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In modern cinema and comic books it is an established trope that the hero must carefully protect their secret identity. There is no greater threat to the hero than those whom they hold special. Even the most ignoble grey-hat heroes would gladly go to their own end long before they could bear to see their loved ones hurt.
It is no different for Superman. In fact, it may be even more important, for as we discussed in our first essay, in Superman we have a hero who is effectively impervious. Bullets mean nothing, nor drowning, or poison, or even a train crash. The writers on the 1950s Adventures of Superman quickly realized this challenge in their script writing and went to the obvious solution. The most effective way to challenge an invulnerable hero is to threaten his friends.
The elementary plotting of this Superman series does exert great creativity in their primary goal: to justify why Superman is unaware of the fate of his close companions for as long as possible. After all, once he becomes aware the episode will surely wrap up quickly, and with great violence. No, it is vital for the successful story to distract and confound, whether through mystery or coincidence.
Lets revisit an episode we discussed before, "Rescue." When Lois Lane becomes trapped in a collapsed mine, we viewers at home are eagerly waiting for the moment when Superman will learn the news. He'll fly to the rescue in short order and the day will be saved. Instead we watch as the writers tease us again and again with missed connections. The phone call to Clark Kent's office misses him by moments as he heads home. He grabs a newspaper from the stand and gets into his car only to miss the late edition being dropped off with a compelling headline about a reporter trapped in a mine. The writers even stretch the ridiculousness of the coincidence further as a radio report comes on while Clark is driving down a country road. Something has happened to his engine and he stops the car to fix it. A breaking news bulletin comes on, and just as the report starts explaining the dire situation, Clark is busy under the hood revving the engine and patching a fuel line.
It's all in good fun and eventually he'll get the news, catch the bad guy, break down the wall, and deliver on his era-appropriate level of physical violence.
"You're going to tell me where she is or I'm going to break every bone in your body," threatens Superman in an actual episode of this amazing TV show for kids.
When Superman faces a threat it typically comes in one of three forms:
- A direct threat to his super-powered weakness (kryptonite)
- A threat to those he loves
- A threat to his secret identity
In the Adventures of Superman, at least by this point in the first season, kryptonite was not a well established weakness. It wasn't until August of 1951 that the green rock first appeared in that form in the comics. Writers on the show would need some time to catch up to those latest trends. Instead they had to settle for stories threatening the second and third forms.
We've talked a bit about threats to his loved ones, so lets dive into threats to his secret identity a bit more. In my previous essay I explained two scenarios when Superman struck another protagonist unconscious to protect his identity, and one case where he could be considered guilty of two counts of manslaughter. This is serious business for him in many cases.
But the show also plays with the elementary disguise with a tongue in cheek, ending many episodes with a literal wink to the camera as Clark Kent makes an on-the-nose quip.
"But Mr. Kent, however did you beat me back from Port-au-prince?"
"I flew!" <wink>
In the late 1980s and early 1990s on Nickelodean's evening programming block, Nick at Night, a behind-the-scenes bumper-style commercial was produced revealing that George Reeves' glasses are just frames without glass. The lenses caused reflection issues for the camera, so they shot the show without any.
With that in mind, the only thing separating Clark Kent from Superman is a pair of dark frames and the passionate ignorance of his closest friends. This has been a long-running joke in Superman history and has been parodied brilliantly through the years. Rather than approach it on the same terms, I'd like to briefly note some of the similar concepts present in the 50s television show before drawing some parallels to our own experience watching vintage television.
Superman's disguise as Clark Kent's is famously inverted from the typical alternate identity paradigm where the true identity is the everyday-Joe and the secret identity wears a mask and works outside the law. In the case of Superman he is first and foremost an alien on Earth possessed of abilities far beyond those of mortal men. His disguise, therefore, is that of Clark Kent rather than the other way around.
Clark was raised in Kansas by a pair of farmers. He went to school and learned to love. In many ways his early identity defined him as the everyday-Joe that he is today. A nurture over nature approach would suggest that Clark is the true identity.
This in itself doesn't change his relationship to a secret identity, though. Being outed would mean the identities converge and which one is more real has little bearing on the threat it would cause for Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen. Ultimately it is the damage it would cause to his friends and his inability to maintain both separate lives that is the true danger of his secret becoming revealed.
We can see a similar situation in the episode "Drums of Death". This adventure brings Superman and Perry White together to Haiti to investigate the disappearance of Perry's sister. We learn early on of the dangerous voodoo doctor in the jungle. For viewers at home the character stands out dramatically as he is the only person of color not being played by an actor of color. He is very clearly an European man in brown face.
But this is 1952 and we must allows some level of suspension of disbelief, if not for the show itself then for the audience, who were perhaps not savvy enough to know the difference in that age. It is a difficult proposition to take seriously, though, as the face behind the brown makeup is none other than Henry Cordon, the future voice of Fred Flinstone and already a major player in Hollywood films. Perhaps anticipating his future role, the character is wearing a water buffalo hat!
A few scenes later we meet Cordon in another role, that of an American adventurer living in Haiti. He tries to dissuade the newspaper men from trying to go into the jungle or look for Perry's sister (as if that were going to work). At this point it may only be the very small children watching the show who haven't connected the dots.
And here it is again, a comically simple disguise that fools everyone. Are we to believe it as a precept of the television reality or as an expectation of the viewer? Perry White did seem extremely surprised when Superman licked a rag and used it to wipe the makeup from Cordon's face at the climax. So perhaps it is an in-world piece of reality.
Perhaps we should take it with a grain of salt, like the early work in Doctor Who, where the set budgets were shamefully small and the enterprise has more of the air of live theater than produced work. The funny glasses are a tool and a signal to the audience, then, much like Clark Kent's wink at the end of the episode. We are in it together. Just go along and enjoy being in on the secrets when no one in the show can see it. Perhaps it even has something to do with the extremely young viewer demographic?
If we assume for a moment that the collective inclusion of the audience in a pantomime farce is at the heart of this exceptional selective sight than it brings with it a more troubling thought burdened by half a century of societal norm changes and civil rights action. In short, just what else are we turning a blind eye toward?
The brown-faced bad guy is just one of hundreds of demonstrations of villains as "the other". They are characterized by usurping and coloring racist tropes, superstitions, and stereotypes. In the case where the villain is the white male, then we lean on class distinction and use the poor and uneducated. This isn't new or unique to Superman, this time period, or even this genre.
What is specific to this vintage television time is a willingness to champion it as some sort of nostalgia. I do this myself. I watch and halfway cringe at parts and shake my head. "Sure," I think, "that was pretty racist, but the show is from a different time." I allow it to happen in my own mind.
I still want to enjoy the show. They're funny, they're simple and structured where the good guy wins. Only the good guys are often misogynistic and brutally violent, judgmental, and quick to unnecessary action. They use torture and commit manslaughter to protect themselves and their way of life. In many ways the heroes in this show represent some of the worst parts of humanity. The selfishness by which the reporters dive into trouble seeking a great story very often leads to injury or even death of someone innocent because they didn't just call in the police. Petty crimes are met with violence and even death. And all the while we see minorities used as ridiculous circus costumes.
There is a playful, nearly innocent sense of racism and misogyny present in The Adventures of Superman. It seems pitiful and inane and worthy of an eye roll, but I fear that is the case only because shows like this have also trained us to be like Lois Lane and Perry White. We are trained to suspend disbelief in a way that says it's not really there, or not important if it is. If I want to continue to watch and enjoy the shows I really do have to allow for these other parts, and what better way than to dismiss them as juvenile or quaint. Nostalgia is the curtain I pull across the dirty mess so I don't need to see it clearly.
I knew I wanted to write something about the overwhelming quantity of racism present in all of these vintage shows. Art imitates life after all, and there is no denying that the 1950s were a difficult time for minorities in America. I will continue to walk an uncomfortable line in my own viewings. On the one hand i cannot in good conscience allow the shows to desensitize me to some truly awful things happening on screen. On the other hand, I'm viewing this remedial entertainment as a psychological pressure-valve, letting me release some tension from an otherwise overwhelming world. I need to allow for some moments of mindless release for that to be effective.
There are no good answers, I fear. We cannot separate art from artist¹. We cannot separate the stains of a culture of time from the art it creates. But everything is not so cut and dry that we must burn all history to cleanse it of every evil. Maybe, after all this, someone will watch these shows and see this behavior and find inspiration to make a change for the better in our world today. Certainly ignoring racism in history isn't going to fix anything. But am I just justifying things so I can enjoy my cake and not feel guilty? I cannot be sure.
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¹ This statement is probably the single most incorrect part of this essay and deserves much more expansion. Perhaps a follow up essay will tackle this subject more directly. In the meantime, have some additional thinking on the subject from cat:
It looks like I already wrote up a bunch of thoughts on this subject after all. This is from a phlog post on my gopher hole from early 2019 about separating art from artist:
Originally Published 2020-05-26 at:
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