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O Superman

By Joe Palmer

America is focused on the news of the death of Osama Bin Laden by the super secret Seal Team 6, and rightly so. A few days ago a lot of attention began centering on the Superman story by David Goyer and Miguel Sepulveda in Action #900. You know, the story in which Superman does something nearly unthinkable in the minds of many people: he decides to renounce his US citizenship.

Yes, Superman, the creation of Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, in a way outsiders themselves as Jews in the dominant narrative of white, Protestant America. Superman, borne through light years of stars as an infant from a world convulsed in explosions. Discovered by a hardworking husband and wife who yearned for a fruitful marriage. Given the name Clark Kent and raised with contemporary American values while remaining ignorant for some years of the world of his birth. The original and most powerful superhero. A man of two worlds and three overlapping identities.

In the story Superman meets with Gabriel Wright, the President’s national security advisor. I’m uncertain who is President in the DC universe right now, though it isn’t Lex Luthor. As the two men begin talking, Superman remarks about the pair of marine snipers hidden in a ridge 200 yards away, one of whose rifles is loaded with a high velocity Kryptonite round in case Superman acts up. Wright states the administration doesn’t know if Superman’s gone rogue and testily demands to know what Superman was doing by flying to Tehran. It was a non-violent act of civil disobedience to support for the Iranian protestors demonstrating after violence from Ahmadinejad’s regime, an allusion to the 2009 crackdown following the stolen election, Superman replies. The Man of Steel relates standing peacefully in Azadi Square for 24 hours as some protestors lay flowers and green colored flags at his feet while others threw molotov cocktails at him. After 24 hours he flew away. Gabriel adds that Ahmadinejad has accused Superman of acting on the President’s behalf and called Superman’s presence an act of war. To which Superman then discloses to Wright that he’s tired of being construed as a part of US policy and has decided to inform the United Nations of his decision to renounce US citizenship. “‘Truth, justice, and the American way’ –it’s not enough anymore. The world’s too small. Too connected.I’m an alien, Mr. Wright. Born on another world. I can’t help but see the bigger picture.” Superman says. As their meeting ends, Superman relates a small encounter between two men on opposing sides that elicits hope. By the way, if you’re at all interested in Iranian culture or intrigued by it, may I suggest reading the excellent Zahra’s Paradise webcomic which tells the story of the search of the young man Medhi by his family in the wake of crushed 2009 revolution.

This is not the first time Superman unconventionally intervened in the politics of foreign countries. For that we go all the way back to Action #1 in a two part story (concluded in Action #2) titled “Revolution in San Monte” by creators Siegel and Schuster. In a very decompressed plot, newly hired reporter Clark Kent is sent to the banana republic of San Monte as a war correspondent. Heading first instead to Washington DC (remember, it’s decompressed writing!), Kent and Superman trail high powered lobbyist Alex Greer. Greet is pressuring a senator on behalf of munitions manufacturer Emil Norvell. Superman confronts Novell and physically threatens the man in his home. They fly to the piers and where Superman intimidates Novell to sail on the same steamer to San Monte that Kent will be aboard. Superman continues to surprise Novell, first with a visit to his state room the first night at sea, then by coercing him to join the San Montean army, and after Novell enlists at an army base, and ultimately to the battlefield where Superman forces Novell to face first hand the horror of wars that he has profited from. Skipping past the first of numerous times Superman rescues Lois, the Man of Steel finally allows Novell to return to the US on the condition he quits being a military industrialist. In the finale, Superman abducts the leaders of each army in order to resolve the war by fighting each other, but they can’t figure out a reason for their war to have started in the first place, leading Superman to the conclusion: “Gentlemen, it’s obvious you’ve been fighting only to promote the sale of munitions! Why not shake hands and make up?” And there you have Superman as peacemaker.

In the lead story in Superman #2, “Superman Champions Universal Peace”, Superman becomes involved in the civil war of the fictional country of Boravia, presumably a standin for an eastern European country like the former Czechoslovakia. He persuades both sides to a truce by threatening to bring down the building in which the peace talks are held. The representatives agree only after Superman demolishes all but on of the building’s support columns. Another early story from Action #3 has Superman forcing a mine owner to dig his way out of a collapsed tunnel in order to secure safe working conditions for company miners. In an untitled story from Superman #4, Superman works to purge a truckers union of criminal elements freshly taken over by a crime boss.

Clearly Superman had a political conscience from the start, one that was informed by the Great Depression, the war in Europe which America had not entered in 1939, and insights from Siegel and Schuster’s Jewish heritage. Superman was a hero for the people, not just Americans. While presumably no one would think to question Superman’s citizenship, I think it was inevitable that his adventures would lose the aspects of social and political conscience after World War II, resurfacing occasionally, for example in Superman #170. I wonder if any of their heirs have reactions to this story or insights into how their fathers might evaluate it.

In these early examples, Siegel and Schuster believed it was appropriate to show their hero using his powers as coercion to effect positive change. This is clearly a different attitude from the civil disobedience stance presented in the recent story which some people have gotten stirred up by. My personal opinion is Superman renouncing US citizenship is a logical decision if we are to assume the political, historical, and geographical contexts in the DC universe are analogous to our real world. Whether chartered by nations or not, superheroes would be construed as citizens of the country in which they predominately operate, and as such, the likelihood is high of being seen as national agents by governments of other countries, especially with uninvited appearances. I’ve read only a tiny sampling of comments from people upset over this fictional event, and imagine that a good percentage of those people commenting would also be incensed over the civil disobedience aspect. Why shouldn’t Superman overthrow a government? It’s a simple black and white situation, right? Except it never is a simple matter when it comes to politics in the real world. America may be the defacto superpower, but acting unwisely, ignorantly, or in our own self interests smacks of imperialism and superiority. And this is the point I think which has struck such a nerve.

How could the American way be anything less than perfect and desirable?

Except there are times when America and the American way are less than perfect. Rumors surrounding Obama’s birthplace dogging the man till recently when he decided to put an end to what should be a non-issue. The very idea of questioning a president, the first time in our history, over his natural born citizenship smacks of Jim Crow laws when African Americans where often required to produce papers. Arizona’s current “papers please” law. Republican legislators and governors stripping average Americans of union rights. Michigan Governor Rick Snynder enacting financial martial law, already in effect in the town of Benton Harbor while real estate developers eye its single community asset, a lakefront park, for development. And then there’s the gross injustice of some same sex couple being able to marry in a handful of states, and a subset of those couples who face being torn apart because one of them is foreign born, like Josh Vandiver and Henry Velandia, who faces deportation this Friday because his visa will expire, and Vandiver can’t sponsor his husband like one member in a heterosexual marriage can. I could go on ad nauseum listing instances in which America’s government and society has lots of room for improvement. How long did it take for the phrase “Love it or leave it” take to pop into your head? Exactly. There’s little to no tolerance for anyone who thinks there are improvements to be made either in internal civil and social matters or foreign affairs.

“It’s my way or the highway!”

“Might makes right.”

Except when it doesn’t.

March 7, 2015
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