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NPR Politics presents the Lunchbox List: our favorite campaign news and stories curated from NPR and around the Web in digestible bites (100 words or less!). Look for it every weekday afternoon from now until the conventions.

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"Take This Job and Planet!": Why Clark Kent Quit His Day Job

Oct 24, 2012
Originally published on October 24, 2012 4:42 pm

By now you've likely heard that in the pages of Superman #13, on stands today, Clark Kent quits his once-beloved great metropolitan newspaper.

Disillusioned by his employer's increasing predilection for glitzy infotainment over hard-hitting news, Clark takes a principled stand and abandons print journalism for the web, a medium blissfully free of petty, frivolous, celebrity-driven content OH WAIT

As I got to mention on yesterday's All Things Considered, it's not the first time Kent and the Daily Planet have parted ways*, and it won't be the last. But this latest instance, as written by Scott Lobdell, makes a measure of intrinsic sense, once you consider who Clark Kent is.

For one thing, he's not Peter Parker.

An Essential Difference

Reporter Kent and photojournalist Parker — the alter egos of DC and Marvel's two flagship characters, respectively — have both found themselves hit by the challenges now facing the print news industry. But how their respective experiences have differed says a lot about who they are as characters, and what they represent.

Two years ago, you may recall, Peter "Spider-Man" Parker found himself unceremoniously canned from his decades-long gig at the Daily Bugle.

Peter Parker, fired? Having to scramble to find a new job? And worry about making his rent?

Well ... yeah. Of course. That's who the guy is, who he's always been: The sad sack, the unlucky schlub we all too often glimpse in the mirror. He's one of us. That's what he is for.

Superman, unlike ol' Webhead, is not the hero with whom we identify, he's the hero in whom we believe.

The Man of Steel represents us at our very best — which is just a nice way of saying that, most days, he's better than we are. But then, that's what he's for: He's an icon, and ideal, a cobalt-blue example, a model for a breed of selflessness and determination to which we aspire.

And what else would an ideal be but an idealist himself? We already know the guy believes in slapping capital letters on abstractions like Truth, Justice and the American Way. The fact that the Truth in that equation turns out to include the journalistic variety, and that he's wiling to sacrifice a steady paycheck to pursue it?

It lines up.

Howard Roark in Circus Tights?

And yet it's possible to detect a troubling undercurrent in some of the interviews coming out of the DC offices, like this one from USA TODAY.

"[Clark's decision to quit] is really what happens when a 27-year-old guy is behind a desk and he has to take instruction from a larger conglomerate with concerns that aren't really his own," [writer Scott] Lobdell explains.

"Superman is arguably the most powerful person on the planet, but how long can he sit at his desk with someone breathing down his neck and treating him like the least important person in the world?"

Since DC's New 52 reboot last year, Superman's writers have endeavored to cast the Man of Steel in his original Golden Age mold — a social activist in spandex, a bully to those who would bully the little guy.

World War II filed down the character's hard edges, transforming him first into a patriotic symbol and, later, into a coolly paternal representative of the Establishment. But in today's DC Universe, Superman has once again assumed the role of crusader, giving corporate fat-cats the old what-for. So the notion that New-52 Clark Kent would challenge a large media conglomerate fits with who he is.

But I dunno. Something about that quote — the way it posits a Man of Steel seething with resentment over the fact that his specialness is going unrecognized, unrewarded — introduces discordant and distinctly un-Super notes of Millennial entitlement and, weirdly, Ayn Rand.

And that would represent a fundamental mis-read of the character. The fact that Superman puts the needs of others over those of himself is coded into the character's DNA. It's not a thing he does, it is who he is. It's all he is.

So that's the question: Whither the Man of Tomorrow, tomorrow? Will he become an online raker of muck, or content himself with cupcake blogging? Or will he in fact emerge as an Objectivist Man of Reason, dismissing supervillain and citizen alike as "specimens of insolent depravity who make demands" on him, as the Randians say?

I hope not that last one, but I do have to admit: It'd free up the guy's schedule.

*Kent's packed up his desk at least three times over the years, by my count. In 1952, the Daily Planet got shut down by its publisher, briefly; in 1971 it was bought out by Galaxy Broadcasting Company and Clark Kent became a roving TV reporter, which he would remain for most of the 70s; and in 1998, Lex Luthor purchased the Planet and fired Kent and most of the staff, for a time.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.