Saturday, 21 August 2010

Superman's Secret Identity: In Defense of Those Glasses!

Superman #330 art by Curt Swan and Frank Chiaramonte

Fellow blogger and internet chum X-Man75 has written a great post on his blog discussing which cities of the DC and Marvel Universe contain the dumbest residents.  He argues that the residents of Metropolis must be among the dumbest, particularly the journalists of the Daily Planet and Lex Luthor, because of their failure to recognise Superman and Clark Kent as one and the same.  After all, how can a pair of glasses make you look like a different person?  This is one of the main observations that most people have made regarding Superman over the years, it is however one I would dispute.  In fact I would go as far as to say that pulling off such a disguise successfully would be perfectly possible in real life.

DC Comics have attempted to explain away the apparent flimsiness of Superman's disguise on a number of occasions.  Lois Lane's attempts to confirm her suspicions regarding Clark's secret were a staple of Superman's Silver Age adventures.  Perhaps this was the writer's way of saying "Look, she at least suspects, she's not a complete idiot!"  By the end of each story however Superman had put Lois' suspicions to rest (at least for another month) usually through the aid of a Superman robot.  Sometimes Batman put her off the scent by wearing a rubber Superman mask, which he of course wore over his own bat-eared mask.  In Action Comics #597 (1988) Ma and Pa Kent confronted Lois' suspicions by telling her that they raised both Clark and Superman at the same time.  Frankly I find it easier to believe that Lois would be fooled by Batman's magic chin putty than by the Kents' unlikely tale.

Action Comics #650 art by Curt Swan

What about Lex Luthor?  Why would the cleverest man on the planet be taken in by a pair of glasses.  John Byrne gave us the definitive answer to this in 1987 in Superman #2.  Lex built a super computer and hired a team of scientists to work out the secrets of the Man of Steel.  The computer's conclusion was one simple sentence.  Clark Kent is Superman.  Lex refused to believe it.  Apparently Lex is such an arrogant bastard that he refuses to believe that a man with such power would want to pose as as a mere mortal. Grant Morrison took this one step further in All Star Superman.  During this series Clark actually takes his glasses off and shouts in Lex's face.  Lex is so blinded by arrogance that he literally can't see what's right in front of him.  Amusingly this series also contains a scene in which Clark reveals his secret identity to Lois and she also refuses to believe that meek, clumsy Clark could be the super-man of her dreams.

All Star Superman #5 art by Frank Quietly

Possibly the least satisfying explanation for the success of Clark's disguise came in 1978, in Superman #330.  In this issue it's revealed that Clark is unwittingly hypnotising everyone he meets to see him as a skinny wimp whenever he wears his glasses.  This effect also works on photographs of Clark and assumably on Batman's latex rubber Clark Kent masks.  The hypnotic effect lingers for awhile, even when Superman loses his powers.  I find the notion that someone as powerful as Superman is wandering around messing with everyone's perception of reality without even realising he's doing it quite disturbing.  Even in that really dodgy bit in Superman II when Superman hypnotises Lois into forgetting they'd had sex, Superman is at least in control and responsible for his actions.  But in the comics Superman could accidentally lobotimise you just by putting his glasses on!  Unsurprisingly this aspect of the Superman myth has been completely ignored over the years. 

Superman #330 art by Curt Swan and Frank Chiaramonte

In my opinion all this apologising DC Comics have done over the years for the glasses disguise is completely uneccessary.  I have no problem accepting that a man could disguise himself from even those closest to him simply by wearing his hair different, changing his posture, body language and voice and putting on a pair of glasses.

Let's put it this way.  Imagine you worked with me in a London office.  Imagine I looked exactly like Prince William except I had a beard.  You may have noticed these similarities when observing pictures of him in the press.  You may have met William on several occasions and noticed these similarities up close and in person.  You may even have noticed that I've never been around during all the royal visits the young Prince has made to our hypothetical office.  But would you really seriously consider it likely that the heir to the British throne puts on a fake beard and comes into work every day and inputs data into spreadsheets and drinks his coffee white with no sugars and has a crush on the office temp and discusses last night's episode of Doctor Who with you over his lunch of marmite sandwiches and so on and so on.  Of course you wouldn't!  Why would Prince William do that?! Why would anyone?!  Now take this hypothetical scenario and replace me with Clark Kent and Prince William with Superman.  See what I'm getting at?

Just for the record, I don't look like Prince William and I don't work in an office.

This post is ultimately unneccessary however.  The most compelling defense of Superman's secret identity has already been argued successfully by one man.  Christopher Reeve, with his brilliant performance as Clark Kent/Superman in the Superman movies.  Take for example the scene in the first movie where Clark almost reveals his secret to Lois, or the scene in Superman II where Clark actually does reveal his secret to her.  Reeve doesn't just take his glasses off (Dean Cain please take note).  He takes off the glasses, broadens his shoulders, deepens his voice and seems to grow a foot in height!  If I was working alongside Reeve's Clark I'm confident that I'd be living in complete ignorance of his double life.

Christopher Reeve- Better than Dean Cain

So what do you think?  Never mind 'You will believe a man can fly'.  Have I convinced you that a man can fool the world with a pair of glasses?  Or am I letting my love of the character blind me to the bleedin' obvious, much like Lex Luthor's hatred and arrogance blinds him?  Leave a comment and let me know your opinion.


  1. Fantastic post Paul, I've always been an advocate of Clark changing his voice and posture and stuff so he and Supes don't look alike. And I'd accept that Lex is so blinded he doesn't know, but guys like Perry White should definitely know, hell he's been around the block. I'd say Perry, like Commish Gordon know but choose not to acknowledge it.

    I loved the Prince William scenario because it's so true, and the way you described it so deep made it even better because you would NEVER think, "Hey, that's Prince William." All in all, I'd have to say this was a great article that could sway most Superman-haters.

    I do have to ask though, since you're not a Dean Cain fan, have you ever watched Smallville and if so, how do you feel about Tom Welling?

  2. Thanks for checking it out dude. I agree, I reckon Perry White knows but won't admit it, perhaps not even to himself.

    While I'm not a fan of Dean Cain's portrayal of Superman I can totally see what they were trying to do with the whole "Clark is the real personality, Superman is the disguise" thing. And I still enjoy it when it's on because, hey, it's Superman.

    As for Smallville I'm afraid I watched all of Season One when it was first on but kinda dismissed it as a Buffy rip off and didn't really make much effort to keep up with it. I thought Welling was great though and would love to see him in costume. I thought Luthor was a great character too, I just thought the stories were a bit crap. It does seem to have got more interesting since then though, what with the J.S.A and Legion turning up, so I'll probably end up renting the box sets or something once it's finished for good. After all, it's Superman.

  3. Nicely done Paul! You have officially given me a newfound respect for the citizens of Metropolis. The Lex Luthor thing does ring true, especially considering Lex's arrogance. But you won me over with your Prince William example. Once I read that I was like, "You know what? That makes PERFECT sense!" Why WOULD Superman bother working as a reporter in disguise? I mean, he's SUPERMAN for crying out loud, why bother being regular old Clark Kent? The citizens of the DCU know he's an alien, so I'm sure they'd believe he was living in a UFO that circled the planet or something like that.

    And for the record you mentioning Batman wearing the fake Superman mask OVER his own Batman mask made me crack up laughing because that's one of my favorite comic pet peeves. Batman has been guilty of that on several occasions, but my personal favorite was when Hawkeye pulled that stunt on Captain America in an issue of Captain America in the 1970's. I could never figure out why Hawkeye would be wearing his mask under a fake face to prank Cap, especially since Cap would have recognized Hawkeye's alter-ego, making the Hawkeye mask totally unnecessary!

  4. Great post Paul, and sorry to arrive a bit late to the party! You bring up a ton of good points here, as well as a lot of information I didn't know (the bit about Ma and Pa Kent claiming they raised Clark and Superboy together is hilarious!).

    I think the dual identity aspect of the character is entirely believable. There are enough crappy high school movies about the bland, nerdy girl becoming the unbelievably hot prom queen to give the idea some precedent in fiction, and enough makeover shows to show that it can happen in real life. And can you really blame Lois for not figuring it out when Superman is constantly messing with her mind with robot replicas and whatnot?

  5. Great argument for the glasses disguise! I'm sold on it.

  6. I actually think what would give Superman away is not his appearance, but the fact that Superman/Justice League events follow Kent around like a hurricane. And because the guy has survived a million explosions and whatnot.

    Once you see Kent as the locus of super-powered madness of the highest scale on Earth THEN his appearance becomes suspicious. You might think he was related - but everyone knows Superman is an alien. So, Kent is either Superman or a person with Superman's powers.