Review: "The Late Mr. Kent"
Superman, for all that he is the most recognizable fictional character in America, has fled pop culture – his recent movie such a resounding disappointment as to torpedo hope for any more in its vein, his television show an unrecognizable, grotesque parody, his presence hardly felt these days even in the comic books that bear his name. The Man of Steel’s stock has rarely been lower, which is why now is a good time to examine it.
Since the 1970s saw a severe contraction of the comic book marketplace and a phenomenally successful big-screen debut for Superman, the attitude of his owners DC and Time Warner has been thus: such a big character’s natural place is the movies. The comic books have slowly been reduced to a bizarre, very popular form of copyright maintenance, an idea-farm that will occasionally permit addition to the Superman mythos, but no subtractions or changes. Superman must remain unsullied for the silver screen, whether he resides there for the moment, or (as has more frequently been the case) not. As such, when examining the state of the character and all the baggage he carries on his spandexed shoulders, the moving pictures have perhaps always been a better place to look than the comics. Comics are too weird, too quirky a place for Superman the mass media icon – they are the natural environment of the auteur rather than the unwieldy production team, and despite Superman’s origin in comics, he has flown to some of his highest heights onscreen.
However, Superman’s sequential-art heritage determines much about his portrayal in the pictures. If comics have acted as Superman’s “R&D department” rather than his spot in the limelight, this is not to say their role in the creation of everything we know as Superman has been anything but pivotal. In developing the Superman mythos, serialized comics have given the world one 20-or-so-page chunk of story at a time for the past 70-plus years. So much water has passed under the bridge that Superman and comics form that the character has naturally evolved to fit best in comics and comics-style storytelling and scenarios. This is why his movies fail more often than succeed, why the multi-part epic crossovers never seem quite right when applied to him. Superman is the favorite son of the pamphlet comic, and its length, economy, and storytelling style have evolved (and evolved him) to fit perfectly. Perhaps one day someone at WB will realize this and act accordingly… but I digress.
A character groomed for the mass media, but best portrayed in quick, absorbable bursts: perhaps the TV show was always the best home for Superman, and more specifically the animated TV show. Here the succinct storytelling needs of the character could be fulfilled while the profit-turning needs of his corporate owners were also satisfied; here he could be stripped of the strangeness that the comics medium holds for those unused to reading it while still receiving the high dosages of pure art that have sustained him for so long. Superman has had many TV shows, and undoubtedly there will be many more. Most have adhered to a very high standard of quality. But one rises above the rest.
In comics criticism it is never anything less than high fashion to call Superman a static anachronism, a corporate-owned, editorially-controlled, focus-grouped franchise, more property than character, weighed down so heavily by seventy years of backstory that it has become impossible to tell a new and relevant story starring the Last Son of Krypton. There is truth to this characterization, except for the last bit. It only takes artists to make art, and like with any other corporate franchise, on Superman artists can be few and far between. Superman’s naysayers, no matter how intellectualized their arguments, would do well to direct their attention to “The Late Mr. Kent,” episode 35 of the “Superman” animated series that ran from 1996 to 2000. No mere kids’ cartoon, “The Late Mr. Kent” showcases true achievement in art and incredible depth and nuance of storytelling while still deftly functioning as a 20-and-a-half minute childrens’ show. Brilliantly subversive, it contains the most noncommercial free expression and pure artistry that has ever made it into Superman products outside of comics’ safe haven.
Opening with the episode’s ominous title, itself a subtle nod to the notion that the Superman character is the product of an antiquated world, the narrative begins with a scene of Clark Kent's funeral. Paradoxically, Superman watches the proceedings from far away. His narration takes us back to where the story began: with Kent interviewing a convicted murderer, a few days away from dying for his crimes, but adamant that he was wrongfully accused. Clark/Superman is impressed with the man, and decides to requisition his trial transcripts from the case’s lead detective, Bowman. Looking over the transcripts back at the office, Clark is admonished by Lois Lane that he is wasting his time, that the conviction is in place and out of his hands.
A cold vision suddenly gets colder. The same plucky gal reporter known for standing up to injustice now swishes out onto city streets for a bite to eat after telling her co-worker that the sensible course of action would be to let a man die. This is the world of today, and this depiction of Superman’s city of Metropolis has grey skies that neatly offset the monolithic concrete buildings and chilly art deco glass arcs. Here, the Metropolis police headquarters looks like a functionary building out of Nazi Germany, complete with austere coat of arms. This Clark is a beaten-down newshound with everything set against his righteous path. This Lois sleeps in a high-ceilinged room beneath a poster for the German industrial noise band Einsturzende Neubauten. And this cartoon’s generation of children are being given a vision of a vastly different existence than those of the Fleischer Studios days – an existence, however, that has unmistakable parallels in the real world.
Looking over the transcripts, Clark discovers that proof of the prisoner’s innocence resides on a years-old computer disc stored in a pizza joint. Visions of Metropolis’ squalorous ghettoes assail the viewer. Once again the message is that this could be your real life – but the landscape of “The Late Mr. Kent” is not an aspirational one, it is the aspects of the world around us which we are trying to forget.
Driving to deliver the disc to the Governor, Clark is car bombed in an act of violence so lacking in glamour or fantasy it could have come from the evening news. “I could have flown the evidence to the Governor as Superman…” the narration muses “but I wanted this to be Clark’s victory.” Suddenly the notion of Clark as “the man who could be you” is given a disturbing twist. This Clark is powerless, vulnerable to designs on his unwitting life. In order to preserve his secret identity, Superman must stage Clark’s funeral and give up his human side. The message is as cynical as could be: humans fail in this world, and only the immortal Superman can actually achieve good when he tries. Other humanitarians end up in the same crumpled, twisted car wrecks as the real-life martyrs. When Superman flies to his/Clark’s apartment to pick up what clues he can, the apartment too is bombed.
Were it not for the cartoon’s virtuoso, Kirbyist animation and tightly wound plot, retreat from this world would seem a natural impulse. Escapist entertainment is only palatable when the escape is to something better. However, the cartoon’s visuals are like a silken pillow the viewer is borne on through the gloom of the episode’s subject matter. Whether it’s the expert staging of Lois and the detective on the staircase or the Krigstein influence evident every time Bowman makes a facial expression – every time he comes on screen, actually – or the monochrome moment of the car bombing or the rolling rhythm of silence and impact as Superman confronts a missile-equipped helicopter, “The Late Mr. Kent” positively drips with capital-A art, standout sequences to rival pretty much any virtuosity displayed in the Superman comics.
The trail leads back to Detective Bowman, who is soon implicated by Lois not only as the bomber but as the murderer in the case Clark was investigating. The patsy is cleared. Superman reappears as Clark, explaining that he faked his own death in the car bombing to avoid further danger. It feels like a real-world happy ending, gritty and true-to-life, yet morally very satisfying. But the cartoon isn’t over.
Detective Bowman takes his seat in the gas chamber. He hunches over, defeated and terrified. Drops of sweat roll down his forehead. “How could he have survived that car bomb?” he mutters. Clarity hits. “He’s Superman!”
Then a hand pushes a lever and the whooshing hiss of cyanide gas fills the screen with blackness. The death penalty is visualized as the embodiment of the justice Superman delivers. Killing is acceptable – but only when it is deemed morally right. It’s the furthest into these issues a Superman story has ever gone, probably the furthest Superman can go before his stories begin seriously alienating people. Paradoxically, it’s an episode in one of the biggest media platforms the character has ever enjoyed. It’s what I watched as a kid on the show that taught me wrong from right. It’s one of the strangest pieces of American pop culture ever created, right up there with Jack Cole’s Plastic Man and Steve Ditko’s Question stories. It’s a masterpiece, and probably the essential Superman story of the last three decades of the 20th century. It’s something you need to see.