When DC Comics announced in October that Jonathan Kent, the new Superman, was bisexual, it was headline news in mainstream venues from CNN to Fox. By the time of the release of the actual comic in November, much of the excitement had died down, though.
Reading Superman: Son of Kal-Eli #5, what’s striking about the actual moment when Jon Kent kisses reporter Jay Nakamura is how anticlimactic it is. There’s no big declaration in which Jon says, “I am bisexual!” They have a moment on the couch, and smile at each other, and then Superman has to go deal with a crisis. It’s quiet and sweet, and then the story whooshes on.
Which is kind of awesome.
Writer Tom Taylor has built the story so far out of a lot of awesome anticlimaxes. Jon Kent wants to focus more on root causes than his dad; he’d rather lead on climate change than punch supervillains. When he does confront super bad guys, they generally don’t fight. He defuses the first pyromaniac meta-human in the comic by giving him a big hug. It’s the US military standing by that thumps the guy in the jaw, and Jon is upset about it for pages. Later, he stops the Flash and Wonder Woman from beating on another supervillain, and gets arrested for protesting against the deportation of a group of refugees he saved. “I did hard time, Dad,” he tells his super father who bails him out. “Forty-five minutes of hard time.”
The gentleness of the story isn’t unprecedented. Animal Man in Grant Morrison’s classic 1980s run solved most of his conflicts nonviolently, and G. Willow Wilson’s Ms. Marvel was tormented when she hit a bad guy hard enough to knock him out. Still, superheroes who’d rather talk than punch remain relatively rare, and for fans of recent superhero films, it’s remarkable to read a comic in which the hero steadfastly deescalates every possible conflict.
Jay’s relationship with Superman fits gracefully into the comics’ ethic of supercare. Jon gets zapped with a ray that expands his power. He can hear people in trouble all over the world, and wears himself out racing from country to country rescuing kidnap victims and helping people get to the hospital.
Jay tricks him into taking a break and gets him to sack out on his couch for nine hours with some noise-canceling headphones. Then he gets Superman tea and explains that he’s a meta-human too. Jay has the power to phase through anything, which means no one can hurt him. “You feel like you have to protect the whole world. But you don’t have to protect me. I’m the one person in the world you don’t have to worry about,” Jay says. Then they kiss.
Superheroes traditionally plug into a masculine ideal of violence and invulnerability. Superman is super because he’s…well, super strong, and super invulnerable. He saves people and thumps people. That’s generally the job.
But Jon is presented as a superhero in part because he’s super sensitive. He’s empathetic; he cares about other people, and he needs other people to care about him. When Jay says, “I don’t need you,” it sounds like a toxic masculine statement of independence. But actually, he’s saying that Superman doesn’t need to be the manly savior all the time. Jay can take care of himself, and take care of Superman too. Jon doesn’t need to be the kind of man who has to be super all the time, which means he can have a relationship with Jay that doesn’t follow the contours of traditional masculinity.
Artist John Timms sometimes struggles to fit his cartoony style to the naturalistic demands of mainstream comics, but the images of Jay and Jon smiling shyly after the Big Panel are delightfully restrained. News networks may be excited and slightly scandalized, but for Jon and Jay love is a lovely, important, but not especially shocking potential when people care for each other, whatever their gender.
Then Superman has to fly off to the next crisis (“It’s not you. It’s an armed robbery.”) There will be more super action and probably at some point Superman will actually fight a supervillain (he does bash some robots in the annual, which may or may not count.) But the real feat is that Taylor and Timms have managed to show young people falling in love with such small-as-life grace. Superman has rarely been a more appealing character, or a better man.
Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics was published by Rutgers University Press. He thinks the Adam West Batman is the best Batman, darn it.