Superman. The Man of Steel. Love him or hate him, he is undoubtedly the most iconic superhero in the ‘verse of American Comics. Since his creation in 1938 by Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, he has fought for truth, justice, and the American way – despite being something of an immigrant himself.
Everyone knows his ori (gin story: in the distant, dying world of Krypton, a man and a woman send their infant son to Earth in the hope that he might be able to live a life that is so quickly ending for them. The ship transporting the baby lands in Kansas, where a human couple takes him in and raises the newly christened “Clark” as their own. It isn’t till later that Clark learns of the powers he possesses, thanks partly to his alien heritage, and partly to the yellow sun of his new home. Thus, he becomes SUPERMAN! and he’s been kicking alien, cyborg, and human bad-guy butt ever since.
The idea that a comic could represent the immigrant struggle is in no way a new one. Early popular comics, like Abie the Agent (1914) focused on antisemitism in America as the Jewish Abie struggles to assimilate in a society mainly governed by White Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Bringing up Father (1913) took this a step further by representing a clash between the desire to maintain one’s (in this case Irish) heritage and the pressure to integrate to the standards of society. You might be thinking “Wow! This sounds at least 10 times more intelligent than Family Circus – why haven’t I heard of either of them?” Well…the quick answer is just like any other immigrant group, the characters either lost what made them different in the process of assimilation – or society assimilated their characteristics. Huh.
So, the central conflict was lost, and for the most part, those comic books become boring, a bit like how Blondie used to be about a racy flapper girl, but over time focused on the day to day antics of her eventual husband, Dagwood, as he tried to eat increasingly large sandwiches. And like Blondie, they even lasted for a while, too – Bringing Up Father finally ended its run in 2000.
But Superman is fundamentally different in comparison to these comic strips. Unlike them, Superman will always have something to remind him that he is different from everyone else, that despite growing up in a human household and 70+ years of comic history, he is completely and incontrovertibly an alien – his superpowers.
“Oh, is that it?” say you. Well – yes. His alien past is for all intensive purposes, an ornament – or would have been had he not had something extra that connected him with his long dead motherland, but also distanced him from the things he physically grew up with, knew, and loved. Think about it – if you found out you were a fairy princess tomorrow (or ninja prince, which I guess is the masculine equivalent), even if you believed it due to some incontrovertible evidence of that culture, you wouldn’t connect with it. That is, unless you already had the preternatural ability to grant wishes of horrifying exactness, or summon shurikens from a 5th dimension, or some other association, pre-realized, that set you apart from those other things you grew up with. Obvious statement, but it has to be said, because people usually say that being a superhero would be cool. But it wouldn’t, because of that otherness, and no, I absolutely refuse to quote Spiderman about that “with great powers” crap.
Also, it creates an interesting dichotomy with Superman. Everyone knows that he has three seperate identities due to his unique origins, that of Kal-El, the star child; Clark Kent, the ordinary human boy; and Superman, the amalgamation of the two, finely polished to show to the world the best that the Alien and the Human have to offer.
That’s the theory, anyways. In practice, Superman over the years varies with whom he identifies, and this reflects in his actions while he is wearing the cape. But more on that later.