Up, Up, And Away He Goes

Well, a lot of people are talking about the latest issue of Action Comics, where Superman announces that he intends to renounce his US citizenship. And that has a lot of folks up in arms, lambasting DC Comics as a bastion of anti-American radical liberalism and furious over this.

Well, as Wizbang’s only confessed comic book geek, I felt it was my duty to actually read the issue in question and give my “professional” opinion on the whole matter. And I gotta tell you, it ain’t that bad. I’d even say it was politically decent.

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First up, I need to recap a key moment in Superman’s history. In 1986, DC Comics realized that Superman was running out of steam, so they turned the character over to certified genius (and certified arrogant prick) John Byrne, one of the most talented (and boy, does he know it) comic book artists (turned writer-artist) of the past few decades. Byrne “rebooted” the whole Superman franchise, starting him over literally from the very beginning — reducing his powers from the previous god-like levels, tying him closer to humanity, and in general making him far more accessible to readers.

In the process, Byrne made two fundamental changes to Superman’s history that have tremendous relevance to the current “Superman renounces his citizenship” storyline.

In the first, Kal-El did not travel from Krypton to Earth as an infant, to be found by the Kents in Kansas. Instead, Jor-El and Lara El took their fertilized embryo, placed it in a “matrix,” and launched that into space from the dying planet. That “matrix” carried the embryo to Earth, nurturing and developing the fetus until arrival — at which point it released it at the Kent’s touch. The Kents then presented the newborn infant as their own biological child — a conveniently nasty winter gave them the cover for an unannounced “pregnancy” and “home birth.” (The arrival of the baby Kal-El in the movies and in “Smallville” don’t apply here.)

So, stripped of all the technobabble, Kal-El was “born” in Kansas, which makes him an American citizen.

I’m not even certain Byrne knew what he was doing when he arranged for that little legal loophole to be closed, but simply thought it made a better story, but it’s done, and Superman is at least as American as, say, Barack Obama.

The second change was far more fundamental,and — in my eyes — a huge improvement on the character. For almost 50 years, it was made abundantly clear that, psychologically speaking, “Superman” was the “real” person and “Clark Kent” was the disguise, the carefully-constructed persona. Byrne inverted that. He noted that Superman didn’t emerge until his 20’s (at least), so it was rather improbable that that persona would supplant the one that had existed for a couple of decades. So, now, “Clark Kent” is the “real” person, while “Superman” is the disguise, the constructed persona.

Which is even more important in this context.

In the story in question, Superman is summoned to Camp David, where he is confronted by the president’s National Security Advisor. The NSA expresses the administration’s extreme irritation with Superman’s recent actions — outraged at the Iranian government’s violent oppression of protesters, he flew in and joined the dissidents. There, he simply stood there and allowed his presence to assert his solidarity with their cause — and his mere presence abated the violence for the duration.

The goernment of Iran, however, was not pleased, stating that Superman — as not only an American citizen, but as a licensed agent of the United States government (a special status some superheroes in the DC Comics universe hold) — had committed several acts of war against Iran, and the US was not happy to have to answer for his actions. At that point, Superman realized that he had, indeed, put the US in a very awkward position, and was likely to continue to do so in the future — so he declared that he would present himself before the United Nations and formally renounce his American citizenship.

In the context of this story, that action was anything but a liberal, anti-American gesture. Indeed, I’d argue it was a very pro-American move, and actually a rather conservative gesture.

One aspect of conservatism is individual freedom, coupled with individual responsibility. Here, Superman is taking responsibility for his actions in Iran, and choosing to give up something of tremendous value to him — his citizenship — to spare the US from being held accountable for hi actions. It’s not an angry rejection of the US and our ideals (despite his stating “Truth, justice, and the American way — it’s not enough anymore”), but a self-sacrifice for the good of the nation.

In another aspect, the whole storyline can be considered a rejection of the Obama administration’s handling of the protests in Iran. Superman didn’t fly to Bialya or Qurac (two fictional Mideastern nations based loosely on Libya and Iraq  that DC uses when it needs some Mideastern bad guys or storylines), he flew to Iraq — where he stood with the same Iranian protesters who President Obama refused to support or aid when they rose up against the Iranian tyrants. Superman did what President Obama refused to do — and then, when confronted by the administration’s representative, refused to submit himself to their judgment and instead removed himself from their authority. Well, their nominal authority — he’s Superman, remember?

There’s a vague parallel here to the climax of the movie “Robocop.” At the end, the head bad guy is revealed to be a top executive of OCP,the company that created Robocop — and gave him a secret directive that prevented him from taking actions against OCP execs. He’s about to get away, holding the CEO at gunpoint. At which point… nah, it’s too good to describe when I can show you:

In this movie, Dick Jones’ affiliation gives him immunity from Robocop. In the comic, Superman’s affiliation puts the US on the hook for his action. In the movie, the firing of Dick means Robocop is free to carry out his duties. In the comic, Superman’s renunciation frees him from having to worry about the US being held accountable for his actions.

But buried under the story is one very subtle fact here, one that ties back to Byrne’s reboot of Superman: Superman isn’t the “real” person in the comics — Clark Kent is. Clark Kent is the “natural-born” American citizen, and Clark Kent isn’t renouncing his citizenship. Superman, the fictional persona (OK, I’m getting kind of meta here, as technically it’s the fictional persona of a fictional person, but I’m talking in-comic reality here), is — and that will only affect him when he’s “in action.” He will still be able to take off the cape and kick back as Clark Kent, American.

But in the end, the one thing I’m taking away from this whole storyline is that Superman not only did what Barack Obama would not do — stand with the Iranian protesters against the dictatorship — but felt so strongly about it, he is willing to give up his American citizenship to protect the United States.

And that doesn’t seem like a very “liberal” thing to do.

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