Friday, April 29, 2011

TRUTH AND JUSTICE: NOT JUST FOR AMERICA ANYMORE

The release of the 900th issue of Action Comics, the comic that introduced the world to Superman way back in 1938, was to commemorate and celebrate the anniversary of the character, but has also sparked a small bit of controversy: namely, that Superman renounces his United States citizenship. Superman gives the following reasons as to why:

“I intend to speak before the United Nations tomorrow and inform them that I am renouncing my U.S. Citizenship…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’.”
- Action Comics #900
Now it is understandable why this would be upsetting, especially in a post-9/11 world. After all, Superman is a character that is decidedly American in origin: the epitome of the American dream, an immigrant who lands on America’s shores (or heartland as the case may be) raised with solid American values who makes something of himself by using his powers for the betterment of mankind. Baby boomers and subsequent generations have at one point heard the following refrain from their television sets:
“Superman…fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American Way.”

But Superman is not “Captain America”, whose patriotic bent is inherent just from his nom de guerre. From the very beginning, Superman has been a character who stood for truth and justice and not for any one particular nation. “The American Way” tag line originated not from the comic books but from the radio show and found greater use with the onset of the Second World War and the Cold War.  In his 2006 New York Times article “Truth, Justice and (Fill in the Blank)” (http://www.nytimes.com/2006/06/30/opinion/30iht-ederik.2093103.html), commentator Erik Lundegaard delves into the history of that tagline’s association with the Man of Steel, making particular note of how it has been dropped and re-applied in relation to the zeitgeist of the times, for example, how it took Christopher Reeve’s heartfelt portrayal of the title character to sell the line in post-Vietnam/Watergate, and how the line was dropped in “Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman” during the advent of the Gen-X era. Yet the character from its inception has stood for “Truth and Justice”, which are multi-cultural and universal concepts which should not be subject to co-option by any one government or regime.

Some may decry what I am about to say, but having Superman fight for "the American Way" is a rather unnecessary and jingoistic limitation to place on such a character. People may not know that Superman was not initially conceived as a patriotic character, but rather a social crusader, arguably a borderline socialist, if you will. He took on wife beaters, chiselers, and overthrew governments simply because of the wrongs they perpetrated, regardless of their political agenda; i.e. solely for ideological considerations. His was a “might makes right” policy. Today, such modus operandi would be considered fascistic. But the lines of fascism and protection are blurred when we live in a day and age where wire-tapping, torture and suspension of constitutional rights all are practiced in the name of national security.

In the story in question, Superman acts as a conscientious objector to prevent an incendiary situation in Tehran, using his presence to inspire others to rise against a corrupt government not through force, but through a show of peaceful solidarity. In the context of the story however, because he is seen primarily as an American hero, his actions, altruistic though may be, are tainted in intention due to national affiliation.  Thus, Superman makes the above referenced pronouncement to both renounce his American citizenship and reinforce his world citizenship, i.e. that his altruism knows no boundary, no restriction, and no consideration to race, creed or color. In the context of the story, it makes sense. Meta-textually, the story tells that basic goodness, decency, hope, altruism…all the ideological tenants that humanity should strive for, should not be limited to a particular nation.

Hypothetically, there is no “us” or “them”. When it comes to humanity, there is only “us”. We all bleed red. We are all in this together. There are those who would want to destroy America’s way of life and it seems anathema to have one of our premier fictional characters seem to want to help those as well. But by opening up Superman’s “mission statement”, could it not hypothetically allow for the furtherance of cultural understanding? After all, children all over the world know who Superman is and I think one would be hard pressed to find someone, boy or girl, who did not tie a towel or cloth around their neck and, for a moment, pretended they could fly. By renouncing one specific country’s citizenship, despite (or even because of) its proud heritage, Superman is essentially saying that he is a citizen to the world, that the virtues his character inspires (both in fiction and what he ideologically represents as a character) are not simply American values, but those of humanity. Thus Superman and what he represents becomes inclusive of all cultures, not exclusive which, in a world where we have two major wars still raging with no end in sight while some squabble over the authenticity of a birth certificate, those values need to be revisited and reaffirmed.

As an aside, it should be noted that it is “Superman” who renounces his citizenship; Clark Kent does not. For all intents and purposes, Kent is still an American citizen, living and working in the U.S. and, at least in the comics, married to Lois Lane, an American woman. These are important distinctions because they show that not only is he remaining an American citizen, it argues that he is not rejecting America, its values or its people. Superman’s act is an affirmation that those values should not be limited in scope to just one country, and that the virtues the Superman persona stands for is much greater than, and should not be limited by, a national identity.

On the surface, it seems rather overzealous to write such a lengthy rebuttal over what amounts to a fictional, children’s wish-fulfillment character, but this “controversy” hits a bit close to home. While I am an American citizen, born and raised, I come from a very multi-cultural background stretching generations to the point that I really cannot be defined as  being of one race or another; ergo I’m as multi-cultural as they come. I love and am indebted to this nation which took my parents in before my birth, but by the same token I understand that a blind observance to borders, whether they be physical, metaphorical or ideological, more often than not foster enmity, not understanding. Truth, justice, love, compassion, hope…these values which this character has come to espouse throughout the course of over 70 years, should be…must be…universal.

Again, Superman is the ultimate immigrant; a literal alien whose legend has been allegorically connected to the Christ/Messiah (especially evident in director Bryan Singer’s “Superman Returns”) or Moses (as espoused by Gene Simmons of KISS and “Simmons’ Family Jewels” fame, for example) who was sent to Earth to help/save humanity. He is the outsider looking in as much as he lives and walks among us, giving him a unique perspective that would allow an enlightenment of consciousness. Superman is the protector of the planet, flying above the Earth and walking amongst humanity as a steel beacon of goodness, bringing about and/or representing the next phase in the evolution of a united planetary consciousness from national identity to an international/Earth citizenship identity and as a launching pad for an expanded view of man's place in a vast infinite universe and exploration of other planets and galaxies. This begets the realization that, as the character states in oft-maligned “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace”, “[W]e’re just one world”, an apt foundation for such a venture.

Some say this is a backwards step to take the character.  I say it’s about bloody time.

1 comment:

  1. It makes sense that DC would update the character for a modern audience. More and more young people have stopped just viewing themselves as Americans and instead see themselves as members of a larger human family. As time has passed, our perception of group identity has expanded to encompass more and more people.

    Initially, our greater identity was familial (Connor McCloud of the Clan McCloud). Eventually this became a tribal identity (I'm with the Zulu's buddy!) where ties of immediate blood were less important. Over time this morphed into political identities, evolving most recently into a national identity (We're Americans!).

    In the 21st Century we are seeing a growing movement amongst young people who identify themselves as part of greater humanity. It makes perfect sense that Superman would follow suit. Remember, this is less about a political statement from the writers at DC and more about selling comic books.

    ReplyDelete