Superman standing in front of the American flag. That's a classic visual representation of his eternal representation of truth, justice, and the American way. This image is burned into my brain, same as it probably is yours. I associate Supes with the American flag because that's what he was shown standing in front of during the opening sequence in the 1940s Fleischer brothers cartoons. Those cartoons played endlessly on the Disney channel while I was growing up, and they really, definitively influenced how I saw the character.
But now my view has to shift. In fact, everybody's view has to shift. All thanks to the following exchange in Action Comics issue number 900, released last week:
And people are losing it. Just check out the comments on the Fox News website, post their posting about the development a few days ago. Superman is a representation of America, and for the editors to change this is viewed by many as sacrilege, as an attack on decent Americans everywhere. That's an interesting reaction, I think. It says a lot about where our society's at right now, that a comic character widening his allegiances merits discussion on the news and in the newspaper. But I'll return to that momentarily. Let's first talk about what happened in this comic book, and what possibilities it nets for future Superman stories.
In this anniversary issue of Action Comics, Superman -- who's been walking across America in an effort to get back in touch with its down-home citizenry -- flies to Iran (Tehran, specifically) to protect a group of protesters. The protesters are under fire, menaced by the police and the military, and Superman arrives to let them know they're not alone in their fight. He stands a vigil for them, making sure no one is hurt during the ongoing protest. "I stayed in Azadi Square for twenty-four hours," he says. "I didn't move. I didn't speak. I just stayed there." And check out the results of his efforts:
This story was written by David S. Goyer, who you may know for his screenwriting chops -- in particular, for his uber-realistic portrayal of Batman in "Batman Begins." I mention this because it explains to me why the story takes place in Iran, and not in UMEC, DC's fictional Middle Eastern country. (UMEC literally stands for Unnamed Middle Eastern Country.) And it also sheds some light on a new day for our Big Blue Boy Scout. No longer will he be putting out fires in fictional third world nations; he'll be dealing with REAL places, REAL conflicts. A step towards making his true-life diplomacy believable lies in making him an official world protector. It's a bold step for a company that places most of its fictional cities within the confines of New Jersey, and makes most of its money off cosmic wars in space and zombie attacks closer to home. Superman's touched the ground in more ways than one this year, and with this decision, he seems to be throwing himself head-first into twenty-first century globalization. ("The world is too small, too connected," he claims in AC 900.) I'd like to examine the pros and cons of this decision, in relation to storytelling -- then extrapolate its impact on our larger world. Stay with me here, it might be a bumpy ride ...
1) Superman has, in a way, always represented a weird part of the America mythos -- the brawny, wish fulfillment part. We're a superpower and Superman's a muscle for us to flex, a creation so centered on stemming conflict that he became pretty boring as the Cold War developed. There's a reason he was so popular during the height of comic sales, back in World War II, and I'm pretty sure his threatening Hitler is one of the reasons. (See below.) Back then, Supes was our strongest and fiercest self, the pinnacle of evolving masculine American identity and pride. That iconography still exists, I'd argue; why else are so many dudes running around on Halloween dressed as Clark Kent turning into Superman? (I saw ten this year, I counted.) But to be a meaningful icon, he needs to keep up with the times, and keeping current as propaganda really isn't enough to seal your legendary status these days. Stepping into the twenty-first century to be a global citizen allows for more relevant, down to earth stories for Superman. It could allow a new American male to arise: a cool, collected, Obama-like male, who imposes his will not based on his seat at the table, or by the work of his fists, but by smart negotiations and peaceful resolutions. Plus, it could allow him to step away from outmoded definitions of male identity -- potentially. Or it could look like more of the same. It could look like this:
2) What stunned me most about this story wasn't that it freed Superman from his American citizenship. I was more shocked to see the story was set in Iran, a place experiencing real conflict nowadays, and with a really complicated relationship to the United States. Of course, it's not Libya, Iraq, or Afghanistan we're talking about here, but the setting of this story says a lot about where Superman might be headed. Like I mentioned earlier, DC Comics previously created its own Middle Eastern countries to tell stories mirroring real-life events. So it's a bold move to suddenly include the recent Middle East shake-ups in its storytelling. And I think it's probably a good one. Marvel Comics scored bigger relevance (and a bigger audience) a few years back with their Civil War event. Civil War pitted superhero against superhero in the face of the need for superhuman registration with the government. Now this isn't a new story; Kurt Busiek did it (complete with alien invasion AND vampires!) in his book Astro City, years before Marvel tried it. But Marvel pitched that event at the right time -- in the early 2000's, when people were disillusioned with their government, with its military engagements and obsessive secret-keeping that pushed the average American concerns to the side in favor of engaging in terrifying violence. Who could be trusted? What did America even mean? Vigilantes were no longer a reassuring symbol of the can-do American spirit, and Marvel registered that. It's why they had Captain America arrested and killed. (Of course, he came back. But at the time, his death was headline news.) They made their comics relevant again by taking the temperature of the day. In our waning days as a superpower, Superman and DC could do the same. The Man of Steel could influence more than our "running around in a towel for a cape" fantasies; he could make us reflect on our own reality.
3) But seriously. I need to be real with you guys. Superman's kind of a narc. I blame editorial control for this. Back when Siegel and Shuster created Superman, he was an effing roughneck. He broke up mob rings, he hoisted wife-beaters by their own petard. He didn't answer to anybody (well, maybe Lois -- but I would, too; she's awesome!). But after World War II, the more independent elements of the character had to be toned down, in favor of being completely pro-America, and in order to avoid censure by a variety of factions in the government. (For amazing comics histories dealing with censorship, check out The Ten-Cent Plague and Men of Tomorrow.) Frank Miller made beacoup de bucks off this narc-y image in The Dark Knight Returns, assigning Superman the role of aide de camp to a Ronald Reagan-esque president, while Batman denounced and battled against the corrupt government stooge. But if Superman represents America as a superpower, he also represents America's free-wheeling individualist nature. Renouncing his citizenship may give the character greater latitude to make the right choices, instead of the ones dictated by outmoded American values. I'd like to see a Superman acting under his own powers and ideals, the way every American should.
1) By abandoning Superman's citizenship, I worry the folks at DC are wiping away the intense complications that make Superman such a compelling symbol for me. At the heart of Superman's story is an immigration narrative. Let's not forget that he wasn't born in America, and that his creators were the descendants of Jewish immigrants. Likewise, they birthed this character as part muscle-man, part Jesus-like savior (while being Jewish; read the dialogue in that Hitler panel again). To forget the character's creative origins by disassociating him from the crucible he was forged in (1930s America) is dangerous. It makes Superman less personal and more problematic. If you don't see the Adonis Complex he grew out of, the nerdish fantasies he was born to fight for, then you're only seeing half the picture. If you only see half the picture, then the character is either completely boring to you, or god-like, and frankly, fascistic in his perfection. Superman as an American ideal represents the kind of life Americans should be leading in a melting pot, sure. But the best writers and artists still manage to embrace the wonder that Supes' other-ness generates. Geoff Johns' work on the character (though heavy-handed at times, for my taste) does an exemplary job probing Superman's alien-ness without excusing it. He is not all man (Clark Kent), nor all alien (Kal-El); he's both things combined in a mongrelish, immigrant identity. He's Superman. And that strong claim on identity is what makes him powerful. He doesn't take guff from anyone, because he can host three heritages at once.
2) Making The Man of Tomorrow a champion of today is a tricky business, particularly in a world as complicated as ours. If DC writers are going to place him in real-world conflicts, there's the possibility that they could undersell these conflicts and have Superman solve all problems, like a benevolent but mighty god. He's easily quelled trouble in the past, but I can tolerate such action when he's fixing shit off in space somewhere. Make him our mighty overlord in the real world, and I think he loses all relevance. It's stupid to think you can solve a problem just by showing up. (Case in point: look at what's going on in Libya right now.) If Superman engages with reality in any way, it must be to provide an allegorical tale of some sort. He's a metaphor to be molded, to say something about the human experience. Stepping in where you don't belong is something that happens to humans; solving a conflict based solely on that misstep isn't. (For good examples of how superheroics and Superman have been used to tell stories of fatherhood, growing up and the value of shifting identities, check out Superman: Secret Identity and any volume of Astro City -- which showcases what it's like for regular folks to live in a city of heroes.) I guess in the pros section, I showcased a little of how Superman reflects America's social values. But I'd like to dig deeper into that, if I could. (I won't go into the legal details of whether or not Superman's actually able to renounce his citizenship; but if you're curious about that, check out the amazing "Law and the Multiverse" blog.) What does it mean for an American icon to go global? On the face of it, I'd say DC's trying to be provocative and snag up even more cash -- after all, the anniversary issue we're talking about costs almost six dollars. The whole renunciation thing kind of reminds me of the homogenizing efforts of Coca Cola and McDonald's; fries and bottled pop show up everywhere these days and they mean the same thing to everyone. Why shouldn't Superman?
I mean, he's been stopping volcanoes from killing entire populations on obscure islands for decades now, sure. But does that mean he belongs to everyone? Or that he should? Isn't there something dangerous in that? A sort of "Because I've saved you, I now own you; I know what's best for you" mentality. Do you get what I'm saying? I'm not worried about Superman's irrelevance here. I'm worried he'll become more relevant under the guise of liberal guilt from middle-aged male comic writers. I'm worried he'll be even more conflated than he already is with American homogenization and intervention. I'm worried he's more imperialistic now than he was when he threatened to sock Hitler on the jaw. And I'm worried the writers of DC don't understand the impression they're giving when they have a gigantic white man swoop in and save the Middle East.
But I digress. I have concerns as well as hopes for this latest direction in Superman's story. Largely because the fantasies we share reflect the goings-on of our times. That's why literature and pop culture have been studied so extensively by the academy. Still. What this denouncing has to say about America's awareness of the world, or our nation's place in it while under the thrall of a damaged economy and within a shaky political landscape, is anyone's guess. Maybe the continuing story of Superman will reflect our troubled times. Maybe it'll only exist in a bubble. But I hope not. We deserve better. And so does the unfettered, free-flying Superman of our imaginations.
Older Superman Cover: Jack Burnley, Cover Artist.
Action Comica #900: David S. Goyer, Writer; Miguel Sepulveda, Pencils; Paul Mounts, Colorist; Rob Leigh, Inker.
Look Magazine Panel: Jerry Siegel, Writer; Joe Shuster, Artist.
Superman: Secret Origin: Gary Frank, Pencils; Jon Sibal, Inker; Brad Anderson, Colorist.