Superman: Symbol of Hope Overshadowed by Nationality Identification
In 1933 history was made when American writer Jerry Siegel and Canadian artist Joe Shuster worked together to create a character who would not only be admired by children, but also be the leading inspiration of many super heroes to come, Superman. First appearing in Action Comics #1 in June 1938, Superman’s popularity eventually led to other appearances in media such as radio serials, television shows and movies, and would serve as the symbol of hope in the entirety of the DC Universe. Not for what Superman is capable of in terms of strength and power, but for his compassion and strive to do good and help those in need. For over 75 years, Superman continues fighting for truth and justice, which then became truth, justice and the American way during World War II. A slogan that became famous during that time, but then became a topic of great debate as the years went on. Many Americans who are familiar with Superman but don’t read the comics take great strive to remind everyone that Superman is an American icon. Despite Superman’s portrayal as an alien immigrant, his creative inspirations, intentions, and overall strive to appeal to everyone and not just Americans alone. Which is why for this topic the subject for deconstruction is not on Superman’s character, but the conception that many have for Superman being solely American than a hero for all humanity.
As stated earlier, before World War II Superman originally fought for truth and justice, but when the war happened, the radio serial added the slogan “The American Way” into the famous line around 1942. Keep that in mind, it wasn’t the comics that made people believe Superman was American; it was the radio show that created the patriotic imagery of Superman outside the comics’ continuity. But the usage of the line became infamous as Americans went back and forth through the decades arguing its relevance. Some time after the war in 1944, the creators felt it was pointless to keep the last line in so Superman instead fought for tolerance to shorten the slogan. Unfortunately during the cold war when patriotism and paranoia was on the rise, many Americans were outraged to learn that the American Way segment was removed. So during the run of The Adventures of Superman (1952-1958), the line returned and remained with the character since. In time though, Americans again were growing more cynical with the line they demanded to stay that describes Superman. It wasn’t till the 1960’s with the cartoon series The New Adventures of Superman (1966-1970) that they tried a new slogan, where Superman fought for truth, justice, and freedom. This line has remained with the title character since then as many fans felt it was right for the hero that cares for all humanity…but then flash-forward to 2011, and history repeats itself.
In 2011, an event happened in Action Comics #900 where in a single story Superman renounced his American citizenship. In the short story entitled The Incident (2011), Superman non-violently defended a large group of peaceful protesters in Tehran from the Iranian army who were prepared to shoot and kill. When the hero saw how the common people were willing to risk their lives to let their voices be heard against the oppressive regime, he protected them without using any violence. His appearance gave the people confidence to stand and rise up against the regime as he stood by them for the day until everyone dispersed. His actions however angered both the Iranian and the American governments, considering they both see him as “American Property”, his presence alone could’ve been considered an act of war, something Superman himself was trying to prevent. To the point that even the American government considered the Man of Steel a traitor and was ready to kill him with snipers armed with kryptonite bullets. Unfazed, Superman declared that he was tired of being an instrument of American policy, that he is a citizen, not a possession.
The day after at the incident, he renounced his American citizenship and stated that he would continue his work as a hero from a global perspective and not a national one. Afterwards, it was revealed that Superman’s inspiration for the incident actually came from Tehran when a protester gave a rose to one of the soldiers as a symbol of peace. That act of unexpected courage gave Superman motivation to stand up for himself against the government and the public mentality that he only answers for America. Despite showing the strength of Superman’s character and how he doesn’t let himself be held down by one nation, just the very idea that Superman was no longer American had nearly everyone in the country FURIOUS.
This nationwide outburst of Superman’s nationality became much more than how Siegel and Shuster originally conceived him. Once an immigrant in a literal alien world who wanted to use his abilities for good based off the morality and life lessons from his loving adoptive family, eventually became a subject used for national topics as many political figures use Superman as a symbol for the red, white and blue, even though Superman is meant for everyone. During the time of the controversy, Republican activists such as Angie Meyer said, “Besides being riddled with a blatant lack of patriotism, and respect for our country, Superman’s current creators are belittling the United States as a whole. By denouncing his citizenship, Superman becomes an eerie metaphor for the current economic and power status the country holds worldwide.”
Whereas others such as Scott Thill of the Wired Blogger stated, “Superman has always been bigger than the United States. In an age rife with immigration paranoia, it’s refreshing to see an alien refugee tell the United States that it’s as important to him as any other country on Earth — which, in turn, is as important to Superman as any other planet in the multiverse.” However, because of the outrageous backlash, DC comics labeled that event as a “what if” story and reaffirmed the public that Superman is American as apple pie, which is also ironic as apple pie was actually invented in England, not the United States. This example here presents how many care more about Superman as an American than as a worldwide hero. With the controversy the comic created, most of the fans’ reactions were actually neutral. They didn’t care that Superman was American or not since Superman actually has global citizenship in the comics, so it can be said that the short story was pointless. Though this was not the first time the Man of Steel went through a radical difference in other worlds.
The different perspectives of Superman’s heroism and American iconography was put into play with two “what if” stories. Mark Millar’s Superman: Red Son (2003) and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (1986). In Superman: Red Son, the concept is basically Superman being raised in the Soviet Union rather than Kansas. Superman still saves people’s lives but instead fights for Stalin, socialism, and the international expansion of the Warsaw pact. With Superman still having his well-meaning intentions to not intervene with international affairs, but has a strong communist influence from his upbringing that slowly takes over the hero as time moves on. Resulting in him unknowingly breaking that promise due to outside forces.
While in The Dark Knight Returns, the story has Superman as much more than an American hero, he is also a literal tool of the U.S. government. Superman reveals that he hated becoming their guard dog, but believes that it is the only way he can save the world with the changing times. Set during the cold war, when the Regan Administration couldn’t stop the crime wave in Gotham whereas Batman made the city the safest in the country. The humiliated Ronald Regan orders Superman to apprehend the vigilante, an act that Superman does not want to do since he and Batman are friends, but since the American government controls the most powerful hero on the planet, he has no choice. A fitting metaphor for during that time period as Americans were outraged that Superman didn’t fight for the American way anymore despite protecting the whole world.
This mentality that some people have believing Superman belongs only to America proves frustrating to those who like the character outside of the country. It is like instead of writing a comic book, the creators were toy makers and they make a one of a kind Superman toy in America to share with children all over the world. As children get to play with their imaginations for what the hero can do, bringing smiles to everyone all over the world as they share the wonderful toy. But then a greedy kid wearing stars and stripes comes around and claims the toy as his own. As the children fight over the toy, the American kid claims that since Superman was made in America, no one else can play with it but him. That belief is as ludicrous as claiming the moon belongs to America just because NASA landed there first in the late 1960’s despite the moon revolves around the entire planet. This is how many comic readers feel when America behaves selfishly in claiming Superman is an American icon when he was made to represent all humanity. However, other American fans today are pointing out the glaring problems in those claims by pointing out Superman’s history of development.
Many fans of Superman know the man of steel isn’t truly made by Americans alone, as Superman’s designer Joel Shuster is from Canada. What is fascinating is that a lot of Superman’s iconic elements were inspired from his home city. Such as Metropolis being based off of Toronto, not New York. As Joel himself said, “Cleveland was not nearly as metropolitan as Toronto was, and it was not as big or as beautiful. Whatever buildings I saw in Toronto remained in my mind and came out in the form of Metropolis… As I realized later on, Toronto is a much more beautiful city than Cleveland ever was… I guess I don’t have to worry about saying that now.” Ironic as some consider Superman American just because his home city of Metropolis is based in America. Other noticeable Canadian traits in Superman’s mythos are as such: The Daily Planet was inspired by the Toronto Star, and Superman’s actual home, The Fortress of Solitude, housed underground in the North Pole is part of the dominion of Canada. Meaning that Superman technically has two homes based off of his creators’ home countries, showing the unification of different cultures adding on to Superman’s character in time. Even with that however, many also cry out that Superman is American because of being raised in Kansas as his civilian persona, Clark Kent. In retrospect, the Canadian inspirations listed here doesn’t automatically make Superman solely Canadian either. So the arguments about which nation Superman belongs to just because of those few notions doesn’t hold up. So why do people care so passionately about which country Superman belongs to? Because they want their country to be connected to the iconic hero, feeling proud when knowing that such a strong, compassionate hero came from their own home.
Superman still fights the never-ending battle for truth, justice, and freedom like he always has. What has changed is how people see him and his connection to earth along with his stories. Many Americans who grew up with Superman fighting for the American way feels a connection to him on not just a patriotic level, but a nostalgic one too. Which proved problematic since the slogan was made as propaganda during the wars. Whereas many people who grew up with Superman outside America feel connected to the hero since like many, he is new to the world and only wants to do good. But feel alienated when Americans keep spouting that Superman is American. From the viewpoint of the American citizens, this is not really an issue since they strongly believe the hero embraces their values. While other countries such as Canada grow tired of hearing how some Americans keep trying to assimilate Superman as a red-blooded American patriot, even when nearly every Superman fan in the world know that he is bigger than America. And yet despite the information they offer otherwise, many people still care about his nationality and not his compassion for all life. Will people stop using Superman as a political figure for their own patriotism? Probably not given how people can let their patriotism cloud their judgment. In the end, maybe all people really need is to be enlightened and accept the different viewpoints of others to grow as a civilization. Much like how Superman continues to do in his never-ending adventures for years to come.
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