Previously, I introduced the Superman Returns prequel comics and examined the first issue in some detail, paying particular attention to how it changed things from Donner’s 1978 original. This time, we’ll continue on to the second issue with the same concerns — and also ask why certain elements weren’t included, based on what we now know of the Superman Returns movie.
Superman Returns Prequel #2: “Ma Kent”
story by Bryan Singer, Michael Dougherty, and Dan Harris; script by Marc Andreyko; Karl Kerschl art
Martha Kent, widowed, remembers her son, now gone for five years. Still on her Kansas farm, she raises chickens. She misses Clark and sees haunted by memories as she lives alone. She buys foreign stamps to mail postcards, supposedly from Clark, to Lois — something she’s apparently done all this time. Among the many memories she recalls is a news report of the discovery of a planet not unlike Krypton and Clark’s subsequent departure. Then a fireball passes overhead and crashes. Arriving at the crash site, she knows her son has returned.
While much of the issue consists of flashbacks, the main sequence mostly dramatizes Martha Kent’s solitary life on her farm. Although the main point is simply how the dutiful mother misses Clark, some new information is provided. Most of the flashbacks are based on scenes in the 1978 film Superman, though some are new — including, importantly, the final flashbacks showing Superman preparing to go into space. However little the issue adds about the five-year gap before Superman Returns, at least most of the issue is new material — in contrast to the first issue of the series.
The issue is narrated by Martha Kent herself. She begins recalling fondly what life was like during Clark’s childhood, during which she would wake early and prepare coffee and breakfast while her husband Jonathan, an early riser, would already be at work in the fields and Clark would still be sleeping. Jonathan, of course, is dead — as shown in the 1978 film. Clark, of course, is off in space — and she doubts whether he’ll ever return. She apparently has The Daily Planet delivered out in Smallville, Kansas, and that morning’s issue leads with a deadly train derailment — leading us to notice how Superman wasn’t there to save anyone.
Among the many photos hanging in her house is an edition of The Daily Planet near Superman’s debut and an edition of The Smallville Herald reporting a fire, though not noting Superman’s involvement. We may speculate that Clark helped out, perhaps unseen, during that fire, though this has never been shown and the 1978 film showed him starting to help people only in Metropolis and as an apparent response to how good he feels after saving Lois Lane. One might also wonder what visitors to the house think of the Superman newspaper story amidst so many family photos.
Over these images, Ma Kent narrates how she misses Clark Kent, not the public Superman, who means many things to many people. Whether Clark Kent or Superman is the alter ego has long been a question for Superman fans and scholars, but Martha clearly and understandably thinks of the character as her son and as the boy she raised. But life goes on, she says as she folds the laundry.
The first — and briefest — of Martha’s recollections literally appears in the scene with her, mixing memory with the present. Jonathan and a young Clark sit together working on a model rocket, a scene not seen previously. Slightly translucent, they sit amidst golden rays of the sun as they pour through the window, aiding the sense of memory. Martha’s narration mentions how these figurative ghosts give her comfort, suggesting that she feels less haunted by memory than lost in it.
As Martha hangs laundry outside, apparently lacking a drying machine in her rural environment, she sees the family truck — the same one from the 1978 film — and recalls finding the infant Clark with her husband. What follows is a two-page retelling of the scene in the film in which the infant, just after being found, lifts the family truck after it has a flat tire that Jonathan has difficulty lifting off the truck. The little boy lifting the truck has become an iconic image from the 1978 film — even more so than the two actually finding the boy, which is not retold here but did appear at the end of the first issue. In the scene remembered here, Jonathan expressed how the couple would have to turn the child in to the authorities, whereas Martha wanted to keep him. Martha narrates how, when the child smiled at the couple as he effortlessly lifted their truck, they knew he was theirs.
As Martha continues hanging clothes, the wind picks up and blows the already-hung laundry. This recalls a third flashback in which she watched Clark running through the fields while the wind also blew the laundry on the line. She recalls noting how the running Clark was only working off “teenage energy,” though she worries about the dust he’s kicking up. Her narration again suggests how, parenting Clark, she didn’t think of him as fantastic like the rest of the world did but rather thought of him as her son.
Martha next feeds the farm’s chickens and enters the farm’s barn where a door in the floor once housed the ship that brought Clark to Earth — a fact the couple hid from Clark while he grew. Her narration recalls how others question why she stays on the farm all alone, and her answer is that she’s simply waiting in hopes of Clark’s return, as any mother should. The door in the floor, however, triggers a fourth flashback.
The fourth flashback runs four pages and begins with Martha realizing that Clark has found the ship hidden below the barn. Calling Jonathan, the two see him sitting on the steps, holding a crystal, and staring at the remains of the small spacecraft, the exterior of which largely burned off during landing, again as seen in the 1978 film.
The second half of this flashback is far more interesting and depicts the couple sitting down to talk with Clark afterwards. Martha recalls the hurt and confusion in her boy’s eyes. When Martha tells Clark that she wishes she could tell him more about his real parents, he replies that Jonathan and Martha are his real parents — he rejects his Kryptonian heritage and wonders if he is “some sort of monster.” As he speaks, he bends a fork as if expressing his stress without thinking. Jonathan retrieves the cloth in which the infant Kal-El was wrapped when the couple found him, and the cloth has Superman’s “S” on it.
Both halves of this particular flashback are intensely interesting. The first changes a scene from 1978′s Superman far more dramatically than just changing around a bit of dialogue. In the film, Clark similarly discovers the ship and holds a crystal — the same crystal that Jor-El added briefly before the spacecraft took off. Clark finds the craft, however, at a later age, after his adoptive father has already died. Moreover, Martha Kent does not appear in the scene at all. It is a significant change from the original film.
The second half of the scene is entirely new. In the 1978 film, not only are Clark’s adoptive parents not around when he makes his discovery, but he never talks about the discovery with Martha. Instead, he is shown at a later date talking with his mother about how he needs to leave to find himself. Clearly, he has talked with her about his discovery and his origins, though that conversation is never shown.
As it is shown in the comic, the conversation shows a boy’s very realistic reaction to such a revelation, but this reaction is very much not in synch with the 1978 film’s depiction of Clark’s boyhood in Smallville. The scene is one of anxiety and alienation, but those emotions had no place in the film’s version of Smallville — and little place in the film at all. In Bryan Singer’s world, however, those feelings are par for the course, as demonstrated by his X-Men films, which trade on such feelings routinely.
Of course, within Superman Returns, the young Clark’s rejection of his Kryptonian heritage has special resonance. Not only does he journey to Krypton, leading to a five-year gap caused by Superman’s adult desire to know his genetic heritage, but the plot of Superman Returns in many ways revolves around issues of parenting as Superman, Lois, and Richard struggle emotionally with the presence of Jason. If Superman once deeply felt rejection from his Kryptonian parents, his concern that Jason might one day experience the same pain would be all the more greater.
Finally, the origin of Superman’s costume shown here is rather traditional to the character. Traditionally, as codified in the 1950s, Superman’s costume was stiched by Martha Kent out of fabric carried within the spaceship. Being Kryptonian, the fabric was as invulnerable as Superman, explaining why it wasn’t damaged as Superman was shot or braved explosions.
In the 1978 film, not much explanation is given for the costume. It first appears suddenly, after Superman’s period of learning from Jor-El’s recordings in the Fortress of Solitude, and the viewer is left to guess that he fashioned it in consultation with the crystal-generated Jor-El, using what is implicitly the El family crest. That crest, as worn by Jor-El, is black-and-white, hardly the colorful symbol it becomes on Superman’s uniform, and this change is left unexplained. The film’s Jor-El and Lara do place the baby Kal-El into his spaceship wrapped in something colorful, though it does not appear to have the “S” symbol on it. When the child is found by the Kents, he seems to have a red piece of fabric near him. That fabric is wrapped around his waist for the scene in which the child lifts the couple’s truck. Though no “S” is seen, nor the blue that makes up most of Superman’s costume, the red fabric does seem fairly substantial, flowing in layers off the boy’s body.
The version presented in the comics prequel is something quite different. What Jonathan gives Clark is a piece of blue fabric with the familiar red-and-yellow “S” shield. Because the fabric is cropped by the edges of the panel, it is not clear how much material there is. This blue fabric and “S” shield were not seen in the 1978 film, and the presence of the colorful “S” shield seems at odds with the colorless “S” shield Jor-El wears. Nevertheless, the comic does seem to help explain the origin of Superman’s costume, even if it does not do so completely.
Rejoining the comic’s main narrative, Martha visits Smallville to pick up some sheets of Peruvian stamps that she has ordered. She claims that she’s a stamp collector, dismissing the clerk’s confusion as to why she wants so many stamps of the same kind with a wave of her arm and a hint of the unquestioned idiosyncratic freedom of the elderly. We next see Martha preparing a postcard from Peru that her narration suggests she’s sending to Lois Lane, part of an effort to explain Clark’s absence that she has been maintaining these five years. Now, as Martha wonders whether Clark will ever return, we can speculate as to the emotional toll of her continuing the postcard campaign. Indeed, her narration questions whether Lois appreciates the postcards much as she once did when Clark was on Earth to send them.
Elsewhere in Smallville, Martha has stopped for a pie at a local diner as she rereads a letter Clark once sent from Metropolis. The letter ends with a postscript in which Clark asks her to deposit the checks he’s been sending — a reference to the 1978 film, in which Clark requested that Perry White, then his new editor at The Daily Planet, send half his paycheck to his mother. This brief note in a letter from Clark actually helps maintain Martha’s good character, since the 1978 film did not show her rejection of half the salary of her boy, who was naively trying to make a go of it in Metropolis.
The waitress in the diner asks about Clark, triggering a fifth flashback in which Clark ate with his mother in the same diner. Things don’t change too quickly in tiny Smallville. Clark points out that her pie is better than the diner’s, an opinion echoed in the present by the waitress herself — Martha explained that she has no one to share the pie with and would rather not clean up afterwards. As the flashback continues, Martha wishes she had more ice in her water, and Clark makes the ice appear — having apparently rushed, unseen at super-speed, behind the counter to grab the ice. Martha lectures him about misusing his powers and tells him to be patient. Back in the present, Martha’s pie is ready.
Back at home and at night, presumably after dinner, Martha washes the dishes. She recalls how Clark wanted to buy her a washing machine with his first paycheck from Metropolis, but she refused. What neither Clark nor Jonathan understood, she narrates, is that she always like washing dishes — it gives her something to do and provides a constant in life. Norman Rockwell certainly never provided such a lovingly romantic image of a Midwestern wife!
Being in the kitchen and mentioning bad times seems to trigger the issue’s sixth flashback, which consists of four pages, each of which occur at a later moment in time. The first page of the flashback begins with Clark in a suit talking about how, despite his powers, he couldn’t save his own father. Viewers of the 1978 film will recall that Clark is wearing his suit because he and his mother have just attended Jonathan’s funeral. The flashbacks have skipped Jonathan’s death itself.
In this flashback’s second page, another scene from the 1978 film is shown — that in which Martha goes out into the fields to talk with Clark after noticing that he is simply standing there. It’s then that Clark tells her that he has to leave. Just as in the film, Clark, ever the dutiful son, tells her that he’s asked Ben Hubbard to check in on his mother. Left out is dialogue about where Clark’s going — vaguely north, as if driven by some unknown instinct, where he will later use the crystal from his ship to create the Fortress of Solitude.
The third page of this flashback sequence is entirely new. In it, Martha watches TV, apparently alone in the house. On the news, reporters tell us that astronomers have discovered a distant planet in satellite photos. The planet, so the news tell us, “seemingly possesses an atmosphere capable of sustaining life” and “appears to be a heavy-gravity planet with strange, crystalline formations on its surface.” It certainly sounds like Krypton, however completely improssible such a development would be in a world even approximating the real world’s current technology — though other planets have recently been discovered, scientists have no capacity to judge their atmosphere, let alone to see with surface-level detail so far into the universe (Baby Kal-El was said to have passed through multiple galaxies on the way to Earth in the 1978 film!).
The fourth page of the flashback is even more momentus. Just as Clark said goodbye to her in a field as he prepared to go north to find himself, now Clark is saying goodbye to fly into outer space, seeking to find his heritage. He tells her he has to go and desn’t know how long he’ll be gone.
With this flashback, the chronological flashbacks have effectively caught up with the present, suggesting that Martha’s simply been at home waiting these five years. But there are four more pages left in the issue, and those four pages would actually depict a scene from Superman Returns itself — the last scene, chronologically, in the entire preview mini-series.
Martha’s home at night as a rumble begins. The TV is playing static, suggesting that Martha has absent-mindedly left it on. The rumbling knocks Scrabble pieces off a board — apparently, Martha’s been playing the game with herself. then photos begin to fall off the mantle. An alarmed Martha goes to the porch and sees something streaking earthward through the sky.
Taking the same truck in which she and Jonathan found baby Kal-El, Martha sees the crash site, which looks very much like the crash site generated by Kal-El’s original landing. She gets out of her truck. Her facial expression is enigmatic, but her narrative anything but: she knows her boy has come home.
The issue offers a nice depiction of Martha Kent’s life during the five-year gap, and the flashbacks not only retell important parts of Clarks’s Smallville years but add new and important scenes, making a few changes along the way. If the story isn’t particularly emotionally involving, it’s only because Martha is shown so idealistically. Writer Marc Andreyko performs solid work in adapting the story, and artist Karl Kerschl, who had recently completed a run as artist on Adventures of Superman, provides the best art of the mini-series.
Curiously, the issue makes no mention of Martha’s love interest — none other then Ben Hubbard, the family friend who Clark says has agreed to look in on his mother. Superman Returns cleverly took this single line from the 1978 film and turned it into a minor plot line, one that further accentuated how much the world had changed in Clark’s absence. In fact, the film was originally going to have Martha tell Clark that she and Ben were moving away together. These scenes were cut from the theatrical release, reducing Ben’s role to a brief scene in which he drives away from the Kent house, speaking as he does to Martha as if relaxed and familiar with her, and a shot of him holding her in the crowd gathered in Metropolis as Superman is in the hospital. His exclusion from this particular prequel issue is certainly conspicuous and may suggest that the issue’s story was submitted to DC, or modified, rather late in the process, after Singer had decided to cut Hubbard’s role under time constraints.
Continue to the third issue, which focuses on Lex Luthor. Also available: “What Bryan Singer Has Done,” on the film itself.