My parents adopted me when I was just a baby. It was never a secret, and my family did everything they could to make sure there was no stigma that came with being adopted. My grandmother, though, took it to another level, reading me Superman comics and making sure I realized that Clark Kent was adopted, too.
It was a brilliant way to let me feel that being adopted was nothing to be ashamed of, though it did drive me to be a lifelong comic book fan and probably led to my working in newspapers. As I grew older, I would also pay attention to someone else who was important to the Superman mythos: his mother, Martha Clark Kent.
Outside of my own mom, Martha Kent was always my favorite mother.
Jonathan and Martha Kent – or Pa and Ma Kent – have been a part of the Superman comic books since 1939’s SUPERMAN 1, though they weren’t given the names that we would all come to know them by until an issue of SUPERBOY in 1951. For the first few decades of the character’s existence, Superman’s parents were said to have passed away before he started his career as a superhero, but that all changed when John Byrne took over the Superman books in 1986.
Byrne made Ma and Pa Kent important players in Superman’s life, helping Clark Kent make the decision to become the Man of Steel and serving as a continued moral compass and sounding board when Superman needed some advice. In addition to raising Clark in the post-Crisis DC Universe, the Kents had a hand in raising the post-Crisis versions of both Supergirl and Superboy.
While Martha Kent has had a considerable amount of appearances in the comic books, the character has also played important roles in movies, TV shows and cartoons featuring Superman.
For close to 15 years, the most iconic portrayal of Martha Kent was from 1978’s SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE, where Phyllis Thaxter took the role alongside Glenn Ford’s Jonathan Kent. Thaxter’s kindly Kansas farm mom was longing for a child, and when the Kryptonian ship fell from the sky in front of the Kents’ pickup truck, her prayers were answered. While she doesn’t really have much of an impact on the film or its plot (40-year-old spoilers!) once her husband dies, Thaxter set the tone for the portrayal of Martha Kent for years to come.
The first actress to portray Martha Kent on television that really caught my attention was K Callen, who took on a much more influential role as Superman’s mother in LOIS & CLARK: THE NEW ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN. The ABC action romance series modernized the hero for the early 1990s, but put a premium on the relationship between the two titular reporters.
Callen’s Martha Kent was sassy and enthusiastically supportive of her son as he pursued a career at The Daily Planet and his life as Superman, but also of his pursuit of Lois Lane as a partner. She was easily one of the best parts of the series. It was a far cry from what anyone was expecting from Clark Kent’s mom, but it fit so well with the series.
My favorite version of Martha Kent, though, came in the 2001 WB series SMALLVILLE, which focused on how Clark Kent grew into the role of Superman. Annette O’Toole, who had previously played Lana Land in SUPERMAN III, was cast as Martha, opposite former DUKES OF HAZZARD star John Schneider as her husband. Just as Callen redefined the character for the 1990s, O’Toole brought comics’ main matriarch into the 21st Century.
SMALLVILLE‘s Martha Kent was more than just a wife and mother – she had a brain for business and even won political office, all while raising an alien who was always gaining new powers and trying to quell the weirdness that was caused by the meteor shower that brought him to Earth.