Superman has a day job.
It was just a joke, the kind of thing that the brain coughs up when it’s trying to match a pattern. Kant said that humor was expectation strained until it suddenly dissolved into nothingness. Lex had been making maps and doing complex math for weeks on end, and if that was a joke, it made sense that the punchline was simply that Superman walked the streets of Metropolis as a human. The very thought of the most powerful entity in the world choosing to work a nine to five job in downtown Metropolis should have caused any right thinking person to burst into laughter. But as Lex turned the idea over in his head, the humor faded. And once the idea had presented itself, it refused to leave.
“Son of a bitch.”
People liked to believe that brilliance was a matter of sudden insight. Isaac Newton was sitting beneath an apple tree and just happened to be struck on the head with an apple, which led to him developing the theory of universal gravitation. Archimedes sat in the bathtub and realized that an object displaces its equal volume of water. Friedrich August Kekule realized the structure of the benzene molecule after having a dream of a snake eating its own tail. These were the stories that people liked to tell, because it made thinking seem like magic, and no matter that the stories weren’t true. Even where there was a grain of truth behind the story of the insight, there were hundreds of hours of thought and study before it, and another hundred hours of proving it afterward. Another thing that was never mentioned was how often a startling insight proved to be rubbish.
Some years ago, he’d spent days trying to make what he called a battlesuit a practical reality. It was going to be a callback to the knights in shining armor, creating a solitary soldier encased in impenetrable armor and capable of advancing on enemy lines with impunity, mounted machine guns firing away the whole time while a diesel engine belched smoke. He’d drawn up schematics and eventually began stripping parts away, replacing those things that thrilled the imagination with those that would work practically and reliably. The steel legs were replaced with treads. The arms were removed in favor of a larger cockpit with buttons and levers. The center of gravity was lowered, until the cockpit sat between or just on top of the treads. He still remembered the feeling of looking down at his design and realizing he’d done nothing more than make a better tank. LexCorp now owned two factories that made them, building up a stockpile to sell to the European powers when the next inevitable war broke out. Still, the whole project had been borne out of a vision he’d had, of diesel powered mechanized armor striding across the battlefields of the next war. The fact that he’d spent so much time pursuing that vision was a source of embarrassment. It had been a valuable lesson in critically examining those ideas that came to him suddenly and struck him on some emotional level.
What Lex needed was someone who would ask some pointed questions and act as a foil to his enthusiasm, a devil’s advocate. He made a quick calculation of the risks of speaking out loud, and found them acceptable. If he was right, Superman engaged in surveillance far less than he had supposed, and if he was wrong, there was no harm in it. There was only one person that he trusted enough to discuss the idea with, and conveniently she was sitting in the same room as him, drinking tea and reading a book.
“Mercy, your attention for a moment?” asked Lex. He used French, a language that they both shared, as a weak form of security.
“Of course sir,” she said as she put down her book with a finger resting between the pages.
“Convince me that Superman doesn’t have a secret identity,” he said.
“A secret identity?” she asked, as though she had never heard of the concept. On the long list of wonderful things about Mercy Graves was her ability to effortlessly take the role of the ignorant in their dialogues when it was required of her. Lex found being forced to define himself quite helpful.
“Like a spy,” said Lex. “Or a philanderer, I suppose. Superman leads a double life, and in the second one he doesn’t wear the costume.”
Mercy took a sip from her tea. “And what does he do in this second life?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” said Lex. “I’d have to guess at motivations, and if he has an alter ego I know less of his psychology then I had thought.” Lex ran a hand across his hairless head. “What does a man need? Food, water, sleep, shelter. Superman has never displayed any need for those. Perhaps he eats and drinks in secret, but playing at being human would be the least efficient way to go about satisfying those needs. Sex or family … it’s possible. He’d have no trouble convincing women to sleep with him or bear his children as his costumed self though. So it must be something more ethereal, something that he can’t get as Superman. True, honest friendship untainted by his brute strength and speed, not to mention his celebrity? Or perhaps just the thrill of deception? There’s some historical precedent for it. Tsar Peter of Russia used to dress up like a workman and go among his people.”
“Peter the Great was six foot eight in a time when the people of Russia were starving,” said Mercy. “It was because he was tsar that no one dared broach the subject, but surely they knew the man by his height alone. It’s the same with Superman. They’d recognize him.”
“Perhaps,” said Lex. “But when people look at Superman, what are they really seeing? They see the emblem on his chest, the bright colors of his costume, and brilliant smile and the curl of hair that hangs down just so. If you saw Superman in the street wearing a suit and tie, would you recognize him in that new context?”
“Most likely,” replied Mercy.
“Photographs of him are surprisingly rare,” said Lex. “When people think of Superman, they don’t think of him as he really exists, they think of Norman Rockwell’s painting of him on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post . Superman has posed for a single photograph, the one that showed him and Miss Lane, and all the rest are of the man doing some impossible thing, lifting cars above his head or flying through the air, and the focus is seldom on his face. He keeps his interactions with people short. The photographs from the courthouse, at least the ones I’ve seen published, are always from a distance, the better to take in his full appearance. They emphasize the muscles and the costume, not the face. And they’re published by the newspapers in terrible quality. Perhaps putting him in a suit and tie wouldn’t be enough, but if you added a hat, an overcoat to hide his bulk …” Lex scratched his chin. “A change of mannerisms, a slouch, makeup, prosthetics, wigs, a false moustache or beard, glasses, speaking in a low or high voice, or a false accent, well, there are a large number of ways he could disguise himself and go unnoticed. Charlie Chaplin once lost a look-alike-contest, or at least that’s what he told me. Very rarely do people distinguish faces by their component parts, they look at demeanor, gait, gestures, that sort of thing. They think in caricatures.”
“You’re getting dangerously close to pure ex post facto rationalization for something you want to believe is true,” said Mercy.
“I am,” said Lex after a moment. Mercy could cut straight to the heart of matters like few other people. “I find it attractive because it would reveal something hitherto unknown about the man. I’ve run into failure after failure in trying to understand Superman, and this is the first theory that might actually lead somewhere. Even if the probability is low, we have to pursue it. Can we at least agree that Superman might stand to gain something from having an alter ego and that he might be able to pull off a long running disguise?”
“I can accept that perhaps he would be able to walk into a deli and purchase something to eat without arousing any suspicion,” said Mercy. “But you’re suggesting a sustained deception.”
Lex nodded. “The quiet period, when he’s less active, lines up too nicely with working hours, and not just because there are fewer crimes around that time. His movements point to a specific location that he keeps going to or coming from. That data is fuzzy enough that it suggests to me an inexpert attempt to hide the pattern, or perhaps just an attempt by someone who wasn’t clear on what methods could be used to reveal the truth. Superman doesn’t strike me as a mathematician”
“They would still know,” said Mercy. “If they ever saw Superman in the flesh, they would see his alter ego for what it is.”
“Perhaps not,” replied Lex. “No one is looking around for Superman in disguise, because the concept is nearly unthinkable to them. No one believes that they would work a day job if they had his powers. They would become filthy rich and live a life of celebrity and hedonism. Perhaps it occurs to his coworkers that the man they work with looks like Superman, but they wouldn’t immediately make the leap to thinking that he actually was Superman. Maybe they would make jokes, but he would deflect them, or play along. Maybe he even has a few people in his confidence. Think about it. Superman doesn’t wear a mask. If he wore one, people would wonder what was behind it. Many people have thought that Superman was hiding something, but they think it’s his spaceship, or invasion plans, when all along it’s just so … mundane.”
“You’ve made up your mind,” said Mercy. It wasn’t a question, and wasn’t said with any trace of disapproval. She was simply informing him of what she had observed, and as usual, she was right.
“Thank you Mercy,” said Lex. In French this was rendered as “Merci Mercy”, a minor bit of wordplay that nevertheless brought a rare smile to Mercy’s lips. “I believe that this lead is worth the resources required to pursue it. Even if the odds of it being true are somewhat low. The only question is the methodology.” He smiled. “Perhaps an investment in the arts.”
“If you find him, will you expose him?” asked Mercy. She asked without any real curiosity or concern, and Lex was certain it was only intended him to get him thinking about the answer before he walked too far down the path. Mercy could convey quite a bit of information with a flat affect.
“Lord no,” Lex replied.
Lex Luthor saw antagonizing Superman in and of itself as having no value, or more likely negative value. If Lex Luthor and Superman were the only actors on the stage, Lex might even have refrained from using the bombs, and instead relied solely on those methods that revealed no foul play at all. It would have been more difficult, but on balance probably worth it. Unfortunately, the stage was crowded with actors, and some of them seemed to find great sport in trying to take Superman down a peg. In Lex Luthor’s public role as Superman’s champion, he’d done everything from funding legal efforts to defend Superman to penning articles in favor of Superman’s ridiculous moral stances. In the context of the other actors, antagonism became a more acceptable risk only because it would blend into the background.
Superman’s presumed secret identity was a vector of attack, but not one that Lex had any intention of using against him. The people who thought they had something to gain from disrupting Superman’s emotional state were fools.
“The judge is dropping the case,” said Clark as he laid his phone in its cradle. He was visibly upset, which was rare for him. He pouted in a way that might have looked adorable on a small child but just didn’t fit a grown man.
“There wasn’t enough evidence,” said Lois. “It shouldn’t have even made it to the judge in the first place.”
“Calhoun is guilty,” said Clark. “I know he is.”
“You think he is,” corrected Lois. “And even if he’s got to be guilty of something, there’s no guarantee that he’s actually guilty of manipulating Kramer. I know this story is near and dear to your heart, but maybe it’s time to let it go.”
“It’s an injustice,” Clark insisted.
“I should introduce you to my friend Vicki Vale,” said Lois. “She works for The Gotham Gazette and I’m sure she could regale you with some stories about real injustice. Actually, you might like her, I think she’s your type.”
After she’d said it she realized that it sounded like a bit of a low blow instead of an olive branch. Lois knew Clark still had a crush on her, and to him it might have sounded like she was making fun of him and saying that he had a thing for female reporters. But Vicki Vale really would be his type, and she really could set them up the next time that Vicki came to town. Lois was never actively cruel to Clark, she just liked to push his buttons. She liked to see him get all uncomfortable when she swore around him. She would watch his face while she sucked back a cigarette or took a glass of whiskey at her desk, neither of which Clark approved of. These were small, harmless pleasures. Clark was like a puppy dog in a lot of ways. She didn’t want to hurt him.
“I didn’t mean it like that,” said Lois.
“Mean it like what?” asked Clark. Clark had always seemed like the kind of guy who would blush at the drop of a hat, but Lois hadn’t seen it once. He would get visibly embarrassed, but even after all this time she kept looking for a hint of red in his cheeks or ears. Disappointingly, it was never there.
“Nothing,” said Lois. “I was just thinking that she would like you.”
Clark gave her one of his familiar grins. Lois worried she’d gone too far in rolling back what she’d said, but turned back to her typewriter. She wasn’t in charge of Clark Kent. And if Clark got his feelings hurt because he misinterpreted something she said, well, it wasn’t the end of the world.
William Calhoun should have felt relieved that the judge had dropped the case, but instead he just felt angry. He’d been accused of being in cahoots with that bomber on charges so paper thin it would almost be laughable. Willie had spent five of his fifty-eight years in prison though, and he never laughed about time in the clink. He’d sat down with his lawyer and looked through the evidence himself, and could admit that there was an implication there, but it wasn’t even firm enough that he could say he’d been framed. Even if it was just coincidence, it pissed Willie off to get called out on something he’d had no part in, especially considering all the things that he was actually guilty of.
It was Superman’s fault. Superman had barged into Willie’s bar and announced as much, and it must have been Superman who whispered in the right ears to get the case moving forward. Superman was a prick of the highest order. Worse, people listened to him.
Luckily, Willie’s schemes were paying off. The barrage of lawsuits had mostly been a nuisance to keep Superman tied up in court, but some of them had been taken further than he’d expected. Three decisions were due to come down from the Supreme Court, and if Preethi v. New York went the right way, Superman would be bound by all sorts of rules. Superman had already agreed to abide by the rulings no matter what they were, and so far the man had never broken his word. It made him predictable, and Willie hoped he could use that against him.
One of Willie’s early tactics had been to have people accuse Superman of everything under the sun, to try to smear the alien’s name if not actually get him in trouble with the police. Willie had paid a young girl to claim rape, and a few other people as witnesses. No one had believed it though, and the girl had crumbled after a confrontation with Superman on the steps of the courthouse where he’d been kind, courteous, and forgiving. After that it was tough to find people to make false allegations, and though Willie had searched, he’d never found someone with a real criminal complaint. It occurred to him that Superman was becoming so universally loved that even if Superman did do something truly evil most people wouldn’t believe it.
Slander and libel weren’t working, and Willie was being bled dry. Business had been brought to a near halt. There had to be a way to turn the tide against Superman, and Willie was willing to do anything to figure out what.
Hershel Whitman had become governor of New York when Franklin Delano Roosevelt had won the Presidency in ’32, and he was in it for the long haul. The state of New York was most famous for Metropolis, its crown jewel, and nearly half of the people in the state hailed from that city or the surrounding greater metropolitan area. Ever since Superman had shown up from out of deep space, politicians had been clamoring to be seen as associating with Superman, and Whitman was certainly no exception.
From a politician’s perspective, Superman was perfect. He didn’t upset the apple cart, he didn’t hold public opinions, he’d had nothing but positive effects on the rate of crime in Metropolis. As the incumbent, it would be nearly impossible for Whitman to lose his next election if the people were happy, nevermind that he hadn’t had all that much to do with Superman. Most of the hard work of governance was in building roads and bridges, passing funding measures, and wrestling with the other parts of state government to hammer out laws. The vast majority of people didn’t place their votes because of anything sensible like the actual work that was done, they would see Superman flying through the air and think “governor Whitman must be doing something right”. The bombings had been a black mark, but the city was recovering better than anyone could have hoped for, and thankfully the bomber had hung himself and spared everyone the ordeal of a lengthy trial. Whitman hated the inevitable appeal for clemency from death row inmates.
Whitman would have taken a meeting with Lex Luthor no matter what it was about. The man was a billionaire after all. When Luthor had asked to discuss a public-private partnership of the arts, Whitman couldn’t help but feel that someone up there was looking out for him. Whitman was a strong supporter of the New Deal policies, and there could be no downside to adding in a billionaire’s funds.
“There’s much discussion about you, you know,” said Whitman with a smile. Prohibition had been brought to an end, thankfully, which meant that a man could enjoy a martini on his veranda without having to worry about scandal. A hot summer had made way for a cool autumn, and Whitman’s two children played in the yard.
Luthor shared the smile. “I’m sure that tongues will wag. What do they say, I wonder? That I came up from nowhere?”
“Things of that nature,” said Whitman. “I dare say there’s a risk you’ll be named Metropolis’s most eligible bachelor. There’s a mystery about you people quite like. You were born in Southside, if I recall correctly, and the charitable work you’ve been doing there has been admirable. Yet prior to Superman’s arrival, you were known only inside the world of business, and then more as a name than a man.”
Luthor shrugged, and looked out at the yard at the children. They’d invented some game that involved ever more elaborate cartwheels. “I’ve never wanted fame,” said Luthor. “For a time I wanted money, but I think I have enough of it to last me for a good long while. No, now is the time for giving back. Superman has shown me that. And that’s precisely what I’m here to talk to you about.”
“You have my full attention,” said Whitman.
“Simply put, I would like to fund the arts. I’m not an artist myself, I can acknowledge that, but I have certain ideas that I think would help towards increasing the beauty of our beloved city and showing off its character. Now I’m aware that the Public Works of Art Program has run its course, but I was just speaking with Harry Hopkins over the phone, and he suggested that a pilot program might be just the thing. They’re getting close to putting together a second New Deal, which they hope to include some arts in, and I think we might be finished with what I had in mind before the bill goes through Congress. It might help grease some votes, as it were.” Luthor sipped at his martini. “I would put in a good deal of the funding of course, but I was thinking that perhaps working jointly with the state could be mutually beneficial. That sort of partnership isn’t unheard of.”
“Of course,” said Whitman quickly. Lex Luthor was becoming known as quite the philanthropist, and the photo opportunities would help in an election year. There were vague rumors about something criminal in Luthor’s past, but the man had been born in Suicide Slums and if anything he was stronger for the narrative of reform.
“I have three in mind,” said Luthor. “The first is a statue, that I think would look nice in Fort Hob’s Park, though of course that’s negotiable. Not one of Superman, but something close I think, clearly inspired by him. The idealized man, cast in bronze and standing tall, a reminder for each of us to be the best person that we can possibly be. I believe this is the lesson that Superman intends for us to take. It would capture the zeitgeist, don’t you think?”
“I do like the sound of that,” replied Whitman. There would be an unveiling ceremony, and Whitman would be standing in front of the statue holding a pair of oversized scissors. He rather enjoyed the mental image.
“The second is a large mural that will grace the length of Gerald Ordway Drive, along a length of the West River between the Queensland Bridge and Dockside,” said Luthor. “I have no specific vision there beyond it showing a progression of the city from its humble origins to the future we’re striving for, perhaps something in mosaic. Metropolis is the City of Tomorrow after all, and I think it would be nice to pay some tribute to our roots as well as our aspirations.”
“Very doable,” said Whitman. “I’ll need to speak to the mayor and the city council about it, but very doable indeed.”
“Of course,” replied Luthor. “I’ll be sure to put in a few words as well.”
“And the third?” asked Whitman.
“For the third, I want a photography exhibit,” said Luthor. “Sharp, candid photographs of the people of the city. As I picture it, we’d hire some photographers and park them downtown, to get a full sampling of the lifeblood of Metropolis and the rhythm of workers coming and going. When we’re finished, we’ll gather these photographs together and display them in a gallery – I have just the one in mind – packed from wall to wall in order to show the full breadth of humanity from the immigrant populations to the high financiers. I believe it would be a marvelous demonstration of both our similarities and our differences. More than that, people who aren’t normally interested in the arts might stop by to try to find their own photo, or the photos of their friends. My provisional title is ‘Faces of Metropolis’. I’d like some creative control over that one, since the artistry will be in how we compare and contrast the people we capture rather than the photographs themselves.”
Whitman nodded, still thinking about the political opportunities. He was up for re-election in November, and while there was little chance that the projects could be completed by then, he’d be able to use this deal with Luthor in his stump speech. He could spin it to sound like his own idea, a melding of business and government for the improvement of the lives of the citizens of the state. The project would surely create jobs, but more importantly it would be a highly visible way of creating jobs.
His children ran towards the house and poured themselves tall glasses of lemonade before dashing back off into the yard again. June was eleven and Robert was nine, and a father couldn’t ask for better.
“I enjoy children,” said Luthor. “I’ve thought about having a few from time to time. But more and more I find myself thinking of Metropolis as my child. I want nothing more than to help her grow, to protect her from harm, and to make her into the best city she can possibly be.”
Whitman nodded. He found himself quite liking Lex Luthor.
“Calhoun just got arrested again,” said Clark with a smile.
“What are the charges?” asked Lois. “Something solid this time?”
“Racketeering, murder, conspiracy to commit murder, loansharking, illegal gambling, obstruction of justice, bribery, and tax evasion,” said Clark.
Lois let out a low whistle. “That’s a long list. Any of them that will stick?”
“All of them,” said Clark with confidence.
“You’re too close to the story, Clark,” said Lois. “And it’s back page material anyway. If Superman’s involved it might be one of the first cases that hinges on the outcome of whatever the Supreme Court is doing, but that only bumps it up to page four or five.” She looked him up and down. Usually Clark wasn’t so happy. The bombings had begun to fade into the background, but Lois had found that it affected people in different ways. She’d gone drinking in one of the clubs, and the conversation had dropped into awkward silence when someone mentioned that they’d had a friend who died in one of the blasts. Clark seemed certain Calhoun was behind it, and Lois didn’t think he’d get his closure until Calhoun was in jail or dead. “Look Clark, take your mind off this. Justice takes time. Write up the story and then just forget about it until the verdict comes in. Perry’s not going to want to devote too much space to it.”
“Alright,” said Clark, but Lois didn’t miss the pleased look on his face as he pecked away at his typewriter.
A dozen photographers were sent downtown, where they snapped picture after picture of people going to or leaving from work. They had cards to hand out, and by and large most people were game. Pictures were taken even of the ones that didn’t seem too keen on the idea. The shots ranged from candid to posed, with some being simple headshots and others taken from a balcony or second story to capture everyone on the streets. Ideally, Superman would be hiding somewhere among them. Of course, it was possible that Superman would see the photographers and simply turn the other way to avoid them, but Lex had been trying to work out the alien’s psychology for a while now, and felt that it was unlikely. If Superman really did have a secret identity, it was probable that he enjoyed being a normal human, and what could appeal to the alien more than being simply one of many, a face in a sea of faces? Besides that, Superman wouldn’t want to be seen avoiding the cameras, because that would be just as conspicuous.
There were too many people to photograph them all. The Emperor Building and the Daily Planet Building were each within the four block area, and the Emperor Building alone had 10,000 workers. Still, a good number of people could be photographed, and if Lex was right, Superman himself would be attracted to the photographers, no matter how ill-advised that would be. If the plan failed to work, there were other, more risky plans. Private investigators could be set to work, company payrolls could be combed through, and hard data could be examined. The trick was to find out who Superman’s secret identity was – if he had one – without tipping him off.
It was late November by the time Lex and Mercy sat together in his lead-lined cabin some distance from Metropolis and sorted through the photographs.
“Dark haired white male, likely above six feet tall,” Lex had said when they’d first begun. “Superman is six feet and four inches tall, when he’s actually got his feet on the ground. We can’t rule out that the identity we’re looking for has a slouch, or an affected limp, but there’d be no changing his physical size, not unless there’s some power we haven’t seen yet. We can’t rule out that he wears a wig in his daily life either, so set aside all those photographs with tall blonde men as well.”
“Yes sir,” said Mercy. She worked with quiet efficiency, sorting photographs into various piles with Lex. It was boring work, and quite slow, especially as the faces and people all began to meld together. It was in the second day of this that Mercy found a picture of Lois Lane. When she slid it across for him to look at, Lex saw Superman standing next to her.
“It’s him,” said Lex, and Mercy moved around to look over his shoulder.
“Are you sure?” asked Mercy. “I would have put it in the pile for later review, but I’m less immediately convinced than you are.”
“He’s the perfect mockery of humanity,” said Lex.
The man clearly didn’t want to be there. Lois Lane was as feral and energetic as ever, staring directly into the camera with a winsome smile, but the man was looking slightly off to the side. He was tall and large, and looked slightly disheveled. Your eyes were attracted to the notepad he tucked into his jacket pocket, then to the glasses that were so thick you could barely see his eyes through them. Almost immediately you’d peg the man as an oaf. He was so unlike Superman that it had to be him.
“Superman always holds his head high, with his jaw thrust out,” said Lex. “This man spends most of his time looking down, with his chin tucked in. It disrupts the lines of his face, makes him less noticeable. But the nose, you can tell from the nose it’s the same man. It’s him. It’s Superman.” Lex flipped over the photograph. The idea had been for the photographers to capture essential information from their subjects wherever possible, but from the sampling so far it was clear that not all of them had been so diligent. In this particular case, Lex Luthor got lucky, and a number of nascent schemes for manipulating Lois Lane into giving up information were quickly put to rest.
Lois Lane and Clark Kent, reporters, outside Daily Planet bldg.
Author’s Note: This chapter once again grew too long, so again I’m splitting it up into what I think works best for the story breakdown. Ten thousand words seems a little bit long for a chapter, and that’s what I was approaching. Chapter 7 will be posted on Sunday.