Negotiating Ordinariness and Otherness: Superman, Clark Kent and the superhero masquerade

Barbara Brownie, Danny Graydon

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review

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Superhero narratives are distinguished by the hero's negotiation of the relationship between two constructed identities, one ordinary, one extraordinary. The superhero, whose costume emphasizes otherness, shelters in the guise of a civilian, in a performance of ordinariness.
Prompted by Jacob Riis' invitation in 'How The Other Half Lives' (1890), journalists of that era engaged in performance ordinariness in search of trans-status empathy. These journalists cloaked themselves in a 'signified cloth granting liberation and opportunity.' The clothes reduced their status, masking their profession or prestige, and they found themselves empowered. The disguises allowed them normalcy and anonymity, thereby enabling relationships and activities previously out of reach. Dressing down in civilian wardrobe, the superhero engages in similar trans-status disguise. By concealing otherness, he is liberated from the responsibilities of the superhero lifestyle and the extreme attention it garners.
Superman’s civilian masquerade provides the freedom to engage with normal human society. We can consider his Clark Kent persona in terms of the trans-status observations emerging from social experiments that utilise disguise to enter a closed social group. Kal-El of Krypton is a 'covert operative' who originates from outside the subject of his study, and disguises himself in order to infiltrate the group. He learns their costumes and customs via his rural Kansas upbringing, and then in adulthood and the urban sprawl of Metropolis, positions himself as ‘one of them.’ Superman's relationship with his civilian alter-ego differs from that of other superheroes, who acquire their superpowers later in life. Spider-Man, for example, can be equated to a ‘retrospective participant observer’: he is able to model his civilian disguise on his own past experiences of ordinariness.
This paper will compare trans-status disguise in superhero comics to the activities of undercover journalists and social scientists, exploring the concealment of otherness through the performance of ordinariness.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages9
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2013
Event2nd Global Conference on The Graphic Novel - Oxford, United Kingdom
Duration: 22 Sept 201325 Sept 2013


Conference2nd Global Conference on The Graphic Novel
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom


  • superman
  • clark kent
  • ordinariness
  • otherness
  • outsider
  • Jacob Riis
  • Alter-ego
  • disguise
  • undercover


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