The concept of a secret identity is a lot harder to contemplate in an era where identities are only as secretive as a botched instagram post. It was probably a lot easier decades ago when only the CIA, the DEA, and George Lucas utilized elaborate camera tricks. So someone like Clark Kent could get away with having a secret identity, especially with all the skills and powers that come along with being Superman. Over his history, he’s had to elaborate and creative. He’s not like Batman, who has enough money and gadgets to make most of his identity issues go away. But in this era, elaborate and creative just isn’t enough.
This creates a logistical problem of sorts for Superman. He lives in an era where phone booths are as extinct as eight-track tapes and everyone has a camera in their pocket. Yet somehow he’s still able to keep his identity secret from his friends, his family, the NSA, and Fox News. It’s one of those issues that’s easy to shrug off because it’s been part of Superman’s mythos since the 1940s, a time when a camera cost a mortgage payment. But after discovering a new power and keeping all his secrets solely amongst the Justice League, he’s taken a chance and revealed his identity to someone.
It’s overdue and it lacks impact, but it’s still an important development. Superman #39 explores that development in wake of the conflict surrounding Ulysses. It’s a development that didn’t have much of a transition, but it still counts as a pivotal moment for Superman. It even ends up being more than pivotal. It offers a refreshing insight into what makes Superman the ideal by which all heroes are measured.
The revelation itself isn’t the center of the story. It essentially starts a conversation that ends up going way beyond the merits of a secret identity in the 21st century. Jimmy Olsen’s reaction is fairly predictable. It’s not overdone or overly dramatic. For a character like Jimmy Olsen, that’s appropriate. He’s still this wide-eyed kid who sees the world from the perspective of someone whose spirit hasn’t been crushed by mortgages, bills, and the IRS.
To Jimmy Olsen, his best friend being Superman is like finding out his best friend just bought a Ferrari. It’s shocking, but in a good way. Nobody faints. Nobody gets mad. He doesn’t whine about his friend lying to him all these years. He just accepts it and embraces this revelation. It might come off as bland, but it’s not callous. He doesn’t shrug it off or get overly worked up. And it’s because Jimmy’s reaction is so healthy that Superman can offer some perspective about what he’s going through.
In addition to revealing his identity, Superman is also dealing with not having his powers for a day. It’s one of the unfortunate side-effects of his latest DragonballZ derived ability to generate a solar flare. But not having his powers doesn’t cripple him. He doesn’t tremble with fear and he doesn’t carry himself like he’s not Superman anymore. He actually embraces the opportunity to be fully human and having someone like Jimmy Olsen to share the experience with makes it meaningful.
It’s probably the most mature way anyone has ever responded to a loss. Most people have a nervous breakdown whenever they drop their cell phone in the toilet. Superman lost the power that makes him Superman. That’s a lot more serious than simply not being able to Tweet from an elevator. But this loss doesn’t cause Superman to curl up into a fetal position and pray to Rao for the strength. It doesn’t even stop him from being Superman and this is where the true impact of the story shows.
Even though he’s fully human and completely vulnerable, Superman still doesn’t hesitate to help people in need. When a girl falls out of a tree, he helps her. When a crazed gunman takes a hostage, he does something about it. He does it when he’s just Clark Kent in normal street clothes. He also does it while he’s wearing his Superman armor. Not having his powers doesn’t change that in the slightest. He’s still Superman. He can still be the hero everyone needs him to be without his powers. In that sense, even other heroes who might complain about not being able to lift a freight train have no excuse.
The story doesn’t contain much in the form of style, nor does it offer anything decidedly epic like Superman’s final battle against Ulysses. But it does offer a beautiful reminder of why Superman is so iconic. It shows that Superman doesn’t do what he does because of his powers. In fact, his powers wouldn’t even rank in top five in terms of reasons why he’s the ideal by which all heroes are measured. He does the right thing, regardless of whatever power he may or may not have. That ideal is and always has been Superman’s greatest power.
This underlying theme is the greatest strength of the story. It’s a theme worth reinforcing. It’s easy to forget in between clashes with Lex Luthor and battles against alien warlords that Superman is more than the breadth of his powers. There will always be some satisfaction to the stories where he decks Lex Luthor and flies off with Lois Lane into the sunset. But there’s a different kind of satisfaction in stories that show why Superman embodies the ideals of so many heroes before and since his creation. It could be argued that him punching out Lex Luthor is more satisfying, but reinforcing those ideals is definitely more meaningful.
The story in Superman #39 isn’t overly epic. Revealing his identity to Jimmy Olsen doesn’t make for an overwhelming narrative, but it still does so in a meaningful way. It just ends up becoming secondary once Superman gets a chance to be Superman without his powers. It’s easy to be inspired by a man who isn’t afraid to do the right thing even when he can’t punch through a brick wall. But with or without Superman’s powers, it still doesn’t make glasses a viable disguise.