A look at how Frank Miller’s portrayal of a young Clark Kent might not have gone done the way it was intended.
Superman: Year One is one of the the most anticipated – or dreaded – DC books this year. Frank Miller had been threatening to tell his Superman origin stories for ages after portraying him as a government stooge in The Dark Knight Returns. Since 2001, Miller’s politics have veered uncomfortably rightwards and that has tainted his reputation and coloured his work. The Dark Knight Returns had a lot of fascist imagery and ideas, but his works after 9/11 have dived into the deep end of those waters.
Miller said Superman: Year One would portray Superman as a beloved hero. Judging from the first issue, that doesn’t seem to be the case. I don’t know if he intended it, but Clark Kent comes off as a creepy, detached, calculating sociopath.
It would have been one thing if Clark’s mental detachment came about as he grew up, but Miller put his detached point of view right there from his infancy when Krypton exploded. When he arrives on Earth, the narration has him using subtle mind control to make Jonathan Kent take him home.
So right from the start, baby Superman is already creepy. I get the feeling that wasn’t the intention.
Is Clark Kent Supposed to be a Sociopath?
Miller’s writing keeps reminding us how detached and different Clark is from the rest of humanity throughout his childhood, all the way to high school. There, he looks upon the other kids with a detached paternalism, protecting them from bullies in secret with his powers. Millers captions tell us Clark protects the freaks, nerds and weirdoes like his flock.
Clark’s actions come off as creepily calculated and self-serving. This Clark Kent does not come off as good. He’s a sociopath who’s deciding to act good. He’s like Dexter, who looks at people with detachment as he muses on how he should act to pass as human.
The narrative captions are what make Clark Kent creepy in the story. I think if you removed them, he wouldn’t feel like a cold, calculating sociopath manipulating everyone around him. He would just appear to be a kid with superpowers in a CW-style story.
But Miller’s fascination with fascism is front and center in the story. Clark learns that the way to deal with violent people is to reason with them, then use more violence against them. Miller’s recurring theme of the strong man protecting the helpless weak as a messianic shepherd is as strong here as ever. Might makes right, and Miller believes in benevolent might.
Miller’s sexism is also on display here. Martha Kent is a nervous, overprotective mother who’s constantly undercut by her husband Jonathan telling Clark to use his strength. Jonathan Kent is passive-aggressive and duplicitous. Lana Lang is another idealized princess to be saved from rape, a prize for the hero to win. The gender politics in the book feel out of date and out of touch.
The Unbearable Lightness of Clark Kent
“How to write Superman” seems to be one of the big writing challenges these days. It’s as if many writers can’t quite grasp the notion of a Superman who is simply good. It’s like a veil of cynicism has fallen over the culture. There seems to be more interest in writing a “what if Superman was evil?” story now, the latest example being the movie Brightburn.
In fact, Superman: Year One could be the flip-side of Brightburn. Brightburn takes the predictable and rather surprising route of showing its Clark Kent analogue as an utter sociopathic killer. Superman: Year One gives us a Clark who’s pro-social. He is the Great One who deigns to be nice to people instead of murder them all, so he has to learn to act and behave. He is the shepherd and humans are his flock. That’s a common theme in Miller’s work in the last few decades.
Frank Miller may be a fan of Superman, but his idea of what Superman should be like is entirely his own, same with Zack Snyder in Man of Steel. Snyder didn’t seem to be believe Superman could be good without some trauma or selfish reason.
The biggest problem with telling Superman’s origin story these days is it’s already been told again and again. Like Batman’s origin, it seems to be the crutch that DC Comics keeps going back – you’d think they were out of new ideas. So they keep telling the stories of the heroes’ past in an endless exercise of nostalgia and revision. That seems to be the fate of corporate-owned superheroes – their stories have no end, only endless beginnings.