27 April 2011

The All-American Kryptonian

This morning, as President Barack Obama made public his long form certificate of live birth, Superman renounced his U.S. citizenship.  No, really.  In a story written by David S. Goyer published in Action Comics #900 that went on sale today, the Man of Steel declares:

Superman was created by two Jewish boys who grew up amongst the Great Depression.  Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster saw Superman as an agent operating outside the law to combat injustice from underhanded businessmen exploiting the working class and poor to politicians whom the law would not touch.  This theme was continued in The Adventures of Superman radio show.  The show's liberal politics led Gerald L.K. Smith to declare, "Superman is a disgrace to America."  From 16 April until 20 May 1946 in a serialized story titled, "The Hate Mongers Organization," Superman took on the Ku Klux Klan.  The show's writers were armed with inside information provided by an investigative reporter named Stetson Kennedy, who had infiltrated the Klan.

Nazis, Neo-Nazis; Superman fought 'em all.
Interestingly, it was The Adventures of Superman radio show that first introduced the idea of Superman fighting for "truth, justice and the American way."  It may be difficult to imagine such a concept today, when it seems the liberals who huff and puff the loudest eventually disparage America as a backward realm of intolerance, but Superman rejected that cynicism.  Rather, the show's writers staked the claim that opposing injustice, corruption and evil-doers was defending America.  Their Superman was an agent of change, thwarting one nefarious plot after another.  The point of being Superman was to use his might to force us to live up to our own ideals, rather than to impose his will on us.

In the 1950s, amidst the McCarthy Senate hearings and anti-Communist paranoia, Superman was presented as more of a part of Americana.  The Adventures of Superman television series starring George Reeves gave us a Superman who existed primarily to lend a helping hand and break up criminal plots by gangsters.  Rather than challenge the KKK and expose corrupt politicians, this was a Superman who paid a visit to Lucy and promoted the United States Treasury Department [see: Stamp Day for Superman].  Superman had effectively become a symbol of Americana and co-opted by conservatives as the defender of their ideals (despite the fact that Superman had opposed them in the beginning).  This earnest dedication to "traditional values" was the core of the live action Superman movie series begun in 1978's Superman.

Superman = America
In 1986's The Dark Knight Returns comic book mini-series, Frank Miller carried out this Americana Superman to an extreme.  Dark Knight depicts a future in which the federal government has cracked down on superheroes and forced them all into retirement...save Superman, who is simply too powerful to stop.  Instead, he is a fully authorized federal agent operating under orders direct from President Ronald Reagan, effectively making the Man of Steel an enforcer at the disposal of the White House.

President Reagan has the next best
thing to God on his side: Superman.
Twenty years later, "the American way" was omitted from dialog in Superman Returns, a film that explores how Superman would be received in our contemporary world after years of having been away.  When asked about that, director Bryan Singer said:
Americans are the first people to be weirdly simultaneously patriotic and self-criticizing. It's one of our rights as Americans. We can do that. With that notion, I didn't have a better way to take the edge off it so I did it that way. But, he is an American superhero. There's no denying that. He's the ultimate immigrant, raised on a farm in Kansas. He represents what we as Americans idealistic want to be. In that way I shy away from it, but I don't know how to. But, he's not just fighting for America. He's fighting for, you know, the world. He always was. So it's not shying away from it, it's just treating it in not a better way, but a different way. I couldn't measure up to how they treated it. 
The idea of Superman being a global character was nothing new; as his powers had evolved from being "able to leap tall buildings in a single bound" to being able to fly into outer space without so much as an oxygen tank, it made little sense to confine Superman to the United States.  He was raised here, and infused with the most noble of our ideals, and in that he is American.

What Does Action Comics #900 Signify?

Firstly, we need to be clear.  Superman is not repudiating the United States.  Rather, he is arguing that he is, for all intents and purposes, a one-man non-governmental organization (NGO).  This renouncement of citizenship is to take a stand to guard against becoming the pawn that Miller projected in 1986.  This is a Superman who is declaring that his motivations and values are his own, that he does not wish to be perceived by the rest of the world as an agent of the U.S.

Secondly, it seems to me that this action is intended to restore Superman to his initial values as a character beholden to no law or political agenda, but rather one who operates outside official channels to champion the values instilled in him by a morally grounded, fair-minded pair of Kansan farmers.

What I fear, though, is that this is a misguided backlash against the distorted ideas of patriotism that have dominated our political discourse for the last decade.  It's as though Superman--or, rather, his writers and editors--have had enough of our litmus tests for who is a "real" American.  I personally identify strongly with that frustration, but I don't believe renouncing his citizenship is the appropriate course of action.  I personally would rather see the DC Comics editorial team adopt the values of the writers of the radio show, who insisted that their values were American.  In his attempt to rise above partisanship, it seems that Superman has allowed himself to become a victim of the "Love it or leave it" power play.  I would have much rather seen a Superman who stood up and fought for an America in which we either love it or work to improve it.

Going forward, it's worth noting that David S. Goyer, who wrote the renouncement story, is writing the next Superman film, The Man of Steel, to be directed by Zack Snyder and produced by Christopher Nolan.