I think a lot about how certain stories stick around through the generations because they reveal universal truths: Romeo and Juliet says a lot about first love, Gulliver’s Travels satirizes mankind’s stupidities, and 1984 explores totalitarian societies across all time (hence the novel’s sudden spike in sales after Trump’s election).
The best superhero stories do the same thing.
I have a friend who can school me in all things Batman and comic book hero-related (Hi Dan), but today I want to talk specifically about Superman, the precursor of them all. Or, as this entry’s title suggests, I want to talk about Clark Kent.
To give credit where credit’s due, most of what I’m about to write was inspired by the scene in Kill Bill Part II where David Carradine tells Uma Thurman’s character that she’s been living the life of Clark Kent: though she possesses the skill and cunning that makes her one of the world’s most highly trained assassins, she was trying to live the charade of a normal small-town life by settling down with a husband and kids.
For creative people, the Day Job Life’s a lot like that.
The Mild-Mannered Reporter as a Disguise
We all know the basics, but here’s a quick refresher: Superman came to Earth from the planet Krypton and gains his superhuman abilities from Earth’s yellow sun. He was given the name Clark and raised by the Kent family to be a normal, everyday member of society, and when he grew up, he went to the big city to work for the Daily Planet as a mild-mannered reporter. But when danger threatens and humanity needs protecting, he throws off his suit and glasses to reveal the Superman outfit underneath so he can show his powers to the world.
Now as Quentin Tarantino so eloquently points out in Kill Bill II, for most superheroes the hero part is the disguise, where they put on a costume to hide who they really are. For Superman, though, it’s the opposite: deep down, Superman’s really Superman, but when he puts on the suit and glasses and acts all meek and mild-mannered, he becomes Clark Kent. That’s the disguise, and he uses it to blend in with the rest of the human race.
For a lot of us out there in Day Job land, going to work every day feels like putting on a similar disguise. We put on uncomfortable clothes that we don’t usually wear, do work that isn’t our real calling but looks productive in society’s eyes, and adopt a mild-mannered persona to make our Day Job lives easier. We have to fit in with everyone else, and this means hiding who we really are.
By contrast, when we’re done with our Day Jobs we can throw off the disguise and be our real selves—which in a lot of cases, means doing the creative work we’re really capable of. After work we become writers, musicians, artists, actors, podcasters, sculptors, dancers, filmmakers, and creators, making things that are special and have greater meaning beyond the everyday working world.
When we’re free of our Day Jobs we do powerful, extraordinary things. We’re like Superman tearing off the disguise.
The Clark Kent Mythology of Creativity
All of the best writers create stories that resonate with their experiences, the stories that mean the most to them and that they want to see captured on the page. Is it any wonder then that back in 1933, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created the Clark Kent/Superman story, since they were a writer and artist themselves? Is it completely out of the question to imagine them as high school students who didn’t fit in but who in the privacy of their bedrooms could create great comics that the rest of the world would love?
When you look at it that way, it seems like not much has changed in eighty years and being a creator still carries the same challenges, stretching across time and culture. I talk all the time about how the Japanese divide their real personalities from the personalities they show in public, which itself is a kind of Clark Kent disguise. I also wrote about that older guy who openly disengaged from his lifeless Day Job to save his energy for other things, and I’m constantly hearing from people who feel the same way about their jobs: they have to go there and take on the disguise of someone they’re not.
I think a lot about how we deal with this dual Clark Kent/Superman nature of our lives, especially when it comes time to present ourselves to other people, but on an individual level it’s important to remember that the stuff you do to pay the bills isn’t who you really are. You’re just doing it to, you know, pay the bills.
The Superman story helps us remember that our true selves and the people we’re capable of being are what really matters, and helps us keep the perspective we need to keep following our calling. The greatest stories are the ones that show us something greater about the world, and any way you put it, the Superman myth fits the bill nicely.
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Cropped cover photo courtesy of Wikimedia/Creative Commons 3.0.