The Verdict on Superman

After essentially only reading nothing but Superman comics for the past week since Action Comics #1, I can honestly say this: WHY, FOR THE LOVE OF BATMAN, COULDN’T MARTHA AND THOMAS WAYNE BEEN ITALIAN IMMIGRANTS.

Whining aside, 70 years of Superman comics is enough to warrant a Monroe Project of its own. I’ve tried to give all of the eras a decent sample, though, specifically those that I found that might pertain to my whole “immigration” issue. So what have I found?

First of all – the Comic Code Authority really sucked, and I can now personally say that from experience rather than quoting other people on it. Reading Superman’s transitional period from the Golden Age to the Silver Age – which the Comic Code Authority helped to usher in – is really rather depressing. You go from issues where he is forced to let bad guys go due to overlong exposure to the radiation of an atom bomb – to Lois Lane getting turned into glass. Seriously. And Lex Luthor embarrasses himself by stealing catsup (although the forty cakes were still to come). Now, I am aware that the Silver Age of Comics isn’t all bad – many of Superman’s more recognizable powers, including that of flight, date from this era, as did his boyscout image that everyone disparages but admits is a fundamental Superman trait. It also established his relationship with Krypton, which is perhaps the only reason I have anything to talk about when it comes to comics, America, and immigration before 1990 at all. Which leads us to our next topic.

That is, Krypton. I’ve mentioned before how Superman’s sole “alien” qualities – his powers – are what separates him on both a physical and an emotional level the culture that raised him. To put it very, very roughly, this same relationship is the root of all the differences between Earth and Krypton. Superman #1 – different from Action Comics #1 – defined it the best as it being like Earth except “evolved, after millions of years, to physical perfection,” and not even multiple story arcs aimed at expanding or rewriting the Krypton story have changed that relationship. Krypton is us, but better to the point that their only flaw anyone bothers to bring up (like the Superman movie) is that they are either too detached or too full of themselves at times to realize anything bad is going on.

So, how alien are they, then? That, like Superman, ranges from the amount of power an author wants to give them. But I’d like to put forth the theory that no matter how powerful Krypton is made out to be, no matter how insane Superman’s abilities get (like turning back time *shakes fist*) – there will always be something about them that is much more familiar to us human beings than, say, Cthullhu. Because Krypton and Superman seem to represent us, but to our full potential; the paradox is that it is inherently human not to reach one’s full potential, and that is where the strangeness that separates them from us is. I get the best sense that this is indeed going on from Red Son, an alternate universe comic where Superman landed in the Ukraine during the Cold War, as apposed to a cornfield in Kansas. It pits him in the traditional battle with Lex Luthor, who is not only the American champion in this universe, but the Champion of all Mankind: unlike Superman and his extraordinary alien powers, Luthor only has his mind (and truck load of money) with which to engage his nemesis. And what happens? SPOILERS -DON’T READ THIS BIT IF YOU WANT TO READ THE COMIC. Luthor wins, deposes Superman, and takes over the World. He is very good at his job and advances humanity so that we now live for centuries and eventually “improve” as a species – faster, stronger, and smarter than we ever were before. We then cut to the future, where Lex Luthor’s grandson, hundreds of generations removed, has discovered that the Earth is about to be destroyed, that no one will listen to him, and that the only thing he can do is put his baby son Kal-El into a time-ship in the hope that he can live a better life, way in the past. Thus human becomes the alien. END SPOILERS.

So, as you can probably tell now – Superman can be pretty…abstract, when it wants to be. It knows the human vs. alien philosophical debate pretty well, and I enjoy the stories that concentrate on this theme. But…it isn’t particularly practical, is it? As cool as Red Son is, it doesn’t talk about the immigration experience – how people adapt to the stranger, the alien, or how the alien begins to familiarize himself and make himself feel welcome in his new environs. The closest we get to that is the early Superman I pointed out in my last post, who uses his alien nature to espouse and spread the beliefs of his adopted country. But, just like other early comics featuring immigrants, Superman eventually assimilated, characters in the comic stopped commenting on his other-ness, and he eventually started fighting Nazis with the rest of us in World War II.

Is that it, though? Surely, in the politically charged climate of today, with immigration being discussed by any pundit worth their salt, there would be some author taking advantage of the golden opportunity Superman has to offer as a potential statement?

*sigh*
Yes, there are. Let’s quickly review all three of them:

Action Comics Annual #3 (1991)
In which Clark Kent is the lead campaign manager of a presidential hopeful. Invariably, his boss is assassinated and in the attempt to save his life, Clark Kent’s identity as Superman is revealed. Blah blah blah – he gets talked into running for office. BUT WAIT! Superman is an illegal alien, and thus is ineligible! Except a panel of scientists decides that the ship that brought Superman to Kansas was actually an artificial womb. Thus, he was “born” in the United States.

Is this an attempt to destroy the issue of Superman’s alien nature by retroactively altering 60+ years of canon? A  critique on a system which won’t allow it’s citizens to vote for FREAKING SUPERMAN due to a technicality? Or just a stupid device trying to get the reader past an enormous plothole? Probably the latter, but still – subtle guys. Real subtle.

Superman #702 (2010)
In this issue and the one before it, the Man of Steel is walking the streets of everyday America and interacting with those who live within it. Superman finds some literal illegal aliens who fled to Earth in the wake of “a Great Darkness” that swept the land and killed many of its people. They’ve been hiding out in a small house, wearing human disguises, ever since. Superman then tells them outright that they shouldn’t be here and criticizes them for offering no benefit to the society that they now inhabit. He then leaves, promising to “deal with them later.”

Again, the approach to the message is rather mallet-in-the-head, isn’t it? We’re just told the message in three speech bubbles of political tract – and really nothing else is used to develop it, or to show its apparent “truth.” So, sure, its a political message in a comic book, but it isn’t utilizing the medium correctly. All I can say about it is that, unlike its use in Action Comics Annual #3, it is actually a central message of a vignette in the issue, and not some comment thrown offhandedly.

Action Comics #900
Superman went to an Iranian protest rally, much to the chagrin of the president’s national security adviser, who has gone as far as to line the perimeter of where the two are meeting with snipers armed with rifles that shoot Kryptonite bullets. He is scared that Superman has gone AWOL, but upon meeting him, Superman explains that he went only to protect the crowd from being shot upon by the military. Nonetheless, his actions have caused an international incident, and Iran is apparently accusing the president of using Superman to meddle with their internal affairs. Superman realizes this – and decides that the best solution is to give up his American citizenship altogether, stating that he is an alien, and fighting for the American Way is just too small for someone in his position who can see the big picture.

This is more existential than the previous two, but it does offer a practical solution to the unique situation Superman finds himself in as a permanent alien, and it offers a nice contrast to the 1942 Superman and his habit of beating up Nazis and “Japs”. I guess more than anything it is reflection of how times are changing and Superman, rather than perceiving himself as human, is starting to lean more in an alien direction, as well as the growing importance of globalization. The medium is also utilized better than the previous comic book: as Superman is talking about the idea of an interconnected world, for example, you see a man offering a soldier a flower – a familiar icon, despite the change in setting – and the soldier accepting it. Sappy, but its accomplishing what comics do best – a tag-team between words and images, with the intent of conveying an idea.

So, the verdict on Superman? The comic bounces between overly obvious to freakishly abstract, and neither are particularly effective in conveying a politically themed message like immigration. Superman #900, however, proves that it can be done right, though. However, I doubt in a world devoted to more awesome pursuits like aliens and inter-dimensional beings, we’ll see many like it. The money just isn’t there.

Comments

  1. Anna Rose Gellert says:

    This is a really interesting post, Katie, and it actually reminded me of a song I heard once that links Superman with immigration. In the move La Misma Luna, the background song “Superman Es Ilegal” has lyrics (translated from Spanish) that say, “He arrived by air, but not in an airplane/ He came in his ship all the way from Krypton/ and it appears that he is not an American./ Rather, he is just like me, undocumented.” The other verses are like that too. Isn’t it fascinating that even Superman, considered this American icon, can be used as a mouthpiece for immigration issues? Also, it seems like comic books are always really inconsistent as far as quality of plot goes- do you think it just comes down to who’s on the writing staff that week? Anyway, great post!

  2. Yeah, I’ve always thought that Superman could be a really good icon for the immigrant community, and as I’ve pointed out in my research, he seems to have started out that way. Current trends indicate, however, that that isn’t going to be likely for a while with Superman leaning more toward “Citizen of the World” territory than anything else. However, there is a pretty awesome superhero called the Blue Beetle whose current incarnation happens to be a Latino immigrant. I haven’t read too much of it, but from what I’ve heard, they’ve handled him as a legitimate character and not as an over-the-top political statement – which is awesome. In fact, the only reason I didn’t analyze it was because Superman absorbed the whole month of July (70 years of mythology is rough to dig through).

    Like any genre, comic book authors range from the incredible, like Jack Kirby, to the unspeakably awful, like Rob Liefeld. The one’s I’ve featured specifically, I’d say, run that gauntlet pretty well. Political themes, like any other theme, can be handled well – or not, although my opinion sneaks in here to say that it usually attracts more hamfisted authors than other types. Comic books also suffered from the fact that for years it was written “for kids” and thus quality from that era often bares comparison to the worst of 70s and 80s television programming. Put it simply; some people simply didn’t care. Nowadays, that’s slightly less of an issue, although I still have my critiques.

    Thanks for responding!

  3. bacomiskey says:

    So I think I should start out by saying that I have read all of your posts and I am extremely impressed by your knowledge of the Superman comics! All of these posts have been both entertaining and I think have posed some serious dialogue as to how effectively a comic book can convey a political theme such as immigration. I must admit when it comes to Superman, I am a little out of my comfort zone as I have been an avid Marvel comic fanboy for the majority of my life and so I will be the first to say I have a bias against the writing in DC comics overall. I guess where I am most curious is how effectively a standalone superhero title can address a political theme? I ask this because when I think of the better political commentaries in recent comic book history my mind jumps to Marvel crossover events like Civil War which I personally think works very well as a critique on the dilemma of security versus individual rights to freedom. I feel that it comes out much better when an author can utilize a wide selection of characters to craft their social commentary as opposed to a standalone title where a recurring cast of characters can only address one particular issue for so long. By looking at Superman across so many eras in comic book writing history and amidst so many reboots of the iconic character, wouldn’t the effectiveness of a political commentary on just one theme automatically lose its effectiveness as the authors desperately try to seek originality? Those are really my general questions from reading your posts. But in all seriousness, your analysis of comic books is really quite impressive and I am really excited to read posts by someone who views them with them same intellectual eye. Good Job!!!