Race + Comics: The Man Of Steel Trailer And Fans’ Super-Xenophobia

By Arturo R. García

Since the release of the new trailer for Man Of Steel, there’s been increased hope among many Superman fans that the Christopher Nolan/Zack Snyder collaboration will bring luster back to the character’s cinematic incarnation.

But some fans’ idea of how they want the character’s bicultural nature to play out paints yet another disconcerting picture of geekdom’s self-styled “colorblindness.”

Let’s rewind a bit to that Twitter conversation I had with Mark Waid eight months ago, specifically remarks by former X-Men: First Class and Agents of Atlas writer Jeff Parker:

Waid, who wrote the well-received Superman: Birthright miniseries, stepped in to refute Parker’s take, albeit using ableist language to do so. But notice the seeming vitriol behind Parker’s rejection of Superman’s Kryptonian heritage. Unfortunately, he doesn’t seem to be alone, as this comment I happened upon in a thread demonstrates:

Yeah, I’m kindof [sic] on that side, too–Krypton should be irrelevant to Superman’s character, which is all about Earth and the Kents. Frankly, if he explained his origin as “I’m from a great big smouldering crater in Kansas, so I guess… probably space?” it wouldn’t (or at least shouldn’t) make any difference to the story at all.

Except, of course, that Superman’s identity as a transnational adoptee is tied not only to the story Man of Steel seems to want to present, but the heart of the character. Waid himself noted that the trailer shows the film touching on some themes from Birthright: this Clark, after learning about his gifts, travels into the world to find out his place in it. But along the way, as in the best iterations of the character, Clark also makes time to take in the knowledge about not just his powers, but the world that offered them to him. It’s a fair bet that we’ll get a version of this scene from the 1978 movie adaptation of the character, where the young Clark “meets” Jor-El:

That moment is as much a key to Clark/Kal-El’s development as learning to take flight. Because while it’s fair to say that the Kents raised him to be a moral person, the reassurance that his parents also loved him and wanted the best for them is what gives the eventual fight between Superman and Zod meaning. It’s not just Superman defending “our way of life”–it’s Kal-El defending the values of both of his families. Take that away and you’re left with dueling xenophobes.

In another bit seemingly nicked from Birthright, Superman informs Lois Lane that, contrary to appearances, that’s not an S on his suit: “On my world it means hope,” he tells her, even if “here, it’s an S,” as she retorts. But the suit, as Waid rightfully said in our initial conversation, shows Clark embracing his heritage.

Over the course of its 10-season run, the television series Smallville explored Clark’s path to reconciling his two heritages in more detail. Here, not only did familial love prevail over all, but the series presented a Kansas that was closer to the actual Kansas than rustic projections of “Americana.” For all the show’s faults (the telenovelas-on-a-chalkboard dialogue; the lack of character diversity; that theme song), the eponymous town seemed lived in. Having lived and worked in Kansas for a couple of years, I can tell you first-hand: there are buildings taller than two stories; establishments open late at night; even (gasp!) people of color–why, some of them are even elected to public office.

Which makes it dubious when people seem to want Clark to be from Pleasantville instead. The character’s creators, writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster, were both sons of immigrant families. Has it really become that easy for comic fans to think that those children shouldn’t see one of their own become a hero?

  • http://twitter.com/Ellington3 Rhonda Yearwood

    The fact that Kal-el/Clark is an alien from Krypton is very crucial to how he is and who he is. Superman is always ‘other’, not as visible apparent as say Martian Manhunter but yes he is an alien with ‘god like abilities’. Batman NEVER lets him forget that he is an alien, he has protocols to stop him, Lex Luthor does not let him forget, and neither does Braniac.

    Yes his adoptive parents the Kents gave him his values, but so did Lara and Jor-el. Superman is a combination of all his heritages, he is not Tony Stark/Iron-man, or Steve Rogers Captain America all American boy.

    Another good Superman themed graphic novel is “JLA: The Nail”. In this story Kal-el is not found by the Kents but by an Amish family, and he grows up separated from American culture and life. Its a good read.

    : )

  • zdrav

    Superman’s a white American, just like Jesus and God.

    /sarcasm

  • http://twitter.com/themiddlespaces Osvaldo Oyola

    Sigh. The immigrant story IS Americana – or should be.

    I highly recommend _It’s Superman!_ by Tom De Haven. It is a novelization of a version of the Golden Age Superman that is deeply set into a Depression Era origins and makes sure to not only avoid eliding the ugly side of Americana nostalgia, but linking Superman to a Progressive politics of the era (via his adoptive dad) that cares about the poor and people of color.

    I have a review of it here: http://themiddlespaces.wordpress.com/2012/06/15/its-superman/

  • Greg_G

    “that he’s an alien isn’t even remotely crucial to the character. It’s how the KENTS raised him!”

    Wow. That’s what happens when people with no sense of narrative think they know better than actual writers – or decades of established canon.