One of the industry’s big super-hero comics publishers made another successful foray into mainstream-media public relations, with DC announcing Clark Kent is quitting his job as a news reporter at The Daily Planet in a soon-to-be-published Superman comic book. My immediate reaction to the news was simple: “So what?”
A USA Today story makes it seem like this is an unprecedented move, that Clark Kent has been eternally tied to the Planet. Longtime comics readers know this not to be the case. When the character debuted in 1938, he worked at The Daily Star, which later evolved to be The Daily Planet. Writer Grant Morrison would later pick up on this concept for the New 52 relaunched of the character, having him freelance at The Daily Star, a Planet competitor.
More noteworthy was DC’s decision to shake up the status quo of Clark Kent’s career back in the 1980s by removing him from The Daily Planet and putting him in a TV news anchor’s chair alongside his boyhood squeeze, Lana Lang. It made for some interesting interpersonal dynamics, which was vital at that time in the character’s history. The Superman of the 1980s (the one you should picture was illustrated by the late, great Curt Swan) was God. There was nothing he couldn’t do. This was the super-hero who could juggle planets, overpowered to the point that required every conflict to involve Kryptonite and/or magic.
While Planet reporter Clark could duck into a supply closet to change identities at a moment’s notice, WGBS anchor Clark had to be in a makeup chair at a specific time every day, had to sit on camera for an hour while disaster unfolded somewhere in the world. Furthermore, DC writers set up a compelling love triangle with Clark, Lana and Lois (who was still with the Planet).
Today, we’ve got Lois as a TV news producer, with Clark leaving the newspaper followed by another female supporting character (Cat Grant). The USA Today story suggests Clark will be launching his own media venture, likely an online publication dedicated to hard news. Mind you, how an entertainment reporter such as Cat Grant would fall into a news-focused effort isn’t clear. Nevertheless, it looks like a similar dynamic is being developed for the Man of Steel of the 21st century, and it’s a formula that’s worked in the past. The problem is DC is trying to make it look like it and writer Scott Lobdell are breaking new ground when really, they’ve really just undertaken a slight remodelling job. In both scenarios, Clark leaves the newspaper business for a more popular medium, with a gal pal at his side.
DC released a page from the issue in question — Superman #13 — featuring Clark’s speech in the Planet newsroom justifying his decision. I find it quite ironic the mainstream-media exposure of this development in a super-hero comic represents exactly the sort of thing against which Clark rails — fluffy, pop-culture-driven items eclipsing real and important issues of the day.
Though I haven’t been reading the current incarnation of Superman since George Perez left the title as its regular writer earlier this year, I’m pleased to see the creators who have taken over the title are continuing to explore the issue of the news media in the 21st century. In the scene in which Clark issues his ideological proclamation, Perry White retorts, “Go easy on us mortals, Clark. Times are changing and print is a dying medium.” The challenges the Planet faces in the story reflect not only real-world ones in the newspaper industry, but also those faced by DC Comics itself as it struggles to stave off ebbing readership and find a way to foster an audience for online comics.
Digital-publishing initiatives in the world of comics aside, I feel it important to argue Perry is wrong. Print isn’t a dying medium. What’s dying are past business models. As I’ve suggested in the past, printed material isn’t in danger of extinction. It’s still viable and important, especially when it comes to the news. Where print is dying is in the large newsroom, the massive news-gathering operations of larger, iconic newspapers. The Daily Planet would certainly fall into such a category. The reports of collapse in the print newspaper industry flow from big-city newspapers, but holding their own are smaller, community-oriented newspapers.
These are the newspapers that are covering the local stories no one else is, the smaller stories that don’t make it only to the TV evening news. Such publications boast news features and lighter fare from the community, but they’re also the ones covering local court beats, presenting the important but almost invisible details of town councils’ budgets. These community newspapers have modest but stable circulations. Many have seen their numbers decrease in the past decade or so, but at a slower rate than their big brothers. They serve small businesses that need more focused advertising options than regional TV news channels can provide. Such publications have had to adapt with the digital age along with the big boys such as The New York Times, and they’ve seen staff cuts as well. But they’re chugging along solidly, and while the advertising base has shrunk, it remains a solid foundation.
Bringing the discussion back to comics, comics publishers such as DC and Marvel Entertainment are like those smaller, community-driven newspapers. At one time, they were like the Times or other such large newspapers, with circulation numbers in the millions, but now their customers are measured in the tens of thousands. But it’s a dedicated niche market that can be maintained.
Follow Eye on Comics on Twitter.