Superman may be the greatest hero of the DC Universe, but Clark Kent’s self-image is a bit more humble than that – and way more wholesome than Spider-Man’s. With a secret identity as iconic as Clark Kent, it would make total sense that the Man of Steel would have more than a couple of identity crises. But Superman knows just who he is.
Unfortunately, the same can’t always be said for the readers. For years, fans have debated about whether Superman is the real identity, or if the mild-mannered persona of Clark Kent is who Kal-El truly is. But when the Man of Steel found himself in the middle of one of Etrigan the Demon’s schemes, he learned firsthand who he really is – and so did the rest of Metropolis. The revelation of his true self is much more satisfying for Superman than it was for Spider-Man.
Action Comics #762 by Joe Kelly, German Garcia, and Kano, finds Superman doing some last-minute Christmas-shopping for his beloved wife, Lois Lane. But when his seasonal shopping is interrupted by Etrigan the Demon and the captivating criminal known as La Encantadora, Clark has to free his fellow shoppers from their literal worst nightmares. Stealing La Encantadora’s mysterious Mists of Ibella, Etrigan forces everyone in the vicinity to confront physical manifestations of their own inner demons in the hopes of doing the same to his host, Jason Blood, and permanently freeing himself from his human prison. But as Superman uses his super-breath to inhale the mists before it can affect any more shoppers, he’s morphed not into what he fears most, but into the true manifestation of his soul. As Clark soars into the sky, he transforms into a glowing, gleaming farmer and begins sowing spiritual seeds that free the citizens below from their own nightmares. Even a defeated Etrigan is impressed, saying “In all mine days, I ne’er have seen…a soul quite as wholesome, as bright, or as clean.”
This hopeful projection of Superman’s self-image says a lot about the Man of Steel. He may well be the most powerful and beloved hero in the world, but at the end of the day, Clark Kent still sees himself as little more than a farm boy. The only difference is that instead of tending to the fields on the Kent Farm, he’s tending the whole world. Despite his alien heritage, Smallville made Clark who he is, and he’s past the point where the weight of his power holds him back. Superman willingly accepts the responsibility of being Earth’s protector because he knows he’s the one for the job.
This is a much different sort of self-perception than Spider-Man’s. Peter Parker is a hero through and through, and he’s not one for shirking power or responsibility. But when Doctor Strange cast a spell that showed Spider-Man his true self, Peter saw an image of himself before he was bit by the radioactive spider. Clearly he still misses the days when he had no power or the responsibility and tragedy that comes with it. As long as he can do what nobody else can, he will, but there’s clearly a small part of him that wishes that saving the day just wasn’t his problem anymore.
Clark Kent and Peter Parker are two of comics’ greatest heroes. And both the Man of Steel and the Webslinger use their incredible abilities to save the world a dozen times over. But clearly, when it comes to the responsibility that comes along with the power they wield, Superman is a bit more at peace with bearing the weight than Spider-Man.