Superman’s Rejection of American Exceptionalism

In February of 1940, Superman ended World War II and prevented the future Cold War altogether through flying around the world by capturing both Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin and delivering them to international authorities in Geneva, Switzerland. Or at least, this was one possibility as depicted in Look magazine that month.

Figure 1. Look magazine from Feb. 1940.

This particular strip demonstrated the appeal of “this new myth system, which crystallized its conventions of plot and character in the axial decade of the 1930s, [and] shows a democratic face in that the protagonist is an Everyman,” and yet it is equally clear it “has a pop-fascist dimension in that these unelected, law-transcending figures exercise superpowers to overcome foes” (Jewett and Lawrence 29). We, the readers, justify Superman’s actions because he is employing the use of might to make right not in his own interests, but instead, the interests of the international community. Further, his aggression against two foreign heads of state considered unprovoked because he is acting in defense of those who cannot defend themselves, which in turn, validates his exercise of force to enact social change—what might otherwise be construed as fascist-like behavior. And yet, many readers at the time did not find this justification of force at all problematic so long as it served to reinforce the American belief in democracy.

Cover art from Superman #14 by Fred Ray, Feb. 1942.

This democratic face is quite pronounced just two years later in February of 1942 with Fred Ray’s iconic cover to Superman #14. This cover is replete with the powerful Superman striking a domineering pose with the backdrop of the stars and stripes emblazoned across a protective shield. The American eagle is perched on his arm and the might of the United States military can be seen outlined in the background. The message is clear: Superman stands for and protects America. Like the eagle, the United States can rest easy upon the strength and protecting arm of its Superman. But lurking behind the colorful patriotic shield lie the tanks and artillery of the U.S. military—a force capable of delivering a terrible and destructive power that can be used to ensure its people and ideological beliefs are upheld.

The message is reaffirmed later when Superman adopts the slogan, “Truth, justice, and the American way”—as if somehow this ambiguous American way was equated to such lofty ideals as truth and justice[1]. The notion of superheroes working on behalf of the “American way” took root throughout the medium, including the star-spangled avengers, Captain America. Even in contemporary times, Superman and other superheroes found themselves roped into the work of sponsoring American exceptionalism. In 2005, Spider-Man and Captain America stood alongside then-Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld at the United States Pentagon to promote a comic book meant to support the members of the armed forces[2].

Figure 3. (source: photograph by Tech Sgt. Cherie A Thurlby, USA; found in Dittmer 116).

It is clear that there is a relationship between the comic book superhero and the perpetuation of any given time period’s sense of national identity. However, it is likely in the wake of the international backlash following the Bush administration of 2000-2008 that American culture is beginning to awaken to the dangers of American exceptionalism and reconsider its previously narrow notions of how closely and exclusively related American-ness is to such lofty ideals as truth and justice. Moreover, this change in thinking has begun to creep into the comics culture as well. Just as Superman was once one of the most preeminent examples of an American superhero, the Man of Steel celebrated his 900th issue of Actions Comics doing the unthinkable: revoking his citizenship to the country in which he was raised—and outside of the comics, originally conceived!

Figure 4. Action Comics #900, June 2011. Written by David Goyer and Art by Miguel Sepulveda.

The story is a short one—nine pages in total—and yet, it covers a lot of ground in terms of expanding contemporary notions of who Superman has become in recent years. Flying to Tehran, Superman performs an act of quiet, civil disobedience by joining the Iranian citizens in a peaceful protest against the Revolutionary Guard and the Islamic government. This creates a media firestorm for the United States, as Superman is viewed to be an agent of both American ideology and policy. As a result of his presence, political tensions between the U.S. and Iran rise. Growing “tired of having [his] actions construed as instruments of U.S. policy” (Goyer 76), Superman decides to renounce his status as a citizen of the United States. This international incident leads him to realize—899 issues after any supposed debt he might have owed America—that “Truth, justice, and the American way—it’s not enough anymore” (76). But was there a need for Superman to revoke his citizenship and special relationship to the United States and send conservative pundits into an uproar? In an interview, DC Comics’ co-publisher, Dan DiDio, stated how there was an interesting relationship between Batman and Superman to their reading audiences: Batman enjoys a far greater fan base in the United States compared to Superman; however it is the Man of Steel who is without peer compared to his various superhero counterparts when venturing outside of the United States (Smith). When taking into account the rise in his popularity worldwide since his first appearance over 73 years earlier, it becomes clear that Superman’s recognition of his international responsibility was a much needed change in direction for what otherwise could be viewed as a nationalistic and patriotic hero at best, and at worst, a stereotypical, jingoistic ubermensch.

Superman’s international appeal can be seen in a number of avenues. For example, one can look at the opening weekend box office returns from the Superman films. Going back to the now-classic Superman (1978) starring Christopher Reeve, the numbers showed that 55% of the total box office generated within the United States while 45% of the viewers were outside of U.S. and Superman Returns (2006) saw a slight increase of global interest with an approximate 49% of viewers from outside of the United States (IMDB). While this suggests that the interest in Superman is greatest within the United States, these numbers also point out that nearly half of the fans of this superhero have consistently been found outside of the Man of Steel’s country of origin reinforcing Didio’s assertion about Superman’s international appeal. And yet, it wasn’t until 2011 that he would begin to recognize this within the comics through addressing his ties to the United States and severing them in a symbolic way.

In order for Superman to avoid continued claims of fascism through using his superhuman powers to side-step the technicalities of U.S. law and enforce American interests at home and abroad, it was necessary for him to cut his domestic ties and embrace a more global perspective. Although Superman has continued to protect peace and justice through the use of force—and carefully walk the tightrope of avoiding the role as a moral tyrant enforcing the greater good with an even more powerful fist than his foes—he has at least taken a step in the direction of freeing himself from any sort of political conflicts of interest.

Works Cited

Dittmer, “American Exceptionalism, Visual Effects, and the Post-9/11 Cinematic Superhero Boom.”  Environment and Planning D: Society and Space.  Vol. 29. 2 Nov. 2010. 114-30.  Print.

Jewett, Robert and John Shelton Lawrence.  Captain America and the Crusade Against Evil: The Dilemma of Zealous Nationalism.  Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2003.  Print.

Ray, Fred.  “Cover Art.”  Superman.  Issue 14.  Feb. 1942.  New York: DC Comics, 1942.  Print.

Shuster, Joe and Jerry Siegel.  “How Superman Would End the War.”  Look. 27 Feb. 1940. Print.

“Superman: Box Office.” IMDb., n.d. Web. 09 Mar. 2013.

“Superman Returns: Box Office.” IMDb., n.d. Web. 09 Mar. 2013.

“Who’s Who in the New 52: An Interview With Dan Didio.” Interview by Kevin Smith.Fatman on Batman. 25 Apr. 2013. Podcast.

[1] This slogan originated in The Adventures of Superman—the radio program broadcasted from 1942-49.

[2] It is worth noting Sec. Rumsfeld was one of the architects of not only the war in Afghanistan but also Operation Iraqi Freedom, which sought to spread American democracy to the fascist-led Iraq through invading the country and occupying it for well over ten years.  This war in particular led to a loss of American influence abroad due to the blatant ways in which American exceptionalism seemed to have overstepped its bounds.

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Forrest C. Helvie lives in Connecticut with his wife and two sons where he is chair and professor of developmental English at Norwalk Community College. His literary interests are broad-ranging from medieval Arthurian to 19th-century American, and most importantly, pedagogy, comics studies, and super-heroes. In addition to academic publications, he writes a variety of comic short stories, including his own children’s comic series, Whiz Bang & Amelia the Adventure Bear. He regularly writes for Sequart and reviews comics for Newsarama. Forrest can also be found on Twitter (@forrest_helvie) discussing all things comics related.

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1 Comment

  1. Well… given recent cinematic accounts, I may need to make a few *adjustments* here.

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