In a recent article entitled “Christology in the Superman Franchise” I explored how various writers differed in their depiction of Superman, deifying him to serve as a god in American mythology or humanizing him to emphasize the relatability of the character. This post will deal briefly with the issue of Superman’s heritage and national identity. Does he see himself primarily as a fully assimilated American with minimal ties to his Kryptonian origin, or as a Kryptonian immigrant living in an alien culture? Throughout the decades writers have taken one side or the other in this dichotomy, emphasizing and (endorsing) either his assimilation or his immigration.
Among the proponents of the first position would seemingly be Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel. Though themselves the sons of Jewish immigrants, their Superman was never referred to as such, and it is more often speculated that his origin was written to mirror that of Moses rather than their own. It is notable that such a clearly Anglo-Saxon name as “Clark Kent” naturally afforded their protagonist greater chance for assimilation and acceptance in 1930s America than they themselves could aspire to achieve at the time. Additionally, given that the passing motorists which first discovered the infant Superman were not named in the earliest tales, the reader has just as much reason to assume that “Clark Kent” is a name he chose for himself, suggesting that he self-identified with American culture rather than Kryptonian. Indeed, like the Kents, his home world is not even named in Action Comics #1, demonstrating its relatively low importance to the character’s identity at the time.
Superman being first and foremost not an alien, or even an earthling, but an American, was the general assumption for the first decade or so following his debut. One iconic comic cover from prior to America’s entry into the Second World War depicted a confrontation with Adolf Hitler, clearly demonstrating a Superman who was not above taking sides in international conflicts, as later became the case; America’s enemies were his enemies. And it was at this time that the famous phrase, “Truth, Justice, and the American Way” was first coined.
It was not until the Silver Age under Mort Weisinger’s stewardship that Krypton became more prevalent, and as a result greater emphasis given to its role in Superman’s heritage. Notably, Kryptonian garb was depicted to resemble Superman’s costume, thus implying that the reason for which he donned such apparel was in honor of his alien ancestors. Instead of conforming to the American culture as he had once done, now Superman was depicted as actively resisting it. From thence on the issue of why he wore that particular outfit as Superman was highly indicative of a writer’s view on the matter.
This is especially evident when the trend of emphasizing his origin reversed once again under the historically strongest proponent of the assimilation position, John Byrne, who redefined the character for the post-crisis continuity. Under Byrne’s version of the origin, Clark and his parents designed the costume years before any of them had known about his extraterrestrial origin (his parents had suspected that the craft which crashed was part of the USSR’s space program, and the Clark was a mutant).
Even when Clark learns of Krypton in Man of Steel #6, he states in no uncertain terms “All of it is ultimately meaningless.” To emphasis the fact even further that he was a true and genuine American, both in regards to his beliefs and citizenship, Byrne changed the origin yet further so that Kal-El was not sent to Earth as an infant, but rather that his “birthing matrix” was, so that the child was actually born on American soil when the ship crashed, and thus a natural-born, legal citizen.
The pro-American attitudes of both the character and those writing his stories saw a general decline for the two decades following Byrne’s reboot. Mark Waid’s Birthright made the “S” insignia a symbol of the Kryptonian race, as opposed to the Latin letter “S” standing for Superman (though in the Christopher Reeve movies it had been a symbol of the House of El). Geoff Johns in Secret Origin went further by fully restoring the suit as typical Kryptonian apparel, with Martha suggesting Clark wear such specifically to embrace his alien heritage.
Throughout this time period, as anti-American attitudes increased abroad, an obvious effort was put forth not only to restore Superman’s status as an alien immigrant, but also to deemphasize his status as an American. The film Superman Returns had Perry White use the phrase “Truth, Justice… all that stuff” in specific omission of “the American Way.” Brian Azzarello’s For Tomorrow, published during the hight of the Iraq War, implicitly condemned Superman’s intervention in a Middle-Eastern conflict, with notable disapproval directed at him from the non-American members of the Justice League.
Later, Action Comics #900 became infamous for Superman formally renouncing his American citizenship. And even as Superman conducted his walking tour across America in the Grounded storyline by J. Michael Straczynski, at the same time in Superman: Earth One by the same author Superman insinuates in an “interview” with Clark Kent that any particular association with America on his part would destabilize the world.
While it’d difficult to determine the causal factors, this trend has once again reversed in recent years. Zack Snyder’s 2013 film Man of Steel emphasized not merely the character’s assimilation into American culture but his embodiment of specifically American ideals. At the textual level, Superman states to Swanson in no uncertain terms, “I grew up in Kansas, General. It’s about as American as it gets.” More importantly, at the subtextual level, a major motif of the film is the superiority of the New World over and against the Old World, and the need of the immigrant to reject the latter in favor of the former. Krypton is very literally an old world, dying of advanced age. But it also bears great similarity to “the old world” of pre-modern Europe in its strict social hierarchy. Jor-El’s intent in sending his son to Earth echoes the rationale of many nineteenth century immigrants that passed through Ellis Island. “What if a child dreamed of becoming something other than what society had intended? What if a child aspired to something greater?”
This helps to cast light on the villains’ machinations as well. Zod and the Phantom Zone inmates’ motivations for terraforming Earth into a new Krypton make little sense on the surface; Zod was fully aware that Earth’s current conditions would eventually imbue his people with powers like those of Kal’s, and moreover this is shown to actually occur faster than the terraforming process – by the time Superman destroys the World Engine, no meaningful changes had occurred to the planet, yet mere moments later Zod is as adapted as Kal, fully flying with no ill effect any longer. Yet terraforming makes perfect sense as a metaphor, forcing the immigrant Clark to decide for himself between his two homes, his two identities. “Krypton had its chance” he states at the film’s climax, expressly identify as an American, even to the loss of his Kryptonian heritage, and implicitly endorsing the superiority of what the film envisions as “the American Way” of self-determination and social mobility over old world thinking.
Most recently, Max Landis’ American Alien makes the question of Clark’s alienation or Americanness the central focus of the seven-issue miniseries, as its name implies. In the first issue, after watching E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Clark becomes extremely self-conscious about his own sense of foreignness opposed to his all-American friends and family. In looking at a mirror, he sees a grotesque alien staring back. Throughout the series, as the reader sees him mature into a man and then a superman, he still continues to wrestle with insecurities regarding his sense of belonging to Earth and humanity. He tells Pete Ross in the penultimate issue the reason that he wears the “S” insignia is “because I’m on TV a lot, and I thought if, if it gets beamed out there into space – somewhere – maybe they might be watching.” It’s not until the finale, in the midst of a brutal fight with Lobo, who’s taunting Clark with the revelation of Krypton’s destruction, that he finally affirms “I’m not from Krypton… I’m from Kansas,” which should be seen as Landis’ central thesis for the series as a whole.
The question which writers of the character face as whether to emphasize Superman’s full-assimilation his immigrant heritage is not one which is likely to be settled any sooner than the question of the character’s divinity or humanity. Just as the predominant trend seems to be favoring relatable interpretations such as the neophyte New 52 Superman, a film like Dawn of Justice comes along and places a greater emphasis on the Christological motif than ever before. Likewise, not long after Superman Returns and Action Comics #900 most distance Superman from specific association with America, Man of Steel depicts the most pro-American version of the character ever. Such partially speaks to Superman’s versatility, but more so even his potency as a symbol in the minds of Americas – comic readers and the general public alike – that so many writers would look to utilize the character all in contemplation of the question as to what exactly it means to be an American.