The kindly couple from Smallville who found baby Kal-El in the rocket ship, raised him as their own, named him Clark Kent and instilled in him the strong moral compass to use his powers to help those in need. Jonathan and Martha Kent are sometimes shown to have passed on before Clark becomes Superman, in other versions of the story they remain alive to continue to help guide their adult son. Which is better?
In the latest instalment of our “Great Debate” feature, we ask the question…
Should Ma & Pa Kent be Alive During Clark’s Adult Years?
The death of Jonathan Kent is always a pivotal moment in Clark Kent’s journey, and “Superman: The Movie” seems to have cemented his passing as an essential beat in the mythos. It’s something we expect to see when reading or watching a new Superman story, but for a solid chunk of the character’s history, both Jonathan and Martha (or Eben and Sarah as they were named for a while) were dead. In fact, he seemed more frequently upset about being the sole survivor of the planet Krypton than the loss of the people who raised him. Of course, this was in the 40s and 50s, so naturally the science fiction elements of Superman would be played up to grab the attention of the kid browsing the comic racks instead of an issue in which Superman mourns the loss of his adoptive parents.
Jonathan’s death is usually always accompanied by the lesson that even with his immense power, Clark has limitations. He carries this lesson with him for the rest of his life and acts accordingly. Having Martha pass away would and should be the next step.
You become a different person when you lose your parents. When I was a kid, my step-father lost both of his parents back to back. It really broke him. Suddenly, the people who were with him from birth were gone, and for a while he struggled. He wasn’t the same guy I knew even a year prior. He eventually found his way again, but it took time. It’s a challenge we all have to face at some point or another, and Superman should be no exception.
In the hands of a competent writer, it could be a terrific story. Perhaps they die of old age, or are targeted by one of his foes. Clark would be brought to his lowest point and have to find the strength and hope within himself to continue as a person, a father, a husband, and as Superman. The best Superman stories are usually the ones where his battle is centered around his humanity. A story exploring the death of his parents in his adulthood has the potential to be one of his most humanizing.
From a continuity standpoint, it also makes sense to have Jonathan and Martha die. Comics exist in a sort of floating timeline where it’s hard to really pin down exactly how much time has passed. For the sake of argument, let’s say that three of our years is equal to one comic book year. At some point, it gets ridiculous to keep characters like Martha alive. For years, I’ve heard people speculate about how long Marvel plans to keep Spider-Man’s Aunt May alive because it’s reached a point where the reader can no longer suspend disbelief.
“Superman: The Movie” directly influences how writers shape Clark’s world. The film wasn’t the first piece of Superman media to kill off Jonathan, but I guarantee it’s the reason we have so rarely seen the passing of Martha. As nice as it is for Clark to be able to enjoy their company and seek their wisdom, the Kents have to die at some point. Considering DC’s affinity for reboots, they should also stay dead. No de-aging serums, no convincing of all-powerful beings, no pulling from alternate earths. It’s time their absence became the norm again.
One thing I loved more than anything else during John Byrne’s reboot is that he let the Kents live. Many readers felt at the time that Clark’s motivation for becoming Superman was the death of the Kents. We see him over their graves swearing that he will use the lessons that they taught him to become a great hero. Now this scene depends on what era we’re talking about. He always promised them he would use their teachings over their graves but was it in the Golden Age or Silver Age? You see before the mid 1940s the Kents had died when Clark was a young man, college age. He then went to Metropolis and became Superman. But sometime in the mid 40s Superboy was introduced. Clark, discovering his powers, put on the suit and, as a boy, started fighting crime. And aliens. And monsters. And who was there by his side? Why the Kents of course. Ma and Pa Kent were on hand to help Clark in the early years of his never-ending battle. Ma sewing his costume and Pa making the proper excuses for why Clark wasn’t around, while helping secure his hideout in the basement. You see the Kents were there to help him on his way, before dying of a mysterious illness they caught while on vacation during a cruise. Strange, but an easy way to get rid of them both. Now there are variations, but in the end they die and Clark makes his way to Metropolis. Where Superman Golden Age ended and his Silver Age began is confusing but the point is, until “Crisis” the Kents were always there in Smallville giving Superboy a helping hand, while grown Clark was on his own in Metropolis.
Then along came John Byrne who left the Kents alive, helping Clark in his quest as Superman. I loved that his parents were there to support their son and give advice when he needed it. After a hard day at the Daily Planet, it also gave Clark an excuse to fly home for some of Ma’s homemade pies. The way I see it, the Kents were always there since the 1940s, either in issues of “Adventure Comics” or in Superboy’s own title. In the main Superman books they were gone, but head on over for a Superboy adventure and there they were. I may not be the same as being there for adult Clark, but Ma and Pa were always there in the Superboy books for some home spun advice. It’s not really a stretch to keep them alive in current continuity. It was better this way. In the Silver Age when Kara was introduced, Clark finally had someone to confide in as Superman. Sure, there had been a character now and again he could talk to about his double identity, but they were few and far between. He couldn’t confide in Lois. In fact he did everything he could so she didn’t find out. And it was pretty much the same with Perry and Jimmy. He needed his parents to be there to help with all the hard questions about morality. About life. But they were not there. Until now.
The Kents are back in current continuity and I’m thrilled. Gone during the New 52 and Rebirth era, Brian Michael Bendis (in probably the only good decision he made for the character – at least in my opinion) brought the Kents back and I couldn’t be happier. Not only are they their to help their son Clark, but they now can give advice to his son Jonathon (the current Superman on earth) their only grandson.
The Kents represent all the good in Clark. Their teachings instilled in him his moral compass. Now that he’s become the hero they always new he could be, they’re on hand to reassure their son moving forward. How proud they must be at his every accomplishment. And Jonathon’s. We need the Kents just as much as they do. We feel their compassion and love and we know when Clark is off on another mission he will do the right thing because he’s got the guiding hand of his parents with him. And when he comes home his parents are there to greet him with open arms and the love he needs. Yes, I’m so happy the Kents are alive and kicking.
Many thanks to our Great Debaters – Mario Bennese and Marc Lax.
I’m more neutral on the Kents being alive or dead discourse among the fandom.
In my opinion, regardless of whether the Kents are alive or dead, Superman is a hero because of their lives and teachings not because of how they died.
I personally have no horse to bet on in this race but I have no problem with Jonathan and Martha being alive to see Clark become Superman. Also, from a familial standpoint, it makes sense to keep Clark’s parents alive during the time Clark himself becomes a father, if only to ask for advice on how to raise a superpowered child. Yes, I’m perfectly aware Jonathan and Martha are dead in Superman and Lois, but creativity is an art, not a science. The creators of that TV show were able to tell a good story by letting their own instincts… Read more »
This is another case where what matters, at least to me, is how writers handle the alternatives. Jonathan’s death in the original Reeve movie meant something in terms of Clark’s character development, while in Man of Steel the death was pointless.
I have an idea for another debate question. My ethical stance on superhero relationships is, you should propose marriage or sex with a civilian only if your prospective partner knows about your double identity, especially if you’re an alien. Do you agree? Only some incarnations of Superman follow this principle.
I think it depends on the story. For Superman the movie, pa Kent’s passing was the push that made Clark leave Smallville to become Superman. It’s was the same push that happened in Man of Steel, Superman and Lois, and in Smallville. However in Lois and Clark the new adventures of Superman, and in Superman: The Animated Series, Superman’s parents are both very much alive. Giving him advice from time to time. More so in the Lois and Clark series.
What matters to me most is how Superman is treated in the story and if that story makes sense.
The benefits of them being alive far outweigh the benefits of them being dead, in my opinion. When they’re alive, they’re part of the story. They can react to things, have feelings about things, even sometimes be heroes in their own right. Them being alive made “the death of Superman” feel so much more tragic, seeing it through their eyes. And when Jonathan fought his way across the afterlife to bring Clark back – epic! (If ridiculous and comic-booky). They can interact with other characters beyond Clark – from helping take care of The Matrix, Linda Danvers, Connor, Kara, and… Read more »
I think it’s time we see a version where they are alive. I loved the byrne era of comics when they were still around and he could come to them for advice. Same in Lois and Clark, superboy and Justice League unlimited. It was already done perfectly in superman the movie and clumsily in man of steel.
I prefer the middle ground, where Jonathan is dead but Martha is still around. That is the best of both worlds, as far as I’m concerned.