Superman: American patriot, illegal immigrant or both?

May 15, 2011 | 3:44 p.m.

Ted Anthony of the Associated Press considers the legend — and the passport  — of Superman

superman jim lee missiles Superman: American patriot, illegal immigrant or both?

Superman by Jim Lee (DC Comics)

There is a scene in the 2006 movie “Superman Returns” that captures the fabled Man of Steel in an extraordinary moment. Floating high above the Earth, gazing down upon America, he listens with his super-hearing for cries of help as a cacophony of people, in all the world’s languages, live their lives.

The message is clear: Kal-El of Krypton – strange visitor from another world and, let’s face it, America’s ultimate illegal immigrant – is a citizen and protector of the entire planet Earth, not merely the 50 United States. For 73 years, Superman walked, leaped and flew through the skies as a presumed American, his red, yellow and blue a stand-in for the red, white and blue of the nation he adopted as a boy when his spacecraft crash-landed smack in the middle of a Kansas farmer’s field.

superman 900 Superman: American patriot, illegal immigrant or both?Until now. In the latest issue of “Action Comics,” 900 issues after he first appeared in 1938, Superman stood on the grounds of Camp David on a foggy afternoon and told the president’s national security adviser that he planned to renounce his U.S. citizenship. Seems Washington didn’t much like Superman showing up at a peaceful protest in Tehran, Iran. Also seems Superman didn’t much like Washington calling him out on it.

“I’ve been thinking too small. I realize that now,” the Man of Steel says in the story by David S. Goyer. “I’m tired of having my actions construed as instruments of U.S. policy. `Truth, justice and the American way’ – it’s not enough anymore.”

Backlash came quickly, if predictably. Republican politician Mike Huckabee called it “disturbing,” Bill O’Reilly weighed in, and already there is talk that the brief story was just a one-off – or even that it never really “happened” in the larger continuity of the Superman saga. In the world of comics writing, such things are easily solved.

However it turns out, though, a point long implied has been made explicit: Whether in fact or perception, the character of Superman has been loosely cast for generations as an instrument of American policy, spreading democracy’s ideals around the planet even as he becomes more of a global citizen with each passing decade.

From the earliest comics by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Superman was positioned as a defender of America. By the time Max and Dave Fleischer made the first cartoons about the character in the early 1940s, it was more explicit: He battled caricatured “Japoteurs” and was clearly on the side of the Allies during World War II.

“American soldiers cheering me, when all civilized people in the world are cheering them,” Superman says in “America’s Secret Weapon,” a comic from 1943. “It’s the grandest tribute I’ve ever had.”

As the years passed, the quest for “truth and justice” became, for the 1940s radio serial and the 1950s TV series “The Adventures of Superman,” a battle for “truth, justice and the American way” – an unsurprising turn of phrase for a TV show that debuted two months before the dawn of Eisenhower-era America.

jfk meets superman Superman: American patriot, illegal immigrant or both?

John F. Kennedy meets Superman in 1963 issue (DC Comics)

By the 1960s, Superman was visiting JFK in the White House and trusting the president with his secret identity (though the planned story was shelved for months after Kennedy was assassinated), while also stopping by the United Nations. In the Christopher Reeve movies of the 1970s and 1980s, too, the Man of Tomorrow seems clearly on the side of the American government most of the time. And after 9/11, Superman made an appearance, albeit a very nonpartisan one, in a compilation of comics about the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Nowhere is the tension between Superman’s outsiderness and Americanness more evident than in the decade-long TV series “Smallville,” which wrapped up Friday with a two-hour series finale man fans hoped would finally find star Tom Welling in the famous cape and tights for the first time.

With the luxury of 10 years to play with, “Smallville” reframed Clark Kent’s coming of age in Smallville, Kan., as an angsty, conspiracy-ridden epic full of beautiful young American faces – “The X-Files” meets “Dawson’s Creek,” in a way, though it escaped that box years ago.

superman gallery2 Superman: American patriot, illegal immigrant or both?

In recent years Smallville’s producers have teased out the theme of an outsider who arrived in America the day a meteor shower rained down upon the heartland. Young Clark Kent – called “The Blur” in his mysterious pre-Superman displays of heroics – is pursued relentlessly by shady agents of the American military-industrial complex.

In secret installations dappled with light and checkered with shadows, these covert operatives plot the undoing of Clark and his hero friends. They consider The Blur a dangerous interloper with a hidden agenda who may not have the country’s best interests at heart. We, the viewers, know better.

When you look at the history of American superhero comics, you realize that the most memorable good guys have one thing in common: Like Clark Kent, they’re outsiders, whether by birth, choice or accident. That gives them the narrative tension of a built-in internal struggle.

Batman was pushed to a darker side by the murder of his parents. Spider-Man, the Hulk, the Fantastic Four: All were turned into freaks by experiments gone awry. Even Captain America is a scientific guinea pig of the military and the government, albeit voluntarily; he is the only one of his kind, with nobody to truly understand his supersoldier existence.

sm1008 d0068b Superman: American patriot, illegal immigrant or both?

"Smallville." (Jack Rowand/The CW)

Then there’s Superman, who stands alone. His planet is in fragments, his people dead except for the odd superpowered straggler who turns up now and then. He has grown up in an archetypal American childhood – a farm outside a small Midwestern town – but is, despite everything about him, an impostor. He is very much American, and he is very much alien – not unlike the waves of immigrants, legal and otherwise, who have spent the last two centuries coming here to make, or remake, their lives against a blank canvas.

But does that Americanness, that happenstance of arrival and upbringing, truly matter so much? Is it a truly integral part of the Man of Steel, inseparable from his flying and super-breath and X-ray vision?

superman red son Superman: American patriot, illegal immigrant or both?Eight years ago, a DC Comics story line called “Red Son” speculated what might have happened if that spaceship from Krypton had landed on a collective farm in Ukraine instead of in Kansas. That Superman, the comic postulated, “fights a never-ending battle for Stalin, socialism and the international expansion of the Warsaw Pact.”

And yet despite the change of venue, despite the politics in which that Superman came of age, in the end he does the right thing for the world, American or not.

Kansas farm boy though he may be, Clark Kent is always an outsider in every incarnation of the character. He is struggling to assimilate in a society whose identity is built upon both accepting immigrants and being suspicious of them. As “Smallville” wound down, there was the distinct sense that as American as he feels, Tom Welling’s Clark Kent is – like many of Superman’s previous incarnations in recent years – just as concerned about the larger family of man.

Which brings us back to “Action Comics” No. 900 and the Superman who, in that one short story buried deep in the book, balks at being pushed around by the White House. It’s easy to wonder: Would this Superman have helped the Navy SEALs who raided Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan earlier this month? For a hero who wrestles with the moral murk of the 21st century, are today’s al-Qaida masterminds the same as the “Japoteurs” of yesteryear?

Truth and justice are doable. Figuring out the American way – the way of 300 million vibrant, ambitious, cantankerous people who find reasons to disagree on just about everything? That’s the hard part, even in comic books. Even for someone faster than a speeding bullet.

— Ted Anthony


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19 Responses to Superman: American patriot, illegal immigrant or both?

  1. Atomic Kommie Comics says:

    A classic case of "nurture over nature".
    Technically, he's an illegal alien (literally), a refugee who crash-landed in Kansas.
    Brought up with solid American values by loving foster parents, he's as American as apple pie, baseball, and the belief that anyone can become President!
    He's one of us. He's part of the U.S.
    He may question what we do or how we do it, but that's the American Way!

  2. Chris says:

    Superman may be an “illegal alien” but he is one who was sent here as a baby and had no control over hsi situation as such. He was not brought here by his parents who were trying to get into the country anyway they could, nor was he born here as an anchor baby in the hopes that the child’s birth would allow the parents to stay. Superman did not sneak into the country. Superman was sent here without any knowledge or choice. Therefore all comparisons of the illegal nature of his alienness end there.

    • Omar says:

      As opposed to other babies who know the situation they are getting into? Superman did “sneak” in. This classic rationalization to justify discrimination. Oh no this guy’s the execption you’re not like rest of them. Amazing how ignorant people are of immigration realities and how oppressive they can be. Do you really think babies know they will be born here? Do people who want a better life not have that chance anymore? What about your ancestors who illegally came to this land? They were welcomed and then turned on the original inhabitants who are still oppressed today! Niave!

    • SpellCheck says:

      you misspelled 'his' you wrote hsi instead. Ha ha =D

  3. Nomo says:

    Superman was adopted by the Kent family. Childeren who are adopted are citizens. So Superman is not an illegal alien.

  4. clarence says:

    tom welling should br playing superman in the new upcoming movie in 2012.and by the way , they could not have ended smallville any better. it was great.

  5. CommandrKetchup says:

    Superman was created by Americans for Americans and has always been an American Icon. This ridiculous storyline of renouncing his citizenship is only happening because of the anti-American agenda thats spread throughout the world. Because this country's current administration has continually pushed us towards socialism, America is losing its identity and strong moral values it was founded upon. Even Marvel Comics killed their iconic hero Captain America. These may be just comic book characters but they have inspired children and adults alike for decades. They have fought for "Truth, Justice and the American Way". It wasnt long ago that America was a symbol of Patriotism, free market capitalism and Pride. Hopefully it can be again.

  6. Clarence says:

    Superman was created at a time when "Truth, Justice and the ideal for a better living" equated to "The American Way" ….the free world. He was the product of an environment recovering from one war while preparing for another, and all the national consensus of moral goodness and needs, were molded into his character. At the time of his creation I don't think anyone Imagined that one day Superman's legacy would have as great an impact outside of America as it does today.

    I guess now DC wants to build on that. Not Just have Superman as "America's hero", but someone who can be a symbol for all of man kind, without a tag or a by-line that narrows him down to one particular place. Now the Man of Steel fights for Truth, Peace and Justice HIS way.

  7. Smallville Fan says:

    There was an episode of "Smallville" where it was pointedly addressed that Clark Kent is the ultimate illegal alien immigrant. Tom Welling's lines even said as much that Clark is an illegal immigrant to the U.S. just like the illegal migrant workers toiling in the Kents' neighboring farm to which his mother, Martha as played by Annette O'Toole, had no coherent response. In the show's mythology, the Kents faked and doctored the adoption papers for Clark because there was no way they could explain to any agency or authority how this Kryptonian child came into their lives by crashing his rocket ship in the fields of Kansas, U.S.A. So technically, Clark Kent/Superman is indeed not only an alien but also an illegal alien and an illegal immigrant. Moreover, by their acts, Jonathan and Martha Kent are criminals because they submitted perjurious documents to the government and aided and abetted an illegal alien who carved a life for himself in these United States. And the Kents perpetuated this fraud their entire lives. Ironically, in spite and despite all this, their adopted son Kal-El/Clark/Superman purportedly stands for "the American Way," whatever that means.

  8. Lerpeniere says:

    The author asks: "But does that Americanness, that happenstance of arrival and upbringing, truly matter so much? Is it a truly integral part of the Man of Steel, inseparable from his flying and super-breath and X-ray vision?" Mr. Anthony — ever raise a child? They come into the world knowing nothing. Their parents, and their national identity, most certainly forms their values and character. Yes, Americanness matters. America is great precisely because of its values and rights and liberties under the law. No strong men dictators telling people what to do. No Chairman Mao putting would be doctors in rice fields and farmers in med school. No forcing of the masses to be "equal" at the expense of their talents and possibilities as human beings. The Superman who found American values "not enough" in that comic book is ignorant and cynical. The attack on American values in those passages was also very insulting from DC. People flock continue to flock to America from other countries precisely because of it's Americanness. Also, let's restore some focus here. Superman is a kids's vehicle — not a rag for 20 something Peter Pan types, which it has apparently become. As a parent, there is _no_ way I am going to expose our impressionable kids to DC's brand of anti-American crap. DC can't have it both ways. They want to make Superman a tool of the cynical, globalist Left? Ok. Just don't ask this American to pay a dime for it or to expose our kids to it. Message to John DiDio: Shut up with the politics, and just come up with a good adventure yarn — if you know how.

    • MNC says:

      Dude shut up. You sound really stupid. Who cares if Superman renouncing his citizenship, he is an global hero. DC realizes that the American Dream is what people want globally, despite who runs thier goverment. America is one of the youngest countries existing. We became No. 1 of the fact that everyone's family have originated under imigration. We have fought many wars and worked hard to get the huge name have (Especially for a country that only existed for a few hundred years). Also don't down other countries and thier values because thier different from ours. Their countries last longer and they asked our help or opinion. At the moment, we are going through alot of problems. Economy-wise, and Politically-wise. We need to worry about where our countries going rather than this… Oh, and it's up to our kids on where this countries gonna go. Exposed to the globalist left? Please the right wing: Tea Pary, and Conservatives are the ones that are selfish in my opinion. We are under massive debt because of it!

  9. The Hook says:

    Great analysis of the Big Red "S" and his place in the world.

  10. SMNM says:

    I don't think the storyline of Superman renouncing his citizenship has anything to do with anti-Americanism. Superman is global anyway… he's universal! What's wrong with him representing all countries?
    Are Americans not happy with Batman, Robin, Nightwing, The Flash, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, Blue Beetle, Booster Gold, Martian Manhunter (who is an illegal immigrant btw!) The Teen Titans, Spiderman, Captain AMERICA, The X-Men, Fantastic 4, The Punisher, Blade.. etc etc etc

    Being an Aussie, I would be happy for Superman to represent Australia too.. instead we get Miss Martian. Which is ok if you like green chicks from another planet.

    Still.. Clark will still be living with Lois. Clark Kent is still an American citizen, right?

    • Lerpeniere says:

      You don't think it has to do with anti-Americanism? Revisit the lines in the comic: “I’ve been thinking too small. I realize that now. I’m tired of having my actions construed as instruments of U.S. policy. `Truth, justice and the American way’ – it’s not enough anymore.”

      • MNC says:

        He didn't say he was going against America. He's saying he isn't only an american hero, but a hero to all countries and planets. he figures that the American way shouldn't be just an "American" way.

  11. afgfx says:

    You can't talk about Superman's immigration status without giving credence to the fact that his creators were second-generation sons of Jewish immigrants. In that light, the duality of assimilation makes more sense. Considering the first issue was in 1933, so does the broader story. It's popularity in the U.S. is further proof that we are a nation of immigrants.

  12. @Meniskoi says:

    Superman is certainly alien, but he is not human since he was the product of other world reproduction. There exists no legal definition for what he is. So he has no rights anywhere on this planet. However, at the same time, his status can not be in violation of the law. A scientific classification for him as a living organism might be determined, but having fallen to Earth from outer space, the Man of Steel could also be considered the same as a meteorite.

  13. Person says:

    I don't gethow Kal-El and Louis Lane could create a Baby?!?
    they're not even the same species!

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