Look, up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s Superman!
Welcome to a new month of Retcons, Reboots, and Resurrections. While Marvel Comics’ star-spangled Avenger took the spotlight in May, now that it’s June we’re turning our eyes over to their distinguished competition and their sometimes proclaimed boy scout hero as well as his superfamily and allies.
As usual for this column: Retcons are elements retroactively added to a character’s history, reboots can either be revivals of a character/their title or extensive changes to canon, and resurrections are characters clawing their way back from the afterlife. Each week we’ll explore the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to Retcons, Reboots, and Resurrections!
With every single comic book character that has existed for decades, there are intrinsic things that are known about them and become truths that follow them no matter the medium. These can be code names, cities they work out of, or specific relationships/partnerships that stand the test of time.
In many cases, though those things that we know of as just pure truths about the said character were not always the case. Retcons are truly just part of the DNA of ongoing comic books, especially in the earlier days when these stories were ever-shifting changing experiments that they were never certain how long the ride might last.
Ask most folks who Superman’s parents are on Earth and they’ll no doubt shout out Marthan and Jonathan Kent. Thing is, that wasn’t the case at all the day that Superman made his original debut. In fact, it took over a decade for that to become the reality we now know.
All the way back in 1938 when Superman made his debut in Action Comics #1, by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the overall nature of his arrival on Earth was the same. A planet on the brink of destruction, a scientist puts his only son into a rocket, which brings said son to the planet Earth. Upon arrival, the baby was found by a “passing motorist” who delivered the child to an orphanage. From there he went on to become Clark Kent and Superman, after showing off his amazing strength as a baby at the orphanage and learning his other powers later, and a “champion of the oppressed.”
It would take around a year before he was given adoptive parents in 1939’s Superman #1, also from Siegel and Shuster, but only his mother was given the name of Mary Kent. In the 1940s there were some discrepancies in other Superman materials such as The Adventures of Superman a 1942 novel by George Lowther where the parents were known as Eben and Sara. These names carried over to the Adventures of Superman television series that ran from 1952 to 1958.
The late ’40s though were the turning point for the Kents and the origin story of Kal-El/Superman, reaching a point relatively similar to what we know today (their status of living or deceased being the most common difference between eras and mediums).
The Nitty Gritty:
It would take ten years to fully reach the point of the biggest retcon to the history of the character at this point. In 1948 Superman #53 was released and was billed as the “ten-year anniversary” for the character. To celebrate the issue features an extensive retelling of Superman’s origin story, including tons of changes from what had been seen in Action Comics and other stories over the years.
Here it was not only established that Kal-El/Clark’s adoptive parents were now named John and Mary Kent but it firmly established that the Kents were the ones that found the infant Kal-El when his ship crashed on Earth. They took him to a “home for foundlings” and made sure to express their interest in adopting him which they were allowed to do once Clark’s abilities started to manifest. Also, it came with the addition that both of the Kents died from natural causes as Clark was approaching adulthood, with his father begging him to go out and be a force for good as well as suggesting the name Superman.
John would become Jonathan Kent within Adventures Comics #149 in 1950 while Mary Kent became Martha Kent in Superboy #12 in 1951 and then Martha in subsequent appearances over the years. Later stories would establish John and Mary Kent as the Kents from Earth Two, where the golden age heroes lived, and Jonathan and Martha Kent as being from Earth One where the silver age heroes were from.
Appearances of the Kents were sporadic at times until the aforementioned Superboy series kicked off in 1949 where they became supporting characters alongside the teenage version of Clark. This is the series that even more firmly set up a lot of the backstory. From naming Smallville to giving another version of the Kents finding and adopting/naming Clark, this time having it where they discovered his powers after they adopted him (which makes sense in allowing the character to have an actual secret identity). Here they would end up contracting a fatal and rare disease during a trip to the Caribbean Islands following Clark’s graduation from high school.
Then came Crisis On Infinite Earths in 1985 which collapsed the multiverse and led to reboot/reshufflings for many characters including Superman. Man of Steel in 1986 by John Byrne saw the Kents returned to life and aged down (they were mostly elderly in the early stories) so that they are more middle age and early elderly when they survive into Clark’s adulthood. They still found Clark when he arrived on Earth but the orphanage was taken out because they found him during a snowstorm (which buried the farm in snow for months) and passed him off as their own newborn child after the storm passed.
In this timeline, the Kents stayed involved in Clark’s life through his adult life all the way till 2008 when Jonathan died from a heart attack after an attack by Brainiac. Martha was still alive until 2011 when the Flashpoint series rebooted everything into the New 52 where the Kents were reverted to their deaths while Clark was in high school status quo (dying in a car crash the night of Clark’s senior prom). They returned to the land of the living after the timeline was moved all around again in 2020 during the Dark Nights: Death Metal event.
This is one of the types of ongoing retcons that overall has been more additive to the tapestry of a character rather than harmful. Over time the changes to the Kents made the story stronger for Superman, giving him parents that were there for him the whole time (training and caring for him) and a human connection. This also made the idea that Superman was the secret identity and Clark Kent (his human identity) is the true face, which makes him the opposite of Batman.
The subsequent changes to kill them again to me were made in error, as Jonathan and Martha add so much to Clark’s world. It’s better if they are there to be part of their son’s life and people that he can bounce things off of, and a place he can go to be safe and at home when he needs it.
Next Week: When a partial reboot brings conflict to the Man of Steel