Comic Fodder

Saying Goodbye to Jonathan Kent

I had to check with Travis before I wrote this column, but he assures me that at this time we're past the point of my column accidentally blowing a story point. So if I accidentally spoiled things for you... my apologies.

As some of you may have read either at the New York Mail, Newsarama, or guessed from looking at the covers of Superman comics of late, Jonathan “Pa” Kent died of a heart attack in the pages of Action Comics last week. Fan mood has been varied, from complimentary of the handling of the death to disappointment that DC would take the character off the playing board.

The Lives and Deaths of Jonathan Kent

In Superman’s debut in Action Comics #1, both Ma and Pa Kent had already passed on, leaving Pa and Ma Kent’s death to be revealed in Adventure Comics as Superboy wrapped up high school.

TV’s “Adventures of Superman” would give us the death of Pa Kent in the first episode, setting Clark Kent off to the big city.

Glenn Ford would give us the human tragedy of Pa Kent’s death in Superman: The Movie, perhaps most dramatically framing the father/son relationships which would come to define the first two Superman movies and drive the plot of Superman Returns.

Byrne and Wolfman’s mid-80’s reboot of the franchise sought to integrate the relationship of the Kent’s with Clark from the Superboy comics with the Superman mythos, and so a post-Crisis on Infinite Earths Superman may have lost his Kryptonian parents, but had the Kents to turn to as advisors. A wise step as Clark was not to really know his alien heritage (according to pre-Infinite Crisis comics) until he’d already started his career as Superman.

Most modern Superman comic readers have either grown up with the Kent’s and their farm as a safe-haven for Clark (no matter how many times it’s been destroyed in one storyline or other. It’s got be a half-dozen, at least), or else they’ve had 20 years to get used to the status quo.

There was something of a change as by the 1980’s “elderly couple” no longer meant what it had meant in 1938 as life expectancies greatly increased, lifestyles changed, etc… The Kents could be older, and perhaps elderly by the time Clark was acting as Superman, but “elderly” wasn’t what it had been, and takes on the Kents in the comics, Superman: The Animated Series and the primetime series “Lois and Clark” showed an active and able Jonathan and Martha Kent.

Of course, super-wacky-alternate-take on Superman over in Smallville saw John Schneider exit stage left from the series as Pa Kent suffered a heart attack (as the veteran actors on the show began to bail left and right).

In short, a living, breathing Pa Kent as a guiding force for Superman is important, but it's important as a source for Superman's background, but a Pa Kent who has been alive during Superman's adult career, who saw Superman married, etc... has not always been the status quo.

The Five Stages of Grief

Stages 1 and 2

Some readers have decried the death of Jonathan Kent as meaningless or pointless, with Pa Kent dead for all of about one panel of one comic. It’s the kind of an interesting mix of (1) Denial and (2) Anger that a favorite character and iconic character has been taken from them as readers. One panel of dead Pa Kent, and some are asking “what’s the point? Why would DC do this?”

In some ways, that speaks more about the mentality of comic readers than it does about what Johns is doing with the Superman mythos. You can look at it as the Pre-COIE audience coming to a head with the post-COIE audience, as the Post-COIE audience is convinced that all of Johns’ decisions are intended to bring back the pre-COIE era of Superman.

Whether true or not (there’s more than ample evidence to support the claim), Johns has push the mega-narrative of the Superman books forward rather than rest upon a decision made wisely more than 20 years ago. It is a decision that cannot be undone, such as bringing back Barry Allen, as somehow the loss of Pa Kent versus the loss of The Flash (or even Superman) might have been easonable in comc terms to assume was only temporary. Pa Kent is what kept Superman grounded and acted as his compass, and he has a different place in DC lore. He is not one of the mythic characters who we can buy would return to life (along with Ma, Lois, Jimmy, Perry, etc...)

While readers may take umbrage of the “everything old is new again” approach to Action Comics, they may also take heed of what they’re asking for: may the Superman universe as I know it never change.

Stage 3

Stage 3 would be Bargaining, and my best guess is that readers will begin to use fan message boards to concoct fanfic ways in which Jonathan Kent either never really died, or in which he could easily be returned (or, you know, a deal with the devil in which Clark and Lois were never married). Or, the painful, inevitable issue in which some writer will show us how Pa Kent performed some other extraordinary miracle in between those panels as his heart gave out, rather than the quiet dignity of Johns’ scene. Other scenarios will include panel-by-panel dissections of how Clark COULD have saved Pa Kent (this will be missing the point).

Stage 4

Depression will creep in with stage 4, which will be fans discussing how the loss of Pa Kent has simply ruined Superman for them, and some will mark it as the event that let them know Johns, DC and Superman are all frauds, and/ or how they just never felt the Superman books were the same after Pa was murdered by that evil, evil man Geoff Johns.

Stage 5

Others will let Johns spin the story out as he sees fit, and that’s Stage 5: Acceptance.

I envision a time many years down the road when readers will know there was a period in which the writers rebooted the DCU (COIE), and in that reboot, Pa Kent was around for about twenty years. Superman nuts will also know that Pa Kent died during the first appearance of how we’ve known Brainiac for the past several years. Readers will not be shocked or appalled. It will simply be one more bit of Superman trivia, like how Johns was able to restore Kandor, the Legion, and a supporting cast for Superman.

Older readers may, at that point, note to newer readers that all of the time on the Kent farm was okay, but it was a distraction in the comics from Superman’s supporting cast and the environment of the Daily Planet. That Johns was the first person in ten years to take the Planet seriously as a part of the overall Superman mythos, and how restoring the staff at the planet had its own very humanizing effect as Superman was no longer surrounded by simply doting parents, but by all stripes of characters he cared about.

Rest in Peace, Pa Kent

This Superman fan will miss Jonathan Kent. Among superhero comic books, Superman is unique in its portrayal of the strength of the family bond as a positive thing, and understanding what Ma and Pa Kent and Smallville represent, and how that works in the narrative for a character of limitless potential like Kal-El of Krypton. Odd and sad that so few other characters are given those same building blocks.

We can look at Pa Kent (and Ma as well) as the defining force for who Superman is, as the person who understood the potential of his adopted son and whose good nature and sense of responsibility was as much a gift as Kal-El's Kryptonian heritage. Advisor and confidant, Jonathan Kent provided the ideal to which so many sons aspire to and feel they may not reach, but who was always truly proud of who his son had become. Unique, again, to the superhero comic.

Death of a parent is a natural part of life, and while comics may often provide a seemingly seemingly endless single year in a character's life, freezing time in amber doesn't allow for character growth, change or development. Hopefully that's the direction Johns plans to head.

Fan reaction as a negative is fair. Jonathan Kent is a much loved character, and after enjoying his portrayal since I first picked up copies of Man of Steel, I’ve felt Byrne made the right decision by keeping the Kents alive (and it certainly beats the odd story in which the Silver-Age Kents died).

At this point, we have to hope DC has a plan for the future of the Superbooks in which the death of Pa Kent will fit into context for a modern audience. And it stands as a most poignant reminder that Clark can’t be everywhere and do everything, even with all his powers, and even when achieving an unforeseen, unbelievable victory.

If Johns is reaching back to the movies and previous comics to remind readers of Superman and what makes him work, then I have no problem with that. As he shores up the Superman titles with a solid foundation of the past, we can hope he's looking toward the future (and a long, long stay on the Superman titles).

So long, Pa Kent. Comics were a better place for having you.


Questions? Comments? Hate mail?

Come on, I can take it.

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Ryan is an Op/Ed columnist for Comic Fodder. He keeps his comics and himself in Austin, Texas where he manages the long running blog League of Melbotis.

He likes Superman.

You can reach Ryan (aka: The League) at theleague.cf@gmail.com

I think the best Pa Kent death ever was in All Star Superman. Why is it that Superman can save everyone except his adopted father. Morrison really nailed it with an excellent issue.

-- Posted by: Simon MacDonald at October 15, 2008 2:06 PM

I am such a heel for missing that example. Thanks, Simon!

Readers who have not been following All Star Superman are missing a book that exemplifies the best of Superman and the Superman story.

-- Posted by: Ryan at October 15, 2008 2:52 PM

This may be one of the few deaths that "sticks," but only because Pa Kent was never an actual super-hero. I submit that if Pa had powers, he would be back some time within the next 20 years!

-TP

-- Posted by: tpull at October 16, 2008 12:46 AM

Agreed. And I am not entirely uncertain that DC won't have another Crisis in 20 years and we won't see Pa pop up all over again...

-- Posted by: Ryan at October 16, 2008 12:49 PM