“The Man Who Exposed Superman”
Editor: Mort Weisinger Art: Curt Swan (pencils), George Klein (inks)
When Mort Weisinger took over the editorship of the Superman family of magazines, he inherited a main character with near-omnipotent super-powers and a rigidly high moral code. For a hero, those two qualities were handy things for fighting super-villains, but for his editor, they posed problems. Instilling drama in Superman’s adventures was quite a reach, and it was difficult for readers to identify with him.
Mort found the solution to both problems in one approach---to emphasise Superman’s humanity. To stress not the things that made him different, but what made him just like you and me. While an exploding H-bomb wouldn’t muss his hair, the Man of Steel was vulnerable to his emotions. Love, loyalty, anger, regret, despair, sentimentality. The best Silver-Age Superman tales included all of these.
Most of us Silver-Age veterans can rattle off a number of Superman stories that became classics because they focused on the “man” rather than the “super”. But “The Man Who Exposed Superman” is a small gem of a tale that deserves a place on the list.
The story opens with the release of one Hal Colby from state prison, after having served a long sentence for his crimes. Sent to jail years ago, by Superboy, the embittered Colby plans his revenge. He approaches the heads of the crime syndicate, who agree to finance Colby’s scheme to expose Superman’s secret identity.
With mob money, Colby sets himself up as a television producer and announces his intention to put on a spectacular to honour the Man of Steel. It will be broadcast live from Smallville. More out of desire to return to his old home town than anything else, Superman flies to Smallville to assist the production. He chances to land on the grounds of the Smallville Orphanage and recalls his first days on Earth. After being found by the Kents, the toddler from space was left on the steps of the orphanage so they could return later and legally adopt him. Superman is amused when he remembers how close the unwitting use of his powers came to revealing that he was a super-baby.
Hal Colby, using the name “Bert Hutton”, interrupts the Man of Steel’s reminiscences. Age and weight gain has changed Colby’s appearance enough that Superman doesn’t recognise him. But Colby notices the expression of nostalgia on Superman’s face and wonders if the orphans’ home holds any personal meaning for the Caped Kryptonian.
As Superman accompanies “Bert Hutton” into town, several sights trigger recollexions of old events, which Our Hero relates. From these stories, Colby begins to suspect that Superboy’s secret identity was Clark Kent. Later, Lana Lang, who has also returned to Smallville for an interview with Colby, tells of one of the occasions when she thought she had pinned down Clark Kent as Superboy but was proven wrong (thanks to a clever trick by the Boy of Steel).
Now even more suspicious that Superman is Clark Kent, Colby returns to the Smallville Orphanage and learns from its records that Clark had been a foundling there until he was adopted by the Kents. Recalling the sentimental expression on Superman’s face when he looked at the orphanage earlier, Colby becomes convinced that the Man of Steel and Clark Kent are the same person.
Superman departs, in order to return as Clark Kent, with Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen. They have been assigned to cover the production by Perry White. He chances to fly over the old Kent home, which causes another wave of memories to flood. Superman recalls his happy babyhood; the moral lessons and sound guidance given to him by Jonathan and Martha Kent as he grew to adolescence. And remembers how his foster mother hated the idea of strangers living in their home after she and Pa Kent were gone, and his promise to her to never sell the house.
Adrift in reverie, the Man of Steel is delayed long enough to spot Colby and an underling break into the Kent home. Thus, Superman tumbles to Colby's true intentions. Colby and his man prowl through the house and come close to discovering evidence of Superman's identity---things which Clark hadn't quite concealed enough when he closed up the house. Working secretly, Superman manages to prevent Colby from getting his hands on the proof he needs.
Colby has one ace left to play. After Superman appears as Clark Kent, with Lois and Jimmy, Colby invites Clark on stage for a live broadcast. Here the vengeful ex-con springs a trap. He announces over the live broadcast that Clark Kent is Superman and opens his suit jacket to reveal a belt lined with sticks of dynamite. He tells Clark that the dynamite will explode in ten seconds, killing everyone in the studio---unless Kent goes into action as Superman in front of the television audience.
As the seconds tick down, Clark attempts to reason with Colby---until time runs out.
The caption of the next panel says it all: “And then there is an explosion---an explosion of anger!”
In frustration, Colby admits the “dynamite” is phoney. “You were bluffing!” says Clark angrily. “You scared everyone here for nothing!” And with a hard right cross, Clark decks Colby!
Lois Lane stands up and cheers Clark on, and reading this story, so did I.
You see, unlike other super-heroes, in the case of the Man of Steel, it is Clark Kent who is the secret identity. Nearly every other hero was the ordinary guy first, then came the super-hero identity. Bruce Wayne has to put on his bat-mask, bat-cape, bat-shirt, bat-gloves, bat-trunks, bat-boots, and utility belt to go into action as the Batman. All Kal-El of Krypton has to do to be Superman is wake up in the morning. It was Clark Kent who was the façade.
Thus, on the surface, seeing Clark Kent punch out the bad guy may not seem much of an event---simply Superman dropping the pose for a moment. But following that logic misses the whole idea.
As the man with the cape himself said, in Action Comics # 524 (Oct., 1981), “I need being Clark . . . . In the past, I’ve tried assuming other identities---but it just didn’t work! Clark Kent is as much a part of what I am as Kal-El of Krypton is! Ma and Pa Kent . . . the way they raised me . . . my boyhood in Smallville---they made me what I am---and I’d sooner die that give it up!”
Clark Kent was more than just a “mild-mannered” imposture. As a boy in Smallville, he was well-liked by his peers and by the adults for his honesty and decency, qualities vested in him by his foster-parents. As an adult, he was a respected newsman and viewed as intelligent and resourceful. (Ever notice in how many stories, Lois, Jimmy, or Perry, when presented with a situation, asked Clark for his opinion?)
In short, Clark was a real person on his own---not a pose, not a disguise. Superman was simply a different aspect of his existence. There is nothing “split personality” or even unusual about this. We all do this. We present one side of our personalities at work, especially if we hold some position of authority, and a different side of ourselves with our families and loved ones.
And that brings me to what was so compelling about that final scene: when Clark Kent confronted Hal Colby and his dynamite, it wasn’t “There’s no time to change to Superman---I’ll have to handle this as Clark!” No, when he stood up to Colby, his mindset wasn’t “Man of Steel”; it was “Clark Kent”.
It was Clark who was indignant at Colby’s violation of his family home. It was Clark who was outraged when he discovered that Colby had caused his friends to fear for their lives. And it was Clark who acted.
In the final panel, Clark is standing in front of the Kent home, reflecting on his boyhood and deeply thankful for “two fine people, who gave a loving home to an orphan from space.”
Mort’s Superman was very human, indeed. And so was Clark Kent.