NBC Opinion Writer Says Superman’s Secret Identity is Outdated

 

A writer at NBC’s site came up with a laughable article tilted in Brian Bendis’ favor with a headline declaring “Superman’s comic book reveal proves anonymity is impossible — even in fiction, and “Not only are phone booths a thing of the past, but social media means that a secret identity no longer belongs in the Superman universe.” which only proves they clearly believe surrealism and suspension of disbelief bear no validity for entertainment purposes:

 

No more phone booths needed. Superman is coming out of the secret identity closet.

Excuse me? I’ve read at least a few Superman stories where he changed into costume in alleyways and closed rooms, among other privacy-affording places, that didn’t qualify as phone booths, and yes, that could include closets. Why, did it ever occur to this buffoon most phone booths comprise clear glass or plastic, which hardly provides much secrecy? I even recall a story from the premiere issue of the 2nd sans-adjective series in 1987 where Superman, though his speed isn’t usually categorized as being on the level the Flash has, changed into his civilian garb while landing in the city from the sky on his way to meet Lois Lane for jogging. The whole notion Superman or any other hero with a secret ID would only rely on public phone booths for changing in and out of their costumes is hilariously shallow. Especially in an era where phone booths have all but vanished. Here in Israel, as cellphones became more common at the turn of the century, many payphone stands were removed, and those that still remain are largely inoperable, or dead altogether and vandalized. No doubt, it’s the same situation in the USA, Europe, Africa and Asia. But that doesn’t mean superheroes who keep their identities secret can’t find other means of changing in and out of their costumes. Even a thick forest might do, where they can stand behind a tall tree.

 

In Superman issue #18 out Wednesday, the last Son of Krypton will finally reveal to the world that he and Daily Planet reporter Clark Kent are one and the same. While he has been outed in past, mostly self-contained storylines— usually with a plot twist to fool people or in a “What if?” scenario — this will be a permanent decision splashing big ripples across the DC Comics cosmos.

While the move couldn’t come soon enough from the perspective of the changed telecommunications landscape, the development still raises the question of why DC Comics is making this radical move, and making it now. It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s a gimmick!

Employing such a device puts history’s most famous comic book hero in danger of alienating a diehard fan base for a fleeting bit of attention to draw in new, younger readers. But that doesn’t mean it’s the wrong storyline.

Not only are phone booths a thing of the past, but the whole concept of anonymity in the age of social media has morphed into something that no longer belongs in the Superman universe. And it doesn’t hurt that the dramatic decision could cause a stir and boost the audience of a franchise that Warner Bros. seems to feel is not relevant to modern movie audiences. (A new Superman series is also coming to the CW; perhaps they will test a new approach there as well.)

 

Oh, and I guess it doesn’t belong in the Marvel universe either, right? Next thing you know, they’ll say it’s wrong to employ magic a la the most famous magicians in any universe like Dr. Fate and Dr. Strange to erase everybody’s memories of who the superheroes really are, but not for cynical, offensive purposes like erasing Spider-Man’s marriage to Mary Jane Watson. They’re right though, that WB considers Superman inferior to Batman, who, lest we forget, has his own secret ID to maintain as Bruce Wayne (though as hinted along the way, he might shed it too), yet this article is unofficially declaring it no longer belongs in Batman’s universe either. I guess it doesn’t matter to them if this results in cynical stories where Lex Luthor and the Joker track down these 2 stalwarts with ways to slay both them and their girlfriends/spouses, does it? It won’t boost the audience, and the only stir this’ll cause is one where dedicated fans conclude Dan DiDio dried up the creative wellspring for the sake of publicity stunts. And again, the writer, for somebody preaching the usual forced and contrived insistence on realism at all costs, won’t even admit no hero has to change in a phone booth. But then, what can you expect from people who’d doubtless omit any of and all the times Superman was depicted as vulnerable to magical energies, and pretend Kryptonite was his only weakness?

 

If they do believe secret IDs no longer apply, any chance though they’re willing to admit Geoff Johns’ contrived reversion to the idea in the Flash back in 2003 only hurt the series in the long run?

 

Shipped units of the best-selling comic in any month usually top out in the 150-160K range, with Top 20 titles generally falling in the 50-120K range. But when the Man of Steel and his costumed ilk have taken bold stops, it has often boosted sales considerably. The 1992 plotline on the “Death of Superman,” which spanned four Superman comic book titles, culminated in 6 million copies of Superman #75 being sold. The whole storyline was compiled into a graphic novel of the same name. (Supes was later resurrected, but the story remains iconic and beloved.)

 

Not if you consider some of the uglier elements popping up in the connecting storylines, like the setup for Emerald Twilight, and Hal Jordan’s transformation from a Green Lantern to a murderous entity called Parallax. Obviously, the columnist never read it, or he doesn’t give a damn about Hal Jordan. And what are the odds a lot of those Superman #75 issues gathered dust in boxes, much like the premiere of the sans-adjective X-Men in 1991?

 

Similarly, the anticipated wedding of Batman and Catwoman in Batman #50 last year led to shipments of 440,000 copies which was basically quadruple those of issues and after it. (Their pending nuptials were called off at the end of the issue.) DC recently rebooted its whole comics universe twice — with The New 52 line in 2011 and then DC Rebirth in 2016 – both generating short-term sales boosts, although not at ’80s or ’90s levels. (Fan reaction was decidedly mixed.)

 

I think it was far more negative. But if sale results are only short-term, isn’t that disappointing? The failure to admit touting Superman’s death for the sake of publicity and to supposedly keep the Big Blue Boy Scout relevant causes long term harm and eroding interest is another huge mistake in history coverage.

 

And therein lies the risk. The payoff can be big, but it can also be a turnoff for the Gen X and Boomer readers that form a big part of comic book fandom and who are viewed as resistant to changes to beloved icons. And lower superhero sales overall these days indicate that perhaps younger acolytes aren’t as enthusiastic about superhero tales as their predecessors.

 

 

 

And that’s because of the higher echelons who successfully alienated the masses, including – but not limited to – the unbearable Dan DiDio and Joe Quesada. They churned out tons of badly written stories by overrated writers with no respect or feel for the material, swamped the stands with company wide crossovers, and tons of stories serving as left-wing political metaphors with noxious attacks on right-wingers. This is exactly why manga’s long overtaken them in popularity, and unlike corporate-owned superhero properties, many manga stories are owned by their very creators, and don’t belong to a wider universe.

 

But the author of Wednesday’s Superman edition, Brian Michael Bendis, thinks the plot move is far from contrived and in fact a necessary evolution regardless of audience reaction.

A major scribe in modern comics who jumped ship from rival Marvel Comics two years to join DC and write the Superman series, Bendis is excited about the character’s big reveal. He says that the idea was carefully discussed and crafted through the Superman and DC editorial teams, including his writer friends (and fellow Eisner Award winners) Greg Rucka and Matt Fraction, and even vetted with some readers.

 

I’m sure they chose their “audience” carefully for vetting, so it would be tilted to serve their direction. As for Rucka and Fraction, the latter a leftist himself, it’s all been told already what they’re like, and why they don’t belong.

 

 

“I expressed that this is a story about Clark owning his stuff,” Bendis told me. “You literally have been looking at Clark accidentally revealing his identity [since the beginning]. It’s the biggest cliché in comics and was getting bigger and bigger with every year that Superman evolved.”

Bendis pointed out that culture — and the idea of secret identities — has advanced since Superman’s creation. “I inherited a father and a husband and someone much more locked into their world than the young Clark who joined the Daily Planet and was trying to figure out his world all by himself, the lone immigrant refugee,” noted Bendis.

 

No mention of the insulting way he tried writing the Super-son out of the script recently, I see. He doesn’t even appreciate that, unlike various other superheroes to follow who wore masks and cowls, Superman was somewhat the opposite, going unmasked in costume, and wearing glasses in his civilian guise. Even Supergirl had a similar approach, and when Kara Zor-El debuted in 1959, she wore a dark-colored wig at times over her blonde hair, which was like the Black Canary in reverse.

Say, and I wonder if Bendis is regurgitating that recent liberal propaganda about Superman being an “immigrant” for the sake of undermining the fight against illegal immigration, and hijacking a famous creation to suit an agenda? That Bendis does use the word “refugee”, which makes sense in terms of Kal-El being from a destroyed planet, is no alleviation.

 

The issue of anonymity in 2019 is also quite relevant. There is a scene in Superman #17 where Lois Lane flies into the night with Superman from the balcony of the apartment she shares with her husband Clark Kent. In our era of surveillance and ubiquitous cell phones, one would imagine that somebody would have seen them together at some point. And wondered what those two were up to.

Well gee, you could make the same argument about Spider-Man and Daredevil: the latter lived in a fancy penthouse via his laywer’s salary, sometimes heading out through a sunroof window swinging on his gimmicked walking cane, and the former’s lived in various houses and apartments in NYC, and would leap out through the windows shooting his webbing for ropes to swing on and sticking to walls along the way. Somebody’s bound to have seen them and recorded their flight paths to boot. Maybe even spotted Spidey with Mary Jane! So what’s the point? Consider that undercover investigations and witness protection programs by the FBI involve forms of anonymity, protected under law, so it’s not like anonymity is literally a past tense. This whole “argument” by the NBC writer is just the product of somebody who can’t suspend his disbelief and appreciate surrealism. He doesn’t consider that as far back as the 1960s and 1970s, there were already hand-held video cameras in development, and the earliest models went commercial more than 40 years ago. Sure, the internet was far from as developed as it is today, but even if it were, does that mean we can’t suspend our disbelief so long as the finished product is entertaining? If there’s something today’s pseudo-pundits fail to do, it’s convince everyone they can put aside reality and just enjoy a story so long as the merit is there. This piece is no different.

 

This is not the first time that Bendis has unveiled a hero’s secret identity. Under his creative auspices, Daredevil’s alter ego of blind attorney Matt Murdock was revealed to the world in early 2002 (albeit against the superhero’s will). Bendis stresses that that plot point was not a quickly reversed gimmick and guided the comic for 15 years, even after he stopped working on it.

 

Now that it’s been reversed, through the usual magic conceptions and such, how does he feel about it?

 

Beyond shedding a classic comic contrivance — one that has suspended our disbelief for decades — the disclosure also raises the issue of how other DC superheroes and their secret identities could be affected.

“With the [new] Superman reveal came everyone’s question: ‘What does Batman do?’” enthused Bendis. “Isn’t it exciting, after 80 years of publishing, you literally don’t know what Batman is going to do?”

 

Wait a minute. Here the writer was preaching an impossibility to put suspension of disbelief aside in fiction, now he’s admitting it was possible for decades?!? Well gee whiz, what’s his problem then? But again, this indeed raises excellent questions what’ll be done with any Flash who still keeps a secret ID. If Wally West’s exonerated by the end of Flash Forward (and the characters killed in Heroes in Crisis are resurrected), will he go back to living without one? And, if Barry Allen, pointlessly resurrected in 2009, retains one, will it be shed? This is a most definitely good question what’ll happen with the DCU entire, though with Bendis as the “guiding hand”, that’s why it won’t work on an artistic level, and under him, it’s not “exciting” what Batman will do either. Nor is it a surprise Bendis remains blatant:

 

Bendis doesn’t fear turning off old readers — and dismisses the notion that the younger generation isn’t as interested in comics. Indeed, this is one of the greatest times in comic reader history because it is probably the most diverse in terms of titles and subject matter. Overall comic book sales are up, mainly from the graphic novel market for children and young adults.

 

And if they weren’t interested in superhero comics before, there’s no chance they’ll be now. No consideration is given to how even today’s populace has people who find older superhero material far better written than today’s, and had no problem with how the older stories were written so long as there was entertainment value to be found. Nor is there any consideration that most of the recent non-superhero comics published, young adult or not, are finding more audience because they’re not flooded with company wide crossovers and selective, favoratist editorial mandates that make it impossible to tell what could be a tasteful story devoid of blatant leftist politics. The continued reliance on pamphlets amounting to 4-plus dollars is another letdown.

 

But current superhero sales specifically are slumping, and DC execs have pointed to the glut of new books coming out from many different publishers. The future then, as Bendis implies, will lie with those younger disciples rising up the ranks with fresh ideas.

 

Which they should not give to the Big Two, so long as Dan DiDio and Joe Quesada remain, and so long as they’re conglomerate property. And the defense laid out by DiDio and Jim Lee that competition is wider doesn’t excuse the poor artistic merit in their modern output.

 

At 52 years old, Bendis has lived through all the big comic book events since the 1980s, as well as the cinematic boom of the 21st century. He recalls hearing how fans were sick of crossover events like DC’s 52-issue “Final Crisis” (2007-8) and Marvel’s “Secret Invasion” (2008-9) spanning 100-plus issues, the latter penned by Bendis. He also remembers how eight years ago, some people thought superhero movies were over. Cue “Avengers: Endgame” and a $2 billion-plus global gross in 2019.

Superman coming clean is not being billed as a crossover to multiple comic book titles or part of a bigger reboot. For Bendis, narrative and character are the essential elements for keeping fans reading new stories, and he sees the unmasking of Superman squarely as a character-driven storyline. These days, many fans grouse when gimmicks trump quality narratives.

 

Not all of the worst storylines from the past 20-30 years were part of crossovers. I need only think of the horrific direction taken with Green Lantern when Action Comics went weekly during 1988-89 as an example, which led nowhere but disaster. I’ve even had to conclude much of the 3rd Gl volume and 2 spinoffs written mainly by the now disgraced Gerard Jones during 1990-93 was also very appalling, and did little to fix any of that damage. So why should we expect Bendis, after all the most cynical stories he’s ever written, to be any better? Besides, lest we forget, Bendis participated in Marvel’s crossovers, and don’t be surprised if he’ll take part in any more DC’s planning in the future. Yet as bad as company wide crossovers can be, they don’t hold a monopoly on bad storytelling. And his approach to writing is anything but character driven.

 

“What I have learned is the story always wins,” Bendis asserted. “If the story is of value, if it’s honest, if the creators are coming from a great place, it always rises to the occasion because what people want is the real thing. What they don’t want is tricks.”

 

What they don’t want is disrespect for the cast of characters and what made them work to start with. It’s funny how scribes who go out of their way to do nasty things to heroines like Scarlet Witch and Tigra for cheap sensationalism are the ones to make seemingly valid arguments, and all the while, the interviewer does nothing to challenge them on their past atrocities. Bendis was one of many contributors to Marvel in the 2000s who turned continuity and coherence into a shambles, made characterization inconsistent with past renditions, and even disrespected the late Mark Gruenwald’s argument that every character is somebody’s favorite, and you shouldn’t kill them off lightly & ruin their appearances in retrospect. Under Bendis, the story doesn’t win out, has no value and is simply dishonest.

And the NBC writer who penned this piece is a huge disappointment for defending the notion secret identities can’t work in fiction, and failing to explore all the colossal mistakes made by mainstream corporate publishers over past decades.

 

Originally published here.

Avi Green

Avi Green

Avi Green was born in Pennsylvania in 1974, and moved to Israel in 1983. He enjoyed reading comics when he was young, the first being Fantastic Four. He maintains a strong belief in the public's right to knowledge and accuracy of facts. He considers himself a conservative-style version of Clark Kent. Follow him on his blog at Four Color Media Monitor or on Twitter at @avigreen1

JUST KEEPING THE LIGHTS ON