Remembering Jonathan Kent
In today’s Action Comics #870, Jonathan Kent dies. Again. While this is his first death since 1985’s Crisis on Infinite Earths, it’s a significant alteration to Superman’s status quo. ComicMix asked historian John Wells to take a look back at the character’s role in Superman’s life. Graphics were selected and are courtesy of our pal Mark Waid.
A bitterly fought election had come to a close but the victor had little time to enjoy himself. Instead, still in a rage over a blackmail attempt targeting his family, Jonathan Kent clutched his chest and collapsed, dying in the arms of his wife and son. Speaking of this pivotal event in Smallville’s 100th episode (January 26, 2006), executive producer Al Gough told TV Guide that this was “part of the Superman mythology that was always going to have to be told.” But did it really correspond with the comics?
In the beginning, Ma and Pa Kent didn’t exist at all. As far as Action Comics #1 (June 1938) was concerned, the infant Superman was simply discovered by a passing motorist and dropped off at an orphanage. And, even with a considerably longer account, the 1939 Superman comic strip stuck to that particular detail. Ultimately, it was 1939’s two-page origin at the front of Superman #1 that set down many of the details that fans would consider sacrosanct. Here, the Kents were actually shown discovering the super-baby’s rocket and asking a relieved orphanage to adopt him. And, as the vignette concluded, Clark Kent was seen standing at his foster-parents’ graves, inspired to honor their memory by becoming Superman.
The subsequent Superman radio show sidestepped the issue of Clark Kent’s formative years altogether. In this one, the passing motorist didn’t find a baby. Inside this rocket, he found a full-grown Superman ready to take on the world. Yikes!
On the other hand, George Lowther’s 1942 Adventures of Superman novel would provide the first in-depth look at the Kents. Fans of later generations are quick to point out the differences with the post-1940s stories — the Kents of the novel are Eben and Sarah, for instance — but there are also key details that were set down here for the first time: the facts that the couple was childless and saw the baby as a miracle; that Ma Kent named the child Clark because that was her family name; that Ma created the blue-and-red costume when Clark was a boy. There was even a Miss Lang here, though she was Clark’s eighth-grade teacher, not the classmate that Superboy would pine for in years to come.
Most significantly, though, for the subject at hand was the milestone of Clark’s seventeenth year. With the Kents facing bankruptcy, Eben decided to enter a County Fair contest that awarded a cash prize to the person who could hold an anvil over his head the longest. The old man failed, of course, and Clark jumped in to win in his place — catching the attention of Daily Planet editor Perry White in the process. But the die was cast and Eben had done irreparable harm to his heart. The doctor declared he wouldn’t last the night. Her eyes red, Sarah Kent told Clark his father wanted to see him. Here, for the first time, was the deathbed farewell in which Pa Kent urged his son to use his great powers for good and declared him — Superman!
It was a seminal moment, one destined to become part of the fabric of the mythology. When “the Origin of Superman” was finally recounted in the comics again during the Man of Steel’s 10th Anniversary (1948’s Superman #53), it concluded with the same deathbed scene, clearly borrowed from Lowther’s novel. There were, of course, changes in the finer details. Here, the Kents were John and Mary, a stepping-stone on the way to the definitive Jonathan and Martha of the 1950s. More significant was a detail that would stick in every comics account through the mid-1980s: Ma Kent preceded her husband in death!
Such details were ignored when the Adventures of Superman came to television on September 19, 1952. The pilot (“Superman On Earth”) owed much to Lowther’s novel, from the identification of the Kents as Eben and Sarah to Ma’s creation of the super-suit to Pa’s fateful heart attack (albeit when Clark was 25 rather than 17). Here, though, Eben Kent wasn’t allowed the luxury of any last words to his super-son. [Still, it was more than the 1948 movie serial offered. Here, both Ma and Pa were said to have died shortly before Clark left for Metropolis.]
In 1951’s Action Comics #158, the deathbed sequence from Superman #53 was revised slightly, this time finally acknowledging that Clark had already had a costumed career as Superboy. Indeed, details from the Boy of Steel’s adventures during 1950s issues would add considerably to the next story-length account of Superman’s formative years. [Jonathan Kent was first referred to as such in 1950’s Adventure Comics #149 while Mrs. Kent was initially “Marthe” in Superboy #12, amended to Martha in 1951’s Adventure #169.] Even with the updating, “the Story of Superman’s Life” (1961’s Superman #146) still culminated with Pa’s deathbed command that Clark continue to use his powers for good. Also of note is the fact that Ma died following Clark’s college graduation and that Pa didn’t pass on until a few months later. These facts would be dropped — and fairly quickly.
Two years later, Superman #161 (May, 1963) recounted “the Last Days of Ma and Pa Kent,” a title that begged for something more dramatic than simply having Clark’s parents die of old age. Herein, Clark built a boat and took his folks on a Caribbean cruise. On a tropical island, Jonathan and Martha discovered a pirate’s diary and insisted Superboy bring them to the past so that they could experience the events themselves. It was a grand journey but seemed to have come with a terrible cost. Back in Smallville, the Kents became deathly-ill and an astonished doctor concluded they had the Fever Plague, a highly-infectious fatal illness that had been eradicated more than a century earlier. Horrified, the teenage Clark was convinced he’d infected his parents by bringing them to the past. He tried everything — even agreed to a deal with inmate Lex Luthor — but nothing worked. Ma died and, shortly thereafter, Pa succumbed as well, rallying only long enough to urge his son to carry on as a hero. Wracked with guilt, Clark found himself unable to comply — until he discovered that his parents had contacted the plague from germs in the diary they’d found — not the trip to the 18th Century. (Fortunately, the Boy of Steel didn’t consider the fact that he’d sent them on the cruise in the first place.)
With fans gaining influence through letter columns in the 1960s, the point was occasionally raised that most kids had parents who were considerably younger than the Kents. In 1968, DC actually responded with a fanciful story in which an alien filmmaker conspired to rejuvenate Jonathan and Martha–permanently (Superboy #145). It wasn’t enough to make the Kents forty-something in new stories. A number of reprints during the period were altered as well to conform to the new look. Among these was the reprint of “Last Days” in Superboy #165 (1970), where some fairly modest editing — whiting out the Kents’ glasses, coloring their hair brown and eliminating Pa’s double-chin — was all it took to make the piece jibe with current continuity. Later, in Superman #327, it was stated that, in fact, the rejuvenation wore off after a time and the Kents were older when they died. In the Superboy series, a compromise was reached (effective with 1979’s Superman Family #195) in which Jonathan and Martha kept their brown hair but once again wore glasses.
The Fever Plague, incidentally, returned to haunt the Man of Steel in 1981 when Lois Lane and Lana Lang were infected with the scourge (Superman #362-363). Once again, Superman was stymied, deducing only at the last moment that super-antibodies in his own bloodstream could cure them as it cured him when he was exposed. The original story had made a point of noting that the Plague only affected adults. Since Superboy had been immune, he’d never developed the antibodies at the time and couldn’t have saved his parents.
A genuinely touching exploration of what the Kents had meant to Clark — and he to them — appeared a year earlier in 1980’s “Miraculous Return of Jonathan Kent” (Action Comics #507-508). Stunned when his dad showed up for a surprise visit in Metropolis, Clark overcame his disbelief in the face of overwhelming evidence and accepted the miracle for what is was: Jonathan Kent was alive and well. It wasn’t quite that simple, of course, but Pa Kent couldn’t reveal the truth (which had been set up in New Adventures of Superboy #6): years earlier, aliens looked into Jonathan’s subconscious and promised to grant him his fondest wish — seeing his son as an adult. Clark’s euphoria at the reunion was tempered a bit by Pa’s meddling — he blabbed Superman’s secret identity to Lois Lane — but father always did know best. In the end, it didn’t matter anyway. Jonathan’s return from the grave had a time limit. When he returned to the afterlife, no one even remembered it had happened. The celebrated two-parter was reprinted for the third time in Superman In the Eighties (2006).
While the comics continuity had been stable for years, 1978’s landmark Superman the Movie was a melting pot of influences. As in the 1952 TV episode, Pa Kent [finally named Jonathan on screen] suffered a fatal heart attack without any last words. Luckily, Pa [played by Glenn Ford] had given his seventeen-year-old son the Talk about power and responsibility shortly beforehand. As in Lowther’s novel and the TV series, Ma was left to tend the farm while her son left to seek his destiny.
The movie had a profound influence on writer-artist John Byrne and, when provided with the opportunity to restart the Superman comic book series from the ground up, he made it a point to incorporate elements from the film, notably its cold, sterile version of Krypton. But there were departures, as well, none more startling than his decision to keep Ma and Pa Kent alive into the Man of Steel’s adulthood. Erroneously recalling that the Kents’ deaths had been a Silver Age innovation, Byrne initially claimed he was returning things to the original template. Knowledgeable fans were quick to point out that, as noted in the preceding paragraphs, Clark’s adoptive parents had always been said to have died as he reached manhood. Regardless, the decision was a popular one, even among those who generally disliked the relaunch. In the new history, Clark had never been Superboy and first put on his costume as Superman (1986’s Man of Steel #1). By keeping the Kents around, Byrne retained a bit of the warmth and accessibility of the Superboy era.
Consequently, the Kents figured into all the subsequent film interpretations of Superman, appearing in the short-lived 1988 Superman cartoon and the more successful live-action Superboy syndicated program and 1990s animated series. Indeed, Jonathan and Martha (played by Eddie Jones and K Callan) were part of the regular cast on the Dean Cain-Teri Hatcher hit, Lois and Clark.
Which isn’t to say that comics writers weren’t fully aware of how memorable Glenn Ford’s Superman the Movie demise still was in the minds of fans. From time to time, they’ve teased readers with the possibility of Jonathan Kent’s death — from Pa being killed beneath a tractor in an alternate timeline (1991’s Action Comics Annual #3) to his disappearance following a catastrophic assault on Kansas (2001’s Superman #172 to 175). Most vivid was his role in 1993’s follow-up to the “Death of Superman” spectacular. In turmoil over Clark’s death, Jonathan finally suffered a heart attack (Superman: Man of Steel #21) and flat-lined (Superman #77), climaxing with a sequence in which his spirit discovered Clark’s own life-essence. Resuscitated , Pa was certain his son had returned to life, too (Adventures of Superman #500). And he was right — though it took a few more months to confirm it.
It was no surprise, then, that Smallville would engage in the same sort of teases. Throughout its five-year run, Jonathan Kent endured a heart attack and periodic chest pains, his health woes mentioned often enough that fans could hardly claim that his demise in January came out of the blue. Which didn’t lessen the blow at the loss of a character fully realized by John Schneider.
Published a scant six months after Jonathan Kent’s death on Smallville, Justice League of America #0 consisted of a series of flashbacks and flash-forwards involving Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. Particularly ominous was a sequence ten pages in wherein Bruce Wayne and Diana Prince consoled Clark Kent and his mother in the wake of tragedy. Several months later, in the non-canonical All-Star Superman #6 (March 2007), readers actually watched as this incarnation of Clark’s father suffered a fatal heart attack while Superman was occupied with an entity called the Chronovore. Whether these events were part of mainstream continuity or not, one got the palpable sense that Pa Kent’s days were numbered and added a degree of significance to a heartfelt father-son chat (Action Comics #867) or a cover with the two leaning on a moonlit fence (Action #869).
Whether Jonathan’s 2006 on-screen death really jibed with the Superman mythology is subjective. If we’re talking pre-1980s film, yeah. Otherwise, the answer’s a little murkier. In the end, all these interpretations of Superman tend to feed off one another anyway.