Parents are often essential to the stories of superheroes. Batman’s story in many ways centers on Bruce Wayne’s dead parents, for example. They’re the motivation that drives everything that he does. People often overlook, however, how important fatherhood and motherhood are to the story of Superman.
Kal El/Clark Kent’s story is just as much a story of his mothers and fathers as it is the story of an alien living among us. What kind of love does it take for parents to willingly send their infant son out into the universe with almost no knowledge of what kind of man he will grow up to be without their guidance and care or what kind of life he will have to live among a race that they know almost nothing about?
And as a father, I have always been especially interested in Superman’s earthly father, Jonathan Kent, who raises as his own son a boy who came from the stars. I often wonder about the parental use of the possessive pronoun “my.” My son. My daughter. That usage of my sounds like it describes simple possession, but it connotes a different kind of possession than my car or my beliefs. Far from possessing my children the way I possess a house, they possess me. That is what I mean when I say “my children,” at any rate. They—along with my wife—are the people for whom I live and work. I belong to them.
My children are entrusted to me and to their mother, and my wife and I are at least as responsible as our children are for where they end up in life. In that way, I think that I can understand to some small degree what Jonathan Kent must think when he looks at “his” son, the boy who came down from the sky like lightning in the night. “Can’t I just keep pretending I’m your son?” the young Clark asks Jonathan in Man of Steel. “You are my son,” Jonathan replies—with all of the weight and significance of that demanding word “my” hanging around them.
I’ve been absolutely thrilled, then, that the new Superman series by Peter J. Tomasi and Patrick Gleason centers so much on the marriage of Clark to Lois Lane and their relationship with their son, Jon. As the three of them adjust to their new role in the Rebirth DC Universe, they also carefully navigate the challenges of being a family—specifically, the challenges of being a super-powered father, a human mother, and a half-Kryptonian son who is just learning about his own superpowers.
Even though Clark reminds Jon to keep his powers “holstered” when he’s alone, Jonathan loses control of himself when a hawk swoops out of the sky and snatches his cat, Goldie. Screaming for the bird to let go of the cat, the boy fires a blast of his heat vision that incinerates both animals.
Later, when Clark asks Jon if he wants to practice using his powers and help Clark build their new barn, Jon looks at the ground, ashamed: “You can do it. Maybe you’re right about taking my power thing slow.”
At dinner that evening, when the family have dinner, Clark and Lois remind Jon that they must keep his and Clark’s powers secret for now, that they must pretend to be a normal family. Still feeling ashamed of himself for killing Goldie, he snaps at his parents: “Don’t use me as an excuse to be a bunch of liars!”
Like any father would, Clark sends the boy to his room. But he also knows without having to ask that Jon is not really angry at him or at Lois—he’s angry at himself. So during the night, he goes to Jon’s room as Superman and takes the boy on a rescue mission. He knows that what Jon needs is not a lecture about respect, but a chance to see what he can do and what he can be with a little help.
For me, one of the most remarkable things about being a father has been the way in which it has changed my view of my own father. When I was young I thought that Dad was Superman. He was the one who always knew what to do, who was always strong, who always made sure that things were going to be okay. He was the one who had control of things, and I knew that I could feel safe because I could rely on him. Now that I’m a father with children who (I hope) look at me with the same love and respect, I realize how much fatherhood means living in fear and hope. You do your best, but you never really know that things will turn out all right. You’re constantly aware of how weak you really are, how big the world is, and how little control you have over anything. All you can do is what you’re able to do, and you hope that things turn out for the best. But you have no guarantees that they will. (And now that I see from the vantage point of a father, I respect my own Dad even more than I did as a child.)
Clark can’t make Jon good. He can’t force the boy to learn from his example. All he can do is what any good parent will do: give Jon the best example that he can and hope that it’s enough. Over the course of the first story arc (Son of Superman) in the series, both Clark and Jon learn what they are capable of, father and son learning to trust and rely on each other. And Jon doesn’t disappoint.
I can’t praise this first arc of Superman by Tomasi and Gleason highly enough. So far, it’s been as heroic and action-packed as you could ask for a Superman story to be, but what has impressed me the most about it is the way in which it depicts the father-son (and to a slightly lesser degree, the mother-son) relationship at the center of the story. For most of his history, we’ve seen Superman primarily as the son of Jor-El and the son of Jonathan Kent. Now, like many of his fans, Supes himself is both son and father, giving us another way to see the Man of Steel. As a father of four, I appreciate that a lot, and I can’t wait to see more stories about Clark, Lois, and Jon standing together and holding the world at bay.