Superman, You're Not Clark Kent -- And I Can Prove It!

The cover to Action Comics #457 (Mar. 1976) has taken on something of a life of its own on the Web, thanks to artist Bob Oksner's unintentionally suggestive composition and the puerile imagination of the average internet user, but lurking behind that cover is a harmless and charming tale involving one of Superman's greatest friendships.

Writer Gerry Conway and artists Curt Swan and Tex Blaisdell start us off in the suburbs of Metropolis, where the newly-minted (and frankly goofy-looking) super-villain Whirlicane is attempting to hijack a train pulling dozens of oil tank cars (we're in the midst of the 70s Energy Crisis here, remember). Superman thwarts the attempt, but the villain escapes by coating our hero from head to toe with molten lead, temporarily blocking his vision.

Superman's mind isn't really on the encounter anyway, as he's on his way to a hospital in answer to an urgent message from his boyhood friend Pete Ross. At the hospital, Pete reveals that his son, Jonathan, is dying. The doctor says, "it's not just a medical problem at this point," explaining "Jonathan has lost the will to survive!" To remedy this situation, Pete wants Superman to give Jon the thing he most desires in life, hoping this will get him thinking positive again, and back in the pink of health. Unfortunately, what Jon wants is only the most closely guarded secret on Earth.

The interesting twist, here, of course, is that Pete learned the secret of Superman's identity years ago when the two lived in Smallville, a fact he's kept from Superman in order to secretly aid him in protecting that ID. I always enjoyed that element of the mythos; Pete's own brand of quiet heroism was as impressive to me as Superman's own, and certainly easier to aspire to. Even if Conway never quite convinces me that learning the secret will somehow save Jonathan, it's still impressive that Pete is unwilling to betray his oldest friendship even to save the life of his son.

Proving Pete's loyalty is not misplaced, Superman does indeed reveal the secret, changing to Clark in front of Jonathan in the privacy of his hospital room. It does not go as well as hoped.

Superman now finds himself in the novel position of having to prove he's Clark Kent to someone who refuses to believe him. He soon learns he may have done too good a job at covering his tracks over the years.

Superman flies Jonathan to the Galaxy Broadcasting Building and says he'll dress as Clark again and walk amongst his co-workers to see if anyone can tell the difference. If they accept him as Clark, it will prove that's his regular disguise.

Unfortunately, pain-in-the-neck superjock Steve Lombard happens to overhear this exchange and decides Superman is helping Clark play a joke on him, to make up for all the ones he's pulled on Clark. So after playing along for a few minutes, he rips off Clark's jacket and shirt to reveal he's Superman, right in front of Lois Lane.

Flying Jonathan out of the Galaxy building, Superman spots Whirlicane's hovercraft again, this time attached to a passing cargo plane. Taking Jonathan along to treat him to a ring-side seat at a super-showdown, Superman flies into the plane and thwarts the high-altitude robbery, dispatching Whirlicane with an unlikely maneuver:

Okay, I'm not an expert on physics, but is it even possible for breath to "ricochet"? Keep in mind they're inside a plane, here. Logically if he directed a blast of super-breath at the fuselage, wouldn't it just flip the plane over, or even punch through its frame, instead of bouncing off to hit Whirlicane?

Anyway, it works here, and it turns out Whirlicane's "powers" are achieved by mechanical means. With the villain and his gang in jail, Superman confesses he's run out of ideas for proving he's Clark Kent, but Jonathan says it's easy to prove. He asks to be taken to Clark's apartment, where he applies detective skills to get at the truth.

In short order, the doctors announce Jon will pull through after all, thanks to Superman, and our hero flies off into the sunset as Pete thinks, "Now Jon and I will continue to keep your secret safe...all in the family!"

I always liked this story, even if I never could figure out what Jonathan's medical problem was supposed to be. Apparently it was bad enough that mental attitude could make the difference between life and death, but not so bad that he couldn't leave the hospital on an extended field trip with Superman to the decidedly non-sterile environment of the GBS building and even into battle with Superman in a cargo jet. And I never really got how knowing Superman's secret could make life worth living, but what the heck.

It's all worth it for the amusing reversal on the old secret identity routine, and the story makes a nice coda to the whole Pete Ross saga, with Superman finally paying Pete back for all his years as guardian of the secret, even if he doesn't know that's what he's doing. I'm also a sucker for any story that shows Superman as a friend to and protector of children.

Jonathan Ross made at least one more appearance I know of, in Superman #304 (Oct. 1976), but after that I lost track of him. Rumor has it he grew up to be a radio and TV chat show host in Great Britain.

But hey, back up a minute. I get why Clark Kent doesn't need band-aids or razors, but no toothbrush? That's kind of gross.