By Andrew A. Smith
Scripps Howard News Service
It seems impossible to avoid the “Superman renounces citizenship” controversy, so let’s tackle it head on.
For those just coming in, the debate is born of an exchange in Action Comics #900, in a short story where Superman stands in Tehran for 24 hours (but otherwise takes no action) to show solidarity with pro-democracy demonstrators. When the Iranian government calls this an act of war by the United States, Superman tells a worried U.S. national security advisor that he’ll renounce his citizenship because he’s “tired of my actions being construed as instruments of U.S. policy.”
Aaaand cue the faux outrage, especially on the right of American politics.
I don’t mean to pick on Fox News, but they were braying the loudest. The story, titled “The Incident,” was condemned on The O’Reilly Factor, Fox & Friends and on Fox Nation, where potential presidential candidate Mike Huckabee called it “disturbing.” GOP activist Angie Meyer ranted on Fox that it showed a “blatant lack of patriotism,” that it “belittled” the United States and that it was an “eerie metaphor” for America’s apparently low (in her view) standing in the world.
Meanwhile, other media got into the act. Most major newspapers, news broadcasts and online news sites carried a news story, commentary, or both. A piece by The Associated Press appeared in many small and mid-size newspapers, including my home base, The Commercial Appeal in Memphis.
First, let’s put it in context. Superman’s remarks ran in a measly 9-page back-up story in a 96-page issue. (By contrast, the lead story was 52 pages.) Plus, he only told us what he was going to do, not that he’d actually done it. This is a minor story by any measure, and is likely nothing more than a set-up.
Second: history. Superman was deputized by every United Nations member back in the ‘60s, and although the franchise has been rebooted once or twice since then, he has been regarded as more or less a citizen of the world for decades. And although most of us know the “truth, justice and the American way” line, it didn’t start in the comics – it was first heard on the Adventures of Superman radio show (1940-51) and became part of the familiar preamble to the Adventures of Superman TV show in 1952. For the first several decades in the comics, the Man of Tomorrow merely fought for “truth and justice.” Besides, Clark Kent is still a U.S. citizen, and that’s who the Man of Steel really is; the guy in the circus suit is the disguise.
Third: Trademarked characters rarely ever change. You can’t fundamentally alter a character like Superman, or he’ll lose whatever made him popular in the first place. DC Comics even admits that. "Superman … has long embraced American values,” said co-publishers Dan DiDio and Jim Lee to The New York Post. “As a character and an icon, he embodies the best of the American way." In other words …. nothing will change.
Fourth: Money. Or to put it another way, “Geez, it’s not like they killed him or anything.” Because, duh, they did! And the 1992 “Death of Superman” sold enough comics to fill up the Fortress of Solitude. Which lasted, what, a year? And that was death! So how long do you think this development is going to last?
Further, where was all this outrage when Captain America quit being Captain America? Because that’s happened, too … twice.
Here’s the lesson: Comics survive by telling new stories, not the same one over and over. Creators like to shake things up, even if it’s only temporary, even if it’s only the illusion of change. This is a story meant to sell comic books, not a denunciation of patriotism or whatever other kooky idea you hear from politicians and media talking heads. Who, it must be noted, are also trying to sell you something.
Finally, I have to say my favorite response to the furor is what some anonymous wag said on the Internet: “Oh no! People who have never read Superman comics are threatening to never read Superman comics!”
Spot on. Not only is this just a story, it’s a story aimed at comic-book readers. Who, obviously, are a lot savvier about comic books than Mike Huckabee.
Contact Andrew A. Smith of the Memphis Commercial Appeal at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Art above: Action Comics #900 main cover by David Finch, plus two variants by Alex Ross and Adam Hughes.