Beyond Heroes and Villains

Investigating the nature of good guys and bad guys in fiction and real life

Superman's True Disguise: The Power of Social Invisibility

Clark Kent's creators dreamed about what it would take to stop feeling ignored.


Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman
 

When actress Teri Hatcher, who played Lois Lane on the television series Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, once guest hosted Saturday Night Live, her opening monologue involved a gag in which she failed to recognize the show's performers whenever they wore glasses. The bit poked fun at Lois's failure to recognize Clark Kent as Superman. Clark's alteration in his appearance is more elaborate than that, comprehensively changing the character in many ways (e.g., a slouch that makes Clark three inches shorter, disguised eye color, different voice, different manners...the list goes on), but those technical details do not address the most basic point of it all.

No, Superman's disguise is not just about people being too stupid to recognize him through eyeglasses or any one aspect of how he looks. A story in 1978's Superman #330 posited that he unconsciously used super-hypnosis when he didn't want people to recognize him, but the comics quickly dropped that explanation and he has not had that particular power since the 1980s. More importantly, Superman's true disguise is no disguise at all. It's about getting ignored. The observers are not stupid. They're blind. It all starts with two young men, writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster, who felt overlooked and ignored.


Superman: The Movie


Superman Returns


Smallville television series

Aspiring writer Jerry Siegel, introverted, shy, and quite awkward at times, daydreamed about what it would take for him to get noticed. He especially wondered what would make girls see him. When it came to flirting, he tended to be clueless. Years later, he said, "I had crushes on several attractive girls who either didn't know I existed or didn't care I existed. So it occurred to me: What if I was really terrific? What if I had something special going for me, like jumping over buildings or throwing cars around or something like that?" Early in his teens, he first dreamed up Superman.

Action Comics #1: Lois isn't even looking at Clark while they dance.
Action Comics #1 (1939).

 

Those who get overlooked by others can suffer a pain nobody else can know because the suffering, as part of the unseen sufferer, falls outside other people's perceptions. Social exclusion hurts. If we took all the photos of everyone you went to high school with and mixed them up with pictures of someone else's old classmates, would you really be able to pick out every single face without error? If you look only through all your schoolmates' photos, really look at every single one without skimming, how many faces make you scratch your head because they're so unfamiliar? How often do people cross paths with classmates or co-workers from long ago only to find that one does not remember the other at all? We can't know how many people we overlook because of the very fact that we overlook them.

Clark Kent is generally written as being more assertive than that. From his first appearance in Action Comics #1, he speaks confidently to his editor, and yet when it comes to approaching Lois Lane, he stumbles through his attempt to ask her out on a date. From the evening's beginning to its end, Lois barely looks at Clark.



Action Comics #1 (1939).

 

The fantasy roams from "What if I'm getting treated this way because I choose this?" to "What if I'm secretly able to stand up to those guys and win this gal's attention?" After the hoodlums who harass them at the dance soon force Lois's taxi into a ditch and make her ride off with them, Superman arrives to free Lois. He shakes her abductors out of their car, smashes the vehicle in a scene made famous by Action Comics' first cover, and leaps toward the the city with Lois in his arms. The next day, Lois Lane still does not see Clark Kent.

In her final appearance in that first story, Lois still isn't looking directly at Clark.
Action Comics #1 (1939).

How many people go through life feeling invisible, whether generally or in specific situations? How many people feel overlooked and ignored because they really are overlooked and ignored? How many of them give up trying, how many persist no matter what, and how many find fulfillment through fantasy? Frustration and isolation can lead to depression. Some cope by setting other priorities while others keep wishing. Those wishes can range from the simple and realistic to the complex and fantastic. Not everyone dreams of leaping tall buildings in a single bound, of stopping a locomotive, or of flying high and earning the adoration of all the world. Some simply wish not to be invisible anymore. While the Man of Steel symbolizes many things to many people, his mild-mannered alter ego also symbolizes hope to those who know they have great qualities that other people have yet to see.

Travis Langley, Ph.D. is the author of Batman and Psychology: A Dark and Stormy Knight.

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