The late Harper Lee had many fans — and as comics readers learned in 1993’s Superman No. 81, Clark Kent was one of them. It was in that issue that writer Dan Jurgens introduced the idea that the film adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee’s opus of virtue in the face of adversity, was Superman’s favorite movie. The revelation came quietly, in a single interaction between Supes and Lois Lane. Superman had seemingly died in battle and was briefly replaced with four impostor Supermen. Upon returning to the land of the living, the reborn Supes has to prove to Lois that he was the real deal.
“Give me one reason I should give you the time of day,” Lois says.
“How about, To Kill a Mockingbird?” Superman responds.
Lois stares at him, wide-eyed with surprise, and thinks, “Clark’s all-time favorite movie?”
Jurgens told me today that the idea of having Superman love Mockingbird was one he’d had kicking around in his head for a while, and that it was specifically supposed to be a counterpoint to Batman’s favorite movie.
“One of the things that had always been established with Batman was the notion that when he went out to see a movie with his parents, it was generally known that it was Zorro,” Jurgens says. “That was a guiding element to how he became Batman. I thought, What would work that way for Superman? What would affect him in that same way? To me it was To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Jurgens is right about the Dark Knight of Gotham’s childhood influences. Dozens of stories have depicted the fateful evening when young Bruce Wayne’s parents were shot dead on the way back from a trip to the theater. Details change from story to story, but, more often than not, writers choose to have their outing be one in which the Waynes saw a Zorro picture. It’s no wonder that wee Bruce would become forever obsessed with being a black-clad vigilante.
But Jurgens felt young Clark would have related much more to Gregory Peck’s Oscar-winning turn as Atticus Finch — and not just because Finch fought for truth, justice, and the American way. Jurgens saw more specific parallels that are revealing about the power of the famous novel, which he’d read in high school.
“Atticus Finch has to operate alone as he defends someone,” he says. “With Superman, we always see someone who’s a member of the Justice League, but he never has a sidekick. He’s always worked alone. A hero alone against the odds is one thing that’s a core part of his character.”
The other reason Clark would have been inspired by Lee’s narrative is one that’s not always explored in Superman narratives. “If you go back to the concept of heroism and standing up for a cause that isn’t popular, it also means you’re often taking the side of someone who isn’t popular,” Jurgens says. “You see that twice in the book: Tom Robinson and Boo Radley. We’re presented with the idea that, in one way or another, society saw both of them as monsters.” But Atticus, of course, views both characters with empathy.
“That’s something else core to Superman: that sense of being able to understand people who are on the periphery and to recognize when they need someone to stand up for them,” he says. “That all fuels into the notion of what a hero is and what Superman is as a hero.”
One final element made Mockingbird perfect as an early influence. “We know that Clark grew up in rural Kansas, in Smallville,” Jurgens says. “I thought he would find the story relatable because it takes place in a smallish town in Alabama. While it isn’t exactly the same, because Smallville didn’t have that level of racism, I thought there was something that made it relatable to a kid on a farm.”
So when Jurgens had to come up with a pop-culture reference that would help prove Clark’s identity, the idea he’d had for a while suddenly had a place to exist on the page. It hasn’t quite caught on as a constant trope in Superman storytelling, but it did get a shout-out in a 2013 issue of Batman and Robin, penned by Peter J. Tomasi. In it, Bruce Wayne finds a list of movies that Clark had recommended to Bruce’s son, Damian. Right near the top is To Kill a Mockingbird.
If your grieving process for Harper Lee involves rewatching that classic film tonight, know that Superman would be proud of you.