Flying Away From The American Way: Superman and National Identity

(Image from Comics Alliance)

I just read Comics Alliance’s description of the latest issue of Action Comics, and apparently Superman has renounced his American citizenship. While I have never been that taken with the writing of David S. Goyer (the Blade trilogy, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight), he may have redeemed himself with this little bit of “ripped from the headlines” superheroics, Here’s Laura Hudson’s recap of the moment in question:

The key scene takes place in “The Incident,” a short story in Action Comics #900 written by David S. Goyer with art by Miguel Sepulveda. In it, Superman consults with the President’s national security advisor, who is incensed that Superman appeared in Tehran to non-violently support the protesters demonstrating against the Iranian regime, no doubt an analogue for the recent real-life protests in the Middle East. However, since Superman is viewed as an American icon in the DC Universe as well as our own, the Iranian government has construed his actions as the will of the American President, and indeed, an act of war.

Superman replies that it was foolish to think that his actions would not reflect politically on the American government, and that he therefore plans to renounce his American citizenship at the United Nations the next day — and to continue working as a superhero from a more global than national perspective.

The timing of this moment could not amuse me more (it also, consciously or not, critiques another current  Superman story that began with the character walking around the country and aligning himself with crude, absurd caricatures real American folks from the flyover states). I’m sure smarter people than I will justify President Obama’s decision to engage so directly with the birthers, but it is also a little depressing to see a comic book so handily make contemporary political discourse look so cartoonish. While the world at large (and Warner Brothers) will surely regard  Superman as a cultural icon (and a brand) firmly aligned with American iconography and ideals, it’s great to see Goyer and the Superman team wrestling with questions of national identity.

Similarly, Grant Morrison’s Batman Incorporated finds its title character literally situating himself as an international superhero brand: the run primarily consists of Batman setting up Batman franchises around the world. Of course, Batman’s ties to capitalism (he announces the “Batman Incorporated” business plan, in the guise of Bruce Wayne, at a press conference) also raise the specter of imperialism: it is implied that Batman’s “American” brand of justice is the ideal model for the world. In the case of Superman, it remains to be seen where and how this development develops in later issues (if it does at all: I could easily see Warner Brothers kowtowing to loud enough protests about this move).

In any event, Goyer and Co. have begun an interesting examination of the way that national identities play out at home and on the international stage. Walking (or flying) away from “Truth, Justice, and The American Way” is not as easy as it might look in the funnybooks. It would be great to see an action-packed, spandex-centric take on the ideas of Kwame Anthony Appiah as Superman discovers that his declaration is not as easy to enact as it might sound (or look: it’s tidy, quotable, and just sitting there neatly in that word balloon).

In The Ethics of Identity (the first chapter is previewed in full here), Appiah reminds us that our identities ” are social not just because they involve others, but because they are constituted in part by socially transmitted conceptions of how a person of that identity properly behaves.” In the same way, Superman — and, more importantly, his writers — may reject the label of “American” identity, but the way they construct this narrative of international citizenry may still be influenced, overtly or subtly, by the behavioral, social, and political narratives favored by American culture and the institutional forces that give shape and authority to them.

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