Friday, October 15, 2021

Superman Stuff: Let's Talk That Jonathan Kent News

If you came here because you're under the impression that the character known as Superman - who goes by Clark Kent in his everyday life as a mild-mannered reporter for a major metropolitan newspaper - is now categorized as bisexual:  he's not.  Hang in here with me.  

Let's start by clarifying - at this time, Clark Kent, Kal-El of Krypton, is still into women as far as the comics have indicated.*  The "Superman" in question is - in current Superman comics - the young-adult son of Lois Lane and Clark Kent, one Jonathan "Jon" Kent.  In the comics, as Clark Kent has had to take care of some business elsewhere, Jon Kent has been promoted from Superboy to Superman.  

It happens. I don't make the rules, I just report them.  But, yes, there are now two Supermans.  Mens.  Whatever.  It's less and more complicated than who is and is not a Green Lantern.

I don't think it's any surprise to folks that know me or follow this site where I stand on certain topics.  

In coming issues of Superman: Son of Kal-El, a maxi series based on current events in Superman comics, it seems our guy Jon is finding love with a male reporter.  Jon Kent's sexuality is not an issue for me as a reader.  He's a character reflecting both science-fantasy ideals but also a character who will be defined by many characteristics as a person which will appear in his serialized adventures hopefully for many years to come.

If it's not clear, The Signal Watch - run by me - is a place where we believe in the rights, equality, what-have-you, of *all* people.  I bet you do, too.  We can debate what it means to have rights, but let's shelve that for a minute rather than turn this into a Constitutional Convention.

What is relevant is that we're currently midstream in a cultural shift regarding how people identifying as lgbtqia+ regard themselves, ask how others regard them, as well as ask many to reconsider how those identifying as lgbtqia+ are portrayed in media.  

It's a different era, and we've been through shifts before - and this isn't the only one occurring right now.  Mass media was largely by and for and about white people, the overwhelming majority of films and television shows and comics, too, dictated by men.  That's shifted and continues to do so, and we're in a new era of those behind cameras as well as in front of them.  You can Google it.  There's a lot underway in many types of media.

The inclusion of lgbtqia+ in many roles as well as appearing on screens and in comics has been a slow roll for a while.  Homosexuality, bisexuality or other expressions of sexual preference, were considered medically deviant behavior for most of the 20th century and inclusion of characters who weren't straight was considered mostly verboten except in coded presentation or as the butt of a joke in most media.  I'm not going to lay out the history of change here - there's plenty of scholarship you can check out.

Also - I do understand that comics are very confusing to people.  But to simplify - yes, Superman and Lois have a kid, who also calls himself Superman.  What's odd about the maelstrom of media is that - gay or bi characters aren't really a new thing, or any other designate of lgbtqia+ character appearing in comics (check in with your kids who love Harley Quinn).  

But - 

DC alone has been introducing lgbtqia+ characters both into Vertigo titles and mainline DC Comics for so long, I don't really know where to say the company started.  There were suggestions of varying sexuality in the 1980's, but rarely stated in plain English.  Certainly clearly defined characters have appeared since I was in high school in the 1990's.  Probably before then.  Usually minor or supporting characters.  

Marvel was first to the table declaring a major-ish character was gay with Alpha Flight and X-Men character Northstar in March, 1992 (roughly 30 years ago).   

I don't know how many lgbtqia+ characters there are now in the DCU alone.  A lot.  I recently read the Pride issue from DC, and it was a wild ride realizing how many characters, new and old, were able to raise their hand (plus, the first comics appearance of Dreamer from the CW Supergirl show, collectors).  Marvel is probably in the same ballpark, but I'm not as up on my Marvel.  Some characters have been re-imagined as lgbtqia+.  Example - Golden Age Green Lantern, Alan Scott is now canonically gay) - but his son, Todd (Obsidian of the JSA), has been gay as long as I've been reading about him.  My point is:  lgbtqia+ representation is not new to comics with Jon Kent.  

The Bat-family rebooted Katherine Kane, DC's Batwoman, as a lesbian at least 16 years ago.  Back in the 1990's, Wonder Woman answered the question on everyone's minds after pondering Themyscira for five minutes and said that, yes, of course, you don't have a Paradise Island and everyone's just shaking hands.  The first WW film certainly confirmed this point.  Wondy has more or less beat Jon Kent to the punch by decades at this point.

It's that it's "Superman", something so seemingly immutable to people not paying attention to comics that the word "Superman" is right there with Mom, baseball and apple pie.  This seems to be the thing that caught talk shows and morning shows by storm, that got the media to do as they always do and rush to Dean Cain for comment.  

I don't actually entirely disagree with Cain, who pointed out the now decades of similar new and re-imagined characters (see above), or that there are *many* issues Superman could come to confront face-to-face (although maybe in allegory).  I'll hedge a bit and disagree that I do think it remains Bold and Brave to make such a move with the son of Superman, just based on the fact Fox and Friends decided it was worth a segment (where were they when America was trying to understand post-Rebirth Superman, dang it?).  I also think everyone I know who lives out is doing something Brave and Bold. 

Look, it's not a slow news cycle.  The world is on fire.  The reasons certain news sites have made a big deal out of DC's move (and PR blitz) are obvious - it's red meat for the culture war that's great for ratings.  Literally no one will be talking about this after SNL makes a crack or two on Saturday, but it's great to get those rage-clicks and make some jokes.

I do think DC is doing a few things.  

I do think they are acting with generous and open minds to try to expand their portfolio of characters to include more than the company's legacy of straight characters and maybe start to balance the scales for their occasional dabbles into homophobia and other forms of bigotry of the past 85+ years.  Jon Kent is a newer character without a relationship history to adjust for, and one criticism I'll say I get is when comics companies make changes to long standing characters when using a new character to do same would make a great deal more sense.  This is actually some good timing with Jon - he's familiar but still new enough.

The kids today are also on a very different page than we were in the 1980's and 1990's in the long-long-ago when I was a youth.  Kids are actually out in middle and high school (which would have been great for many of my HS pals in the North Houston suburbs where such a thing was not going to go well).  That said - I have no idea what it's like in my own state once you hit, say, Waco or Lubbock for the modern teen.  Could be the same as Central Austin, but I kind of doubt it.  But my understanding is what parents, teachers and the kids themselves grapple with and how is different from what it was.  

Of course, DC is a company - a division of the massive media empire that is Warner Bros. and whomever they're merged with this week.  They're going to market to younger audiences who have options for media, and who are more likely to be interested in media that allows them to see characters that express how they'd like to be - I mean, beyond all of us dreaming of having the power of super ventriloquism.  As a straight, white kid who was over 6 foot by 7th grade - I had no shortage of options of characters to say "it me" once upon a time, and yet I do get that representation matters.  

But, it's not just the audience identifying as lgbtqia+, but a generation who may be unfazed by a bisexual son of Superman just as I don't think a lot of us blinked a lot at the appearance of gay supporting characters in the 1990's.  In a lot of ways, that's just comics now (enjoy this fan-driven website with breakdowns of categories and all the lgbtqia+ characters at DC), and DC wants to sell comics to a willing audience.   Commerce and social idealism have been a pretty cozy couple since at least when Coca-Cola brought kids from across the globe to a hillside to sing a commercial jingle, but comics were also always - since Superman first burst into a governor's bedroom to make him reconsider an execution - a way to fantasize about balancing scales.

Throw in the not-inconsiderable popularity of manga, and the many offshoots of manga that don't shy away from lgbtqia+ romance plus their sales figures.  Based on what they'd worked on previously, I'm guessing the new leadership at DC is aware that these manga are wildly loved and not particularly quietly adored by a comics-reading audience that eschew American comics.  Ie: it does provide something of an entrĂ©e to American comics that can get the attention of that audience - even if they find the format of superhero comics too different (frankly, American comics could use some melodrama and character-driven portions).  

I'm aware of both the commercial and social implications, and these are two things I can hold in my head at the same time.  And I can see why some would be cynical about it, and I can see why some would be idealistic about it.   It is not my belief that a few dollars to be made appealing to people and keeping up with people negates any genuine spirit that drove the move.  I also understand it is a risk, as not everyone will be onboard with DC's decision.  I am sorry that's how some will feel, but I live in the world, and just hope they can have a more open heart.

Mostly, I'm just surprised DC is still committing to the current, incredibly messy continuity.  You don't pull PR moves like DC did this week without committing to some long term thinking about the character (one that hasn't been solidified as strong enough to carry a title quite yet).  

But, we'll see.  I've been a Jon fan in his many roles to date, and I'm getting comfortable with him as the lead in his own title.  We'll see how it goes.  

I'm also thrilled to be talking about the actual contents of a comic book again.  Even if that comic hasn't even been released yet.

I believe Superman is for everyone.  

But I know the character is a product of the era and place of his creation, part of a milieu.  Male, straight, white - the default for the protagonist in a great deal of fiction, especially science fiction and action oriented fiction, with any variation to that formula considered niche marketing or a deviation and novelty.  The storied history of comics has included a continuing push to include characters and viewpoints other than that norm of mass media of the 20th Century, sometimes in partnership and sometimes at odds with the accountants and bosses.  

Superman has long been part of that challenge, in ways both narratively successful and unsuccessful.  I've got longboxes swimming with bad takes, cringe-worthy moments reflecting the cultural conversation of the time, moments that were jokes in bad taste, and plenty of moments that would not see the light of day under different stewardship in more recent eras.  It's part of the remarkable history of a character who has existed for almost 85 years and seen print almost weekly for decades.  But the character has also seen sincere attempts for inclusion and expansion.

It's somewhat remarkable that a corporate trademark could be a part of so many stories that conceive of a character who wants to help everyone, and what that means for an audience who wants to read about that person.  As a character with the DNA and fictional heritage of Clark Kent and Lois Lane at his back, I hope Jonathan Kent is able to help out readers who might need to know such a character exists, whether it's all a move to sell some funny books or whether it's a move to fulfill the promise of Superman standing up for everyone.

  *we can discuss Superman's many loves of the pre-marriage age some other time, but the conversation may get a little fishy


Stuart said...

I think it's a big deal and also kind of business as usual, because you can see how they engineered the headline "SUPERMAN COMES OUT" for maximum attention while at same time being able to hedge and say, "but not really." Kind of what I expect from DC.

It's possible a lot of people will be moved to see a Superman who is more like them. It's a small thing, but if it makes some people feel a little less like outcasts, then that's a net good. It hurts no one and potentially helps many.

A complication for me is, I don't really care for the present creative direction behind this series, and had already decided to stop reading. But I mean, this is a direction and a character that is clearly not meant for me, and that's fine.

I have my Superman stories, they're not going anywhere. I'm totally fine with a new generation getting theirs.

The League said...

I do wonder about the long term of this simply considering - I'm not sure how excited anyone is, by this time next year, a Superman comic that isn't Clark Kent. And I've felt DC was planning a reboot for years. I don't love all of the changes in Superman comics such as him dropping a secret identity (something that's been weirdly moot since it happened), so I'm curious what happens with this character once that reboot happens, if it happens.

Stuart said...

I don't mind them trying new things. But the further we get from Clark Kent and Lois Lane in Metropolis, the more it feels like a reboot is inevitable.

The League said...

Couldn't agree more. I assume that the new leadership is still working through lessons learned from Didio's tenure and the fallout from COIE and in a holding pattern til they get a real plan together. Or... not.