, doing his first work at DC.

Men Of Tomorrow is progressing faster than a speeding bullet, with a number of other lingering questions to resolve, most of which involve Clark Kent.

Will he win the ethics argument with Morgan Edge? Will he return the Daily Planet to its glory days? Will he, in short, save journalism in the DC Universe?

“He is certainly going to try,” Korte said.

Now that’s a superhero. And he doesn’t even need a cape. — McClatchy-Tribune Information Services