"The world’s too small. Too connected": The case for an internationalist Superman
Just recently, a fairly straightforward Superman story, published in Superman #900, kicked up a storm of controversy. In the story, written by David Goyer, Superman stands in solidarity with pro-democracy protesters, in a nation which is clearly an analogue for Mubarek’s Egypt.
Whilst Superman is extremely careful not to interfere physically, this act of solidarity forced him to question his US citizenship. Don’t ask me how a bloke nobody knows the name of was a citizen in the first place, but apparently he was. Read more about the issue over at Comics Alliance.
When it became apparent that DC Comics intended to have Superman give up his American citizenship, the internet, or at least the bit that cares about superhero comics, was ablaze with opinion, much of it from people who don’t seem to read comics at all. In the following article, I intend to present the case for an internationalist Superman, taking a number of key works in the ongoing Superman mythos as my principle points of discussion and reference.
Let’s begin by defining what we mean when we say Superman. Superman is the costumed identity of Clark Kent, a career reporter from the small farming community of Smallville in Kansas. His birth name, which he still uses in certain contexts, is Kal-El. His birth parents were Kara and Zor-El, scientists from the doomed planet Krypton. They sent him to Earth so that he might live when their world perished. He was then found and brought up by Jonathan and Martha Kent, on a farm outside the aforementioned Smallville. Or at least, that’s the usual story. There are others, alternate takes and the like, but they usually follow the pattern outlined on the first page of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s All Star Superman:
We are talking, then, about an individual who uses three key personae, those being Clark Kent, Kal El, and Superman. It’s important to stress at this point that the most important part of this overlapping triumverate of identities is Clark Kent. Ignore Quentin Tarantino’s conflicting view on the matter; the man doesn’t have a clue. It’s Clark, and his modest upbringing on a Kansas farm, that keeps the most powerful being on the planet relatable at a human level, and it’s the moral teachings of Martha and Jonathan Kent that give their adoptive son his strong moral compass. Having said all this, Clark Kent remains an American citizen. He believes in the basic values of the American constitution, and despite being an illegal immigrant, holds an American passport. That said, Clark Kent and Superman, while being the same individual, are not one and the same person, and ought not to be considered as such, but rather as complex facets of a greater whole.
Firstly, it’s best that we reflect upon one of the more facile arguments for Superman retaining his American citizenship, and thus his presumed allegiance to the United States of America and it’s people above all other nations and peoples. That argument is the claim that the red and blue in his costume represent the colours of the American flag. There is some insight to be garnered on this issue from Steven T. Seagle and Terry Kristiansen’s masterpiece study of the character and his myriad meanings, It’s a Bird…
'You're as much America as jazz, baseball, or the comic book— —but you're not red white and blue.’ (Seagle and Kristiansen, 2004, p. 41)
It’s important to point out at this point, that this is not an argument against Superman being an American icon. He quite clearly is, although he has been worked on by creators from many nations over the years. It’s an argument against Superman as a fictional character, indeed, the vigilante alter ego of a fictional character, identifying himself as an American citizen.
'You're clad in a triad of primary colours: red, yellow, blue— —the three hues from which all other colours are created.
'Is red-yellow-blue some kind of pre-political correctness? Do you represent men of all colours?
'Or is it more mechanical than that? Did Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster choose red-yellow-blue because of the arcane printing limitations of 1938?' (Seagle and Kristiansen, 2004, p. 41)
It’s in the above sentence that we find the probable truth of the matter. Superman wears primary colours for the same reason that Spiderman does, that the X-men did, and that The Flash does. These are the colours which were easiest to print in the old four colour comics, featuring, as they had to, only colours which could be created by simple combinations of red, yellow, blue, and black. It’s the very same reason that the Hulk is traditionally green. He was originally grey, but keeping the particular shade constant was difficult, so green was chosen, being a simple mix of blue and yellow ink. Superman is brightly coloured, because it suits his character. He’s red, blue, and yellow, out of necessity.
Even if we set aside the real world, practical reasons for his costume’s primary colours, we still find compelling arguments against the American nationalist model within the comics themselves. The most obvious point being that Superman hears, and responds to, cries for help from all over the world. Never once has Superman decided that the life of an American citizen is of more worth than a person whose lacks a green card or a social security number.
Superman endeavours, wherever he is able, to do the right thing. There is no serious moral argument for privileging an American life over the life of a person from any other country, so Superman doesn’t. It’s easy for readers whose involvement with the character is sporadic to forget that Clark was brought up, not just on homespun wisdom from his Earth parents, but also on Kryptonian culture, the culture of a world which, for all it’s arrogance and flaws, was without borders.
In Mark Waid and Leinil Francis Yu’s magnificent retelling of his origin story, Superman: Birthright, we are presented with a young Clark Kent traveling the world, doing his best to learn from others, and help out where he can. This version of Clark is a vegetarian, and Waid allows Clark to explain why this is with the simple clarity of a writer who has spent his life immersed in the myth of Superman, and understands him implicitly.
We are dealing, in this interpretation at least, with a character so in tune with life itself, that he refuses to eat animals, under any circumstances. Why then, would we presume that such an individual, who values even the modest life of a small mammal or fish, would privilege the life and experience of one human over another, purely by virtue of their nationality?
There have, of course, been many interpretations of the character which are unashamedly patriotic, often to the point of absurdity. We have to remember, though, that Superman’s much vaunted motto of "Truth, Justice and the American Way" only came about during the Second World War, as the comic book heroes were expected, like everyone else, to help out with the War effort. Without belabouring the point too much, which of these three principles ought we consider, as rational and caring human beings, to be the most important? It may be my perspective as an Englishman, but the "American Way" part reeks of exceptionalism, as if other liberal democracies (of which there are a great many, a fact that someone really ought to relay to Fox News) are incapable of striving toward such lofty ideals as a meritocracy.
This brings us to an obvious paradox within the history of the character. The Comics Code Authority, which effectly neutered the US comics industry for decades, decreed in 1954 that:
Crimes shall never be presented in such a way as to create sympathy for the criminal, to promote distrust of the forces of law and justice, or to inspire others with a desire to imitate criminals.
Are we to take it that the popular vision of Superman, drawn, for so many, from memories of his ’50s and ’60s adventures, is a wholly authentic and unproblematic interpretation of the character, given that Clark Kent, a keen and compassionate reporter, from a modest background, was forbidden by CCA of being shown to be sympathetic toward any criminal, under any circumstance? There is certainly a kernel of authenticity to those tales, but the notion that the highest ideals of generations of writers and artists, molded into an unrelenting fictional protector, without these restrictions, would be so unthinking and stooge-like, is laughable.
None of this is to say that the flag-waving American Superman of popular myth is not a valid interpretation, but this is certainly not the way Superman must be. In fact, two key works in the Superman canon appear deeply critical of this interpretation. In Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, Superman is a tool of US foreign policy in no uncertain terms, and it’s glaringly clear how Miller feels about this particular brand of heroism:
Similarly, in Mark Millar’s masterpiece, Superman: Red Son, baby Kal-El’s rocket lands in Soviet Ukraine, and so Superman grows up loyal to a different state entirely. What makes this version of the character so powerful is that his personality is intact, but Millar shows us what an unrelenting ideologue looks like on the other side of the Cold War, and the answers are unsettling. Given this version’s publication in the early 21st century it’s also easy to imagine this version of Superman as a comment on US military and cultural hegemony:
This interpretation is given all the more weight by the appearance of a Luthor-created American Superman, who is almost utterly mindless, a being of simple and unquestionable dictums, whose diplomacy consists of brute force alone:
None of this is to say that Superman cannot consider himself an American citizen, and retain his status as a bastion of our most noble hopes and dreams. It does, however, call into the question the notion that he MUST be American.
Speaking again as an Englishman, I recognise much of the patriotic fervour around Superman’s national identity or lack thereof from my nation’s history books, specifically the appeal to patriotism in the final years of empire. As I write this, America’s economic hegemony is being called into question in a way that has been unthinkable since before the Second World War. As a species, we are moving quickly into a world where the old hierarchies of power, in international terms at the very least, are having to be reexamined and rethought, and it seems only fitting that Superman, a character who has reflected his cultural context like no other since his inception (moving from socialist and unrelenting ally of the poor, to wartime mascot, to cultural conservative, etc. as history sees fit), should put down his flag and look outward to the world at large in his search for the brighter tomorrow he’s always promised us. Because, ultimately, it’s the right thing to do.
Seven decades ago, two young men created a hero who would never let us down.
Any of us.
Andy Waterfield is a 24 year old living in South Leicestershire, England. When he’s not running I Live Sweat, and thinking far too hard about superhero comics, he eats a lot of Marmite and works out. He’s going to be a quarter of a century old in less than a month, and is currently stressing about the Oxfam benefit show he’s plotting to mark the occasion. He has the ‘S’ shield tattooed on his left calf, and wears it with pride.