Superdad: The Many Lives of Pa Kent

The Many Lives of Pa Kent

Spoilers for this week’s Action Comics #870, folks!

Comics lost an icon this week when Pa Kent passed away in Action Comics #870. The thing is, this isn’t the first time that Pa Kent’s death has throw Superman’s world into upheaval. In fact, the history of Superman is replete with the many deaths of Pa Kent. Let’s take a look at a character that may in fact have more lives than Catwoman.

Golden Age Pa Kent: Pa Kent gets his first name in Superman #1 in 1939. Though the origin establishing the discovery of the infant Kal-El dates a year earlier to the Action strip, Pa didn’t have a name. Throughout the ‘40s, their names would change on occasion. The 1942 novel The Adventures of Superman by George Lowther even names Pa “Eben Kent” (Ma was “Sarah,” by the way – or earlier in the comic, “Mary” – hey, how many times was Pa married….?). The novel, as well as captioned references in several stories, indicate that both Ma and Pa died before Clark arrived in Metropolis. There were multiple relations of this, so it can be truly said that the many deaths of Pa actually begin early in the character’s history.

But when DC decided they needed to tell the stories of Superman as a boy, both Pa and Ma returned, and became a whole lot more than old people dying in cameo. By 1950, Pa is firmly established as Jonathan Kent, while Ma is Martha by the twelfth issue of Superboy in 1951. An effort to explain the name discrepancies is made later, with the Earth-2 Superman’s adoptive parents being John and Mary, while the Earth-1 Superman’s parents were Jonathan and Martha. The Kents play their largest role in the Superboy title, though we don’t really see until later why they’re mostly confined there.

Silver Age Death: In Superman #161 from 1963, both Ma and Pa Kent purchase the arable ground. While on a trip to the Caribbean that Clark helped realize by building a boat, the Kents find a pirate’s diary. They convince Clark to take them to the past to see how it all occurred. Unfortunately, the Kents later learn that they’ve contracted a “Fever Plague”. Martha, then Jonathan, both pass. Clark blamed himself, thinking that the trip to the past caused the loss. In truth, the Plague came from the pirate diary. Years later, coincidence would have Lois Lane and Lana Lang exposed to the same disease in Superman #362. Superman searches desperately for a cure before realizing in the next issue that his own blood can cure the ladies. The reason this wouldn’t have worked for the Kents, we are told, is that the Man of Steel wasn’t actually with his parents when they were infected. Superman was standing next to Lois and Lana, therefore his body developed immediately resistance to the pure Plague. Hey – we don’t write the things, we just remind you of the things. The second half of this story was collected in DC’s Blue Ribbon Digest for the Best Stories of 1981.

Movie Death: While certain comic stories would have Pa Kent briefly return thru various means, the general perception by the ‘70s was that the Kents were dead. When Superman hit the big screen in 1978, the film came complete with a dramatic sequence featuring the death of Pa Kent (Glenn Ford) by heart attack. This actually wasn’t Pa’s first transmedia death; Pa Kent was also felled by a heart attack in the pilot for the ‘50s TV series.

Pa Lives!: After Crisis on Infinite Earths, both Ma and Pa Kent got a new lease on life. Firmly integrated back into the mythos by John Byrne, Ma and Pa proved popular enough with readers to stick around. Every version of Superman that sprang off of the Post-Crisis template, from Superman: The Animated Series to Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman featured Pa Kent alive and well.

Near Miss . . . near miss . . .: Several times in the years after their return, DC Comics flirted with the idea of whacking Pa again. Pa had a heart attack after the “Death of Superman”, and actually wandered in an out-of-body experience where he helped usher his son’s spirit back towards the land of the living. Pa was missing briefly after the sprawling “Our Worlds at War” crossover, but found his way back. The runs of Superman: The Animated Series and Justice League would feature Pa Kent on occasion, but both series would end with him alive and well.

Direct Hit!: Pa died again on screen in the January 26, 2006 episode of Smallville, titled “Reckoning”. The plot of this one is fairly convoluted, owing much to the complex mythology of the show at that time. In short, Clark reversed time to prevent Lana from dying, not expecting that the balance for her survival would hit close to home. Pa Kent suddenly dies from a heart attack again (symptoms had been visible for a while on the series), and Clark once more finds himself missing another father.

Does This One Count?: We can’t forget that another Pa Kent died in All-Star Superman #6 just last year. Granted, these stories take place outside the continuity of the mainstream DCU, but it’s another death of another Pa Kent nonetheless.

Finish Him!: And so we come to this week, and the new issue of Action. After the machinations of Brainiac reach the Kent farm, Pa falls once more. This makes one recall the scene in Justice League of America #0 in which the characters were discussing the late Mr. Kent. One has to wonder how much of the blueprint for the DCU that issue actually is now…

There you have it. A brief look at some of the deaths of Pa Kent. (Did I say some? Well . . .there was radio . . .). Considering all of this, one is given to wonder: why must Pa Kent always die? My take is that it’s the nature of things. Children grow into adults, and eventually parents die. In a comics environment that frequently employs soft reboots, it’s not surprising that Pa dies and returns from time to time. Still, I find the deeper meaning to be almost Campbellian, as the hero must learn to function without those that grounded/supported/trained him. So, before we go, raise a glass to Pa Kent. He’s served Superman well . . . and likely will again someday.

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